Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cubs' Random Bullpen Generator

The reasoning behind the Cubs' bullpen/starting rotation moves is finally revealed.
Andrew Cashner is coming to the big leagues. The former #1 draft pick and ex-starting pitcher will be joining the big-boy club as the Cubs travel to their AAAA-affiliate Pittsburgh Pirates. (Yes, I know this AAAA-club has been smacking the Cubs around, they're still awful.) Joining young Andrew in the bullpen will be everyone's favorite line-drive-absorbing lefty, Tom Gorzelanny.

Zambrano pitched in relief yesterday and will officially, or at least practically, return to the starting rotation on Wednesday after his abbreviated, tumultuous, and downright bizarre stint in the bullpen. Randy Wells, who pitched only briefly and ineffectively on Friday, will move into Gorzelanny's slot in the rotation.

Cashner had been effective as a starting pitcher at every level so far this year, as has the Cubs' other promising pitching prospect, Jay Jackson. But Jackson was recently switched to the bullpen at AAA. Then Cashner was moved to the bullpen and Jackson returned to starting duty. Then they switched lockers and dated each other's mothers.

Meanwhile, the Cubs got drubbed in two of the three of the weekend games, although they did win easily in Jolly Lord Silva's brilliant start on Saturday. They really have been all over the place. Silva is good. Wells and Lilly are alternately dominant and dormant. Dempster's getting pretty homer unlucky. Carlos Marmol is insanely good. The bullpen in general seems to give up either 3 runs or zero baserunners every game. To quote Ron Santo, you just never know with this team.

You never know with this organization, either. In his post-game remarks, Lou expressed his desire to keep the randomness spinning through the lineup card as well, so we should prepare for a brand new look tomorrow. Maybe Geobeepee Soto will lead off. Maybe Aramis will hit bat ninth. Maybe I'll finally get a chance to hit cleanup.

Personally, I'll find a change welcome, but the one I'm most interested in seeing is a team other than the Cardinals. I hate that team. They lead the league in annoying fans. Their manager is the devil. Bring on the Buccos.

And until I see some type of consistency in performance or organizational direction, I'll hereby refer to the 2010 Cubs team as the Wrigley Randoms.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Are You a Real Cubs Fan?

Even facebook thinks fans are stupid. Anything beyond "like" is too much for Zuckerberg.
The Cubs have yet another marketing campaign, although this one is for a good cause. Not that trying in vain to win a World Series isn't a good cause, it's just that more conscientious uses of natural resources is probably a better one (though the world is likely to end once the Cubs finally win it all, so maybe there's some conflict there). The new slogan is "Real Fans Recycle."

I don't care to comment on the recycling so much as the use of the phrase, Real Fans. The topic has come up several times in recent days, especially as the Blackhawks bring their increasingly loaded bandwagon ever closer to Stanley Cup junction. A lot of extra-fanatic fans are calling into question the integrity of the newcomers. If the state of Blackhawk fandom were the state of Arizona, the die-hards would be asking a lot of fair-weathers to produce their papers. But is it really necessary to secure the borders of Blackhawk Nation or that of the real fanbase of any other team?

Come on.

I'm no expert on the Blackhawks, but I consider myself a fan. I follow their progress. I watch a fair amount of their games. I want them to do well every year. Hockey is not my favorite sport, mostly because I have an impossible time imagining I could play it. This makes the game a bit harder to relate to, but in no way does it diminish the grandeur of the sport. I'm more impressed by the talent and athleticism of hockey players than those of any other competitive endeavor, no matter how hard it is to see the puck. So, I'm a fan. I like the team. I like their fans, too. But I'm sure a lot of people would call my fanaticism a big frozen block of fail. So be it. I'll still call myself a fan, though not loudly.

I say this as a die-hard Cubs fan, because as much as I like the team, I find it entirely silly to evaluate the fanhood of my fellow enthusiasts. If you just started cheering for the Cubs in 2003, welcome. If you're a centenarian on life support waiting for the first World Series championship in your lifetime . . . I applaud you. Loudly. If you just became a fan because of the thrill ride that was the 2009 Milton Bradley saga . . . you're weird. But you're no better fan than I. Even if you jump from team to team, commandeering the bandwagon of whichever team wins it all, I can't wait for you to superficially don the Cubbie pinstripes. You're all real fans, congrats.

