Week of June 25, 2021

Oooh girl. Look at those Cool Ranch Earrings. Fire.

Baseball’s Sticky Issue, Explained

I know Phil covered this two weeks ago, but I have been wanting to write about this story for a few weeks. However, with each passing day came new developments, and I felt like I needed to wait until there was some resolution before putting it all together. Well, there hasn’t exactly been a resolution, but enough has happened that it does seem like it’s time to recap it all, before it gets too big to boil down to a few hundred words (if we’re not already there). So hold onto your butts – here we go.

Back on May 7, just one month into the baseball season, we wrote about the insane strikeout rate across MLB. April 2021 saw over 1,000 more strikeouts than hits. For context, before May 2018, there hadn’t been a single month in MLB history with more strikeouts than hits. In fact, before 2020 (a two month season), there had never been an MLB season with 1,000 more strikeouts than hits. Again: this year, we saw that in the month of April alone. 

There had been rumblings over the last year or two, if you were interested in finding it, that the increased strikeout rate was largely due to an increase in both velocity and spin rate. And if you were really paying attention, you’d have seen articles like this one last fall, from friend of the blog Eno Sarris, suggesting the increased spin rate and thus the increased strikeout rate were due to the increasing usage of “sticky” stuff by MLB pitchers. 

Officially, the use of a foreign substance by a pitcher violates MLB Rule 8.02. Unofficially, MLB didn’t seem to care (once again creating their own crisis, ahem steroids) until this week. As a result, the use of grip enhancements over the last few years exploded. From an article by Eno last year:

A large majority of big league pitchers right now are using some sort of extra-grip substance to impart more spin — and therefore more movement — on the ball. That’s the consensus of nearly 20 major league hitters, pitchers and pitching coaches who spoke to The Athletic in the last month. The median answer was more than three-quarters of the league, but five respondents thought the portion was much closer to 100 percent.

“Almost everyone is using something,” said a coach with experience in several major league organizations.

“My guess on total MLB players using some sort of grip enhancement … 99.9 percent,” said another coach who has worked with multiple major leaguers.

The use of grip enhancements, and their effect on spin rate and thus a pitcher’s effectiveness have been an open secret in baseball for years. In 2018, Gerrit Cole and Jason Verlander saved and resurrected their careers, respectively, when they were traded to the Houston Astros. Cole’s college teammate Trevor Bauer very publicly called out the Astros, and thus Cole and Verlander, for their sudden increased spin rate. 

Bauer is not really wrong about what happened to Cole’s spin rate when he got to Houston:

Cole’s four-seam spin rate went from 2,164 rpm in 2017 in Pittsburgh to 2,379 rpm in 2018 in Houston — a difference of 215 rpm. It increased again to 2,530 rpm in 2019, and has averaged 2,552 rpm in 2021.

As Eno notes, Bauer commented publicly about grip enhancements repeatedly that year:

“For eight years I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the spin on my fastball because I’d identified it way back then as such a massive advantage,” Bauer himself wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune. “I knew that if I could learn to increase it through training and technique, it would be huge. But eight years later, I haven’t found any other way except using foreign substances.”

It wasn’t for a lack of experimentation.

“I’ve tested all sorts of different stuff in the lab up at Driveline,” Bauer told Jordan Bastian in 2018. “I sat down with a chemical engineer to understand it. At 70 mph, when we were doing the tests, spin rates jumped between 300-400 rpm while using various different sticky substances. The effect is slightly less pronounced at higher velocities — more game-like velocities — but still between 200-300 rpm increase. So, that’s a lot of the research we’ve done. We’ve done it with multiple test subjects. … And those are the results we found.”

For his part, Bauer seemed to see that there would be no enforcement of rule 8.02 and decided if he couldn’t beat ‘em, he’d join ‘em. As noted by the Athletic:

Bauer’s own fastball spin rate has increased by about 400 rpm since 2019. He won the NL Cy Young award in 2020 and signed a three-year, $102 million contract with the Dodgers ahead of the 2021 season.

Curious, huh. The connection between spin and strikeouts is fairly conclusive. Here are two charts from Eno’s article:

Basically, the sticky substance allows a pitcher to grip the ball better and spin it harder. The more a ball spins, the more it breaks. The more it breaks, the harder it is to hit. The harder it is to hit, the more swings and misses, the more strikeouts – and, thus, fewer balls in play. 

Grip enhancement has always been used in some form – scuffing, rosin mixed with either sweat or sunscreen. But the newest technological enhancements created stuff that was stickier than ever before, the most notorious of which in recent weeks was a product called Spider Tack.

Two weeks ago, Phil covered an article Eno wrote about Spider Tack in April. Eno set up an experiment where a former major league pitcher tested various grip substances. When the pitcher used Spider Tack, his spin rate jumped twenty five percent compared to using a sunscreen and rosin mixture. That is a lot. 

As Phil also noted, Spider Tack was developed by a former Strongman competitor who, until a reporter recently called him, had no idea his product was being used by MLB pitchers. It was developed to help Strongman competitors carry gigantic friggin boulders. Here’s a promotional photo for Spider Tack:

Now, look, I love baseball. But strikeouts are rarely exciting, at least en masse. We want to see hits. We want to see good defense. We want to see running. We want action. Dudes waving blindly at pitches they have no chance to hit is not great. The game is moving ever closer to the three true outcomes: home run, walk, strikeout. That’s kinda boring. And boring is bad for business. So, as the strikeout rate hit never before seen levels this year, and as more and more reporters discussed the use of grip enhancements, there was suddenly an outcry to ban this stuff. Players, like Gerrit Cole, were being asked after games if they used the stuff. Cole stammered and didn’t answer, thereby seemingly admitting his use.

