Saturday, September 26, 2009

This Year's Rays

So in the quick season predictions piece I put together in March, I dealt with the media fascination of which team would be this year's Rays, going from nowhere to contention. I said that no one would fill that role this year, and in one sense I was correct. But not in the sense of there not being a 'This year's Rays'. Because what the Rays really did was go from last to first by improving their defense, providing a blueprint that three teams have followed this year. And while none of those teams have had as large a turnaround as the Rays did last year, all three can make a case to be the Rays of this year (Please note that the Royals, preseason expert consensus to fill the Devil-free shoes this year, will not be appearing in this article except to note that Dayton Moore is a terrible General Manager who must have incriminating pictures of the team owner that he used to get his four-year extension. Or ownership is for some reason trying to lose games. Either/or).

In 2007 the Devil Rays were dreadful, both in the standings and with the glove(s), finishing in the AL East basement with a record of 66-96, and allowing 57.7 more runs than an average defensive team, worst in the league by a full 9.6 runs (All defensive data is UZR from Fangraphs, which is scaled to the simplest possible figure: +runs (Runs saved) and -runs (Runs allowed)). Then in 2008, the Rays suddenly jumped to +74.2 defensive runs as a team, best in the majors. How did they do this? It was surprisingly simple. They mostly moved their existing players around the diamond until they found a part where each was good, or at the least serviceable (Aiding this adjustment was the fact that many of the Rays' players were young and athletic, making positional transitions easier). BJ Upton was an absolute butcher in the infield, so he was shuffled to centerfield, where he was worth +10.3 runs in 2008 (To give you an idea of how good that is, playing Upton in center would completely cancel out playing (post-hip replacement) Mike Lowell at third, no easy task). Akinori Iwamura moved from third to second, and super-prospect Evan Longoria replaced him. Delmon Young and his impressive brand of butchery were exiled to Minnesota, replaced by Gabe Gross (+11.4). Carl Crawford rebounded from a poor 2007 to do that thing he does (+19.6). Essentially working with parts they already had, the Rays allowed 129.9 fewer runs in 2008 than in 2007 simply by improving their defense. So who made a similar leap this year? Three teams.

Firstly, we have the Detroit Tigers. They've gone from -39.1 to +44.0 over the course of one season by moving Brandon Inge to third (Where he excels to the tune of +9.6), getting Carlos Guillen out of the infield (And Guillen was hurt for quite a while this year, replaced by Josh Anderson in the outfield. Anderson hits worse than I do, but he's a great fielder), and replacing the corpse of Edgar Renteria with Adam Everett at shortstop. Add in that they played Magglio Ordonez less in right than in previous years and that Miguel Cabrera has proved surprisingly competent at first base and you have another last to first story, albeit a less dramatic one.

The Texas Rangers are the team that has gotten the most praise and press this year for revamping the defense, probably because they went about this in the most visible way of these three teams. The Rangers moved incumbent Gold Glove shortstop off the position to the less-demanding third base this offseason to make way for slick-fielding freshman Elvis Andrus. Young fought the move at first, leading to a good amount of ink spent on the issue. But eventually he relented, and the move has indisputably helped the team. The Rangers have gone from -51.7 in 2008 (Worst in the majors) to +33.0 (6th). A lot of this turnaround can be attributed directly to Young and Andrus. In 2008 the Rangers 3B position was an absolute revolving door, with the common link between all the men trotted out being putrid defense. Five men combined to cost the team 26.5 runs, far worse than even Manny Ramirez has managed in a single season. This year Young has improved the position from historically bad to merely bad, as he has staunched the bleeding to an extent by only being 7.5 runs worse than average. Meanwhile, Andrus has taken over for Young at short admirably, upping Young's -5.6 runs in 2008 to a Gold Glove-consideration-worthy +8.2 this year (See, Young's Gold Glove last year was silly and wrong. He didn't make errors primarily because he had no range, preventing him from, you know, fielding baseballs. We call it Derek Jeter Syndrome in these parts. Though Jason Bay Syndrome would also be appropriate and accurate). Josh Hamilton has been hurt, sparing the team a repeat of last year's version of centerfield butchery, Hank Blalock has been permanently DH'd to reduce the risk of injury to both himself and fans in the front rows, and statuesque wind turbine Chris Davis has been sent to first base under strict orders to not move anywhere else for the good of the team. The result? A surprising playoff contender.

