Thursday, May 30, 2019

Pete Buttegieg Won't Save American Christianity, But He'll Probably Help It

Back when we lived in Bend, Oregon, in the 1990s, a proposition qualified for the state ballot that would've have limited the rights of gays and lesbians, and the "mainline" Bend ministerial association decided to put together a pamphlet opposing it. When I received a draft, I looked it over, thought it was fine, and passed it on to to the Associate Minister of the local United Methodist Church. After he read it, he handed it back to me and remarked, "There's nothing remotely Christian about this." And he was right. There were references to Franklin and Jefferson, but there was nothing about Jesus, which strikes me as bit odd if not sad. Buddhists routinely cite the Buddha, Muslims frequently quote the Prophet, but theologically-liberal Christians seem reluctant, almost embarrassed, to talk about Jesus. Perhaps it's because we're afraid of what others might think. Remember how the media sneered at George W. Bush who, after being asked who is favorite philosopher was, replied, "Jesus."? Such reluctance has led me to quip on more than one occasion that "we liberal Christians are more likely to quote Jefferson than we are Jesus."

This is too bad because so many Americans have absolutely no idea that not every one who calls him or herself a Christian believes God helped elect Donald Trump to make America great again. Instead, many of us consider Trump to be amoral at best and find the repeated attempts by some Christians to explain away his behavior as theologically troubling. But it's more than troubling. Explaining (or rationalizing) away Trump's behavior calls into question the very legitimacy of the Church. If Trump's behavior is fine, then what's "appropriate? It's no wonder that so many young Americans feel disaffected from the church.

And that's where Pete Buttegieg comes in. He's a theologically-liberal Christian who isn't afraid to talk about Jesus. As the Economist recently noted, he happily fuses liberalism with tradition. If asked, I don't know if he would name Jesus as his favorite philosopher, but it wouldn't surprise me if he did. And that, I think, is a good thing. More Americans need to know that not all Christians believe Trump's the greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, many of us count ourselves among the majority of Americans who did not vote for him, think he's morally challenged, and is not making America great again. At best, he's turned us into a laughing stock. And while I don't think Mayor Pete will "save" the church, he'll almost certainly improve the perceptions that many people have of it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Should the Giants Pull the Plug?

About a month ago, I speculated that the Giants had a good chance of outperforming the predictions of experts ("How Will the Giants do in 2019?"). I argued that they had decent starting pitching, great defense, and an excellent bullpen. The primary wildcard was their offense, but if their core position players (Posey, Panik, Belt, Crawford, and Longoria) ended up hitting close to their career averages, then the Giants might send manager Bruce Bochy into retirement with a winning season. They probably wouldn't make the playoffs, but at least they'd do okay.

Well, 50+ games into the season, it's becoming clear that Bochy's last year won't be a memorable one. Although the defense and bullpen have been more than adequate (Mark Melancon being a notable exception), starting pitching has been a disappointment, and the offense has been terrible. For the most part, the core position players have not hit. Only Joe Panik is close to his career average, and it wouldn't surprise me that by season's end, Buster Posey closes in on his. However, Longoria, Belt, and Crawford are struggling, and there have been few signs that they will turn things around anytime soon. All three look as if they can't catch up with a good fastball. It's hard not to wonder if the increase in average pitch velocity is taking a toll on their performance ("Pitch Velocity and Aging Curves").

As far as pitching, of the starters, only Madison Bumgarner is showing flashes of his former self. The rest of the members of the original starting rotation -- Jeff Samardzija, Derek HollandDereck Rodríguez, and Drew Pomeranz -- have struggled. Holland has been sent to the bullpen, Rodriguez was relegated to AAA to regain his command, Samardzija has continued to give up home runs at an alarming rate, and Pomeranz, in spite of displaying absolutely wicked stuff at times, has pitched inconsistently.

What should the Giants do? I wouldn't pull the plug on the season. I hate giving up. Nevertheless, at a minimum the Giants should begin lighting a few fires for the future. To begin with, it's probably time for the Giants to move (keep) Samardzija, Holland, and Pomeranz to the bullpen and let their young starters (Dereck Rodríguez, Andrew Suarez, Tyler Beede, and Shaun Anderson) take over. All four have demonstrated they can win in AAA, so there's no point in wasting their arms there. Instead, the Giants should use this year to find out whether they can win at the major league level. In other words, the Giants should seek to make this season as "productive" as possible. They may not win any more games. They might even lose more. But, come September, they will have a pretty good sense which of their young starters, if any, will be a part of a future Giants' rotation.

As far as position players go, few, if any, are trade bait. Some are saddled with long contracts, and others appear to no longer have what it takes to be attractive to other teams. If possible, I'd jettison Longoria, but that'll be tough to do with his contract. For now, I'd keep Crawford, Panik, and Belt. Panik might have a few productive offensive years left in him, and all three are playing good defense. Still, the Giants should see if they can pick up potential replacements through trades over the next couple of months (see the next paragraph). I don't see the Giants ever trading Posey, but they might want to move him to 1B soon in order to extend his career. He can't afford too many more concussions, and his knees won't hold up forever. Plus, Joey Bart may be ready for the big leagues by the middle of next season.

