Welcome to EW Rewind. This is going to be a regular feature here. Our intention is to go back through the full catalogue of old episodes of Effectively Wild, and recap them for you. We’ll run through the episode a little bit, highlight any of the show’s meta elements that hit a high note or appear for the first time in a given episode, and (there will be some content here) refresh the topic or topics to some extent. As one of the founding fathers of this site, which is (if you’ve found this page without already knowing it) an outgrowth of Effectively Wild itself, I’m leading off. Here are the first two episodes of the best active baseball podcast, recapped and summarized for your enjoyment. Click the headers to visit the Baseball Prospectus page where each episode was first published, and give them a listen.

Episode One: Effectively Wild: The Daily Baseball Prospectus Podcast

Most early episodes were titled with the random sound effect Ben (I’m assuming here; I hope I haven’t made an ass of myself) used as the opening, a sort of theme song substitute that has remained a signature—though we now mostly hear musical samples or off-air banter, rather than the audio equivalent of Clip Art.

Anyway, this episode is eponymous, like a first album, so it’s up to me to tell you that it opens with a gong. It’s clear, I think, that Ben wasn’t sure there would be a second episode, or that it would be any good, so he went the self-deprecating route from the first trickle of noise. He opens, in a voice he’s traded in for a much livelier one since, “Welcome to the first episode of what we hope will be more than one…” He was in managing-expectations mode from the get-go.

Sam seems positively sunny by contrast. He posits that the show’s early format—10-minute episodes, one topic, no prep time—will revolutionize the genre. (He’s being tongue-in-cheek, but seems genuinely confident.) The chemistry between them is evident, but uneven, as one would expect.

I won’t drag this out further. This is just the set-up. I promise that most episode recaps will have shorter introductions than this.

Banter: General outline of show is laid out. Sam is in the Honda Fit, and declines to tell us why. (As far as I can tell, by the way, that’s never explained, although it seems self-explanatory. I guess that’s the genius of it.) It’s Sam’s birthday in this episode, by the way.

Inside jokes introduced: Sam groaning about the length of the show. This first one runs 15 minutes, mostly thanks to the introductory segment, but Sam is aggrieved not to have met his word count, so to speak. He reminds Ben of their recording time at least twice during the episode.

Topics Proposed: Ah, the meaty stuff. Ben proposes a discussion of Aroldis Chapman, who is on a strikeout binge. Sam’s idea is to weigh the Orioles’ options, as they sit on the fringe of the playoff picture but have a negative run differential, running up to the trade deadline.

Topic(s) Discussed at Length: They settle on Chapman. Ben’s essential query goes something like: What do we make of Chapman’s dominance? Can we really enjoy it, in light of the controversy and hand-wringing over moving him to the bullpen instead of letting him start? Is his dominance in short outings to be discounted heavily, because he hasn’t been allowed to even attempt longer outings?

Together, the co-hosts muse about what they would have expected from Chapman as a starter. Ben recalls having been pessimistic about the idea in the 2012 pre-season discussions, but returns to the question of whether any closer can have so much value as to wash out the value they could deliver in the rotation. Sam (half-jokingly) talks about his reticence to trust Dusty Baker with managing Chapman’s workload as a starter. They delve a bit into just how much Chapman is stretching the limits of relief dominance, and whether, for instance, Justin Verlander could far outdo him as a reliever. Ultimately, they leave the question open—EW is a discussion, more than a debate, and final answers are rare, which is a feature, not a bug.

This is the stretch of games that led Ben to propose the topic:

