"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
December 22, 2010
BASEBALL: Lack of Zack
I'm still getting my head around the Royals dealing Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt to Milwaukee for Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and two pitching prospects, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi.
From Greinke's perspective, the deal is great news; he escapes the Sisyphean despair of the Royals (losing out, in the process, on the joys of playing with Jeff Francouer), joins a team that at least for now (pending the end of Prince Fielder's contract after the 2011 season) has some offense and another quality starter in Yovanni Gallardo, but Greinke also avoids testing his mental and emotional health - an issue in the past - against the pressures of a big market. It's obvious that the losing and hopelessness got to Greinke.
For the Royals, Escobar and Cain are both likely to improve the everyday lineup/defense, but Cain's .291/.366/.415 career line in the minors, combined with just adequate base stealing ability, and Escobar's disastrous .235/.288/.326 sophmore season in Milwaukee following a .293/.333/.377 career in the minors, suggests that neither should be regarded as a coming star; Cain will have an uphill battle to fill the shoes of David DeJesus, and it remains questionable if Escobar will ever be a league-average hitter. More here, here and here on how the pieces fit together.
From a business perspective, the deal is great news for Milwaukee, where ticket sales have spiked since the trade, but make you wonder how on earth the Royals are supposed to convince any fans to show up after dumping the team's lone major star a year removed from his Cy Young season. Honestly, this may be the last straw in convincing anybody who still doubted it that this franchise needs a completely fresh start, including - much as it pains me to imagine it - leaving KC.
But what's interesting to me most of all is what Greinke is really going to do now that he's in a new league and away from the train wreck of the Royals. Is he really the superstar we saw in 2009, or the simply good pitcher (more suited to be a #2 starter) of 2007, 2008 and 2010? Greinke's 2009 was spectacular, and it was the product of great pitching, not great defense. His BABIP the past four years has been steady - .317, .309, .307, .309 (unlike his 2004 rookie campaign, when a .269 BABIP made him look closer to ready than he was, fooling the Baseball Prospectus into projecting him as an immediate Cy Young candidate). If you use the crudest fielding-independent pitching measure (((BB+(4*HR))/K)*9), Greinke's 3.53 mark for 2009 is the 13th best among ERA qualifiers since 1977. That's even more impressive when you look at the other guys in the top 15 - Pedro Martinez (four times), Greg Maddux (3), Randy Johnson (3), Roger Clemens (2), Kevin Brown (1) and Dwight Gooden (1, in 1984, not 1985).
But was it nonetheless something of a fluke for it all to come together like that? Greinke in 2009 averaged 0.4 HR, 2.0 BB and 9.5 K per 9 innings, compared to a steady average for 2007-08 and 2010 of 0.8 HR, 2.4 BB and 7.8 K, very good numbers but nothing like his historic 2009. Brown's 1998 may be a good parallel - at age 33 he averaged a career-best 9.0 K/9, matched his career-best 0.3 HR/9, and had his second-best rate of 1.7 BB/9. As with Greinke, those numbers don't totally stick out - Brown had averaged 0.3 HR/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 7.0 K/9 the prior two years (including a slightly fluky 1.89 ERA in 1996), and would average 0.7 HR, 2.2 BB and 8.1 K the following three. He just never again pitched quite as well as he did that one year. That's my guess here - Greinke may have a better ERA than he did in 2010, and the move to the NL may help as well, but I'm skeptical that he can be a guy who consistently strikes out above a batter per inning, let alone with such perfect control and low HR rates.
BASEBALL: Bert Belongs (the Saga Continues)
I've been a Bert Blyleven fan going way back, and since we're in Hall of Fame voting season, time to rehash here my prior writings on behalf of his Cooperstown case:
More fun facts:
-A chart of pitchers with a career ERA+ of 112 or better and 4000+ innings pitched. Note that everybody on the list - other than recent 300-game winners who are Hall-bound (Clemens, Maddux, Glavine and Randy Johnson) - is in the Hall but Blyleven.
-Blyleven's the only eligible pitcher with 10 seasons of 200+ IP and an ERA+ of 120. Number 2 is Mullane & Hippo Vaughn with 7.
-Blyleven threw as many shutouts as Greg Maddux & Tom Glavine. Combined.
-So, you think Blyleven didn't win enough. Let's see you try to go 19-7 for the 1984 Cleveland Indians.
-14 eligible pitchers with 230+ wins are not in the Hall of Fame. Oddly, this includes all five European-born pitchers to win 100+ games. Those 5: Blyleven (287), Tony Mullane (284), Jim McCormick (265), Jack Quinn (247), Tommy Bond (234). (It's safe to say Jack Quinn will never lose the distinction of being the winningest pitcher born in Austria-Hungary.)
POP CULTURE: I Knew Tron. Tron Was A Friend of Mine. You, Sir, Are No Tron.
A guest post from Leon Wolf, who sent this mostly spoiler-free movie review along after seeing Tron: Legacy last night. And if it's not harsh enough for you, may I recommend this Fark review of Little Fockers.
So at the outset, I should note that as a young boy in Valdez, Alaska, there was not really a whole lot to do to occupy your time. My parents were not well off (although not fairly called poor), but we did have a VCR. However, we did not own movies as in those days it was prohibitively expensive to actually own them. The local library, however, had some that you could check out for a day at a time, and it was within easy walking distance. However, the only things they really had that interested me were the Walter Cronkite World War II collection, and Tron. Day after day after day I would make the trek to the library to renew the Tron I had checked out the previous day. It is no exaggeration to say that I watched that movie over 150 times. In other words, I had a real connection to that movie even though as an adult I have no delusions that it was Citizen Kane or something. SO I was prepared to overlook an awful lot in the sequel for the sake of reconnecting with a movie that was a meaningful part of my childhood. I even paid for the 3D and the EXTRA FEE for the "Big D 3D" - it was $28.50 for my son and I to see the movie (!!!!!!). I wanted the whole Tron experience, baby.
