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Dr. Strangeglove

How I Came to Know Incredulity

Posted by Michael Baumann, Wed, October 12, 2011 11:32 AM Comments: 41

It took me five days to write this post, so I want to take you back to Friday night.

I feel like I ought to explain how I came to be sitting alone in my bedroom, tears welling up in my eyes, listening to “Nearer My God to Thee” over and over on Spotify. If you’re reading this, you’ve most likely done whatever approximates, for you, sitting in your pajamas, mourning the passing of the most remarkable regular season Philadelphia has seen in a generation, all while listening to the song the band played while the Titanic went down.

If anyone has a better idea, I’m open to suggestions. The pain has hardly dulled in the interim.

What hurts is not so much that it’s over–that was likely to happen at some point, no matter the means. It’s not the possibility of not seeing Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Madson, Roy Oswalt, or Raul Ibanez put on red pinstripes ever again. Neither is it watching your franchise first baseman and cleanup hitter end this season with a weak groundout, then possibly end next season (for him at least) with a torn Achilles tendon, all on the same play. Or the pain of seeing your team lose, though as a 24-year-old, I really shouldn’t be moved to tears by a baseball tea m losing. But I am. I’m not counting down the days to next season. I’m not getting more amped up for Flyers hockey, or the Eagles, or Arsenal, or South Carolina, or any of the other teams I follow rabidly–that is to say, with about 2/3 the tenacity and emotion with which I follow the Phillies–or even looking forward to the rest of the MLB postseason.

Friday’s loss was a gut shot for two reasons: first, because this season represented a bread-and-circuses-type distraction that we all need from time to time. When your world is not a pleasant place to live in, sometimes you latch on to whatever is going right and give it undue importance–in this case, the Phillies. Now it’s over, three weeks early and without even a moment’s notice. Second, because as much as I’ve tried to be hyper-rational and prepare for the worst, it never actually occurred to me that the Phillies wouldn’t win the World SeriesContinue reading How I Came to Know Incredulity

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Dr. Strangeglove: On Game 5 and Irrational Fear

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, October 07, 2011 06:30 AM Comments: 33

Tonight, we witness an event as rare as a Phillies World Series title–a Phillies playoff series that goes the distance. It’s happened only twice: the 1980 NLCS, a best-of-five series that was won in five, and the 1981 NLDS, a special best-of-five series that was necessitated by the strike that split the 1981 regular season in half. The Phillies lost that one to the Montreal Expos. That’s it, in 129 seasons, only two playoff series that went the distance–the same number that the Boston Red Sox had in 1986 alone.

So if we’re not exactly in uncharted territory here, we’re close. And like most unfamiliar things, the immediate reaction is fear. And so I find myself of two minds the morning of the biggest game of the season: on the one hand, cognizant of who is taking the mound in red pinstripes, and that he was brought to Philadelphia for precisely this moment. On the other hand, fearful of the possibility–no matter who’s pitching, it’s more likely than we’d like to think–that the best team might not win. Space is not, in fact, the final frontier–Game 5 is. Continue reading Dr. Strangeglove: On Game 5 and Irrational Fear

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Dr. Strangeglove: On Getting Everything You Want

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, September 30, 2011 07:00 AM Comments: 24

We all have expectations as sports fans, and as Phillies fans, I think our expectations were, by and large, rather similar going into 2011: don’t give up many runs, win the division, and go into the playoffs positioned to win another title.

As I said the other day, I don’t think we could have expected much more from La Furia Roja this season. And that leaves me in a curious emotional place going into the playoffs. For the first time I can remember, I’m nervous about the upcoming postseason.

I grew up in a time, as I’m sure many of you did, when the Phillies were awful. Really, unless you lived out ages 8-18 between 1975 and 1984, or between 2002 and 2011, the Phillies were most likely awful when you were growing up too. The idea that they’d win five straight division titles, or reel off 10 winning seasons and an 80-81 season in 11 years, or become the de facto Yankees of the National League–to say nothing of a certain World Series title–was up there with the ability to teleport on the list of things I’d love to see but had written off as impossible.

***

In a way, I loved the Phillies because they were miserable. It set me apart, I thought, from the kids for whom football season started in August and not the morning after the last game of the World Series, as it did for me. Baseball was this mythical thing to me, an arcane, pastoral, boring, game that I loved so much that I’d rather watch the team I loved play it badly rather than submit to the all-glowing, modern, and otherwise cool rule of the Eagles. I had fallen in love with the depth of the statistics and the magic (because there’s no more accurate word) of the mythology, history, and narrative of the game so much that I loved its biggest moments, even when they involved the Indians and Marlins.

