Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Randy Jones and Randy Johnson: An Epic in Two Acts

Recently, San Francisco Giants left-hander Randy Johnson announced his retirement, ending a long, successful, peripatetic career.  It seems silly now, but there was a time when he so struggled with his control that he was a guy who was considered a high-risk prospect.  Enough so that he was not the main guy in the trade that brought Mark Langston from Seattle to Montreal (look up Brian Holman).

Johnson now is a guaranteed Hall of Famer; second all-time in strikeouts. More than 300 wins.

In reading about Johnson, one often sees comments about his being a hard-throwing lefty, with frequent comments about the stereotype of left handers being soft-tossers who get by on guile and trickery.  What serious baseball fan is unawares of the phrase "crafty left-hander?"  There has been no shortage of lefties who had long, even successful careers who seemed like their fastballs would not break a window pane.  Randy Jones won the 1976 Cy Young award, for example.  Jesse Orosco pitched until he was 100.  Frank Tanana had a very long career with a fastball that would not bruise a baby's butt.  That's not entirely true of course; Orosco was only 72 when he retired, and a lot of people forget that at the start of his career, Tanana had a good fastball.

Johnson certainly went against the common thinking, which of course, is frequently wrong.

But why does this perception exist?  ARE left hand pitchers more likely to have less than blistering fastballs?

Of course, only a real analysis would reveal the truth, but here is a thought.  There certainly is a tremendous bias in big league scouting for guys who can throw hard.  For the most part, this bias is useful - a pitcher who can only throw 82 mph had better have some extra-ordinary other talent.  All else being equal, the guy who can throw 95 is going to have a much better career than the guy who can only throw 88.

But looking at the distributions I think reveals something.  Demographic and epidemiological data show that in the US, about 11 per cent of the population (one in nine) is left-handed.  If this were to transfer to major league rosters, a standard pitching staff (10 pitchers) would have about one lefty.  This is not the case.  Usually, a roster will have at least one starter, one "left hand specialist," and one other left hand pitcher.  A cursory look at the rosters reveals that left hand pitchers have about a 300 per cent premium to their value versus right handers.  

To see this effect, look also at the roster of outfielders (infield is a biased sample, since there are NO left hand throwers playing any of the positions other than first base for obvious, physical reasons), and compare the percentage of left hand throwing outfielders to left hand pitchers.

What is the implication?

In order to fill the rosters with lefties, teams have to go deeper into the talent pool.  Guys who if they were not left-handed would have quit baseball and taken up work elsewhere are on big league rosters. That means a lot of pitchers with mediocre, or worse, fastballs.

Put simply, pitchers like Randy Johnson seem like exceptions to the rule because there are a lot more guys on rosters like Scott Schoenweis than guys like Doug Jones.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The MG as Metaphor for "Authenticity"

I have a handful of passions in my life; my wife and son, naturally.  Baseball, though this grows more lukewarm as time (and awareness of the more Mondrian aspects of professional sport) erodes the soft sand at the edges of youth's shore.  Mathematics.  And more recently, classic cars.

In a quick historical synopsis, the funds I earned from my first job (refinishing wood floors) I put towards purchasing my first car.  Having grown up in the US, which is to put it mildly, a car-culture, this is a big event for a lot of males in the demographic 16-25 (at the time, I was 20).  The car I *wanted* to buy was a nearly half-century old MG.  It's not a terribly practical car - two seats; no trunk.  Built before Ralph Nader helped squeeze a lot of the joy out of motoring and therefore not equipped with seat belts.  It had the rumoured reliability of a Central American junta.  And thus, unsurprisingly, common sense (in the verbum caro factum of my mother) intervened, and a much more reasonable Datsun Stanza ended up in the driveway.  Over the next 20 years, I often thought of that car, and thus as middle-age-dom settled in, and along with it the means to essentially spend money on some things that propriety and youth made impossible, I acquired the car I had wanted in my youth.

For a visual, think of the film American Beauty, where Kevin Spacey (the anti-hero) says to his wife, "It's the car I always wanted, and now I have it.  I rule."

