Rethinking Jordan's minor league baseball stint

In a chat with Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus a while back, I spotted this Q&A:

Rob (Chicago): Call me crazy, but Michael Jordan showed pretty decent numbers from a guy who was randomly stuck into AA. His OBP was almost 90 points higher than his AVG. You think he could've improved if given more time (and not, for some crazy reason, go back to being the best player in basketball?).

Kevin Goldstein: You are NOT crazy. I actually think Jordan's .202/.289/.266 line in Double-A was an incredible athletic achievement.

On average, spectators underestimate the difficulty of competing at the professional level in sports. I have some sense of how hard it is to hit major-league pitching, but only because I was a failed high school player who couldn't hit the curveball. I'll never forget the first time I faced our closer in practice. He was the tight end on the football team, someone so large (6' 4" and maybe 260) that it made you wonder how he could only be two years older.

Even at his size, his fastball "only" averaged 88, 89mph. In MLB, that's middling at best. To me, it was knee-softening and sweat-inducing. By the time I saw a blur of white of the pitch leave his hand on its way to home plate, my body couldn't fire the necessary muscles to swing the bat quickly enough to even give myself a random chance of hitting the ball by accident. One bag of baseballs, maybe 15 to 20 pitches in all, or just five minutes of futility was enough to effectively end all my dreams of playing professional baseball. This would be the case for the vast majority of human beings, 99.999% of people in the world.

So I don't think it's crazy at all to think that Jordan's performance in double-A, where most MLB teams place their star prospects (triple-A is filled with journeyman major leaguers who just can't quite crack the show and who don't have star potential), was an amazing accomplishment that will never be properly appreciated. To try and switch to playing major league baseball mid-career, with barely any practice for years and years, is crazy, especially to hit. It's one thing to try and break in as a pitcher, where you might survive just on sheer velocity as a short reliever, but hitting major league pitching may be one of the single most challenging feats in sports.

Of course, this won't change the public's mind about those two years Jordan left the NBA. And don't forget Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who had even more success at baseball than Jordan. It feels like there's a SpikeTV reality show in this concept (Who is the World's Greatest Athlete?).

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

BP writer Larry Granillo dons his tweed hat and deduces which Cubs game Ferris Bueller and his friends attended during their day off.

The movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" was released on June 11, 1986. The ballgame then must have been filmed either real early in the 1986 season or sometime during 1985. Looking at game logs from those seasons, we see that there was no game in 1986 in which Lee Smith (#46) faced the Braves at Wrigley Field. There were four such games in '85, though Smith left the Braves hitless in one of those. Of the remaining three games, it isn't hard to find the game we're looking for.


Sportswriter Jim Murray once wrote about Rickey Henderson, whose excessive batting crouch helped him to draw lots of walks:

Rickey Henderson's strike zone is smaller than Hitler's heart.


A recent New Yorker article in the Food Issue examined the knife-making industry and profiled Kramer Knives of Seattle. Bob Kramer is one of a select group of Master Bladesmiths in America (as credentialed by the American Bladesmith Society); there are only about a hundred. To pass the test, one's knife must undergo a grueling series of tests, from rope cutting to wood chopping to shaving hair.

There is a multi-year waitlist to buy one of Kramer's knives, used by the likes of super chefs like Thomas Keller (I myself am on that waiting list). He has collaborated on a more widely available series of knives that are sold exclusively by Sur La Table. The Chef's Knife from that series is a beauty (if you're looking for a last-minute gift idea that will just dazzle a loved one who loves to cook, that's a great way to go, though my mother always shunned giving knives as gifts because of the Chinese superstition that giving such a gift foretold the severing of that relationship).

Upgrading the dull chef's knife is one of the best investments a home cook can make. Dull knives make cooking a lot of work and leads to injuries when a knife slips. Proper knife technique is the other simple lesson a chef should learn. To properly capitalize on your knife's edge, the blade should be moving horizontally across the food being cut. Too many people just press down, and that's not how a knife is designed to work. Doing so exerts a lot of needless effort and is slow. Think of your arm and knife moving in a continuous elliptical motion, like the horizontal metallic bar on the outside of a train engine car's wheels.


I don't recall what things were like four years ago, but it feels to me like there are many more "letters to the President-Elect" in the media this time around, on topics from bailouts and reviving the economy to drugs, food policy, and education. I suspect this is the consequence of having a President we regard as well-read and thoughtful.


An old article from The Morning News, as seen back on Reddit today: How do you know if a girl loves you?

If you’re Gael Garcia Bernal: She loves you.

