"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
June 22, 2010
WAR/POLITICS: Not In Charge
President Obama should fire General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for a highly impolitic interview Gen. McChrystal gave to Rolling Stone magazine (of all places) mocking the Vice President and the U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan, among others, and making evident his disdain for the Administration's civilian management of the war effort. Obama should fire him - but he's painted himself into a corner in which doing so would be damaging to him politically and to the nation's war effort. Let's review why.
When Barack Obama came into office, he had an Afghanistan problem. Obama had won crucial credibility with the anti-war Left, and thus the Democratic presidential nomination, by opposing (at times) the Iraq War. At the same time, he marketed himself as being serious about national security by touting his support for the war in Afghanistan. Coming into office, he needed to reassure the military, the Afghan government and other U.S. allies, and the existing domestic supporters of the Afghan war (many of whom were Republicans unenthused about supporting any Obama initiative) that he was really serious. Complicating matters, the Democrats had spent the prior several years building a narrative in which the Bush Administration had sinned by not listening to criticism from the brass, and in which military men like Gen. Eric Shinseki (now Secretary of Veterans Affairs) were all but sainted for publicly splitting with the Bush Administration's war management. Obama, having little credibility of his own on national security matters, could scarcely hope to survive a public battle with his own military leadership.
Obama got off to a rough start. First of all, he came to office with no executive experience, no national security experience (in the Senate he'd never bothered holding hearings on the subcommittee he chaired overseeing Afghanistan) and no military service record; his Vice President, while schooled in foreign affairs, was likewise a career legislator with no military service record, ditto his Secretary of State. He ended up with yet another legislator running the CIA after his first choice was seen by the Left as too tied to the intelligence community. To balance this team out (Presidents always lack something and need balance from their advisers, but Obama lacked more than most), he had to lean heavily on holdovers: he kept Bush's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and gave wide latitude to General David Petraeus, architect of the Iraq War surge that Obama, Biden and Clinton had opposed with varying levels of scorn. He also picked a military man (Gen. James Jones) as his National Security Advisor, although that has worked out poorly.
Then, as I detailed back in September, Obama backed off his original promises for more troops in Afghanistan and sacked the commander there, General David McKiernan, in May 2009 after McKiernan asked for more troops. McKiernan was replaced with General Stanley McChrystal, a blunt-spoken counterinsurgency specialist and ally of General Petraeus who had something of a track record - known to those around him - of speaking out of turn.
McChrystal quickly lived up to that reputation, with speeches and an assessment of the Afghan situation (leaked to the public) that increased the public heat on Obama to come up with more troops for the mission. McChrystal's actions at the time tiptoed up to the line of undermining the all-important chain of command, but they were also critical to moving the public and the President in support of the war effort. The President eventually gave in, delivering a substantial troop surge, albeit one with a good deal fewer forces than McKiernan or McChrystal had asked for and with a bunch of promises to his own supporters about withdrawal timetables.
Now, months later, McChrystal has plowed over that line, and done so for no such obviously good purposes, and with plenty of notice about what the article would look like. Military men in a theater of war are prone to strong opinions, and it's hard to say that Vice President Biden and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, among others, haven't earned Gen. McChrystal's contempt. But doing so in public is insubordination, plain and simple, and completely inconsistent with our tradition of a chain of command and civilian control of the military. A military man who wants to open both barrels in public against the political leadership has a time-honored way to do that: resign his commission and enter politics. As Harry Truman understood when he fired Douglas MacArthur - then a national hero - at great political cost, a president who doesn't show the generals who is boss is no longer running anything. That's bad for civilian-military relations and bad for the president's and the nation's credibility, as subordinates learn they can get away with more and allies and enemies wonder who they should listen to. While it speaks well of Gen. McChrystal that the Afghan government is publicly backing him, a president who lets foreign governments, even key allies, have any say in picking his own military officers has lost face he can't recover.
So, to preserve his own credibility and authority and secure the chain of command, Obama must fire General McChrystal. But doing so isn't so easy. As Dan Foster notes, the conclusion of the prior dust-up over troop strength showed that much of the public's trust in Obama was based on the credibility of McChrystal's recommendations. The champions of Gen. Shinseki will look - rightly - like contemptible hypocrites for sacking a distinguished commander for saying what he thinks. The troops in the field, always prone to regard civilian meddling as foolhardy, may regard the firing of a blunt commander - barely a year after the last commander was sacked after disagreeing with the White House - as a sign that the civilian leadership can't take some hurt feelings. Obama is also simultaneously cruising for a divisive showdown over ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a change that is sure to be opposed in at least some corners of the military. More significantly, in the short run, McChrystal's experience and expertise may be hard to replace overnight.
