Small Victories

Another season over. If it had to end–and it did–there couldn’t have been a better ending. A Cubs comeback from a three games to one deficit* to force a Game Seven, extra innings–OK, one extra inning–and even a rain delay to keep the season going for an additional seventeen minutes. Plenty of excitement, and enough controversial managerial decisions to keep baseball conversation alive until spring.

* There was a lot of press at the beginning of the World Series about Cleveland trying to put together NBA and MLB championships in the same year. Interesting that the Cavaliers won their title after coming back from a three games to one deficit. So now it’s on the Bulls or the Bears to give Chicago multiple championships for the 2016 season. Don’t hold your breath, though. Halfway through the NFL season, the Bears are 2-6 and would need a major turnaround to even approach .500. It’s early in the NBA season, and while the Bulls are 3-1, they’d have to get past the Cavaliers to make the finals. I suppose Chicago fans could pin their hopes on the Blackhawks, but does anyone outside of Canada and Minnesota really care about the NHL?

With the Cubs’ victory, we can look forward to a couple of years of articles about “The Curse” being broken and speculation about their next title. But, just as nobody mentions Babe Ruth’s piano when talking about the Red Sox anymore, we can expect that to settle down soon enough. Despite the media’s best efforts to create a curse for the Indians, I don’t think it’ll catch on.

So with that out of the way, it’s time to check in on my early season predictions for the playoffs.

How did my formula, based on run differential do in predicting the ten playoff teams and their performance in October?

Last year, I picked 40% of the playoff teams. This year, after a few tweaks to the formula, I was hoping to exceed 50%.

You may recall that I dismissed the impact of two games being postponed. That was a mistake on my part, and I’ll need to find a way to account for that possibility next year. I said that the Red Sox and Indians wouldn’t make the playoffs. Oops. On the brighter side, I was correct that the Yankees wouldn’t make the playoffs. I also said the Astros might go 86-76 again, but wouldn’t make the playoffs. They fell a couple of games short of that mark, but the Mariners went 86-76 and didn’t make the playoffs. Call it a moral victory for my predictive skills.

Moving on.

In the AL, my formula picked Toronto, Texas, Chicago, Kansas City, and Baltimore. The White Sox and Royals faded after their first game victories, but the other three picks came through.

Over in the NL, I had Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Colorado. Darn you, Rockies! My only incorrect pick. (I find it amusing that the Rockies’ 75-87 record is the exact opposite of the Mets’ 87-75 Wild Card-worthy record. Clearly, I’m easily amused.)

Seven of ten correct picks, well above my 50% target! Excuse me while I pop open some champagne. No, I won’t spray it wastefully around the room. Mimosa, anybody?

On to the playoffs.

At least my picks for the league champions both made the playoffs. Imagine my embarrassment if I had called a Rockies/Royals World Series.

I certainly muffed the AL, where I predicted the Orioles would storm to the pennant. Instead, they lost the Wild Card game to Toronto. I correctly called the Blue Jays win over the Rangers, but thought it would be a narrow victory, rather than a three-game sweep. As I pointed out earlier, though, the eventual AL champion Indians were one of my predictive failures.

The NL playoffs went rather more as I called them. The Dodgers did, in fact, knock the Nationals out before losing to the Cubs. The Giants didn’t win the Wild Card, but Chicago had no more trouble with the Mets than I thought they’d have with San Francisco.

So I was half right in picking the World Series teams. 50%!

And I did pick the Cubs to break their curses, based on that early season run differential.

Seems like there’s some validity in the method behind my madness. I’ll spend the off-season working on a way to handle rainouts, and we’ll see if I can call all ten playoff teams next year.

Enjoy your winter, everyone. Only a little more than three months until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

I’m Back

No, the crisis isn’t over, but it’s sufficiently under control that I’m starting to suffer symptoms of writing withdrawal*. Rather than endure that, I’m declaring the hiatus done. I’ll have more to say about the situation later, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

* Nightmares in which I realize I’ve forgotten how to type and have to write a 90,000 word manuscript longhand. Overwhelming impulses to edit something I said an hour ago because I just thought of the perfect word. Waking up in the middle of the night with a story idea and not being able to write it down because a cat has run off with my pen–no, wait, that’s business as usual.

Moving on.

