The run-up to the trade deadline brings the guys to life. In these two shows, Effectively Wild turns its first corner, of many.
Episode 9: Homer and Marge
It’s Monday, and Ben is back after his one-show absence.
The Style: This is the first show with what loyal listeners would recognize as trademark Effectively Wild banter. When Ben says, “You survived without me; you flourished without me,” Sam replies, “You survived without me. I mean, you didn’t make a podcast, but you’re still alive.” That touches off a whole thing about why Ben missed Friday’s show.
It turns out Ben was somewhere in the Canadian wilderness Thursday, and found his Internet connection wasn’t up to the task of recording. They tried, but it didn’t work. More entertainingly, though, Ben recounts the small prop plane (just him and the pilot) he took to that location, and they reminisce a little about Hatchet, a book most people who graduated the sixth grade ought to remember. Ben calls it “one of those 1980s Newberry Award-winning books that kids read, and develop a lifelong fear of flying.” Sam calls it, “maybe the best of those books. It’s either that, or Island of the Blue Dolphin.” I won’t argue with either of those points, except to say that Island of the Blue Dolphin was, for me, a distinctly worse book. I wouldn’t put it in league with Hatchet.
The Substance: Sam’s topic is Matt Moore facing Mike Trout. Ben’s is the NL West.
They start with the latter. Essentially, Ben’s angle is just to present the Dodgers, Giants and Diamondbacks for consideration, and try to wrestle some insight out of it. He opens with the confession that the division is his blind spot, the one place where he never seems to know what’s going on and never gets his predictions right.
As of the end of play on July 29, the Giants and Dodgers were tied for first place (thanks to a Dodgers sweep), and the Diamondbacks were 4.5 games back, but had the best Pythagorean expectation in the division—and, as Ben notes, led BP’s adjusted standings.
Sam votes for the Giants, saying he’s felt they were the best team in that division from the start, and that he never truly bought the Dodgers (who were propped up by an early-season hot streak but seemed somewhat lucky to be where they were). He dismisses the Diamondbacks, whom he recalls not having found a particularly strong team even as they stormed toward the division title in 2011.
Ben is a bit more cautious with Los Angeles, calling them “a little more real” than they appeared early in the season. Having already added Hanley Ramirez and with Matt Kemp apparently healthy again, they are no longer trotting out a lineup in which Sam recalls “Bobby Abreu was the only guy I recognized.” Ambivalently, when Sam presses, Ben picks the Giants, too.
Sam has done a bit of research, and is fairly confident that Matt Moore and Mike Trout had never faced each other prior to July 28, 2012, at any level. (My retrospective research confirms it.) He raises the topic because it finally did happen, that day, and (as Ben interjects), Sam “love[s] when Matt Moore faces people.”
They delve into what happened (Trout went 0-for-4, including three trips against Moore, with a strikeout, a pop-up to right field and a grounder to third base (he reached on an error). Sam notes that it’s the first time Trout has failed to reach base during July, which is true, if one doesn’t count the error as reaching base. Ben and Sam delve into the matchup between the two, which is so sexy principally because Trout and Moore were two of the big three prospects who divided the number-one spot on the three major prospect lists equally prior to the season. Right off the bat, Ben notes that it surprised him to see Moore placed on the level of Trout and Bryce Harper, simply because of the usual valuation gap between hitting and pitching prospects. They agree that, four months into the season, Moore has clearly fallen behind the other two, and that the remaining question is merely which of Trout and Harper to choose. As for this particular matchup, Sam notes that most teams have settled into a rhythm of attacking Trout with fastballs, especially up and in, and that while it isn’t working, per se, it’s working better than other things have. Moore gets the best of Trout by blending his slider with his fastball, seeking in particular to bury that slider inside on him. They agree, though, that Moore’s success might well be nothing more than chance, or could be because of his very good fastball and command. They don’t offer any particular stance on how teams ought to approach Trout.
The Supplement: I’m happy to report, as you already well know, that both co-hosts got their prediction right when it came to the NL West. The Giants did win, even in spite of all the changes the Dodgers would make between the recording of this episode and the end of the season. Sam was right, too, about the Diamondbacks, who kept a solid relationship between runs scored and allowed but finished a flat 81-81, essentially non-competitive.