Being a voracious reader and an avid baseball fan at age ten is like living in a C.S. Lewis novel. There’s always more to explore, more to learn. More history, more strategy, more mythology. And when that history–so often dominated by a handful of teams–intersected with the Phillies, I felt a special sense of pride. Ken Burns’ iconic Baseball documentary ran during the strike when I was seven years old, and my dad taped it and saved it. I could not tell you how many times I watched those tapes, and I can still recite certain lines from memory, but I always looked forward to the moment when they mentioned, for all of 15 seconds, that Pete Rose signed as a free agent with the Phillies and helped them to their only World Series title. It was the only time in the entire 18 1/2 hours that the Phillies were mentioned, by name, in a positive light. When the Phillies got on national TV, or were mentioned in the national media, I cherished the moment similarly. I still remember a Baseball Weekly cover in 2001, when the Phillies got hot out of the gate, that featured Travis Lee and Omar Daal.

Well, since 2005 or so, those rare moments have become commonplace. National media outlets discuss the Phillies repeatedly, and in glowing terms. My Lenny Dykstra shirsey isn’t the only piece of Phillies apparel you can see on the street anymore. There’s a new, expensive stadium, populated by cheering fans and some of the best ballplayers money can buy. And most importantly, I don’t have to pick a team, more or less at random, to root for in the postseason, the way I did once. My surrogate Orioles/Red Sox fandom is over. We are a part of baseball history every day, Ken Burns-style, and if you had told a certain thirteen-year-old boy who had watched his team lose 97 games and fire Terry Francona that all of this would come to pass, he would scarcely have believed you. From a baseball perspective, I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted.

*** Continue reading Dr. Strangeglove: On Getting Everything You Want

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Dr. Strangeglove: One Chance in Three

Posted by Michael Baumann, Mon, September 26, 2011 08:00 AM Comments: 8

“You’re afraid of our fleet. Well, you should be. Personally, I’d give us one chance in three. More tea anyone?”

Sean Connery as Capt. Marko Ramius, The Hunt for Red October

I’ll go out and say it: I think the Phillies are the best team in the playoff hunt, and have been all year. It’s hard to imagine the possibility that their starting pitching wouldn’t carry them three-quarters of the way to a title, and the bullpen and offense will do as well as is needed. Here’s a warning: I’m about to say that it’s more likely than not that the Phillies, despite having assembled a great team and despite having embarked on a great season, will once again fall short of a World Series title. So if you reject that premise out of hand and can’t be bothered to read the argument behind it, you know where to go. But I’m not saying that to be all doom-and-gloom, or even because I’m worried by the recent eight-game losing streak (I’m not). I’m saying it because the facts support the argument.

If you asked me to bet money on any one team to win the World Series, I’d put it on the Phillies. They’ve got the best record, the best pitching staff, a pretty decent offense that has all its starters back for the first time in weeks, and the easiest road to the Fall Classic. The logical conclusion is that the Phillies would win, but because of the vagaries of small sample size and the whoopee cushions and banana peels that shroud playoff baseball year in and year out, nothing is for certain.

Am I optimistic? Sure. But there’s a long way to go. Just like the crew of the Red October, I give us….about one chance in three.

Continue reading Dr. Strangeglove: One Chance in Three

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Dr. Strangeglove: On Mainlining Maalox

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, September 16, 2011 11:05 AM Comments: 15

Now that the Phillies are officially in the playoffs, we can start discussing what might happen when they get there. I’m a big fan of typologies, particularly ones with arbitrary boundaries, so let’s have one here. There are four types of teams, broadly speaking, that win the World Series:

  • Teams with great offenses and enough pitching to get by. The 2008 Phillies were one of those teams, but the exemplar of this philosophy, for me, is the 1993 Blue Jays. Jack Morris and Dave Stewart were just hanging on by then, and no one would confuse Juan Guzman, Duane Ward, Todd Stottlemyre and Pat Hentgen with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Mark Wohlers. However, they had three Hall of Fame position players, plus John Olerud (.363/.473/.599), Tony Fernandez, Devon White, Joe Carter…lots of good hitters.
  • Teams with great pitching and enough offense to get by. Consider, for instance, the Hank Bauer/Earl Weaver Orioles that ran roughshod over the American League in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or the National League teams they ran into, the Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers and the Seaver/Koosman Mets.
  • Teams with both great pitching and great pitching. The 1998 Yankees and a few others. These teams just sort of sleepwalk to the title (the 2004 Red Sox excepted), because it’s really hard to score more runs off Cone, Wells, Pettitte, and Rivera than their lineup of Derek Jeter and a million other guys who always get on base will score off you.
  • The 2010 San Francisco Giants, who had great pitching and the combined karmic magnetism of a million plucky underdogs. The 2010 Giants had four very good starting pitchers, Buster Posey, and a bunch of guys who either hadn’t been any good in five years or had never really been good to begin with. To quote Ryan Sommers of Crashburn Alley, “But hey, sometimes the batless fleck of roster garbage stumbles upon success. That’s baseball. Charlie Manuel can’t defend against that.” Batless fleck of roster garbage, indeed. And yes, I’m still bitter. Lucky bastards.