Farewell to a sports genius

Greg Maddux is announcing his retirement Monday. One of the more tragic among many tragic of my days as a Cubs fan was when Larry Himes got cheap with the greatest homegrown pitching talent in Cubs history and let Maddux leave to go to the Braves after he'd just won a Cy Young in 1992. If I ever ran into Himes on the street I'd punch him in the face.

There was no pitcher I enjoyed watching more; he elevated pitching to an art. He never threw extremely hard, and his effortless motion and small frame left it easy for any amateur to picture himself as Maddux on the mound, taking on hulking batters at the plate. There is an elegance to sports genius that draws more heavily on the mind than raw physical talent. Not that it isn't physically impressive for Maddux to be able to make locate a fastball with such accuracy, or to make it move so much, or to field his position so well. It's just that even before he threw a single pitch to a batter, you felt he was ahead strategically.

I hope he'll come back to be a pitching coach or advisor for the Cubs someday, or that he'll write a book about how he broke down each batter in his head.

In Nate Silver we trust

In his spare time, just as a hobby, Nate Silver launched, built a model to predict the election, and just absolutely nailed it. He missed only on Indiana, which Obama won by a just .9% of votes. Just about everywhere else, he was spot on, including the popular vote, and so far, the Senate Prediction. His model for the Election was even more accurate than his PECOTA model for baseball, and I used that to win a fantasy baseball league this year.

Mendoza Baseball

I hope newspapers and professional journalism don't die as they invest the time in long-lead, high-investment pieces that the web doesn't seem to devote enough attention to. But the web has absolutely accelerated the speed with which smart people like Silver can come to national prominence, and that is a beautiful thing. If Silver had had to fight his way up some newspaper hierarchy for a spot on the front page of the politics coverage, he would've been waiting a long time.

Incidentally, Silver analyzes the data and finds a correlation between Obama's contact rate advantage in key battleground states and his outperformance of polls in those states. He estimates "each marginal 10-point advantage in contact rate translated into a marginal 3-point gain in the popular vote in that state."

The state where had the greatest contact rate advantage? Nevada, where he had an advantage of 21%, 50% to 29%.

So those of you who made your way out to Nevada on your own dime, some driving down from distant cities like San Francisco, to go knock on doors and rally, you made a difference.

Nate Silver profile

NY Magazine profiles Nate Silver, whose hobby has now made him more famous than his day job, at least to the public at large. To me, he's been the guy that's built PECOTA, a baseball forecasting tool, for Baseball Prospectus, a site I've been reading and subscribing to pretty much since it started. But to most people now, he's the guy who built the models powering, the thinking man's go-to site for electoral projections.

Silver’s site now gets about 600,000 visits daily. And as more and more people started wondering who he was, in May, Silver decided to unmask himself. To most people, the fact that Poblano turned out to be a guy named Nate Silver meant nothing. But to anyone who follows baseball seriously, this was like finding out that a guy anonymously running a high-fashion Website turned out to be Howard Cosell.

The key insight that led to his unique spin on interpreting the polls:

As the primaries went on, however, Silver, who had been writing an anonymous diary for the liberal Website Daily Kos, made an observation about this year’s voters: While the polls were wobbling wildly state-to-state, the demographic groups supporting each candidate, and especially Clinton and Obama, were remarkably static. He wasn’t the only one who noticed this, of course—it was a major narrative theme of the campaign. One pundit summed it up by saying that Clinton had “the beer track

Big Z!

The first no-hitter thrown by a Cub in my lifetime!

As a group, we Cubs fans are Catholic in our fatalism, and recent arm discomfort to Zambrano and Harden had us wondering if a strong regular season was just prelude to entering the playoffs short-handed. Some see the glass half-empty; Cubs fans see cracks in the glass itself.

For those of you who bleed Cubbie blue, has video of every out (just the last pitches, so it only takes 4:32).

FiveThirtyEight on Palin

Nate Silver, at FiveThirtyEight, liveblogging from the Republican VP announcement,

Great visual: Palin walking out with her daughter. Not-so-great visual: Palin embracing McCain and looking like his daughter.

I had the same reaction to their age differential, and for all the reasons she might be a good VP choice--how she comes off to people in public appearances may matter more than what the pundits write about her--this is potentially a problem.

More from Silver:

Because it isn't really an argument about experience per se. It's an argument about whether she meets the basic threshold test of voters feeling comfortable with having her as President. Experience is a part of that, but so are essentially the aesthetics of it: picturing a young, attractive, kooky, female governor from Alaska who has an accent straight out of Fargo in the White House is going to be a much bigger leap for many voters than picturing Barack Obama there.

