John Lannan Is Not Cole Hamels or Jordan Zimmermann

I have been too upset about the continuing ugliness between the Nats and the Phillies to weigh on the beanball war that Cole Hamels started on Sunday. (I have tweeted about it, though). But it seems that many people in the City of Brotherly Love are upset at the slap-on-the-wrist five-game suspension Hamels must serve. Of course, the Phillies won’t be too hurt by the suspension–Hamels won’t even miss a start–so why are the Phans so upset?

Apparently, they cry fraud because John Lannan was not suspended for allegedly beaning Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on July 26, 2007–earning the Syracuse Chiefs lefty the dubious distinction for having been the first pitcher to have been ejected during his major league debut.

Let’s set aside the fact that Hamels freely admitted that he beaned Bryce Harper on purpose–supposedly in the service of “old-school” prestige.  Even without Hamels’ boasting, we could have easily surmised that Hamels beaned Harper intentionally. Lannan was not suspended because, in all probablity, he had no idea where those balls were going when they left his hand.

Indulge me in a little statistical thought experiment. Let’s assume we can use a pitchers’ walks-per-9-innings-pitched rate (BB/9) and his number of wild pitches as very rough proxies of that pitcher’s ability to control where the baseball is going. If that’s true, then a pitcher with poor control will issue, on average, more walks and more wild pitches. A pitcher with excellent control will issue fewer walks, and fewer wild pitches.

OK, fine. According to Fangraphs John Lannan has a career  BB/9 of 3.38 and recorded 15 wild pitches over 751 innings pitched.

It should come as absolutely no surprise that Cole Hamels has better command: his career BB/9 stands at an impressive 2.23. He has issued a scant 15 wild pitches over 1,201.2 innings pitched.

It should be blindingly obvious to anyone now that 2012 Syracuse Chief John Lannan is not as good at putting the baseball where he wants it as 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels is. It gets even more obvious when you consider that 2007 John Lannan–whose specter has now returned to whip up the Phans’ warped persecution complexes–was even wilder than his career figures. In 2007 alone, Lannan’s BB/9 was an astonishing 4.41–and he issued 1 wild pitch in a scant 34.2 innings of work!

So, on that fateful day in 2007, when John Lannan hit two helpless Philadelphia batsmen in quick succession, it’s pretty safe to say that he had no idea where the baseball was going.

Conversely, on a cool May evening in DC, when Cole Hamels appointed himself the guardian of the old school, there can be absolutely no doubt that Hamels intended to harm his target. Like Elvis Costello, his aim is true.

And what about the other protagonist in Sunday’s beanbag war–Jordan Zimmermann? He hit Hamels in the shin, but has continued to maintain his innocence. The stat sheet should make us doubt that claim, as well. He has a career BB/9 that rivals Hamels at 2.15, and only 3 wild pitches in 323 innings of work. I don’t think anybody can doubt that he knew where he put that fastball.

So, in sum: Hamels, by his own confession, is guilty of an intentional beaning. Zimmermann, in all probability, is guilty of intentionally retaliating.

John Lannan is guilty of nothing more than being a mediocre pitcher at best–a crime for which Nationals fans have suffered on many occasions.

Quit whining, Phans.

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Is Bryce Harper Baseball’s Wayne Rooney?

One more thing. I had a nightmare recently that I can’t shake.

Look at this goofy picture of Bryce Harper.

Now look at this photo of Wayne Rooney.

Harper needs no introduction for readers of this blog. Wayne Rooney, on the other hand, may be less familiar to baseball fans. I’ll give you the short version: He broke out into the English Premier League–the biggest of the big-money European soccer leagues–as a 17-year-old goal-scoring phenomenon. He played several seasons for Everton F.C., a fine club, but overshadowed by richer rivals like Manchester United and Liverpool, F.C. (the Yankees and Red Sox of English football, if you like). At 20, Rooney joined Manchester United, and proceeded to astonish the soccer world with his goal-scoring prowess.

Okay, you’re saying, if Harper turns out like Rooney, then the Nats have a real treasure on their hands! Sure. But the sporting world has come to expect two things out of Rooney: sublime talent and vile thuggery–the latter the product of a violent temper. Rooney is, in my opinion, one of the dirtiest players in the world.

In my deepest nightmares, I see Bryce Harper as a baseball Wayne Rooney: crushing home runs like Rooney scores goals–and starting needless fights like, well, Rooney starts fights needlessly.

OK, maybe it’s just a nightmare, after all.