Something actually went right for the Bay Bridge this weekend. Friday, Caltrans made the long-awaited announcement that the bike and pedestrian path from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island would actually reach the island on Sunday. Monday, Chron writer Jessica Floum confirmed the removal of the dead end that’s been in place for the past three years.

This is a major victory for Caltrans. This is the first component of the bridge to be completed as scheduled!

Well, sort of. The trail was supposed to open along with the bridge in 2013. It did, but stopped about half a mile short of the island. Then it was supposed to open when the old bridge span was fully demolished. Uh… The demolition is still going on–and, thanks to poisonous fumes released by the deconstruction work, the bike path will only be open on weekends and holidays until the work is done.

But that’s nitpicking. The important point here is that Caltrans resisted the urge to make yet another date prediction, only to discover they couldn’t meet their target. Keeping their mouths shut until they were sure may not sound like much, but it actually represents a process improvement. At the risk of reading too much into it, this could even be a sign that Caltrans is beginning to fix their dysfunctional culture of failure.

Yeah, I know: Once is chance, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy actionlegitimacy. But you have to do anything once before you can do it a second and third time. Keep it up, Caltrans! We’re rooting for you.

Moving on.

It’s been 107 years since the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and 70 years since they last played and lost. It’s been 67 years since the Cleveland Indians won the World Series, though they’ve managed to lose three World Series since then, running up a combined 7-12 record. Not exactly stellar performances by either city.

But, as Jackie implied recently, somebody has to be MLB’s champion this year.

The only possibilities are the Cubs and the Indians. Sometime between Saturday and next Wednesday, somebody’s record of futility will come to an end.

It puts those of us with no sentimental or geographic attachment to either team in an awkward position. There’s a natural tendency to root for the underdog, but it’s not clear who that is. The Cubs have had excellent regular seasons the past two years, unlike the Indians, who struggled to a .500 record last year. On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook a century-long track record–no concerns about small sample sizes here!

You can make up your own minds–and Jackie’s post includes some good arguments on both sides–but I’m going to be rooting for Chicago for one simple reason: Cleveland, by and large, has suffered in silence. They lose, make the obligatory mumbles about next year, and move on. Chicago, on the other hand, whines and blames anything except their play on the field. Who else blames their losses on a goat? Or their fans–poor Steve Bartman?

I figure if the Cubs finally win a World Series, their fans will have to shut up, and we’ll get some peace and quiet.

Game One is at 5:00 (Pacific) tonight. Go Cubs! Let’s win it–in seven games, of course.


It’s been a weird year for the Mariners. You can take that as an explanation of why I haven’t been posting much about baseball. But, yesterday was the “Trading Deadline” and a few words seemed in order.

Last year was…well, disappointing. Having so many pundits picking the Ms to win their division and get back to the playoffs for the first time in living memory* was a thrill. But the team made it clear very early on that there was no way that was going to happen. By August 2, they were ten games under .500 and clinging to a one-game lead over Oakland to avoid the division basement.

* OK, I exaggerate. There are still a few old fogies around who remember 2001. But, lest you forget, that’s the longest current playoff drought in MLB. We’ll come back to this shortly.

When things are that bad, you just sit back and take it one game at a time. Enjoy the victories, and hope for something unusual to happen to distract you from the pain of the losses.

Then came this year. The predictions were rather more modest. FiveThirtyEight, for example, gave the Mariners one chance in three of making the playoffs, and suggested they were looking at finishing two games over .500.

On June 1, they were eight games over, and there was much hemming and hawing among the prophets. By July 1, the prophets were sighing in relief as the Ms had fallen back to three games over. Since then, they’ve gone 11-13 and are, thanks to last night’s loss to the Red Sox, exactly at .500. Thanks a lot, FiveThirtyEight, for setting the bar so high.

Sunday’s game was absolutely typical of the way they’ve played for the past month: group a bunch of runs together, then tell the offense to go home while the defense races the opponent to the end of the game. On Sunday, the Ms put up six runs in the first three innings–one two-run home run in each inning–and then took a solemn oath not to score again. They almost broke that vow in the sixth, when they loaded the bases with no outs, but managed to keep their honor intact when the next three batters went strike out, strike out, pop out.

Meanwhile, Chicago picked up two runs in the fifth, one in the seventh, and three in the ninth, thanks in large part to a catcher–traditionally among the slowest of runners–beating out a potential game-ending double play, and a wild pitch so bad that, had it been a movie, it would have made Plan 9 from Outer Space look like a potential Oscar winner by comparison.