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First, the good: the movie did indeed have some pretty stunning visual effects, and the sound effects were even better. The scoring of the movie was excellent even though I'm afraid the movie will be dated in 10 years (or less). Bridges as always did a good job of playing his character(s) despite their limitations. Also, and this cannot be emphasized enough, this movie features Olivia Wilde in a Tron suit. Also, this was a great movie for kids and I'm certain they will all love it, although the volume in this particular theater was so freaking loud that I was kind of worried that it was going to give my son a headache at a couple of points.
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December 21, 2010
POLITICS: It's Cens-mas!
The Census Bureau today released the official reapportionment figures from the 2010 Census, which will determine (1) what states gain and lose House seats and thus will be prime targets for redistricting and (2) what states correspondingly gain and lose votes in the Electoral College for 2012.
By and large, the news was good for the GOP. For the immediate impact, I'll focus on the Electoral College, although it's worth noting how many of the redistricting states - especially the two biggest gainers, Texas (+4) and Florida (+2), and one of the two biggest losers, Ohio (-2) - are now under heavy GOP control (and the GOP just recently took control of the NY State Senate, assuring a place at the table in the other state losing more than one seat, as NY is also -2).
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Here are the other states gaining or losing one seat. Gaining a seat:
Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington
Thus, the GOP picks up six seats in three of the most reliably red states in the union (UT, SC & TX), five seats in three states that have been solidly if not overwhelmingly Republican (FL, GA, AZ), one in a state that has leaned narrowly Republican but went Democratic in 2008 and at the Senate level in 2010 (NV), and one state that has been reliably but narrowly Democrat (WA). Note who is missing: California failed to gain seats for the first time since 1930. Also two states where Democrats had made recent strides - North Carolina and Colorado - failed to gain seats as some early projections had shown, while Minnesota narrowly avoided losing one.
Now, the losers, besides New York and Ohio:
Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania
Again, mostly good news. Despite the recent revival of the GOP in the Northeast (see Scott Brown, Pat Toomey, Tom Corbett, Chris Christie, Paul LePage, and GOP gains of five House seats in NY alone in 2010) and Michigan and Illinois (Rick Snyder and Mark Kirk), the loss of seven seats across NY, PA, NJ, MA, MI & IL is overall good news for Republicans, especially at the presidential level. Note that NY & PA have both lost seats every census since 1930; NY is now in parity with Florida with 29 electoral votes each. IA is more of a swing state (one of just three states that flipped between 2000 and 2004, when the red-blue divide was static) and especially friendly to ethanol-industry-owned Barack Obama, MO more red and LA now reliably so at the presidential level, but on balance this is not such bad news for the GOP.
This sets the following as the states with 10 or more electoral votes:
Sean Trende pulls the regional patterns underlying the 9.7% population growth since 2000:
The official population of the U.S. as of April 1, 2010 was 308,745,538, up from 281,421,906 in 2010. The Northeast grew 3.2 percent, the Midwest grew 3.9 percent, the South grew 14.3 percent and the West grew by 13.8 percent. Overall, it was the slowest growth in the country since the 1930s.
And the Electoral College consequences:
If the 2008 election had been held under these census numbers, President Obama would have defeated John McCain 359 to 179 - essentially flipping Iowa into the Republican column before the election begins. For 2004, the numbers are starker still: Bush's 286-251 victory would become a 292-246 win, meaning that even if Kerry had won Ohio, he still would have lost (in 2004, flipping Ohio would have been sufficient to give Kerry the win).
These numbers are an opportunity for Republicans, but also a challenge, since the main areas undergoing population growth are (with a few exceptions like Utah) growing mainly through a growing Latino population. Which explains why Democrats are so eager to try to divide off Latino voters to vote as a homogenous race-conscious bloc the way African-Americans do; it's their only path to offset their shrinking deep-blue-state power base. There's no future in being the party of the Northeast and the West Coast, and Democrats know this; liberal pundits and left-wing bloggers are quite open about the extent to which they bank on racial demographics as their salvation, and those demographics only benefit them if they can maintain very high rates of racial division in the voting patterns of Latino and African-American voters, far higher than you would find among white voters. Republicans don't have to win the Latino vote outright to fend off that challenge, they only need individual Latinos to remain open enough to both sides that Republicans can persuade a decent percentage to vote GOP, as the Democrats still do among white voters. Frankly, it's not a coincidence that the two states with the most population growth have had, for the past decade and a half, GOP governors starting with George W. and Jeb Bush who worked hard to cater to Latino voters and declined to join in the harshest anti-immigration (even anti-illegal-immigration) rhetoric or policies.
Let's look deeper at the map through the eyes of a Democrat, and you can see why the campaign of relentless racial division touted on a daily basis by left-leaning commentators and pursued by President Obama in some of his ugliest moments of the 2010 stretch run - calling Republicans the "enemies" of Latinos who had to be "punished,", asserting that Republicans were "counting on ...black folks staying home" - will only be exacerbated as Obama's natural strategy for 2012, given how his performance in office has lost him much of the support among white voters (and some among Latino voters) that he enjoyed in 2008. Let's say the GOP candidate wins the following states, most of which are natural GOP states even though some went for Obama in 2008:
AL, AK, AZ, AR, FL, GA, ID, IN, KS, KY, LA, MS, MO, MT, NE, ND, OH, OK, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, WV & WY
That's 238 electoral votes; 270 are needed to win, and conventional wisdom would tell you that a Republican who wins Ohio and Florida is sitting pretty. Meanwhile, Obama takes:
CA, CT, DE, DC, HI, IL, ME, MD, MA, NJ, NY, OR, RI, VT, WA
That's just 14 states plus DC, but carrying 186 electoral votes. The Republican is up by 52, but there's still 114 up for grabs.
