Monday, June 22, 2009

Baseball Morons: A New Challenger Has Entered the Ring!

Any time you've got Tim McCarver and Joe Morgan calling games on a Saturday and Sunday, you have to be a potently stupid bastard to win the distinction of biggest baseball idiot of the weekend. But, hey, let it be said from here on out: anyone who underestimates Thom Brenneman has no one to blame but himself.

There was something unsettlingly familiar about hearing Brenneman on Saturday, calling the Rays-Mets game with McCarver. Maybe it's that Brenneman is now famously incompetent, netting his own post label at Awful Announcing. Maybe it was his legendarily terrible commentary during this year's BCS Championship Game, which I suspect I would have remembered more if a drunk hadn't obliterated my neighbor's brick mailbox with a Chevy Malibu during halftime. Or maybe it was just the soothing noise of Tim McCarver being stupid next to someone generic, undertalented and wedged into the booth with the full force of papa's influence. That explanation seems most fitting of all. Like Joe Buck, Thom Brenneman was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple: he got his start calling Cincinnati Reds games in the booth with his daddy.

I managed to make it through four hours of baseball and rain delay with a few winces and eyerolls, but Brenneman finally brought down the hammer of self-satisfied ignorance in the bottom of the ninth inning. With the Rays' reliever J.P. Howell facing the heart of the Mets' batting order and trying to get a 3-1 save, Brenneman started opining on relief pitchers, closers, and sabermetricians (i.e. people who try to apply statistical metrics to examine baseball performance and outcomes). The following transcript should be verbatim, and I apologize for any accidental errors:
BRENNEMAN: One area where Tampa Bay is going to have to find someone — unless they're going to match-up every night, that's what [manager] Joe Maddon told us before the game — you know, right now they're having to do that, but, they need to find somebody to become The Guy, down in that bullpen.
McCARVER: It's very difficult to do that. Uh, Ken Rosenthal talking earlier about a #2 starter... #2 starter, very difficult to come by, and certainly a closer is the same way. And unless you do it during the offseason, it is very difficult — unless you develop someone during the season — it's very difficult to trade for, for a closer.
BRENNEMAN: 2-1 delivery and it's grounded foul. (pause) Of course there are those that'll tell you out there — the quote-unquote sabermetrics crowd — at least many of them will tell you that, you know, statistically it'll show you that just about anyone can close. You watch baseball day in and day out, over the long haul, you might find one example or two examples of a team that had a closer-by-committee that had some success. You'd be surprising me by naming those two teams. (pause) I'm talkin' 'bout championship teams.
McCARVER: Mmmm-hmmm.
(long pause)
McCARVER: You know, the Rays have spread it around. In fact, they have four relievers with two saves or more: that leads the majors. Joe Maddon, just piecing it together right now, until and if they either develop somebody or make that rare trade to have a closer join the team.
BRENNEMAN: And you'd find, I'm sure, statistically speaking, as you see the improvement of this Tampa Bay pen, which we talked about four hours ago. I mean, you could probably find some examples of, you know, the 25th, the 26th and 27th outs, and guys that could do it and might be able to do it, you know, statistically it says they should be able to do it, but again: there have been too many guys that have littered baseball who did it in the eighth but can't do it in the ninth.
(one minute later)
BRENNEMAN: 18 consecutive New York Mets have been retired by the [Rays'] combined trio of Shields, Wheeler and Howell.
(one minute later)
BRENNEMAN: 19 straight retired.

(J.P. Howell gets another out, gives up one hit, then strikes out the final batter. Game over.)
This is truly just a bravura performance of being wrong. I instantly wanted to rehabilitate my feelings about Tim McCarver just by comparison. If McCarver is the Hannibal Lecter of sensible baseball thought, self-importantly killing and chewing on it, then Brenneman was like Miggs. You walk down the hallway in dread of one man, little suspecting any other danger until the other man hurls a palmful of his semen at you. Instantly, you want Lecter to just talk to the other guy long enough to make him kill himself.

There are a three huge general errors Brenneman makes:

1.The man cannot form a brief, coherent sentence.
I realize this is nitpicking, but the reason why Vin Scully is so great and why Harry Kalas was so great is that neither feared using a basic noun and a great verb. Brenneman fears verbs, fears any action or determinate thought as if he's constantly being graded on a test for which he hasn't studied. Of course, if that test were about baseball, he'd fail. The man burrows himself in so many subordinate and dependent clauses, you'd expect that the only way he could achieve an erection is by being beaten by a sadist wielding verbs.


