Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Jed's Back II (or: Revisiting the Worst Baseball Article of 2014)

(Not Hank) was was quick to report the news back on December 15, so this article isn't really focussed on Jed's return to the fold.  Rather, this article revisits the histrionics around the Jed Lowrie-Paul Clemens early-season "beanings", mostly because some of the trash written at the time was kind of priceless (and only accumulated in value with the passage of time).  Reflecting upon it lends itself to the idea that progress has been made, and will continue going forward.

We should start by briefly revisiting the Clemens-Lowrie incident in general terms, which this video does quite well.  The Astros were in the midst of a miserable start to 2014, having lost six of seven games during one stretch and six in a row in an entirely separate stretch.  On April 19, the Astros were well down early after Jarred Cosart lasted only one-third of an inning.   Jed Lowrie was up for the second time in the first inning with the A's up 7-0 when he unsuccessfully bunted against the shift for an attempt at a base-hit.  In Lowrie's next at-bat, Paul Clemens appeared to throw at him, but missed, with the ball going between Lowrie's legs.  Lowrie flew out to end that at-bat, then stood near first base and asked Jose Altuve whether the attempted leg-beaning was, in fact, an attempted beaning.  Bo Porter... uh...  "intervened" and politely "asked" him to stop talking to the Astro players, and "respectfully suggested" that he grab his glove and cap and return to his position on the other side of the second base bag.

The events of April 19 received some attention, but the incident was mostly forgotten after the Astros headed north to Seattle and took the road series there (partly because of the first of a number of strong pitching performances from Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh).  They darn near swept Seattle, but for Josh Fields giving up a go ahead jack to Corey Seager in the midst of a horror early-season stretch.  The Astros then returned to Houston for a return series against the A's.  Scott Kazmir hit George Springer in the first inning (with a two-run lead and two on) which kind of made no sense, all while Brett Oberholtzer was struggling - eventually allowing 6 earned runs in three-and-one-third of an innings.  Paul Clemens relieved, and in the seventh inning, hit Jed Lowrie square on the rump.  Clemens was the victim of a quick ejection, and after the game Bo Porter largely refused to comment further.  The hitting-of-batters continued on to the next day, when Jason Castro wore one from ex-battery-mate Fernando Abad, who subsequently stayed in the game, which also made no sense.  We are deliberately ignoring the Brandon Moss HBP's here, because everyone knows that a significant proportion of Moss' body mass spends most of his at-bat in the strike zone.  To say he sets up near the plate is being kind.

Lots of opinionated rubbish was written, leading to a trio of defensive articles published on this site revisiting the whole incident.  And, importantly, remember that at the time the Astros were miserable (on pace for 119 losses, donchaknow!!).  This led to fans experiencing flashbacks to 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Which leads us to the article which I consider the Worst Baseball Article of 2014, written by Will Leitch, and published on Sports on Earth.  Please check it out.

So here are the points made in Leitch's article, in a nutshell:

1. The Astros are currently bad.
2. They hired bloggers, just like Will Leitch, so they might be cool!
3. But they bottomed out on purpose, presumably to get high draft picks.  Emphasis not mine.  That ain't baseball.
4. Their manager is upsetting the applecart and ruining all the positive blogger-related stories, mostly because he looks like a "reactionary, delusional idiot".
5. After all, Bo Porter broke a rule on substitutions in 2013!
6. Matt Dominguez made a baserunning error that led to Bo Porter looking angry and staying quiet during a press conference.  Perhaps he is losing his grip on sanity.
7. Jed Lowrie then broke one of baseball's unwritten rules, which is really not breaking a rule at all, because he was trying to help his team to score runs.
8. Bo Porter started screaming at Lowrie.  Hey, someone from the Diamondbacks got angry when the Dodgers went for a swim, too!  A parallel, involving another struggling organisation!!
10. Porter then made Paul Clemens throw at Lowrie later.

(Note is made, at this point, that the order of the events is blatantly factually incorrect.  Leitch's account is: Lowrie bunted, Bo screamed, Clemens attempted to bean a couple of innings later presumably at the behest of Porter, whereas the actual order is Lowrie bunted, Clemens unsuccessfully beaned.  Bo screamed at the end of the attempted-beaning at-bat after Lowrie apparently questioned the intent.  Never let the facts - or the order of the facts - get in the way of a good diatribe.  After all, if one were to promote the argument that Porter was losing it, having him order Clemens to bean him after earlier yelling at him makes for a better story, doesn't it??)

11. A few days later, the Astros were down big again (they are useless, donchaknow), when Clemens hit Lowrie on the butt
12. Clemens said me made a mistake, and that it wasn't intentional.  Just tryin' to pitch inside!
13. Bo made cryptic remarks about "baseball taking care of itself"...
14. Which clearly indicates that this beaning was intentional the whole time
15. Throw in a couple of reactionary Lowrie quotes that reflect badly on the Astros.  The victim in the matter, after all, is bound to acknowledge his part in all of this, and view it all objectively.  He won't be at all defensive.
16. Porter is dangerous, people.  Like a toddler with a gun.  (Which is, of course, no laughing matter)
17. Perhaps all the losing has changed Porter's personality, or driven him insane.
18. Random Hitler reference!