Underlying everything is a far bigger problem. Obama's strategy of shifting the military's focus - and 30,000 troops - from Iraq to Afghanistan hasn't yet yielded a major breakthrough.
Whether Obama chooses to start abandoning the war effort or again to face down calls from his own base to do so, he will need the credible backing of trusted military leaders - and shoving out the architect of the current plan (who may well respond by issuing blunter critiques from the outside if he's pushed out) and bringing in a third commander in Afghanistan in 14 months is no way to win confidence from the public, the military or our allies.
These are tough decisions, and precisely why the presidency is not suited for on-the-job training for people who have never run anything before, or for politicians like President Obama who have built up no basis for trusting them on critical issues of national security. Obama has been walking a very narrow tightrope on Afghanistan, supported largely by the generals. He may be about to fall off.
June 18, 2010
BASEBALL: Can't Handle The Truth
June 17, 2010
POLITICS: Primary Colors
Ben Domenech looks at the possibility that President Obama could face a primary challenge, possibly from Hillary Clinton, in 2012. As Moe Lane notes, Obama's people are busy reworking the primary system so as to make a repeat of 2008 less likely. Historically, presidents who get re-elected have a unified party, while those who face non-frivolous primary challenges (Bush in 1992, Carter in 1980, Ford in 1976, LBJ in 1968) lose. The last president to get re-elected despite a serious rift in his own party was Truman in 1948.
Obviously, whether Obama faces a primary challenger depends in largest part on his perceived strength in mid-late 2011, which we can't predict now. Ben focuses on some key issues, like where gay fundraising mogul Tim Gill is going to put his money. My guess is that while Hillary may yet have a renewed appeal to centrist voters within and without the party (odd as it remains to think of her as a centrist, but the contrast with Obama has done wonders in that regard) based on the contrast she can offer less in ideology than in experience and perceived competence, she's not likely to mount a challenge unless and until someone on the left (which is openly disgruntled at Obama for discarding some of his most utopian campaign themes and promises) goes first, as Eugene McCarthy did in 1968, encouraging Robert F. Kennedy to enter the race. That would allow Hillary to avoid a straight right-left battle (which the centrist will generally lose, especially when Obama is guaranteed 90+ % of the African-American vote under any conceivable circumstance) as well as avoiding the disloyalty issues that would arise if she threw the first stone at him.
POLITICS: Piggy Bank
Democrats are seeking to increase taxes on oil companies as part of their vaunted "tax extenders" legislation. The new revenue would flow into the federal government’s Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which was created following the 1989 Exxon Valdez crash. But the trust fund is not a "lock-box," and Democrats are effectively double-counting the revenue as (1) a source of money for the Gulf cleanup effort and (2) an offset for separate spending provisions in the tax bill. This makes the deficit impact of the legislation appear significantly smaller than it actually is.
Vitter wanted to bar the federal government from raiding the new spill-cleanup fund for other purposes, but Senate Democrats voted down his amendment. The same theme repeats withn the $20 billion that British Petroleum would have given directly to individuals and companies damaged by the Gulf oil spill, but which BP - colluding, under pressure, with the Obama Aadministration - instead handed over to the Obama White House without any safeguards to prevent it from being paid out for other purposes:
[A] government-administered fund more or less guarantees a more politicized payment process. The escrow administrator will be chosen by the White House, and as such would be influenced by the Administration's political goals. Those goals would include payments to those harmed by the Administration's own six-month deep water drilling ban. That reckless policy will soon put thousands of Gulf Coast residents out of work, but the White House knows that BP isn't liable under current law for those claims. The escrow account is an attempt to tap BP's funds by other means to pay the costs of Mr. Obama's own policy blunder.
This has been a common theme throughout this Administration: when there are pots of money to be handled - even, as in BP's case, money the company concedes should legitimately be paid out to people damaged by its actions - Obama's people want that pot under their control to hand out to those who find favor with the government. Former Obama car czar Steve Rattner is the first Obama Administration official to be sanctioned by the federal government for his involvement in trading official favors for a piece of the action, and he likely won't be the last. If you take as an article of faith that money changing hands must pass through the approval of a government functionary, you are necessarily encouraging the further corruption of government and business alike.
June 15, 2010
BUSINESS/POLITICS: Protection Racket
Everywhere in the world for a good twenty years now, the real rate of return on economically-productive investments has tended to be well below its previous trendline. During that time, rates on the short-term debt of high-rated governments have tended to be in the range of one percent as opposed to the historical two or more percent.