32Jun 26CIN11.00001304
33Jul 2CIN51.01000204
34Jul 7CIN41.00000303
35Jul 8CIN01.00000203
36Jul 13CIN41.01000304
37Jul 14CIN01.00001204
38Jul 15CIN01.00000303
39Jul 17CIN10.10000101
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/7/2014.
Chapman had also held his opponents without an earned run for his first 24 appearances of the 2012 season, so his ERA then stood at 1.69, and he had struck out 80 of 163 opposing batters. From that point through the end of the year, his ERA actually fell, to 1.51, although his strikeout rate slid, too. Since then, Chapman has remained the Reds’ closer, and although his ERA has been higher than the 2012 figure in each year, he finally cracked a 50-percent strikeout rate in 2014, fanning 106 of 202 opponents faced. His FIP this season was 0.89. In other words, he’s gotten better. He’s actually, materially improved since then. He was the most interesting player in baseball in 2014, if your interests run in a certain direction.
Has Chapman snapped the bonds of human limitation, defied gravity and learned to fly? Not really. There have even come to be a few relievers who are more or less his peers. He’s not transcending the art form, or if he is, he’s doing so right alongside a half-dozen other guys. If Ben’s position is that Chapman could justify his club’s decision not to start him only by becoming a better reliever than any other, ever, then the choice has been proven foolish.
On the other hand, you’ve heard the chatter. Bullpens are the talk of baseball. Specifically, relief pitchers are more famous, more valuable and more dominant than ever. Teams keep shifting great pitchers into the bullpen, and offense keeps sagging. The league’s strikeout rate keeps rising, driven mostly by pitchers like Chapman, against whom batters are hopeless. Sam says something that encapsulates my thoughts on the matter, at this point: “I don’t think [Chapman] could do anything as a starter that would sear itself into my memory the way what he’s doing has seared itself into my memory.” That’s the state of the debate, in one sentence.
Trivia: This will not be a permanent part of the recaps, but: Ben and Sam discuss, in this first episode, how meeting in person for the first time helped compel them to finally start the podcast. I reached out to Sam to ask. They haven’t seen each other in person since. Maybe next time they do, another gong will sound, and the show will simply stop. I’m not rooting for that. Just thinking out loud.
A relieved Ben and Sam return for the second episode, with a minimum of banter this time. Banter as we know it, now, is still many months away.
Topics Proposed: Sam’s idea was to discuss Brad Penny, who had recently made it back to the Majors. It’s not totally clear where that conversation would have gone, though it is totally clear that Sam has an unusual affinity for Brad Penny. Ben suggests Trevor Bauer, though, and wins the day.
Topic(s) Discussed at Length: Bauer had just been demoted to Triple-A after a brief, frustrating stint with the Diamondbacks, which is the occasion for the conversation. To set this up, know that Bauer posted a 6.06 ERA in his four games with Arizona that summer, and was sent down after walking 13 and fanning 17 of the 77 batters he faced.
Ben points out that Bauer’s opponents had a very low swing rate during the small sample of work, which may have contributed to his apparent control issues. On the other hand, as both acknowledge, Bauer had high walk rates in the minor leagues as well, and as Sam notes, it’s just about impossible for a pitching prospect to arrive in MLB and not see his walk rate rise, especially if it was already bloated. Still, they agree that Bauer clearly had approach issues he may be able to solve through adjustment, as batters had a .500 OBP if they got ahead of Bauer 1-0.
They spend a bit of time wrestling with what such a small but frustrating taste of such a highly-touted prospect could mean. Sam, again, sounds a poignant note:
When a hyped [hitter] comes up, you want to see him immediately, because it’s going to be growth from that point on. You’re going to see him struggle, and it’s going to put all of his later success in perspective. But with pitchers, it’s the opposite. You almost want to see them immediately, because their stuff is never going to be better than it is right now.
Sam then talks about the adjustments Bauer still might make, and how he could improve as a pitcher, but notes that it is disappointing, at least, that Bauer wasn’t able to harness his stuff at its best the way prospect hounds might have hoped.
That’s correct, of course. Any pitcher who struggles is a sadder case than a position player who does so, because the danger is always there. The hurler might not be able to clear the last developmental hurdle separating him from success in the Majors. He might get hurt. He might simply never earn his team’s trust, or get shuffled into the bullpen, just because of numbers. Position players have more time to figure it out, and their pure talent peaks later. When Bauer showed up and didn’t deliver on his promise, something was lost, though we all generally assumed it wasn’t much.
Two-plus years later, I think the story has gotten sadder. Bauer got a little love for seeming to find his footing, at long last, in 2014, but he still posted a 4.18 ERA that works out to an 89 ERA+ (about 11 percent worse than average). In the second half, he struck out 73 and put 39 runners on base via either unintentional walks or hitting batters. The hope isn’t extinguished, but after that terrible showing in Arizona and an even worse one in Cleveland in 2013, the 2014 season wasn’t enough to wash away my concerns about him. Keep this in mind: the league-wide walk rate was lower in 2014 than in any year since 1968, and worse than any year since the 1920s, before that. The fact that Bauer walks so many batters despite that is discouraging. It might be that Ben and Sam somewhat underestimated what that first stint told us about Bauer.
Of course, they had just one stint to work with, but as I said, Bauer was just as bad the following year. In his first two seasons, he posted ERA+ figures of 69 and 73, in about 33 combined innings. To figure out just how far behind the 8-ball that put him, I ran a Baseball-Reference Play Index query to find players who:
  • had an ERA+ of 73 or worse
  • pitched at least 15 innings
  • started at least 80 percent of their games in the season or seasons that produced those numbers
  • and went on to become an All-Star, at any point in their career

Here are the only 10 guys to do it twice in their first five seasons (the experience limitation has no meaning, it just gets rid of rough age-38 seasons by guys who should have retired first):

1Ryan Vogelsong22003200425-26Ind. Seasons
2Jason Grilli22001200424-27Ind. Seasons
3Jason Bere21995199624-25Ind. Seasons
4Eddie Guardado21993199422-23Ind. Seasons
5Arthur Rhodes21991199321-23Ind. Seasons
6Andy Ashby21991199223-24Ind. Seasons
7Charles Nagy21990199323-26Ind. Seasons
8Jack Armstrong21988199123-26Ind. Seasons
9Al Leiter21987198921-23Ind. Seasons
10Tug McGraw21966196721-22Ind. Seasons
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/8/2014.

Yikes. By my count, four of the 10 who even managed it did so as relievers. It’s not a death sentence, but Trevor Bauer has an uphill climb from here to fulfilling, or even approximating, his potential. The next time Ben and Sam talk about a young starter who has a really rough first exposure to the league, take a long look, because that scuffling might be more predictive than you think.



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4 Responses to “EW Rewind: The First Two Episodes”

  1. Eric Garcia McKinley

    Wow. Ben sounds like he’s recovering from a serious bender in these early episodes.

  2. Stranded Expos Fan

    I started listening around maybe the 30th episode. I remember they were a lot less upbeat and more hesitant early on, but listening to episode 1, I realize that I somehow remembered it as worse than it actually was. Still, they improved a lot, and quickly.

    Sam, 45 seconds in-: “I-I-I f-feel we do have a long future ahead of us”. After 600+ episodes, that’s an accurate projection.

    My favorite moment is:
    – Should we explain why you’re in a car right now?
    – I don’t think so.



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