Now, let's divide the remaining states in three groups.
One is the states with largely white populations but that have tended to be favorable turf for Democrats in the past: MN, WI, IA, & NH. That's 30 votes. Give those to the Republican - an awfully generous assumption, but we're looking at how Obama and his team will view the states they risk writing off by a strategy of racial division - and you've still only got 268 votes for the Republican, two shy of victory, 248 if you can't wrest Minnesota and Wisconsin from the Democrats.
Now, on the other side, look at the three swing states with large Latino populations that have represented the decisive force in the past few election cycles, as left-leaning commentators have often touted: CO, NM, & NV. That's 20 votes. If Obama can sweep all three, he's up to 206.
That leaves us with PA, MI, VA, NC: four states with large African-American voting blocs, two traditionally Democrat - but trending Republican in 2010 (PA & MI) - and two traditionally Republican - and heavily GOP in 2009-10 (VA & NC) - but won by Obama in 2008. PA & MI are still a significant vote (36 EVs), and with union-driven GOTV, Obama should be competitive; if he takes those by pushing African-American turnout over expectations, he trails 268-242, with the 28 electors of VA & NC to decide the prize. And if there's large enough African-American turnout there as well to tip those two states over to Obama, he's at 270 and re-elected, without winning Florida, Ohio or Indiana, without winning Minnesota, Iowa, New Hampshire or Wisconsin. Divide et impera.
That's all educated speculation, for now, and the 2009-2010 elections certainly suggest that it's far from a sure bet strategy for Obama. But given his history and the open thinking of people on his side, this is the map to victory I expect him to pursue, one that places virtually its entire emphasis on race as the trump card. The largest challenge for the GOP will be to play on the issues that favor Republicans - basically, everything but racial division and possibly gay rights - and avoid getting trapped in the racially polarized map that Obama is likely to consider his most plausible path to re-election.
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Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:29 PM | Politics 2010 | Politics 2012 | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
December 20, 2010
HISTORY/POLITICS: It Was Ever Thus
Republicans, so long as I can recall, have faced an endless barrage of attacks from Democrats and their media allies derived from the theme that today's Republicans are mean, scary extremists not like those Republicans of the past who won elections because they were moderate and civil and whatnot. The only really good Republicans, to these critics, are dead ones (or live ones who lose elections), although past Republicans do come in for some rehabilitation as soon as they can be used as a club against their successors - we've already seen some examples of George W. Bush being cited by liberals on issues like immigration and the Ground Zero Mosque controversy.
Now, it's true, of course, that political coalitions grow and change all the time as different issues rise in importance, and that the GOP in particular has been influenced by the growth of systematic conservative thinking on a variety of fronts. But let's not fool ourselves that this is a new development. In 1854, Abe Lincoln - six years before he became the first Republican president - was already defending himself against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas' contention that Lincoln's anti-slavery position on the Kansas-Nebraska Act showed him to be out of step with those sane, moderate Whigs of the past, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster (by then, both dead). Here is Lincoln's response:
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Finally, the Judge [Douglas] invokes against me, the memory of Clay and of Webster. They were great men; and men of great deeds. But where have I assailed them? For what is it, that their life-long enemy, shall now make profit, by assuming to defend them against me, their life-long friend? I go against the repeal of the Missouri compromise; did they ever go for it? They went for the compromise of 1850; did I ever go against them? They were greatly devoted to the Union; to the small measure of my ability, was I ever less so? Clay and Webster were dead before this question arose; by what authority shall our Senator say they would espouse his side of it, if alive? Mr. Clay was the leading spirit in making the Missouri compromise; is it very credible that if now alive, he would take the lead in the breaking of it? The truth is that some support from whigs is now a necessity with the Judge, and for thus it is, that the names of Clay and Webster are now invoked. His old friends have deserted him in such numbers as to leave too few to live by. He came to his own, and his own received him not, and Lo! he turns unto the Gentiles.
Along the way, Lincoln also made a critical point about the fact you just can't wish away political debates over who is, and who is not, a human being, nor ever hope to achieve a permanent settlement of a debate that merely assumes that some are not:
In the course of his reply, Senator Douglas remarked, in substance, that he had always considered this government was made for the white people and not for the negroes. Why, in point of mere fact, I think so too. But in this remark of the Judge, there is a significance, which I think is the key to the great mistake (if there is any such mistake) which he has made in this Nebraska measure. It shows that the Judge has no very vivid impression that the negro is a human; and consequently has no idea that there can be any moral question in legislating about him. In his view, the question of whether a new country shall be slave or free, is a matter of as utter indifference, as it is whether his neighbor shall plant his farm with tobacco, or stock it with horned cattle. Now, whether this view is right or wrong, it is very certain that the great mass of mankind take a totally different view. They consider slavery a great moral wrong; and their feelings against it, is not evanescent, but eternal. It lies at the very foundation of their sense of justice; and it cannot be trifled with. It is a great and durable element of popular action, and, I think, no statesman can safely disregard it.