His last line sums up in a nutshell why protectionism appeals to the Left. Read the whole thing.
WAR: Not There. Anywhere But There.
POLITICS: None of the Above
Excellent profile of Alvin Greene's Senate candidacy in South Carolina. Given the demographics of the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate, I suspect the racial angle (i.e., that black voters could tell just from their names that Vic Rawl was white and Alvin Greene was black) is probably the Occam's Razor explanation for how he won. Interesting that the national media's paid a lot of attention to Greene without mentioning that it actually is a milestone for the party of John C. Calhoun and Strom Thurmond (back in the says when Strom was a segregationist) to nominate an African-American for the Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.
Yes, Greene is a ridiculous Senate candidate, and a less-than-appealing storyline given the obscenity charge and what appears to have been less than honorable discharges from the Army and Air Force. But it would nonetheless behoove Jim DeMint to debate Greene and treat him with the respect afforded to any opponent, and the media to hold off a bit on making fun of him. Greene's the epitiome of an ordinary citizen nominated by his fellow citizens, and while he seems pretty ignorant of even basic civics, that didn't prevent him from serving in the Armed Forces; plenty of men have died for this country knowing no more of its governance than Alvin Greene. That doesn't mean anybody should vote for him, but a little common decency and respect for the power and dignity of ordinary Americans would go a long way in this season of popular discontents.
(By the way, I very much doubt the one outlier poll purporting to show Rawl within striking distance of DeMint. Yes, Republican incumbents face an electorate that's not that happy with them either, but this is South Carolina, and DeMint has given voters no reason to ultimately desert him).
BASEBALL: Laid So Low
The Orioles are now 17 1/2 games out of fourth place. Eventually, the Blue Jays will drop some steam - until recently, the AL East had the four highest-scoring teams in MLB, but Toronto's fallen off to 8th now and sports an AL-worst .309 team OBP (then again, last year's hitting stars, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, are both below .300, and could offset a lot if they start hitting) - but the strength of that division has to come out of someone's hide, and the Orioles have drawn the short straw.
POLITICS: But The Media Was So Nice To Bush!1!1!
There's probably nobody on the web more in love with really, really dumb arguments than Media Matters and Eric Boehlert, and Matt Welch absolutely destroys their contention that the LA Times - which in some alternate universe MMFA thinks suffers from right-wing bias for employing one conservative columnist in a sea of left-wing reportage, the delightful Andrew Malcolm - would never, ever hire a columnist so disrespectful of a Republican president. (Patterico has some fun with one of Boehlert's related claims). Welch does this, by the way, without even scratching the surface of the venom directed at President Bush by other columnists at the LAT or elsewhere.
BASEBALL: Year of the Slightly Better Pitcher
Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus looks at the numbers and finds progress, but not dramatic progress, in reducing scoring this season, mainly in the AL and principally resulting from increased strikeout rates and declining numbers of bases per hit.
June 14, 2010
BASBALL: You Don't Walk Into Heaven
June 9, 2010
BASEBALL: SPOTUS Takes K Street
Stephen Strasburg's debut could hardly have gone better, even taking account of the fact that he was facing the second-worst offensive team in the majors (only the Astros have scored slightly fewer runs per game than the Pirates). He looked like Danny Almonte blowing through overmatched Little Leaguers out there, and at times like Sidd Finch. Quick rundown of his run at the record book:
-14 Ks in a major league debut is one short of the record of 15 by Karl Spooner in 1954 and JR Richard in 1971. (Bob Feller struck out 15 in his first start, but he'd made relief appearances before that).
-Strasburg set a MLB record for fewest pitches required (94) to 14 Ks.
-Strasburg broke Johnny Cueto's two-year-old record for most Ks in a MLB debut (10) without issuing a walk. At least as far as I could find from baseball-reference.com, 7 rookie pitchers have struck out 14 or more batters in a game without a walk: Kerry Wood (20), Dwight Gooden (16, twice in the same month), Mark Prior (16), Roger Clemens (15), Gary Nolan (15) and now Strasburg (14). Bill James ran an analysis in the 1985 Abstract concluding that the chances of Clemens (4.32 rookie ERA) being a really good pitcher were high just on that one game alone, i.e., that random chance would have a very low probability of allowing a poor pitcher to strike out that many guys in one game with no walks.
