"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: July 2011

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Chit Chit Chatter

Yo, I was on Jesse Goyd’s Buckshot Boogaloo Podcast recently where we talked about Lucian Freud, Francis Ford Coppola and Mariano Rivera. Dig it.

Henri Matisse

Color by Numbers: Patience Is a Virtue

Robinson Cano has always had one of the sweetest swings in the big leagues. Even as a rookie, he was often compared to seven-time batting champion Rod Carew, but a lack of plate discipline always prevented him from reaching his full potential. In 2010, however, Cano finally put it all together. Or so it seemed. A year after establishing himself as one of the top position players in all of baseball, Cano has again taken a step back. This year, he barely ranks among the game’s best second basemen.

Top-10 Second basemen, Ranked by Average WAR

Dustin Pedroia      0.304      0.404      0.476      0.394 6.2 5.6 5.9
Ben Zobrist      0.278      0.373      0.499      0.384 5.5 4.3 4.9
Ian Kinsler      0.251      0.357      0.454      0.368 4.8 3.4 4.1
Howie Kendrick      0.302      0.360      0.455      0.359 4.2 2.7 3.5
Rickie Weeks      0.270      0.345      0.477      0.361 3.8 2.7 3.3
Danny Espinosa      0.234      0.321      0.440      0.339 3.4 2.4 2.9
Robinson Cano      0.290      0.333      0.499      0.360 2.8 2.5 2.7
Brandon Phillips      0.283      0.330      0.422      0.327 3.3 1.9 2.6
Neil Walker      0.269      0.334      0.405      0.326 2 2 2.0
Maicer Izturis      0.273      0.335      0.382      0.319 1.4 2.2 1.8
Jamey Carroll      0.291      0.363      0.358      0.328 1.6 1.4 1.5
Kelly Johnson      0.224      0.307      0.446      0.334 1.9 0.8 1.4

Note: AvgWAR = bWAR + fWAR/2
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

The most noticeable area in which Cano has regressed is plate discipline. In 2010, the free swinging second baseman worked a walk in 8.2% of his plate appearances, but this season, he has returned to a rate of 4.5%. Although it should be noted that 14 of his career-high 57 walks in 2010 were intentional (this year he has only received four), Cano’s overall approach in 2011 has reverted back to a relative lack of selectivity, which in turn has seemingly resulted in less production.

Looking at Cano’s plate discipline statistics can be a bit misleading. For example, in 2010, when he had his best season and highest walk rate, the All Star second baseman also swung at what was then a career-high percentage of pitches out of the strike zone. For that reason, it’s hard to confidently blame his 2011 regression on this year’s rate, which at 39.8% is even higher than last year’s. However, maybe, the issue isn’t that Cano is swinging at too many pitches out of the zone, but the count in which he is doing it?

Robinson Cano’s Plate Discipline Breakdown, 2005-2011

O-Swing%= pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone; Z-Swing% = pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone; O-Contact% =  times a batter makes contact when swinging at pitches outside the strike zone; Z-Contact% = times a batter makes contact when swinging at pitches inside the strike zone; Zone% = pitches seen inside the strike zone.
Source: fangraphs.com

What jumps out most from Cano’s 2011 count-based splits is how poorly he has performed when he should be in the driver’s seat. In 134 plate appearances with the pitcher in a hole, Cano has only managed a very pedestrian line of .304/.403/.530, which equates to a situational OPS that is 5% below average. This level of underperformance is even more dramatic when you consider extreme hitter’s counts, such as after working the count to 3-0 and 3-1. In such instances, Cano has posted a sOPS+ (OPS relative to league average in the split) of 72 and -3 (!), respectively. For comparison, Cano’s 2010 sOPS+ in those counts were 109 and 137.