Only Bumgarner and the bullpen offer the Giants much hope of getting some decent prospects. I'm not sure how much the Giants can get for Bumgarner, but they should get a pretty decent return for closer, Will Smith. Several teams seem interested in him, including the Milwaukee Brewers, which is where the Giants got him from in the first place. The Brewers might be willing to give up quite a few prospects, including Lucas Erceg, who is from the Bay Area, if it looks like they'll reach the postseason. I hate to see Bumgarner go, but if he's traded, I hope he lands with the Houston Astros, which looks like the team most likely to keep the Dodgers from winning the World Series. That would offer me (and other Giants fans) some consolation for losing one of the greatest Giants of all time.

P. S. It'd be nice if the Giants could figure out a way to rid themselves of Mark Melancon, who has turned out to be one of the worst investments the Giants have made in recent years, that would be great. It would help make room for players who actually might help the Giants get back to the playoffs in the future.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Pitch Velocity and Aging Curves

On numerous occasions I have railed with the training regimens imposed on young arms by today's youth baseball leagues, primarily because it has led to an exponential increase in arm injuries (""). That said, it has also led to an increase in the number of pitchers who can throw exceptionally hard. Pitchers who threw 100 mph used to be rare. Now, they're becoming more and more common. As an article in the Washington Post ("Velocity is strangling baseball — and its grip keeps tightening") recently noted:
Im 2008, there were 196 pitches thrown at 100 mph or higher... In 2018, there were 1,320, a nearly sevenfold increase. In 2008, only 11 pitchers averaged 95 mph or higher; in 2018, 74 did. Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees and Jordan Hicks of the St. Louis Cardinals have both been clocked at 105 mph.
Average pitch velocity has also increased. Not at quite the rate of 100 mph pitches and pitchers, but,  as the graph below from 538 illustrates ("Where Have All The Crafty Pitchers Gone?"), the increase has been steady and substantial for the last several seasons.

Unsurprisingly, this increase has led to a decrease in batting averages and a rise in the number of strikeouts. In fact, 2018 marked the first time in the history of major league baseball that there were more strikeouts per game than hits.

Not only is this decline in offensive production because pitchers are throwing harder, but also because teams are using more pitchers each game. It is rare for a starter to finish a game. There is too much evidence that shows that a starting pitcher's effectiveness decreases the third time through the batting order. Thus, teams are increasingly using relievers, most of whom are only expected to pitch an inning or less, which means that they can throw as hard as they want without worrying about having to pace themselves. Thus, while in the past, in later innings batters could "look forward" to a pitcher's whose velocity had fallen from the start of the game and they had already seen at least twice, now they have to face a fresh (and unseen) arm.

What I'm curious about is the effect that the increase in pitch velocity, if it remains unchecked, will have on the aging curves of position players. What's an aging curve? An aging curve measures the average improvement or decline expected based on a player’s age. Here's a brief description from FanGraphs ("The Beginner’s Guide To Aging Curves"):
Human beings generally can’t run as fast at 36 as they can at 26. They get injured and tired more easily. Sometimes their vision or hand-eye coordination diminishes. No two players bodies age in exactly the same way, but overall there are consistent trends, [but]... players are typically much better overall at 27 then they are at 37.
The graph below plots expected or average runs above average (RAA) by player age. As it indicates, an average player peaks in terms of run production around the 26 years old, and at around 30-32 years old, their productivity drops below that of an average 21 year old. Better players tend to age slower or at least are still productive into their early 30s, but what this graph (and corresponding data) suggests is that when a player reaches 30, it is probably time to start looking for a replacement.

So, what might the increase in pitch velocity have on aging curves? Well, it's not hard to imagine that having to hit a high-90 to low-100mph fastball becomes increasingly difficult as reaction time diminishes. Thus, I wouldn't be surprised that the long term effect could be to push the curve to the left. That is, players might peak at a younger age or their decline could occur more rapidly.

The decrease in offense has corresponded with a decline in attendance. People may lament the steroid era, but it brought people out to the ball park. Not any more. Attendance has declined for six straight seasons. In 2018, average attendance was 28,659 per game, which is 13 percent from its 2007 peak. Thus, it is no surprise major league baseball (MLB) is looking into ways to address the issue. Back in 1968 when batting averages hit an all-time low, the MLB lowered the mound 5 inches (from 15 to 10) and reduced the strike zone. Now, they are talking about moving the mound back. The last time MLB moved the mound back was in 1893. Back then, they moved it back 10 feet, and batting averages jumped 35 points and strikeouts dropped by 34 percent. I don't anticipate anything quite so drastic. In fact, beginning in the second half of the 2020 Atlantic League season, the mound will be moved back by two feet. It will be interesting to see its effects.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Rockets Have Run Out of Excuses

Last year, the Houston Rockets and their fans claimed that if Chris Paul hadn't been hurt, they would've won Game 7 of the Conference Finals. They probably were right, but as I noted last year, the Warriors probably would've won Games 4 and 5 if Andre Iguodala hadn't been injured. In those two games, the Rockets won by only a combined score of 7 points. Put differently, if Iguodala hadn't been hurt, there's a really good chance there never would've been a Game 6 or 7 for Chris Paul to miss.

This year, the Rockets have no excuses. At full strength, they couldn't beat a Warriors team without Kevin Durant and a Steph Curry playing with a dislocated finger. It's time for the Rockets (and Rockets fans) to come to terms with the fact that the Warriors are simply a better team. I don't know if the Warriors will win it all this year (they've been pretty inconsistent), but we know for sure the Rockets won't.