On the downside, JR Richard threw his last game at 30, Spooner at 24, Prior at 25 (1-6, 7.21 ERA), Nolan at 29 (4-4, 6.09 ERA), Gooden from age 29 on was 40-31 with a 4.99 ERA, and Wood since age 28 has been 13-16 with a 4.04 ERA (with 58 saves) almost exclusively as a reliever. That's a lot of falling short of potential that only Clemens, in that group, reached (the jury's still out on Johnny Cueto and his 4.55 career ERA). The greater challenge for Strasburg, as with all young pitchers, will be staying healthy.
In short, in one start, Strasburg has amply demonstrated that he has the talent to be the real deal. Now, the hard part: I'd like to see him do it again.
June 8, 2010
POLITICS: Not Ready For Prime Time
Byron York notices that Obama not having any experience running anything is being reflected in his response to the BP oil spill. As does Sarah Palin, who by any measure has more relevant experience for dealing with this problem than Obama does: "what the heck, give me a call."
BASEBALL: Strasmas Eve
It's unlikely that Strasburg will be as revolutionary from the outset as Bob Feller. Between the dawn of the 4-ball-3-strike era in 1889 and 1935, only six pitchers struck out at least 8 batters per 9 innings in a season of 25 or more innings. Three of those six (28-year-old Norwegian-born Jimmy Wiggs with 37 K and 29 BB in 41.1 IP in 1905, 22-year-old Marty O'Toole with 34 K and 20 BB in 38 IP in 1911, and 25-year-old Roy Parmalee with 23 K and 14 BB in 25.1 IP in 1932) were essentially short-season flukes by wild pitchers who were never able to duplicate those strikeout rates over anything like a full season of innings. One was 26-year-old "won't you come home" Bill Bailey, whose career 4.2 K/9 rate more than doubled to 9.16 in 128.2 IP in the Federal League's inaugural 1914 season, but dropped to 4.9 the next year and never topped 3.1 again. The other two, at 8.39 and 8.20, were the peak seasons of baseball's true strikeout master to that point, Rube Waddell, at the peak of his powers at age 26-27.
Feller, age 17, struck out 76 batters in 62 innings in the American League, over 11 men per 9 innings. While allowing just one home run. His ERA was 3.34, although he walked 6.8 men per 9. His numbers after joining the rotation August 23 were even more staggering: 8 starts, a 2.67 ERA, 41 hits allowed, 70 K (11.67 per 9). This, in a league where the average pitcher struck out 3.3 men per 9, walked 4, had a 5.04 ERA and the average hitter batted .289/.363/.421. Feller made the cover of Time Magazine in April of the next year, before an Opening Day start in which he fanned 11 men in 6 innings (Feller made just two more appearances, in relief, before joining the rotation on July 4; he had to finish high school first). In his second season, in 148.2 IP, Feller struck out 150 men at age 18, becoming as a teen the only man after 1889 outside the Federal League to clear a strikeout per inning for more than 100 innings. In those first two seasons, he was a strikeout-inducing force such as the game had not seen. Feller's K rate settled down a bit after that, but in 1891.2 innings between age 17 and 27 (interrupted by joining the Navy for World War II, where he saw combat as a gun captain on the USS Alabama, and punctuated by a 1946 barnstorming tour facing a Satchel Paige-led Negro League team a year before the color line broke), he struck out 1640 batters and allowed just 71 home runs, posting a 2.96 ERA. Feller's 7.8 K/9 over that 11-year span dominated the majors; only two other pitchers with 1000 innings pitched over those years struck out more than 5.71 per 9 (Hal Newhouser at 6.26, Johnny Vander Meer at 6.06, and Newhouser racked up some of his biggest K numbers during the war). Feller, a physical marvel at 17, was the starting pitcher in the Cooperstown Classic old-timers game last year at 90, and plans to pitch again this year at 91.
It's also unlikely that Strasburg will be as dominant a phenom as Dwight Gooden. Gooden's then-record 11.39 K/9 as a 19-year-old in 1984 was just a warmup; his 1.53 ERA in 1985's 24-4 season was, relative to the league (ERA+ of 229), the 7th-best ERA to that point in a season of 200+ innings (it's 11th now, with the addition of two better seasons apiece by Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez), and is still the only ERA+ of 200 or better in a 200-inning season by a pitcher under age 22. And in raw terms, as I noted last week, if you include unearned runs he had the 4th fewest runs allowed per inning of all time, at 1.66 runs/9. At his peak, over 50 starts stretching from August 11, 1984 through May 6, 1986, Gooden was 37-5 with a 1.38 ERA (1.51 if you count unearned runs), completed half his starts and threw shutouts in almost a quarter, averaged 8.1 innings per start, 9.2 K per 9, 2.0 BB, and 0.38 HR.