Robinson Cano’s Splits by Count, 2010 vs. 2011

Note: The baseline for OPS+ is 100. For example, a score of 105 is considered to be 5% above average.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

In just about every count favoring the batter, Cano has underperformed last year’s output, in some instances by a dramatic margin. In fact, the All Star second baseman rates below average after working his way into every hitter’s count but 1-0 and 3-2. On the flip side, Cano has remained well above average in every pitcher’s count but 0-1. Considering his ability to make good contact on pitches off the plate, the latter isn’t much of surprise. However, Cano’s significant decline in hitter’s counts is certainly perplexing.

Based on the data above, Cano’s troubles haven’t resulted from an inability to work the count. Rather, things have gone awry once he has reached a favorable position. Without access to more granular plate discipline data, it’s hard to explain why this might be. After all, a hitter with Cano’s ability should feast on pitchers who have to throw him a strike, just as he did in 2010. However, based on observation (which, admittedly, is inherently flawed), it seems as if pitchers have been reticent to challenge Cano when behind in the count. One reason for this development could be Cano’s own reptutation, which was greatly enhanced by his MVP-caliber 2010 campaign, although the relative weakness of the hitters batting behind him in 2011 probably hasn’t helped (Yankees’ sixth place batters have hit .219/.317/.344). Whatever the reason, pitchers now seem more than happy to walk Cano. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been as willing to take it.

In order to return to the more prolific output of 2010, Cano will need to once again refine his approach at that plate. Otherwise, the Yankees will have to settle for a more muted level of production from their second baseman. Although the current incarnation of Cano is not a bad consolation prize, 2010 proved that he can be even better. Cano still has the sweet swing of Carew, but, like the Hall of Famer, can he develop more patience?

Taster's Cherce

Man, I sure do love a farmer’s market in midtown.


Million Dollar Movie

I missed “Cedar Rapids” when it was in the theater but caught it on TV last week. It is a modest movie without being precious about its smallness. There were no hilarious set pieces but it didn’t lag. It was crispy and tidy and altogether satisfying. A sweet nothing that is worth your time.

The Batter's Eye

Michael Cuddyer of the Twins has a flickr page. Check out his pictures.

Beat of the Day

Get your ass a shakin’.

Big Sexy

Oh, Ms. Bardot.

The Tide Turns

Well, it wasn’t going to last forever, was it? The M’s had to win sometime. Phil Hughes didn’t pitch poorly. He went six innings and was trailing 2-1 when the bullpen took over, the Yankee defense stumbled, and the Mariners hopped, jumped and skipped to a 9-2 win.

Tomorrow gives a day of rest then four games against the O’s this weekend.

[Photo Credit: particular particules]

Step Right Up

It’s King Felix vs. Phil Hughes this afternoon and the smart money has the M’s ending their losing streak.

But, stranger things have happened.

Brett Gardner LF
Derek Jeter SS
Curtis Granderson CF
Mark Teixeira DH
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Russell Martin C
Jorge Posada 1B
Eduardo Nunez 3B

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

[Picture by Bags]

Taster's Cherce

Serious Eats gives us New York’s top ten ice cream sandwiches.


Oh, hell yes.

From Ali to Xena: 22

Schulian vs. Israel, or Vice Versa

By John Schulian

Once the word got out that the Daily News was going belly up, life got real interesting.The Tribune took another run at me, a serious one this time, and the Sun-Times wanted me, too. But the brain trust there had a fallback plan if I jumped: they would hire my old friend David Israel. If I landed at the Sun-Times, the Tribune would hire him.

I don’t know how the executives we were dealing with felt, but Israel and I had a hell of a good time. We told each other what the kind of money we were being offered, and we wound up settling for pretty much the same deal, Israel at the Trib and yours truly at the Sun-Times, which was where I belonged. The people who were running the paper were the same ones who had hired me at the Daily News. It was great to tweak their noses-–you’ve got to keep the big cheeses honest, you know-–but it also would have been severely bad form to turn my back on them a little more than a year after they gave me the chance of a lifetime.

The end result of all the wooing and courting was supposed to be a showdown: Schulian vs. Israel, or, if you prefer, Israel vs. Schulian. All I can tell you is that I did what I did and he did what he did, and we were both damn good at it. We weren’t going to make anybody forget Red Smith and Jimmmy Cannon battling for the heavyweight championship of New York’s sports pages, but we gave the people what was probably the best show of its kind for the next couple of years.

