These two episodes were the first where the show turned particularly newsy. That was, perhaps, inevitable, as they were recorded in the run-up to the 2012 trade deadline.

 

Episode 5: Foghorn

The Style: Ben notes that a listener asked, with tongue in cheek but not wholly in jest, whether Sam was living from his car. The Honda Fit grows into a character in the show, for a while. This is short, minimalist banter, but in the early going, it’s what we get.

The Substance: Two significant trades had taken place the day of this recording, and that gives them a pretty clear path to their two topics. Sam goes first. His topic: Ichiro being dealt to the Yankees. They talk a bit about the way the deal landed with them: how it really clarified, for Sam, how long Ichiro had been playing for losing teams; why they each enjoy Ichiro in such a peculiar way; and, perhaps most importantly, what made the trade so much more headline-grabbing than the other, much more impactful trade made the same day. Despite the Tigers having landed Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez (a huge move toward the AL Central title), Ichiro elicited a much greater response. They muse on what made it so, other than the obvious factors—namely, the prominence of his new team, and the name-recognition he enjoys. Specifically, Ben notes that so many trade rumors leak out in drips and drabs that a true surprise, like that one, stands out.

Ben’s essential query on the Tigers’ dual addition is whether it will seal up the division race for them. Sam notes that, while they do now look exceptional on paper, and far outstrip their competitors, that was just what everyone thought before the season, too, but the team had failed to run off with anything. Further, Sam asks whether Ben could even put a finger on the culprit for Detroit’s struggles. Ben offers up the fairly glaring holes in their roster—no team was ever built from the top down the way these Tigers were, as we know. The Tigers had no decent second baseman, and the back half of their rotation was a mess. Those aren’t the only reasons that Detroit failed to run out in front of a poor division, but they are the best ones on which the co-hosts can settle. They agree that the Tigers are the clear favorites going forward.

Ben finishes the episode with a quaint little plea, in light of the transaction superstorm through which we have all just lived, in which he talks about hoping to avert the monstrous wave of transactions the previous day had brought.

 

The Supplement: First, Ichiro. There are two phenomena at work in making that trade feel so substantial, even at the expense of a much more genuinely important one:

  1. Surprise. As Ben noted, we live in the era of constant, bubbling, often erroneous rumors. It’s even truer now than it was then, but it was plenty true even at the time. When a trade violates that format, when there is no rumor to act like an alcohol swab before a shot is given, it jars us, but it also thrills us. Those deals feel extra significant. They must matter a lot, because they must have come together quickly, because otherwise, surely we would have heard about them in advance. Obviously, some of those conclusions are false, or at least can be false. Still, the suddenness of players changing places without notice elevates and intensifies the enjoyment of the moment. We all crave a sense of community, and ideally, a single moment of real, shared revelation, and a trade that falls from the sky gives that feeling in a more satisfying way than one that comes out slowly, over 16 hours.
  2. Old former All-Stars make for interesting trades. It’s not that we, the wiser set of baseball fans, truly expect a former great to be dealt for what they used to be worth, but that there remains a tickle of anchoring bias in the backs of our minds. There’s an unavoidable sense of strangeness to seeing Ichiro traded for Danny Farquhar and D.J. Mitchell, just as there’s a strangeness to seeing Greg Maddux traded for Cesar Izturis. It’s a reminder that, as Sam would point out several hundred episodes hereafter, every second you live, you’re older and closer to death than the second before. It’s not a completely pleasant idea, but it grabs you.

The 2012 Tigers and their slow start are not the mystery they could only have seemed to be at the time. With hindsight, it’s easy to see how things began so roughly for Detroit, and how they ended so well, and just what the Tigers had to do with each. Consider this table:

2012 Detroit Tigers

Split AL Central Opponents

All Others

1st Half

26 G (12-14)

55 G (27-28)

2nd Half 46 G (36-10)

35 G (13-22)

 

For these purposes, I’ve split their season truly in half. This isn’t before and after the All-Star break; it’s just the first 81 games, then the other 81. As you see, the Tigers beat up on divisional opponents down the stretch. They were an awful 40-50 against all teams other than their four divisional foes, in 2012. Since their early schedule was stacked with non-divisional opponents, they struggled. Once they were able to sink their teeth into clearly inferior teams like the Royals and Twins, they got the separation everyone had hoped they would get from the start. The Tigers weren’t underperforming in the early going; they were overrated. They occupied a fortuitous limbo, better than the teams who shared their division but worse than much of the rest of the American League.

As for Ben’s discussion of the torn feeling shared by those who follow the game closely but must write up each move that happens, I get it. It’s frustrating not to be able to get all the ideas and notes with which you come up on a given transaction out there, where they can start a fun conversation. A move per day all winter would permit a higher level of baseball analysis than the flood of deals that took place this week. In a very real, non-analytical sense, though, the flood is way more fun. Twitter is more fun in the middle of a flood of moves. Watching ‘Baseball Tonight’ or MLB Network is more fun. The offseason becomes an event when things get flowing that way, and that’s great fun. Pushing the NFL into SportsCenter’s second block is no longer possible, but forcing it to wait its turn every now and then is worth it, in my book. Sports are still about interactions, community, people, and the more moves there are to discuss, the more people jump into the conversation.