I think you’ve figured out where this is going by now. We’ve seen a Phillies team with a great offense and decent pitching win a title, and we’re about to see a Phillies team with great pitching and a decent offense try to do the same. I like the chances of La Furia Roja, insofar as it’s possible to like a team’s playoff chances, what with the postseason being a total crapshoot and all. But let’s say the Phillies make a run–how would 2011 be different than 2008 from a fan’s perspective? Here’s a hint: it’s going to be awesome, but we’ll all be lucky to live through it.

Continue reading Dr. Strangeglove: On Mainlining Maalox

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Dr. Strangeglove: On Historical Greatness

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, September 09, 2011 06:45 AM Comments: 17

The overriding emotion I get from watching the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies is not excitement or happiness so much as slack-jawed amazement. It’s remarkable what this team is doing, expected by Coolstandings to win 105 games or more at this point, with a winning percentage that extrapolates out to a shade over 106 by the time all’s said and done. That mark would shatter the Phillies’ all-time franchise record for wins, set in 1976 with 101 and matched the next year. I know beating a record by five games doesn’t sound like much, but a five-game lead in the standings is “take the last two weeks of the season off” territory, unless you’re the 2007 Mets (or the 1964 Phillies, for that matter, in case any of you were thinking about snickering.

A won-loss record like that (and nothing’s certain; the Phillies could win five games the rest of the year and still probably make the playoffs) calls into mind not just “best team this year” questions, but questions of historical greatness.

Pat put it to me this way: could it be that this year’s Phillies are the greatest team in the history of the National League? Short answer: I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t laugh you out of the room for making the argument.

Here’s my take on greatness, from a team standpoint. What defines greatness? Here are my answers, and if you don’t like them, you can go get your own blog and make your own list. Continue reading Dr. Strangeglove: On Historical Greatness

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Dr. Strangeglove: A Philly Type of Guy

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, September 02, 2011 07:00 AM Comments: 46

I was talking about Hunter Pence with a buddy of mine on Monday, and he said something interesting that I think warrants discussion here. “The fans here will love Pence,” he said, “because Pence is a ‘Philly Type of Guy.’ “ This is an interesting construct, this “Philly Type of Guy.” From what I understand, being a “Philly Type of Guy” is the proverbial lunch-pail type, a player who goes out and gives a good effort every day, is quotable and friendly toward media and friends, and seems like a solid character.

Don’t get me wrong, Hunter Pence is, or at least seems to be, all of those things. I’ve found him to be extremely entertaining, and I celebrate his presence in red pinstripes, but not for those reasons. I like Hunter Pence because he’s good at baseball and is helping my favorite team win.

The “Philly Type of Guy” argument bears an uncanny similarity to the “True Yankee” argument, a line of thought similar to what  Bill James once called a “bullshit dump.” A bullshit dump is any excuse to override objective evidence (hits, runs, batting average, strikeouts, team wins, wOBA, WAR, xFIP- or whatever objective evidence you chose) so it fits with our subjective opinion. In this case, to borrow James’ construction, “clutch” is a bullshit dump. “Hustle” is almost always a bullshit dump. “Composure” is a bullshit dump. “Scrappy” is a bullshit dump. “Leadership” and “Good clubhouse guy” are often, but not always, a bullshit dump in terms of any substantive meaning.

Here’s the point: there’s no reason why subjective reasons ought not to influence one’s ideas about a player. If you’re choosing a guy to root for, getting his jersey dirty or similar criteria are as good a reason as any. But where that gets dangerous is when those subjective criteria influence analysis. In short, it’s okay to say “I like him because he’s a Philly Type of Guy,” but it’s not okay to say “He’s good because he’s a Philly Type of Guy.”

It’s a dangerous way to think for several reasons, even when it affects a player’s perception positively, and even if you’re only a casual fan who only goes to the ballpark because you like the smell of hot dogs and fresh-cut grass. And here’s why: Continue reading Dr. Strangeglove: A Philly Type of Guy

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Dr. Strangeglove: 25 Bullet Points

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, August 26, 2011 09:47 AM Comments: 42

This week, we’re dispensing information. I mean, that’s what we try to do with every post, but with analysis involved. This time, no analysis, no context, just information. Here are some things you might not know about this year’s Phillies, presented on their own merits, and I make no claims about their significance or even entertainment value. I submit the following without comment or criticism.