My point is not that the team is bad. Far from it–they are, after all, still at .500, the minimum baseline for respectability. But they’re showing a frustrating lack of ability to finish what they start.

And frustrating is the word for it. They’re not doing well enough to allow one to hope for a turnaround, but they’re also not doing so poorly as to force one to give up on the season. So when something unusual happens*, it’s hard to revel in the weirdness.

* Such as, for example, the Cubs pitcher getting three outs with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, playing an inning and two-thirds in left field (and making a damned impressive catch), then returning to the mound to get the last out of the eighth by picking a runner off first base. For example.

What’s a fan to do? Hang in there, keep watching, and don’t give up the faith.

And, of course, remember that, while the Mariners have gone longer than anyone else without a playoff appearance and have never won a World Series in their thirty-nine season existence, there are others arguably worse off. The Chicago White Sox survived a thirty-nine year pennant drought (1919-1959). The Mariners will, barring a miracle, surpass that this year, but there are nine teams who have gone forty or more seasons without winning their league and going to the World Series. The Washington Nationals’ forty-seven year drought (which includes their time as the Montreal Expos) pales beside the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers dismal forty-nine year stumble that finally ended in 2010.

And even that’s nothing compared to the Cubs. Entire generations have been born, grown up, raised families, and died since the Cubs last won the National League pennant, back in 1945. Seventy years. Tack on another generation since they last won the Series. That was in 1908.

So there’s a certain amount of room for schadenfreude among the barely respectable. But there’s also an example there.

Those Cubs have a good shot at ending their streak this year. At the moment, they’ve got the best record in baseball. That’s no guarantee that they won’t implode over the next two months and miss the playoffs. Even if they make the playoffs with the best record, that’s no guarantee they’ll win it all–or even win any playoff games. But they’re in the hunt, even more so than last year (57-47 on August 2, finished at 97-65, taking the second Wild Card and making it to the NL Championship series before being swept by the Mets.)

Next year may be a long way away, not only for the Mariners, but for the thirteen teams looking up at them in the standings.

But the odds are good that none of those fourteen teams are looking at a seventy year wait before “next year” arrives. If the Cubs fans can hang on this long and still fill Wrigley Field on a regular basis, nobody slogging through the last part of a frustrating–or even disappointing–season has any excuse to give up.

The Mariners’ embarrassing defeat Sunday was on ESPN. Tonight they face the Red Sox on the MLB Network. What better opportunity for redemption could one ask for? A chance to beat the Red Sox–one of the broadcast industry’s darlings–on national TV to move back over .500? Sign me up!

No reason why next year can’t start today.

Perfectly Logical

How about that?

The MLB season hasn’t even started yet, and we’ve already got our first major controversy.

Interestingly enough, it has nothing to do with a new rule. Last year we had controveries over three new rules (the so-called “transfer rule,” blocking the plate, and instant replay). That’s enough to hold us for a couple of years, so it only makes sense that we’d wind up fighting about something else this season.

The issue is the status of Cubs’ prospect Kris Bryant. He stormed through the minors–he started in Class A-Short Season at the beginning of the 2013 season, made it all the way to AAA by June of last season, and wound up being named the minor league player of the year by both USA Today and Baseball America–and capped it by dominating in Spring Training this year (nine home runs and a .425 average in 40 at bats–if he could keep that pace up through a full season, he’d have well over a hundred home runs and the highest average since 1894, the fourth-highest average in history).

Sounds like he should be the Cubs’ starting third baseman this year, doesn’t it? Well, yeah. He almost certainly will be–three weeks from now. See, there’s this little rule, part of the basic agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association, that says a player becomes a free agent after six years of Major League service. Further, according to that same agreement between the league and the player’s union, a Player accrues a year of service for each 172 days he spends on the Major League Club’s Active List*. There’s some fine print about how to count interruptions in service due to suspensions, military duty, short assignments to the minors, and so forth, of course. There’s also a rule that a Play cannot accrue more than 172 days service in a single season, no matter how long the season actually runs and no matter whether the Club makes the playoffs.

* Yes, the Basic Agreement really does capitalize it that way.