As for Trout and Moore, they squared off again in 2013. That time, Trout won, with a walk and a single in three plate appearances. Of course, Trout had a great many better games than that during 2013, but it’s still solid. While Trout has been busy winning one MVP and deserving two others, of course, Moore has made some progress toward the ace-level ceiling that led so many to esteem him so highly. He’s maintained strong strikeout rates and finished ninth in Cy Young balloting in the AL in 2013.
Even before Moore went down and had Tommy John surgery this April, though, the gulf between him and Trout (and even Harper, whom Trout has left in his dust by now) had grown enormous, even insurmountable. There has never been a more valuable, instructive case study in contrasting pitching prospects and hitting prospects.
I loved Kevin Goldstein’s work for BP, but his placement of Moore above Trout and Harper before 2012 is one of the sillier, uglier dark marks on the brand. The very company whose co-founder coined TINSTAAPP got caught with its pants down there. Hitting prospects with elite ceilings should be held completely distinct from pitching prospects with the same ceiling. There should almost be two lists. I don’t really think there should technically be two lists, but pitchers should be so subjugated to hitters as to make it feel like there are.
While there’s art and mystique and a great deal of rich fodder for analysis with pitchers, it’s important to remember that hitters—boring old hitters, who don’t have velocity maps or usage charts or release point grids to study, and whose platoon splits seem more or less intrinsic, not a function of an ever-shifting skill set, and who don’t have 90-mile-per-hour sliders that can turn into very popular .gifs—are the most valuable, durable asset in baseball. I might be a curmudgeon, but on this point, I’m also relentlessly (infuriantingly, I’m sure—sincerely, I’m sorry) right.
Anyway, Moore has a long road ahead to become anything like a stud starting pitcher again. His control was poor in his first two full seasons, and now he’ll have to improve it by leaps and bounds even as he works around a serious elbow injury, and even as his stuff inevitably goes downhill. Trout, by the way, became the king of not getting shut out after Moore got him. During the 2013 season, Trout reached in all but 10 of his games played. Since the start of 2012, he’s only failed to reach in 47 games (in which he had three or more tries). To put that into perspective, Jackie Bradley and Jonathan Schoop are among those with 48 such games against them, and if they’d come up four more times between them, Trout would still have had twice as many plate appearances during those three seasons as they have, combined.
Episode 10: Splash
It’s the day of the trade deadline, which I suspect led Ben to choose this sound effect. (Who’s going to make a SPLASH? Get it?) Maybe that’s a cruel underestimation of Ben’s humor. I dunno.
The Style: There’s no terribly funny banter, but there’s definitely a hook here. This is a Sam episode, and maybe my favorite one in the Effectively Wild canon.
You know how any sitcom has certain episodes that revolve around one or two characters, or maybe that doesn’t, but ends up being remembered only for their roles, anyway? Two-man podcasts aren’t often like that. Obviously, if a show like that is really heavy on one person, it’s going to sound a lot like a monologue, and that’s not much fun. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Ben makes good contributions to Episode 10, and has a perfectly salient point to make about a trade that had happened on Monday. He just can’t compete with the momentary insanity of Sam.
The thing about Sam, of course, is that he’s unusually inscrutable. He’s easygoing, funny and unfailingly kind, but you don’t get all of Sam very often. Most of Baseball Twitter talks pretty freely about their families, and about their personal (even political) opinions. Sam hardly ever does so. We saw it right in Episode 1, when he deftly sidestepped a chance to let us into his personal life. I envy the way he does it. He always looks cool. He doesn’t lack personality or fail to connect; he just never volunteers himself, never overreaches. It’s as true of his commentary about baseball as it is about his comedy. He’s Joe Mauer out there, not only letting more pitches go by than anyone else, but looking to strike the ball cleanly to left field when he does finally uncoil. It’s graceful, man.
Then, every now and then, Mauer turns on a ball. I was at a game in May, when the Twins were hosting the Rangers, and Mauer came up with a runner on second and two outs. On the first pitch (Mauer never swings at the first pitch!), he opened his hip and absolutely thrashed a ball, a line drive into the right-field corner (right field!) to score the tying run. It was the most delightful, arresting thing. I remember it as clearly as any moment of this baseball season. This play happened in the third inning. It’s awesome when Mauer turns on one.