The key to all this is, being called a fan is not a compliment. Take as much pride as you want in being a fan, but don't expect anyone but other like-minded, affirmation-deprived souls to congratulate you. The reward of being a fan comes in the experience itself. If you cheer for a winner, the victory and its complementary bragging rights are your spoils, but no fan gets to keep them all to themselves. No one can dictate who gets to be happy about a win or sad about a loss, and there's no extra commendation to bestow upon us poor applauding fools. The sound of our own jubilation is all we get. Well, that and whatever merchandise we care to buy to commemorate our idiocy.

Plenty of fans will argue the existence of some code of honor among fanatics, that their choice of team is something nobler than rooting for the most likely winner. They're from my hometown. This team is different. They have the cutest butts. They play with heart. They play with valor. They play with themselves. What we really want to cheer for is a team that plays well, and most of us stick with the same team not because we want to be noble but because we want to be right.

Nowhere is this more relevant than in the other sports-related fan word: fantasy. Those of us who play fantasy sports will, on occasion, select a player from our favorite team or just a person we generally admire. But when we're the ones doing the competing, most of us will choose the players we think we will perform the best. We choose practicality over sentiment or we lose. Everyone loves the fantasy sports participants who choose with their hearts instead of their heads. Are they better people? No. Are they certain to lose? Absolutely, that's why we love them!

So, go Blackhawks. Go Cubs. Go real fans everywhere. But if you're going around telling people they aren't real fans, take a moment to make sure you have an actual life. To be a real fan, I believe technically you have to be a real person.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lost Like Us: Will Cubs Ever Leave the Island?

Lost: Season 102
The series finale of Lost will be taking up two and a half hours of my time on Sunday and is sure to dominate hours of discussion to follow. In that and in a host of other ways, it's not unlike a typical Cubs game. As any Lost fan knows, pop culture allusions flow like DHARMA-issued wine through the narrative of the cultiest of cult-TV shows: Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the Bible, and virtually any other story about a motley cast of misfits brought together for a fantastic mission. And if that sounds familiar to you as a Cubs fan, it's because that pretty much describes every team ever assembled to try to bring a World Series championship to Wrigley Field.

It's a bizarre little way of life we've got going here, one artistically rendered on Lost island with eerie accuracy.

So here are some of the myriad ways that Lost mirrors the island of losing on which we've all been stranded (watching in eager anticipation all the while).

On Lost: A plane goes horribly off course and crashes in an unfamiliar land in September of 2004 and again in 2007.
At Wrigley: The Cubs' World Series plans go horribly off course and ultimately crashes in September of every year for the last century plus. (A handful of times it was in October, but who's counting? Oh, that's right, I am.)

On Lost: John Locke, previously crippled, is able to walk after his plane crashes on the island.
At Wrigley: John Grabow, previously competent, walks pretty much everyone he faces now that he's a Cub.

On Lost: Survivors on the island enter the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 into a computer every 108 minutes to prevent the island from imploding.
At Wrigley: Last time I checked my computer, 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 were the ERAs of 6 of the Cubs' relievers, hence, the repeated implosions of wins, and no championships since 1(9)08.

On Lost: Sawyer mocks Hurley's weight with a variety of condescending nicknames, including Deep Dish, IHOP, and JumboTron.
At Wrigley: At one point or another, I've wanted all of those things while watching a Cubs game.

On Lost: Jack's dad, Christian, swears that the Red Sox will never win a World Series. After the crash, they do.
At Wrigley: People swear a lot as the Cubs fail to win a World Series, and the crashes keep on coming.

Never lose the finger tape, Koyie. Never!
On Lost: Resident rocker, Charlie Pace, tapes his fingers for a dual purpose: a) to look cool, and b) to foreshadow events on the show.
At Wrigley: Backup catcher, Koyie Hill, tapes his fingers for a dual purpose: a) to help pitchers see his pitch signs, and b) to keep his fingers attached.

On Lost: Fans have a lot of theories about what's going on, though ultimately the show reveals new surprises to keep the fans guessing.
At Wrigley: Fans have a lot of theories about what's going on, though ultimately the Cubs lose in new and surprising ways . . . and we keep watching.

On Lost: In a shocking twist, Jack, the leader (though not undisputed) of the survivors, joined the Others to help cure their ailing leader, Ben. Then he shot a few people to escape.
At Wrigley: In a shocking twist, Carlos Zambrano, the leader (though not undisputed) of the starting rotation, joined the bullpen to help cure their ailing ERA. Then he blew a few games and escaped.