Another reason why Lincoln remains the original inspiration of the Party of Lincoln. There is hardly an accusation hurled at today's Republicans that doesn't echo the ones he faced, back in his day, seen as he was as a self-educated country rustic overly devoted to a moral crusade that upset the applecarts of the sophisticates of his day.
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December 13, 2010
LAW/POLITICS: The Mandate
I haven't had a chance to review it or collect my thoughts yet, but here's the just-issued opinion from the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia holding the individual mandate portions of Obamacare to be unconstitutional on the grounds that it exceeds the scope of Congress' Article I power over foreign and interstate commerce.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:27 PM | Law 2009-13 | Politics 2010 | Comments (21) | TrackBack (0)
December 10, 2010
POLITICS: An Early 2012 Prediction
If you'll permit me, I'm going to go on record with a very early prediction about 2012. Sarah Palin has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning endorsing Paul Ryan's Roadmap as a good plan for rescuing the nation's fiscal solvency. It's far from the first time that former Gov. Palin has spoken warmly of Congressman Ryan and his ideas.
I have no idea as of yet who is running in 2012 and who isn't, let alone who will be the GOP nominee, and other than being committed to finding a candidate who (1) has executive experience and (2) isn't Romney (not that I'm likely to back Huckabee, either), I haven't settled on a candidate and haven't ruled out any of the remaining contenders.
But I will predict this now: if Sarah Palin is the nominee, she will pick Paul Ryan as her running mate. Ryan has a few things in common with Palin - he's relatively young, telegenic, and a workout fanatic - but my guess is that Palin recognizes that the biggest knock on her is that she's not regarded as a policy-details person, and Ryan of course is precisely that, a sharp communicator with a mastery of the details. While the conventional wisdom goes in one of two directions - either that a running mate would be someone with specific ethnic/regional/religious appeals different from the nominee or that a nominee coming from a governorship would pick a national security heavyweight - my guess is that Palin would look to Ryan as a guy she could see taking the de facto prime minister role of running the legislative and budget agenda, freeing her up to handle the big-picture issues and the Commander-in-Chief role.
December 9, 2010
Excellent video primer on an error I know I'm guilty of at times - focusing on GDP (Gross Domestic Product) when in fact the better measure of national economic health is Gross Domestic Income:
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POLITICS: The Race
The problem with hiring a guy because of his race is, it gets very hard if you have to fire him.
Barack Obama is likely to face a primary challenge in 2012, but the question of the day is whether it will be some minor fringe-like protest candidate like Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel or a more serious challenger like Howard Dean or Russ Feingold. Jamelle Bouie, an African-American* columnist for the liberal magazine The American Prospect, says what other Democrats may be thinking but afraid to vocalize: Obama's race is the biggest obstacle to a serious primary challenge to the president in 2012 because black voters would look at such a challenge through the lens of race. The Politico flags the issue:
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That's in large part because Obama enjoys overwhelming and unwavering support among African-Americans, a pillar of the Democratic coalition.
That 90% figure is far out of step with every other demographic (even those that remain comparatively loyal to Obama) and far more extreme than opposition to Obama in any group. And it's consistent with the level of support he got not only against John McCain but Hillary Clinton as well; the Clintons had long had deep and broad support among African-American voters (remember when Bill was christened "the first black president"?), and Hillary and Obama were running on fairly similar platforms, yet Obama won 90 or more percent of the black vote in just about every primary. There is no possible way to explain such a dramatic voting pattern other than racial solidarity: voting for Obama because he was black.
Bouie goes further than Trippi and argues that because of that racial loyalty, black voters would not only stick with Obama in the primary but then abandon the Democratic Party if it turned against Obama over his performance in office, perhaps even if the primary challenge was unsuccessful:
[A] challenge would destroy the Democratic Party in national elections...it would drive a huge wedge between African Americans and the party at large. Blacks have been loyal supporters of every Democratic president since Johnson, even when that support was undeserved (see: Bill Clinton). Moreover, like the vast majority of voters, African Americans aren't engaged with the policy disputes that drive (elite) progressive disillusionment with the president....To them, a primary challenge looks less like principled objection, and more like an attack from white liberals, who could put up with worse from white presidents, but won't hesitate to turn their backs on the first black one.
This is a pretty dim view of what motivates African-American voters, who after all have voted in massive numbers for liberal candidates for the past several decades, at least theoretically because they supported those candidates' positions on the issues of the day and their qualifications for office (talk for ten minutes with your average Tea Partier - of any color - and you may find that Bouie's view of most voters as not being interested in issues is an overgeneralization). While you get threats like this now and then from all sorts of groups, the fact is that nobody seriously worries about a reaction like this from other voting blocs - Mormon voters didn't abandon the GOP when Mitt Romney lost the primaries, evangelical Christians didn't become less Republican over the defeat of Harriet Miers (to name two examples where overwrought commentators threatened such things). Southern evangelicals did leave the Democratic party in large numbers after supporting Jimmy Carter in 1976, but more because they were disappointed in the performance of Carter and other Democrats in office than because he was challenged by Ted Kennedy, and I'm pretty sure nobody in Ted's camp worried that such voters would be alienated by his challenge.
Are black voters different in that regard? I don't know, although I suspect Bouie is at least right that if Obama actually lost the primary, African-American turnout would probably be low enough in the fall to utterly doom any challenger. Here in New York, I recall a similar dynamic after Al Sharpton's loss in a racially divisive Senate primary in 1992 helped doom the winner, Robert Abrams, and Mark Green faced a similar fate after defeating Fernando Ferrer in the 2001 Democratic primary for New York City Mayor.
