The Gypsy Guitarist and Other Stories

Thursday, September 08 2005 @ 08:30 AM EDT

Contributed by: Jordan

Well, that was a win for the Blue Jays. Not a very exciting win -- not the kind of game that you sit around years from now and say, "Hey, remember that 7-4 victory in Baltimore in September 2005? Man, that was classic." Now, if Orlando Hudson's injury turns out to be anything remotely serious, then yeah, we'll remember this one in a bad way. But otherwise, well, yawn, frankly. So what can we talk about this morning?

* What to make of Scott Downs? Tonight was his worst outing in several starts, and it wasn't even all that bad. He's having his best major-league season by far, and when you're looking for reasons to praise the hiring of Brad Arnsberg, Downs' performance should be high on the list. Can Downs be counted on as a regular rotation member next season? Despite his recent run of success, I don't think so. He may well have finally tapped into his potential -- he was once a highly touted prospect with the Cubs -- but that's the kind of development that you want to be a pleasant surprise, not a cornerstone of contention. Downs has earned a roster spot for 2006, but I would slot him back into his long-relief role next year, and consider him a proven insurance policy. If it turns out he can pitch effectively in the rotation if needed, all the better.

* It was nice to see our old friend Carlos Tosca there in the 7th inning, even if he was only briefly possessing the body of Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo. Subscribing to the Tony LaRussa school of playing every single percentage into the ground, Perlozzo used four different relievers in the top of the 7th frame, which worked so well the Blue Jays scored only four runs. It's pretty well established by now that if a manager uses multiple situational relievers in one inning, he's eventually going to find one that can't do the job. Tonight, Perlozzo found two (though I have to say that young Chris Ray throws some pretty wicked stuff up there). It's painful to watch a manager flip through his bullpen Rolodex like that, but at least it wasn't John Gibbons, whose pen management has been superb pretty much from from day one of the season.

* Speaking of relievers ... aside from a terrible July, Jason Frasor has been solid all season and is really coming into his own down the stretch. As Jamie Campbell noted last night, his confidence is growing and he's really been piling up the strikeouts lately. Frasor and Justin Speier are the two RH relievers whom I can see returning to the team next season. Vinnie Chulk has been a fine placeholder, but there are a lot of top-rank righty relievers poised to join the big-league club in 2006, and Chulk won't be able to match what a Brandon League, Shaun Marcum or Chad Gaudin can deliver. Even if Downs does return to the pen, he's not a situational lefty, so the Blue Jays will still need Scott Schoeneweis or a reasonable facisimile. Most importantly, there are at least three potential relievers who should be as good as or better than Miguel Batista in the closer's role next year. Right now, I don't really see El Artista in Toronto togs next season.

* In virtually every Miguel Batista appearance, by the way, you can usually count on the following phrase showing up in the MLB GameDay play-by-play: "Blocked Ball in Dirt."

* Interesting to see John Gibbons start his A lineup last night, even with a bunch of prospects on the bench who need some show-off time. I think Gibbons really wanted a win, for his team's morale as well as to send a little message to Baltimore that no, you're not actually better than we are, despite last season's standings. My strong sense is that Baltimore and Boston are going to be Toronto's main rivals in the AL East for the balance of this decade, and that the Blue Jays think so, too. The Jays have served notice on the BoSox by handling them pretty well all year, and while a 10-9 season series record is hardly a thumping, the Jays want to establish the same sort of attitude regarding the Orioles.

* John Maine, Daniel Cabrera, and Erik Bedard -- meet Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter and Kelvim Escobar. Or more pessimistically, Jerome Williams, Kurt Ainsworth and Jesse Foppert. Three very young starters in the same rotation is a pretty exciting development, but it's rare that all three pan out, and very rare that they'll do so for their original team. I've said this before, but I think the Orioles and Jays will both be hard after AJ Burnett this off-season, and if either team gets him, it'll have a marked advantage over the other for the next few seasons. If Hayden Penn pans out and the O's keep BJ Ryan around as their closer, this team could make some noise. A real manager and a single competent GM would be nice, however.

