Monday, March 26, 2018

Moneyball, or The Modern Prometheus

The baseball season has started up and fans are thrilled by the bunting and the umpires who have spent the entire winter brushing up on their HRAAAAANNNNTTTT strike bellows and the possibilities of World Series glory for the approximately eight professional baseball teams interested in winning games.

Each ump, upon graduation from Hey Ump! The Sacred 
and Ancient Order of Umpires, must symbolically call 
him or herself out, forever killing their former self before 
becoming reborn behind the plate, and choosing their 
Strike Call that they get after taking mind-altering substances, 
going into a fevered dream state, killing a hippopotamus, 
and claiming its death bellow from YAA AIII to WRRRRRONNNK

The baseball offseason is usually marked by a flurry of free agent signings and trades, but this winter featured a horrible months-long tedium where teams remained frozen in their tracks and all-star-caliber players found themselves in the curious position of having no teams willing to pay them large sums of money.  For baseball fans hoping their team would snag a player on the open market, the entire thing played out like the ending of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly if Sergio Leone had just continued to cut to increasingly narrow pictures of Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef squinting at each other for three solid months while a mournful harmonica played an Ennio Morricone piece entitled "Boras's Lament."

Sergio Leone got this shot by having his actors read an opthamological 
chart that said in tiny type in the bottom "ok shoot now"

The central question that haunted baseball's frozen stove involved collusion, whether the team owners had all gotten together to purposefully refuse to sign free agents and drive down their prices-- after a brief flurry of hefty contracts to stars like Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer, increasingly desperate players signed for far less than they anticipated from ad hoc free agent spring training bivouacs.  The more likely explanation involves a soft collusion that comes from a combination of free-spending teams saving their money for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who are such transcendent talents that they will likely command the treasury of a small country to lure them to those organizations and the fact that all baseball teams are owned by unimaginably wealthy people whose interests include:

1. Acquiring as much money as humanly possible
2. Having all of their wealth converted to coins and bills and sacks of doubloons
3. Forcing a man-servant to photograph each piece of money individually
4. Staring intently at a picture of each of their individual monies all day every day
5. Occasionally suing people

And yet, even as the baseball diehards outside of internet comment sections where the prevailing ethos seems to be that baseball players should play for free or at the very least haul some sacks of coal around on off days and also why don't they have guys named "Pinwheel" and "Squeaks" anymore complained at the endless days of constipated transaction lines, this offseason provided the most grim and depressing result of analytically-inclined writers attacking free agency as a sucker's game and the triumph of teams that have tanked their way to October glory.

Over the past two decades, we've seen sophisticated statistical analysis break through to the mainstream, to emerge from the Proverbial Mother's Basement fully formed, suited, and hair-slicked, to the Sloan Conferences of the world to expound on Assets.  We can all agree that this is for the best, that the fact that sports analysis is no longer primarily done via amateur phrenology by columnists who guard against retaliation by wearing hats.  The fact, though, is that the type of salary inefficiency championed in Moneyball and in fantasy sports all results in finding ways for organizations to figure out how to spend less money.  In baseball, this means taking advantage of a bizarre inverted salary structure where teams' competition for top free agents often means paying them into their graying years.  This year, teams have found that they could stop paying for players' descent into overpaid chumps by not competing for their services at all.  They also figured out that they could avoid paying competent major leaguers in favor of young and unproven players because they can either convince fans it's part of a long-term tank and rebuilding plan or, in the case of the Marlins, get rid of all of their good players and pay only to emblazon their taxpayer-funded ballpark with their new team motto Who's Going to Stop Me?