Of course, the title of the article indicates that Bo Porter's priorities are merely misplaced.  He is more occupied with enforcing the unwritten rules of baseball, rather than addressing all the losing that the Astros are doing.  And if he straightened out his priorities and just concentrated on winning, things would be ok.  After all, that is how you wind up in a 7-0 hole in the first - by not concentrating on winning!!

Leitch is an interesting character, and this is also worthy of some comment here.  He is arguably most famous for his Deadspin days, where he positioned himself -  and the blog - as an outsiders' sports humorist.  He gained some notoriety by attacking the Rick Reilly's and Buzz Bissinger's of the sports-writing world, exposing lazy sports writing to the cynical masses, all while making the odd interesting sports scoop.  Throw in a little off-colour humour, and you have Deadspin.

The irony of this article lies in the degree of lazy hack-ery that Leitch uses here - something he used to eviscerate Rick Reilly for.  The narratives that are drawn upon, the series of events that was inaccurately portrayed, and odd reference that inevitably encourages the reader to draw an unconscious psychological link between Porter to Hitler are all examples of hack-ery in it's finest form.  The irony!

That said would hate to have to write for a living.  For a start, I would be very poor and hungry, such is the quality of my writing.  I imagine deadlines would be easy to meet when you write about an event - such as a game between the Astros and the A's - but opinion pieces would be much, much harder, and would not lend themselves comfortably to deadlines.  Sports on Earth is not about recapping games, but more about providing opinion.  So perhaps some slack needs to be cut here.  Writing for a living would be hard, and the more you write, the greater the chance of a clunker such as this being published.

And as an aside, Sports on Earth was always an oddly out-of-place button which always seemed to reside on various official MLB sites.  At the time that Leitch's article was written, it was part owned by USA Today and MLB Advanced Media.  However, USA Today pulled the pin in August due to a corporate restructure, and as a result, most of the writers were let go.  It is now run solely by MLBAM, and seems to act as a link between baseball websites and other sports in the offseason, while providing an... uh... offbeat commentary during the season.  Adding more to the irony, SoE was (at its launch) described as a intelligent addition to the MLB writing crew.  There isn't anything intelligent about this article, though - personally, I would prefer to read anything by McTaggart or Justice.  SoE continues to exist, albeit in a different form - and thank goodness, because without it we would never get "Gems" like this (which Leitch advanced as one of the examples of great creative sports-related writing on the site).

The sense of irony is only multiplied with the benefit of hindsight.  Firstly, it seems that Bo Porter was battling for his job, and his ability to communicate with his players seemed to be part of the reason why he had been put on notice.  I recall that some of the articles from around this time date the origin of the difficulties back to the off-season and early season, so perhaps Bo was under the pump when this incident occurred.  Note is made that this incident showed that he had no difficulty communicating effectively with the players on the other team.

Secondly, the Astros finished April at 9-19, sat at 12-27 on May 12, and was 17-32 on May 23.  From those three dates, the Astros recorded a 61-73, 58-65 and 53-60 record, respectively.  Nothing to write home about, but after this incident, numerous good on-field stories emerged, including Keuchel and McHugh's continued good work, Springer carrying the team for much of late-May and early-June, Carter's summer of power, Fields' change-up which he broke out mid-season, Altuve's batting title, and a solid late-season gut-check road trip against three contenders - Anaheim, Seattle and Oakland.  And it's not like everything went their way from May onward - they missed Springer and Fowler for extended periods, Crain and Albers either never arrived or were done, and large offensive black holes existed at first, third and left.

Third, and most telling, was that Lowrie returned to Houston as a free-agent in the offseason.  On a team-friendly deal.  As the leading middle infielder on the free agent market.  With multiple wealthy teams in need of solid middle infield bats.  With another Oakland A in tow (actually, following another Oakland A, but, as we have already established, never let the facts get in the way of a good diatribe).

So we get to end 2014 by looking at possibly the low point of the Astros season, at least on the field.  After a miserable April, they got much better despite missing a bunch of key players for extended periods of time, having awful production from key positions.  The post-April team was much more compelling and watchable, and the results of positive regression in a couple of areas, an improved 'pen, and some high-ceiling players on the farm arriving in the bigs will make the 2015 Astros even more watchable.  Which is great, because Texas / 5-state natives may actually be able to watch now.

Happy New Years, everyone.  With the arrival of 2015, we are now in the same calendar year as the 2015 baseball season!!

Celebrate safely, and my regards to both the readers, and the other AC staff.