At a minimum, I'm looking forward to seeing how Jon Stewart, Conan O'Brien, and Jay Leno work Palin into their routines.

Based on early polls, it's starting to seem like Palin's selection won't make a difference to any of the entrenched Democratic or Republican voters. But this is before she's made her speech at the RNC. That's going to pull some serious ratings.

If the Republican VP search committee thought through their choice, and I'm sure they did, Palin seems like a choice designed to draw Obama supporters into outrage and ridicule, and so far it's worked (yours truly guilty as anyone).

But the Obama and Clinton reaction to her selection seems the better approach. Don't attack her on experience, or run the equivalent of McCain's "Celebrity" ads, attack her on issues. Leave the ridicule to the late night talk show hosts and comedians, and take the high ground. McCain is the candidate, and he provides enough target area for the Democratic Party to set up an entire firing range, from his houses to his weak grasp of economics to his policy shifts in the last eight years. If Palin is a liability, voters will be able to connect the dots themselves.

It's hard not to stave off a nagging fatalism on many things in life this year. The Cubs are playing well, but that only means we Cubs fans have to lash ourselves a few extra times, like Paul Bettany in The Da Vinci Code. The Cubs rotation might get shut down by Webb, Haren, and the Big Unit. Harden, Zambrano, Wood, and Marmol's arms might fall off. The Cubs might make the World Series and lose to the White Sox. And so on. Obama might lose because the Republicans mobilize their base better. Palin will steal enough independent women voters and evangelicals to push McCain into the lead. Biden didn't sway enough independents to Obama's side. And on and on.

But taken as pure drama, it's all golden. Forget W, I want to see the Paul Thomas Andersen movie about this election season. Who would play Hillary, Bill, Obama, and McCain? Tina Fey may look like Palin, but can she play her? Will Biden or McCain slip up and refer to Palin as a "gorgeous broad" in a Mad Men-esque moment? What if McCain wins and croaks and Palin becomes President? It could be a Hollywood movie come to life, like Dave crossed with Legally Blonde.

In the time of year when nothing good is hitting movie theaters, I'll be cozying up with a bucket of popcorn and watching the Cubs in the playoffs and Obama/McCain in the main event.

MLB spam is a cool product, but does some things that really peeve me.

First of all, I received this random e-mail from the other day.

Inbox (4880 messages, 900 unread)

In what way does my subscribing to MLB TV mean I want to receive Staples ads from MLB? I don't remember giving them my consent to sell my e-mail address off that way. And what's the relation of office products to major league baseball? Really not cool.

Spam e-mail is not as bad as spam snail mail, but one law I'd love to see passed for real world junk mail, like the three million credit card offers I'm sent each day, is a requirement that on each piece of snail mail the company from which the spammer purchased your name must be listed. Something like: "This junk mail is being sent to you because Bank of America sold your personal information to us."

Strike two against After upgrading to MLB TV Premium today, the last step in their shopping pipeline was this page:

Thank You | Cart

Plenty of sites try to insert an extra step at the end of the checkout process to upsell you, but MLB not only does this but lightens the offer rejection button so it looks like it's inactive or not clickable, even though it is. Not only is that a usability no-no, but it is just evil.

It reminds me of the old Real Networks hidden links for the free version of their player. You'd have to wade through page after page of offers for the paid version of their RealPlayer until you could locate the obscure link for the free player download. Years later, that terrible and short-sighted decision associates their brand with evil in my mind, even though they now offer a really great product in Rhapsody.

Tiny Tim

Tom Verducci with a great article on the mechanics of San Francisco Giant starter Tim Lincecum. He is fun to watch pitch. The article is painful to read for a Cubs fan, however, as it includes many cautionary tales that feature the North siders as the punchline.

For example, it includes the first dissenting opinion I've read about Mark Prior's mechanics.

Mark Prior is a classic example of a high-performing pitcher who was permitted to break down because of poor mechanics. Ironically, Prior was often hailed for his "flawless" mechanics when the Cubs drafted the righthander out of USC with the No. 2 pick in 2001, though that assessment seems to have been influenced by scouts' preference for his 6' 5", 225-pound body type. Studied closely, his mechanics included two severe red flags: 1) Prior lifted his throwing elbow higher than his shoulder before reaching the loaded position, increasing the stress on his elbow and shoulder; and 2) unlike Lincecum's dynamic late torso rotation, Prior rotated his hips and torso before getting to the loaded position. With the letters of Prior's jersey already facing the target, his arm could not simply "go along for the ride" -- the ride was over, so his arm had to generate all of its own power.

