Monday, September 28, 2009 "The dream was falling apart"

The SF Chronicle asked me if this season was rough, and why I still played. Here's an excerpt of what I wrote:

Going back to Connecticut was harder than being told that I was going to San Jose. It might have been the hardest thing to face in my sports career. Flying across the country, I knew that my chances of coming back to AAA were not good. Furthermore, the feeling that the Giants had given up on me overcame me. The dream that I had lived since I was a boy was falling apart. I had been given one game, and I didn't take advantage of it. As so often happens in this game, just as I had regained hope it had again been ripped away from me.(Here's a Baseball America article on that). This season has made me realize that I'm an organization arm. I'm simply a guy who can fill in at whatever level I'm needed, and it's not an easy thing to swallow, as this isn't my goal. Still, I've pitched against enough big league guys now to know that I can get them out. Over the past two years, only one person in the Giants' minor leagues has more wins than me: Madison Bumgarner. It's thoughts such as these that keep me going.

Do I have doubts? Yeah, all the time. I throw slower than almost any righthander at any level. I'm 27 now and have only a handful of AAA starts. I know that the chances of having a big league career are very, very slim.

I'm not sure how much longer I can keep playing. Unless a person has some big league time, the minor leagues pay players so little that it is difficult to keep playing financially. I also have a wife that I have to think about. I love her dearly and I'm forced to be away from her for six months out of the year. She's very understanding, but I know how tough it is on her. It's tough on me.
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Friday, September 25, 2009

Random Question #1 (with teammates' responses)

Lighthearted thoughts. Sometimes we get bored in the clubhouse; sometimes we act like idiots. Sometimes bored idiots come up with random idiotic questions. Here's a sample.

Random Question #1 (answers from anonymous teammates follow):

Okay, so you have to choose one of the two:

A) You can never drive again. When I say never, I mean it. For the rest of your life you can never get behind the wheel. In fact, you can’t even ride in a car. No driving to the grocery store for a forgotten item; no more street racing or mudding (for my "Redneck" readers). Biking and public transportation become your only means of movement.

B) You can drive as much as you want. Hell, you can be a Nascar driver if you like. The catch: you have to live in your car for the rest of your life. Eat, sleep, and dream in your car, day after day.

Which do you choose?


One afternoon in New Britain, I asked almost every teammate this question. I thought A was the obvious option, and if you spend most of your time in a city, you'd probably agree. Some though had a different opinion. A few responses:

"Have you seen how sweet my car is? I would have no problem living in it." ("Yeah, but could you sleep in it every night? Think about your back. And are you honestly going to bring a girl back to your car?" "I could do it.")

"I've got a huge truck. I'd just throw a mattress in the bed." (When told this was against the rules, he reconsidered but still chose option B.)

"Can I put camouflaged curtains on it and shoot things with my pellet gun?" "Sure, why not." "Then I'd live in my car."

More practical:

"Can I take the bus?" "Yeah." "Then I'd choose A."

"What about taxis?" "Nope, no cars." "Hmm. I guess I'd just buy a bike or take the train."

Further Thoughts

Approximately 100% of guys from Texas chose option B (of course, it was a small sample size). I'm not sure if this signifies laziness, a love for cars, or mere Texan stubbornness. Or perhaps they simply have further to travel.

The overall percentage choosing option A came to be about 70%. Obviously those living in a city with greater access to public transportation were more likely to choose A.

There was a Third World Split. The Dominicans all chose Option A, while the one Venezuelan chose Option B. Maybe it's all the cheap gas that Chavez is passing out in VZ.

Last thought: Some people love their cars WAAAYY more than I love mine. Of course, some people have WAAAYY cooler cars than my own. Maybe I'm a dork.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Playoffs: Do we have to play them?

A link to my latest Baseball America article, in which I explain the love/hate relationship that players possess towards the minor league playoffs. Enjoy!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Villalona: teammate turned murder suspect

A giant of a kid, homesick and still growing up, navigating his way through the labyrinth that is professional baseball; that is how I would describe teammate Angel Villalona. The game delivered him good times and bad, and he reacted as any teenager would react when under a pressurized microscope. He threw an occasional tantrum but got over it and would soon have a smile on his face.

Now this giant of a kid, the source of such high expectations, is the main suspect in the murder of Mario Felix de Jesus Velete in his hometown of La Romana, Dominican Republic. The incident took place in a bar on Saturday night.

I hope that details come forth that exonerate my 19-year-old friend and teammate. The news is shocking and almost incomprehensible. To think that a man with whom I just recently played is now connected to the death of another human being is hard to swallow.

I am told often by my teammates that the streets of the D.R. are dangerous. At times they exaggerate no doubt, but the latest data puts the murder rate at 23.57 per 100,000. This is much higher than the United States’ rate of 5.8, but also much lower than the famed city of Detroit, which posts a rate of 46.