So, this month, MLB moved quickly, announcing that by this past Monday, the rule would be enforced:

Under the new guidelines, any pitcher who possesses or applies foreign substances in violation of the rules will be ejected from the game and automatically suspended in accordance with the rules and past precedent. Suspensions under Rule 3.01 are 10 games. Starting pitchers will have more than one mandatory check per game, and relievers must be checked at the end of the inning when they entered the game or when they are taken out of the game, whichever comes first. Typically, the inspections will take place between innings or during pitching changes to give the umpires ample time to perform a thorough check without delaying the game.

Many pitchers were furious. The Rays’ Tyler Glasnow, for example, blamed an injury to the lack of grip enhancement – without the enhancement he had to create more torque in his arm, and he partially tore his UCL (which usually means Tommy John surgery). And he has a point – MLB didn’t enforce this rule and he has pitched for multiple seasons with grip enhancement. Then suddenly, mid-season, they pulled the rug out from under pitchers with very little warning. Glasnow doesn’t seem unreasonable in asking that they had been given an offseason to prepare for Life After Spider Tack.

As for what the lack of grip enhancement will do to the game, it’s too early to tell. We don’t have enough data yet to draw big conclusions. But following the announcement, and even before the enforcement, there have been many reports of pitcher spin rates dropping drastically. It remains to be seen if pitchers will find a way around this. Notably, most hitters who have discussed the topic publicly said that they’d like pitchers to use something to ensure control and thus hitter safety. 

On the other hand, as The Ringer’s Michael Baumann theorizes, maybe the rule enforcement does nothing:

More likely, pitchers will continue to operate as usual, and offenses will continue to suffer. Pitchers aren’t dominating solely because they’re rubbing the inside of a watermelon rind before every inning; foreign substances are just one component of a deliberate leaguewide developmental program. Technological advances and engorged modern bullpens allow teams to teach any Tom, Dick, and Harry they pull off a Big 12 mound how to throw 98 miles an hour and unleash a devastating slider with iffy command for 60 innings a year. And when such effort results in torn elbows and shoulders, that pitcher can be discarded and another plucked off the vine. In the land where every pitcher is José Alvarado, the GM with the most José Alvarados is king. Cleaning pitchers’ fingers won’t solve all those structural issues.

One thing we can say is that the new pitcher checks have given us some high comedy – most notably from Max Scherzer and Sergio Romo, both of whom looked for a second like they were about to take their pants down in an exaggerated effort to show compliance with the umpire check. Here’s Romo’s:

I’m saving Scherzer’s episode for Video of the Week but I implore you to scroll down and watch it, because it gets the Jomboy treatment and when I watched Scherzer demanding that the umpire rub his hair to show that he had nothing in it but sweat, I howled laughing so hard that my wife texted me from down the hall to ensure I was ok because she was worried about me.

Also, this Tweet had me chuckling.

One other interesting twist. I had wondered last week whether the use of substances like Spider Tack had a negative effect on home run rates due to increased drag on the ball. I asked Eno Sarris on Twitter, but he didn’t have an answer. As it turns out, my hunch may have been correct:

So, not only might the elimination of grip enhancements reduce the swing and miss rate, it may increase the distance a given batted ball travels. The effects of the enforcement of this rule are unknown, and that’s pretty exciting.

*exhale*

Ok, I think I covered it all. I hope you enjoyed the trip. I will be on the lookout for articles collating the data on all of this and will report back once we have some ideas on the real effects. -TOB
Source: ‘Almost Everyone is Using Something’: Getting a Grip on How MLB Pitchers are Cheating,” Eno Sarris, The Athletic (11/09/2020); Spider Tack is the Stickiest Stuff in Baseball’s Foreign-Substance Controversy. Its Inventor Had No Idea,” Stephen J. Nesbitt, The Athletic (06/07/2021); What Will Happen After MLB’s Sticky Stuff Crackdown?Michael Baumann, The Ringer (06/17/2021)


Disc Golf Is The Future

For athletes on the fringe, at least. 

So much of my time and energy, as it relates to sports, focuses on the most popular and well-known sports and athletes. Football, Basketball, Baseball, Hockey. Yes, I’m curious about fringe sports, too, but my viewing basically comes down to those four (of course, add soccer to that list for international popularity). Odds are, you’re the same, which is why professional athletes in these sports make so much money: the general public accept these sports and their respective stars as part of mainstream culture. 

But, in today’s world of social influencers, there’s money to be made for the fringe (and amateur) athletes. You only have to look to Paul McBeth. He plays disc golf. He recently signed a $10M endorsement deal, guaranteed. Again, the dude plays disc golf. 

Let’s start here: McBeth dominates his sport. A “Tiger Woods of…” type dominance. Not only has he won a bunch of tournaments that I’m told are important (how the hell would I know what constitutes a major in disc golf?). McBeth has won over $500K playing disc golf. Not too shabby.

More importantly—and worth of the Tiger comp—the size of the prize purse has increased 5x. 