Because I am not terribly mechanical, when this or that goes wrong, I turn to the internet for help and suggestions on fine tuning, and one of joys of classic car ownership is that there exists a quite interesting brotherhood (and it's mostly, though not exclusively male) of people who share this interest, and are very helpful and keen on helping out one of the bretheren, no matter the level of mechanical skill.

At the site I visit, there recently appeared a discussion about what will become of the objects of our passion when we are gone.  I am on the young end of the spectrum, and the fear is that the younger generations will not have the appreciation or the knowledge to maintain vehicles that will by then be in the range of 75 years of age.  And I got to thinking about these vehicles as a metaphor for the common buzzword one hears, "authentic."

Personally, I find one of the charms of these cars (and there are of course other things that fit this category equally well) is that they are at once elegant and simple.  My day to day car is a PT Cruiser; it has a lot of technical gizmos, including little lights that illuminate when something is wrong.  It even can self-diagnose a problem and display it in the digital odometer.  And yet, if something goes wrong, despite (because of?) all this wizardry, I simply have no hope of fixing the problem.  It's almost a perfect metaphor for the problems of modern medicine - we can diagnose the illness, but not really treat it.  For example, most recently, my PT Cruiser, which was running seemingly perfectly, popped up the check engine light.  A couple of quick turns of the key, and the problem (P-0441) appeared, which is apparently something that the computer detects is wrong with the emissions control.

Contrast that to my MG; it has *no* computers.  The body is attached to its frame with simply, flat-head screws.  There is no fuel injection.  It cannot tell me when something is wrong.  There is not even a fuel gauge to let me know when it is running low.  Knowing that there is a problem requires me to be aware of the idiosyncracies of the car - is the engine making strange noises?  Does it take longer to start?  How far have I driven since I put gasoline in?  I have to pay attention to how the engine looks and how the whole of the thing performs.  In short, I have a much more "real" connection to it.

And if something goes wrong, almost surely it's a problem that even I can delve in to with a simple armamentarium of a rubber hammer, a couple of spanners, and a flat-head screwdriver.

It's a throw-back to a time when machines were simple, not because of faddish, Hollywood-derived ideas of authenticity (think "Slow Food"), but because life itself was simpler.  That is not to say that they were better, necessarily - these cars tended to break down more often.  They could not go from 0 to 60 in five seconds, or cruise at 80 MPH like even the most basic econobox of today.  But they came with the explicit understanding that you, as the driver, would invest something in their day to day use, and that that time could accomplish something.

And I think in that is something charming to these cars, something "real."  To me, from time to time getting your hands dirty is what "authentic" means, and that is why I think that these cars will persevere, even when the brotherhood of current caretakers passes.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Two Roads Diverged in the Woods...What Will We Leave Behind

A couple of items have me thinking today.  The first is a thread on my favourite MG Bulletin Board Site; the second is a song from the "Mary Poppins" soundtrack, now a favourite of my four-year-old son.  Seemingly divergent ideas, but both speak to me in a similar way.

The former, the thread about MG cars, discusses the question of who will take on our passions for antique cars (in my case, a 1952 MG-TD) once we are gone.  The latter is an observation made towards the end of the film, where Mr Banks is ruminating on his apparent, perceived ruin:
A man has dreams of walking with giants
To carve his niche in the edifice of time
Before the mortar of his zeal has a chance to congeal

What I'm thinking about today is the modern view of time, its passage, what we want to leave behind, and indeed, if we ought to leave anything behind at all.  Our ideas of permanence and impermanence have taken different views over time, of course.  As has modernity.  What we value changes.  The Victorians definitely had ideas of grand monuments; Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his epic poem Ozymandias about the folly of such an idea.  Today we claim to value "authenticity," but talk about footprints in not always good terms.

I plan a couple of my own thoughts, but am curious about how others think about what constitutes lasting value, what "lasting" even means, and what we would want to leave behind if we could, Ozymandias be damned.