The bottom line is that if Bryant starts the season with the Cubs, he’ll almost certainly accrue 172 days of service this year, and thus–assuming he doesn’t literally fall apart–be eligible for free agency in the 2021 season. By keeping Bryant in AAA until April 16, the Cubs ensure that he can’t get that magical 172nd day of service until next year.

Assuming he lives up to his potential–and there’s always a risk that a player will flame out–Bryant will be a very expensive free agent, so it’s to the Cubs’ advantage to delay his transition, and under the Basic Agreement, they’re permitted to do exactly that. And so they did, assigning him to the minors.

So where’s the controversy?

The MLBPA issued a statement condemning Bryant’s minor league assignment, calling it a “bad day for baseball” and warning the Club and MLB that the decision “will be addressed in litigation, bargaining or both.”* Excuse me? The current Basic Agreement has been in effect since 2012, and teams have been gaming the service accrual clause all along. Why is it suddenly an issue for Kris Bryant? Just because he’s the Number One prospect in all of baseball? That’s an insult to every other player who’s had a late call-up.

* There’s a joke here about the MLBPA prejudicing their case by their failure to use the Oxford comma in their press statement, but I’ll leave it to you to calculate the chances that the judge who eventually hears the case will be an Oxford grad.

Litigation? Good luck with that. Not only is the Cubs’ action legal under the agreement the MLBPA negotiated, but MLB’s anti-trust exemption has historically been the next best thing to a free pass in the courts.

Bargaining? Sure. The Basic Agreement runs through next season. I’m sure the next agreement is already in negotiation. But if the MLBPA wants to change the rules on free agency and service accrual, they’ll have to give something else up–and that’s likely to be something that will affect all players, not just the few expected to be superstars.

You know what’s the worst thing about this contretemps? It shouldn’t even have been an issue. If Bryant doesn’t perform, whether through lack of ability to adjust to the majors, injury, or anything else, his service time is going to be irrelevant. If he does become the star everyone thinks he’ll be, the Cubs are going to offer him a huge deal well before his six years are up. (See, for example, Kyle Seager, who just got a seven year, $100 million contract with the Mariners. He’s only accrued a smidge over three years of service, and his actual numbers aren’t even close to what the Cubs and the MLBPA expect from Bryant.)

There’s a saying that you catch more fly balls with a glove than with honey. By stashing Bryant in AAA for a couple of weeks, the Cubs have effectively handed him a bear-shaped squeeze bottle. How much are they going to have to jack up their eventual contract offer to counteract Bryant’s current disappointment? Let it be noted that his agent is Scott Boras, who’s never been known to undervalue the players he represents.

The Cubs made a perfectly logical decision. It may come back to bite them in their collective ass, but that’s the risk of any business decision.

Would everybody stop posing and go play some baseball?

Chasing balls?

Generally when somebody runs onto the field at a sporting event, the TV cameras turn away. Logical: The broadcasters’ have no desire to risk an FCC fine by showing naughty bits if the intruder turns out to be a streaker. Even if the runner keeps his or her clothes on, though, letting them have their time on TV will only encourage others to follow suit.

But last Sunday there was an interloper on the field at a minor-league baseball game between the Hillsboro Hops and the Everett AquaSox. Despite the fact that she wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing, the cameras stayed on her until she was captured and carried off the field.

Double standard? Oh, yes. Everyone loves a cat on the field.

(The video should be embedded in the page above this text. If not, try clicking this link.)

This isn’t the first time a cat has interrupted a baseball game; far from it, in fact. Famously, a cat on the field at Shea Stadium helped (in the eyes of the superstitious) the Mets beat the Cubs, paving the way to the World Series victory that capped the Mets’ miracle season of 1969. Shea Stadium was home to a colony of feral cats for many years, in fact. Washington Nationals first baseman Robert Fick, perhaps influenced by the fact that he was originally drafted by the Tigers, adopted a kitten he found at Shea.

In 2009, the Cubs were also involved in a more controversial “cat on the field” event when a groundskeeper picked up a feline interloper by the tail and hauled him off the field.

The most recent feline appearance on a diamond I can find reference to before last weekend was at a 2011 Florida Marlins game against (surprise!) the Mets.

Anyway, kudos to the Hillsboro players for being more sensible about cat-grabbing than the Cubs’ groundskeepers, but one hopes they’re better at fielding balls than they are at fielding cats.

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