I Can’t Support John Smoltz For The Hall Of Fame Because We Don’t Know He Didn’t Kill A Drifter In An Applebees Bathroom in 1997

It’s that time again, when the BBWAA announces its annual inductions into baseball’s hallowed Hall of Fame. This year’s ballot is packed with talented players, with more than a little controversy surrounding many of its potential inductees. But there is one name that won’t be on my ballot. And, yes, it’s for the reason everyone won’t stop talking about but no one wants to hear.

My conscience won’t allow me to support John Smoltz when it is possible that he murdered a drifter at an Applebees on February 3, 1997.

Yes, I know that Smoltz was never convicted–or even charged–with the brutal killing of a teenage hitchhiker in the bathroom of a Georgia casual dining establishment. But here’s the thing: Because Major League Baseball did such a terrible job of policing the behavior of its players during Smoltz’s career, we are left with questions that can never be answered. We are left to speculate whether the hard-throwing right-hander attacked an innocent young man in the bathroom of the Smyrna Applebees Bar & Grill just to know what it felt like to end a life.

What are we supposed to think? Just take a look at pictures of Smoltz before and after the 1997 offseason. You can see a confidence in his posture that could only come from using his bare hands to snuff out the existence of another human being, as well as a weariness in his eyes that looks, perhaps not without cause, like the weathered gaze of a young Charles Manson. His supporters are already rolling their eyes, and muttering to themselves that a thousand-yard stare means nothing. Maybe he just wasn’t getting enough sleep. But in the context of the era, when illegal activity was running rampant, signs like these can’t be ignored.

Maybe his supporters are right. Maybe Smoltz was doing something on February 3, 1997 other than brutally choking another human being to death mere yards from oblivious diners enjoying a generous serving of mozzarella sticks. Maybe, as over 18,000 murders occurred in the United States in 1997, Smoltz merely looked the other way and relieved his curiosity about the fragility of the human condition in other ways. But where was he, one of the most prominent pitchers in baseball, in protesting these thousands of killings. Smoltz never did a thing to stop a single murder in 1997, even if we suspend credulity and agree that he may not have been involved in one?

To date, Smoltz has not even addressed the accusations that he carefully placed an “Out of Order” sign on the mens restroom at the Smyrna Applebees so that he would not be interrupted as he strangled a complete stranger until he could no longer breathe. Like most of the other murderers of the era, he has chosen to stay silent on the matter. Where is the accountability from a professional athlete who says that these suspicions are “baseless” and “silly?”

I don’t care how many times you tell me that no one saw John Smoltz at the Smyrna Applebees on February 3, 1997, or that fibers from the floor of the bathroom matched clothing found in the home of an area serial killer. This isn’t a court of law, this is a Hall of Fame ballot, and my standard of evidence is a bit lighter than the burden of the state to convict.

Sure, Smoltz has a good case if you just look at the stats. But voters have a right–no, a responsibility–to consider the possibility that he used his greater size and physical ability to commit the most brutal of crimes.

Did John Smoltz murder a drifter in the bathroom of an Applebees on Feburary 3, 1997? I don’t know. But can I ignore the suspicion? Can I fail to weigh it against his MLB career? No, that would be a disservice to the Hall of Fame and I will have no part in that.

Once Upon A Time In The Projections

I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball player projection system lately, which is just a fancy way of saying I’ve been sick and unable to play 3d video games without feeling nauseous or write creatively so my brain had to go off and do something dumb. A few days ago, Fangraphs published Dan Szymborski’s 2015 ZiPS projections for the St. Louis Cardinals. If you follow enough of Cardinals/sabermetric twitter you know that Szymborski took issue with a particular Cardinal blogger who questioned the necessity of these projections and made some fundamental mistakes regarding the ZiPS process. Piling on Cardinals fans is a national pastime for some reasons we don’t bring on ourselves (the media’s terrible Best Fans in Baseball Narrative) and some reasons we do bring on ourselves (I can’t even look at Cincinnati on the map without muttering “kiss the rings”) so the blog post was passed around, ridiculed, and pulled.

Social media drama is the last thing I ever want to care about, but the argument got me thinking. First off, I respect all the hard-as-hell mathematical work that goes into developing projections. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even know where to start learning how to do it. Second, there is clearly an audience for projections–as demonstrated by the anticipation leading up to the ZiPS reveal. So it’s cool someone is putting in the hard work.