* Jamie Campbell, you're doing a great job out there this season, especially with a rotating band of colour commentators (my vote for your best colour man is Rance Mulliniks, by the way). But I cannot let a statement like "Rik Emmett is one of the best guitar players in the world" go by unchallenged. Aside altogether from the brand-name Mark Knopflers and Eric Claptons of the world, not to mention warhorses like Eddie Van Halen or Kirk Hammet, any greatest-guitarist discussions have to begin with Django Reinhart. And let's not bring Alex Lifeson into the discussion at all. There you go.


And now, a sampling of my usual semi-weekly puffery. I'm a little cranky these days, and the following essay might not be to everyone's tastes, so if you're just looking for some light-hearted baseball gab, you might want to skip to another thread. And if you don't feel like reading a social sciences lecture this morning, then you should definitely skip over to the Hall of Names. Bon? Allons-y.

I’ve been noticing an odd trend recently — and by recently I mean over the past few years and possibly longer, but more especially lately. Often you see it manifested right here, in comments posted at Batter’s Box, but the phenomenon is by no means limited to our little corner of the Net. You can find it on virtually any baseball Website, in numerous columns and articles by professional sportswriters, and indeed, pretty much right across the whole spectrum of published opinion on this continent, baseball-related and otherwise.

What I’m talking about is the moralization of criticism. In broad terms, it’s the tendency for those offering up an analysis of underperformance to assign moral values to the object (a person or an organization) of their criticism, even when no moral values are in play. It’s a heavily loaded phenomenon, with a lot of baggage most of us don’t even think we carry around with us. But it is there.

Here are two examples from the baseball context: “clutch hitters,” and “plate discipline and strike-zone command.”

“Clutch hitters.” We’ve heard a lot about this subject in 2005, most of it centered around whether or not various Blue Jay batters have succeeded often enough in driving in a runner in scoring position, especially with two out, especially in late-and-close situations.

On its surface, it’s entirely a statistical matter: some batters simply happen to produce better lines than others in these situations in any given year. Moreover, with some exceptions, most studies have shown that “clutch hitting” isn’t a repeatable skill: almost all batters’ production in these situations varies from year to year. This only make sense, because if you were able to consistently hit better in RISP situations, the obvious question is why you don’t hit that well in other situations, all the time. So while it’s not an entirely random event, it’s pretty close to one.

But the language we use in debating this issue reveals that there’s a lot more going on here than just BA/OBP/SLG numbers in small sample sizes. “Hitting in the clutch” clearly implies something about the fundamental reliability of the player in question. A “clutch” performance is one that is produced under pressure, with high stakes. Naturally enough, we tend to assign a greater value to those performances than to others, in life as in sports.

But our assessment of “clutch” also says a lot about our opinion of the player’s character — we often equate his performance with runners on base with his overall personal reliability. We tend to believe that a noticeable (or worse, consistent) inability to reach base in these situations is a “failure” — both of performance and of character. We think less of such players as athletes and as people. The disappointment and frustration we feel is consistent not so much with a missed scoring opportunity, but with a personal faith found lacking, a character flaw exposed, a buddy who let you down. Someone who doesn't come through when you need him the most is a “choker,” and there’s no worse label you can apply to an athlete — or to a person.

It is also, as demonstrated above, irrational and unfounded in fact. Yet reams of newsprint have been published and careers have been made legend over “clutch hitters.” Derek Jeter is a marvelous player whose offensive accomplishments will someday earn him a place in Cooperstown. But it’s his image and reputation as “Mr. Clutch,” someone who comes through when the need is greatest (especially in the playoffs), that is the foundation of his stature — even if the numbers don’t necessarily back that up.

Why does this happen? Because we like to think that good character equals good performance. We have always wanted our leaders and our celebrities to be wonderful people, and we’ve assiduously avoided knowing too much about what the private lives of our heroes are truly like. We want to believe that character, like steel, is forged in fire, and that a player who produces “in the clutch” has proven his personal worth, his reliability, our confidence in him.

