Saturday, June 30, 2007

Messin' with the streak!

Before we all join hands and start singing coombyaah, it appears we have a crack in the 'One for All and All for One' attitude in our band of merry men from the north side.

I mean messin' with the streak is a sacred thing, right?

Doesn't every player need to put personal accolades aside, especially now that the team has finally gained some form of respectability and confidence?

The announcement by the Cub's ace that he wants Uncle Lou, to juggle the rotation so he can pitch in the All Star game when and if he's selected, is the type of Karma this team surely doesn't need, and is just another reason why Zambrano should be traded.

Maybe it's foolish to think professional athletes give a damn about most anyone but themselves, but what about their teammates? Don't they matter? Doesn't one of the team's stars need to set an example?

Yesterday's game can create a sense of belief and hope that the team can overcome difficult situations, but a proclamation like Zambrano's can just as quickly poison it.

The Cubs are a long shot to overtake the Brewers for the NL Central title as it is, and they certainly don't need one of their big guns crying about personal accomplishments in the face of the monumental task in front of them.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The blast

Well it ain't everyday that the Cubs win an important game in such dramatic fashion. Below are a few sights of Aramis Ramirez's game winning heroics in the Cubs 6-5 win over Milwaukee.
both of the photos above were taken by the Chicago Tribune's Phil Velasquez

these two are AP Photos taken by Jerry Lai

run like you stole it, aramis!

and that's how you want to start a high-leverage series like this one! sheets tomorrow....

Almost Live: Friday Afternoon OPEN THREAD

It's the businessman's special this afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The Cubs start their highly anticipated weekend series versus the NL Central leading Brew-has.

Milwaukee at Cubs (1:20)
Gallardo (1-0, 2.70) vs. Hill(5-5, 3.13)
Television: WGN
Radio: WGN, XM-188

Lineups will follow...

Here they are

Hart RF .315
Hardy SS .281
Braun 3B .328
Fielder 1B .282
Hall CF .271
Estrada C .286
Mench LF .272
Weeks 2B .246
Gallardo P .250

And now for your Chicago Cubs. Leading off...
Soriano LF .305
Fontenot SS .408
Lee 1B .346
Ramirez 3B .297
Floyd RF .306
DeRosa 2B .279
Bowen C .242
Pie CF .227
Hill P .069

trend spotting update

last week's update contained this caveat:

when this writer set out to examine run differential as a potential predictor of trends in play going forward, it was not with the expectation of anything like this sort of regularity. both the cubs and the brewers have developed in a very orderly fashion within the parameters of this analysis to date -- and it is not the expectation here that this will continue to be so. while such periods represent the probabilities that makes this analysis worthwhile, there will also be false signals and periods of only very slight trending that will introduce a great deal of noise.

filter all that to mean: this thing has been weirdly accurate, and it won't be in the future. all it does is show you the trends in run differential, which -- as i at least began to show -- tend to keep trending once they've started.

in the light of full disclosure, maybe i should repeat in more blunt language than this that this is not a crystal ball. i can't tell you where whether the averages will converge or diverge or where the difference will be in a week or a month.

what i can (i think) tell you is that there is a (perhaps slight) probability of some things happening over some other things. that's all. i'm sure everyone knows that, but it doesn't hurt to repeat it for humility's sake.

to wit -- when last we left the cubs, i said:

the moving averages of run differental again negatively converged. such crossovers generally have preceded bouts of poor play of some 10-20 games duration.

there's nothing like going 6-0 to gut a forecast, is there? "poor play" -- check. remember, these are only probabilities we're talking about.

perhaps amazingly, scoring 34 and allowing 20 over the last six has only just eked the averages together -- indicating no trend in run differential at all, effectively, over the last 12 and 26 games. it's a picture of .500 baseball. this is not, you may imagine, the best environment for a forecasting tool that is based entirely on streakiness.

what happens now? beats me. if i had to guess, i'd still say that -- until a truly low minima has been reached, somewhere near or under (-1.50) -- the slightest balance of probability is toward the downside. that's hard to say when the club has gone 8-4 since your latest negative signal, but there you are.

from the outset of the year to the cyclical high on game 31, the club went 16-15; from the high to the game 53 low, the club went 6-16; from the low to the high in game 65, they went 8-4; since the high, they have gone 8-4.

in terms of crossover points, the cubs went 16-18 to the negative convergence at game 34; from that convergence to the positive crossover in game 55, they went 8-13; from there to the negative convergence in game 70, 6-7; since then, 6-1.

another picture of oddity is milwaukee, who is on the very hottest of hot streaks. their differential averages have diverged by 2.30 runs -- that's exceptional, but then this has been a team of very powerful streaks all year (two good separated by one bad). i last week said:

with their macd reading having approached an extreme level, a reversal -- though it may not be imminent -- would appear to be nearing.

they went 5-1, showing just how "not imminent" the reversal was. is it imminent now? beats me -- but the probability is yes.

all season long, people have claimed series after series to be "must-win" for the cubs -- in my opinion, "must-win" is up there in the pantheon of overused sports cliches with "clutch", "one game at a time" (do you have another choice?), "one-hundred-and-ten percent" (most athletes clearly don't take math), "taking it to next level" (if you had control of it, why weren't you already at the higher level?) and "i want to thank god" (who has better things to do than fool around with sports).

but on the eve of a three-game matchup at wrigley with the division leaders, this is perhaps one of those times where a sweep really could animate the chances of this team -- and getting swept end all doubt. i tried to point up yesterday just how truly improbable it is to outperform for a long time clubs that have, over some previous significant amount of time, outperformed you. but if it's going to happen, it has to start with getting lucky over some very small amount of time over which even mild randomness can play a very big role.

that small amount of time is here. good luck, cubbies.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

it is hard to make up five games

the cubs won again yesterday afternoon, but i'll admit that i barely watch them anymore. they've now gone 10-4 over their last fourteen -- and you'd think that would make any cub fan watch. they've been virtually the hottest team in baseball over that run.

except that they haven't quite been the hottest team in baseball. in fact, they haven't quite been the hottest team in their division. since june 12, the day the cubs' recent good fortune really started, the milwaukee brewers have gone a stunning 12-2 to actually expand their lead on the cubs from 5.5 to 7.5 games. and they've done it in more impressive style to boot -- while the cubs have scored 62 and allowed 56, the brewers' like figures are 96 and 53. i've found myself fangraphing the brewers far more than the cubs, which is i suppose the 21st-century equivalent of scoreboard watching. i missed a lot of cub games in 1998 by standing in the back of the rightfield bleachers facing the wrong way.

i said this a few times earlier this year and it bears repeating: five games is a lot farther than you think it is. and that is counterintuitively more true for long stretches of games than short ones.

remember all that five back business? the only other team in the sample to fall out five so quickly as this club and even get to .500 was the 1993 team. they were 38-38 at this point, and fell to 64-70 on september 2.

that club went 16-4 from there to september 24, going from six under .500 to six over. that's the kind of spell it's going to take for the cubs to get even close in this thing.

and that wasn't enough, of course. if you presume the current divisional setup, the '93 club would have been -- even after all that -- still 14.5 games short of the wild card phillies, and 3.5 short of the division-leading cardinals having been 9.5 back on september 2.

more comprehensively -- if you examine every other club in the nl over that 20-game stretch, what was the net change against the cubs over that run?

