Monday, September 23, 2013

Jason Kendall: Forgotten Hero

On September 23, 2008 the Brewers hosted the Pirates in a game that marked the beginning of the most exhilarating week of regular season baseball Milwaukee has ever seen. It was a week of walk-off home runs, great pitching, and dominance of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The playoff push is best remembered for Ryan Braun hitting an 8th inning go-ahead home run and CC Sabathia pitching a complete game in the season finale, but the iconic clincher mayn't have been without the unlikely heroics of our favorite light-hitting catcher.

The Brewers led 4-3 going in to the top of the 8th inning. Guillermo Mota started the inning by walking Doug "The Alphabet" Mientkiewicz and subsequently served a homer to Steve Pearce. Trailing 5-4 the Brewers were looking into the abyss of another October free of baseball. After Mota retired the side with no further damage, JJ Hardy led off the bottom half of the frame with a single to center. Corey Hart sacrificed Hardy to second, followed by Bill Hall popping out to first. This brought Jason Kendall, he of the .641 OPS, to the plate.

Jason Kendall inspired me with an irrational sense of confidence. He did not hit for power and he did not hit for average, but he almost always put the ball in play. You had a comforting feeling that there was at least a chance something good would happen. After 26 years of futility, the Brewers were due, right? Facing a 1-2 count Kendall proved that if you flip a coin enough eventually it will land on its side by punching a line drive to right field, just barely out of Steve Pearce's reach. With the game tied at 5-5 the stage was set for a dramatic finish.

After Salomon Torres worked around trouble to pitch a scoreless inning, TJ Beam took the mound for the bottom of the 9th instead of Pirates closer Matt Capps. Beam was a slightly above average pitcher in 2008 (his last in the majors), posting a 4.14 ERA (101 ERA+) in 45.2 innings. However, he was not nearly as effective Capps, who had a 3.02 ERA that season. The difference between marginal major league talent and a reliably effective reliever* became apparent when Prince Fielder blasted a 2-0 offering to deep right-center field, marking the beginning of the end of Milwaukee's playoff drought.

*Capps pitched 8 seasons with a 3.52 ERA in 439.2 innings.

The forgotten heroics of Jason Kendall were especially important to me because when that ball hit the outfield grass I truly believed the Brewers were going to make the playoffs. After being let down for so many years it was a delightful shock to realize that it's not impossible for the Brewers to get a big hit in a playoff race.

Looking back five years after the fact, Kendall's hit is a reminder of how rich baseball memories can be. It never just the home run, it's the good take that leads to the hanging slider. Or in this case, the gritty slap hitter getting a hit while down to his final strike.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Agony is better than apathy

The Brewers have nothing left to play for this season. They will not make the playoffs nor will they finish .500. A win or a loss has very little significance to this team, and yet I found myself, good and bad, hanging on every pitch in the late innings of the games on Friday and Sunday.

Worse than being resigned to losing is being resigned to losing, only to come back and be in prime position to win, and then become re-resigned to losing, and then losing. The 9th and 10th innings of Friday's game illustrate this well-known phenomenon. After Matt Adams hit a no-doubter against Jim Henderson to give the Cardinals a 6-4 lead in the top of the 9th the Brewers battled back and positioned themselves to win against none other than John "It's Amazing How A New Uniform Can Change Your Attitude About A Guy" Axford.* After Aramis Ramirez tied the game on an infield single I was certain Carlos Gomez would end the game, and he would have if it wasn't for that meddling third baseman. The Cardinals wasted little time taking the lead for good in the top of the 10th, and this left me with a delightful feeling of agony.

*I still like the Ax Man, but in this case I was rooting for the granny. 

I enjoy getting emotionally involved in Brewers games, even if that means I'm a sad panda for a an hour or two. The worst feeling is no feeling at all. In this case I was frustrated the Brewers once again let a winnable game against St. Louis slip into the loss column, and I felt a sense of dread knowing the loss made a pennant more likely for the Cardinals. It would have been nice playing a direct role to force them into the Wild Card. That did not happen in heartbreaking fashion, and yet I would still rather ruminate over this bitter ending than not have the Brewers amongst my thoughts.

The good news is my baseball watching on Sunday ended with a hearty pump of the fist. After watching the Packers have their annual early season meltdown* I was relieved to watch Henderson strike out Adams to seal the "W." And yes, I did have visions of a go-ahead three-run homer going through my head before every pitch in that at bat. Fortunately these premonitions did not materialize and I got the feel rare thrill that comes with a win against the Cardinals. 

