On Josh Donaldson, Wade Davis, the Chicago Cubs, and the beautiful regenerative power of mistakes.
I’ve been living in Chicago since 2010, so when people ask me about the Cubs’ current run of success, it’s less because I’m a baseball fan and more because I’m the closest they have to an on-the-ground correspondent. It’s as if Anderson Cooper is breathlessly questioning me about The Baseball Spring: “After all this time, can it be true? Is the old regime truly gone? Can you comment on the peoples’ reactions to this new dawn?”
And while the Cardinals and Pirates wait in the wings to potentially shock this triumphant narrative back into the dreary everyday, they're a healthy 8 1/2 and nine games back, and there is a level of palpable optimism and confidence that I’ll admit I didn’t see for five years living, say, a block and a half from Wrigley. So when people ask, I tell them, yeah—people are really, really excited. It’s been a long time coming.
The long time coming, not the Cubs, is what I want to interrogate a bit today. Because throughout the long rebuilding process in Chicago, Cubs fans often loathed that long time and questioned it, Moses in the Desert style. It’s no fun to wander for 40 days and 40 nights, especially if that involves watching blowouts in the 42 degree Chicago spring. People on the radio questioned Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer—“I thought this was supposed to be a three-year process!” “Theo’s plan makes it a 10-year process, we’re never gonna see a pennant!”—and around, say, 2013, there was widespread pessimism. How long, the average fan asked, can I handle a 65-win team?
The answer to that question is a bit murky, if only because it’s beyond my pay grade to psychoanalyze the thousands of Cubs fans I waded through to get to my apartment or the El. But a related question we might more fruitfully pose is how many 65-win seasons can a team, or a player handle? In the era of the pre-planned tank in baseball, this is a fairly crucial question boiling down to, if you are an owner, the calculus of balancing your diminishing on-field returns with your financial bottom line. How bad, in other words, is too bad? When does failure start to cost more than it’s worth?
It seems to me there are two ways to look at this: practically and theoretically. The practical side of things is a little difficult. We all know that the “player who doesn’t have the fire of the postseason” cliché about young players on losing teams is silly. Starlin Castro has played just fine in New York; Felix Hernandez, despite being on a perpetually snakebitten M’s team remains sublime; I’m sure if Sam Miller put his prodigious play indexing abilities to work, he could find a number of tremendous, high WARP players who never had a shot on a winning team. Good players play well regardless of locale.
It also is true, at least anecdotally, that losing streaks rarely prompt the dissolution or relocation of an entire team. The Montreal Expos were, yes, abysmal through much of their later pre-Nationals tenure, but two of the three seasons prior to the move (2002 and 2003), they were above 500 and would’ve probably been in the hunt in the two-wild-card era. And many teams have suffered through monstrous losing streaks, from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays first 10 years to the 20 years of losing baseball that are finally in the Pirates’ rearview mirror, and while they have led to firings, they have rarely prompted total organizational failure. Without being able to see the actual books of MLB teams, we may never know if losing streaks really truly do put teams in jeopardy of going belly up, but my guess is that, no, simply losing for a while cannot destroy a franchise.
The super-cool, super-modern, super-fun strategy that might not be doing anything.
Last week, we looked into The Shift and whether it was actually doing what we said it was supposed to do, which is to be a better way of getting hitters, especially pull-happy hitters (and double especially groundball-heavy, pull-happy, left-handed hitters) to make more outs. The traditional story of The Shift is that because those hitters are going to be sending most of their ground balls to one side of the field, why not put more fielders over that way?
A decade after Barry Bonds, a few days after Bryce Harper: On the search for a solution to what might or might not be a problem with overzealous intentional walkers.
A friend of mine is, for reasons passing understanding, a Washington Nationals fan, and she emailed me Monday morning, understandably upset about her team’s performance over the weekend. Among her grievances was that Bryce Harper, the exquisitely coiffed hitter of baseballs and swearer-at-of-umpires, drew three intentional walks and came to the plate seven times without putting a ball in play.
So she suggested that MLB institute a rule against intentionally walking the same batter more than twice in the same game.
While it'd be tempting to clickbait Arrieta's current DRA, we prefer to take a closer look at it.
Of all the headlines you want for your updated pitcher run estimator, one of the more undesirable would be “new metric claims Cy Young winner not very good.”
And yet, that is what DRA, even in its revised form, seems to be saying about Jake Arrieta so far in 2016. You know, the guy who beat out Clayton Kershaw for the Cy Young last year; the same Jake Arrieta who has already thrown a no-hitter this year and who currently sports a 0.84 ERA. Of all the stat lines to pick a fight with, DRA chooses this one. Fantastic.
Here’s a cheeky question that I ask in complete sincerity: How many home runs were hit against The Shift last year? I’m sure someone out there knows the answer to the question, but there are probably more people wondering why I even bothered to ask it. If the ball was hit over the wall, what does it matter whether The Shift was on or not? Either way, the fielders weren’t going to be able to get to it.