 September 3-24thru September 2

this is a table of the 1993 national league, with their records from september 3 to 24 broken out, sorted by their performance over that span. the cubs are highlighted blue, and all the teams that were worse than they were year-to-date through september 2 are highlighted in yellow.

when lightning struck out of the clear blue and the cubs went on a tear, they gained ground on everyone. but how much they gained had a great deal to do with how bad the object club was. five of the other six sub-.500 clubs fell back by 8.5 games or more. but the good clubs -- the ones that had been over .500 for the whole year beforehand -- continued either to win or at least tread water. as a result, even going 16-4 narrowed the gap by more than five games against just three of the seven clubs that had been above breakeven.

moreover, even this gain is illusory because it encompasses a sample designed not to make the league look normal but to make the cubs look really good. let's expand the sample by a week on either side -- going from august 26 to october 1.

 Aug 26-Oct 1thru Aug 26

now the cubs have actually lost ground to a couple teams, and gained more than five games on only one of the seven good clubs. and if you continued to expand the sample, in general you'd find that the cubs' performance against the part of the field that was better than they were going into the period including the win streak gets worse and worse -- until the number of games in the sample gets about as large as the number of games outside it.

the longer the stretch of games that the cubs have to outperform their betters, the less likely it is that they can. as i said above, they've scored 62 and allowed 56 in this last run, outperforming their pythagorean estimate by more than two wins. the karmically-inclined can consider it a bit of payback for the underperformance from april. the cubs have been exceedingly lucky to lose just two games to the brewers in these last fourteen, though the brewers are finding out the converse of this argument -- it's also hard to add five games to a lead.

anyway, the upshot is that good luck isn't made to last -- but when it's all you've got, you have to pray for more. john dooley in the comments complained yesterday that the team would have to win 20 in a row to make up ground. turns out that isn't far off -- so go sit in your church, spin a prayer wheel or stick a note in an old wall, per your preference. it can't hurt.

Lou tries out his new hammer

As the Cub winning streak ballooned to six yesteday, their longest of the season, I couldn't help but look out on the field and think of Wally Pipp. You see out on the mound Uncle Lou had what he has always wanted at the back end of games. It's what he had with the "Nasty Boys" on his Reds championship team in the 1990. He had the hammer that he wants to close out ballgames. The young hammer is of course 24 year old Dominican Carlos Marmol.

When Ryan Dempster headed to the DL earlier this week, with a strained oblique, the Cubs looked to Bobby Howry to take over the closers role. Howry has been better of late, but he has been used alot recently as evidenced by the top of the ninth inning debacle on Monday night. So the last few games in the ninth inning, Uncle Lou has turned to the young Marmol in the ninth inning. Tuesday night was iffy for Marmol. He allowed 3 hits and an earned run while striking out two in the ninth. Will Ohman came in and got the last out to record his first save of the season. Yesterday was a little better for Carlos. A three up three down ninth and his first MLB save.

In today's Tribune Paul Sullivan writes about the influx of youth into the Cubs pen. I found the following comment from Marmol very interesting. Maybe this shows that the young Marmol has the makeup to close games for the Cubs:

After Tuesday's game, the 24-year-old Dominican got Piniella's attention by bluntly saying his 63-year-old manager should have left him in to finish the game.

"Why not?" he said.

When Marmol talks, Piniella listens. With a two-run lead on Wednesday, Marmol caught Troy Tulowitzki looking at a 77-m.p.h. slider and Yorvit Torrealba at a 94-m.p.h. fastball, then induced Ryan Spilborghs to tap weakly to second to end the game.

Any of you who saw that slider followed by the fastball had to be hopeful. Marmol might just be the hammer that Lou wants at the end of ballgames. It may not happen this season, but I wouldn't be surprised if it does.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Mental Edge...

Call it clutch, grit, savvy or whatever other term you like, but there is something to be said for teams that have it.

It's a mental toughness that's honed from discipline, and it is what helps players stay in control and rise to the occasion when nothing seems to be working right.

It's true enough, a baseball game is usually won on the back of talent. Very few teams however, have all the best talent and even if they do, it's no guarantee for success.

This is probably never more true than when it comes to pitching, as it so dominates most games. Ted Lilly is a prime example of having that mental edge. Unlike Zambrano, who has demonstrated to many times to mention, blowing up when things don't go your way, shows you just don't get it.

When Lilly doesn't have his best stuff, he's still capable of keeping his team in the game. It's true that his team still has to support him defensively and at the plate, but Lilly has demonstrated he understands that as a pitcher, he still has an advantage over the hitter, no matter how much his stuff is off. This is the true mark of an effective pitcher.

The overhaul of the position players has also contributed mightily to the Cubs recent surge. Again, these replacements certainly do not have the talent of a Yankee lineup but they are fundamentally sound. They also have demonstrated they get it, with their desire to succeed and willingness to accept their roles.

Who can tell where the Cubs will finish in the NL Central. Seven and a half games back is a tough hurdle to overcome, but the Cubs are finally starting to perform and act like a team, and is a welcome sight and long overdue.

full disclosure

okay, that's enough of that.

the true artists of forecasting have always been thieves

there are those who produce forecasts uncritically. when asked why they forecast, they answer, "well, that's what we're paid to do here."

my suggestion: get another job.

this suggestion is not too demanding: unless you are a slave, i assume you have some amount of control over your job selection. otherwise this becomes a problem of ethics, and a grave one at that. people who are trapped in their jobs who forecast simply because "that's my job," knowing pretty well that their forecast is ineffectual, are not what i would call ethical. what they do is no different from repeating lies simply because "that's my job."

anyone who causes harm by forecasting should be treated as either a fool or a liar. some forecasters cause more damage to society than criminals. please, don't drive a schoolbus blindfolded.

nassim taleb reminded me again recently of something that i too rarely emphasize here -- that forecasting in a wild world is a practice fit only for the most broad-minded and suspicious, both on the giving and receiving ends.

i've been wrong on any number of things over the years here -- but it's going to be pretty hard for anyone to credibly say that i've said much that's completely thoughtless, and on the broad points of the cubs i've had the good fortune of being right a lot since ccd started this blog. that has, i'm sure, given some people the impression that i know what i'm talking about -- that i know what's going on.

ladies and gents, i wish that were true. a lot of what i do here in terms of analysis is really just a brain sharpener for more profitable work in the markets. i don't have any special insight on the cubs. i'm not "connected". i don't know anything you don't. and i'm not a fortune teller (or a thief, thank god).

what i've been is a confluence of fairly sensible and pretty damn lucky. allow me to illustrate.

jacque jones had a pretty decent year last year after i spent several hours excoriating jim hendry for signing him. i called it a "boondoggle" and his contract "untradeable". then he went and hit 27 home runs. what are you gonna do?

well, you're gonna sit on luck. and jacque has obliged by playing like the worst player in baseball this season, making me look like a visionary.

but was i? no. it didn't take a genius to see that jacque -- as a thirtysomething outfielder who can't hit lefties and was never that good to begin with -- was, if all went according to plan, going to struggle mightily at times. but therein lies the caveat -- "if all went according to plan". very often in life, of course, very little goes according to plan. jacque spent a few months in 2006 not going according to plan, and then (conveniently for me) did -- and then some, playing a lot worse in 2007 than i thought he could. and now he truly is untradeable -- as events last night showed, no team will take him without the cubs paying so much of his contract that the league won't accept the deal. or maybe it was sam zell? (either way, it's something the cubs once again lied about to make themselves look more competent and less desperate than they are). and there was no predicting any of that.