Prior went 41-23 over his first four seasons in the big leagues. During that time, in 2003, when Prior was on his way to a career-high 18 wins, [former Mets pitching coach Rick] Peterson gave a presentation to the Oakland scouting department about "certain red flags in a delivery that we can't do much about" as the A's prepared for the draft. The idea was to avoid sinking large signing bonuses into players with a high potential to break down. (Late picks, because of their lower cost, don't carry the same concern.)

One of Oakland's scouts, responding to Peterson's red-flag warnings, said, "Hey, that's what Prior does. Are you saying that we shouldn't draft a player like that?"

Replied Peterson, "No, not exactly. He's one of the best pitchers in the league right now, but what I am saying is, If he doesn't have maximum [shoulder] rotation, it will lead to injury. It's like slamming the brakes over and over. The brake pads are going to wear out until it's metal on metal."

Prior has suffered a series of shoulder injuries that have limited him to one win and nine starts in the three seasons since. Still only 27, he is out for the season -- again -- after surgery to repair a tear in his right shoulder. "Prior is almost all upper body," Chris Lincecum says. "You could cut his legs off and he would throw just as hard. I don't like to put my finger on players, but I've been doing this a long time. I've said, 'He's going to blow his elbow out' or 'His back will go out.' Sure enough, it happens, including Dice-K [Daisuke Matsuzaka], Jake Peavy, Prior. . . . I have a hard time enjoying the game. I'm sitting there criticizing the pitcher. It hurts to watch pitchers. Seventy percent of the pros have poor mechanics."

As the owner of a Mark Prior Cubs jersey, I'm still wistful for what could have been. It scares me to think that the Oakland A's were willing to trade Rich Harden to the Cubs given how much they rely on Rick Peterson's counsel. Is Harden simply the second coming of Prior, immensely talented, doomed to physical breakdown?

Prior isn't the only example of a Cubs high draft pick whose body broke down.

Bobby Brownlie was supposed to be Tim Lincecum. A 6-foot righthander from Rutgers who hit 97 mph on the gun, Brownlie was regarded as one of the top pitchers in the 2002 draft. Peterson was working as the A's pitching coach at the time. Just before the draft, Oakland G.M. Billy Beane gave Peterson videotapes of some 20 pitchers the A's were considering as draft picks and told him to break down each pitcher not by stuff and performance but by the biomechanics of their deliveries.

The previous winter Peterson had met Brownlie at a banquet and told him, "Hey, I hear you're great. Congratulations, I hear you're going to be a [first round] pick." But when he watched Brownlie on the tape Beane had given him, Peterson says, "I'm literally sick to my stomach. I'm going, 'This is so sad.' "

A few days later, when Beane asked Peterson what he thought of Brownlie, the pitching coach replied, "He has certain characteristics in his delivery that will lead to shoulder problems."

The Cubs took Brownlie with the 21st pick -- bypassing future big leaguers Matt Cain, Joe Blanton, Jon Lester and Jonathon Broxton -- and lavished him with a $2.5 million signing bonus. Within three years Brownlie could not throw any harder than the mid-80s, and minor league hitters were crushing his pitches. Chicago released him in March 2007. Brownlie spent much of last year playing independent league baseball and is now pitching for the Washington Nationals' Double A Harrisburg affiliate. In May '07 Brownlie told, "The major question about me is why my velocity has dipped in the past couple of years. . . . There's really no answer to it; we don't know what's going on."

The last poke in the eye to Cubs fans: Lincecum was drafted by the Cubs in the 48th round after his last season of high school baseball, when he was named Washington's 2003 Gatorade High School Player of the Year. He turned them down.

An age old question

What happens when an ambidextrous pitcher faces a switch-hitter? Confusion.

Things got a tad dizzying when designated hitter Ralph Henriquez, who had taken his on-deck circle swings as a lefty, entered the batter's box from the right side.

Venditte put his specially made glove (it has six fingers, two webs and fits on both hands) on his left hand, and got ready to pitch right-handed.

Henriquez then changed his mind and switched sides of the plate, because a batter sees the ball sooner when it is thrown by a pitcher using the opposite hand.

So Venditte shifted his glove to the other hand.

Then it happened again.

And again.

And again.

Apparently unsure of how the rules handle such an oddity, the umpires didn't stop the cat-and-mouse game until Venditte walked toward the plate and said something while pointing at Henriquez.