Tuning In

Over the off-season, ;Fangraphs polled their readership about the MLB TV broadcast teams. Readers were asked to rank broadcasters on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being best) for their charisma, the quality of their analysis, and their impression of the broadcast overall. They’ve been releasing the results this week, and the Nats’ MASN TV crew of Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo ranked 23rd out of 31 broadcast teams. Frankly, that’s a lot better than I thought they would rank.

I would be a bad Nats fan if I did not also point out with glee that Bob & F.P. rank above both the Braves (27) and Phillies (26) broadcast teams. Atlanta and Philadelphia fans may have watched their teams win more ballgames than Nats fans did–but their broadcasters sure didn’t make it any more enjoyable for them.

F.P., in particular, is singled out for praise in the comments as a thoughtful color commentator. Speaking for myself, I’ve actually grown to like F.P. It’s tough for me not to like a guy who is still–still–so obviously excited to be paid to watch baseball games. Sure, he may sound a bit Scrappy-doo at times. But watching a few MASN Classics “assisted” by the grunting and grumbling of Rob Dibble made me realize just how bad the Carpenter/Dibble team was.

Of course, Fangraphs didn’t rate the radio broadcast teams. I can’t wait until Charlie Slowes and Dave Jaegler get back from the Great Silence and fill the airwaves around Washington with the sounds of Nats baseball again. As the D.C. Sports Bog put it recently:

Slowes, if you think about it, is one of the very few public figures associated with the Nationals remaining from their first season in Washington. The team has changed its ownership, front office and manager, hired new television broadcasters, introduced new mascots, and turned over its roster entirely, but Slowes has remained.

Dave Jaegler, of course, joined Charlie in the booth in 2006–Ryan Zimmerman’s first full season with the ballclub. Given that the Nats just signed Zimmerman to a long-term contract extension, isn’t it time the Nationals gave Charlie & Dave the same contract extension, too? It would seem strange to me to hear of the Z-man’s latest exploits from any other voices.

The return of regular broadcast baseball will finally will mean that their so-called Flagship radio broadcaster (to whom I will not link) will be compelled to broadcast some baseball-related coverage, instead of endless discussions of the NFL Draft Scouting Combine.

Fear and Loathing in the National League, East

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, from Dune, by Frank Herbert

First, an announcement: Over the next few days (maybe the next couple of weeks, as I get time), I’ll be looking at each N.L. East team in turn and projecting their 2012 seasons. These projections are a bit of a co-production with Blown Save, Win. They’ll supply the passion and emotion–I’ll try to be as logical as I can. It’ll be fun.

The fellows over at Blown Save, Win and I got into a pretty spirited debate on Twitter the other night about our expectations for the next baseball season. The BS, W crew are inclined to write their projections in terms of best- and worst-case scenarios. Why? Well, I’ll let Dave explain:

…[W]ith baseball comes the true greatest of human emotions, hope and dread. It is these two emotions that make baseball fun, and fun is what it is meant to be. We might fancy ourselves scholars of the game but the reality is we’re fans. If we crunch out numbers and run our scenarios and end up right the best we can hope for is self satisfaction. The better approach to the sport of baseball is to sit back and enjoy the show.

As will surprise no one who’s been reading me so far, I disagree. Our ability to study and break down baseball can liberate us from unjustified fear. I started Natstradamus in part because I was sick and tired of listening to the endless cycle of despair–and, to be honest, sick of myself at being taken up in the same cycle of despair–as the Nats failed first to sign Buehrle, then failed to enter the Yu Darvish sweepstakes, and finally failed to sign Prince Fielder. Every turn of the hype cycle got me more and more angry. I asked myself: OK, if the Nationals do nothing else, how bad could they posssibly be? Not that bad, I concluded.

Now, I’m not entirely certain about the predictive ability of my model, but it at least gets me into the right ballpark. This exercise is all about learning to set reasonable expectations. Once I have an idea of what I can reasonably expect, I don’t have to feel that every day is a crisis any more. The long-term perspective has done much already to preserve my stomach lining and my sanity.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love watching baseball. Few things can beat a warm summer afternoon spent watching a skillfully-played game of baseball at the park with a few thousand of your closest friends roaring their approval at every turned double-play or home run. But rational analysis and projection allows me to check myself when a win streak threatens to carry me away, or when a losing streak threatens to plunge me into despair. It lets me face my worst fan fears and replace fear with–well, if not knowledge, then at least intelligence.

So to face those fears, I’ll be taking my first look at the most-feared and most-hated team in the N.L. East: the Phillies. Stay tuned.