this sort of variance around reasoned but inherently limited analyses gets willfully ignored here a lot with the words "mean reversion". i pretend that the variance is mild -- which it often is, but not always -- and that means will always revert within the timeframe of a single season -- which they often do, but not always -- and then issue prediction after prediction based on that flawed logic. and as long as the variance stays mild and means revert, i get to be right a lot.

i'm not shy about telling you -- even that is a lot better than what you read almost anywhere else in cubbie-bloggie-fantasyland. even if you ignore the outright "cosmic" crackpots and take a blog like acb -- which is correctly considered to be one of the more forward-thinking in cubdom and one of the very few i bother to read at all -- it's often nearly impossible to find the capacity to get even that much right. otherwise intelligent folks have been over there banging on since april about how there's "no chance on this earth they (the brewers) win 75 games and it won’t surprise me if they win less than 70", how the cubs are going "make a run at 95 wins", expounding that the cubs are "going to win the division ... I have little doubt about that" -- and not out of an appreciation for wild randomness but because they broadly failed to get even the mild-variability analysis right. run differential was really positive early on, and so was taken uncritically and without a whit of thought as to its rather predictable variance and dependency on babip. when i brought it up to them -- repeatedly and bluntly, to be sure -- i was first dismissed with some empty narrative and then (to my bemused amazement) booted by the self-proclaimed champion of free speech blogs!

this was/is a particularly funny case of confirmation bias, and with it every sensible thing that these same smart folks said all through the offseason was forgotten. worse still, these mistakes still aren't being acknowledged -- they've instead been largely repressed and denied, and the whole affair has been reduced to seizing on the trivial as though it were relevant out of frustration. all this out of one of the better blogs, mind you. i can imagine what's going on at the lesser ones. or maybe i can't.

anyway, the point is that getting these mildly-variant cases right may be something i've done better than some (though there's always tomorrow, and i'm sure the kids at acb will let me hear all about it when it comes, as well as any of the several points i've been ridiculously wrong about in the past), but it is FAR from everything in prediction -- in fact, it's the least part.

i've been crowing around here for quite a while that the cubs are doing more or less what i said they would as a team, and doing it a little less than halfway through the year. that is inherently dangerous! and why? because i got the mild-variability analysis wrong maybe?

no -- because i've done nothing at all to account for the wild variability, and wild variability as often as not determines what happens to teams in the end.

take an example -- if a group of people had been handed a schedule and asked in september of 1970 how many games the marshall football team would win, you might have gotten answers in a range anywhere from zero to ten depending on how deluded the fans in your sample were. but if you had asked them how many games the team would play, you would have got a universal consensus of prediction -- ten.

but the actual answer turned out to be nine because of some wild randomness.

now this is the a gruesome case, but these sorts of events -- events which come from outside the "rational" model which are rare, significant and unpredictably, wildly (ie not mean-revertingly) random -- occur all the time in sport as well as life and dominate the outcome. ignoring that is a kind of dereliction to predictive duty, and yet nearly every forecaster on earth (including yours truly) ignores virtually all of the more creative and monumental possibilities entirely.

take the sale of the club. was there anyone on any blog who, just 18 months ago, thought the cubs would be signed, sealed and delivered from tribune? and that zambrano's contract talks would be scrapped (at least for now) as (perhaps) part of it? and that the cubs would go on an iou-binge as a last ditch effort to (perhaps) rectify their bad name? the first mention of it came completely out of the blue for most fans, and virtually all denied any possibility of it thereafter, and certainly had no inkling that plans for 2007 and after might radically change. yet here we are.

i think that the only one so far to have been actually accounted for in any meaningful (ie, forward-looking) way here is the potential of the carlos zambrano/pitcher abuse situation -- only because empirical data indicate that he is in fact at some elevated and more obvious risk of being shelved -- but such black-swan risks are literally everywhere, and any that come to pass can have an immense impact on the fate of the cubs. (and of course for making that first sensible caveat for a black swan, i've been persistently laughed out of the room -- them's the breaks, i guess.)

can four-fifths of the brewer rotation develop elbow problems this month? sure. can the cubs go on a 24-game winning streak? yep. could the squeaky/leaky dome up in milwaukee collapse and send the brewers to play all their home games in sox park? absolutely.

none of these events are particularly likely, of course -- which is why forecasters convince themselves that they needn't account for any of them. but the truth is that there are so many potential blessings/disasters which can fall from the sky that one or more of them is almost sure to happen. the bias of these events is at least theoretically neutral (though many experienced cub fans would disagree vehemently) -- which is another reason forecasters convince themselves that they needn't account for any of them. but in truth those that come are not likely to be evenly distributed in effect and will therefore heavily skew the results.

so what am i saying? that all analysis is worthless? that "rational hope" is a fraud? no -- empiricism is as valid as it ever was, and can teach plenty to a bunch of starry-eyed hairless apes if they've the mind for it. you can still use a combination of evidence and reason to improve your chances in a chaotic world where you don't control the outcomes.

what i AM saying is that there's plenty left to come which -- full disclosure -- i have absolutely no idea of and can have no idea of. and maybe that in and of itself is reason enough to keep watching a dimwitted ballclub like the cubs that "rationally" has precious little chance of doing anything worth watching.

also -- a housekeeping note, and what i meant by the first line -- enough with the florid language, hey? in spite of the occasional (and totally misguided) praise it sometimes gets, the lingo is entirely put upon -- if people who write or talk like i have generally here ever existed, the last of them died in the 19th century. it's been i think a brilliant little inside joke for a couple of seasons now -- with the endless third-person frame and the tiresome sixteen-letter words -- alternative fooling the gullible into presumptions of strange intelligence in the writer and aggravating the stupid who find that presumed strange intelligence threatening -- while entertaining the few (probably very few) who took it for the silly contrivance it was. and it's been a hilarious little way to keep by vocabulary deeper than it would be.

but when some (who apparently are among the many who don't get the joke and think i actually talk that way) are taking it seriously enough to honor it with a pretty passable satire, the whole thing has clearly jumped the shark and become as boring (if reflexively smile-inducing) as using "fuck" for schoolchild giggles.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A ninth inning to remember

All that matters is at the end of the night the "W" flag was flying at the corner of Waveland and Sheffield.

For any Cub fan who watched the game, it was just another ride on the roller coaster that is being a Cub fan. After the Cubs took a 4-1 lead on Angel Pagan's first inning 3-run dinger, the Cubs were sailing to an easy victory. Mike Fontenot had a career night going 5 for 5. He had 2 runs, 2 doubles and 2 RBi. Mark DeRosa was 3 for 5 with 3 RBi.

So as I said the Cubs were on their way to an easy victory in front of over 40,000 fans at the ballpark. Of course there are very few easy wins for the Cubs and their fans. So this game went from easy win to disastorous loss to dramatic come from behind victory. Just another night at 1060 W. Addison. Jeez.