Umpires and both managers huddled and the umps decided the batter and pitcher can both change sides one time per at-bat, and that the batter must declare first.

The ruling favored the pitcher, since he gets to declare last.

Highs and Lows

Ed had tix to the Stanford-USC game and asked if I wanted to go today. I had too much work to catch up on, and besides, Stanford was a 41 point underdog. What would be the fun of driving all that way to see a drubbing? Stanford was starting a QB who had thrown 3 passes in college because their starter had a seizure earlier this week.


Meanwhile, I had the Cubs game on MLB Gameday in the corner of my screen, which was like having an IV drip in your arm, except instead of useful fluids, the drip contained liquid depression, spreading through my body drop by drop. If you can't get hits off of Livan Hernandez, who's about 87 years old, it's probably not meant to be.

Cubs in! Cubs in!

Work has been so busy...I'm really out of it. I just now realized that the Cubs made the playoffs. I didn't know the Cubs could even clinch today. Holy shmoley.

They spent a lot of money in the offseason, and I wasn't sure it was all spent well, but making the playoffs makes it all worth it. There isn't another team in sports that can get me as fired up with a postseason appearance.

That's my team! In the playoffs! It doesn't happen often, but even if it did, I'm not sure it would ever get old.

I didn't think they Cubs would be that good this year, and they'll go into the playoffs with the worst record of any of the postseason teams, but maybe it's good to be thought of as the underdog. I don't want to get my hopes up, but you score a ticket to the ball, lose a glass slipper, and next thing you know...

Some old notes and links

VMWare's Fusion may top even Parallels and Bootcamp as a way to run Windows apps on your Mac.

After downloading the first iPhone software update, I've found the iPhone to be generally more stable. Mobile Safari was crashing a lot just before the update. Now? Not as much.

Why are U.S. health care costs so high relative to the rest of the world? Perhaps because American doctors make so much more than their international peers and because of the way they are paid--by the procedure. I'm not sure the right answer is to put doctors on a salary. If the services American doctors provide are superior or more specialized, it may be worth the money. Arnold Kling blames a different issue for soaring healthcare costs, arguing that what we have in the U.S. is more health care insulation than insurance.

Baseball Prospectus posted an interview with Dr. Alan Nathan, physics professor and also chairman of the Science and Baseball committee of SABR. In response to a question about counterintuitive baseball truths as related to physics, he offered three, the last running counter to a baseball axiom:

One example is that the grip the batter has on the bat does not play a role in the ball-bat collision. That is, a batter could just as well let go of the bat an instant before contact, and it would not make a bit of difference to what happens to the ball. Most people tend to be very skeptical of this conclusion, since they believe a batter "muscles" the ball when it is in contact with the bat. But, that is not what happens, as shown not only "theoretically" but also experimentally.

Another example has to do with the ability of the batter to track the incoming pitch. In fact, it is really impossible to do so. So, just like my previous example, the batter could just as well close his eyes when the ball is halfway to home plate and it won’t affect the outcome of the swing.

A final example: Can a batter get to first base quicker by running through the base or in a head-first slide? Most people believe the former. I believe the latter. The essential physics is that by sliding with outstretched arms, the batter reaches the bag before his center of gravity reaches it, whereas those two times more or less coincide when running through the bag.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

Decongestant high

I feel like something radioactive is bubbling in my sinuses. I'm not sure if it's the result of taking decongestants for two days straight now. For some reason all my decongestants seem to all be dosed at two pills every four hours. So sometime in the middle of every night I have to wake up coughing to death like a seventy year old smoker attached to an oxygen tank. Then I rush to take two more pills and lie there coughing until the medicine takes effect. Longer lasting doses please.

I apologize in advance for all the people I may have infected during my stay in Seattle. Tough to balance being sick with wanting to catch up with people.


As a tribute to Radiohead's OK Computer, Stereogum asked some of its favorite musicians for covers of tracks from that much beloved album.

Clever commercial for...well, just wait for the punch line (Quicktime).

Watched a bit of the home run derby the other day and had to wonder who thought it was a good idea to have a crowd of eight year old boys who don't know how to catch a baseball waddling around the outfield running into each other while people like Vladimir Guerrero swing as hard as they can trying to hit the ball out of the stadium, and when they miss they hit searing laser line drives into the outfield. One of these years one of those kids will get hit flush in the face and go down like a criminal hit with a taser, and won't that be an awkward moment for Bud Selig.

Orlando Bloom's dirtstache.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,