Still, most of my Dominican teammates claim to carry a pistol with them wherever they go.

“Everyone else has a gun, so you have to carry one too,” one of them told me recently. “Especially if people know you are a baseball player, they might try robbing you, so you have to carry one for protection.”

I don’t know how much of their pistol-packing claims are based on truth and how much are based on myth-building machismo, but enough of them have made the statement that it seems plausible that a plethora of guns fill the streets of the D.R. With that many loaded weapons around, nothing good can come from an altercation.

I’ve had good relationships with every one of my Dominican teammates, Villalona included. Even while assimilating to our culture and learning our language, they like to laugh in the clubhouse and have a good time. I’ve roomed with Dominicans and have forged great friendships with some of them. Still, I realize that the culture from which they come is different than our own.

"It can be dangerous," I remember one of my teammates saying of La Romana. "The area Villalona is from is rough."

To generalize, the Dominicans are a proud people, and if an altercation occurs, they don’t back down. They don’t shy away from a fight, as most claim that they have fought throughout their lives. Having seen a couple of them in small fights, and having seen some of their scars, I tend to believe them.

Again, I hope that Villalona didn’t commit this murder, but if he did, justice needs to be served. The thought still reigns as almost incomprehensible, but I have to remember that my teammates don’t grow up in cushy little suburbs in the United States, playing 60 games a year for traveling Little League teams that extort $5,000 for the “opportunity” to play. Instead, they come from a still developing country with a high crime rate, where $5,000 represents more than half of the average household income.

I’ll be watching this story closely as additional information arises. I’ll be thinking of Villalona’s hearty laugh, and the monstrous power he displayed daily in BP. Hopefully he’s innocent, and I’ll see him back in a uniform soon. But a man died, and if my teammate is guilty of any wrongdoing, then regardless of his fame, fortune or immense potential, he needs to be punished.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pitching to Score: An Attribution Error

The situation: two on and two outs, as my opponent’s best hitter approaches the plate. It’s a one-run game, and he pounds his glove-clad hands together as he stares me down. I look past this foaming monster and glance at the on-deck circle, where appears a hitter against whom I’ve had continual success. What do I do? Obviously I pitch around the monster and face the on-deck hitter. I will be sacrificing my strikeout-to-walk ratio in favor of (hopefully) not allowing a run, but in doing so I’ll be increasing my chance of winning.

Now imagine the exact same scenario, but this time instead of being up by only a run, I’m up by six runs. What do I do? I attack the hitter. Allowing a single run is no longer paramount, but allowing more base runners can potentially lead to disaster, so I pitch to their best hitter instead of pitching around him.

A single instance of pitching to a situation, there exist a plethora of other examples as well. All pitchers will attest to performing in this fashion, most with varying degrees of success. But is pitching to a situation the same as the more general concept of pitching to score? And is this even possible?

The theory goes that a pitcher will pitch differently with a one run lead as compared to having a five, six or twenty run lead. (For a primer, see Joe Posnanski’s piece: ) If a pitcher has a one run lead, every pitch will be thrown with the utmost focus, as each pitch is pivotal. If, on the other hand, the pitcher has a six run lead, the pitcher may in fact attack hitters differently. Wanting to avoid free bases and confident that a solo homerun will not beat them, they may throw more fastballs and force contact earlier in the count.

According to this theory, a “winning” pitcher is someone who is better at this. The “winner” knows how to pitch in close games and therefore knows how to win. But in my opinion our eyes are often simply full of crap, and lie to us more than a politician at a campaign rally. (A painful thought). We often see things that aren’t there, and this leads to errors in our reasoning. In this manner, a fundamental error gnaws at every pitcher when speaking of pitching to score.

To illustrate, let’s look at my last three years of pitching (now that the regular season of this year has ended, I can look at these numbers without fear of superstitious retribution). My ERA for the past three years and the corresponding WHIPs are as follows: ERAs: 3.88, 3.78, and 3.20; WHIPs: 1.31, 1.36, 1.29.

The numbers are pretty similar from year to year, and so, given that I had relatively the same amount of starts each year (the only exception is this year, when I briefly pitched out of the bullpen and thus made only 20 starts), one would think that my win-loss records would be similar as well. Well, here are the numbers:

2007: 3-17

2008: 13-9

2009: 12-6

The first number, 3, isn’t a fat-fingered typo produced by too much sodium intake (though I do need to cut back on those sunflower seeds). I only won three games during the entire year of 2007, and I led all of the minor leagues in losses. Yes, I have been told that wins are a poor indicator of performance, but this is only auxiliary to the scope of our argument. What we’re looking for is whether a person can pitch to score.