 

Episode 6: Doorbell

The Style: Ben is just back from a Wilco concert in this episode, and seems more chipper than in previous episodes. Sam seems to sense it, and the two really get a little repartee going. It’s remarkable, really, how quickly their chemistry emerges, and how quickly Ben goes from sounding wooden and unsure to an enthusiastic host. His vocal tone is still a bit wonky, but a week into the show, he’s become a better host already. These are, largely, impressionistic observations. The words I’ve typed about their banter in this episode probably outnumber the words they devoted thereto.

The Substance: Ben delves into “the Dempster Debacle,” in which the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves had come to an agreement to trade Ryan Dempster for Randall Delgado, only to have the move nixed when Dempster found out before the team got a chance to inform him. It’s an entry point to a conversation about why teams ever leak information to reporters, and whether we ought to expect this gaffe to change the way they do so. Sam points out that there’s really no reason teams should ever tell anyone about a deal that is not yet done, so he can’t easily see why they would suddenly stop. They weigh the value of putting public opinion on one’s side during trade negotiations, or having a sense of that opinion before making a final commitment. They’re unable to really arrive at an answer, though. The best they can do is to wonder whether it’s all part of a surreptitious information exchange, which I don’t really buy, but which is a possible, partial answer.

Sam’s topic begins with a factoid about the Phillies. He points out that, since Cy Young did so in 1906, no one has struck out at least five times as many batters as they have walked, and still posted a worse than average ERA. However, Philadelphia seems almost certain to change that, Sam says, because Joe Blanton and Cliff Lee are easily matching Young’s dubious feat. He lists several other Phillies, in fact, for whom the ERA does not accord with the expected figure, given their respective strikeout-to-walk ratios. He brings it up to question whether the problem is not so much on the mound as behind the plate, or in the dugout. Sam’s theory is that either coaches or catcher Carlos Ruiz might be inviting too many pitches down the middle, too few risks taken on the edges of the zone in tough counts. He reports that the Phillies lead the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio, but are in the lower half of the league in ERA+. Ben notes that the Phillies’ defense is one contributing factor there. Sam, though, continues to wonder whether game-calling is hurting the Phillies, from Ruiz wanting to avoid walking people but calling for pitches batters can crush, to some misunderstanding of how to pitch in accordance with defensive shifts. The pair leave the question open; Sam never really intended to answer it. It’s just something he puts up for consideration.

The Supplement: My position on baseball’s rumor culture is well-documented. I won’t belabor my point here. Suffice it to say that I don’t see why we engage in positive, rather than normative, forward-facing baseball talk, and that any team that costs themselves anything by gabbing to a reporter before finishing a transaction deserves what it gets. The most interesting part about the nixed Dempster deal is that the Cubs might have done better on their second try, when they got Kyle Hendricks and Christian Villanueva. Hendricks had a very strong rookie showing as a starter in 2014, though in only a partial season, and Villanueva is a young third baseman, with an elite glove, for whom the Cubs will find a trade fit quite soon. It might be that neither player amounts to much, but since Delgado has delivered only frustration during his starting turns and now seems permanently bullpen-bound, neither player needs to do so in order for Chicago to be better off. Delgado, of course, was one of the two cornerstones of a Justin Upton trade several months after this non-transaction. The Diamondbacks, who have traded Martin Prado and designated Zeke Spruill for assignment already, probably wish a Dempster-to-Braves deal had gotten done, so they could have landed a better pitcher than Delgado.

As for Sam’s Phillies topic, this is now the list of qualifying starters who had five-to-one or better strikeout-to-walk ratios in seasons where they failed to post an average ERA:

Rk Player SO/W ERA+ Year Age Tm Lg IP ERA FIP BF BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1 Cy Young 5.60 86 1906 39 BOS AL 287.2 3.19 1.87 1126
2 Brandon McCarthy 5.30 94 2014 30 TOT ML 200.0 4.05 3.55 836 .280 .310 .436 .746 110
3 Bartolo Colon 5.03 85 2014 41 NYM NL 202.1 4.09 3.57 846 .273 .302 .414 .716 110
4 Joe Blanton 4.88 84 2012 31 TOT NL 191.0 4.71 3.91 806 .273 .306 .453 .759 108
5 Dan Haren 4.87 82 2013 32 WSN NL 169.2 4.67 4.09 717 .268 .306 .454 .760 110
6 Ricky Nolasco 4.43 85 2009 26 FLA NL 185.0 5.06 3.35 785 .259 .301 .433 .734 94
7 Jimmy Key 4.37 95 1989 28 TOR AL 216.0 3.88 3.17 886 .270 .292 .415 .707 101
8 Josh Tomlin 4.24 93 2011 26 CLE AL 165.1 4.25 4.27 662 .248 .274 .438 .712 97
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/12/2014.

Something that hadn’t happened in over a century suddenly happened twice this season. Of course, it wasn’t really sudden. Good strikeout-to-walk ratios paired with poor ERAs are now quite common. I imagine Sam was onto something when he suggested that the catchers could be part of the issue, but it’s far from the whole story. Not only are league-wide strikeout rates at an absolutely historic zenith, but walk rates are lower than they have been since 1968. Since 1968!

Are strikeouts and walks still the things that set pitchers apart? In my opinion, they’re much less foolproof than they used to be. A pitcher still must miss bats, but the value of a pitcher who can do that with fringe command has gone way up. Umpires call a more generous strike zone. Batters chase pitches outside the zone more than they once did. As position players do, pitchers face a confluence of historic extremes that has changed the shape of the game itself. I think it will take a longer look and a deeper dive than I can give it right now, but I strongly suspect that the FIP elements are losing their footing as they try to hold up all of the Internet’s pitcher evaluations.

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