*McCarthy's teams always seem to blow at least one winnable game early in the season. In 2009 they allowed 21 4th quarter points to the winless Buccaneers and last year they allowed Indianapolis to come back from 21-3 in the second half to steal a victory.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hanlon's Razor: A Primer

 Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

-Hanlon's Razor

The conventional wisdom is Wily Peralta intentionally hit Justin Morneau as retaliation for Andrew McCutchen (apparently) admiring a home run just a little too much. If years of watching baseball have taught me one thing it's that pitchers do not like being shown up. In all of sports there are few, if any, better ways to demonstrate ownership of another player than hitting a baseball over a fence hundreds of feet away. People don't like being owned, nor do they like said ownership being emphasized. For this reason Peralta beaned Morneau, or so they say.

Human beings frequently do bad things on purpose. More frequently, however, humans make mistakes. These mistakes are often difficult to fathom and usually have negative consequences, so it's easy to assume the agent is acting maliciously. But what if the act is a simple error? In the case of the recent Pirates-Brewers feud, how do we know Peralta tried to hit Morneau? The alleged villain denied intent and it's impossible to know exactly what he was thinking. Fortunately there is evidence to work with, and it suggests Hanlon's Razor was at work.

Wily Peralta has a 4.51 ERA, 1.431 WHIP, and 3.4 BB/9. In other words, he is not Greg Maddux. If it all goes right one day Peralta will be known for his pinpoint control, but that day is not today. (Nor was it Wednesday.) Given our inability to read minds and the evidence at hand, I'm inclined to believe Peralta intended to pitch Morneau up and in, but he missed his spot because he's not very good at locating baseballs. This does not make Peralta stupid, keep in mind incompetence is interchangeable in Hanlon's Razor.

In my experience life is more relaxing when you attribute bad actions to basic human fallibility. This might make you naive and it might cause you to miss out on compelling conspiracy theories, but it saves you a lot of stress in the process. More importantly, you're usually right.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Nice work, Buccos

From 1993-2004 the Brewers and Pirates had one undesirable thing in common: their last winning season was in 1992. That season the Brewers finished four games out of the playoffs while the Bucs finished one out away from the World Series. It was the last hurray of relevance for either franchise, though between Sid Bream and 20 years of futility I think the Brewers' decent into irrelevance was much more palatable.

Putting together 20-consecutive losing seasons is a difficult feat to accomplish. So difficult, in fact, no other team in any major American sport has come close. Even more remarkable are the final two years of the streak. The Pirates were 53-47 at one point in 2011, only to finish with a 72-90 record and the following season they were an impossible-to-screw-up 64-50 on August 12, only to go 15-33 the rest of the way. To be a Pirates fan after last season was to feel total, pure despair; the type of hopelessness Brewers fans can relate to.

In 2005 the Brewers traveled to PNC Park for the final series of the season needing one win to snap a streak of 12-consecutive losing campaigns. The previous year the Brewers entered the All-Star Break with a winning record, only to have one of the most agonizingly awful second halves in the history of MLB. The cruel collapse made a .500 record in Milwaukee seem like an unattainable fantasy of mediocrity, the kind you only start dreaming of when Steve Woodard is the ace of your staff.

Trailing 5-0 headed into the 6th inning of the opener, the Crew reeled off six unanswered runs and held on for a 6-5 victory. Unfortunately a winning season would have to wait as the Bucs won the next two games, holding the Brewers to a feeble two runs the rest of the way. Even so, by finishing 81-81 (with an 84-78 Pythagorean W/L, thank you very much) the future outlook became much brighter. Now that respectability was established the thought of watching a good team became plausible. Baseball fandom is predicated on hope, and finishing .500 provided that.

This all leads me to the Pittsburgh Pirates snapping the season losing streak by beating the Brewers 4-3 tonight. I enjoy watching the Brewers win, and few things have been as enjoyable as watching them own the Pirates from 2007-2012. But taking a larger perspective on things, I also get great satisfaction watching a perennial loser become a contender, with bonus points if they're from a small market. Furthermore, with but a few choice exceptions I feel a sense of relief when another fan base is given a reprieve from the hopelessness Brewers Nation felt for so long.

So to the Pittsburgh Pirates, I tip my cap. Congratulations on the non-losing season and may win #82 be earned on Friday in St. Louis.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Winner's Remorse

The 9th inning of tonight's game was both frustrating and nerve-wracking. Watching Carlos Gomez hit into a double play when a simple bunt would have sufficed was a textbook palm-to-forehead moment. (Is playing for one insurance run too much to ask?) Without the aid of margin for error, Jim Henderson allowed a one-out double to Andrew McCutchen and did not inspire confidence by exhibiting shaky command. Alas, the tying run was kept at bay and the Brewers won 7-6. This resulted in a fist pump from both me and any Cardinals fan following the game; that last part has me feeling a tinge of winner's remorse.