But what do good projections really tell us?  I haven’t been able to answer that question and it has stuck with me through a haze of cold medicine.  This isn’t just about ZiPS, or STEAMER, or PECOTA, or any projection system in particular but about the concept of projection systems in general.  What information are they providing?

“They give us a better idea of how players will perform!” you are shouting at your screen while you add my name to a list that includes Murray Chass.  And you’re right, that’s exactly what they do. Maybe.

Bear with me on a thought experiment (groan, I know) while I consider two hypothetical projection systems: the PERFECT system and the BEST system.

The PERFECT system: The PERFECT system correctly and accurately projects player performance. As indicated by its name, it gets nothing wrong. In December of 2013, the PERFECT system projected Matt Carpenter to get 709 plate appearances and a .272/.375/.375 triple slash. How does it do this?  I dunno. Let’s say that, to borrow heavily from the film Interstellar, it tracks batted balls in the future by the minute changes in gravitational fields as they travel backwards through space-time.

Now, the PERFECT system trivializes baseball in lot of ways and calls into question important concepts like free will and predestination.  But it also does one thing really well: it’s the only projection system in the goddamn universe that predicts Allen Craig will have a .266 BAbip in 2014. It’s also the only one that sees Pat Neshek coming.  The really weird stuff–the stuff that has a lot of value to predict–is only truly caught by the PERFECT system.

“That’s not fair!” you reply and move my name above that of noted blogger Murray Chass. “You can’t compare projection systems to literally seeing into the future!” Well I can because this is the internet and on the internet you can advocate for things as crazy as seceding New Hampshire from the Union or SEGA producing Shenmue 3. Also, I need something to compare with the next system.

The BEST system: The BEST system is a bit more realistic. This projection model is top-of-the-line.  Using all that math I don’t understand, it provides the most precise predictions possible without any knowledge of the future. I think we can all admit that (Interstellar notwithstanding) there is no way to measure all the random shit that happens in a baseball season.  And as someone who watched the Cardinals bat .330 for an entire season with RISP, I know for a fact that the sample size of an entire season isn’t enough to weed out all that random shit.

What the BEST system does, however, is successfully weed out all the random shit in the past stats, and uses that to provide an exquisite shit-free stat line for every player in the upcoming season. The BEST system is so good, its creators boast, that if the 2015 season were to be played 1000 times and the results averaged together, the numbers would be exactly what the BEST system projected for them.  This seems like a crazy boast, but the cast of the television series Sliders (which is still running in at least one universe) confirms that it is true.  The BEST system is just that good.

Every year, when you run the numbers, the BEST system is going to be named the most accurate projection system. In aggregate, that will be true. But what about each individual player?  Sure, the BEST system will be the system most likely to come the closest to the real numbers. But, by design, it will staunchly be unable to identify an outlier.  That’s not a bug. It’s a feature of a good projection system.

Remember how I said that playing the season 1000 times would result in averages that equal the BEST system projections?  And how great that was?  The problem is that 1 of those seasons is going to give you the PERFECT system projections.  And then the other 999 seasons are going to drag that pin-point accurate projection straight to the average.

What I’m saying is this: the problem with the BEST system is that it’s incredibly conservative. It will predict a decline from Allen Craig, yes, but not because it knows he will turn into a pumpkin  It is because his 2013 was also an outlier. The BEST system will never predict a collapse.  Similarly, it will look at everything about Pat Neshek and spit out some mediocre numbers, because of course it will.  No one could have seen that coming (and no one should be expected to).

This conservative nature is the problem with any good projection system, because conservative predictions aren’t terribly interesting. With the exception of minor leaguers, the BEST system as described above isn’t going to tell you a lot you couldn’t glean from a glance at the player’s age and MLB stat history. Which is a shame, because developing something like the BEST system that is so (on aggregate) accurate would be an incredible mathematical achievement. It just wouldn’t tell us anything about current MLB players.

