Week of August 30, 2019

Andrew Luck Is No Ken Dryden (or Barry Sanders or Bjorn Borg)

This is a bit of new type of post. I thought this was an interesting read the first time I read it. I liked that it puts Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement into the context of other athletes that retired while in their peaks. Canadians goalie Ken Dryden, Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson, Bjorn Borg, and another tennis player I’ve never heard of before today. 

Katie Baker lumps them all together with the following: 

All of which is why it was such a shock on Saturday night to learn that Luck, not yet 30 years old, was retiring from football, smack dab in the prime of his life, becoming the latest in an alternately doomed and dazzling group of athletes whose careers ended not with the fireworks of celebration but with an afterburn of a lost star. 

I shared the story with TOB, and then – as we typically do – I re-read it tonight (Thursday) in preparation for a write-up. Guess what? I didn’t like it nearly as much on the second read. In fact, I found the point kind of flawed. The “afterburn of a lost star”? Come on. It’s a bit more nuanced than that. Some of the athletes simply didn’t want to play any more (maybe they never loved their respective sport to begin with?), some got hurt, and some were far more successful than Luck ever was. 

Let’s break it down, shall we? Remember, as far as we know Luck retired because he’s sick of being unhealthy and constantly rehabbing. It’s taken the fun out of the game, and – if I may posit – the experience of pain-rehab-play-pain-rehab-pain was depressing.

Ken Dryden – Goalie for the Canadians retired at 31, after helping the Canadians winning 5 Stanley Cups in a decade. Luck won nothing as a NFL player. Harsh, but it’s true. Dryden was the best on the best team for a decade. Not the same. 

Barry Sanders – running back in the NFL for 10(!) years. By all accounts he was healthy and had good years ahead of him. Enough to likely break every rushing record there was. He retired, via fax, and the consensus is a) he never loved football, and b) was sick of playing for a shitty Lions team. Barry Sanders was an all-time great that retired because he was sick of losing. Also, let’s not forget playing running back in the NFL takes a much greater toll on the body than QB, even if Sanders didn’t retire due to injury. 

Calvin Johnson – wide receiver for the Lions. You can pretty much cut and paste Barry Sanders’ paragraph here. Johnson was on pace to be one of the best receivers ever. He was sick of playing for a losing team and was an extremely talented guy who may have never loved the game. 

Bjorn Borg – retired at 26(!) after 11 Grand Slams. After folks blamed his wife, Borg responded sarcastically, “It can’t be that I don’t enjoy tennis.” 

Andrew Luck retired because he wasn’t healthy, and he was sick of the physical and psychological toll of constantly rehabbing. I get it. And I get that – after already earning millions – there’s no more money that can justify being an unhappy husband and father (to be). Hell, I’m a real piece of work to be around when my plantar fasciitis rears its head, and my livelihood has nothing to do with my feet. 

So I’m posting a story I didn’t love. Pretty antithetical to the entire premise of this blog, but I thought I’d share because the story’s definitely kicking around in my brain this week. Good or bad, it resonated, so I wanted to share it with the crew. – PAL 

Source: “Andrew Luck and the Afterburn of Early Retirement”, Katie Baker, The Ringer (08/26/19)

What Luck Went Through

When Luck’s retirement news hit, I was nearing the end of an in-person fantasy football draft. Ten minutes before, in the 12th of 16 rounds, I took Luck. I thought I had a bit of a steal, and I joked about how I never like to take Stanford guys when I made the pick. Then, a phone buzzed. And another. Someone read the news aloud. I thought it was a joke. Reader, it was not!

I couldn’t help but laugh at my misfortune, but I didn’t get angry at Luck. I mean, sure, when I heard a day later that this had been in the works for a couple weeks, and that he may have even told the Colts way back in the Spring that this was what he wanted to do but they tried to talk him out of it, I wished he had said it sooner. But I wasn’t mad at the guy. If anything, it’s a good story. Yes, I’m one of Those Guys, who drafted Luck right before he announced his retirement.

But then I got home and caught a whiff of the inevitable Sports Show talking head takes. And I saw the Colts fans booing him as he left the field after the news broke (more on that in a second)*. And I saw his press conference, and how sad he was. And I realized: the only correct takes on this story are: (1) good for him getting out while he (hopefully) can still live a normal life, and (2) this game is so brutal and we should all feel guilty for enjoying it.