On Lost: The survivors and viewers alike are given nightmares by Benjamin Linus because of his malicious talent and his big buggy eyes.
At Wrigley: Ryan Braun.

On Lost: Sun Kwan pretended not to know English to avoid getting in trouble with her husband, Jin.
At Wrigley: Sammy Sosa pretended not to know English to avoid getting in trouble with Congress.

On Lost: Walt was all but written out of the show because the actor who played him, Malcolm David Kelley, aged beyond the speed of his 12-year-old character.
At Wrigley: Starlin Castro was called up to the show because he was playing well beyond his 20-year-old age. Coincidentally, he also could convincingly be cast as a 12-year-old.

On Lost: It's hard to believe the show is finally coming to an end. . . . But it is.
At Wrigley: It's hard to believe this tradition of losing will ever end. . . . But we do.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is Aramis Back?

Aramis? Is that you?
After Monday's walk-off homer, Ron Santo declared Aramis Ramirez back (he has probably said it a half dozen times or so of late). For the record, A-Ram hasn't really gone anywhere. His bat has been missing. His look of determined competence was nowhere to be found. He appeared to be playing the role of Mike Fontenot's inept replacement at third base, but Aramis has been in the starting lineup for 36 of the Cubs' 40 games so far this year.

The hits haven't been there, though. Aramis has hit safely in just 22 of those 36 starts. Of his hitless games, he drew a walk (just one) in eight of them. He has three multi-hit games; one was opening day. The other two offensive explosions (two hits each) have come in the last five games. It's hard to say he is back, because he still hasn't had an extended stretch of productivity. But by comparison, he's definitely closer to being offensively relevant than he was at the beginning of the year.

Through his first 18 games (including one late-inning replacement) Aramis struck out 23 times in 79 plate appearances for a K% of PMET%*. Since then, he's fanned just 10 times in 84 PAs, a much improved (and much closer to his career 15.4% rate) 11.9%. So, yeah, Aramis is hitting the ball now.

But on the whole, Aramis is still way off his typical batted ball distribution. He typically hits 19.8% line drives, 35.2% grounders, 45% fly balls (13.4% of which wind up as homers), and 11.5% popups. This year, Ramirez has a line-drive rate of 14.7% (down a bit), groundball rate of 25% (way down), and a pop-up rate of 11.5% (almost exactly his average). The big difference? His flyball rate is 60.3%, a spike of almost 50% of his career average. Now that Aramis is actually putting the ball in play, most of those balls are going in the air. The real bad news: his homer per flyball rate is less than half his career standard: 5.7%.

So Ramirez is back in a sense: he's not completely lost at the plate anymore. Hopefully he can return to the guy who prefers hard line drives to towering moon shots, because he's pretty much an out machine right now. In his last five games, he's slugging .500. For the season: .288.

I like what I'm seeing out of Ramirez right now, and I have every reason to believe his last five games are more indicative of what we'll see than his first month and a half. We know the guy can hit, and we can see his slump wasn't permanent. Let's just hope the resurgence is neither too short nor too late.

*Pretty Much Every Time

Monday, May 17, 2010

Stream of Cubbie Consciousness

Carlos Zambrano belongs in the bullpen like Rod Blagojevich belongs on the Supreme Court.

Over the last week, the Cubs went 2-4 . . . and gained a game on the Cardinals.

The Toyota sign is a commercial, not a story.

Any team that doesn't pull out all the stops to grab every dollar they can scrounge will show the same lackluster interest in wins.

I can't stop watching 'Til Death. It is not funny.

The National League is pretty bad.

Next Sunday's Lost finale will leave us with a lot of unanswered questions. Most of them will start with "What the . . . "

The Cubs are a better team with Starlin Castro than with Chad Tracy.

Conan O'Brien's anti-cynical farewell speech was good advice.

The purists said the lights desecrated Wrigley Field. I was one of them. I was 13. Change is good.

If Lou didn't care, he would have quit a long time ago.

No. He didn't. Very funny.

Carlos Marmol found the cheat codes for his slider.

Space Giants was a great show.

No sport has been more revolutionized by the advent of HDTV than hockey. I can see the puck now.

Marlon Byrd.

Over 1/3 of one-pitch at-bats result in hits.

Coffee is the quaintest of addictions.

When the Cubs start hitting as a team (and they will . . . this year) they'll rack up a double-digit winning streak.

The Cubs don't need a mascot. We are the mascots.

Wrigley Field ambassadors won't stop fans in the bleachers from relieving themselves in empty beer cups, but they will hand out "not beer" labels.

