Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Historical Context of Baseball Greatness

One of the most appealing things about baseball is its context in history. If you transported a fan from Fenway Park's first Opening Day in 1912, and plopped them down in the same spot a few months from now, it would likely be the only thing about modern life they understood.

Sure, there are differences: the jumbotrons, the sound systems, and the racial diversity of players and spectators would surely confuse our mythical 1912 fan. But the ballpark has changed remarkably little when compared to other everyday institutions of American life.

Baseball's long history has certainly had its share of upheavals, what with multiple expansions to the playoff structure and number of teams, the addition of the designated hitter, and the explosion of player salaries under free agency - but the game still has a level of statistical continuity that allows for perennial arguments about the "best ever."

This year's debate will center around Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. If the Captain had played for a shorter lived expansion team (like the Rays), I might be able to entertain the idea of him being the best they'd ever had. But the Yankees? A team that employed Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, and Yogi Berra?

There's a tendency among fans to view players that were on the field as they came of age as larger than life - better than any who came before or who will play in the future. But the beauty of baseball is that you can look at (most) statistics and compare them across the decades, even if they must be taken with a grain of salt.

Typically when discussions of "modern advantages" come up in baseball, they allude to the use of performance enhancing drugs, but today's players have plenty of totally legal advantages over their predecessors. Things like Tommy John surgery and laser eye surgery didn't always exist, and players didn't always have access to personal trainers and dietitians to perfect their bodies. Even something as simple as a salary that doesn't require an offseason job as a ditch digger to make ends meet can extend a career long enough to make a Hall of Fame worthy difference.

So is it really possible to compare players across generations? Maybe - but while having heated discussions about "the best ever," we must remember that there's no definitive way to know how today's players would perform under 1912 circumstances - or how someone like Babe Ruth would do with the modern conveniences (and prying press corps) of today.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A clean slate for the World Champs

Today is the official reporting date for all Red Sox position players, and the last of the stragglers are now in camp.

Honestly, I almost forgot today was the official date because the vast majority of Red Sox players have been in Fort Myers for days or even weeks - we're a long way from the days of Manny Ramirez's constant tardiness due to perennial family illness.

It's one of the many reasons I feel great about this team's chances for 2014. Of course, the talent matters, and luck plays a role every year. But it would be a mistake to discount the effects of twenty-five players who truly enjoy showing up to work every day, working toward the same goal.

The Red Sox labored for decades with rosters full of talented me-first athletes; the "25 Players, 25 Cabs" mentality haunted them through the nineties. In the last decade, the Red Sox have won three World Series titles, and though the 2004, 2007, and 2013 squads all had their unique flavors, they also had key moments of (often bizarre) team solidarity.

In 2004, we had the Idiots and team shots of Jack Daniels, and a region-wide exorcism of a decades-long curse. In 2007, the squad reveled in the strange antics of Jonathan Papelbon, extending Dustin Pedroia's Rookie of the Year campaign to the World Series in Colorado. And last year, we had the beards. Some were scruffy, some were glorious, but all were a sign of unity.

Obviously it's impossible to know anything based on the first day of spring training, but his year's team has that feeling of community that always seems to end in good things. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

SoxCast in Syracuse: Episode 11

This week's installment focuses around the announcement of Derek Jeter's retirement - so we brought in a genuine diehard Yankees fan to give her perspective.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sorry Jeter, you're no Mo

Yankees captain Derek Jeter has announced that he will retire following the 2014 season. On one hand, it's absolutely time for him to call it quits (and in fact might even be a few years overdue). On the other.... well, let's just say if he's expecting the public outpouring of support that teammate Mariano Rivera got in 2013, he'll probably be disappointed.

Was Derek Jeter a great shortstop? Sure. But Rivera was the greatest closer of all time - and Derek Jeter is not the greatest shortstop of all time. I truly think Rivera could have pitched effectively for a few more years (maybe forever - that man is probably an android), whereas Jeter stopped being an effective defensive shortstop some time ago.

I also think Jeter's level of respectability has been inflated by playing next to the baseball pariah Alex Rodriguez for so many years. Jeter may have kept himself out of most major scandals (though not all), but he's no Saint Mo. I'm sure some teams will send the Captain off with a parting gift of some sort, but if he's looking for the same sort of emotional sendoff all over the league, he's got another thing coming.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Check out Technical Foul!

Hey everyone - sorry I've been so inconsistent in this space lately! Rest assured, I'm just as excited for Truck Day, Pitchers and Catchers, and first Spring Training workouts as ever.

But I've also been hard at work producing the very first episode of a new sports comedy web series called Technical Foul. We debut this weekend, but there are already a few teaser videos up now on our YouTube channel.

Basically it will be a show about professional and college sports - and as the production team is made up of current Syracuse University graduate students, it's focused on #1 ranked SU basketball at the moment.

The foundation of the show is a roundtable discussion about contemporary sports topics - with preference given to the quirky or unusual - interspersed with offbeat segments and interviews featuring current SU athletes.

Sorry for the shameless self promotion, but it would be awesome if you guys would follow Technical Foul on Twitter or Tumblr, or like us on Facebook. And of course, check out our videos on YouTube - right now it's just teasers, but the full show will be up Saturday!

2014 Bill James Projections - Daniel Nava

©2013 Kayla Chadwick
2012: 88 games, .243 BA, .352 OBP, .390 SLG, 6 HR, 33 RBI
2013 projection: 87 games, .266 BA, .367 OBP, .414 SLG, 6 HR, 35 RBI
2013: 134 games, .303 BA, .385 OBP, .445 SLG, 12 HR, 66 RBI
2014 projection: 121 games, .285 BA, .377 OBP, .435 SLG, 11 HR, 59 RBI

Daniel Nava has been fighting for his baseball life throughout his career. He was undrafted out of college, and then when the Red Sox signed him out of the independent leagues, they paid just $1 for the right.

After languishing in the minors for three full years, he made his major league debut on June 12, 2010 against the Phillies - and deposited the first pitch he saw into bleachers for a grand slam. I was at that game, so Nava will always have a special place in my heart.

Daniel Nava was never supposed to make it. He wasn't supposed to be able to succeed at any level, but he's made a career out of succeeding at every level. Nava is currently first on the Red Sox depth chart in left field, so barring any major adjustments he should finally get the chance to be an every day player.

At this point, it would be a fool's errand to underestimate Nava - and I think that's exactly what Bill James and co. have done this year. I don't see Nava's batting average taking a nearly twenty point plunge just when he'll get the chance to be an everyday starter.