The Playoff Chase

  • Coolstandings.com has the Phillies, as of Friday morning, at 99.9% odds to make the playoffs. If they fail, it would tie the 1995 California Angels for the worst collapse in history.
  • The same website has the second-place Braves at 99.2% to make the playoffs. If they fail, it would be tied for the fourth-worst collapse in history, beating both the 1962 Dodgers and 1964 Phillies (but not the 2007 Mets).
  • No team in position to make the playoffs has less than a 72% chance of doing so, and no chasing team has better than a 28.5% chance of overtaking a division or wild card leader. Four of the eight playoff teams have a 99% chance or better of holding on to their spots. This could be a boring stretch run. Continue reading Dr. Strangeglove: 25 Bullet Points
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Dr. Strangeglove: Hunter Pence, Child

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, August 19, 2011 02:01 PM Comments: 24

I’ve got a friend who used to dip. We’ll call him Special Agent X, because he’s a government agent, and while I could give you the name he’s gone by as long as I’ve known him, I’m not sure it’s his real name, because people in his line of work are not born the way you and I are, but rather grown in a test tube in Quantico and stripped of human qualities that might get in the way of their professional lives, like fingerprints, or remorse.

Anyway, Special Agent X, in the it-takes-one-to-know-one manner, has spent the last several months pointing out to me every ballplayer he sees on TV who dips. Of course, I’d been aware of the phenomenon of ballplayers using smokeless tobacco before, because my favorite player when I was six years old was Lenny Dykstra, the man Andy Van Slyke once accused of turning center field in Veterans Stadium into a “toxic waste dump.” The obvious offenders (Dykstra and Carlos Perez long ago, Chipper Jones and Nick Swisher now) never bothered me, but I’ve been trained by Special Agent X to pick up the slightly swollen lower lip, or the telltale can in the back pocket–subtle signs that might go unnoticed by the casual observer, but allow Special Agent X to identify those players (Chase Utley, for instance) who indulge in the use of smokeless tobacco on the field of play.

Anyway, I was sitting behind first base at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night, in perfect view of the backside of any runner to reach first base (which, considering that Utley singled twice that night, made me the envy of the women of Citizens Back Park). It was after Hunter Pence singled in the bottom of the eighth that I noticed the aforementioned can of what I assumed to be dip in his back pocket.

I bring this up not as any sort of crusade against Hunter Pence, or even against dip, which I find personally disgusting but in no way morally reprehensible (though not as disgusting as that bizarre wad of gum-and-sunflower seeds that A-Rod keeps in his cheek during games). Instead, I was shocked that Hunter Pence did something on a baseball diamond that I couldn’t imagine a hyperactive 11-year-old doing.

Continue reading Dr. Strangeglove: Hunter Pence, Child

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Dr. Strangeglove: The Best Pitching Staff

Posted by Michael Baumann, Sat, August 13, 2011 09:55 AM Comments: 12

I get the whole “Oh no, there’s nothing to write about” thing all the time. Particularly, after 110 games, not only does the “offense good, bullpen great, starting pitching historically great” narrative get boring, but you run out of things to argue about. It gets boring to say “the Phillies are the best team in the NL by far” over and over, particularly when sports pundits are under pressure not only to churn out new material day after day (which, by the by, is much harder than it looks, even when you do have access and time), but to make that material thought-provoking, interesting, and controversial. As a result, we get a lot of opinion pieces that take logically tenuous or contrarian positions as a result of boredom or desire to drum up readership. This is how Bobby Abreu went from being underrated to overrated and back, by my count, about six or seven times over the course of his career.

Moreover, when you’re a fan of a team that has so many obvious strengths as these Phillies, you start to freak yourself out a little bit. I know looking at “77-41″ and an 7 1/2 game lead in the standings makes me a little dizzy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but sometimes it’s hard to believe. What’s more, if the wheels come off in the playoffs (which are so unpredictable I wouldn’t bet against it) the disappointment will be hard to take, so perhaps we’re steeling ourselves a little against the possibility that the walls come tumbling down by selling this team short.

This, I think, is why, back in the early spring, the sexy thing to say, for baseball writers, was that the Braves either had a better pitching staff than the Phillies or that they’d win the division and the Phillies would miss the playoffs. Neither of those assertions, at the time, was absurd on its face, so for one of those two reasons, baseball writers whose work I consume and whose opinions I give attention (Jonah Keri and Eric Karabell are the two names that popped into my mind, but they were far from the only ones) were in the habit of saying either the Giants or Braves were better at run prevention than the Phillies.

But after nearly two-thirds of a season, I think the time for contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake has passed, and it’s time to face the facts: the Phillies have the best pitching staff in the game, and any attempt to argue the contrary is an intellectually bankrupt attempt to stir up readership through controversy.

Continue reading Dr. Strangeglove: The Best Pitching Staff

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