I overhead a Wrigley bathroom attendant saying he had waited five years to get his current assignment. Heaven help the poor schmuck who inherited his 2005 gig.

Singing "the Cubs are gonna win today" after they win is . . . well, given the state of the bullpen, it's almost premature.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Top Ten Things Cubs Fans Can Look Forward To

Better cigars = better clubhouse chemistry
The season hasn't gone all that well for the boys in blue, but there's a reason the phrase "hope springs eternal" gets used so often at the Friendly Confines . . . and not just because we're all so darn sarcastic.

Still, that's one of the primary reasons. So here are ten things Cubs fans haven't seen yet this year that, while not necessarily qualifying 2010 as the year, would still be kind of awesome.

10. Carlos Zambrano named the permanent Walgreens Bat Boy. 
Big Z has been making a very little contribution since being moved to the pen (just 7 2/3 innings in 7 games in the 21 Cubs games since the switch). That's just not enough Zambrano for my liking. But that could all change if, as I suspect, Carlos is named the new bat boy. Those kids winning the Walgreens contest just aren't getting it done, and this move would put Carlos in the action on almost every play. More Carlos. Better bats. This will work.

9. Calling up another Castro.
The dictator can play. Yes, I know his health is failing, but this move isn't so much about the talent of Fidel so much as it's about the message it sends to the team. If you don't start hitting, you and your families will pay dearly. Tell me that won't work! It sends a message.

8. Ron Santo losing it big time.
Everybody thinks of Ron as a generally happy guy who has overcome quite a bit of physical pain and Cub-related anguish. But this year, the complaints about his focus and disposition have made many wonder if he's not too old to keep sane in the booth. We've heard the historic Nooooo!, so we know he's capable of having an in-booth meltdown. But if Santo gave us another Brant-Brown reaction, but expanded it into a Lee-Elia style explosion, we'd have ourselves a memory that would last a lifetime.

7. Another sweep at the hands of the Pirates.
Last year, the Cubs owned the Pirates, winning 161 out of 15 games against them. If it hadn't been for their -79 and 75 record against the rest of MLB, the Cubs would have made the postseason. The Cubs were better than the Pirates last season, and they're better once again this year. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't expect the pendulum of luck to keep swinging back in a more Cublike direction. If the Cubs lose six straight to the Buccos, it'll almost be like Barry Bonds has a normal size head again.

6. Mass Head Shaving
If we ask ourselves, "What would DeRosa do?" (and who doesn't ask that question on a daily basis?) , the answer will eventually be, Shave our heads to bust out of this slump. It may not be effective, but we'll feel better about the losing at the very least. Because where there are bald heads, there are smiling faces. I swear on Reed Johnson's glaring dome, it's true.

5. A New Logo
The Cubs might change up the unis again, but that's not what I mean. Even here on May 14, it seems fairly obvious that the And Counting Meter is going to have to roll over to 103. That's exciting. Right?

4. The Trade Deadline
This is actually completely serious. The Cubs have a plethora of players who may jump at the chance to shed their standard-issue no-trade clauses to skip town to a winner. Derrek Lee, Ted Lilly, and Ronnie Woo could all give some contender a chance to take a serious step toward World Series glory and to unload their can't-miss (or some such) prospects into the Cubs farm system (aka, their current bullpen).

3. Booing the Cardinals in the Playoffs
Remember when Matt Holliday got ro-sham-bo'd by that routine line drive and the Cardinals wound up going down in flames? That was probably the Cubs' best postseason memory in the last 7 years. Something like that could happen again and salvage 2010.

2. The Wildcard Race
Again, this is completely serious. The Cubs could go 0 for their next 100 games and they still wouldn't be eliminated from wildcard contention until September 10. No matter how bad the Cubs are or might continue to be, the National League is bad enough that the excitement of wildcard hopes will last a very, very long time . . . and the Cubs have a legit shot at winning that thing.

1. Wrigley Talk Friday
Don't tell me this is all just some elaborate Top Ten ploy to get me to listen to your stupid podcast! Okay, I won't tell you that. But, since you brought it up, listen to my stupid podcast, here, in the player on the sidebar, or on iTunes.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Castro Is Fun to Watch. He's Ready.

He can ride an invisible horse, for crying out loud. What else do you want?
Ryne Sandberg started his Cubs career going 0-20. After his first hit, he went another 12 at-bats before getting his second. That's a 1-32 stretch to begin his Hall-of-Fame resume on the North side. But he was ready.