Later in the week I read this depressing story from former NFL player Nate Jackson, who in his retirement has become a periodic contributor to Deadspin. And man. Were those takes ever reinforced. Here’s Jackson giving a glimpse into what he, Luck, and so many other players go through:

The glory was fleeting; the injuries were constant. And everyone I spoke to reminded me that I was living the dream. But it was never my dream to be lying on a training table for four hours a day, hooked up to machines, ice bags strapped to my body, while my teammates went to meetings and practiced. It was never my dream to wake up in the morning and wonder how I’d get through the day, to drive to work in pain and confusion, on the verge of tears, trying to understand how things got to this point. What I had done wrong—because, if I was so unhappy while living the dream, I must have done something wrong, right?

Call it a confluence of perspectives. The body is no longer cooperating. The adrenaline of game-day has subsided. The adulation of the fans no longer excites. Neither does the big check every week. The shine begins to wear off the Shield. You imagine yourself on a beach. On an island. Far from a football field, free from the mental anguish and paranoia you live with every day. Still, you soldier on, because everything in your life has steered you onto that field.

And so you play until they drag your lifeless body from the grass, and it’s all you can do to muster a thumbs-up as they wheel you into the tunnel, knowing that’s how you secure your legacy. Every football player knows how to make that sacrifice. But few know how to walk away. That seems to be changing, and thank god for that.

Ugh. Man. What a brutal game. 

*One thing about those Colts fans booing. They were roundly criticized for it, basically called country bumpkins who still don’t understand that their entertainment is not worth more than a player’s health. But for a second I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. 

As I mentioned above, reports are that this was in the works for months. All that time, the Colts sold season tickets for thousands of dollars to fans on the promise of another season led by Andrew Luck. Maybe some of those fans wouldn’t have paid that had they known? It doesn’t justify booing, but I think I understand the sentiment from that perspective.

One last thing: Eff Doug Gottlieb forever.

Why won’t this clown go away? -TOB

Source: Football Doesn’t Let You Leave”, Nate Jackson, Deadspin (08/28/2019)

Don’t You Dare Make Ohtani Choose

Surprise surprise: we’re sharing another Ben Lindbergh baseball story. Clearly the best baseball writer going these days. 

Remember Shohei Ohtani, the two-way sensation and the biggest story in baseball at the beginning of last year? Yeah, Tommy John surgery has a way of making us forget dudes for awhile, or – to be more precise – for about 12-18 months. Tommy John and playing for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. 


Ohtani is playing this year while he recovers from TJ. As a DH, Ohtani is having another solid year at the plate. The dude can hit at an all-star level. His traditional stats, averaged out over 162 games look like this: 

.295 BA, 32 HR, 96 RBI, slugging over .500. 

When he was preparing to make his debut in MLB, most of the concern around his hitting. People wanted him to focus on taking the mound and becoming a dominant starter with a triple-digit arm and a nast splitty to boot. 

Dude has a pretty, pretty swing

Now, as he puts up impressive numbers as a hitter, the chorus has shifted. There is a mathematical argument he is more valuable as a position player only. Or, in the words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.”

As Miller laid out, though, the balance between Ohtani’s hitting and pitching contributions has to be just right for the stats to support continued two-way play. Only if Ohtani is very good to great at both hitting and pitching, or very good at hitting but even better at pitching, does the calculus favor two-way play. Any other combination, and a purely numbers-driven analysis would hew to one-way play. If Ohtani is a better hitter than he is a pitcher, then, the data aligns with the Rymer-Sheehan-Thomas contention that he should pick the position-player lane.

Cool. Except I don’t care what the numbers say. We may never get a chance to see someone be great at both again in our lifetime. I’m not saying Ohtani is going to be a great pitcher or a great hitter, but he’s actually shown the potential for both at the big league level. We owe it to the baseball gods to let this play out. 

Also, the Angels NEED pitching: 

Only the Orioles have received fewer WAR from their starters this season, and even if the Angels’ active innings leader, Griffin Canning, can cross the 100-inning threshold, the Angels will join the 2012 Rockies as the only two teams in the modern era to have just one pitcher reach the century mark. 

I mean, can you imagine – can you freaking imagine the scenario in which he’s pitching and hitting in the middle of the lineup in a World Series game? How awesome would that be? How can you root against that, logically or otherwise?  