One of  the most fascinating subplots of the Marlins is Derek Jeter's transition 
from universally beloved baseball icon to the face of a despised, penny-pinching 
ownership group as shown from his new office's decorative scheme "Volcano Overlord"

The salary efficiency mindset has spread well beyond baseball.  NBA players might as well have their salary on the backs of their jersey because the league's insane salary cap and labyrinthine trade rules make their paychecks vital aspects of player movement.  These rules are impenetrable to all but a select number of professional Salary Cap Knowers and podcasters that pretty much spend hours listing how much money everyone makes.  The prevailing wisdom in the NBA is that teams should either be one of the three or four championship contenders in a full-on free-fall for draft lottery ping pong balls; therefore a full third of the NBA has been actively trying to lose games for months.  Regardless of anyone's thoughts on The Process or the dozen Counterfeit Processes currently ongoing in professional basketball, the owners have finally found a way to fill their arenas with low-paid basketball excrement while being celebrated for being forward-looking because they are starting four heretofore unknown centers named Phil Lumberman and Miroslav Oaf so they will have a two percent greater chance to pick a nineteen year-old. 

The Bulls's tanking efforts became so extravagant that the NBA threatened 
disciplinary action against them unless they started to play functional 
NBA player Robin Lopez; Lopez has rewarded Bulls fans with entertaining 
bug-eyed flip outs

The NFL also has a salary cap, but it is aided by players signing inscrutable contracts that allow them to be cut or restructured so often that it is impossible to tell whether the cap exists; I have never seen the national football league enforce the salary cap, and I suspect that if they tried to do it to the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones would threaten to shoot them with a pearl-handled revolver.


The Cubs remain in the enviable position of baseball's teams trying to win.  They brought back nearly every key player from last year's NLCS team except for Jake Arrieta, who has now joined the Phillies after a long offseason in limbo.  Instead, the Cubs shelled out for Yu Darvish, fresh from a disastrous World Series and a career of being what highly technical baseball analysis would describe as insanely cool.  Darvish has been one of baseball's best pitchers and slots in with Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Tyler "Spin Rate" Chatwood whom the Cubs hope can salvage his career away from Coors Field, and Kyle Hendricks, who continues to dorkishly bamboozle major league hitters to form a fearsome rotation.

Every year brings a new update on Jon Lester's various attempts to conquer his fear of throwing to first, which has previously included underhanding, running the ball over, throwing his whole dang glove, attempting to hire a courier, and finally standing at the mound saying "I prefer not to."  Lester is now divebombing his throws into the ground like a cricket bowler.  This has already worked against Ryan Braun's stealing technique of sort of walking around, and I look forward to seeing how Lester plans to throw to bases next including building a miniature bullpen car for shuttling the ball or constructing an elaborate rube goldberg machine that draws the ire of the ump after he calls time for 25 minutes to figure out why the dowel connected to the boot that kicks over the row of dominoes and activates the third conveyor belt has malfunctioned.

This is my all-time favorite Jon Lester pickoff moment

The other major change for the Cubs this season involves Chicago's Beefy Boy Kyle Schwarber reporting to spring training svelte, muscular, and having a patchy beard instead of a hideous chin goatee that looks like he is trying to make do with a child's Civil War General Facial Hair Kit.  This may or may not help Schwarber's hitting or prevent him from lumbering about the outfield like an anthropomorphic thumb.  Aesthetically, it is a complete disaster.  The robust lefty-slugger who waddles over to home plate to blast enormous dingers and make cartoon coconut noises while stomping around the basepaths is a proven baseball archetype.  The best exemplar is Matt Stairs, a man who spent years summoned to the batter's box once a game from flipping burgers on a grill to launch a baseball into low earth orbit.  The only other perfect baseball shape is the relief pitcher who is just a load, his undulating belly straining against his baseball pajamas or satin pitcher's jacket.

This is an aesthetically perfect baseball image

There is little to say about the Cubs, a very good baseball team who should be very good.  They have made the NLCS three consecutive years, they won a World Series and ended the greatest championship drought in American professional sports, they play in an outdoor mini-mall that turns into a terrifying festival of drunken maniacs like what happens at night in Castlevania II, and they compete in a division that is competitive because it features three teams that took advantage of baseball's free agent market and the Great Marlins Exile.  After years of futility and heartbreak, the best extended stretch of Cubs baseball since the Theodore Roosevelt presidency is also its least compelling.  It would take an unforeseen baseball calamity to bring back the fear of inevitability back to Wrigley Field, one that would probably require at least two players to duel, to vanish into thin air, or to get attacked by a wild animal in the course of a playoff game for me to even flinch.