Since 1900, the ten winningest pitchers through age 21, ERA+ of 120 or better (Feller & Gooden are still comfortably 1-2 if you include guys with lesser ERAs; Amos Rusie and Kid Nichols join if you go back to 1890):
1. Bob Feller: 82-41 (.667), 3.19 ERA (140 ERA+), 973 K (7.92 per 9)
Pretty good company, if you can reach it. But Strasburg doesn't need to be as revolutionary as Feller or as dominant as Gooden or as great over as long a career as Paige or Walter Johnson to deliver on enough of the hype to satisfy. There's still plenty of room in between to dream.
BASEBALL: Class of 06-07
Joe Posnanski uses the occasion of the Jeff Suppan release to look back at the disastrous free agent class of 2006-07, baseball's equivalent of the subprime mortgage bubble. I wish I'd updated my own analysis in midstream of that free agent class. Patrick Sullivan has argued that JD Drew's at-first-glance-obscene contract is actually a bargain compared to the rest of his peers, and while I still think you wouldn't sign Drew for the same money today, he's right in light of the market conditions of that insane offseason.
June 7, 2010
POLITICS: Media Resentments
BASEBALL: Home Sweet Home
I've hit a few times on the Mets' bizarre run of dominance (22-9) at Citi Field. Some of the causes are explicable - Reyes, Pelfrey playing well at home - some are surprising (Jason Bay adjusting his game to a park where he struggles to hit home runs), and some are just freaky coincidence. Here's a few of the latter:
-Fernando Nieve hasn't allowed a run in 14 innings at home this year, compared to a 13.50 road ERA (18 runs in 12 innings). Nieve's career ERA at Citi Field: 1.13.
-Mets pitchers are batting .213/.226/.246 with 3 Runs, 4 RBI, 5 Sac Hits and 0 GIDP in 62 plate appearances at home this season.
-Fernando Tatis at home: .389/.476/.611.
June 3, 2010
BASEBALL: The Kid Bids Adieu
The Galarraga controversy almost obscured yesterday's bigger news, the retirement of Ken Griffey jr. It was overdue by at least a month. One example: I had looked late last week at the ten players with the highest and lowest number of bases per hit in MLB with at least 100 plate appearances. You don't really want to be on either of these lists - a good hitter should have plenty of singles to go with the extra base hits - but the guys on the low list are almost all punchless slap hitters. The results?
Top 10: Jose Bautista, Paul Konerko, Nelson Cruz, Andruw Jones, Kelly Johnson, Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, David Ortiz, Aaron Hill, Seth Smith.
Bottom 10: Cesar Izturis, Jamey Carroll, Ryan Theriot, Ken Griffey, Juan Pierre, Elvis Andrus, Luis Castillo, Julio Borbon, Jason Kendall, Lou Marson.
Plus, he was batting .183; this is why Griffey was slugging .204. If his career was a horse, we would have shot it. He should have hung it up after 2009, when he batted .214 but was still mildly useful and hit well at home; returning made him a four-decade player, but did nothing else for anyone and resulted in the ignominious controversy over Griffey allegedly taking a nap when he was needed for pinch-hitting duties.
Anyway, memories of Griffey's 2010 can hopefully now be erased, and we can remember a guy who played the game with grace, joy, hard work and a world of talent. I've looked systematically before at Griffey's place among the Hall of Fame slugging outfielders/first basemen who had around a decade-long prime (I counted Griffey from age 20-30), and ranked him offensively a bit below Albert Belle, Paul Waner, Duke Snider, Jim Thome, Bill Terry, Fred McGriff, Sammy Sosa, and Dick Allen - granting that several of those guys are rated on 9 seasons to Griffey's 11, with only Waner (12) and Allen (11) matching the length of Griffey's prime, even with Billy Williams (who was a lesser hitter but more durable) and a bit ahead of Al Simmons, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick, Earl Averill, Minnie Minoso and Goose Goslin. Griffey would have ranked higher except that his spectacular 1994 season, when he slugged .674 and was on pace to challenge Roger Maris, was confined to a short schedule, and he missed half the 1995 season with a broken hand.