New statistics should make us better understand the game, but they lose me when the numbers suggest we take the rarest joyous moments out of the game (pulling a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter, an iconic pitcher intentionally walking an iconic hitter, this nonsense with Ohtani).

Also, god, everytime I read about him I think how much bigger a deal it would be if he played on popular team, especially on the east coast. 

Another interesting nugget – the Angles have (at least earlier this year) allowed more guys to legit try being 2-way players. Pitcher/Position players should become the team’s thing. Become the first team to assemble a lineup with several dual threats. 

I’ll leave the last word for Lindbergh:  

Baseball fans and analysts who believe that the game has grown less spectator-friendly have repeatedly pointed their fingers at numbers nerds for emphasizing efficiency over fun. Going out of our way to say that a fascinating, singular, game-reframing player who could be baseball’s best story should have his attempt at two-way immortality curtailed for at most a modest upgrade would play into that stathead stereotype. 

Amen. – PAL 

Source: “Let Ohtani Play Two-Way”, Ben Lindbergh, The Ringer (08/21/19)

In Praise of the A’s in the Moneyball 3.0 (?) Era

I am an unabashed GIants fan, of course. But I also admire the A’s from across the Bay – often admiring the fact that Billy Beane somehow turned chicken shit into chicken salad yet again, year after year, with just a few blips here and there. The question is: how does he do it? How do they do it? In Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball, written about the 2001 season, Beane was exploiting the fact that teams vastly underrated walks, and by extension on base percentage. But many seemed to think that Beane had “solved” the game and that the edge he had figured out was gone once Lewis’ book was published. 

But Moneyball was misunderstood by many. Beane noticed a market inefficiency – the market overpaid for some skills, and vastly underpaid for other skills, and those underpaid skills were often more important to winning than the ones the other teams valued. So Beane paid less to get more out of those underrated skills. Once the league caught up on on base percentage, Beane moved on.

Rumor has it his next effort was to understand and pay for defense: after all, a run saved is a run earned. But until the last ten years or so, we had almost no way to truly measure defense. Fielding percentage is a garbage stat because a better player can be penalized for not quite gloving a ball that a worse player never would have gotten close to. MLB is now obsessed with quantifying defense.

But MLB is also obsessed with dingers, and Beane is unsurprisingly leading the charge, as laid out by Eno Sarris in his article this week: SInce 2015, the A’s lead the majors in fly ball rate (the percentage of hit balls that are fly balls). And since 2015, the A’s also lead the majors in launch angle (the angle of the ball off the bat) at 15%. What does that lead to: dingers, baby. Lots of dingers. The A’s pitching staff also leads the league in getting pop-outs – almost 5% of balls put into play against them are pop-outs. Beane and the team figured out a better way to play and acquire players who play that way, and coach the players they have to do so, too.

But the A’s don’t stop at hitting dingers and inducing pop outs. In an era where teams hoard prospects and value cheap, controllable talent over all else, Beane has exploited this swing by going the other way: obtaining cheap veterans who play the way he wants his team to play.

Finally, the A’s were ahead of the curve in buying cheap but good bullpen help, and using that bullpen as a weapon by relying on them for more innings. Since 2015, the A’s bullpen ranks in the Top 5.

Other teams pay more to players, but few teams win as consistently, over so many years, as the A’s have under Bllly Beane. The Giants are slipping out of the playoff picture (but gosh are they in better shape than they were one year ago), so the A’s might be my team to root for this postseason. -TOB 

Source: The A’s Prove Their Formula is Working in Big Win Over Yankees”, Eno Sarris, The Athletic (08/20/2019)

PAL: Finding value, that’s Beane’s talent. They find a way to compete while having a payroll in the lowest third of the league (21 of 30 at the start of the season). It’s impressive, and yet, aren’t we all kind of waiting for them to win in the way counts, as in the World Series. Unfair? No doubt! But we’re most captivated by the underdog story when the underdog comes out on top. Near the top doesn’t do it for us. 

Also, TOB. Root for the gd Twins this postseason! What the hell, man? With GTR (Good Times Rowe) is on dad patrol for the first time, who the hell is going to watch these games with me in a dark bar? The correct answer is you, sir.

Video of the Week

Tweet of the Week

PAL Song of the Week: Roy Orbison – “Candy Man”

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“I hope the war goes on forever and Ryan gets drafted.”

– Dwight K. Schrute

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