But I suspect that enough leading Democrats share Bouie's broader fears that they will hesitate to support the kind of challenge to Obama that was mounted against Carter in 1980 and against Lyndon Johnson in 1968, as well as (in the pre-primary days) Harry Truman in 1948. No matter what Obama does, the Democrats will be afraid that trying to fire him is even worse.
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POLITICS: The Lamest Duck?
What will happen to Barack Obama's presidency if his tax compromise is shot down with the help of his own party? The House Democratic caucus just voted against it, which puts the deal on life support, at best. Can Obama recover from that?
One of the great questions of the past two years, ever since it became obvious that Democrats would suffer significant setbacks in the 2010 elections, was how President Obama would respond to life with a Republican Congress (or, as it turns out, a Republican House and a weakened Democratic majority in the Senate). On the one hand, you have the fact that Bill Clinton managed to use the "triangulation" strategy to win re-election in 1996, and surely Obama is capable of being equally cold-bloodedly dismissive of his now-depleted Congressional troops. On the other hand, Obama is naturally much more ideological than Clinton and doesn't have Clinton's deft political touch, his decade-long track record as an executive or his experience winning multiple elections outside deep-blue territory, all of which suggests that even if the spirit is willing, Obama may not be competent at executing the same strategy.
Bowing to the results of the 2010 election, Obama has taken at least some tentative, temporary steps towards accomodation with the center. The first of these, which already irritated his base, was the announcement of a "pay freeze" for federal workers (actually just a freeze on annual cost-of-living salary adjustments). Now, he's struck a deal that gives GOP leadership nearly everything it had asked for on taxes - a two-year extension of all the Bush income tax rate cuts, a payroll tax cut, and a lower estate tax than what would return under current law after the 2010 moratorium in the tax, all in exchange for extending unemployment benefits as far out as three years for some recipients.
Now, both liberals and conservatives are up in arms against the deal, and it's hard to see how it passes even the House when the Democratic caucus is against it. What happens if the deal falls through?
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The merits of the deal, from the GOP side, are debatable. What's really needed to kick-start the economy is to improve the long-term returns on investment, and more temporary tax cuts aren't going to help that any more than the "stimulus" did, because you can't plan long-term investments around two years of tax policy. On the other hand, tax hikes right now would be a very bad thing, so while the tax cut extension isn't going to help, failing to extend the cuts would only make things worse. As for extending unemployment benefits, anyone with basic knowledge of human nature knows that many people will work harder to find new work if their benefits are ending, so you're laying out a bunch more cash for a net economic negative. I'm in the camp that accepts that lengthy unemployment benefits can certainly be justified, and conservatives have better and more politically feasible targets to take on government spending, but you have to start by acknowledging the costs of the extension. Anyway, from a conservative perspective, the deal may not be great but it's hard to see how the GOP could get a better deal right now, while still not in control of any House of Congress, and while a better deal might be doable in January, that's a risky play.
From the liberal perspective, the deal stinks - opposition to the Bush tax cuts has been an article of faith on the Left for a decade, and more broadly speaking, reductions in the top marginal tax rates has been anathema to liberals since Reagan. The case in its favor is that the deal breaks the legislative logjam (the GOP is holding up the entire lame duck session over taxes) at only temporary cost, and like the pay freeze does nothing to obstruct the long-term growth of government at the expense of the private sector.
At any rate, the incensed reaction from quarters like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow has liberal/progressive activists aflame, and with the House vote there appears now a real chance that Obama - who is furiously trying to sell the deal, with his whole White House communications operation touting it - won't be able to deliver enough votes from his own party to pass both Houses, putting him at the mercy of conservative hardliners like Jim DeMint who argue that the deal should be scuttled in favor of a new round of negotiations in January after the GOP assumes control of the House.
Obama has assumed thus far that getting the deal passed over outraged opposition from the Left will only help him, in the way that welfare reform did for Clinton, but without having to swallow any policy changes that last past 2012 - it will make him look more moderate, he's counting on liberals hating the next GOP nominee too much to stay home in 2012, and he knows that he faces no real risk of a primary challenge because African-American voters will remain a loyal firewall in the primaries no matter what he does.
But as I wrote of George W. Bush in the aftermath of the somewhat similar collapse of the Harriet Miers nomination, it's always foolhardy to pick a fight in politics without considering whether it's a fight worth losing, and ultimately harder to win if everybody knows you can't afford to lose. Obama has already incurred all the costs of winning this battle - he showed a new willingness to cave in to the GOP, and enraged his base. Both of those things will be true whether the compromise package passes or not. But if the deal is tanked by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Barney Frank, where does that leave Obama? I'm sure I'm forgetting someone, but I can't recall another President who cut a major bipartisan deal on a major legislative priority in his first term and had it collapse; the two major first-term failures that come to mind (Clinton's healthcare plan and BTU tax) had no significant GOP support. Bush, you'll recall, went to great lengths to get No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D passed, and his legislative disasters - Miers, Dubai Ports, Social Security, immigration - were all in his second term.
The obvious lesson, if the deal collapses, will be that Obama can't deliver anything - he can be pushed into compromise with GOP priorities, as he wouldn't before the election, but he can't bring along his own caucus, which has suffered so many losses for following his lead. Liberals will learn that they are better off striking their own distance from an unpopular and increasingly impotent leader. And heavy liberal opposition to the deal will make it impossible to blame DeMint or Republicans for the collapse, and will encourage conservatives to push for even fewer compromises with Obama in 2011. That calculus of legislative forces will make it hard for Obama to plan for the other leg of the Clinton strategy, a budget battle in which the GOP blinks. Obama can try to use the whole mess to argue that "Washington is broken" and all that, but it's a hard argument to make from the Rose Garden.