Let's get to the disastrous part of the ballgame. The top of the ninth was absoluteley inexcusable. Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry couldn't get anybody out. The Cubs blew a 5-run lead in the blink of an eye on Monday night. The disastrous top of the ninth looked like the Cubs were heading to another disappointing loss. Here were the specifics:

Colorado - Top of 9th Score 8-3
Scott Eyre pitching for Chicago
K Matsui singled to right.
M Holliday walked, K Matsui to second.
T Helton doubled to deep left, K Matsui scored, M Holliday to third. Score 8-4
B Howry relieved S Eyre.
G Atkins singled to left, M Holliday scored, T Helton to third. Score 8-5
B Hawpe singled to right, T Helton scored, G Atkins to second. Score 8-6
T Tulowitzki homered to center, G Atkins and B Hawpe scored. Score 8-9 Rockies
Y Torrealba grounded out to shortstop.
R Spilborghs grounded out to shortstop.
C Sullivan hit for J Julio.
C Sullivan struck out swinging.

At this point Bobby Howry had a reason to look down. He was gonna be toast on Chicago sports radio programs all day on Tuesday.

What was so strange about the top of the inning is how fast it happened. It seemed like every Colorado hitter was swinging at Howry's first pitch. As Cub fans we have all seen too many of these bad acts at the end of games.

Cue the the bizzarre obligatory ninth inning rally:

Chicago - Bottom of 9th Score
Brian Fuentes pitching for Colorado
C Sullivan in center field.
B Fuentes relieved J Julio.
M DeRosa singled to center.
F Pie ran for M DeRosa.
A Pagan struck out swinging.
R Bowen grounded into fielder's choice to first, F Pie out at second.
K Hill hit for B Howry.
K Hill singled to left, R Bowen to second.
J Jones ran for R Bowen.
R Theriot safe at first on error by second baseman K Matsui, J Jones to third, K Hill to second.
A Soriano singled to right center, J Jones and K Hill scored, R Theriot to second.


Yeah it was much better than the normal obligatory ninth inning rally, that generally falls a little short. They actually pulled off one of the most memorable wins of the season. Ladies and gents, something is happening with Lou Piniella's Cubs. They are starting to win the ballgames they were losing earlier this season. While the gap with Milwaukee is still very big, it is great to see this ballclub put together some fun wins and play entertaining ball.

Leader at the turn

As the Cubs season nears the All Star break heading toward the second half, speculation on the new Cub owner will probably become heavier. We are in the final days of Tribune Corporate ownership, gimme a hallelujah! This morning, repoted that the leader, at this time, looks to be John Canning Jr., CEO of Madison Dearborn Partners. Here is what they said about Canning and his relationship with Uncle Bud:

For those who spend more time perusing box scores than M&A deal books, Canning, 62, heads the Chicago-based private-equity firm behind last month's $5.7 billion purchase of Nuveen Investments and the recent $7.3 billion buyout of computer retailer CDW Corp. (Charts, Fortune 500) Any deal for the Cubbies, however, would be led by Canning personally, not Madison Dearborn.

In Selig's mind, Canning has three things going for him. He has deep pockets to buy the team, he has Chicago roots, and, as part owner of the Milwaukee Brewers (he'd have to sell that stake), he's already a familiar face to the league's owners. He's also a big fan: Before becoming a private-equity mogul, he was a young catcher who failed in a 1962 tryout with the Atlanta Braves.

"I have enormous respect for John Canning, both as a person and as a businessman. But it's a process that will be fair and open," says Selig. "The Cubs are one of our treasures. It's a storied franchise with legions of fans all over. The only thing I would hope for is an owner who is very protective of the franchise and represents the city of Chicago well."

While Canning is considered the leading contender, closing the deal may not go as smoothly as a Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play. That's because the team is being sold by a public company with a fiduciary responsibility to sell to the highest bidder. In contrast, when hedge fund trader John Henry bought the Boston Red Sox for close to $700 million in 2002, the seller was a public trust. Henry was not the top bidder, but he got the team because he was well regarded by Selig and team owners, who must approve any team sale.

It sounds to me like Canning has almost everything Selig wants to run the Cubs. He has deep pockets, he is already part of the old boys club as a partial owner of the Brewers, he's a Chicagoan, and most impotantly as owner of the Chicago Cubs he will be an ally to Selig and the Commisioners office. We may still have 9 holes to play, but Canning looks to have a two or three stroke lead IMO.

One foot out the door?

So what would new ownership mean to the current Cubs management team? More than likely it means most of them will be looking for work. This includes the teams current President and former marketing guru John McDonough. In yesterdays Chicago Tribune, Fred Mitchell reported that rumors have McDonough heading north to Green Bay to take over for Bob Harlan.

John McDonough to the Packers?

That is one of the hottest rumors circulating around northern Wisconsin these days. The Cubs president could become a free agent at the end of this season when the team is sold and his contract expires. McDonough's proven marketing and people skills could become an asset to virtually any professional sports organization if he isn't retained after Tribune Co. sells the club.

Current Packers President/COO Bob Harlan, 71, was asked recently to end his brief retirement and resume his role for an undetermined time period after 55-year-old John Jones took an unexpected and open-ended leave of absence. Harlan has been the corporate and community face of the Packers for 18 years. The Packers, according to sources, have not made any formal overture to McDonough, nor has he made one to Green Bay.

When asked of the rumor Saturday evening, McDonough replied: "I am extremely flattered that there is speculation my name would be included. But my commitment and wish is to stay with the Cubs."

It's all about being in the right place at the right time. Last year McDonough was the marketing guy. He spends one year as President of the club. He leaves when the new owner takes over and could possibly land in a spot where his team could win a championship long before the Cubs. Interesting how that works.

cubs sweep sox, now 7.5 back

alfonso soriano's three-home-run weekend and excellent results from the pitching staff -- which allowed just two runs over the three games -- led the cubs to a gratifying sweep of the white sox at comiskey during which the spiralling southsiders rarely threatened. the sox are now just 29-42 with a 5-17 june not quite yet behind them.

the cubs managed to go 4-2 against the sox and texas -- two of the three worst teams (along with kansas city) in the american league -- though the performance was nonetheless mildly unnerving. scoring just 23 in the six games against two bad pitching staffs, it is some consolation that they stranded an obscene number of runners -- but the club has nonetheless fallen to tenth in nl run rate and is marking a pace for a surprisingly low 722 runs scored.

it has not been for a lack of pitching that the cubs have struggled in 2007 -- behind the good fortune of the second-lowest team babip allowed in the league, the cubs' run rate allowed is third-best. carlos zambrano's rejuvenation continued on friday; since the michael barrett dugout tussle that eventually sent barrett packing, zambrano has allowed just 13 hits in 31.2 innings alongside 10 walks and 35 strikeouts, a run that has included his three best starts of the season. are there still injury concerns? yes. but that zambrano has made adjustments is also indisputable, and so are the results.

one of those results is that the cubs now field four of the top 30 national league starters by vorp, led by rich hill (10th) and including ted lilly (21st), zambrano (28th) and jason marquis (30th). but it is the continuing caveat of babip that has to inform that observation -- hill with the second-lowest in the league at .234, marquis third lowest at .235, lilly 14th-lowest at .270. as these pitchers continue to mean revert in babip, their rankings will fall.

it has, however, been a strangely persistent feature of the these starters so far. in late april, this page observed the sparkling start of hill, lilly and marquis and warned that it was not to be expected to continue.