Israel made the Trib’s sports section better by walking in the door. With his brains and writing talent, he forced the sleepwalkers on the staff to step up and do better work.He still loved to stir things up, too, especially when he was ripping Larry Bird, who was an uncommunicative dolt in college. And yet Israel wasn’t as outrageous as he’d been when he was the Washington Star’s enfant terrible. Maybe he had outgrown that stage, or maybe he was already looking for a life beyond sportswriting. He’d seen Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake make the jump from Sports Illustrated to doing books and movies, and he wanted to do the same. After the 1981 Final Four, he left the Tribune to take a job as a city columnist at the L.A. Herald Examiner. It was his first step toward a new life in Hollywood.

I thought he’d made a smart move, but even though I’d had show business in the back of my mind since I was a kid, I still saw myself as a newspaperman. There was something exhilarating about writing four columns a week and having a magazine piece to do on the side. I was making more money than I ever dreamed of (but never as much as some people thought I was), and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t like the awards and kind words, too.

Just when I’d start to need a bigger hat, though, I’d have one of those days where, to borrow a line from Red Smith, I didn’t have anything to say and I didn’t say it very well. Amazing how something like that can remind you how great you aren’t.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

Beat of the Day

Heck, yeah. Take that, Mongo.

The Heinz Files: II

Here is W. C. Heinz’s most famous newspaper column:

Two generations later, writers are still deconstructing Heinz’s work to figure out how he got everything so right. And we return to “Death of a Racehorse” because it is about economy, precision, and restraint. And it was written on deadline. Jeff MacGregor, who wrote a memorable piece about Heinz for Sports Illustrated, once called the column, “the Gettysburg Address of sportswriting. A run of words so slender and moving that nothing can be added or taken from it.”

In a message board chat, MacGregor added:

There’s so much going on here that’s remarkable, let’s just talk a little about story architecture. Check the meter and the sentence length at the beginning. And then at the end. Compare the sentence, “‘Air Lift,’ Jim Roach said. ‘Full brother of Assault.'” to the last sentence in the piece. Compare the long sentence beginning “Assault, who won the triple crown…” to the last sentence in the piece. Notice the reiteration of the statement, “Full brother of Assault,” in the middle of the piece.

The column is built a little like a poem or concerto. Certain meters and phrases recur and repeat. Heinz knows going in how he wants the column to land, so he front loads the phrase “Full brother of Assault,” then reinforces it again halfway along. By the time he strings together that last long sentence, with its inexorable drive, those now-familiar meters and phrases have the rhythm and power of music in them, and the story resolves, like a great song, on a chord that is not only completely satisfying, but at once surprising and inevitable. Hence the chill most people feel when reading it.

This piece is a tiny, nearly perfect machine of art and engineering. There’s a lot to learn here about story structure, and lyric, and what’s possible in only a small space. Heinz learned a lot of that from Hemingway. Heinz’s powers of observation and description and his matchless ear for dialogue are his own, of course, but he was a true student of Hemingway’s work, and often reread him very closely in order to figure out exactly how a certain effect had been achieved.

So maybe part of the lesson here is that to become better writers, we need to become better readers.

Chris Jones, in an appreciation for the Nieman Storyboard, writes:

Heinz never makes the mistake of telling us too much, of becoming sentimental or maudlin. We see the blood. We hear the jockey’s crying. We shiver with each clap of thunder and the coming rain. These are the only things that matter in the world.

…He doesn’t do much else to set the scene. Yes, he describes some of the crowd, but only vaguely. He describes the coming storm. But he hasn’t written so much as he’s reported. Nearly every sentence in this story contains a fact and that’s about it. There are no metaphors or similes, unless you count his note that the gun is shaped like a bell. There are very few adverbs, and every quote is said – not exclaimed or opined or bleated. And in this place where this horse died, there was a pile of loose bricks.