The Chicago Cubs’ April was insane, frankly. Through 22 games, they went 17-5 (first team since the 2010 Rays to be that good or better, and before those Rays, it had been since 2003), outscored their opponents by 79 runs (second-best run differential over the first 22 in over 100 years, trailing only the 2003 Yankees; the fourth team in the last decade to outscore opponents by so much over any 22-game stretch), and were on pace to cruise past the all-time record for team walks. Oh, and at 6.18 runs per game, they were on pace to score over 1,000 runs, which would put them in the company of the 1999 Indians, the only team to score that many since MLB became fully integrated.
You probably knew all of that, though, and more to the point, we know none of that will keep up. The Cubs played a very weak April schedule. They got some key hits and strong overall performance from the likes of Matt Szczur and David Ross. They lost Kyle Schwarber for the season and Miguel Montero for at least a couple weeks. Jason Heyward has not made the hoped-for changes to his offensive game, remaining instead a patient hitter capable of hitting the ball hard, but not of getting it off the ground often enough to tap into the full power of that contact. Dexter Fowler played out of his mind for two weeks, but while he’s a better player than the (ahem) market decided he was this winter, he’s still Dexter Fowler. The Cubs aren’t a 110-win team. I’m not sure I would peg their final record any higher today than I would have on Opening Day, all things weighed and accounted for.
A second, totally different look at your favorite prospect.
Who was your favorite prospect bust? It’s not a really fun question, kind of the spiritual cousin of “What was your most heartbreaking romantic rejection?” and “What would you say is your greatest personal and professional regret?” But it is a question that I think is more likely to come up than the other two, if only because there are so many prospect busts to choose from and so many prospects tantalizing with what-will-ultimately-become-false promise. So, since we’re all friends here, I’ll ask again: Who’s your favorite prospect bust?
Mine is probably Brody Colvin. I’m a Phillies fan, and the “Baby Aces” period of farm system watching might be too particularized to be a communal memory, but you probably get the gist: There were three or four pitchers on the Phillies’ farm who looked like they might be future aces. As is wont to happen, only one, Jarred Cosart, has made the major leagues in any sustained way, and he’s currently languishing on the Marlins’ Triple-A squad. Colvin was even more disappointing. An overslot signee from the seventh round of the 2009 draft, Colvin never overpowered with strikeouts, but pitched to a 3.39 ERA/3.55 FIP at 20 years old in Single-A in 2010. There was so much to dream on there—maybe he’d put on muscle and velocity! Maybe he’d be the Roy Halladay replacement the team would need! Maybe he’d team up with Cole Hamels and solve mysteries!
Or maybe he’d be out of baseball entirely in 2014. Such are prospects, as we know all too well. I could rattle off 20 prospects, Phillies and non-Phillies alike, who I thought would be surefire major leaguers and got summarily drummed out of the prospect corps, while afterthoughts like Adam Eaton or Khristopher Davis wandered into the major leagues and hit enough to earn a full time job over a number of years. Or while pitchers like Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber managed to shake their non-prospect status and become truly elite in a way that the Brody Colvins of the world could only dream of.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, though. Prospects are weird. They develop weirdly, their minor-league numbers translate weirdly, and their potential often isn’t valued properly until it’s all but determined. Don’t worry, I’m not about to go on a “prospects are just prospects” rant, like a 2005 screed being eviscerated on Fire Joe Morgan. No, I’m going to be arguing that, figuratively speaking, what we understand as a prospect has never existed. I’m taking my cue here from Jean Baudrillard’s provocatively titled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. In this book, which encompasses three essays, Baudrillard – famous for his theories of “hyper reality” and “simulacrum” which described the anomie and detachment of postmodern, contemporary culture – is not literally arguing that the Gulf War of 1992 never happened. Rather, he is arguing that the Gulf War as we imagine we experienced it never happened: There was no “war” as we might expect, but a series of shock and awe styled attacks that overwhelmed and destroyed the enemy before war could really happen. That it is considered a war at all, Baudrillard would say, is all thanks to concerted media repackaging after the fact. In that way, glossing the politics here for the sake of brevity and sanity, the Gulf War (Such as We Imagined It) Did Not Take Place.
And in the same way, Your Favorite Prospect Bust Did Not Take Place, and also what’s more, Your Favorite Prospect Success Story also Did Not Take Place.
Brody Colvin, for instance, was not who I imagined he was. He was not some sort of saving grace for a thin-ish Phillies system; there were no “baby aces”; Roy Halladay wasn’t going to be replaced or even going to be pitching past the first month of 2012. Much of what I still understand about Brody Colvin’s life as a prospect is part of this narrative I wrote about him through the lens of my own fandom. In reality, he’s a 25-year-old dude, going on 26, who is on at least his second career, not of his own choice, and probably not because of anything that he or we can pinpoint.