It’s a psychological phantom play, but it’s one we all engage in from time to time. The only shame is that it leads to some men being unfairly lionized and others unfairly pilloried, and that it detracts from our ability (very necessary these days) to separate the acts from the person, the truth from the spin.

“Plate discipline and control issues.” You can probably see where I’m going with this one. Anyone interested in a sabrmetric approach to baseball analysis (or, to stretch back a little further, a Branch-Rickeyesque approach) knows that these two skills are widely praised among batters and pitchers, respectively. Hitters need the ability not to swing at pitches they can’t hit, and hurlers need to know where the pitches they deliver are going. Sounds simple, right?

Well, sort of, except for those words “discipline” and “control,” heavily weighted terms at the best of times. A hitter who has difficulty waiting for his pitch, and who ends up with a low BB/K ratio, is apparently “undisciplined.” A pitcher who’s all over the strike zone “can’t get his stuff under control,” and is accordingly “wild.”

Reading comments like these about players, you’d almost think you were reviewing a Parents’ Advisory Panel talking about “juvenile delinquents” in the 1950s. “These wild, undisciplined kids — how do we get them under control?” Yes, first it’s the Jitterbug, then it’s heavy petting, and before you know it, they’re hooked on crystal meth! The patronizing nature of these sentiments is remarkable only in the way they’ve passed into common parlance — we don’t give a second thought to describing professional athletes this way.

But there’s more than meets the eye here as well. One of the longest-standing racial stereotypes in baseball — besides “only white guys are scrappy hustlers” — is that Latin players have no strike-zone judgment. Inspired by Rafael Ramirez’s now-20-year-old quip “You cannot walk off the island,” a whole generation of baseball fans believes that Hispanic players swing at anything that comes their way — despite the presence of players like Bobby Abreu, David Ortiz and Albert Pujols on the list of the ten highest walk totals in the game.

What’s the implication? That Latinos are wild, impatient, and undisciplined — fitting in perfectly with their other stereotypes, about being party-loving, hot-tempered people insufficiently serious about settling down to work and improving themselves. And when the best Latin hitters, like Vlad Guerrero, can hit pitches off their shoe tops — well, that just shows you how much more these players are “natural athletes” who are so gifted, they can succeed despite their “impatience” and “lack of discipline.” For as long as there’s been sportswriting, “white” has meant plodding, steady and industrious, while “black” has meant naturally gifted, easy-going and undisciplined. Larry Bird? A brusque, hard-working country boy who made himself a Hall of Famer through rigorous practice. Magic Johnson? A supreme athlete who glided effortlessly through the air while showing off that 100-watt smile.

This isn’t a screed about political correctness — it’s an attempt to show that the words we use unconsciously betray the underlying judgments and assumptions we simultaneously make. And making judgments is pretty much everyone’s favourite game show these days. Right across North America, finger-pointing and blame-throwing has displaced cogent analysis and real problem-solving in the public sphere.

It’s easier to pick a position and denigrate your targets than it is to actually look for nuance and locate the truth. Jumping to conclusions has become our national sport — judging people’s character and motivations by the handful of actions we choose to observe. If you don’t believe me, watch a few political programs, some afternoon freak-shows, or an average day in the House of Commons. Tune into a radio call-in show discussing an athlete’s performance — or the flooding of New Orleans. The rhetoric all flows from the same stagnant source.

It’s a bad trend, in my opinion, and one that won’t go away anytime soon — it’s deeply ingrained in our own collective character. But one small way to stem the tide is to resist our own rushes to judgment in as tiny a matter as baseball. The next time someone strikes out with the bases loaded, let’s not denigrate his commitment or determination. The next time a batter strikes out on a terrible pitch, let’s not impugn his personal dedication and discipline. The next time a pitcher issues yet another walk, let’s not assume he doesn’t care enough about his talent or his teammates to do his best every day.

The fan in us will always react from the gut, and that’s human nature — but the next and better level up is to look behind the visceral reactions and abandon the assumptions. The truth is too valuable to approach any other way.