Griffey's career went in stages. In 1989, he was a promising rookie, batting .264/.329/.420, impressive enough for a teenager in that era. In 1990-92, from age 20-22, he was truly The Kid: playing alongside his dad for the first two of those seasons, he hit his peak as a glove man (he won the Gold Glove every year of the 1990s) and hitter for average, but his power hadn't come in all the way yet, batting .311/.376/.513 (146 OPS+), averaging 36 doubles, 24 homers and 94 RBI per year. From 1993-2000, covering age 23-30 and including his first year in Cincinnati, he was a monster: adjusting for the shortened 1994-95 schedules, his average season was .294/.387/.606 (152 OPS+), 46 HR, 112 R, 122 RBI, 15 SB, and 82 BB. Griffey was mostly durable aside from the 1995 injury, leading the league in homers four times and surpassing 700 plate appearances three years in a row and 600 plate appearances every non-strike-shortened season between 1990 and 2000. He did benefit from a home-field advantage at the Kingdome, slugging .605 there for his career (.555 at Cinergy Field in his later years in Cincinnati); between 1991 and 2000, Griffey hit .312/.401/.636 at home, 4th in the majors in slugging at home, but .287/.371/.547 on the road, 11th in the majors in slugging on the road (number one? Mike Piazza, at .350/.414/.616).
Griffey was often referred to, even by me, as the best player in baseball in those years. He was near the top, and contra Bill James he was better than Craig Biggio, but he wasn't #1 even when you give him a leg up for his amazing glovework. Let's take a back of the envelope look. For the 1993-2000 period, there were many comparable hitters. If you rank them by OPS, there were 21 guys with a 900 or better OPS over those years and more than 4000 plate appearances. We can drop seven of those guys from direct comparison, as they had fewer than 4400 plate appearances to Griffey's 4896: Manny Ramirez, Thome, Gary Sheffield, Andres Galarraga, Juan Gonzalez, Chipper Jones, David Justice (McGwire falls even further short). Six more were below a 950 OPS to Griffey's 993, and thus also not directly comparable: Mo Vaughn, Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Salmon, Sosa, Bernie Williams and John Olerud. Thus, our direct comparisons:
Barry Bonds .303/.439/.626 (1065 OPS, 4885 PA, 180 OPS+)
Bonds, clearly, was the game's best player in that stretch; Griffey's .387 OBP was good, of course, but not in the same class with Bonds, Thomas, Bagwell or Edgar, and Bonds was also an excellent fielder and baserunner. At the other end, Belle was a slightly lesser hitter and not a comparable glove man to Griffey, so he clearly rates slightly below the Kid during that period (my column rated him higher with the bat, but it included Belle's 1991-92 and not 2000, although the other big difference was the edge Belle gets for durability).
The other four are closer calls. I'd rate Piazza ahead of Griffey, especially given his superior road numbers; Piazza being a passable catcher with the same bat was more valuable than Griffey being a great center fielder. I'd put Griffey ahead of Edgar, who missed a good deal more time and had zero defensive value. And when push comes to shove, I'd rather have Thomas and Bagwell's superior on-base skills than Griffey's better glove and speed, although it's close.
After 2000, Griffey became an overpaid half-time player; even with the hometown discount he accepted to go home to Cincinnati, his contract killed the small-market Reds, while the Mariners - perennially disappointing in the postseason in the Griffey era - won an AL-record and MLB-tying record 116 games in 2001 without him, albeit ending in another postseason bust. He was still good, batting .277/.363/.533 (129 OPS+) from age 31-35, but averaged just 89 games a year.
In 2006-07, Griffey got a bit healthier, but his skills started eroding, despite a valiant comeback effort in 2007; he batted .266/.348/.492 (110 OPS+) over those years, averaging 126 games a year. Then the power went; at age 38-39, drifting through three teams, he hit .234/.340/.418 (99 OPS+). This year, reduced to .184/.250/.204 (28 OPS+) in 108 plate appearances, he was cooked.
Griffey could be whiny and self-centered a bit, and his smile hid more turbulence than you might guess (he attempted suicide semi-seriously in high school), but on the whole he was a joy to watch and a fun prankster to have in a clubhouse, took tons of batting practice, and is generally regarded as one of the few sluggers of his era who is above suspicion of steroids. We may never see another Willie Mays, but Griffey was a pretty good facsimile for the modern fan, finishing with 630 homers. It was a great ride.
BASEBALL: Past Imperfect
A few thoughts on last night's fiasco in Detroit, in which - if you missed it - Armando Galarraga missed a perfect game against the Indians when umpire Jim Joyce completely blew a call at first base (it wasn't even close) on what would have been the 27th out; Galarraga then calmly recorded another out and the game ended:
-I don't ever remember hearing Jim Joyce's name before, although he's been in the league for years. That, as well as his forthright admission that he blew the call, speaks well of him. Sometimes, even good umps make bad calls.