Mark Grace made 17 errors in his rookie campaign at first base, enough to lead the National League in that category. That was on his way to four Gold Gloves. He was ready.

Shawon Dunston made 17 errors in his first season with the Cubs (and in just 73 games). In his first full season (1986) he made 32 errors, the most of anyone at any position in either league. He also led NL shortstops in putouts and assists, and the world in Range Factor per Game (by a wide margin). Dunston shuttled between the majors and minors over his first few seasons, and it wasn't until 1989 that his OPS+ reached the league average 100. But he was ready.

Starlin Castro has committed 5 errors in 5 games, good for a .762 fielding percentage, which I'm told is rather poor. He has also compiled a 1.067 OPS and a 169 OPS+, which I'm told is completely unsustainable. Get that? His fielding is awful and clearly indicative of his lack of maturity. His hitting is uncharacteristically awesome and sure to get worse.

Here's what I see: Starlin has had a very good start to his shorter-than-Sullivan career, and his fielding percentage is more likely to drastically change than his offensive statistics. He will not continue to screw up in 1 out of every 4 opportunities. He won't average over a base per plate appearance for very long either, but I've seen enough to know his hitting is less attributable to luck than his fielding is to nerves.

Regardless, this kid is a lot of fun to watch. The last I checked, that's kind of a big part of the reason we like to follow baseball, is it not? It's fun to see people with talent and/or infinite supplies of scrappiness play this game. Starlin Castro could be one of the five most talented baseball players I've seen come up through the Cubs organization, so I want to watch him play. It. Will. Be. Fun.

Obviously one could argue that any more prolonged defensive struggles would be detrimental to the Cubs' chances of winning. But A) There really is no way he'll make errors at this rate, and B) I think you have to ask yourself how important winning is to the Cubs right now.

That's stupid. Winning is all there is. If winning isn't your goal, you're not a fan. You're an idiot! Winning is kind of the point, isn't it, moron?!? Fire Jim Hendry! Fire Lou! Fire Adam from this piece of garbage blog!

Now that we've got that out of our systems (Shutup, jerk, I'm still angry at how dumb you are!), I have a question: how many games do you think Castro's defense will cost the Cubs over the course of the rest of the season, in combination with whatever gains/losses you expect from his offensive contributions? Go ahead, make a guess, write it down, enter it into your calculator. Now I want you to write down how many games you think the Cubs will wind up winning on the year if they demote young Starlin to AAA right this very moment. Now give those numbers a gander.

If you project the Cubs to win fewer than 85 games without Castro, it really doesn't matter how many games you think he will cost the Cubs. You don't think they're going to the playoffs anyway. In the absence of winning, I'd rather watch a player who has a legitimate chance of doing something truly exciting every time he steps onto the field than, say, Fontebaker. Wouldn't you?

If you think the Cubs are going to make the playoffs as long as Castro doesn't hold them back, congratulations, you're a part of the smallest club in America.

But if you, like me, expect Starlin Castro to actually make a net improvement to this team (maybe a small one, maybe a large one . . . I don't know), then there's no way you want to see Castro leave the ranks of the Chicago National League ball club.

Actually, I really don't care either way. This kid has a chance to be something special, or at least something slightly better than ordinary. I would much rather see him develop before my eyes than read some scouting report about how well he's doing in Peoria or who knows where. In all my life, I've never seen the Cubs even make it to the World Series, and the likelihood that a Castro-less team will do it this year is almost nonexistent. Starlin might not improve those odds, but that's okay.

Because I've had a lot of fun watching the Cubs not win World Series. I have enjoyed watching Ryne Sandberg become a Hall of Famer, Mark Grace become a world-class Gold-Glover, and Shawon Dunston making him earn it. It has been fun seeing Carlos Zambrano try to grow up, Kerry Wood try to stay healthy and filthy, and Ryan Theriot continue to get dirty. Geo's OBP getting higher than a World Baseball Classic after-party: love it. Carlos Marmol trying to reinvent the strike zone and the laws of physics: love it. Tyler Colvin trying to prove his identity: love it.

So why would I not want to see Starlin Castro go through the growing pains that lead to a more polished, sparkling career as a major-league shortstop? He's got all the tools to do just that, and I think Cub fans (at least the ones intelligent enough not to boo him the first day they see him in person) deserve a ticket to that show.