Of course, that’s not his natural swing, and more often than not, when he does try to pull the ball, he doesn’t succeed. I was at an Applebee’s four days after that game, watching Mauer play at Yankee Stadium, and I could see him setting a pitcher up to try and yank one into the right-field seats. He got the pitch he was looking for, that hip flew open again, his front heel dug in as his toes flew upward… and he missed the ball by three feet. Such is life. Weirdly, it was still beautiful. It was just not successful. That’s what you’re about to read, only with Sam Miller.
The Substance: Ben’s topic is untouchable prospects. On Monday, the Braves traded Arodys Vizcaino to the Cubs for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson. A year earlier, Ben notes, Braves GM Frank Wren had marked not only Vizcaino, but also Randall Delgado, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran as untouchable in any trade. Yet, Atlanta tried to trade Randall Delgado for Ryan Dempster a week ahead of the deadline, then dealt Vizcaino for the milquetoast Maholm. “Serviceable, I guess, is the adjective you might use for Paul Maholm,” Ben says.
He wonders whether labeling prospects as untouchable is a bad idea, since it’s clearly so possible for their value to evaporate or soften in a short period. Sam counters with the idea that ‘untouchable’ doesn’t truly mean untouchable, but merely that you’re keenly aware of the fact that you value a player more highly than other teams do. It’s a notion related to the winner’s curse: you paid more for the player or drafted them more highly in the first place, so it’s likely that you place the highest value on the player of any team out there.
Sam also mentions, though, that he believes familiarity can breed an irrational attachment to certain prospects. That thought leads him, in time, to this: “The negative correlation between untouchable players and intelligence in a front office is pretty strong. Boy, did I just bungle that!” You can see what he’s saying, though. Smart executives are not so confident in their own evaluation of an uncertain commodity as to insist that they’re right, and draw some kind of imperturbable circle around that player. You can also see, from that flood of consciousness that mangled a perfectly good sentence into something scarcely recognizable, that Sam is trying to pull this one. And he’s about to let his hip fly open.
Sam’s topic is the Orioles. They’re a mere couple of games out of the playoffs at the deadline, but BP’s playoff odds give them only a three-percent chance of reaching them—a lower figure than they had when the season began. Sam’s central questions are: Should the team be buyers or sellers? And if the former, how aggressively should they buy?
Sensibly, Ben says that Baltimore has to at least masquerade as a buyer, because they’re too close to the playoffs to be perceived to be giving up. He refers to this article by former Dodgers GM Dan Evans, in which he confides that teams sometimes have to keep up appearances even if they know they’re not going anywhere, because there are two months of tickets and caps and jerseys and hot dogs and beers to sell.
Sam’s turn. “I am going to just quickly make the case that the Orioles should go all-in, completely mortgage the future, do whatever it takes to get all the game-changers they can get,” he says. He confesses that the idea is a bit off the cuff, but makes the following claims:
- The Orioles are unlikely to make the playoffs any time in the next five years.
- It might well be that they won’t make the playoffs any time before Manny Machado hits free agency
- Though BP gives them a three-percent chance to reach the playoffs from here, Sam doesn’t totally buy that number. He acknowledges that he doesn’t have a strong position, there, but believes the real number is closer to 15 percent. “And I would probably take a bet that said that they are less than 15-percent likely to make the playoffs in any of the next five seasons. So I say, do it.”
He talks about the alternatives to trading Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy as part of this plan, but ultimately, admits that there aren’t good ones.
Ben pushes back, calling Sam’s diagnosis of the Orioles’ situation “a bleak outlook.” “It’s not a bleak outlook! It’s an optimistic outlook. It’s an outlook that says that we’re here right now, we’re living life, and the girl is in front of you, so just go ask her out,” Sam replies. He equivocates, but doesn’t back off the position. Ben muses that the team’s rebuild has been rather clumsy; Sam agrees. In a matter of 15 seconds, the two compare Baltimore to the Blue Jays, Padres and Royals, and concur that the Orioles have a very dim future compared to those teams.
“I don’t know, I just don’t think the Orioles have a [positive] long-term outlook that they’re sacrificing,” Sam concludes. They leave it there.
The Supplement: Obviously, in one way, time has made Sam’s take look painfully off-target. The Orioles have already returned to the playoffs, with a better record than they had when they eventually made the playoffs in 2012, and their run differential has improved substantially each season. In another way, though, maybe it’s borne him out: Neither Manny Machado nor Dylan Bundy was remotely instrumental to the dominant 2014 version of the team, and we’ll never know what they could have gotten for Bundy, instead of slogging through his rehab from Tommy John surgery. Again I say, TINSTAAPP, and by now, it should be clear that I’m not cherry-picking. There are just that many pitching prospects who, one way or another, go sour.