Finally, back in 2008, Gare Joyce wrote a fine portrait of Heinz for ESPN. Worth checking out.

My grandfather gave me his copy of “The Elements of Style” in 1988 when I was a junior in high school. The edition was published in 1959. I keep it on my night table and return to it often. “Death of a Racehorse,” understated and beautifully crafted, is like that.  Something to revisit to see how it’s supposed to be done.


“Death of a Racehorse” is reprinted with permission from Gayl Heinz.

Warrior Pose

I was never a brave child. I faked a groin injury at a roller-skating party because the other kids were stronger skaters than me. I refused an invitation to try out for an all-star team that would represent America in a Canadian tournament because I didn’t make the cut the year before and couldn’t face another rejection.

More than anything, I don’t want my sons to be paralyzed by that same kind of fear in their childhoods. But at the first sign of trouble, I want to run in there and pull them out of the fire.

Searching for something to occupy our oldest son during his first summer vacation from pre-school, my wife and I stumbled upon a day camp at a local yoga studio. It advertised a full week of art, music, dance, cooking, field trips and, of course, yoga, all appropriate for three-to-nine-year olds. Since our potential camper was three going on four, this seemed to be a viable option to kill off a week of inactivity.

When my wife dropped him off on the first day, he was shy, but also excited. He’s timid in new situations but always loosens up. As my wife looked around, she noticed that though the camp was appropriate for younger kids, only kids seven and older had signed up for this week.

Out of a dozen children, he was the youngest by several years. For some of you who were tough kids or who have tough kids or just don’t think about kids that much, this might not seem like a big deal. But imagine walking out of pre-school one day and walking into second or third grade the next. It has the potential to be scary.

“Im trying not to cry.” She texted me from the bus on her way to work.  “He’s too little, what have we done?”

Should I go get him? No, he’s not an egg, I reminded myself. The instructors will look out for him. He can make it through one day. But I was terrified that he would be terrified and I was angry with myself for screwing up something as simple as summer camp.

We could have researched the camp more. We could have made sure he was signed up with a buddy. We should have been better prepared than we were. I was afraid we looked liked neglectful parents. Sitting at my desk, I could feel I was blushing.

When I got home that night I braced for bad news, but he immediately began to show me some of the yoga positions he had learned that day. He especially loved the pose with his feet up on the wall and his hands down on the floor. And he showed me a pretty decent warrior pose as well.

I was so relieved. I thought everything was OK, that he must have enjoyed the experience. Maybe even he would be excited to go back?

My first clue that this was not the case came when I put him to bed that night. He said, “Today was my last day at camp.” I corrected him , “No, today was your first day at camp. You have four more days.” I put four fingers in the air. He was messing with me and he smiled as he said, “No, it was my last day.” He went to sleep.

The camp posted some pictures of their activities and my wife and I scrolled through the set. Our faces sagged together. All the pictures in the beginning were of the older kids. They were doing a complex art project. They were playing poker for crissakes. My son has never even seen a deck of cards. Even in the wide shots, there was no trace of him. We imagined him curled up in a corner by himself.

And then there he was playing with Lego. And then doing yoga. And then in the music circle. The other kids dwarfed him. He looked like their batboy. It was hard to tell if he was having fun, but he wasn’t visibly upset. We reassured ourselves that he was OK and that we should try another day. Our unspoken doubts hung there in the negative space of our agreement.

When I went to work in the morning, he seemed set to go back. But when he had to walk out the door, he was a mess. And it wasn’t the meltdown of the tired, or of the hungry, or of the bratty. I’ve experienced all of those. This was the last resort of the powerless. Please don’t make me do this.

Clinging to the door frame of the yoga studio, in between sobs, he said, “It’s too hard. I’m not good enough. I can’t do it.” I wish I was there for that moment to help him and I’m glad I wasn’t because I don’t know what I would have done. I might have let him off the hook. He’s too young to worry about all that stuff.

I also remembered the shame I still feel for all the times I shrank away from challenges like this. But whose fear am I accomodating, his or mine? There’s a line somewhere here but I can’t see it.

