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Four free agents go online dating.

Few things on the internet this time of year are as much fun as perusing free-agent rumors. It’s a perfectly mindless activity – you read enough articles and you’re bound to find every player linked to every team until it all starts to feel like mush in your brain. But if there’s one thing that tides me over, one time suck that keeps me occupied when I’m fresh out of baseball gossip, it’s absently clicking through dating profiles. It’s the exact same brain function: you click, you read, you process…and then you forget almost immediately. And when you look back at the hours you spent clicking around, you remember them all as one large profile, in the way that all the rumors feel like one big rumor.

It’s not just hot stove season, you see—it’s also “It’s freezing outside, I’m still single, and all I have is this stupid hot stove” season. Sometimes, going back and forth between the two after a long day, the tabs start to run together. But I swear I saw these OkCupid profiles last night. They run the gamut: flirty, stuck-up, homely, even flat-out desperate…

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Should Sandy Alderson trade or extend two of the Mets' most valuable assets?

I have two distinct memories of April 29, 2009. One is that Jerry Manuel, then with the Mets, made the single worst managerial decision I’ve ever seen. The other is that what should have been a treat—a Mets fan then living in Boston treated to a rare nationally televised game in resplendent high definition—was somewhat soured by the commentary of then-ESPN analyst and former Mets GM Steve Phillips, whose aesthetically pleasing screen presence was overshadowed by the negative associations of his time with the team.

Late in the game, talk turned to Phillips’ tenure as Mets general manager (which lasted from 1997-2003, or as I like to call it, forever). Phillips said some interesting things about having to learn to run an office and handle a large-market press corps and added a few other nuggets to remind us that being a GM would be much easier if it really were all spreadsheets and video. What he said next, though—a little side comment you’ve surely heard from your favorite team’s general manager, star player, manager, or owner—has stuck with me ever since. This was over three years ago, so allow me to paraphrase somewhat:

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October 19, 2012 7:42 am

Head Games: Two ALCS-Altering At-Bats


Will Woods

Detroit's pitchers toyed with Yankees batters in all four games of the ALCS. Here's a closer look at two striking Tiger sequences.

When I was in high school, the thing to do was play poker. Kids would play during free periods, lunch, whenever, sometimes winning and losing over $100 in a day. (And some of them could actually afford it.) Like any high schooler worth his salt, I followed suit, and soon I was a dependably willing player, relatively conservative but always game to try to fleece a freshman who’d just looked up the rules on his expensive new iPhone. As an editor of the school newspaper, I even planted this quote in a cover story we ran on the poker fad: “It’s the most intellectually challenging thing I’ve ever done.” Yeah, when it came to antagonizing our teachers, we had a lot of tricks in our bag.

Poker may not have taught me as much as I wanted my teachers to think it did, but I did introduce me to one piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since: a successful poker player focuses more on his opposition’s holding than his own hand. I find that’s true in many walks of life, nowhere more so than in the duel between batter and pitcher, when it’s just natural to do what feels most comfortable to you, rather than what might feel least comfortable to your opponent. In the most extreme example, Aroldis Chapman walks a Little Leaguer on four sliders because he fears he doesn’t have his best heat that day. In a real-world example, the Yankees don’t adjust to the way their ALCS opponent’s pitchers attack them, and their season ends because of it. (Oh, and Justin Verlander somehow allows a home run to Eduardo Nunez. But we’ll get there.)

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October 8, 2012 12:10 pm

Head Games: The Weirdness of Wild Card Friday


Will Woods

Some players weren't quite themselves during last week's wild card games, which made for some of the best baseball we've seen this season.

Leading up to last week, there was some kerfuffle over how teams would manage their rosters for the first-ever Wild Card Friday. Would we see six LOOGYs? A player-manager? Three catchers? No catchers? Turns out the question we should’ve been asking was how the players themselves would handle the novelty of a single-elimination game. The answer? Not very well: we were treated to seven errors in two games, including a Braves infield that couldn’t have won a teddy bear at a carnival and dueling errant pickoff throws from Derek Holland and Darren O’Day that their first basemen hardly bothered to reach for. Between the errors, the botched (?) infield fly call, and the possible ends of two great careers (Chipper Jones and Jim Thome), there were enough storylines in play on Friday to keep Dick Stockton on script for the rest of the month.

I loved every second of it. Look, there are plenty of practical reasons to support the second wild card—it leads to more money and higher ratings, it puts a premium on winning the division, and it gives more teams late-season hope, all without cheapening the achievement of making the playoffs—but in retrospect, one of the best reasons to like it is that it gave us two unbelievable games. It should continue to do so in future years, too, for the reason stated above: the new format is putting the players in situations with which they’re unfamiliar. How many players have ever been thrust into one winner-take-all contest to keep their seasons alive? Even the College World Series isn’t so cruel. Everywhere you looked, players seemed just a little bit off, and I defy you to tell me you didn’t have fun watching, or that it wasn’t good for the game.