The kid is ready. So am I.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Great Expectations

Aerosmith is a great band, but I've always felt that they peaked with their first hit, "Dream On." Now, that's a fine zenith, one that most bands would kill to reach, and a lot of my Aerosmith-loving friends would disagree with my assertion to begin with. But I know I'm not the only person to rank "Dream On" as Steven Tyler & Co.'s best song and one of the greatest in rock & roll history. You could argue they recorded a song or songs that were as good as "Dream On," but I can't be convinced that they've done anything that was better. (It was also the featured song of the above highlight reel ESPN played to close out 1999, which was, for me, the best of the uber-emotional musical sports montage genre . . . still gets me verklempt.)

Notice the price in the upper right of the ticket: $6.00
I bring this up now because of May 6 and May 7. You may recall a game that took place on May 6, 1998. Cubs. Astros. Ring a bell? You probably remember where you were when it happened. I do. I remember the telephone of my Chicago apartment ringing shortly after the game ended. It was my mom.

"Did you see the game?" she asked in a near shriek.

"Yeah," I said calmly, followed by a pause for dramatic effect. "From the BLEACHERS!!!"

I was supposed to have been at work. But for the third day in a row, I had been swinging a sledge hammer all day long, knocking down brick-plaster walls, picking up the scraps, and hauling away the wreckage. I was exhausted. So at about 11:30 I asked for the afternoon off. It just sounded like a good idea to catch a game. I thought Kerry Wood was pitching, and I really wanted to get to see him in person. One short El ride later, and I was at the Wrigley Field Box Office hoping, but skeptically, that there were still bleacher seats left. The attendant laughed off my skepticism.

"Oh yeah, we got plenty. We definitely have one."


I took a seat in the left-center bleachers where there was plenty of room to stretch out. I was a bit worried by the clouds sweeping across the sky, some of them spilling a few drops here and there. It was one of those weird days when some of the ballpark was in sunshine while other seats were getting rained on. All in all, though, it was a beautiful day for me and 15,757 of my friends to enjoy.

Soon, a married couple of Astros fans (in town from Houston, they had seen the Astros win the night before) in Biggio jerseys sat in front of me. I felt a sting of anxiety when they smirked at Kerry's first fastball, which sailed directly into Jerry Meals. But from that point on, the smirks were all mine.

Kerry's fastball zipped so blindingly fast, there were times when I confused the smack of Sandy Martinez's glove with the crack of a bat. Some of his pitches I genuinely could not see. But his breaking stuff? Normally I can't tell a slider from a 2-seamer when I watch a game in person, but I could see Kerry's slider swooping out of the strike zone like a Frisbee. I could see the fear in the Astros' eyes, the wobble in their knees, and the swirly black thought bubble of frustration emanating from the tops of their heads.

As the game wore on, that crowd of less than 1/2 capacity exploded with ovations of glee. We were high-fiving. We were shouting. We were openly mocking the trespassers from the West who were outed by their Cardinals umbrellas when the rain got a bit too heavy for them. One guy to my left, wearing a newspaper for a rain hat, was announcing the strikeout totals with every batter. We were all grumbling slightly about Kevin Orie. We united as one in sheer joy over the crowning of baseball's newest King of K's.

After 2 hours and 19 minutes, we went home. Unbelievable. Unstoppable. Unequivocal.


In the career of Kerry Lee Wood, the apex of his achievements occurred in his fifth start as a major leaguer. It was quite possibly the greatest display of pitching in the history of baseball. He could never improve upon that. Nobody could. I find it suddenly and incredibly sad to think that Kerry Wood's finest moment, the most dramatic tear-jerking, goosebump-inducing highlight, came just a few steps into his journey as a pro.

It's not exactly the same situation, but I'd hate for something similar to befall Starlin Castro. On May 7, 2010, he took the baseball world by storm, yet another 20-year-old Cub to set the standard for big-splash achievements. Starlin drove in 6 runs, 3 on a homer in his very first appearance at a big-league plate, and another 3 on a triple showcasing his yes-we-should-be-excited-about-this-kid speed. No player had ever begun his career with a 6-RBI game. Ever. How can Castro improve on that?

Tonight, Starlin has a chance to impress the Wrigley faithful as he debuts in a building that, according to Ozzie Guillen, he's not even old enough to attend. The kid needs McLovin to help him buy beer, but 40,000 screaming fans are relying on him to deliver them a champion—you know, just another thing that hasn't happened in over a century.