Reason, Passion–and Reasonable Expectations

If you read Spanish at all, read this post over at Línea de Fair. It discusses baseball, the philosophy of science, semiotics, Sabermetrics, and the experience of being a fan all in a single post. One paragraph in particular caught my attention (translation is mine):

The baseball fan and the baseball analyst–sometimes the roles are confused, but both are delighted to see a good ballgame–try to explain the logic of the game and to predict what might happen next in the same way that man used to try to find the reason why the sun rose every day, or why the rain fell. The dynamism and insight of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR, by its English initials) has generated new explanations, very much in vogue these days, which have been the origin of a feverish debate similar to that between the Apollonians and the Dionysiacs….

The author points to a divide in the philosophy of science between those who believe that reality can be described by the application of reason (Apollonians) and those who doubt that human reason can possibly explain the whole world (Dionysians). This is a tension that I as baseball fan feel very strongly.

On the one hand, there is a certain unknowable, aesthetic quality to baseball. When I see Danny Espinosa leap and pluck a line drive out of the air, turning as he lands to double off the runner taking a lead off first base, I am watching something no less beautiful or graceful as a ballet. But even though I might witness that play at Nats park with twenty or thirty or forty thousand of my closest friends, not one of them will feel quite the same way as I do when I see it. We can communicate those memories to each other, and compare them, but those emotions are really ours alone. And no matter how many times Debbi Taylor (or her successor) asked the Nats’ hero of the day to describe what was going through his mind as he made a game-changing play, neither Debbi nor anyone watching will ever really know how it felt to make that play. That’s a wholly subjective, unknowable experience. Our emotional bond with baseball is made of countless such memories–each of them precious, each of them irreplaceable, and each of them utterly incommunicable.

But then, I spend an awful lot of time perusing statistics. The cynic might suggest that this kills the joy of going down to the baseball game at all. After all, stats don’t tell stories as much as they open windows into specific questions: Which is the most effective pitcher? Who bats better, overall? How good is this player’s defense? Indeed, on this blog, I’ve tried to use my rudimentary grasp of statistics to open a window on the 2012 Nationals season yet-to-be.

All of this mucking about with cold rationality has affected me as a fan–but, I think, for the better. I started my 2012 projections project because I was sick and tired of hearing all the emotional overreactions to the Prince Fielder free agency drama on my twitter feed. The Nationals, so it went, were going to be world-beaters with Fielder and terrible without him. That looked like a proposition I could test, so I did, the best way I could.

As FDR might have said, the only thing Nats fans have to fear is “Fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” My calculations put the Nationals anywhere between 84 and 86 wins–on track for their best season since arriving in DC. And, even in a “doomsday scenario” without Adam LaRoche, the Nats look to get anywhere between 79 and 81 wins.

Think about what that means. It means that the worst I can expect from the 2012 Nationals is that they’ll have an even chance of winning any given ballgame on any given night. As a fan, that’s all I can reasonably ask for, anyway. If that’s the worst I can expect, I can put my unreasoning, unjustified terror aside and enjoy the visceral joys of watching Espinosa and his teammates doing beautiful things on a baseball field. It might not be a perfect synthesis of reason and passion, but I’ll take it.

Adios, Livo.

Well, it was going to happen (again) eventually. Today we learned that Liván Hernandez signed a minor-league deal with the Astros organization, getting himself an invitation to Spring Training in the bargain.

For some this was welcome news. Sabermetrically, of course, Livo was always a mirage. One blog offered a particularly damning indictment:

This is pitching. Putting the ball where you want it, how you want it, and, knowing the hitter, controlling the damage done. In 2010 and 2011 Livan Hernandez did not do any of these things well. He’s lucky the umpires helped him out.

I must concede all of that. And yet I am filled with great sadness to see Livo go. In my mind, I will remember the Livo of 2005.

I will remember the Livo of April 29, 2005, who scattered 9 hits over 8 innings pitched, giving up only one run and striking out five, earning a Curly “W.” That was the Livo I went to RFK to see: a man defying logic, bewildering batters and fans alike, eating up innings. Or casually sauntering across the infield. Or utterly bamboozling an otherwise excellent ballclub.

Even so, it was perhaps fitting that his final appearance in 2011 was a dispiriting loss to the Mets. Statistically, the “real” Livo was the one that walked off the field on a hot September afternoon at Nats Park–a far cry from the Livo that toed the rubber that day in April 2005.

None of my fondness for Livo is logical. I cannot back it up with any statistics. And yet, as a fan, I will always smile when I think of Livo. He was the first Nationals pitcher I really started to follow. When I would waver between going or not going to RFK, the thought that Livo was pitching was enough to get me on the Orange Line to the stadium. And in 2014, when Nats park is overrun with bandwagon fans in their Bryce Harper shirseys, I will know a fan of the ’05 Nats when I see Livo’s name.

Adios, Livo. Siempre contarás con el agradecimiento de la afición de Washington por lo que has hecho con los Nats.