-Galarraga handled the whole situation with incredible class and grace, not even arguing the call and making a show of forgiving Joyce for the whole thing. (And if don't you think the umps around the league will remember that....)
-This will probably lead to MLB adopting the instant replay for more plays than just disputed home run calls. I'm not thrilled at the prospect of more game delays, but fixing really egregious errors when they happen is for the best.
-On the other hand, retroactively awarding Galarraga the out on the bad call, as so many sportswriters are now demanding, would be an awful idea. The Tigers didn't protest the game (I don't think, offhand, that a protest can be pursued by the winning team or on a safe/out call on the bases), so the one precedent (the 1983 pine tar game, when the league reversed an on-field decision to strip a home run from George Brett, requiring the game to be replayed from that point) doesn't provide any support. And doing so just to preserve one player's individual accomplishment is antithetical to the point of team sports, in which we celebrate individual achievements that are reached within the flow of the game. It's not as if the league ordinarily does anything about blown calls even when they decide pennant races or postseason serieses. Galarraga will be remembered as the guy who earned the distinction, and in a way that's close enough. Like Harvey Haddix, he'll go down in history in a way that Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden won't.
-Three perfect games in a month: amazing. Scoring's down a bit, but not nearly enough to account for that.
-I gotta add this: I definitely picked the right week to have just activated Galarraga on my fantasy team.
June 2, 2010
BASEBALL: Throwing Zeros
If the season ended today, Ubaldo Jimenez would qualify for the ERA title with an 0.78 ERA. Pitching in Coors Field. Only three men in baseball history have thrown more innings in a season than Jimenez has already thrown (80.1) and finished with an ERA below 1.00: Dutch Leonard (0.96 ERA in 224.2 IP in 1914), Hall of Famer Tim Keefe (0.86 ERA in 105 innings as a rookie in 1880), and the immortal Ferdie Schupp (0.90 ERA in 140.1 innings as a swing man in 1916; more on the 1916 Giants here).
That's impressive, even with the caveat that one bad outing could double his ERA in a hurry. But even more impressive is the fact that Jimenez hasn't allowed an unearned run this season. Which puts him on pace for an even more exclusive club: if the season ended today, he'd be the only man ever to qualify for an ERA title allowing less than 1 run per 9 innings. Indeed, Rob Murphy in 1986 (50.1 IP, 0.72 ERA, no unearned runs) holds the current record for most innings in a season with a RA (ERA, but including unearned runs) below 1.00.
Here's the complete list of guys who qualified for an ERA title with an RA below 2.00, including at present both Jimenez and Jaime Garcia:
When you look at the RA column, it really underlines how historically amazing Leonard, Gibson and Walter Johnson were in their peak seasons. (Henry Thomas, in his excellent bio of Johnson, notes that Johnson got beat up the last day of the season in what was then a common practice of playing essentially a 'joke' game with guys playing out of position and whatnot). Gooden and Maddux, too. And of course, Pedro in 2000 and Maddux in 1994-95 are especially impressive when you consider the context they pitched in. (Fun facts about Pedro in 2000: one, the league allowed 5.28 runs/game; two, he had an 0.99 ERA through June 14; three, he was only 6-5 at home despite a 1.84 home ERA; four, 23 of the 44 runs scored off him were on home runs - he allowed 9.95 runs/9 on homers and 0.87 runs/9 otherwise). But if by some stroke of good fortune Jimenez was able to keep this up all year, he'd go straight to the head of the class for the best-pitched season ever (setting aside the debate over how heavily to weight workloads compared to a guy like Johnson).
Posted by Baseball Crank at 2:53 PM | Baseball 2010 | Baseball Studies | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)
June 1, 2010
WAR: The Face of Sanctions
News came Monday that the Israeli navy had boarded a flotilla of ships seeking to run Israel's blockade of Gaza, setting off an incident that ended with the Israelis shooting a number of people on board the ship. The immediate controversy is over what happened on board: the Israelis say they were attacked upon boarding by assailants wielding knives and clubs. Who you believe depends in large part where your sympathies lie in the longstanding struggle between Israel and its neighbors. But at bottom, incidents like Monday's are the inevitable results of a policy of sanctions and the blockade required to enforce them. And advocates of such policies who claim that they are preferable to more openly aggressive means of dealing with security threats need to come to grips with that fact.