Rich Hillto 4/2828.71.570.844.
post 4/3059.
Ted Lillyto 4/2833.02.450.795.
post 4/3059.33.781.
Jason Marquisto 4/2827.32.641.
post 4/3057.33.781.

as one can see, however, though there has been significant movement in two of the three cases, babip remains strangely low for all three pitchers even since may began. (babip, for the uninitiated, should be largely independent of skill and league average runs in the low .290s. it should also be noted that the above chart only crudely estimates at-bats in the post-4/30 split from incomplete data and presents a figure variably but about 10 points too low, meaning that a comparable league average would rest in the low .280s.) one can hardly overemphasize the oddity of this condition -- the cubs continue to have three of the eight luckiest pitchers (as measured by babip) in all the national league.

the question now, with an offense that has underperformed expectations to date, is paramount to any small hopes of revival in this season: can it continue?

sadly, it would seem that the odds remain overwhelmingly against any one of the three to continue to pitch with such luck -- much less any two of the three, much less all three. in 2006 just one nl starter threw over 130 innings with such a low babip as hill and marquis have both compiled to date. in 2005, none did. even if some novel technique is at work and not just blind luck, could the results really be expected to continue so as to make hill and marquis easily the two most fortunate pitchers in terms of balls in play in several years?

should the starting pitching finally suffer for that eventual mean reversion while the offense -- now without barrett for the duration and playing the likes of rob bowen and koyie hill, as well as mike fontenot, ryan theriot, felix pie, angel pagan and jacque jones more days than not -- continues to struggle, the cubs may yet have harder days in front of them than any we've so far seen.

the 35-39 cubs face a markedly stronger set of opponents in the next two home series. the colorado rockies are 38-37 on the heels of a 13-8 june and have played .571 baseball since april 30; then comes a three game set against milwaukee that is beyond important if there's to be any improbable change of prospects for this cub team.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Bunt

The Cubs recent lineup changes have brought an element of speed to the team that I can't remember ever seeing with Pie, Fontenot, The Riot and Pagan.

Quite often with these players, situational hitting is usually a prerequisite when they're at the plate, and the bunt can quite often accomplish the desired result.

The bunt can do the job when a player needs to be moved over and with the speed of these players, also provide an opportunity for them to reach base safely as well.

If a player is at 3B with less than two outs, the conventional wisdom is that you need a deep enough fly ball to score him. The bunt however, can accomplish the same thing with these speedsters at the plate, and with just as great of success rate. When the opposition knows that the Cubs will use this ploy aggressively, it will open holes in their defense and provide a greater chance of success for the player to hit safely if he decides to swing away.

The only one of this quartet I've seen demonstrate a real knack for the bunt so far has been Pagan. The rest of this group needs to incorporate the bunt into their arsenal as well. If they're not that proficient at it, then put the extra time in to become so.

Laying down a bunt isn't just the providence of the lame swinging pitcher. Anyone with the speed and lack of power of these four, can help the team and themselves immeasurably by refining this skill.

Friday, June 22, 2007

trend spotting update

last week this page said:

the club has, with this winning bout, forced its run differential macd line into perilously high territory -- currently reading 1.71 -- from which a reversal of trend might be expected at any moment. it would seem, on the basis of this analysis, that the deleriously good times should ebb again imminently.

indeed they did and with alacrity, the cubs dropping four of six since while being outscored 30-20. the moving averages of run differental again negatively converged. such crossovers generally have preceded bouts of poor play of some 10-20 games duration.

from the outset of the year to the cyclical high on game 31, the club went 16-15; from the high to the game 53 low, the club went 6-16; from the low to the high in game 65, they went 8-4; since the high, they have gone 2-4.

in terms of crossover points, the cubs went 16-18 to the negative convergence at game 34; from that convergence to the positive crossover in game 55, they went 8-13; from there to the negative convergence in game 70, 6-7; since then, 0-1.

this page also said:

there is, it seems, a setup of probability for the brewers to re-establish some of their lead -- the most recent period of incremental expansion (may 28 to june 1, games 49-52 for the cubs, where the club lost 2.5 games on the leader) came when milwaukee had already marked its low in macd (on may 27) and began to rebound as the cubs were still finding a bottom (finally on june 2). as the cubs may be finding their top and the brewers appear perhaps not yet to have, a similar event of reversed causation may be in the offing -- but of course such narrow and specific speculations remain highly variable and represent only the very mildest likelihoods.

the brewers have since pushed their lead over the cubs out to a season-high 8.5 games, a three-game expansion. however, with their macd reading having approached an extreme level, a reversal -- though it may not be imminent -- would appear to be nearing.

from the outset to the cyclical high at game 36, the brewers went 25-11; from the high to the low, 3-9; and from the low to today, 13-9.

with reference to crossover points, the brewers went 25-14 to the negative convergence at game 39; from that convergence to the positive crossover in game 60, they went 8-13; since that point, 8-4.

when this writer set out to examine run differential as a potential predictor of trends in play going forward, it was not with the expectation of anything like this sort of regularity. both the cubs and the brewers have developed in a very orderly fashion within the parameters of this analysis to date -- and it is not the expectation here that this will continue to be so. while such periods represent the probabilities that makes this analysis worthwhile, there will also be false signals and periods of only very slight trending that will introduce a great deal of noise.

however, with that caveat in mind, the indicator is perhaps at least demonstrating some usefulness in developing general expectations.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

the black swan

it was scottish titan david hume who gave form to the problem of induction for the duration of this civilization. his masterwork, 'enquiry concerning human understanding', gave the line of reasoning which has concerned all philosophy since and indirectly gave rise to the embrace of irrationality which has been since called romanticism.

Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner (as relations of ideas); nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. That the sun will not rise to-morrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. Were it demonstratively false, it would imply a contradiction, and could never be distinctly conceived by the mind.

hume (and later bertrand russell) thereafter illustrates the weakness of human reason, hopelessly simple and linear in the face of an extremely subtle, complex and nonlinear world in which the seemingly obvious -- that confirmed by a long chain of observations -- does not in the slightest give certainty as to the very next occurence.

as science is becoming aware, people are biologically developed to expect what has been recently experienced and incrementally developed, and are generally incapable of considering correctly the odds and effects of rare and momentous events; we are instead given by nature to reduce the world to a platonic form that our limited brains can more easily comprehend. these biological/emotional biases taint our ability to process information objectively and account for the strange but shattering events that (though we are designed to be oblivious to them) dominate our existences. to make simple sense of complexity, we fabricate and narrate simple causes and effects that impose a perhaps-logically-consistent but backward-looking and incorrect linear progression on events, in order to make them seem as though they occurred with the ordered regularity of a perfect watchwork.

in truth, however, looking forward no event is certain -- all are merely probable. with our ability to imagine the possibilities of the abdication of the probable inadequately constructed, we are left (in the absence of reflection) to persistently underestimate uncommon and undesirable likelihoods and their consequences. karl popper first termed these rare and momentous events black swans -- after the late-17th-century discovery of the australian black swan, prior to which a fascinated european society had never conceived of anything but white swans -- a concept being popularized to some extent by nassim taleb.

when hume's world-shaking treatise (itself a black swan) was first published it was savaged by london critics, who had never been exposed to its like and utterly missed its essential point -- it is, after all, deeply counterintuitive. as if to annote its ubiquity, the biological reaction that compels animals to reduction and conformity didn't exempt hume in spite of his cognitive awareness of his reviewers' errors -- he took sick for weeks.

what has any of this to do with the cubs?, one may reasonably ask. in truth, it seems a very great deal.