But that’s just a piece. Per David Gardner in his story from The Ringer: 

But except to a subset of hardcore frisbee fans, his more impressive accomplishments have come away from the course. In February, disc golf manufacturer Discraft announced it had extended McBeth’s endorsement deal to a guaranteed $10 million over 10 years. McBeth also has sponsors for other disc golf gear, such as grip equipment and bags, and owns part of a company called Foundation Disc Golf that produces both products and content. He has deals outside of disc golf equipment too, with the likes of Adidas and Celsius energy drink. According to 2019 data from the athlete marketing platform Opendorse, only about 70 athletes in the world make at least a million dollars a year in endorsement deals. McBeth’s endorsement income from Discraft alone puts him on par with Bears linebacker Khalil Mack, Jazz guard Mike Conley Jr., and Astros pitcher Justin Verlander.

McBeth has carved out a lucrative career in a niche sport, in part as an athlete and in part as an influencer. He isn’t alone in using this blueprint. Competitors in sports ranging from bowling to lacrosse have been able to amass riches by building their brands—and growing the games they love along the way. 

McBeth has about 93K subscribers to his YouTube channel, plus an additional 172K on instagram. He posts tons of videos, many of them with over 100K views. Most importantly, he’s also selling products – discs, hats, clothes. The following video is boring. I encourage you to not finish it, but I share it to notice what they are doing – filling orders and running through inventory and filling orders. They are running a small business.

In my assessment, social media is primarily a shitty addition to society (or maybe we’ve used it in a primarily superficial and shitty way) but this is an example of it bringing something fun and interesting to the table. McBeth, and so many other athletes from fringe sports, can find an avid and sizeable following on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, etc.. Take it from someone who works in the marketing arm of a company: people with 6-figure followings can earn 5-figure checks for posting about a brand or product. And while that might sound lame, it’s actually pretty powerful for McBeth, Olympic athletes, or even ‘amatuer athletes’ in college who can/will be able to make money off of their name and likeness. 

While you and I definitely do not know Jason Belmonte (bowler) or Chloe Mitchell (NAIA volleyball player), they’ve amassed some serious followings on social media, and that can mean real money from brands trying to connect with that all-powerful 18-24 demographic (or even younger).

 “To millions of kids, TikTok and YouTube are mainstream entertainment. They don’t watch TV,” says Taylor Lorenz, who covers social media, Gen Z, and influencers for The New York Times. “Sometimes you need to get onto TV to get credibility with boomer CEOs. But for individuals, you can often monetize better on your social media.”

This was a great read that helps explain where sports are heading, especially for college athletes. Simply follow the money, as they say. It’s interesting to see new inroads of cash flow in the sports universe. A great read. – PAL 

Source: The Rise of the $10 Million Disc Golf Celebrity”, David Gardner, The Ringer (06/21/21)


Joey Votto Continues to Rule, A Story in Three Tweets

One:

Two: 

Three: 

Lol, that’s the good shit. -TOB

Source: Abigail’s Mom on Twitter (06/20/2021)


The Playoffs, In Four Shots

Just jumping into the NBA Playoffs? Then you’ll be surprised to learn all of the favorites are gone and your next champion will be one of the following: Clippers (0 titles), Suns (0), Hawks (1, in 1958), Milwaukee (1 in 1971). 

Don’t sweat it, though. Ben Cohen has done something very smart and easy to digest in his article: he’s highlighted one shot each team has to make in order to have a chance to win. For the Bucks, Giannis has to hit his free throws. I don’t mean that like the dude at the bar yellin “gotta hit your free throws” at the TV. I mean, the defense the Hawks can play against the Bucks is dependent upon Giannis’ free throw percentage. 

Cohen writes: 

More important is what happens when the ball finally leaves Antetokounmpo’s hands. He was a 68.5% foul shooter this season—in his previous two MVP seasons, he shot 72.9% and 63.3% from the line—but he’s dipped to 53.8% in the playoffs. At that rate, the Bucks yield 1.08 points per possession when Antetokounmpo gets fouled, which is lower than their average offense in the regular season and playoffs. To put it another way, fouling him is smart defense. 

It’s how the Hawks can take the best player on the other team and diminish him to his worst skill. 

For the Hawks, it comes down to Trae Young and his floaters. If he’s hitting that shot between the foul line and the basket, then a rim-running Clint Capella becomes a much bigger threat on offense. For The Suns, it’s the ugly step-child of the modern NBA: the mid-range jumper (turns out, it’s not a bad shot after all, as long as you have dudes that can make ‘em). For the Clippers, it’s the…uh, it’s the Clippers; no one cares. 

In all seriousness, I really liked this breakdown of one shot per team and how making it unlocks other aspects of the game, making the team much harder to defend. Good stuff. – PAL 

Source:Alley-Oops, Free Throws and the Biggest Shots of the NBA Playoffs,” Ben Cohen, The Wall Street Journal (06/23/21)


Videos of the week

PAL: This brought joy to my morning. It’s the perfect Eddie Rosario clip.

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week: George Harrison – “Behind That Locked Door”


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Week of June 18, 2021

PIC


A Bike Race On A Gravel Road In Kansas

TOB dropped this story in the draft doc and told me it was up my alley. TOB is a smart dude; I really enjoyed reading about a bike race in Kansas. 

So much of what we post on this digest are stories orbiting sports we are familiar with, or even played. It’s rejuvenating to read about a sport and a race that I know very little about, and Patrick Redford does a great job explaining how this particular bike race is so different from what you might have in your mind. 