2. He's arguing with a straw man that exists only in his imagination.
Brenneman says, "There are those that'll tell you out there — the quote-unquote sabermetrics crowd — at least many of them will tell you that, you know, statistically it'll show you that just about anyone can close." Sabermetrics geeks sort of say this, but not really. It's totally unsurprising to hear a baseball announcer criticizing sabermetrics without understanding them, but how much they don't understand what they're talking about still manages to gall. Sabermetricians have never said, "Don't go sign a lights-out closer. Don't have one incredible guy who can end the game." What they have said, instead, is:
That, statistically speaking, the team going into the 9th inning with a lead has such a probability to win that the situation isn't nearly as critical as baseball lore would have us believe.
That, because of this, closers are overvalued on the baseball market.
That, In fact, far more of the leverage of the game switches in the 6th-8th innings when starters get tired and may start putting men on base, that a lights-out closer is better used then, as a shutdown "relief ace," to preserve a lead through the ninth that then is unlikely to be lost.
That, in mid- to late-innings, any new pitcher of average talent who the batters have not seen during that game will probably perform fairly well if he has decent velocity and can locate his pitches.
That, given the above, spending a lot of money on a lights-out closer for the 9th inning is probably unwise for teams that don't have the ready money for it.
That, given the above, such a closer is better used in the 6th-8th innings when the statistical leverage of the game can change in the hands of a tired starter or a mediocre middle reliever.
And that, given all the above, a closer-by-committee for the 9th inning will probably fare just as well as a lights-out closer situation, and may even fare better if the team employs a shutdown "relief ace" in middle innings. Moreover, this arrangement might save a team a lot of money on the baseball market and make them more competitive relative to teams with bigger payrolls.
The argument isn't and never has been that teams can't have a great pitcher for the 9th inning. If a team, like the Yankees or the Red Sox, has enough money to employ a relief ace and a dominant closer, of course they should. But they should be aware that the traditional conception of closing pitchers overestimates their value in winning games and overinflates the cost of their talents. Brenneman's making a really great point about a slightly stupid suggestion: the only problem is that the only thing suggesting it is his broken brain.


3. Not only does he set an impossible and ignorant standard, he moves the goalposts.
You can almost imagine Brenneman pointing an index finger at an imaginary basement-dwelling sabermetrics blogger, slamming his thumb down as if firing a shot and then blowing smoke off his fingertip as he delivers what he obviously thinks is an inescapable kill-shot for all those number-crunching nerds: "You might find one example or two examples of a team that had a closer-by-committee that had some success. You'd be surprising me by naming those two teams. (pause) I'm talkin' 'bout championship teams." Of course, for his first statement, the answer is easy: the 2002-2006 Oakland A's, the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox, the 2008 American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays. Then, as if sensing danger, he moves the goalposts and demands champions only, which still leaves the '04 Red Sox but luckily doesn't meet the suddenly narrowed criteria.

The problem is, the criteria themselves are still mostly absurd. The idea of closer by committee and using a relief ace is still so relatively new that demanding multiple examples of it is like some racist asshole thumbing his suspenders in 1949 and saying, "Now, I want you to give me two examples of teams that won a championship with a negro." The difference in that example is that teams then recognized the manifest talent of black baseball players and considered getting more talent on their rosters a competitive necessity. But because teams today view a lights-out closer as a necessity, there's no consensus to try a "new thing" the way there was with integration. Those who have used closers-by-committee or other options have done so either because of financial or bullpen limitations. The A's and Rays both have payrolls in the bottom-five of all baseball teams every year. In 2004, the Red Sox used Keith Foulke as a relief ace in the playoffs — confirming, in a small sample size, the arguments sabermetricians had been making all along, a point covered in Mind Game — because the Yankees threatened to run away with games four and five of the ALCS in the middle innings.

Even if there are countervailing examples to impeach Brenneman's argument, the argument itself is a puerile absurdity that rests on an appeal to authority that itself rests on confirmation bias. He's effectively saying, "Look, if this idea made sense, then baseball teams would be using it." But appealing to baseball teams for validation of good new ideas is an exercise in futility and hardly the basis for rational decision making. Baseball is notoriously hidebound and stubbornly proud of refusing to learn. Only dire necessity changes it.

Branch Rickey might have felt segregation in baseball was morally wrong, but he only got away with integration in a cosmopolitan city with an ethnically diverse fanbase supporting a team that kept choking and needed a key extra ingredient to get over the hump. Moneyball might paint Billy Beane as a dynamic thinker, but he turned to WHIP and OBP as better metrics of evaluating inexpensive talent because he didn't have money to throw at expensive talent. Equalize baseball payrolls, and you'll see a lot more Billy Beanes and closers-by-committee because traditional thinking will no longer suffice.

For now, though, you won't, because baseball's authority rests on its ability to confirm its own biases again and again. For instance, middle-to-high payroll teams tend to win the World Series most years because they can buy better players. Teams with those kinds of payrolls tend to be able to afford a lights-out closer they only send out to pitch in the 9th inning. Ergo, says baseball, you have to have a lights-out closer to be a champion. If 24 of 26 teams started hitting their second-basemen in the face before ballgames, then in 40 years, if you wanted to win a championship, you'd damn well better punch that fucker in his stupid second-baseman mug, because that's just the way everyone does it. Go into a bar at 10:30 in the morning and ask the people in there if they need alcohol to be happy. Guess what?—that means apparently everyone needs alcohol to be happy. It's so simple. Why don't we use this for everything? Maybe we should ask everyone who thinks this is a good idea if we should do it.