many inveterate cub fans, for instance, are dedicated to the idea that the club is a perpetual loser -- that it cannot win a world series, and is not winning for some mechanical reasons of questionable contrivance that will always prevent it from winning. these include but are not limited to the incompetence of ownership (regardless of the owner), the park they play in, the time of day they play, the players they put under contract (regardless of the players), how they treat and/or teach the players (regardless of how they are treated or taught), how they are managed on the field (regardless of the manager), how they are managed off the field, and the fans they play in front of.

please note -- any and all of these conditions do certainly have real effects upon the ability of the club to win a world series. but the tendency among human observers is to radically simplify the complexity of the network of conditions and presume reductive linearity -- ie, "the cubs play too many day games, and so cannot win a world series" -- to such an extent as to invalidate the value of the observation. in truth, one can have no idea how the cubs would behave if they, holding all else constant, played every game in the evening. what little evidence there is (gathered since 1988) indicates that very little has changed with an increasing proportion of night games. that has not prevented a very detailed and loosely-founded narrative from springing up around the concept, which colorfully includes drunken players (observed and unobserved) out until all hours of the morning.

few (and certainly not including this writer) seem well prepared to accept that 98 years of failure may in fact be essentially random, or at least contain a very significant component of chance. fewer still are prepared to accept that many of the detailed plans they are convinced must be executed in order to improve the chances of the club winning a world series are of highly questionable effect. people are physically constructed so as to minimize the role of chance in determining outcomes -- and so they widely do, preferring instead to create an illusion of rational actors performing a sequence of deeds that can and will mechanically surmount all obstacles (ie, "if they just do a, b and c, they'll certainly do well" -- how often it is said!).

of course, one can allow that the acts of people alter the probabilities of certain outcomes over others -- it is not the fact of man's effect on processes and results that is to be questioned, only the proper evaluation looking forward of the value and direction of the possible effect on complex systems, particularly in contraposition to the intended effect. when this page advocated the signing of jason schmidt this offseason, for example, it noted:

schmidt is something of a difficult prospect to assess. he has long been one of the most abused starters in baseball -- ranking top ten in pap every year since 2002 -- and it is difficult not to believe that the wear and tear is compounding the normal ageing of his talent. schmidt's deteriorated velocity has episodically been the talk of san francisco, and of his last four halves of baseball three have been accompanied by whip in excess of 1.42. even if he remains a good pitcher -- one who compiled 45 pitching runs above replacement even in a disappointing 2005 campaign -- this is probably no longer the dominant figure that drove the 2003 giants.

yet in spite of that gloom, it concluded:

there can be little question that even a declining schmidt would be, even if falling short of high expectations, an improvement on what the cubs have heading to the mound today. and there's always the chance that he could experience a continuation of his former glory.

a great many others put quite a lot less circumspection into their view that this. schmidt has since met with something like disaster this season, and had the cubs signed him they may very well be even worse off than today.

was it probable that schmidt would have made the cubs a better team? it certainly appeared so at the time -- very few if any watchers of the cubs were opposed to signing him; those who dismissed the probability did so on specious and narrated grounds other than potential performance, such as, "he won't leave the west coast", or, "he won't sign for the amount of money the cubs would give him". schmidt had compiled five consecutive years of at least 29 starts ending in 2006, during which time he was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball. in spite of evidence of pitcher abuse that, in the revisionist narrative of retrospect, seems to loom very large, schmidt was one of the most sought-after free agents in the game.

and he was so in part because human beings have great difficulty properly appreciating the nonlinearity of injury probability -- we cannot account for the black swan, that which has not been observed, even when erudition and cognition tell us that the probability of a rare but disastrous event is higher than normal thanks to measurable conditions. it is in fact much more likely that we construct a flimsy narrative to dismiss the warning flags of cognition in order to "go with our gut" and "act on common sense" -- which generally consists of projecting with too great a degree of certainty an inherently unstable and tenuous status quo.

the most obvious and pressing situation to which this applies to the cubs today is carlos zambrano -- who, not dissimilarly to the 2006 version of jason schmidt, is one of the very best pitchers in the game over the previous five years but who is also, cognition warns us, at elevated risk as gauged by measures of pitcher abuse.

this page has at times unwittingly mischaracterized the consequences of pitcher abuse as something cumulative, piling up linearly in accordance with pitcher abuse points and so forth. it has noted possible onset injuries and periods of reduced performance as potential warnings. as valid as such observations may or may not have been, this is, it should be seen, a reduction of the black swan -- the more difficult truth is that a pitcher like schmidt or zambrano may remained uninjured to the very moment of disaster in spite of years of concerning readings. there may be no damage in his arm whatsoever, in spite of mechanical changes that, however real and actual, amount to a confirmation of previously held opinion selected with bias.

a black swan need offer no such solace as accumulated damage. to borrow an analogy from taleb, much as with a turkey being fattened for thanksgiving day, everything may (from the perspective of the turkey) appear utterly benevolent and even better than could be expected -- all this extra food! -- until the holiday arrives. in this case, it is worse -- we don't know on which day the holiday falls. the appointment will be random. indeed, it may never come.

that doesn't, of course, invalidate the results of cognition. zambrano is at elevated risk, and will remain so for at least as long as he continues to top charts of pitcher stress. we can infer that the black swan of career discontinuity is probably nearer him than to many others, perhaps most any other. and if it strikes, all the narrative fallacies that have arisen around zambrano to excuse ourselves from the results of cognition -- that he is a superman, that he is more strongly constructed than other pitchers, that he is lucky, that he is a special case, that pitcher abuse as a concept isn't real -- will be exposed for what they are. and if it does not strike, zambrano will become an anecdotal example incorrectly used to justify continued ignorance and defiance of difficult probabilities.

this page can have no idea of when or even if zambrano's day of reckoning will arrive within his career. all it can know is that, speaking probabilistically, he is in greater danger than he may at first appear to be to human beings working under presumptions of reductive linear narratives -- and that that greater probability should inform the club as the trading deadline approaches and decisions have to be made about zambrano's future with the team.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

sammy's 600th sinks cubs

that lead isn't really correct, dear reader -- the cubs were already down 4-1 in the fifth when jason marquis lobbed the pitch that sammy sosa catapulted into the right-center texas bullpen to join hank aaron, babe ruth, willie mays and barry bonds in the six-hundred-home-run club. with three early cub errors defining what appeared a listless effort in the aftermath of the michael barrett trade, with a lineup that suddenly looks shockingly weak, there didn't seem a lot of reason to think the game wasn't already pretty much over. and, as subsequent events demonstrated, it was.

and from a different perspective, the cubs were sunk as long ago as april 24.

but the irony is simply too rich to pass over. the man who tribco made the drones hate in order to try to wear the white hat in dumping him for nothing (and paying for the privilege) exacted a very small slice of retribution the right way -- adding the indignity of allowing a historic shot to the still-productive former centerpiece of the franchise to the embarrassment of crashing jim hendry's faux-$300mm experiment back into the morbid mire at a season-high eight games back of the division-leading (and streaking) milwaukee brewers.

the disillusionment of the more slavish quarters of the fan base must surely have been accelerated by seeing lou piniella -- having shipped barrett and with aramis ramirez losing time to patellar tendonitis -- reduced to fielding an american league lineup that in spite of the designated hitter featured sprightly mike fontenot batting fifth. this manner of offense figures to continue longer than anyone would like even if ramirez comes off the disabled list as hoped later this week -- derrek lee's suspension looms, and new-boy rob bowen isn't likely to make anyone forget barrett at the plate.