What didn’t Sam see coming? Well, for one thing, the downfall of the Yankees, and the peculiar inconsistency of the Red Sox. The Orioles didn’t ascend to those teams’ level, so much as those teams came down to theirs. The resource advantage remains, but neither of the divisions former superpowers have thus far proven they can leverage that in a way that keeps them ahead of the field. The Rays, too, sagged downward, and the Blue Jays’ rebuild (the one Ben and Sam exalt as a superior alternative to Baltimore’s) has gone horrendously.
He also underestimated the value of the core the team had, though to what extent he could have seen it at the time, I’m not sure. Chris Davis had come over at the 2011 trade deadline. At the time of this conversation, he was a 26-year-old being rotated through four positions (first base, both corner outfield spots and DH) to keep his league-average (.771 OPS, heavy on power) bat in the lineup. From that point through the end of the season, Davis hit .282/.352/.569 and put 16 balls on the other sides of outfield fences, in two months’ work. That set up his monster 2013 campaign. Should Sam have foreseen Davis’s breakout? I don’t think so.
In the same trade, of course, the Orioles had acquired Tommy Hunter. Sam saw a starter with uninspiring stuff and an ERA pushing 6.00. Should he have squinted hard enough to see a September in which Hunter faced 51 batters in relief, struck out 12, walked two, got 38 outs and allowed only one run? If he had, he would have raised more eyebrows in real time than he has here in hindsight.
J.J. Hardy had an 81 OPS+ in 2012, and turned 30 in August of that year. To Hardy’s credit, he’s been considerably better in each of the last two seasons than he was that year. Neither Sam nor anyone else could have foreseen that, though. Overall, the Orioles had sub-.700 OPSes in the months of June and July. They’d been quite good in April and May, and would be even better in August and September, but Sam was analyzing them at the nadir of their season, that way.
I kind of think Sam was right, in the end. The team did make the playoffs in 2012, but it was via the Wild Card Game, which is only okay with Orioles fans because they won that contest and got to go play the Yankees. Manny Machado contributed to that, but it was the confluence of hot streaks by Davis, Mark Reynolds and Nick Markakis that got them there, not Machado. Bundy pitched in mop-up duty for them in 2012, twice, and hasn’t been close to the big leagues since. Trading both players on July 31, 2014 would have netted them something stunning.
Felix Hernandez, at that time, was under team control for two more seasons. Would the Mariners have made the Erik Bedard mistake a second time? I’m not sure it could have been ruled out. Cliff Lee. David Wright. Adrian Gonzalez. If it sounds like I’m blithely listing the best players on teams who were out of contention, there’s a good reason. Bundy and Machado had almost limitless buying power at the moment we’re talking about. On August 1, Kevin Goldstein would tab them as the third- and fifth-best prospects in baseball, so imagine the Cubs going onto the market right now and offering up Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. I’m not sure there’s a player they couldn’t acquire.
Now, Machado and Bundy are dented cans in the soup aisle. The one who relies on exceptional defensive range for much of his value has blown out both knees. The one who depends on his right arm has torn the most important ligament therein. Both have tremendous value yet, at least for now, but both need to have healthy 2015 seasons in order for things not to go south. Baltimore could have been divested of this risk, and be basking in an All-Star third baseman who grew up a four-hour drive from Baltimore. They would, in all likelihood, have done as well or better in the meantime.
To address Ben’s side of the podcast quickly: Arodys Vizcaino threw five low-leverage innings for the Cubs before he was traded again, in November 2014. Randall Delgado was dealt for real over the winter of 2012-13. He went to the Arizona Diamondbacks, failed as a starter, moved to the bullpen in 2014 and appears to have a future as a right-handed one-inning arm. TINSTAAPP, again.
Sam might not have been as crazy as it seemed on first blush, but the overall tone of this episode is what makes it a classic. Something about Sam, that bit that would rather say nothing than the wrong thing, shut off, and look, I’m still getting mileage out of it two and a half years later. It’s a fun thing.Next post: What Bat Speed Really Does for Hitters
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