If big-time road racing, with its extremely slick facade and army of helpers ensuring that the sport resembles a straight-up fitness contest to the greatest degree possible, is a luxury yacht coasting along at a steady pace, gravel riding is a pirate ship, reveling in its shameless dirtiness. No wonder it’s cycling’s fastest-growing discipline.

So this Unbound race takes place in small town Kansas. It’s a 200+ mile bike race, and it’s all on gravel roads. Ever ridden your 10-speed on a gravel road when they are doing construction? Even for twenty yards, it’s, shall we say, uncomfortable. 

And you might be wondering, “Why do this?” I was. You might be thinking, “Just making something a sufferfest for the point of suffering, does that make it noteworthy or fun or worthwhile?” I was thinking that, but that misses the real draw to this race in the context of road races, especially in the United States. 

Those big-time races, with the “army of helpers,” are exclusive, whereas a race like Unbound brings world-class cyclists (and that caliber do show up to compete) and puts them on a course that makes them “relatable to everyone in the race,” Redford writes. Suffering is more relatable than winning. That’s the draw to these types of competitions. Finishing is the goal. That brings more bikers of varying levels together. That’s the type of vibe that makes a race popular, that grows a fringe sport’s participation. 

I read this story, and thought of those old pictures of the Tour de France, where competitors are drinking and smoking and eating bagets along the way. Those nascent stages of a race always look like a damn good time, and so does Unbound.

Good find, TOB! – PAL 

Source: Unbound Gravel, The Country’s Coolest Bike Race, Is A Beautiful Sufferfest”, Patrick Redford, Defector (06/07/21)


Cole and Bauer – Aces in the Making

Their roles in the sticky stuff debate notwithstanding, Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer are two of the best handful of pitchers in baseball right now. But, other than their competitiveness, the similarities pretty much end there. They could not be much more different. And, ten years ago, they were stars on the same UCLA baseball team, destined to be drafted first (Cole) and third (Bauer) in the same draft. They did not exactly get along.

As the baseball bounded into foul territory, tracking toward the left-field corner at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles, the two competitors would bolt from the home dugout. They’d sprint on the dirt track, past the bullpen, and beeline for the ball. They were the top college pitchers in the country, chasing records, chasing greatness, chasing each other. Their parents would watch the footrace from the bleachers and wince.

An injury could cost their sons millions in the MLB draft and doom UCLA’s dreams of a College World Series title. But Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer couldn’t bear losing to the other.

“Those are two very competitive dudes,” says former UCLA pitcher Zack Weiss.

They were just college kids then, all potential and everything still to prove. They were UCLA’s pair of aces. They spit fire. They threw gas. They frustrated and fueled each other. This was before Cole and Bauer were drafted first and third overall in the 2011 Draft, before the big leagues, before the sticky-substances speculation, before they joined the Yankees and Dodgers, before they were the highest-paid pitchers in the game, before they were Cy Young candidates on World Series contenders in baseball’s biggest markets. Back then, they were starting back to back for the Bruins and battling for foul balls, side by side in the tinderbox of college baseball.

I find it fascinating when two (or more) great players are on the same team prior to being professionals. The above anecdote is just one example of how things were between these two. But this article does an excellent job of getting information, both on and off the record, about what went on behind the scenes when two hyper-competitive future aces competed together, and with each other. 

The article theorizes that Cole, a classically trained and natural pitcher, did not like that Bauer trained by his own methods. However, Bauer’s methods seem to work for him and many of those methods have become popular over the last ten years. The article also notes a quote from Bauer before their final year at UCLA, where Bauer says that Cole annoys him:

“It’s interesting: A lot of things (Cole) does —” Bauer pauses again, “— annoy me. We’re two different personalities. He’s very loud, kind of a vocal leader, in a sense. So at practices, he’s the one getting guys fired up — you know, ‘Yeah, great play!’ — that kind of stuff. I’m more of the sit-back, keep-to-myself, quiet, lead-by-example type. So when he’s out there yelling, for me it’s just like, ‘Oh Gerrit, just shut up.’ But I’m sure when I’m sitting there talking to someone about overlaying video and looking at pitch breaks and stuff like that, he’s probably sitting there thinking, ‘Oh Bauer, shut up.’ You know? So I think we have a pretty good relationship, for being two vastly, vastly different personality types.”

Bauer, of course, is notoriously an asshole – or worse, like in 2019 when he harassed a woman on Twitter for hours because she criticized him. Less is known about Bauer, who keeps a very low profile off the field. So this article was an interesting look at how these two became who they are now. Good read.

Source: ‘Why Do Those Two Clash?’ Inside the Legendary Gerrit Cole-Trevor Bauer Rivalry at UCLA,” 


DJ BC RAW 

Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford is having a resurgent year. Resurgent is perhaps not the right word. He’s somehow, at age 34, better than ever. Crawford has had hot streaks before. For example, in June 2018 I wrote the following:

The Giants’ shortshop has been en fuego the last six weeks. He was hitting .190 heading into May, but after going 4-for-4 against the Nats on Sunday, was sitting at .338 for the season, after hitting .412 in May and (thus far) .539 in June. The dude hit .412 for a month and nearly halfway through the next month is hitting more than 125 points better! Uh, holy cow?

Something about this feels different. For one thing, the power is there in a way it never has. In that 2018 season I wrote about, Crawford ended the season with a 100 OPS+ – an exactly league average hitter – and 14 home runs. But this season, he already has 15 home runs. It’s mid-June! He’s only once hit more than 14 – when he hit 21 in 2015. His OPS+ is 139. This continues Crawford’s improvements in the short 2020 season, when he hit 8 home runs in just 54 games.