Brenneman makes more errors in the specifics, and for that I'll just turn to the old bold-quote/reply format from FireJoeMorgan.

BRENNEMAN: One area where Tampa Bay is going to have to find someone — unless they're going to match-up every night, that's what [manager] Joe Maddon told us before the game — you know, right now they're having to do that, but, they need to find somebody to become The Guy, down in that bullpen.
Again, Tampa Bay didn't have this for large stretches of last year. While Joe Maddon's misplaced and frankly incredible devotion to the ancient Troy Percival led him to name Percy as the team's closer last year, injuries led to a pretty regular closer-by-committee arrangement that helped propel Tampa to the World Series. In fact, if you asked any Tampa fan, they'd have told you this was a boon. Percival was/is old, and his spastic jerking delivery to the plate robbed him of control and increased his chances of re-injuring his hamstring. He routinely walked one or two batters, gave up a towering pop-up, maybe a single and then — if he didn't blow the save — barely scraped out of the inning. Sometimes he even seemed to give up a home run, when the Rays had a big lead, just so he'd qualify for a "save" opportunity. He routinely had an expression on his face after winning the game like he was thinking, "That's funny, I tried to shit the bed, but I guess nothing leaked out of my pajamas. Which is weird, because there's shit all over my ass and legs."


BRENNEMAN: You watch baseball day in and day out, over the long haul, you might find one example or two examples of a team that had a closer by committee that had some success. You'd be surprising me by naming those two teams. I'm talkin' 'bout championship teams.
Like so many announcers, you can tell that Brenneman is acutely aware of his ignorance of statistics and arguments about how to interpret performance in baseball. Thus he falls back to the old chestnut that "you have to watch the game day in and day out over the long haul." Sure, for some loser blogger in mom's basement, you can look at the numbers without watching the game, but a venerable baseball-talkin' warhorse like Brenneman knows how much you're going to miss by not watching it. Because he watches it. Not you. In fact, he's so wedded to this vacuous retread argument and so generally incompetent that he bleeds his cliché from watching day in and day out to watching over the course of years. At first, apparently you've got to watch every game, but at the end of his brain going walkabout, you just have to look at who won the World Series each year and then ask someone how good their closer was. It's a stunning proposition, because essentially Brenneman suggests that no one can understand baseball if they have an attention span like his, then proves how damning the suggestion is.


McCARVER: You know, the Rays have spread it around. In fact, they have four relievers with two saves or more: that leads the majors. Joe Maddon, just piecing it together right now...
McCarver has basically unwittingly undone his point and Brenneman's by showing that the Rays have done well with multiple people, which is exactly what the closer-by-committee arrangement is designed to do. No matter, Brenneman will take matters into his own hands:


BRENNEMAN: And you'd find, I'm sure, statistically speaking, as you see the improvement of this Tampa Bay pen, which we talked about four hours ago.
As you can guess, this relates to an earlier conversation they had in which they outlined the Tampa Bay bullpen struggles earlier in the year and how they've really turned things around over the last month. Of course, prior to a month ago, the bullpen had an official closer: Troy Percival. As expected, his performances were spotty and terrifying. Since Percival went down to injury, the closer position has become less of a liability just as other members of the bullpen have settled down and found their rhythm. Most importantly, the shakiest and most uncertain role in the Tampa Bay bullpen has always been the 9th-inning pitcher: the classic "closer." The most solid performers — J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and (sometimes) Dan Wheeler — have always been the 6th, 7th and 8th-inning guys.

In short, Brenneman not only torpedoes his own point by pointing out the bullpen's improvement after losing their supposedly all-important "9th-inning closer," he also torpedoes it by pointing out that the Tampa Bay bullpen's most effective pitchers have been those who have filled in the role of the sabermetricians' "relief specialist" — the guys who come in, in high-leverage middle innings and shut down potential rallies. The fact that Troy Percival got saves despite being so chronically unreliable has far more to do with going into the 9th inning with a lead that Howell, Balfour and Wheeler preserved for him. Percival reaped the benefit of the statistical improbability of losing a game on three outs. Brenneman is so stupid that his attempt at gritty veteran baseball knowledge self-sabotages so completely as to justify every point he thinks he's cleverly mocking.

A few moments later, he offers an absurd and baseless statement about 8th-inning relievers somehow failing in the 9th inning because of a crepuscular difference between the two, ignoring in the process the solid two-decades during which baseball "closers" routinely pitched two or three innings with no appreciable difference in success compared to today. Finally, as if God wants to distance Himself from his own creation, Brenneman bloviates for a further two or three minutes while the slow-throwing and ostensibly ineffective non-closer J.P. Howell gets two outs, a single and then strikes out the last batter.

No one, not even nature, heeds Thom Brenneman. Or should.

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Et tu, Mr. Destructo? is a politics, sports and media blog whose purpose is to tell jokes or be really right about things. All of us have real jobs and don't need the hassle that telling jokes here might occasion, which is why some contributors find it more tasteful to pretend to be dead mass murderers.