further contributing to the sour state of affairs is jason marquis, whose merciless mean reversion continued apace alongside those of ted lilly, rich hill and ryan dempster from the luck-enriched early season successes which apparently fooled a great many into believing that the 2007 cubs were good in spite of the available context which illustrated the ephemeral nature of such episodes. it seems here bizarre, dear reader, that some still cling to delusions of a turnaround based on little but that first three weeks' babip-derived strangeness -- in the seven weeks since april 30, the cubs have scored 203 and allowed 206, and appropriately enough have gone 22-24. there's no run differential savior in that, and the team has not been cheated.

the club sometimes seems to understand better than its fans the dire straits it is in, and have rearranged the pieces frenetically in an effort to find a combination that would put some lipstick on this pig. but it would seem here that, at most draws from the deck, the cubs have succeeded only in treading water. cesar izturis is benched and appropriately -- but is ryan theriot's 263/323/333 really any improvement? matt murton is in iowa and it is no travesty, but is felix pie's 246/287/404 a material gain? jacque jones continues to justify this page's every criticism of his signing, but can mike fontenot really be expected to be his better over any significant sample size? and now exchanging barrett for bowen, who is precious little better defensively and cannot hit half as well... it seems to this writer that the one clear gain has been losing wade miller from the rotation in favor of angel guzman and sean marshall.

the benefit of these moves, dear reader, is mostly in the quiet revolution they represent. as was pointed out by local shaman ccd, there is a youth movement underway much the same as 2006's accidental version. but it very probably means nothing good for this year.

july 31 is fast approaching, and this club -- having done essentially what this page thought it would in the offseason in spite of the utter and demonstrable foolishness of a halfhearted one-year turnaround -- has another opportunity to demonstrate that it might have learned something from its folly. trading four months of barrett yields little and that is no surprise; jacque cannot be moved for a bag of balls and we are not at all shocked. but in derrek lee, jason marquis, ted lilly, alfonso soriano, aramis ramirez and carlos zambrano, the cubs have assets of varying quality under contract at varying terms, some of whom might fetch the kind of bounty that could inject real promise into the farm system -- if only the front office is both free to and (finally) sees the wisdom of arbitraging service time and using player-development risk as leverage in an effort to build a winner from the ground up.

this group of players is what you see -- a .500-or-slightly-less baseball team that is going to get a lot more expensive in the next two years and which no cub fan should miss when it is gone. watching it get old after jim hendry is fired will not be any more pleasant than 2007 has been. breaking it up, on the other hand, may offer some real hope for a better future in which a young core of high-ceiling talent under controlled contracts can be augmented by a few tailor-fit free agents.

Selling low: Barrett dealt

Well, according to ESPN's Buster Olney the Chicago Cubs have traded catcher Michael Barrett to the Padres for well...we're not really sure yet.

It wasn't immediately known what the Cubs will receive in return from San Diego for Barrett, who has made headlines this season for arguing with Cubs pitchers in the dugout on two occasions this month and struggling on defense at times this season.

Al over at BCB has Rob Bowen coming in return. Bowen is a 26 year old switch hitting catcher who has been the backup to Josh Bard this season.

More to come...

UPDATE 9:15 -- Al is right. It will be Bowen. Olney completes the report:

In return the Cubs will receive backup catcher Rob Bowen, a minor league pitcher and cash considerations, Olney reported.

So, the Michael Barrett era at Clark and Addison has ended. Looks like for the time being, Rob Bowen and Koyie Hill will be the Cubs backstops. Sounds like the rumors about the pitchers not liking Barrett had merit.

UPDATE 9:45 -- It is easy to look at this deal and say that Hendry didn't get much for one of the better hitting catchers in the league. The facts are the facts though, and after the last few weeks all of Michael Barrett's inefficiencies were out there in full view for all. The Cubs were not going to get much for Barrett after the incidents of the past few weeks. It is apparent to me the Piniella and his staff went to Hendry and told him the team would be better without Barrett. Maybe we should congratulate JH for getting anything for Barrett at the low point in his Cub career.

UPDATE 10:10 -- Hopefully this will be the last update on this fast developing story. According to the Union-Tribune the minor league pitcher that Olney had completing the deal is not a pitcher but a minor league outfielder. Low-A player Kyler Burke.

Burke, drafted 35th overall, was batting .211 with one home run in 213 at-bats with the Padres' low-A team in Fort Wayne.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

evaluating the brewers: the conditions of a rational hope

a few days ago this page noted:

there is, it seems, a setup of probability for the brewers to re-establish some of their lead -- the most recent period of incremental expansion (may 28 to june 1, games 49-52 for the cubs, where the club lost 2.5 games on the leader) came when milwaukee had already marked its low in macd (on may 27) and began to rebound as the cubs were still finding a bottom (finally on june 2). as the cubs may be finding their top and the brewers appear perhaps not yet to have, a similar event of reversed causation may be in the offing -- but of course such narrow and specific speculations remain highly variable and represent only the very mildest likelihoods.

this writer has been alternately satisfied and disconcerted at the verity of the outcome as, in the four days since, both the chicago cubs and milwaukee brewers have done exactly what the probability of trends would have suggested. the brewers have won three of four, narrowly missing a road sweep of minnesota and defeating the giants at home last night. the cubs, on the other hand, lost two of three to san diego amid a fracas. the result has been to see the lead of the division leader pushed back out to seven games -- just one game shy of the season highwatermark -- reinforcing once again, in the face of widespread popular disbelief, just how very difficult and rare it really is to close such a gap.

part of the reason for that disbelief, if this writer may take time to speculate, seems to be a hangover of expectation regarding this milwaukee club. it is one of humanity's inveterate failings to consistently project the shallowest lessons of the most recent past into the future, and given the performance of milwaukee clubs of recent vintage -- no brewer club has broken .500 since 1992 -- a willingness to disbelieve out of an irrational biased hope for the cubs finds a teasing but invalid confirmation in a reduction of history. but history shows more than just how bad the brewers have been.

many took a 2006 second half -- in which milwaukee went 31-41 -- as reason to disallow projections of their rising quality as misguided. lyle overbay had been moved to open a spot for prince fielder at first, and a final two months of 235/345/444 were enough to encourage eager skeptics. when carlos lee was traded away midseason for platoon-worthy kevin mench and closer francisco cordero, many took it as signal that small market financial limitations would do the club in -- particularly as 24-year-old corey hart foundered to a .316 obp in the aftermath of the trade. ben sheets continued to recover from the effects of 2005 soft tissue injuries early in the year, and his brilliant second-half run went unnoticed by many.

the offseason saw more changes made. centerfielder brady clark was moved to open space in the infield by transferring bill hall to the outfield, and 24-year-old j.j. hardy -- who had struggled through an injury-marred 2006 campaign -- was given free rein at shortstop. journeyman starter jeff suppan was secured to replace davis in the rotation. catcher johnny estrada was brought in to replace the ageing damian miller by trading control-plagued starter doug davis and prospect dana eveland. the few cub fans who considered these changes at all commonly dismissed them as they drooled over alfonso soriano and ted lilly.