FanGraphs’ Luke Hooper did a short but excellent breakdown of Crawford’s swing changes since 2020. It’s pretty interesting.

Two big changes should jump out to you: hand placement and a more open stance. In 2019, Crawford was quite upright, almost leaning backward, before starting his swing. Now he seems to be in a more meaningful hitting position from the start. His stance is built with more purpose, with his front leg open, possibly as a way to provide better balance with a more hunched upper body and extended arms, and his hands are far from his body with a much quieter setup overall.

2020, of course, coincides with the new hitting staff under Giants manager Gabe Kapler. That staff has led a resurgence with a host of Giants vets, most notable Crawford, Posey, and Longoria, all of whom looked toast by the end of 2019, and are all somehow as good or better than ever. Don’t worry. I’ll be taking my victory lap on my optimism (cautious as though it might have been) a little later in the season, for now I want to discuss Crawford.

Crawford is a free agent after this year, and if he keeps hitting (and fielding) like this, the Giants will have quite the decision to make in the offseason. CHeading into this season, fans were eyeing the free agent shortstop class – Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Marcus Semien, and until he signed an extension with the Mets, Francisco Lindor. But Crawford is out playing them all – he’s 9th in MLB in both WAR and OPS. In fact, the only shortstop playing better than him is Fernando Tatis, Jr., who may end up the NL MVP.

These decisions are a two-way street, of course. Crawford reportedly lives in Arizona in the offseason these days, which why. But Crawford grew up in the Bay Area, and the Giants were his favorite team.

He recently became the all-time Giants lead in games played at shortstop. He also just hit ten years in the league. And, of course, the Giants were his favorite team growing up – the story is too perfect for him to leave. It will be truly gross if he goes to the Diamondbacks (ugh) for a couple years. I’m not one for sentimentality, but if he’s still good (and he absolutely is), then I think the Giants should do what they need to do to keep him. -TOB

Source: How Brandon Crawford’s New Swing Turned Things Around,” Luke Hooper, Fangraphs (06/07/2021)


Keep the U.S. Open Public…At Least Sometimes

Of course, part of the brilliance in Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore is how both movies make an absolute mockery of country club stereotypes associated with golf. In one, you find yourself pulling for a caddy, and the other, you’re rooting for the enforcer in a Bruins jersey. Beneath all the humor is some feel-good, middle-class vindication. In both of those movies the spirit of the local muni golf course is, at least indirectly, celebrated. 

As the U.S. Open gets rolling this year, it’s important to note that the site, Torey Pines, is a municipal course operated by the city of San Diego. Much like Harding Park in San Francisco, or Bethpage Black in New York, these courses are open and, at least to city residents, relatively affordable to play. 

It’s cool when the United State Open, which is a tournament truly open to anyone who qualifies, is played on courses that are also open to anyone to play. It’s a meaningful symmetry. 

Which is why I was so bummed to read this story from The New York Times. The gist of it, ℅ Paul Sullivan: 

As the U.S. Open moves to more of a fixed rotation of courses — known as a rota — this week’s tournament could be the end of an era when the United States Golf Association experimented with hosting Opens on truly public courses.

Pebble Beach Golf Links in California and Pinehurst in North Carolina are set to host several U.S. Opens in the coming years, but neither could be considered truly public because people pay thousands of dollars a night to stay in their lodges if they want to be able to pay hundreds of dollars to play the course. Of the next six courses that the U.S.G.A. has announced through 2027, none will be truly public.

LAME. 

Why take a good idea—sprinkling in some of the best munis as U.S. Open sites—and replace it with a lame idea (sprinkling in some of the best private courses as U.S. Open sites)? 

Apparently, convenience. 

There are practical, financial reasons for returning to the same venues regularly, but the switch may come at another cost, to the public venues and the geographic diversity that brought the national championship to new markets.

“The wonderful thing about the Open when it was rotating is you got to see so many different places,” said Michael Hurzdan, who designed Erin Hills. “Different horses for different courses. There’s a lot to be said for that. When you go to the rota, something’s going to be lost.”

Amen, Hurzdan!

Bring the U.S. Open back to Munis! – PAL 

Source:At the U.S. Open, Public Courses Are Losing”, Paul Sullivan, The New York Times (06/16/21)
TOB: This feels like the consultification (a word I think I just made up) of golf. The PGA wanted to increase profits so they brought in McKinsey or some other awful consulting firm and said, “How can we increase profits 5%?” So the McKinsey guys looked at the numbers and said, “If you limit the number of places you travel, you can have more of an existing infrastructure, thus saving you some cash.” The shepherds of our sports are failing us.


An Ode to the Diamondbacks, Perhaps the Worst Team of All-Time

That is perhaps an exaggeration. But consider the last two months of Diamondbacks baseball. The team started the season a very respectable 15-13. In that stretch, Madison Bumgarner threw a 7-inning no hitter to bring the team to 11-11. And that game is when the Diamondbacks seemed to light themselves on fire. 