This is why the really fascinating stuff in the ZiPS projections for the Cardinals isn’t, say, Matt Holliday’s numbers or Adam Wainwright’s numbers. Someone taking a wild guess or simming the year in MLB: The Show could come up with a triple slash of .275/.348/.456 slash line for Holliday. I don’t mean this a an insult to ZiPS, which of course is way more work than that, and will be more accurate for more players.  But a conservative prediction that Matt Holliday will continue a gradual decline is, well, not exactly a revelation.  And any good projection system will likely come to a similar, conservative result.

The interesting stuff in the ZiPS are projections from guys like Ty Kelly (.254/.333/.358) or Samuel Tuivailala (3.29 ERA, 28.3 K%). Kelly is a journeyman utility infielder with no MLB time projected to be about as good as Kolten Wong.  Tuivailala is a converted position player who rocketed through the system in two years on the strength of a  99 mph fastball. Obviously, a system that identifies guys like these who can be immediately productive at the MLB level would be very valuable. Maybe the BEST system as described above would do that, but the problem is that these projections–which are truly interesting, and the reason I like looking at ZiPS–are the most difficult to verify as reliable. Kelly’s numbers are based on the idea he receives 550+ PAs and god help the St. Louis Cardinals if injuries force the team into that situation.

While I like to look at projections and I respect the hell out of the work that goes into them, I’m sympathetic to the argument baseball old-timers put forward that they are meaningless.  The more accurate a projection system gets, the less it tells us that we didn’t already know.

Of course, projection systems published on the internet are mostly created to give us something to talk about in the off-season and I just wrote 1000+ words about them. So maybe I’ve already lost any argument I was trying to put forth.

 

MLB The Show: World War K – Three Blights in August

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Start from the Beginning – Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Previous Episode: Can’t Get Fooled Again

Winning is hard, but apparently losing is even harder.  Pat Burrell and the Royals had set out to accomplish something far more difficult than sealing the deal on a solid division: blowing it in dramatic fashion.  In the past, the Kansas City Royals had made losing games look simple, but in 2014 they were a team of destiny.  Not only did they have the general momentum of the 2014-prime timeline on their side, but the improvements made by Pat Burrell and Strike-O-Matic gave them an extra push that was hard to undo.  Trading the closer and wrecking the up-the-middle defense by giving starting jobs to Brad Miller, Miguel Sano, and Jesus Montero should have been enough…  But was it?

embraceausterity

The problem with relying on a poor defense to sink the Royals should have been clear: the team’s three best pitchers were strikeout specialists. Strike-O-Matic, Carlos Martinez, and Kyle Zimmer all had K/9 rates over 8.00, which limited the amount of damage the terrible up-the-middle combination could do to them.  Even Jesus Montero was capable of catching a fastball, and Sano/Miller simply didn’t get enough chances to let fieldable balls get away.  On the offensive side, they were even barely a step down from the players they were replacing.  Miller played about as well as Escobar had, and while Sal Perez was a much better hitter than Jesus Montero, his 2014 numbers simply hadn’t borne that out.  And as for Miguel Sano, who should have been completely overmatched in MLB?  Well…

Sano

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MLB The Show – World War K: You Can’t Get Fooled Again

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Start from the Beginning – Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Previous Episode: Trust The Plot Twist

At the end of July 2014, emergency repairs initiated by Strike-O-Matic’s internal systems revealed the terrible truth of his mission from the future.  He had not been sent back in time to help the Kansas City Royals get to the World Series.  In fact, he had been sent back to prevent Kansas City from taking the pennant.  This compelled Pat Burrell into taking desperate measures, making dramatic changes to the roster.  They wanted the team to collapse in 2014, but without ruining the team’s public image or hopes for future seasons.

With this in mind, Burrell attempted to recruit the services of blogger Dave Cameron, but accidentally ended up retaining the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron. It was a mistake anyone could make, but particularly likely when the person put in charge of the deal was Eric Hosmer.

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With David Cameron’s help, Pat Burrell retooled the team, trading a number of significant pieces from the ML roster.  But more importantly, the team would be handicapped by some rather lineup decisions suggested by PM David Cameron after reading the work of blogger Dave Cameron.  The team now looked something like this:

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MLB The Show – World War K: Halfway There (June Recap)

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Start from the Beginning – Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Previous Episode: More Like Chief Blah-Hoo

In the far-flung future, June 30 will be remembered as one of the turning points of the Base Wars.  On June 29, 2081, US President Emma Jeter ordered an overnight attack on a server farm in silicon valley.  This battle was known as the Net Offensive, Brought to You by State Farm.  (Corporate sponsorships of major military actions had become the norm in the 2040s, starting with the Mountain Dew-mascus Assault in 2042, and by 2081 no one was even moderately shocked by the idea.)