By failing to ensure ahead of time the support of his own caucus, President Obama may have shot himself in the foot in dealing with the Republican-controlled House even before the new majority is sworn in.
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December 8, 2010
BASEBALL: Hot Stove Roundup (NL East)
Thus far, the Mets have been playing it cautious, as befits a team in their position. The latest moves are a mixed bag: new backup catcher Ronny Paulino is probably a downgrade from Henry Blanco defensively, but Blanco's age and decaying bat made it important to bring in a younger backup who can hit a little (Paulino batted a weak but not completely punchless .265/.323/.384 his last two years in Florida) and step in to play every day in case anything happens to Josh Thole. Paulino made more sense than bringing in Russell Martin, who still needs another shot to play every day but shouldn't be taking time from Thole.
The other latest signing, DJ Carrasco, is a righthanded reliever with no particular strengths; either Alderson sees something that's not in his numbers, or he's just stockpiling arms.
Pedro Feliciano, who declined arbitration, will be a tougher call. Feliciano is undoubtedly valuable; over the past five years he's averaged 82 regular season appearances a year with a 3.09 ERA (ERA+ of 136), averaging 0.7 HR/9, 3.8 BB/9 and 8.4 K/9. He was a bit off this season, his K rate down slightly to 8.0 but his HR rate also down to 0.1 (just 1 HR in 62.2 IP), but mainly scuffling with his control (4.3 BB/9, 3.4 if you leave out intentional passes). I'm not worried enough to want to dump him, but at age 34 and having averaged 89 appearances a year the last three years, there's enough mileage on Feliciano that he becomes a much less reliable investment if you have to outbid somebody who wants to throw a whole lot of money at him for a 3 or 4 year deal.
Then there's the rumor that the Mets may be shopping Carlos Beltran to Boston (presumably this would not end with him sharing an outfield with Mike Cameron again). This is a classic In Alderson We Trust deal - I'd be terrified if Omar Minaya was shopping Beltran when his market value is at its lowest ebb, but I'm not as worried that Alderson will get fleeced, and while I like Beltran and expect his bat back in 2011, he really is less valuable to the Mets if he's not back to his old self as a center fielder, his relationship with the organization isn't the best, and his contract's only got one year left anyway. Dealing him could open some more flexibility in the outfield.
(UPDATE: Scott Boras on Beltran: "His plan right now is to be a New York Met. He has a no-trade clause. If anything were brought to him I think it would depend on what the situation were." I think we can all translate what that means, given the source).
I know I tend to be biased against guys like Jayson Werth, a guy who was basically an unheralded backup outfielder until he seized an everyday job in August 2007 at age 28; there's no doubting he's been a star-caliber player the past three years and no rational reason why Werth can't follow the Raul Ibanez career path. But still, giving the man $126 million over 7 seasons from age 32-38 seems like madness. His road batting line the last three seasons is .270/.374/.481, making him 35th in the big leagues in slugging on the road over that period (minimum 600 PA) but 20th in OBP. That's a valuable commodity right now, combined with solid defense and baserunning, but the Nationals are a rebuilding team with more corner outfielders coming down the pike, and the odds that Werth will be anything but an albatross at that price by the fourth year of the deal, when he's a 35 year old first baseman, seems slim. Worse yet, while it appears the deal may have been made in part to mollify Ryan Zimmerman, who was bent out of shape about the departure of Adam Dunn, but when Zimmerman's deal is up in 2014, will the Werth contract let the Nationals spend the money they'll need to keep him?
You can't argue with the price of Dan Uggla (a sold-high Omar Infante and Mike Dunn), for a second baseman who came into the league as a prime power bat and added patience, hitting .264/.361/.493. I'd be more jealous of the Mets missing out on that deal, but it will still cost the Braves a lot of money to sign Uggla to a long-term deal and he may not really be a viable second baseman in his thirties (he'll be 31 next season). That's less of an issue for the Braves, since they're moving Martin Prado to the outfield but could move him back if he gets healthy and Uggla's glove fails.
If Javier Vazquez can't make it in Florida, he can't make it anywhere. His $7 million price tag is a risk for a guy who saw his velocity fall off last season at age 34, at least for a team as budget-conscious as the Marlins, but Vazquez is durable and a fly ball pitcher who should eat innings and could bounce back somewhat.
By contrast, if Vazquez is well-suited to a spacious park, John Buck, the Marlins' new free agent catcher, is not; the value of Buck's .271/.309/.487 batting line in 639 plate appearances the past two seasons is almost entirely derived from his 28 homers and 37 doubles, while his 166/29 K/BB ratio is a constant threat to send his average back to the .220s.
Lowered expectations would seem to be the theme of the Marlins' deals generally, as toolsy 24 year old underachiever Cameron Maybin was packed off to San Diego for Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb, two decent bullpen arms with no similar upside projections, and Andrew Miller and his 5.84 career ERA to the Red Sox for Dustin Richardson. Maybin and Miller may have reached their natural need-a-new-team stage in Florida, but that's two fewer guys with any hope for sudden improvement on a roster that could use some hope.