Since Bumgarner’s no-hitter, the Diamondbacks have not won a road game. Not one. That was April 25, almost two full months ago. 23 straight road losses. That, if you’re wondering, is indeed a record. 23 straight road losses! That’s 1/6 of a full season! They set the record on Thursday in San Francisco, a day game I had the joy of attending, as the Giants hitters battered Arizona’s best pitcher (Zac Gallen) and its bullpen all game long, winning 10-3. But the real pain was on Tuesday – the Diamondbacks jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the second inning. The Giants kept chipping away, though, and in the bottom of the 8th Mike Yastrzemski hit a 2-out, 2-strike grand friggin slam into McCovey Cove. It was a great moment for the Giants, but seemed to kill the Diamondbacks’ spirits. 

Now, look, 23-straight road losses is very bad. It’s sorta unbelievable. But what I did not realize until after that game is that the Diamondbacks aren’t winning much at home, either. In fact, in their last 31 games overall, the team is 2-29. TWO wins and TWENTY NINE losses. That is IMPOSSIBLE. 

The worst baseball teams of the modern era are probably either the 1962 Mets (120 losses) or the 2003 Tigers (119 losses). Those Tigers were outscored by 337 runs (591 to 928). They started the season 3-25. Later they had 2 for 23 and 1 for 17 streaks. Their longest losing streak was 11. They were shutout 17 times. They were awful.
But the DBacks are worse! They would kill for 3-25 right now. They are in the middle of a 15-game losing stream, having already ended a previous 14-game losing streak. There is of course plenty of time for the DBacks to turn this around and play respectable baseball again. It’s a team of veterans and I don’t actually think they end up close to 120 losses. But for 1/5 of the season they are on a ten win and 150 loss pace. That’s a big enough sample size to take note. So as I said at the outset – calling them the worst team of all time may be an exaggeration, but they are certainly in one of the worst, if not the worst, two month stretches of all time. We should start paying attention.

-TOB


Video of the Week

Tweets of the Week

Song of the Week

Los Dos Carnales – “Mis Raíces”


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Oh, understudies are a very shifty bunch. The substitute teachers of the theater world.

-Cosmo Kramer

Week of June 11, 2021

Tom Ammiano earned this varsity letter in 1958 and received it 50+ years later. Read why it matters so much that he received it here.


Pulling for Smooth

Earlier this week, Giants play-by-play announcer, Duane Kuiper, released a statement saying he would be missing some games as he undergoes chemotherapy for an unspecified illness. I was surprised by how the news stopped me. Friends and family, people we actually know and love dearly get sick all of the time; why did the play-by-play guy’s illness leave me dazed?

After a moment, it’s obvious, right? These announcers are voices in our lives nearly every day for six months. We do know them. They are in our family rooms most every night, stuck with us in traffic, the background conversation at any true sports bar that will have the audio on with the game. 

Duane Kuiper, a.k.a. ‘Smooth’, and Mike Krukow have been here with me since I moved to San Francisco in the summer of 2004. They are, without question, they best baseball broadcast duo I’ve ever heard. There’s so much I could say about the nuance to the mastery of them calling a game together, but the best compliment I can give is this: My wife loves them and so do I. The two of us watch Giants games very differently, and yet these guys somehow have the perfect tone for a very casual viewer in her and someone that has an in depth understanding of the gamer. They are the very rare combo where both the play-by-play and color commentator are former players.

While it comes as no surprise, I was nodding along as I read Bruce Jenkins’ column, which included a handful of fans trying to summarize why they love Kruk and Kuip so much.

Constance Prodromou, acupuncturist and energy healer at the Marin Health Empowerment Center (of course she is): 

But they’re just the best in baseball with their wit and wisdom, always sharing great stories about the game and explaining things beyond the play-by-play. I feel like I know so much about them from their work. If I ever got to meet them, I could talk to them as longtime friends.

Ann Walsh, a retired schoolteacher/PG&E employee: 

There’s just something about the chemistry between Kruk and Kuip, they cover all of the bases. Even when I’m at the games, I bring my earphones in case there’s something I need explaining. Problem with that is, people around you think you’re the bible (laughs). Like, ‘What did Duane say? Do you agree with him?’

I couldn’t agree more with bartender Nick Shapiro when he says, “That’s one of the great things for me — they are the perfect combination of being homers, yet objective. You know where their heart lies, but they call it straight.”

There’s a massive fanbase sending good vibes Duane Kuiper’s way. Join us! – PAL

Source: “‘I know Duane feels it’: Mike Krukow, Giants community rallying behind Kuiper”, Bruce Jenkins, San Francisco Chronicle (06/08/21)


The Great Substance Debacle in MLB

Let’s get you up to speed: Pitchers in MLB are using this stuff called Spider Tack to increase the grip and, more importantly, revolutions on the baseball. It makes a huge difference. Imagine a batting glove that allowed a hitter to increase good contact by 25%. That’s pretty much what’s happening with pitchers and spider tack: a 25% improvement.

Pitching is dominating baseball this year. I mean, did you read TOB’s summary about the 6 no-hitters that have already taken place this season, or did you check out that Jayson Stark story I wrote about a few weeks ago detailing how hitters are striking out at a historic rate, and singles and doubles are disappearing from the game?

Offense other than home runs is quickly fading away from the game, and MLB baseball is not a great product these days. Some can blame the prevalence of defensive shifts. Or there’s launch angle for hitters and the general ambivalence they have to striking out? And then there are pitchers throwing damn near unhittable stuff. 