but the season to date has revealed the potential of these moves in combination. fielder, now 23, has begun to realize his massive potential, clouting 26 homers while compiling a 289/373/643 line. the 25-year-old hart has as well, going 299/379/515 with 8 hr and 12 stolen bases. hardy has shocked many (including yours truly) by translating power that developed late in his minor league career to the majors, clouting 17 home runs in 280 at-bats and posting a 282/333/507 line. sheets has re-emerged as the staff ace, notching a 3.31 era.

this is not to make the brewers out to be a juggernaut -- they aren't. defense is a problem. while the bullpen -- particularly cordero and 23-year-old future starter carlos villanueva -- is certainly good, it is volatile; the starting staff -- suppan, dave bush, chris capuano -- have underperformed expectations, though babip is a culprit of varying degree in all three cases. the club is 3rd in the league in offensive run rate at .124 per plate appearance, but 7th in run rate allowed at .117. still, these are massive strides on even a year ago, when the club placed 10th in run rate scored and 15th in run rate allowed.

many continuing skeptics will wonder how sustainable this performance is. hardy, for example -- how likely is he to hit 35 home runs? can fielder really slug .600? how of claudio vargas and his 3.86 era?

this page wouldn't argue that every individual trend will continue -- but it will argue that, as a team, the brewers are also likely to get improved performances from other players even as the early stars cool off. dave bush and bill hall are particularly notable candidates among the veterans.

but the most compelling two reasons to suspect continued or even increased quality from the brewers are their midseason additions. 23-year old third baseman ryan braun was probably the best overall hitter in the minor leagues in 2007 before he joined the big club on may 25, going 342/418/701 in the pcl. he has since posted a line of 295/333/523 in his first 96 plate appearances while hitting largely third in the order. in replacing a third-base-by-inept-committee situation that saw craig counsell and tony graffanino split time there, braun has markedly improved the brewer offense.

the second reason made his major league debut last night. since tim lincecum was called up to the giants, 21-year-old yovani gallardo has been the most dominating pitcher in the minors, laying waste to the pcl by fanning 110, walking just 28 and giving up 53 hits in 77.2 innings. he was impressive against san francisco as well, particularly following a jittery first inning, cruising from the second to the seventh when he began to tire and was lifted at 102 pitches.

rookies are rookies, and it has to be the hope that both braun and gallardo struggle to adjust to their new roles at the center of a major-league club. but these are very special prospects that milwaukee has called on, with finer skills and higher ceilings than any to emerge from the cub system to play for the home team in a very long time. if they both make the transition smoothly -- as braun seems already to be doing -- milwaukee goes from being an club equal to or perhaps slightly better than the cubs (a club that, after all, put up this persistent lead) to a team that is simply better and which may well pull away. given how little ability the cubs have shown to date to catch up with the unimproved brewers, how is one to evaluate their chances are catching the new-and-improved version?

so for cub fans everywhere who hold out more hope than this page, it seems here that it has become imperative to see a collection of coincidental events:

all of these events have associated probabilities, some large and some small, but the conditional probability of hitting them all is of course quite minimal -- which is the basis of this page's continuing pessimism. nonetheless, it seems to this writer that these conditions are the near-minimum (not accounting for the possibility of a string of injuries afflicting the brewers, an event equally as likely to hit the cubs). let that be the basis of a rational hope, if one can be found.

Monday, June 18, 2007

barbarity and mismanagement

another tumultuous weekend in wrigley has yielded unfortunate results, with the home club dropping two of three to san diego. it is hard to know whether it was the absence of aramis ramirez or the particularly effective pitching of the opposition, or both or neither, but the cubs have since june 6 plated just 40 runs in eleven games (3.64 rs/g). going 6-5 in that stretch is an accomplishment of the pitching staff, which has allowed 41 -- including the 11 runs bunched into yesterday's mauling. there is as yet no announced timetable for ramirez's return, though he is eligible to return june 23.

his return was this weekend made all the more imperative by the actions of derrek lee, who has ensured himself a suspension with his regrettably primal reaction to a high fastball from chris young. a depressingly limitless and thoughtless support has echoed from almost every vile corner of cubdom for lee's barbarous failing of self-discipline, which will deprive the club of the services of one of its two most important hitters (the other being ramirez) for a period probably approaching ten games once the edict of the commissioner's office is handed down and all appeals are settled. for a player whose club can tolerate a margin of error in this season of nearly zero if any at all, this constitutes a serious lapse in judgment which -- in putting animal emotion over considered reason and personal vanity before collective obligation -- reaffirms in its way the ongoing decline of civilized sport.

maybe it is fantasy to expect an example of civilization from the kind of sick cult of the primal that infects the sport of the postmodern west, which has fallen so far from its religious and courtly chivalric roots. indeed, the spectacular collapse into the demotic and mean since even edwardian times allows for little optimism. but lee's actions deserve condemnation and correction all the more for it, and not the assurance and abeyance that has sadly greeted them. anything less than vilification amounts to an implicit statement that social violence is in some manner sanctioned.

if and when that has become true, this society -- not just the sport, but the society of which it is a mirror -- has become even more dismal a degradation than this writer considers it. it is difficult and horrifying enough to comprehend the gradual but perverse rise of the death cult in the third generation of sport in versions primitive and mechanized without quietly tolerating it backing and filling in the first (ie, soccer, baseball, college football and tennis) and second (ie, pro football, basketball and hockey) generations of sport-as-entertainment. this writer sees the second-generation sports to have already been lost to the fray within the last twenty years. when baseball -- whose decay is already marked and unnerving -- also finally and fully acquiesces, yours truly will quit with sport entirely. football as it is isn't fit for dogs, in the opinion hereabouts; when baseball too gives it up for blood and vanity, there's nothing in it sufficiently redeeming to merit continued interest.

as far as the cubs themselves go, however, the incident and losses should not completely obscure the excellent start proffered by carlos zambrano on saturday. this page has been following zambrano's travails closely, and would be remiss not to note that -- though his mechanics still look different from previous years along the lines analyzed by carlos gomez -- the differences are not as pronounced as earlier this season. the adjustment has perhaps been minor, but the results are indisputable.

lou piniella, however, did as much as he could to ruin the day. zambrano completed the seventh at 107 pitches on the day, with a hit allowed in a scoreless game and due up third in the inning. this is the point where responsible management -- beyond even concern for injury, simply out of a desire to keep zambrano fresh for the second half or merely knowing that beyond his 90th pitch zambrano is a much less effective pitcher with a 2007 line of 18 ip, 23 h, 11 bb and an 8.00 era -- would have lifted him. piniella, however, let him hit for himself -- and when after getting three more outs zambrano was relieved, it was with 123 pitches thrown and under the cloud of a russell branyan home run and a 1-0 deficit which proved to be the final line. zambrano currently leads baseball in stress, pitches per game, pitcher abuse points and catagory-4 starts -- unquestionably the hardest-ridden starter in the game. such continuing usage does not make injury inevitable -- but it surely does make it more probable, and every warning sign should continue to be treated with the utmost concern for his well-being. piniella is using zambrano carelessly and much harder than he has to.

in any case, with the milwaukee brewers having very nearly swept the minnesota twins over the weekend, the cubs fell back once again to 6.5 games out, a possibility anticipated previously. the cubs today enjoy their first off day since may 21, while superprospect yovani gallardo makes his first major league start for the brewers against the visiting giants and noah lowry.