(Nothing really to add on the Phillies thus far besides the departure of Werth)
POP CULTURE: Early Lennon
In honor of the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death, a few clips from the early days:
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Twist & Shout, Wembley, 1964:
Rock & Roll Music, Paris, 1965:
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December 1, 2010
BASEBALL: A Tale of Two Shortstops
2009 was the best of times and the worst of times for New York's star shortstops, Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes. Jeter had one of the best seasons of his storied career, batting .334/.406/.465 in 716 plate appearances (OPS+: 125, his second-highest since 2000) while stealing 30 bases in 35 attempts (only his fourth career 30-steal season, and first since 2002), batted .344/.432/.563 in the posteason as the Hated Yankees won their first World Championship since 2000, and even had a resurgent year in the field; while his raw range factors remained poor, he set a new career-best .986 fielding percentage and, using the Bill James Fielding Bible ratings, had a positive plus/minus (+6) and positive runs saved (+5) for the first time since the Fielding Bible started compiling its ratings in 2005 (over the prior four years his average +/- rating, the number of outs he made compared to an average shortstop fielding a similar number and mix of balls in play, had been -25). By Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating his range was positive for the first time since 2002. He finished third in the MVP voting. Fangraphs lists his Wins Above Replacement as 7.1, the second-best of his career.
Jose Reyes, by contrast, suffered a calf injury and then a season-ending torn hamstring as a part of the Book of Job-like disaster befalling the 2009 Mets. Reyes, who had averaged 158 games and 741 plate appearances the previous four seasons, appeared in just 36 games and was unavailable to start the 2010 season.
2010 was a bit of a snap back year for both, but with both ending below where they'd been entering 2009. For Jeter, age 36 proved a lot more unforgiving than 35. While leading the league in plate appearances (with 739), he batted .270/.340/.370 (OPS+ of 90, career lows in all four of those categories), and didn't bat above .300 or slug above .400 in any month after April; in 536 plate appearances from May 3 to September 10, Jeter batted an anemic .245/.318/.336, and he salvaged his batting average with a late-season hot streak only by slapping the ball without authority (.342/.436/.392 from September 12 to the end of the season, followed by .250/.286/.375 in the playoffs). Away from hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, Jeter batted .246/.317/.317 on the season.
Jeter's fielding regressed as well. He's getting more sure-handed - he set another career-best .989 fielding percentage and the +/- system rates him as +8 on balls hit right at him, his second best of the 2005-10 stretch - but his range is nonexistent, -17 overall due to a complete inability to cover ground to his right or left, and -13 runs saved. His raw range factor was the second-lowest of his career. UZR has him back in the negatives again, albeit not at the colossally incompetent levels of his 1999-2001 or 2005-07 seasons. Overall, Fangraphs rates his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at 2.5, the lowest of his career. As with the excellence of Jeter's 2009, the various sophisticated stats are pretty much in agreement that Jeter was down across the board and had the worst year of his career.
As for Reyes, superficially, 2010 was a rebound year. After a delayed start to the season - he missed the first four games finishing up an abbreviated spring training and came back rusty, batting .210/.256/.280 through May 19 (the season's one-quarter mark), and missed time on four other occasions - Reyes batted .310/.346/.485 in 435 plate appearances the rest of the way, cleared 600 plate appearances (603 in 133 games) and finished at a respectable-looking .282/.321/.428.
Yet there were still signs that Reyes wasn't all the way back. While he hit with authority, he abandoned the patience he'd learned; from 2006-09 he'd drawn 54 walks per 600 plate appearances for a .355 OBP; in 2010, that dropped to 31. Perhaps he was just being aggressive to re-establish himself with the bat, but it's a bad sign for a leadoff man. He stole 30 basis, after averaging 64 steals a year before the leg injuries. While he returned with the same strong arm and his raw defensive stats were largely unchanged, the Fielding Bible rated him as just a hair below an average defensive SS in 2010 (a +/- of -1 and -1 runs saved) and also in 2008 (-2, and -2 runs saved), compared to excellent seasons in 2006-07 (+16 and +13, and +12 and +10 runs saved). Fangraphs UZR sees an even more dramatic trend, with Reyes falling from a highly-rated SS in 2007 to around average in 2008 and well below in 2010. While Citi Field is not a hitter's haven like the new Yankee Stadium, Reyes, too, is dependent on the home park's spacious power alleys, batting .291/.338/.453 at home, .273/.302/.403 away. Overall, Reyes rated in Fangraphs' view at 2.8 WAR compared to an average of 5.7 per year from 2006-08.
Which brings both New York teams to the question of what to do about their fan-favorite but now likely overrated shortstops, Jeter a free agent heading into his age 37 season, Reyes with one more year on his contract heading into his age 28 season. On the Yankee side, the team has looked at their declining, aging shortstop and - in light of his years of service, fan sentiment and the fact that he's 94 hits from becoming the first guy to get 3,000 in a Yankee uniform - reportedly offered him the extremely generous salary of $15 million a year for three years, ending at age 39. Jeter's response? He wants 6 years at $150 million, which means he'd be making $25 million a year through age 42, although supposedly he's flexible on the number of years and willing to consider an offer in the $22 million a year range. That would still make him just the sixth player in Major League Baseball earning more than $20 million per year, three of whom (Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabatha) are his fellow Yankees (the other two are Joe Mauer and the injured Johan Santana. Albert Pujols makes $16 million a year, Hanley Ramirez' contract will average $14.25 million a year from 2011-14).
As for Reyes, who will make $11 million next season, the Mets are reportedly shopping him around but not that likely to deal him this offseason unless they get a great package back with 3-4 players in it.
Meanwhile, if I can take the liberty of putting a third shortstop deal into the mix, the Rockies have just locked up Troy Tulowitzki for the next ten seasons. Tulowitzki is reportedly inking an extension variously reported as 7-years for $134 million or 6 years for $119 million - in either case, around $19 million a year - presumably depending how you count his current contract, which already runs through 2014; either way the extended deal runs through 2020, when he'll be 35. Tom Tango finds the dollar figure to be an eerily accurate valuation.