Baseball knows it has a problem, because they are experimenting with all sorts of crazy solutions in the minors (moving the mound back one foot, banning spider tack, regulating shifts to name three experiments taking place). They’ve taken even a step further, attempting to now regulate Spider Tack use in MLB – mid-season. For a couple of baseball junkies, this is a big story, so I wanted to share a few of the more interesting reads on the topic. 

For a general overview of what the actual hell is going on with pitchers using substances (which they’ve done forever), check out this story from Ken Rosenthal and Eno Sarris. It breaks down how Spider Tack is a departure from the usual grip suspects and why it matters so much. It’s a meat & potatoes story on what’s going on and why it’s important. Here’s one nugget:

This revelation has a chance to help baseball navigate this difficult space. For pitchers who are truly just looking to grip the ball and avoid hitting batters, there’s a de facto grip substance that cannot be policed and is readily available. For pitcher looking to increase their spin rate by 500 RPM and their breaking ball stuff by a third, baseball can provide the fines and suspensions it takes to reduce the steady advancing march in league spin rates.

Baseball doesn’t need to do a thing about sunscreen and rosin to arrest this trend, it turns out. Just getting rid of the highly engineered tacky substances might very well be good enough.

And for Spider Tack origin story (spoiler alert: invented by a strongman competitor to help keep a grip on those atlas stones), check out this piece from Stephen Nesbit. Here’s a fun bit:

A little amateur sleuthing leads to a LinkedIn profile, then another, then an address, then a phone number, and then I’m cold-calling a pharmaceuticals lab on the outskirts of Denver. The woman who answers the phone patches me through to the lab’s president and CEO, Mike Caruso. He is willing to talk. He is a retired strongman, once one of the strongest men in America. At 40, he’s still so muscular he looks like he could crush a baseball with his hands.

This is the man who invented Spider Tack.

And he is confused about why I’m calling. When I ask Caruso what he thinks about his tacky — that’s the term among strongmen and strongwomen — becoming the talk of baseball, he answers cautiously.

“This is news to me,” he says. “I had no idea it was popular in baseball.”

Of course, there are other variables at play besides Spider Tack. As Hall of Famer Rod Carew outlines in this podcast summary, hitters are reluctant to strategically respond to the defensive shifts (other than try to hit homers). Yes; Carew sounds a bit old in this approach – because it’s not like teams are playing 3 infielders on the one side of the infield when speedsters like Byron Buxton or Billy Hamilton hit – but the broader point is correct. Hitters do need to counter the defensive strategies of the day, but it has to be said that is one hell of a task.

Hitters react to what the pitcher throws; pitchers and defense dictate the terms of engagement so to speak. Carew talks about too much guessing going on. And he’s probably right, but I have to wonder if that’s because these dudes are all throwing 100 with nasty off-speed that’s moving a third more than usual, thanks to that spider tack.

Carew:

I think the shift is overrated, and I’m disappointed in the players who don’t try to take advantage by making adjustments to go the other way. So many kids in today’s game are guessers. They’re guessing what the pitch is going to be instead of learning how to track the ball and then having an idea of what they want to do with it. I learned how to track the ball by trying to pick the ball up out of a pitcher’s hands and reacting to that instead of trying to guess along.

So there you have it; an abbreviated guide to what’s cooking with this spin rate spider tack story in baseball. – PAL

Sources: How the difference between sunscreen and advanced grip substances could help MLB navigate tricky enforcement landscape”, Ken Rosenthal & Eno Sarris, The Athletic (4/21/21); “Spider Tack is the stickiest stuff in baseball’s foreign-substance controversy. Its inventor had no idea”, Stephen Nesbit, The Athletic (06/07/21); “Rod Carew: Pitchers have always cheated; hitters need new approach”, Michael Rand, Star Tribune (06/09/21)


Pick A Winner

Love the premise of this story from Tyler Kepner: of all the thousands of prospects selected in the Major League Draft, which player turned out the best for his team? 

For the purposes of his story, Kepner uses WAR as his measurement (Wins Above Replacement accounts for hitting, baserunning, defense. It also takes into account position, era, and ballpark). And by that measure, Mike Schmidt (30th pick)was the best selection in the history of the draft (the first amatuer draft was held in 1965, with Rick Monday going to the Cubs).

It helps, of course, that Schmidt played all 18 years with the Phillies while amassing 3 MVPs, 10 Gold Gloves, 500+ home runs and over 1500 RBI (and a lot of strikeouts, but we’ll give him a pass).

Kepner’s story then goes on to share the legend of the scout who discovered Schmidt: Tony Lucadello. 

And while Kepner describes Lucadello as a scout who would’ve  “fit well in the early scenes of ‘Moneyball,’ where graying scouts talk about “the good face” and the sound of the ball off the bat”, he also signed 52 players who would make it to the bigs over his career. At the time, in 1980, that was more than all of the other Phillies’ scouts combined. 

I have no feelings about Mike Schmidt one way or the other. He was just before my time as a baseball nut, but I liked the idea of the story, and the details of how Mike Schmidt was discovered. Good read. – PAL

Source: The Greatest Draft Pick Ever”, Tyler Kepner, The New York Times (06/06/21)

Video of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week: Steve Forbert – “Romeo’s Tune”


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Week of June 4, 2021

Looking for an alternative to a game of only strikeouts or homers? college softball and baseball are pretty great alternative to the MLB game. Unseeded James Madison just pulled off a huge upset over #1 Oklahoma in the College World Series. 


Where Do You Fall On Coach K?