The Net Offensive Brought to You by State Farm began with the firebombing of Paolo Alto, which was made exceedingly difficult by the fact that the pilots could not use computers for targeting or navigation.  Dozens of jets took to the air over central California, dropping tons of explosives on everything that looked remotely like a server farm.  By the June 30, they actually started to hit meaningful targets.  President Jeter spent the morning deep in her secure bunker, watching a live feed of the attacks.  Every time the headquarters of an early 2000s  tech startup went up in flames, she would pound her chest and mutter “yeah jeets”.  Despite the fact that the Net Offensive Brought to You by State Farm was ultimately successful, this fact would be brought up multiple times during her impeachment hearings the next year.

But in the innocent days before the Base Wars, June 30 was not known for a violent battle.  At best it was known as Chan Ho Park’s birthday.  Or the midway point of the baseball season.

Why didn't I come out of retirement for this season?

Why didn’t I come out of retirement for this season like Ray King and Kei Igawa?

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MLB The Show – World War K: More Like Chief Blah-Hoo

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Start from the Beginning – Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Previous Episode: Money Also Walks

After a disappointing 1-3 series against the New York Yankees, the Kansas City Royals were slated for a quick two game set against the Cleveland Indians.  After flagging over the last week themselves, the Indians had a two game lead in the AL Central, so the Royals could pull even with them and take first place for the first time since near the beginning of the season.  They were so close to first that they could almost taste it.

catfood

It was awful forward-thinking to believe that a two game series in the middle of June was critical to the pennant race, but Pat Burrell didn’t want to give up any ground to the Indians.  Something had to change.  Something had to motivate the Royals to move forward and rebound from their loss to the mediocre Yankees squad.

Burrell considered making another trade, but he realized that he could only rely upon transactional drama to carry the day so many times.  He was willing to go back to the trading market, but he’d wait until the July deadline.  After all, there are only so many parts of this story that can be about making trades, and certainly another one is to come.  Today, change would have to come from within.

There was one clear way that the team could be improved without a trade: something had to be done about the manager.  If only for a couple, critical games…

Yuniholdonelipsishey

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MLB The Show – World War K: The Candyman Can

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Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Episode 2: And We Will Always Be Royals

Episode 3: Verland Before Time

The first two weeks of the season for the Kansas City Royals passed with neither a bang nor a whimper.  The team was thoroughly mediocre, and after a 5-3 start, they dropped two games in a row to settle at 5-5 in their first two turns through the rotation.  None of this could be blamed on the starting pitching, however.  All five of the Royals’ starters–Strike-O-Matic, James Shields, Bruce Chen, Jason Vargas, and Kyle Zimmer–had been fantastic.  However, the lineup was struggling to produce runs.  Sal Perez, Colby Rasmus, Alex Gordon, and Mike Moustakas all had averages below .200 and their futility prevented the relative success of Nori Aoki, Eric Hosmer, Pat Burrell, and Omar Infante from bearing much fruit.

However, this was no time for the offense to be slumping.  Game 11 pitted the Kansas City Royals against their interdivisional opponent, the Minnesota Twins.  And perhaps more importantly, it pitted Strike-O-Matic against the first of the six robot masters, the deceptive hurler Stubby Candyman.

BasewarsCandyman

In the year 2099, the robot Stubby Candyman was the ace pitcher for the St. Paul Conjoined Twins, aptly renamed after the great Minneapolis Nuclear Disaster of 2051.  Unlike most robot hurlers, Candyman did not rely upon pure power to overwhelm his opponents.  Instead, his arm cannon was equipped with a variety of darting and dancing breaking breaking pitches.  His knuckleball was considered the best in all of MLB, as he could eject the baseball without any spin but still control its general trajectory towards the plate.  His slider, which was the hardest pitch he threw, could start at the knees of a left handed batter and end up on the far side of the strike zone.  And his vulcan change?  Well, he was the only one who even knew what a vulcan change actually was.

sting

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