I have been told by some of my pitching coaches that the reason I am winning more ballgames is that I have gotten better at pitching to score. Since this is a good thing to hear, and it is a good thing for them to think, I tend to nod my head, smile, and say, “Yes, that is something that I’m really working on. I focus a lot more in close situations.”

In reality, though, I don’t think I’m doing anything different. In 2007, a decimating combo plagued me: the worst run support AND the most errors made behind me of any pitcher in the league. Mostly, then, I’ve gotten more run support and better defense in 2008 and 2009, and therefore I’ve won more games.

Yet we athletes are animals driven by ego, and so we like to take credit for our success and deflect blame for our failures. In fact, what many pitchers make when they claim that they pitch to score is probably just an attribution error.

The fundamental attribution error is a bedrock concept of social psychology, with the standard example being actor/observer bias. One aspect of the FAE is that people tend to overemphasize internal factors and underemphasize the external. By a strict definition it doesn’t completely apply to our argument, but it has plenty of parallels. For instance, one explanation for this error is that we humans like to believe that we have control over our lives. We like to think that the world makes sense. When presented with a given situation, we like to have power over the outcome, as uncertainty becomes our enemy. This certainly applies to pitching.

It makes the pitcher’s mind feel pretty good if he feels that he has control over a baseball game. Conversely, if things are left to complete chance or situational factors beyond his control, then a pitcher feels pretty helpless. But in fact, everyone will agree that chance plays a HUGE role in baseball. With line drives being hit right at a person and bloopers falling after a big pitch, the game hardly seems just.

Athlete after athlete, feeling confident about a win, will go home at the end of the night and think about the things that they did well to have success. They will focus on intrinsic things and forget about the role of chance and the extrinsic factors that contributed. After a failure, though, they are more apt to think of the extrinsic factors and the bad luck that led to their misfortune. It’s much easier to think of these factors beyond your control than to think of all the personal mistakes that were made over the course of the game. The same principle applies with the concept of pitching to score.

Those deemed “winning” pitchers, again driven by ego, say that they are pretty good at pitching to score and pitching to situations. In fact, most winning pitchers are no better at pitching to score or situations than any other pitcher (see Posnanski’s Jack Morris versus Bert Blyleven discussion), it’s just that they have less of these situations. When you allow less base runners, you’re obviously not going to find yourself in these situations as often and you’re going to win more ballgames, unless you’re plagued by terrible run support and bad defense. Furthermore, these pitchers often have good enough stuff to increase their chances of getting out of a jam unscathed.

So yes, a pitcher will attempt to pitch to a situation and will attempt to pitch to score. Are some pitchers better at this than others? Probably not. The best pitchers simply allow less people to reach (think of Lincecum’s incredible 1.04 WHIP here) and are inherently better when they do reach. It sounds good when a pitcher goes on TV and talks about the amount of control that he has over a situation, and how clever he is when pitching differently depending on the score, but this simply isn’t the truth. He’s simply letting his eyes deceive him, trying to claim control over sometimes-uncontrollable forces. In this way, he’s no different than anyone else.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Freedom? You can keep it.

A link to my latest Baseball America posting, "Freedom can be overrated." I miss my wife.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Allegory of a Mustache

Not sure how many lessons can be drawn from the life of a mustache, but hey, I was bored, all right? Writing this entertained me; hopefully its entertaining to read as well.

Allegory of a Mustache

It began with a few hairs slowly breaking through the epidermal walls—barely visible splotches of fibrous protein ripping apart an otherwise pristine upper lip. Soon other bursting follicles followed, and the hairs gained strength and blossomed. The result was every man’s dream: a mustache.

Promise surrounded ‘Stache’s early days, though with promise came uncertainty. A new venture in the owner’s life, it was hard to predict the likely outcome. Flashes of prior brilliance offered hope: a strong supporting performance in the facial arrangement “Golfing Goatee” and a smaller role in the critically acclaimed “Christmas Beard.” Yet small weaknesses worried those that evaluated it. A hairless patch showed itself just below the left nostril and the color tinted a bit towards red—both deemed negative characteristics.

Showing signs of promise, it was allowed to grow. By day 5 it had established itself as a true and capable mustache, gaining positive comments from those that specialize in such hair growth. By day 7, cops began glancing towards ‘Stache’s owner in a more friendly manner, even remarking that ‘Stache might have big days ahead.

‘Stache, spurred by the increased interest, displayed itself proudly, the well-maintained and youthful proteins glistening in the summer sun. It maintained big dreams, hoping that it might one day belong in the same class as the best of the best: Tom Selleck, Rollie Fingers, and Chuck Norris. He even entertained the notion of people soon driving miles just to catch a glimpse of him.