You would have done well as a resident of Chicago in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to make it through a month without getting bonked about the head and relieved of your possessions.  At least, that is the impression I got from Herbert Asbury's Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld.  Asbury, most famous for his study of New York's stabbiest criminal organizations in Gangs of New York, published Gem of the Prairie in 1940, just after Al Capone's reign of terror, and each page is filled with people with insane nicknames involved in ingenious and horrifying schemes of crime and violence in some corner of Chicago that used to be known as Little Hell or Bedbug Row or some other beguiling combination of words like Satan's Bloodnest.  Asbury at all times seemed appalled and angry at the municipal corruption that allowed crime to flourish while scarcely being able to hide his delight in prurient details and swashbuckling thievery.  Here's an example of the type of thing you'll see from Gem of the Prairie:

Asbury started at Chicago's transformation from a wilderness trading post to a growing town, one, as he described, built so ineffectively on a gigantic plain of mud that sidewalks varied in height threatening to force pedestrians to have to climb or plummet like they were navigating an M.C. Escher painting.  He followed gamblers, strongmen, prostitution rings, gangsters, and even the notorious murder house serial killer H.H. Holmes whose skin-crawling exploits regained widespread infamy in Erik Larson's Devil in the White City.  He also discusses the exploits of corrupt aldermen "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna that have already appeared on this blog.  Asbury's episodic anecdotes follow a format where a person with an impossible nickname did something terrible and then either got away with it in a mansion, got brutally murdered, or had something else equally improbable happen such as:
One of the famous hoboes who made Duncan's place [that's Bob Duncan, King of the Pickpockets] their Chicago headquarters was Wyoming Slivers, who left the road about 1896 and married a widow in Minnesota.  She died after a few years and left him ten thousand dollars, and Slivers and a score of his cronies went on a six months' spree in which ten of them died of delirium tremens and Slivers himself lost an ear and three fingers in fights.
One might think that a book on the Chicago underworld would spend a great deal if time on the city's most famous gangster Al Capone, but Asbury only turns his attention to him, his boss Johnny Torrio, and a host of "such notorious gunmen and bandits as Handsome Dan McCarthy, Bugs Moran, Maxie Eisen, Frank Gusenburg; Vincent Drucci, better known as the Schemer; Two-Gun Louis Alterie, also called the Cowboy Gunman because he owned a ranch in Colorado; Hymie Weiss, who was O'Bannion's alter ego and second in command of the gang; and Samuel J. Morton, called Nails..." towards the end of the book.

(Asbury notes that Morton died "as the result of what his fellow gangsters regarded as despicable treachery; he was thrown and kicked to death while riding a horse in Lincoln Park" before explaining that his fellow gang members "determined to exact vengeance, kidnapped the horse a few days later, led it to the spot where Morton's body had been found, and solemnly 'bumped it off,' each gangster firing a shot into the animal's head.")

Gem of the Prairie is nearly 400 pages of that.  Asbury seems to have done extensive research in newspapers, government documents, journals, and books such as Vice in Chicago written by a person improbably named "Walter C. Reckless."  But this is not a stolid, scholarly document.  Asbury provides statistics and analysis, but what he's most interested in is the anecdote, the improbable characters, and the over-the-top criminals, politicians, and law enforcement figures that populate the book.  It's also written in 1940, which passages and assumptions that will probably at times jar a reader in 2018.  The most fascinating thing about Gem of the Prairie is its evocation of a city with all of the dirt and grime and swirling possibility of shockingly casual violence and exploitation he seeks to paint a horrifying picture for his readers but he can't help but also romanticize.   

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