UPDATE: Starlin Castro went 0-2 with 2 walks and 3 errors. He got booed after the last one. Lou knew Starlin would be learning on the fly, but fans lack the patience for that. They want the prodigy but not the child. Starlin's first lesson: Wrigley Field is infested with jerks, and the real cockroaches like to come out at night.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Castro Adds a Topic to Wrigley Talk Friday

Desperate move? Try crossing ex-Marine John Shale. That's desperate.
I substitute taught today (along with yesterday) for the first time in my life. I don't really know how it came about. I'm not a substitute teacher. I'm not a teacher. I do tutor at this school, but I don't really remember even being asked to sub. I just kind of got the details and showed up according to what I was told through my wife who also works at the school. None of this has anything to do with anything.

Except for the fact that it forced me to miss the breaking news about Starlin Castro substituting for Chad Tracy on the Cubs' roster.

Maybe the most surprising part of it for me was that Castro starting at short for the Cubs was one of my predictions guaranteed to go wrong, as I mentioned on Wrigley Talk Friday with Julie and Tim. For the immediate present, at the time, I loved the move because it gave us something to talk about on today's episode (which you can also listen to in the handy player to the right).

There are a lot of opinions being tossed about the halls of Cubdom. I haven't heard any reactions along the lines of "meh," though. This is an exciting move, much more exciting than the Z-to-the-pen fiasco or being swept by the Pirates for that matter.

Wish I had more thoughts to dole out, but this post is more about promoting the podcast than anything. Which reminds me, become a fan of Wrigley Talk Friday, because it's awesome.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In Our Own Image

Chicago Cubs' Alfonso Soriano homers against the Houston Astros
Even I can run hard out of the box (which would be odd after a strikeout).
They make millions of dollars a year. They get paid those millions to play the game we love. They should consider themselves lucky to be professional baseball players and collect the hard earned money we shell out to watch them play the game we love. The least these players can do is to try their best.

Except, actually, that's not the least they can do—that's the most we could do. If we (and by we, I mean society . . . specifically the non-professional baseball playing segment of it) were to play baseball in the majors, we would absolutely suck. We wouldn't be able to hit. We wouldn't be able to pitch. We wouldn't be able to hit the cutoff man. But we could try really hard. We could run out our ground-outs and pop-ups. We could make smart decisions. We could hustle. We could not admire our non-homers. We could dirty our uniforms. We could be scrappy.

For fans who wish we could play, it's hard to forgive a multimillionaire for failing to do the things we know we could do or for making the mistakes we know we could avoid. So when Alfonso Soriano or Aramis Ramirez don't sprint out of the batter's box or when Ryan Theriot gets TOOTBLAN'd or when Lou decides John Grabow should pitch in a game we think the Cubs have a chance to win, we self-respecting Cub fans get a bit angry. I've been trying to figure out the reason behind the outrage, and the conclusion I've come to doesn't reflect on us all too well.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Nothing to See Here. So Let's Do the Wave!

On Saturday, the wave broke out at Wrigley Field. This punky, spray-tanned castoff from the set of Swingers (not Vince Vaughn) served as cheerleader  drum major  douchemaster  moron-in-chief, eliciting a chorus of boos from dozens of onlookers . . . and, you know, the wave from tens of thousands of witless drones.

It's bad enough this happened at Wrigley. Fans do a lot of unforgivable things in Wrigley. They throw peanuts at fans of opposing teams, even if it's the team opposing the Blackhawks later that weekend. They stand on the ramps leading to the upper deck and toss food and water down onto the fans below. They hurl racial epithets at their favorite players. I guess they project quite a few things into the air, but usually they have the good sense not to include a successive parade of their butt-scratching hands in the mix. But here's what made it worse:

All this went down with one out in the eighth inning of a tie ball game with the potential (and eventually the actual) game-tying run at second base. The wave is supposed to be the designated pastime of fans who have become bored with the actual national pastime. But to interrupt the most critical turning point in the game by conjuring the demonic ritual of wavus stupidus maximus takes some serious juevos (and just an extraordinary surplus of dumb). You're telling me there was nothing else to grab the attention of these buffoons?

Allow me to offer up a photodump of evidence to the contrary:

Vince Vaughn set the tone by aiming for the upper deck with his ceremonial first pitch.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Lucky Strikes: Baseball and Bowling

Baseball. Bowling. Homer. See what I did there?
I'm in a bowling league. I am not good. My form is awful. My entire game is inconsistent, from my approach to my release to my follow through. Sometimes the ball hooks like a drifting frisbee. Other times it sails straight as a hanging Grabow slider.