Baseball games are not played in a vacuum, meaning what happens in Pittsburgh can have implications in St. Louis. This is all well and good until the implications are not exactly what you'd like to see. I feel a tinge of guilt knowing I was rooting for a result that helped the most loathed team in the National League extend their lead in the Central to 1.5 games.

The Brewers will not make the playoffs or finish the season .500. Their role for the rest of the season is to play spoiler, and I expect them to play it well. Unfortunately this may help the Cardinals win the division, and I do not fully support this. While I was never rooting for the Pirates, had they prevailed I would have taken comfort in the silver lining. Of course, being a fan means rooting for your team even when it's not totally convenient, or in this case, in opposition to the greater good.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

You're not Jewish unless Jeff Passan says you are

Previously on this blog I wrote about focusing exclusively on the positive aspects of baseball. I need to take a quick break from to briefly comment on the most recent column from every Brewer fan's favorite sportswriter, Jeff Passan:

The greatness of Miguel Cabrera will get its due. In five years, or 10, or 25, or 100, when we’ve rid our minds of the telenovela that is Alex Rodriguez’s life and forgotten that Ryan Braun, who wasn’t even raised Jewish, used anti-Semitic charges to smear an innocent man, Cabrera's amazing 2013 season will be appreciated for what it is, which is potentially one of the best hitting seasons ever.

White it's true Ryan Braun does not identify himself as Jewish, (as his mother stated in 2007) Passan is horribly off base in deciding the conditions of ethnicity. The implication that Braun is not Jewish because he was not raised Jewish is not a particularly accurate thought process, and I'm not sure why he or his editor thought it worth the risk to offend readers to take a potshot at Braun. After all, how you identify yourself is, you know, kind of a personal thing. To set forth such criteria as basis for gratuitously expressing your indignation at Braun is just stupid, regardless of how deserving of scorn you think he is.

This also illustrates how the self-righteous, vitriolic rhetoric of some sportswriters following the Biogenesis scandal have made their work unreadable. If Passan, like me, took 30 seconds to research Braun's heritage he would have written something less inflammatory, such as "Ryan Braun, who doesn't even consider himself Jewish." Better yet, he could have written nothing and simply referenced his recently discredited allegations.  But why should somebody concerned with Miguel Cabrera's 2013 season being overshadowed do that?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Are the Brewers a decent team?

Last place teams are usually last place because they're bad at baseball. In some rare cases a team will be in the cellar due to playing in a brutal division or exceptionally bad luck, but even then it's safe to assume you are what your record says you are. That said, I find myself progressively less disheartened by the Brewers' feeble record.

The month of May was one of the worst in franchise history. When the 28-game dumpster fire ended and the smoke cleared, the Brewers had gone 6-22 and were without hope for the playoffs. However, if, like me, you simply pretend May never happened you'll notice the Brewers are 46-45. Granted, the Brewers are also undefeated if you ignore all of their losses, but stick with me here.

Despite injuries and suspensions the Brewers are 7th in the NL in OPS and 4th in homers. Overall their pitching has been surprisingly effecting, collectively posting a 100 OPS+ and shutting out opponents 10 times since June 15. They've also yet to lose a game when leading after 8 innings, which would have been helpful last season.

The Brewers have also benefited from outstanding individual performances. Carlos Gomez leads the NL in WAR (6.2), Jean Segura leads the NL in hits (144), Jonathan Lucroy is a Jedi master at framing pitches and is batting .309/.357/.547 with 13 homers since May 15. On the rubber, Kyle Lohse is earning his paycheck with a 3.26 ERA and Wily Peralta has made an unlikely transition into a pitcher you're excited to watch, posting a  2.62 ERA in his last 75.2 IP. The performances by the core talent are being supplemented by capable baseballing from Juan Francisco (126 OPS+ with the Brewers, we'll forget about the defense for now), Caleb Gindl, and Scooter Gennett.

Though I'm nowhere near declaring the Brewers title contenders for 2014, I'm also no longer bracing for a 1993-2004 stretch of futility. They have a promising collection of core players and depth that, when paired with health and better fortune, should be pretty fun to watch. All things considered (except May), the Brewers are the most deceptively decent team in majors. Good luck finding higher praise than that.