Suddenly, though, an unexpected change happened. As it grew fuller and more mature, the weaknesses became more visible. The small patch of empty space, once a minor blemish, grew more conspicuous and became exposed like a dent on a vintage Corvette.

Despite the glaring weakness, ‘Stache pressed on, hoping to overcome the deformity. It strove to grow fuller, but another setback suddenly occurred as the owner shaved: a painful nick to its lower left corner. ‘Stache, weakened but not beaten, vowed to continue, no longer dreaming of elite status, but still hoping for a long and fruitful existence.

Fierce competition surrounded him, and one day ‘Stache entered the bathroom only to see a dozen others gathered around a mirror. A small brush briskly combed each of their whiskers, and from this brush a mysterious substance entered.

“Here, try this,” the other ‘Staches tempted. “It will make you ten times darker. You’ll be even better than before.”

The other ‘staches turned full and black before his eyes, and indeed, they seemed remarkably better. The substance was magic and held the power to possibly make up for both the blemish and the unfortunate accident. But ‘Stache rebelled and quickly fled the room. He would either exist with only his natural epidermal-covering abilities or he wouldn’t exist at all.

‘Stache pressed on, attempting to wring every ounce of growth out of his follicles, operating under the constant pressure of an unknown fate. He knew that the owner’s patience would soon wear thin, and a critical juncture came each and every time the owner shaved.

The inevitability of the end grew near. One day soon, the hot steel of a razor would crisply cut through his fibers, and in one minute ‘Stache and all the hopes and dreams that he once held, would be gone forever. The facial hair universe would continue expanding without him, marking him for obscurity.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Internet and Baseball

I wrote a feature for the current issue of Baseball America on how the internet has changed the game. I present both how it has changed the way fans follow the game and how it has changed the way players communicate with family members. Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Notes on a bus trip

It's 5:02 in the morning. Why the hell am I up at this hour? Better yet, why the hell am I writing at this hour? Well, yes, I might truly be insane, but I also just got home. No, I wasn't out carousing at the bars, I just got home from a road trip in Harrisburg. I slept a bit on the bus, but then had to drive a car for twenty minutes. Now I can't go back to sleep, so I'm trying to write myself to sleep.

Here's some thoughts from the trip:

10:37 pm:
I'm talking on the phone to my wife just outside of the bus, prior to its departure, when suddenly a giant teenager rushes me. It turns out to be Bumgarner. "Hey, let's go catch a 'possum!" he excitedly yells. Since nobody can turn down this enthusiasm, I tell my wife I'll have to talk to her later; 'possum hunting comes first.

We chase a 'possum up a tree, crawl into the tree, and then search for another. Nearly sprayed by a skunk, we unsuccessfully return as Madison talks of spiders. The bus nearly leaves us as we sprint the last 50 yards.

12:12 am
My wife calls to tell me goodnight. The movie "Pineapple Express" is on and I can barely hear her. The conversation lasts approximately 32 seconds.

12:47 am
"Pineapple Express" ends, much to the chagrin of any stoners present. Many guys are sleeping on the floor by now, others in their seats. One teammate attempts to put on "300", but I exercise movie veto powers, a rarely used and somewhat risky move, due to its noisiness.

1:19 am
We pass NYC via the George Washington Bridge and witness a stunning view. This prompts a question from EME, sitting in the seat directly in front of me, regarding my location when 9/11 occurred. We quietly share stories.

1:22 am
I help EME with the drafting of an email directed at a landlord issue. We then talk about the meaning of life and the days of yore in San Jose.

1:31 am
Having solved various existentialists' dilemmas, I decide to attempt sleep. I lie on the floor next to several other guys, pillow beneath my head. I soon discover that it's hard to sleep with someone else's foot up your ass.

2:25 am
In and out of sleep, I find that the bus vibrations do not produce the same effect as shiatsu massage, as one might hope.

4:18 am
We pull into Dodd Stadium. Each zombie grabs a bag and flings it in the clubhouse. An evening chill stings me as I grab my things and hop into a mist-covered car. I begin my barely conscious drive home, nearly hitting a construction worker.

4:38 am
A minute from my host mom's house, a critter runs out in front of me. Oddly enough, it's an opossum (possibly the same 'possum we chased; perhaps I'm dreaming by now) and I slam on my brakes to avert sending it to its grave. With a slight smile I'm now completely awake.

4:41 am
I walk into my host mom's house and find a note stating that for some reason my room has changed. I eat a snack and can't sleep.

5:11 am
I fall asleep while blogg.............................................................................................................................................................

11:05 am
I re-awake and feel like a group of seamen used my back to illustrate different knot tying techniques. Luckily I'm not pitching today. (It's the 'possum catching teenager's turn.)