But the crazy thing about bowling is, you don't have to be good. I mean, if you're good, you will, with very few exceptions, always bowl  a better series than I do. I will rarely bowl a better game than a really good bowler does, but it happens. And there are plenty of frames in which I'll bowl a strike while a far superior bowler leaves a pin or two standing. I've seen five year olds bowl strikes (sans bumpers). I've seen guys with near-200 averages bowl gutter balls or even sub-80 games.

It's a simple fact of bowling that superior skill and even superior execution doesn't always yield superior results—it usually does over the course of time, but most definitely not every time, especially in smaller samples.

The more I bowl, the more it reminds me of baseball.

I don't think I'm telling you anything you don't already know when I say that superior skill and execution don't always yield superior results in baseball, because you know that luck rears its pretty or ugly or pretty ugly head all the time. But more often than not, we judge someone's talent level (or at least the quality of their execution in a specific instance) on results we know to be affected or even completely determined by luck. We know better, we just forget.

Here's an example from the lanes: aiming for the traditional pocket between the 1 and 3 pins, I miss my target to the left by almost a foot. The execution: bad. The result: awesome. I get a "Brooklyn" strike, landing the ball between the 1 and 2 pins. Oddly enough, if I had missed by just an inch, I could easily have wound up with the dreaded 7-10 split, one I have no hope of sparing. The uneducated observer would say I did well. The learned bowler would say I got lucky. But somehow everyone would look at the resultant score and go on thinking I was having a better game than the great bowler with the split.

Similar things happen all the time in baseball on both sides of the ball. Derrek Lee had the game-winning single  in Saturday's game against the Diamondbacks, and it was probably the second-worst hit he put in play, a ground-ball single through the hole at short. It could have easily resulted in a double play. His worst was his other single, a blooper to right center. Both his fly outs to right were hit harder than either of those two hits, but the results were worse. His strike out was a gutter ball (those pretty much never work out).

And that's just balls in play. You know how when a hitter fouls a ball straight back, we're supposed to take that as a sign he was "right on it" from a timing standpoint and "just missed it" with his swing location. Great. But I have to assume that if he had split the difference between absolutely nailing it (homer, maybe?) and just missing it (foul straight back), the result would have been a nice high pop fly. Hit it perfectly, it's a homer. Miss by a lot, it's a strike (but not the bowling kind that makes you happy). Miss by a little less, it's an out. Your degree of success does not reflect the precision of a player's execution.

Obviously the same breaks work for or against pitchers, too. Every now and then you'll see a batter take a fastball for a called third strike right down the middle, a pitch that was much more hittable than he expected. Everyone knows the pitcher got lucky, but no one curses him for his poor execution; we're happy with the results. Cue the announcer, "He found a way to work out of it."

The other factor is timing. Here's the bowling scenario: A good bowler begins the game with 3 consecutive strikes, a feat worth 60 pins plus twice the pinfall on the next ball and the pins knocked down by the ball after that. If the next two balls are also strikes, the total in the third frame would be 90 pins. Me? I bowl three strikes in the 10th frame, and I'm totally stoked. That feat nets me 30 pins. Same execution as the good bowler (for those three throws). One half, or possibly one third of the score. That's bad timing.

It's painful to revisit how this plays out for the Cubs. Wednesday against the Nats, the Cubs had 9 hits, drew 4 walks, and benefited from 1 Washington error. Cub pitchers yielded 4 hits, one walk, and no errors. Cubs lose 3-2, but who had the better game? Who exhibited superior talent? You could argue that the Nationals did, since two of the Washington hits were homers. But still, the Cubs did enough things right to score a lot more runs; they just did them at the wrong time.

I know this isn't all a matter of luck. Just like better bowlers will come through more consistently, better baseball players will post superior results because of their consistently superior execution, although they'll be rewarded for plenty of their screw-ups along the way. It's part of what makes baseball so fun to watch: it's unpredictable. Not only will inferior players succeed and bad teams win rather often, but sometimes it will be their mediocrity that causes the wins.

So why am I saying all this? Because it's hard to evaluate how well the Cubs are playing. They play well and lose. They play badly and win. There are stats that help tell the story a bit better, but I don't even want to talk about them right now. I just want to acknowledge that . . . well, that I'm not a good bowler. I'm not a good judge of baseball talent (or choosing baseball teams to follow, for that matter). Sometimes the best I can do is just enjoy it and try to learn from people who are better than I am.