Tulo is doing everything Reyes and Jeter haven't; as a 25-year-old whose team always seems to win only when he's healthy and hitting and a natural leader, Tulowitzki had his second straight monster year with the bat this year, and also the glove; the Fielding Bible rates him at +11 and +16 the last two seasons (8 and 12 runs saved), the latter figures despite his one weakness, injuries (he missed 40 games in 2010, 61 in 2008). A far cry from his monster 2007 season with the glove (+35), but impressive nonetheless. (UZR rates him a very good SS in 2010, closer to average in 2009). Tulowitzki's obviously worth the money right now and just entering his prime, and with his strong arm he's a good bet to age well defensively, but the injuries are a huge risk for a contract that long.
To put the Yankees' and Mets' options and dilemmas in context, consider: only six shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances had an above-league-average year with the bat in 2010, by OPS+ (Tulowitzki, Rafael Furcal, Hanley, Stephen Drew, Reyes, and Jamey Carroll). Of those, Tulowitzki's now locked-up long term, Furcal is 32 and injury-prone, and Carroll is a 36 year old utilityman. If you go out to guys with 500 or more plate appearances over 2009-10, it's 11 shortstops - the same group (excluding Carroll), Jeter, Jason Bartlett, Juan Uribe, Asdrubal Cabrera, Marco Scutaro and Miguel Tejada. But Bartlett's had just one above-average season in 7 years in the big leagues, Scutaro one in nine seasons (and is under contract with the Red Sox for next season, when he'll be 35), Tejada is 37 and slowing down severely, Uribe and his .300 career OBP and career OPS+ of 85 just signed a 3-year, $21 million deal with the Dodgers...basically, unless you can get Stephen Drew from the Diamondbacks or pry loose a not-yet-established youngster like Starlin Castro, Ian Desmond or Elvis Andrus, your pickings for filling an open shortstop hole are going to be very slim.
In that context, the usual question - Does it make sense for the Yankees to re-sign Jeter at all? - takes on a different cast. A-Rod's hip injury eliminated the chance that he could slide over to short, so (1) the Yankees will need to fill the shortstop job and (2) if they do re-sign Jeter, he'll remain at the position no matter how badly he fields it. But it's still worth recalling that giving Jeter playing time at all could be a bad bet. You know how many shortstops age 37 and up have had an OPS+ of 100 or better in a season of 400+ plate appearances, in the game's entire history? Ten, of the 42 seasons in which somebody's given that much playing time to a shortstop that age, 22 of which were by Hall of Famers. And eight of those ten were the same two guys, Honus Wagner (who was the only player of his generation to lift weights, and thus had a leg up on the aging process in ways Jeter can't, plus he was a better hitter than Jeter) and Luke Appling, who was more of a slap hitter. The odds of Jeter, coming off a rough year, bouncing back substantially in 2011 aren't great; the odds of him being an above-average hitter for the next three years, let alone six, are poor. Add that to a substandard and declining fielder and only the critical lack of options - and the non-baseball value of Jeter at the box office - justifies bringing him back at any price, and that only barely. Which makes his desire to be one of baseball's highest-paid properties not just wrong but hilarious.
One reason this spectacle has collided so badly with Jeter's image is that Jeter, for all his career, has been lauded as the pinnacle of unselfishness, but it's easy to be unselfish when you are never, ever asked to give up anything - not money or fame, not glory or good press, not the team captaincy or his position afield. Only now is Jeter in a position where he should do what's best for the team - accept a short-term deal for reasonable money - rather than insist, for reasons that can only be adequately explained by an ego-driven desire to be paid like A-Rod, that he be compensated like a superstar rather than a declining commodity with his head barely above replacement level.
(I'm leaving aside here the other consideration: Jeter's contract helps set the scale for other players. Arguably, it's in the Yankees interest to ridiculously overpay their players to drive up the cost of competition, but at some point they are still a profit-making business, moreso I suspect with George gone.).
In years gone by, the Yankees could have used the traditional route for showing respect to an aging team leader with declining skills and made him a player-manager. But the organization hasn't had a player/manager since hiring Miller Huggins in 1917, and neither of the last two guys hired for the job fresh off their playing days (Yogi and Bob Shawkey) lasted more than a year, even though Yogi won the pennant. Jeter's not gonna unseat Joe Girardi, so he has to be paid purely as a player.
As for the Mets, dealing Reyes now may well be the best way to capitalize on his value in a time of scarcity. But it's a painful decision; Reyes and Wright are the homegrown face of the franchise, popular in the community. And more importantly, unless they can get one of the other good young shortstops, they run the risk of opening a hole of their own that can't be plugged (the internal options are of questionable value as shortstops, and the only thing worse than Ruben Tejada in the lineup is two Ruben Tejadas in the lineup).
The wild card, given that it looks like a deal of Reyes is unlikely, is what effect the rumors will have on him. Reyes is an emotional, upbeat player, but the flip side of that is that he's been known at times to get in a funk and not have his head in the game. I tend to think that rap is somewhat overstated, but the reality is that just like Beltran's Olerud-like expressionlessness, Reyes' highs and lows are part of his emotional skillset just as much as his speed and sometimes balky hamstrings are part of his physical skillset. People are what they are. My guess is that management has leaked word that they're shopping Reyes in part because they are hoping he'll respond well entering his walk year - not just with a good work ethic (which he's always had) but a renewed focus on plate discipline and work on his defensive positioning.
The Yankees seem likely to put a resolution on Jeter's contract status sooner rather than later, with more meetings in the past 24 hours. The Reyes situation may linger much longer, and only when the games are played will we see how he reacts.