At the end of the second day, he had survived. There were more tears to come, but smiles too. The next morning was easier. The week passed and maybe he won’t even remember the particulars. But my wife and I will.

After that second day, before he went to sleep, he made it clear that he understood he was going back three more times. But he had also come to another conclusion:

“After camp is over, I’m never doing yoga again.”  Ah, well. Good thing it wasn’t baseball camp.



Morning Art

Dig this bitchin’ gallery of book cover art by Robert McGinnis.

Slip and Slider

With one out in the seventh inning Brendan Ryan stepped up to the plate to face CC Sabathia. CC had dispatched the first 19 Mariners in order. When Ichiro buckled and flailed at a high slider before Ryan, that was the 12th Mariner to strike out. In the booth John Flaherty noticed that CC had missed a few spots in the Ichiro at-bat. He said it was the first time all night that Sabathia didn’t put the ball exactly where he wanted it.

The first pitch to Ryan was a fastball that spilled out of CC’s hand low and away. The second was a breaking ball, and like the one to Ichiro, it wasn’t tight and Ryan took it outside for ball two. CC came at the two-hole hitter with a decent challenge fastball, low, 94 MPH, and out over the plate. Ryan was sitting dead red, as he should be with a 2-0 count, and stroked it into center field for a clean single.

The groan could be heard across my neighborhood. CC Sabathia has lost a perfect game on a night he had perfect stuff.

CC applied the special secret sauce against the Mariners. Hardly fair, as just about any kind of sauce probably would have choked ’em. He may have been too unhittable to record the perfect game that seemed possible, even likely, as Mariner after Mariner drowned on his slider. CC struck out 14 in seven innings, with seven in a row at one stretch.

But maybe all those strikeouts take a toll on a pitcher? I know his pitch count was not in the danger zone when he let up the only hit of the night, but I wonder if he mixed in a few ground outs and pop outs he would have been able to close it out.

And oh yeah, it rained. The two rain delays surely threw off his rhythm, but maybe it also messed up the Mariners as well. I don’t want to complain, but it sure would be nice if this one had played out straight through and then let the hits fall where they may.

Let also not forget the opponent here. How much of CC’s performance was due the Mariners playing the worst baseball in the league for the last few weeks, we don’t know. But CC hasn’t had any trouble with anybody else lately, so I’m inclined to give most of the credit to the big man and his slider from hell.

CC’s two-plus years with the Yankees have been an absolute pleasure. The last time I wrote about him, I wondered if we’d seen a better three-year span since Guidry. We haven’t. Looking at their performance relative to the American League, in bWAR, CC has finished in the top 10 twice and is firmly entrenched a third time. Before him only a handful of Yankee greats managed that feat: Guidry, Ford twice, Reynolds, Ruffing twice, Gomez and Pennock. (Thanks to my brother Chris for crunching those numbers with me.) We know the big man is great, but it’s this constant, dependable greatness that distinguishes him.

After the hit, both of the teams realized they still had to play the rest of the game, and I think they were as disappointed as the rest of us. CC was gassed, and walked three in a row to start the eighth. With the Yankees only leading 3-0 at this point, the win was in some small peril. But the home plate umpire put his “two-rain-delay strike zone” in effect and helped David Robertson wiggle out of the jam with only one run scoring. Mariano had the benefit of the same zone in the the ninth, and that’s like widening the highway lanes for Jimmie Johnson. The Yankees won 4-1.

Fourteen strike outs for CC. Fifteen wins for the big guy. Sixteen games back in the AL West for Seattle. Seventeen losses in a row. Eighteen strike outs for the Yankees as a team. Nineteen straight Mariners sent down to start the game.

One lousy hit.

Photo by Danielle Kwateng

Treat 'Em Right

Tonight gives return of Eric Chavez.

Brett Gardner LF
Derek Jeter SS
Curtis Granderson CF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Jorge Posada DH
Eric Chavez 3B
Francisco Cervelli C

Our old pal C.C. is on the hill.