News broke this week that the upcoming college basketball season will be Mike Krzyzewski’s last at Duke. That will be his 47th season coaching college basketball, which means he’s been a sports figure for my entire life and then some. In fact, I remember watching Laettner hit the buzzer beater against Kentucky in the 92’ Elite Eight with my future brother-in-law and all his college friends that road tripped to Minnesota from Omaha for a U2 concert.

We know he’s won more than any other men’s college basketball coach. The 12 Final Four appearances, 97 NCAA tournament wins, 5 national titles, and a winning percentage north of 75% for about a half century makes for an unparalleled resume. 

What’s perhaps equally incredible is how ‘Coach K’ built a wholesome, moral reputation of the student athlete line of crud when, at least for the second half of his career, he’s basically followed the same path less desirable coaches and recruited players who were never going to stay for the full college experience like Laettner and Bobby Hurley (Grant Hill, of course, left early), or even for a full academic year. It was a transactional relationship on the players’ way to the NBA, and that would be fine if he didn’t feel the urge to pontificate about the way things ought to be/the way things were back in his West Point days under the choker Bobby Knight. 

So he was incredibly successful. Iconic in a way only coaches can attain in college sports, and he lectured journalism students about why their questions sucked…that’s why you have these two headlines posted in the days after his announcement: 

From The Ringer: “Coach K Built A Basketball Empire”

And from Defector: “See You Later To The Butthead”

I thought it would be fun to pull two selects from these articles trying to encapsulate the same legend.

Michael Baumann (The Ringer):

In achievement and longevity, Krzyzewski transcends his contemporaries and should be regarded as a figure of world-historical sporting import. He’s in a class with Roy Williams and John Calipari, yes, but also Pat Summitt and John Wooden, and the likes of Bill Belichick and Sir Alex Ferguson. These are epoch-spanning, history-bending figures, viewed in their own corners of sporting history as fathers of empire, like George Washington or Charlemagne.

Albert Burneko (Defector)

He is also, inarguably, the greatest self-promoter in the college game’s history, a thin-skinned and viciousbully, a sanctimonious scold, and petty soreloser who has (mostly) successfully portrayed himself as a humble and principled educator and molder of honorable men over the nearly half a century during which he reaped fortune and acclaim beyond measure off the work of unpaid laborers. 


I’ll leave you with this: I am very skeptical of anyone that announces a retirement before his/her last season, thereby welcoming a farewell tour. It’s such a lame and thirsty move. – PAL


Sources: Coach K Built A Basketball Empire”, Michael Baumann, The Ringer (06/02/21); “See You Later To This Butthead”, Albert Burneko, The Ringer (06/03/21)


The Playoffs Are Now LeBron-less

The Suns eliminated the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, and for what seems like the first time in my adult life, LeBron James will not be playing in the NBA Finals. The Lakers weren’t a playoff team in 2018 – the rebuild was still in process for LeBron’s first year. Other than that, LeBron teams have shown up to the Finals every year since 2011. Incredible. 

Last year, he and Anthony Davis, the most talented sidekick LeBron’s ever had, blitzed through the bubble playoffs, but injuries to both Davis and LeBron proved too much this go round, especially . 

At 36, LeBron is 18 seasons into his career. Tack on the equivalent of 3.24 seasons in playoffs games played to that, too. What he’s done to stay as healthy and athletic as he has over that amount of time, wear and tear is far more impressive to me than Tom Brady standing in the pocket playing QB at age 43.

After a first round loss, the first time in his career a LeBron team hasn’t advanced past the first round, folks are dying to write the “Father Time is undefeated” story about LeBron. Few writers are as perfectly equipped as Ray Ratto is to handle such a tired storyline and make it actually stand out as worthy to share. Ratto does a nice little trick here: he writes the father time story, but warns people about being too quick to put LeBron in that category. Smart. He’s saying LeBron’s not there…yet, so he can write about the athlete being passed his prime without saying he’s passed it. 

Ratto starts with the following: “The end of the LeBron James era has been prophesied for years, which is the main reason it has been so remarkable—the sheer number of years that everyone has been wrong.”

LeBron’s was still one of the five best players in the league this year – so smart, so strong, so athletic (still), but in an era when all contenders have multiple all-NBA players, LeBron can no longer get by with anything less that top tier talent sharing the load. Anthony Davis was a force in the playoff run last year, but he’s an injury magnet. He went down with another (aggravated a recent injury) within minutes of this game, and the Suns pounced. 

Gone are the games in LeBron’s career when he can pretty much beat a great opponent by himself. Instead of looking to the future, as Ratto does, this Suns loss has me appreciating even more how incredible it was to watch a 2018 LeBron bully his way to 51 points against the stacked Warriors (Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green), nearly stealing the first game of the series against one of the best teams ever assembled.

Look at that. He’s going schoolyard on the Warriors. Forcing his way to whatever shot he wants. Dominant. 

So while it makes sense to ponder what comes next for LeBron after the Suns loss, I am less interested in that than I am interested in remembering how incredible he’s been. – PAL 


Source: Rome Didn’t Fall In A Day”, Ray Ratto, Defector (06/04/21)


Video of the Week

Tweet(s) of the Week:

Song of the Week: Flamin’ Groovies – “Shake Some Action”

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Holly is sweet, and simple. Like a lady baker. I- would not be surprised to find out that she had worked in a bakery before coming here. She has that kind of warmth. I’m pretty sure she’s baked on a professional level.

-Michael Scott