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Israel, it is not news to report, has long suffered from serious security threats - suicide-terrorist attacks, rocket launches, and the movement of arms and hostile men that support such threats - emanating from Palestinian territory in Gaza and the West Bank. Some of Israel's critics on the Left argue that Israel should have no response at all to these assaults on Israeli civilians, but plainly this is not a feasible option - such people would never argue that the United States should just ignore the spillage of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, much less people lobbing rockets into our territory. Nor is a law-enforcement-style manhunt of those responsible in the aftermath of attacks a sane solution, not least in light of the manifest impossibility of obtaining the cooperation of authorities in Gaza and the West Bank who range from personally complicit to indifferent to impotent.
Boiled down to essentials, there are three possible Israeli responses to such threats:
1) Retaliation in kind. Most everyone would agree that this is the worst of all options, the collective-punishment approach of targeting Palestinian civilians for death in response to any attack.
2) Invasion/occupation. Israel could return to a policy of entering and controlling Gaza, eliminating the state of semi-independence that allows threats to fester. This, too, is a strategy that is costly in lives and provocation.
3) Sanctions/blockade. Although it has not been the exclusive policy undertaken, imposing sanctions and a blockade on Gaza has been Israel's main line of defense. Basically, the Israelis are trying to prevent the Palestinians from obtaining weapons - a policy of interdiction, similar to a gun-control or war-on-drugs approach, as opposed to going to the roots of the problem.
This isn't the only purpose for which sanctions are used; in some cases, economic sanctions are used as retrospective punishments, or as leverage (put enough hurt on the other guy to make him cry uncle), or to deny a regime the resources to buy weapons. But the common thread is that any sanctions policy, to be effective, must be accompanied by enforcement of the sanctions through some form of blockade.
The trouble with sanctions and blockades is that somebody always tries to violate them. In this case, the Israelis permit humanitarian aid to be sent to Gaza through Israeli ports/checkpoints, but the flotilla was a deliberate effort to bring shipments to Gaza without Israeli inspection. And that left Israel with two choices: abandon the strategy of sanctions and blockade, or enforce them, up to and including the use of force if the blockade met with resistance. This is a corollary of two points I've been making for years: one, that if you send soldiers into anything, you have to know how far you are willing to go to accomplish their mission, and two, that all forms of leverage in international conflict resolution are war by other means, and at the end of the day they are backed by credible threats of force, or they are not.
We have long experience with the problems of sanctions policies and the blockades necessary to enforce them. One is the risk that using force to enforce a blockade risks violence and escalation - think of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor partly in response to U.S. economic (oil) sanctions, or the U.S. entering World War I partly in response to Germany sinking ships bound for blockaded Britain, or the U.S. and the Soviet Union nearly coming to nuclear war over JFK's blockade of Cuba in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A second is the drain and diplomatic strain created by long-running blockades: think of the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to essentially blockade Iraq from 1991 to 2003, and the tensions that helped inflame. A third is the humanitarian cost, as regimes like Saddam's and Castro's and Kim Jong Il's keep their leadership well-fed and housed while passing the costs of sanctions down to the innocent populace. A fourth is the pervasive risk that sanctions regimes cannot be enforced, especially in countries with multiple borders or where powerful countries openly or tacitly decline to cooperate. North Korea or Iran cannot be sanctioned effectively without the sincere cooperation of Russia and China. Iraq conducted significant trade while under sanctions, and succeeded in corrupting the UN Oil-for-Food program to a shocking but predictable extent. And where the purpose of sanctions is to prevent the targeted state from obtaining weapons, especially nuclear materials, chemical/biogical weapons, rockets or other explosives, the blockade must be airtight or it will be a dismal, lethal failure.
None of these things are reasons never to use sanctions. In some essentially non-violent disputes, like international disapproval of South African apartheid or trade disputes, even partly effective sanctions can provide significant leverage. In some cases, like Israel's blockade of Gaza and the U.S. sanctions against Cuba, the small size and geographic proximity of the blockaded target make sanctions and blockade more effective. And there are often arguments to be made that the evil of sanctions and blockade are lesser than the evils of the alternatives of either inaction or aggressive, perhaps preemptive, military force and occupation.
But know this: if you argue for sanctions as a tool of international diplomacy, you must be willing to own the consequences, up to and including shooting people who try to run the blockade, perhaps in some cases mistakenly, perhaps in other cases where they were only trying to deliver "humanitarian" aid that's being blockaded. The incident on the flotilla was the face of sanctions. Remember what that face really looks like before you argue again for their use.
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