Friday, May 4, 2012


With the possible career-ending injury to the great Mariano Rivera (yesterday evening, an ironic fluke injury sustained while Mo was doing what he loved best other than closing ballgames--shagging flies in batting practice) we reach what the folks in traffic enforcement like to call an "uncontrolled intersection."

There are no stop signs on the Internet superhighway when it comes to punditry, and it took less than three hours for two separate and incompatible strains of discourse to emerge--one built around the hard-boiled, economics-based structural approach, and the other based on a scrambled-eggs deployment of aesthetics. The former coldly reminds us that the innings Rivera pitched aren't as important as is often claimed (though such claims are, in reality, much less frequent than those who complain about them are willing to acknowledge). The latter takes us down into a grotto of sentimentality and myth, ladling its milky residue that's routinely squeezed by the practitioners of personality cults.

There's a middle way, of course, but it's plainly and simply excluded. In the ongoing need to differentiate themselves in some way--any way--from the mainstream press, the structural economists (we like to call 'em "neo-sabes," in case you've just emerged from a tin can that doubled as a makeshift space vehicle) need to tarnish, diminish, tear down, and ultimately destroy the current deployment pattern for relievers. Their conclusions (which don't really rise to level of "findings" because the science is always partial in both senses of the word...) are that "closers" are a pernicious categorical myth that's been inflicted upon modern baseball.

But even as they say this, a large preponderance of the same cadre of thinkers advocate an increased usage of relievers due to the measurable effects of focusing on fresh arms late in the game. What is ultimately being advocated, of course, is a "system" in which starters will go five innings and be replaced by a succession of four "closers."

Mo Rivera was one of the exceptions to the rule--or should we say, to the corollary that any Tom, Dick, or Ugueth could crawl in on his belly in the ninth inning and take care of business. His sustained level of performance flew in the face of that precept, so he's created a double dread in the schizoid underpinnings of neo-sabe theory. Schizoid? Yes, based on the mutually exclusive but nonetheless-joined-together categories of fan interest and scientific detachment.

The "warrior model"...
Mo made it possible to experience fear and loathing even while rooting for him. He was an exact harbinger of the type of player who may yet emerge as our civilization pushes itself into its own margins--the android athlete. The very fact that Rivera is an extremely low-key individual added to this otherworldly, superhuman aura--and tangled all these rootless, unexamined ideas and feelings together in a way that (mostly) distorted the historical lens with which to view him.

The irony in the nature and context of Rivera's injury leads to the second blind alley--what we might call the "fallacy of aesthetic hierarchy." Confronted with news of a possible career-ending injury, some wish to make a determination regarding which form of ending is preferable--as if we were critiquing a film or a play. While an aesthetic approach is potentially interesting, it requires something more than a simple binary ("better to go out at your best on your shield"--the warrior model; or "better to be brought down from the level of the gods by age"--the kingly model).

No, the simple lesson in Mo's dance-impairing, possibly career-finishing injury is simply this: he's human after all. He will still be the same unique historical personage if he comes back and pitches well, if he comes back and doesn't have it any more, or if he never comes back.

What should matter to us is that we have now seen the full measure of his humanity, and while it is sad that it had to happen in the way that it did, it is a moment filled with meaning for those who will look at it outside the lenses they've imposed upon themselves.

[UPDATE: Rivera has announced that he plans to pitch again. Peter Gammons--once his obligatory "look how smart I am" opening paragraph--has written a heartfelt column about Mo's character--the exemplary man that lurks inside the android's shell.]

Now, briefly, on to an intriguing discovery here in the second month of the '12 season. We have serious walkmen popping up again. It could be that as whatever exactly it is that has brought pitching back into a more dominant position in the game is starting to spawn a willingness to use players with a more extreme approach to hitting.

That approach? Leave the bat on your shoulders.

Individual players with such an approach are starting to pop up on the radar screen: A. J. Ellis for the Dodgers, getting his first chance at age 31 to be a starter in the majors.

Oops...sorry...we meant
the "other" Carlos Santana...
And then there are the Cleveland Indians. We're now more than a tenth of the way through the year, and the Indians are on pace to walk 800 times for the year. That hasn't been done since the great "walk spike" that occurred in the American League in the years immediately following World War II.

At 6'5", a most unlikely walkman:
Shelley Duncan
Lewie Pollis anatomized the position-by-position change in the Indians' walk rate (we still like to call it BBP...) this year (thus far) as opposed to 2011. What seems clear is that the Tribe has two bonafide "walkmen" (as we used to call them back in those quaint days when people were using portable cassette players) in Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner. Given the injury histories already attached to these guys, it's clear that any shot that Cleveland has to push toward the Holy Grail of 800+ walks is dependent upon these two staying healthy all season.

The Tribe seems to have also allowed several players to channel their "inner walkman." Journeyman Shelley Duncan (of the famed Duncan family), used as a platoon player in Cleveland for the past couple of years, became a markedly more selective hitter in the minors; in his last (partial season) stint at AAA, he had more walks than hits. If he can stay in the lineup against all comers (and the Tribe is giving him a shot to do so thus far), he could add 80-100 more walks to the total. The well-traveled Jack Hannahan, no kid (like Duncan, he's 32) is also someone with an elevated walk rate in the minors, and could add 70-90 walks to the mix. And Shin-Soo Choo, though he's still underperforming a good bit from his 2008-09 levels, has also drawn 80+ walks in a season.

So, quick'n'dirty: let's say 120 from Hafner, 115 from Santana, 95 from Duncan, 85 from Hannahan, 80 from Choo...that's just under 500 walks from five guys, meaning that we need 300 more from four lineup slots. It is a long shot, but even a more sophisticated model has to figure that the Tribe has a good shot at cracking 700 walks this year. As we always say here...