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R.A. Dickey will make his final start of the season tonight. You know how good he's been at retiring batters, but you might not know about something else he excels at.

R.A. Dickey, who makes his final start of the season this evening in Miami, doesn't lack for résumé bullet points to sway Cy Young voters. Unsatisfied to elevate his career at an age when most pitchers are heading out to pasture, Dickey has also elevated the standard to which knuckleballers can aspire. He leads the National League in strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games and shutouts. He has an ungodly 4.1 K/BB ratio. He’s been one of the few bright spots on a Mets team that might be in last place without him. And fine, I’ll say it: Dickey is the first Met to win 20 games since Frank Viola in 1990. He even offers enough charming human interest angles to fill several episodes of This American Life.

Allow me, then, to toss a molehill on top of that mountain of accomplishment: R.A. Dickey is doing a historically great job of holding runners on base. With agility, poise, and a deep understanding of the fundamentals—as well as some out-and-out flaunting of the rulebook, which we’ll examine later—Dickey has overcome the highest possible degree of difficulty to not only hold his own against the running game, but become one of the very best in baseball at shutting it down. In 2012, only three qualified starters in all of baseball have allowed fewer stolen base attempts per stolen base opportunity than Dickey (defining “stolen base opportunity” as a man on first or second with the next base open). The average qualified starter has allowed 5.81 stolen base attempts per 100 opportunities this season. Dickey has allowed 1.85.

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Inside the batter-pitcher matchup: Can the pitches a pitcher just threw help us predict which ones he's about to throw?

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of devouring Dan Brooks’ and Daniel Mack’s introduction of Brooks Baseball’s newest toy, pitch sequence visualization. To me, this is a major step forward in deciphering how every aspect of one pitch—be it type, velocity, or location—affects the strategy of the next. I’m not even so concerned with the results of the sequences—ultimately, well-executed pitches get results irrespective of other factors—but the massive insight we now have into a pitcher’s plan of attack is exciting whether you’re an amateur sabermetrician or a young player looking for a strategic edge.

Pitch sequencing is one of the great white sabermetric whales; we’ve been trying to get into pitchers’ heads for years, but in a game where all hurlers aspire on some level to complete randomness, that’s a very difficult thing to do. One sentence from the piece struck me as particularly insightful, however, and I think it bears repeating. It’s exactly how we’re going to refine this holy grail of baseball into as useful, practical, and applicable a tool as it could ever be. Write Brooks and Mack,

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September 13, 2012 5:22 am

Head Games: Salvador Perez and the Art of Setting Up


Will Woods

Is something about Salvador Perez's catching technique costing the Royals runs?

Jeff Zimmerman wrote an interesting post on Wednesday morning over at Royals Review, in which he claimed that Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez was tipping Will Smith’s pitches during his start on Tuesday night against the Twins. Zimmerman shows Perez, preparing to receive a breaking ball, remaining in his rest position until Smith lifts his leg, rather than giving his pitcher a firm target. Zimmerman’s interpretation was that the Twins noticed this and used it to try to steal on Smith’s breaking ball.

My first impression was that it would be awfully difficult for a baserunner to ascertain the catcher’s posture and try to get the jump necessary to steal third at the same time. I went back and looked at some of the footage, and although I believe Perez is hurting is team in a rather subtle way—as we’ll examine later—I have something of a different take on how and why. Here’s one of the examples Zimmerman cited, a curveball to Pedro Florimon in the fifth with men at first and second and none out. Note the change in Perez’s stance as Smith goes through his motion:

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Shining a spotlight on the minor mental mistakes and successes that often go overlooked.

There was an axiom tossed about when I was in college, one that I and my other bench-warming teammates were only too happy to co-opt, which held that the dumber you were, the better you played. In other words, the less intelligent a player was, and the less he had going on in his mind (colloquially, the less "in his own head" he was), the more focused he'd be on playing to the best of his abilities. Some rebutted that we spent too much free time during games coming up with theories about why we weren't playing, but you get the idea.

The big leaguers we see on TV have found a way to circumvent this problem, if it even exists. Nevertheless, there remains a mental aspect of the game that often goes ignored, both by sabermetricians (because it's nearly impossible to measure) and by the players themselves (because these mistakes are usually too small to affect their club's opinion of them). I don't mean visualization or Pedro Cerrano's Jobu doll or Turk Wendell's animal tooth necklace—I'm talking about the nuts-and-bolts logic of baseball that, when ignored, costs teams outs and runs, which eventually cost them games.

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