Never mind the hubbub (bub):

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

[Picture by Steven E. Hughes via Yankeegirl4ever]

Trading in Futures

Where is the chatter about the approaching trade deadline? No discussions in the lunch room, no frantic refreshing at MLB Trade Rumors. The Yankees have one of the best teams in baseball and look like a great bet to make the Postseason without major roster modification, but that’s the case almost every year and there’s usually more buzz than this.

There is a lack of big names with expiring contracts for sale. The Red Sox and Yankees, usually two of the biggest dealers during this time, have better options in their farm systems than usual. The combination of top prospects and a shallow market might make these two clubs shy away from any blockbusters. Their relative security in the standings factors as well.

The Yankees hold a big lead in the Wild Card standings, but as currently constituted, are they a viable threat to the Red Sox in either the American League East or in a short series? Which target should Yankees aim at, the Red Sox or the Wild Card?

If the Yankees want to win the Wild Card, they shouldn’t do anything crazy. They have Rafael Soriano coming off the DL to enhance the bullpen and Jesús Montero and Iván Nova in the minors to bolster the lineup and rotation. It’s doubtful they could get much better than that on the trade market that would justify the expense in both dollars and players.

But is winning the Wild Card enough? The Yankees would probably have to win a road series in Texas (which they failed to do last year) to earn the right to face Boston in their park, for a best of seven ALCS (I’m giving Boston an easy win versus the AL Central champ. Prove me wrong, AL Central champ, prove me wrong.).

The Red Sox have trashed the Yanks thus far, but as 2009 showed, that early success can be irrelevant in October. And on paper, the Yanks and Red Sox don’t appear that far apart. The Yanks currently hold the better run differential and the better Pythagorean record. The Red Sox surge back ahead in both second and third order wins, though, so if you want to find the gap, you can.

Running the risk of oversimplifying a multi-faceted calculation, the quick-and-dirty in me sees two aces on Boston’s side and only one in New York. I also see Boston’s DH making a difference while New York’s sputters and fails. The Red Sox have the better top of the rotation, the better lineup, and the better bench. I don’t think the Yankees are winning a best-of-seven series against the Red Sox without the kind of good fortune that makes myths.

So what would it take to put that series in play? The Yankees want to pair another ace with CC Sabathia and they need to get something out of DH and/or catcher. For the Yankees to stand on even ground with Boston in October, they’d need to acquire the best hitter and pitcher available.

Right now, those seem to be Ubaldo Jiménez and Carlos Beltrán. To accommodate Beltrán, the Yankees could rotate men through the DH slot and demote Jorge Posada to back-up catcher and pinch hitter. Or they could cut him. And other than CC Sabathia, I think only Bartolo Colón has proven worthy for an October start, so plenty of room for Ubaldo.

Perhaps there are other big players hovering beneath the radar, but two major acquisitions would devastate Scranton, Trenton and probably Charleston as well. They’d certainly wave goodbye to their two best prospects, Montero and Manny Banuelos. And they’d probably lose Nova and a few like him who are ready for the Majors or close to it.

Even then, the Yanks would be underdogs in Fenway, where the Red Sox are their toughest. So the return for this huge expenditure is to move from severe underdogs to close underdogs. Is that enough to justify the cost?

I don’t think it does. If the top end talent in the Yankee system can help the Yankees in the very near future, they should hold onto them. The Yankees should know these kids better than anybody else and their job at the deadline is to not only make the team better for the upcoming Postseason, but to put them in the best shape possible for years to come.

What happens at this trade deadline will be a signal of the organization’s true feelings for their big prospects. If they are dumped for something less than stellar, we’ll have to conclude the Yankees didn’t believe in them. And if they hold onto them even though it concedes a clear edge to Boston from this point forward, that should mean they expect them to graduate to beating Boston as soon as next year.

Positively Positively

Dig this wonderful piece of research by Bob Egan on the locations of Dylan album covers.

And thanks to Matt B for the link.

Taster's Cherce

Serious Easts offers 12 places for tourists to eat in New York City.

Diggum, smack.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver