25.5.15

Week 7: Concern for the Sox? Sure, but not time to bail yet. And links

Sox
Fangraphs has a really nice review of Carlos Rodon’s first three starts. Must read for Sox fans. I went to the game on Wednesday, and Rodon loses the plate way too often. He does work quick and there weren’t too many hard hit balls. The talent is there, but until he finds the plate, he’s going to struggle.
===============
It’s Memorial Day, the point of the season that I start to look at the standings… and it’s ugly.


The Sox are not only 8 games behind a fairly fraudulent Royals team, but they also own one of the worst records in the AL. And to make matters even worse, they now own the worst run differential in the AL.


The good news? The AL is a tire fire. The Royals are playing so far above their heads and talent level, that their fall from grace will be swift and ugly. But they’re probably going to make the playoffs unless they play .400 baseball or something horrible like that. The AL East is Chernobyl-isque: it’s possible all of those teams are average. And the AL West features disappointing A’s, Angels, and Mariners teams. The young Astros hold the lead, but I have my doubts about their pitching.


The Twins and Tigers sit in the Wild Card positions. The Sox sit five games back of them. But more realistically, it’s going to take 89 or 90 wins to make the Wild Card. You might be able to slip in with even 87 considering that the Twins aren’t very good. The Sox need to play .562 baseball (91 win pace over an entire season) to reach 87 wins. Not impossible.


The Sox biggest issue is that they cannot beat the Twins: 3-7 against a team with much less talent than the Sox is a problem. While losing three of four to the Tribe earlier this week hurt, it doesn’t sting as much as once again playing horribly against the Twins. Blowing these games are going to cost them—it already has.


The Sox biggest problem is they cannot score runs. Dead last in the AL with 147 runs scored in 41 games, which works out to 3.58 a game. That’s not good.


The Sox offensive issues are obvious: they don’t walk, they don’t get on base, and they don’t hit for power. While Abreu has been fine if not quite what he was last year, Garcia has started strong even if it’s a bit BABIP inflated, and LaRoche has been perfectly average; the rest of the roster has been bad to horrible.


You could live with Conor Gillaspie’s bat if he was the 8th or 9th worse hitter. Instead he’s somehow the 4th best bat the Sox send out most days. Alexei, Flowers, whoever is playing second, Eaton, and Melky have been horrible. Eaton and Melky are currently in a race to see who can be the worst every day starter in the major leagues.*


*It’s fitting the Sox once again have a few guys in the race to “win” the Worst Everyday Player Award. Past recent finalists include:
2011 Rios
2011 Dunn
2013 Konerko
2012 Kippinger
2014 Viciedo


Could Melky and Eaton turn it around? SURE! They’re not bad baseball players! Eaton’s BABIP is still far below what it was last year and he needs to walk a little more, but he’s been much better in May.


Meanwhile, Melky is walking at the same rate that he has historically. But he too has been bit by the BABIP bug. Of more concern, is what happened to his power. Melky has one homer and two doubles. That isn’t going to cut it.


Both Eaton and Melky are too talented of players to continue to be this bad. We’re seeing some signs of life out of Eaton. We can only hope, now that the weather has finally turned, we’ll start seeing more out of Melky. If those two get going a bit, that sets the table for Abreu, LaRoche, and Avi which should lead to more runs, and more runs will lead to more wins since while this pitching staff is flawed, there is also a lot to like.


Last week was a bad week, and tough to swallow after the fantastic week prior. And while the Sox aren’t in great shape at the moment, they also haven’t dug themselves a huge hole. The playoffs are unlikely, but their not impossible.


Most Interesting Things I’ve Read this Week:
-- From the Charlotte Observer and echoing many here… we have reached PEAK #THANKSOBAMA. Let me tell you this guy…
Lang, a Republican, says he knew the act required him to get coverage but he chose not to do so. But he thought help would be available in an emergency. He and his wife blame President Obama and Congressional Democrats for passing a complex and flawed bill.


“(My husband) should be at the front of the line because he doesn’t work and because he has medical issues,” Mary Lang said last week. “We call it the Not Fair Health Care Act.”


...a 50 year old smoker with diabetes doesn’t buy health insurance and now wants to jump the line and have someone else pay for his health care but blames Obama. Sadly, like the Superfans, these people apparently exist.



Really excellent work from the always excellent Becky Vevea.




Never change Pete Townshend. Never change.




Most interesting here, imo, is that our growth cities of the late 20th century (i.e. the South and Southwest) aren’t like most growth cities of the 19th and early 20th century (i.e. East Coast, West Coast, and Rust Belt).


Or to put another way, Phoenix, Houston, and San Antonio look a lot different than New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Phoenix is very suburban, New York is very urban. This causes both cities to face vastly different policy issues and also have solutions to common policy issues which are unalike.

There are a number of reasons why Chicago might not be growing all that much, but to say “Do what they did in Houston!” might not be an actual policy solution for Chicago because Houston isn’t built like Chicago.

18.5.15

Week 6: Soto has the yips & the Mad Men Finale (mostly Mad Men)

Sox

Hey the Sox are back to .500 and Soto totally has the yips (I don't care what he says) and it’s the most amazing thing to watch in sports right now: Soto throwing the ball back to the pitcher. But that’s all the baseball talk for today because…



TV/Culture/Thoughts/Reviews


First off, dawned on me this weekend, but “The Suitcase”—for my money the best Mad Men episode and one of the best hours of TV—was the 46th episode of Mad Men. In total, there were 92 episodes of Mad Men. That’s right, “The Suitcase” was the halfway point of the series.


I don’t think Mad Men is structured as ring composition, but if so, even if loosely so, that’s pretty amazing: “The Suitcase”, the peak Don/Peggy episode for me, falls right in the middle, which often is the most important section of a story/epic set in a ring composition structure.


***Mad Men Spoilers***






As I’ve said, I haven’t been interested in Don Draper for a while. But he gets the ambiguous ending, one which everyone is talking about, so let’s dive into that.


My thoughts on Mad Men’s ending are starting to come together; I’m going to try and not say anything that has already been said, the numerous excellent reviews have already done that (here’s the New Yorker review which I don’t quote but is worth reading).


I fall into the Sepinwall camp regarding the ending: Don’s smirk is the killer idea he has, not some sort of inner peace he’s discovered/found.


However, I also don’t view this as cynical as others do. Sure the ending is cynical, but it isn't overly cynical. Don’s an asshole, we have a 92 hours of TV backing this up. To expect him to change just because he traveled across the country, ended up on a retreat, and did some yoga would, in my opinion, be missing the point of the previous 91 hours of the show. Don’s committed to change almost once a season, only to fall back into his old habits of being a shitty husband, a somewhat shitty dad*, a shitty co-worker, and often making poor, rash personal decisions that he would come to regret (‘sup Megan!).


*Don, oddly, does have his moments of being a very good dad, however, he is far too distant to ever be considered a good dad.


Don having a killer idea to sell the world Coca-Cola and not changing personally is true to the character. If anything, this is the first time that Don ‘gets’ the social change that the ‘60s has brought and will bring during the ‘70s. Don Draper wasn’t very good at his job the last latter half the 60s (or so it seemed). The Lucky Strike “It’s Toasted” tag occurs in 1960, the Kodak Carousel is 1961, GloCoat is 1964/1965, and Samsonite is 1965. In the late 60s, Megan and Peggy are the two who are leading the charge: they come up with the ideas for Burger Chef and Heinz (beans that is; ketchup is Don’s idea, but it is not picked). Don’s work (Ginsberg really) on Jaguar has nothing to do with SCDP being picked. As has been regularly pointed out, the world passes Don Draper by as the 60s progress: he suddenly turns off “Tomorrow Never Knows” remember.




But something begins to click with Don after his phone call with Peggy. Sure he’s been rejected by his future (Sally), his past as Dick (Stephanie), and his past as Don (Betty) prior to the call with Peggy. As the AV Club review highlights wonderfully, the conversation with Peggy, who tells him to come home (advertising is the only home he has at this point) is a turning point. Listening to Leonard puts him over the top. But this doesn’t (necessarily) mean Don (or Dick) has realized anything about himself, instead, maybe Don just figured out that as the dream of the 60s dies, he can… actually take it away John Teti


After the nuclear-family utopia of the ’50s failed to eliminate all of society’s ills, Don’s nostalgic ads promised that products would make the lost fantasy real. Now that the ’60s vision of perfect harmony has frayed, Don will once again convince a nationwide audience that consumer goods can make up the difference between the ideal and the reality. Coca-Cola will teach the world to sing.


And that’s why I don’t think Don changed. I don’t think he came to any sort of enlightenment. Dick is not gone. Nor has Dick been rediscovered. I think he’ll continue to struggle with all his demons and depression through the ‘70s. If the end of the show, originally, was supposed to be Season 6’s closing shot of Don coming to terms with who he is, where he came from, and telling his kids (Sally) who he truly is… then why would Weiner change his entire point of view of Don Draper in the 7th season? I’ll let Roy Edroso take it away (emphasis mine): 


Don has always been an empath who, because of his emotional damage, is uniquely attuned to the pain of average citizens, and when he sees a valuable crop of it he gets in there and grabs and holds it close to drain its essence. And then turns it into a commercial. He is what America has instead of artists. And that's why, despite all the historical signifiers that made the show look like the chronicle of a New Day Dawning, nothing much has really changed. Don has not rediscovered Dick Whitman -- he has, after a crisis of confidence, rediscovered Don Draper. And gone back at work.


I get the desire of us wanting Don to be a good person, for finding some sort of peace. Or accepting some sort of himself and changing for the better. But he never does. Even if Don/Dick has found some sort of peace, does anyone think he’ll now become a good father? If anything he'll still be a minor player in their lives. And does anyone think that he won’t fall into another relationship that’s bad for him? That he’ll now stop making rash decisions? That he'll stop drinking too much? 

We’ve seen Don hit rock bottom then bounce back up (like the opening credits, as pretty much everyone has pointed out by now): Season 2 with Betty, much of Season 4 but specifically his binge drinking weekend, much of Season 6 where he ends up getting fired from the firm he co-founded because he was a drunk that was costing them business, “Meet the Mets” and Lou Avery in the first half of Season 7… and each time after hitting rock bottom, Don didn’t really change. Why would he now after his road trip across America and hippie retreat? And that’s where I’m at, Don didn’t find peace and he isn’t changing, as Tom and Lorenzo say:


b) He dreams up the Coke ad there on the spot, based on everything he’s experienced recently, which is perfectly par for the course with the Don Draper we’ve been watching for the last 8 years; the one whose very best ads have always come from some deep place inside himself… He will win awards, become a legend of the advertising industry and the Golden Boy of McCann-Erickson, make even more money, and live happily ever after – at least until the next emotional crisis comes along and he has yet another meltdown because he hasn’t effectively dealt with all of his shit, still drinks too much and only sees his abandoned children sporadically. But who knows? Maybe the next breakdown will give the world “I Heart NY.” Or the Reagan presidency. Don Draper will continue ever on, unchanged, but still a genius in his own way, plumbing the depths of his psyche to sell more sugar water.


This is the Don Draper we know. And I suspect that’s the Don Draper that will continue. We may want something else for Don, but of course, it’s not up to us.


That said, as Todd VanDerWerff points out, the ending can be happy and cynical. I agree. And that’s why, despite my concerns a few weeks ago, I think it was an excellent finale. I mean even if Don will continue making the same mistakes and being the same person, well, as Rust Cohle said:


I respect that Weiner didn't give us the ending for Don we might have wanted. He gave us the ending that Don Draper wanted.

=====

As for everyone else in the show… I enjoyed the hell out of it. The various Joan scenes in particular were wonderful.

I see the argument that everyone got too nice of a send off (save Betty, and note that Megan did not appear in the finale), but such an argument is a bit cheap. Mad Men was never tidy, but stories have to end. In life there are always loose ends, in fiction there usually isn’t.

Finally, check out this NY Times story on Bill Backer, the guy who came up with the Coke commercial. If I have one issue with the finale, it's fictional Don Draper getting credit for something that a real person wrote... it feels a little too out there for me. That I'd like to sit with some more.

11.5.15

Week 5: Is Gordon Beckham Good Again? Plus links, NSA, and Mad Men

Sox
What if I told you, the best hitter on the White Sox so far this season wasn’t Jose Abreu?

What if I told you, the best hitter on the White Sox is a former hot prospect who was given roughly 38 million chances over five years but did nothing with them?

What if I told you, the best hitter on the White Sox once hit this well, but it was six years ago?

ESPN presents a new 30 for 30: “Hit it like Beckham”. [Yes I know, lame and cheesy]

Okay so they aren’t going to make a 30 for 30 on Beckham because it wouldn’t be interesting and frankly, Beckham’s hot start probably ends badly… but so far… hey! He’s been great!

Beckham’s wOBA of .360 and wRC+ of 128 are tied for the team lead. For the first time in his career, he’s walking a little bit (Beckham did walk at a so-so rate his rookie year in ‘09, he never came close to that walk rate again). And maybe best of all, Beckham’s hot start isn’t being fueled by a high BABIP, it stands at .258 which, sadly, is right around his career average.

Now, Gordon’s only been to the plate 42 times this year, so we’re working with a small sample size. But he’s been good. And I’m not sure you could find a better run in Beckham’s career (excluding his rookie year). So all in all, this is a positive. It’s possible that Beckham, who has seen a steady diet of lefties this year (half his plate appearances), has also made some much needed adjustments. Or maybe, not being a full time starter, he’s not putting as much pressure on himself. Who knows?!?! But whatever he’s doing, it’s working so far.

Digging deeper and looking at Beckham’s batted ball numbers, what really stands out is the uptick in line drives (LD%) and the drop in fly balls (FB%). He’s beating his career numbers in both categories. Basically, Beckham’s making better contact, not necessarily harder contact, just better contact.

Gordon Beckham’s Batted Ball Percentages, 2015 vs Career
Year
LD%
GB%
FB%
IFFB%
HR/FB
Pull%
Cent%
Oppo%
Hard%
2015
33.3%
36.4%
30.3%
20.0%
20.0%
39.4%
39.4%
21.2%
24.2%
Career
18.9%
40.7%
40.4%
13.2%
7.3%
37.9%
35.1%
26.9%
27.3%
(Source: Fangraphs)

Because of the super small sample size both the infield fly ball and home run per fly ball are out of whack. They’ll both regress to the mean as he gets more plate appearances. But the line drive figures are a positive step. But why more line drives now?

Three things are the probable causes: luck, adjustments at the plate, and better plate discipline (or some combination of the three). I can’t really prove luck, though, his BABIP isn't all that high for starters, but there’s a good chance that that’s the reason. I can’t really prove any adjustments at the plate (i.e. fixing the hole in his swing) because I haven’t seen anything that says so. But I can at least somewhat prove that Beckham’s shown better plate discipline.

Beckham’s not swinging more than usual, but he’s making more contact. Specifically, Beckham’s making more contact on balls outside the strike zone (O-Con%), but he’s also swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%). He’s also slightly swinging more and while making more contact on pitches inside the strike zone. Beckham’s issues have never been hand/eye in nature, he’s always been able to connect with a baseball. His issues have been that he doesn’t make good contact… and his judgement of the strike zone can be iffy.

Gordon Beckham’s PITCHf/x Plate Discipline, 2015 vs Career
Year
O-Swing%
Z-Swing%
Swing%
O-Con%
Z-Con%
Contact%
Zone%
2015
25.0%
68.7%
49.7%
84.2%
91.2%
89.7%
56.6%
Career
29.6%
66.5%
49.0%
66.1%
88.0%
81.7%
52.7%
(Source: Fangraphs)

I don’t think Gordon Beckham has suddenly turned into 2009 Gordon Beckham. But there are some positive signs so far this year, even with the small sample size. We’re not at the point where Beckham should be taking over third base full time; but he probably should be used against lefties every single time the Sox face one. And if he keeps this up, we may very well see Gordon Beckham become the starter at third around the All-Star break.

Most Interesting Things I’ve Read this Week:
-- April 27, 2015, by Patrick Dubuque: This is beautiful.

-- “I've never done blow, but many of my ex-girlfriends have, and so when Phillip Foss hands me a mirror, a razor, and a gram of white powder, I know what to do. Sort of.” I’m in! I don’t even care if the rest of this article sucks, that’s a great intro!

And the article is great! So read this! Is Chicago the most important culinary city in the US?

In Chicago, all bets are off. Think: helium-filled taffy balloons at Alinea, edible menus at Moto, ice-encased old-fashioneds that you crack open with a slingshot at Aviary, psychedelic king crab terrariums at Grace, spruce juice-filled test tubes at Elizabeth, and at EL Ideas, spearmint ice cream that's nitro-frozen to such an intensely frozen hardness that it mimics the texture of a candy cane.  "I do think Chicago is the food capital of America," says Moorman. "It has the most interesting food. The most soulful food. The most thoughtful food."

In other words, maybe the real problem isn’t men faking greater devotion to their jobs. Maybe it’s that too many companies reward the wrong things, favoring the illusion of extraordinary effort over actual productivity.

But the private sector is perfect and efficient and well run!

What I haven’t read:

Hey did you know the NSA phone tapping was ruled illegal last Thursday? Because other than a few articles and headlines on Friday, this kind of important ruling has seemingly been ignored.

Ignored might be too strong of a word, but it did seem that this was a one day story instead of a week long discussion/debate over the fact that the US Government was illegally spying on us. I would expect that if the US Government was illegally spying on all of its citizens, that’d be kind of a big deal, which we’d debate, oh I don’t know, all the time for a few days or weeks.

But we aren’t. And maybe it’s because we already had the debate two years ago when Snowden leaked the story. But even if we did debate ourselves out back then, Thursday’s news was a big story. Again, a court ruled the the US Government was illegally spying on Americans. Think about that… that’s the kind of stuff we’ve always said could “never happen here”. Yet it did for nearly 15 years for reasons that aren’t exactly clear.

Hopefully this provides the juice needed for Congress to strike down certain points of the Patriot Act and reign in the, seemingly, endless authority that the NSA has.

TV/Culture/Thoughts/Reviews


****MAD MEN SPOILERS****









These days, I don’t care about Don Draper all that much. I’m over him. He was interesting for five, even six seasons, but now? Whatever. There are many better stories to tell at this point. Same shit, different day, Don isn’t nearly as interesting as he once was. Dude wants to be on the road, on the move, maybe a hobo, chasing the American Dream* which is more owing nothing to anyone than the home with a white picket fence. So be it. And maybe if Don started this journey, for reals, after Betty and him split, then sure… maybe this would be interesting. But at this point? Don chasing the American Dream is just sort of like whatever, dudes.

*The American Dream is more Huck Finn or the hustler or the hipster or Richard Katz, than it is, say, (let’s keep the Freedom reference going) Walter Berglund. And in that respect, Don’s somewhat filling the role perfectly… always the hustler with dreams of being Huck Finn. However, Don’s also a square. He may look cool, he may even be cool, but he’s not hip**, and well, there’s a difference. Remember Don couldn’t cut it with Midge Daniels way back when; Megan turned him on to “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Hip he never was nor ever will be.

**Please don’t confuse hip with hipster. At one point probably ten years ago there were similarities, now? Not so much.

Side tangents completed… back to the matter at hand… my disinterest in Don doesn’t mean the show isn’t good. I’ve enjoyed the last few episodes, it’s just that the Don stuff brings them down. And now, with only one episode left, it will be interesting to see how Weiner concludes this. I do get the sense that many people, probably myself included, are talking themselves into this season. And it’s possible, even likely, that we look back and say, “yeah, that wasn’t so good”. It’s darn near impossible to stick the landing, so I’m not looking for that as a fan, but the more this goes on, the more I forget why I enjoyed the show so darn much those first four seasons, and the more I wonder if they’ve skated by on those first few seasons and the fact that the show looks so friggin’ good each week. (To echo what many say, much like how the music in Star Wars pushes the movies to another level, the look of Mad Men, I think, has allowed it to go to another level. Mad Men looks so darn good—colors pop, the style is amazing, the nostalgic overload even for those who weren't born then—that it can cover for some of the shows deficiencies).

Hopefully we’ll get some Peggy and Roger, the only two (other than Don) whose stories may be incomplete. It’s possible the Peggy and Roger stories have concluded: Peggy on the rise; Roger plays out the string at McCann, and we don’t see them next week. That’d be a bummer, but it’s possible.

Either way, we have a lot of Don Draper/Dick Whitman coming our way next Sunday. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.