But the most dramatic turnaround has been that of the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners fired the clueless Bill Bavasi after last-year's team became the first-ever 100-100 club ($100 million payroll, 100 losses), and replaced him with Jack Zduriencik to clean up the mess Bavasi left behind. And the early returns are beyond good. The Mariners have gone from a poor (Though not putrid) -20.9 runs last year to this year's league-leading figure of +76.2 runs. Yes, +76.2. That is a full 33% better than the second-best team in baseball (The Rays), an amazing margin. The key to this was the 17-team, 180,000 player deal between the Mariners, Nets and Indians which netted the M's both Endy 'Gold Glove' Chavez and, more importantly, The Big FraGu (Franklin Gutierrez). Chavez took over for the departed Raul Ibanez and his glove of -18 putrification, saving a quick 18 runs at the position before he suffered a season-ending injury. Ichiro slid back to RF from CF, replacing 'cast' there with his usual brand of steady D (+8.4). But most important is the man in centerfield. Gutierrez this year has been worth +24.7 runs, an amazing number that can essentially be read as 'Willie Mays in his prime' (Random Mays aside, apropos of nothing, from Bill James: "Catching Willie Mays in a rundown is like trying to assassinate a squirrel with a lawnmower.") Based on last year's free agent contracts, Gutierrez's defense alone has been worth $11.25 million to the Mariners this year, before you factor in his offense or position. He even managed to make Jarrod Washburn look competent for half a season. So, yeah. Nice trade. Then there's the infield, which is merely good rather than spectaular (Exiling Yuniesky Betancourt, a.k.a. The Worst Player in Major League Baseball, to KC helps a lot, as well as Adrian Beltre finally not being injured (Beltre's defense is awesome. He is not at all overpaid, as many media members like to claim)). Put them together and you have the best defensive team in the majors, and it's not even close.

So there it is, this year's Rays, as well as a bit on the value of defense, something that the Red Sox front office is hopefully paying close attention to (As the season has gone on, the Sox D has improved. They are now merely bad, as opposed to awful, which they were for the first three months of the year). And while none of these teams underwent as impressive a turnaround as the Rays did over the course of a single season, the fact that their General Managers seem to recognize both the value of defense and how to build around it bodes well for their respective futures, all of which look much brighter than they did a mere twelve months ago.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Blatant Space-Filler

So I have places to be this morning. Maybe I'll get a ridiculously long evaluation of the value of defense in later. Until then, here's a wonderful internet phenomenon that I found late, Auto Tune the News. Auto Tune is a program used to fix the vocal melodies of people like myself and Ashlee Simpson who can't actually sing, but look pretty while trying. When over-applied, it makes people sound rather robotic. But after years of it being used solely for this, some snide Brooklynites have discovered its true calling: Turning the nightly news into a music video. And it is wonderful. the sixth one is below (It's from a while ago, if you're wondering why the news in question isn't current). For any sensitive viewers out there, this video does feature some mild language from representative John Boener, R-OH. Party of family values my rear end. If this interests you, I also strongly recommend #5. It features a C-Span debate on the drawbacks of smoking lettuce.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oh No

Go here. Listen to the audio samples. That is all.

Update - Amazon appears to have pulled the audio samples, probably in response to reports of consumers bleeding from the ears. The album in question is entitled "Christmas in the Heart," and it is an album of traditional Christmas songs performed by Bob Dylan. If I can find samples anywhere, I'll let you know. Because I had to suffer, so everyone else should too.

Update part deux - TwentyFourBit has them all combined into a simply incredible seven and a half minutes. Click here for it, then hate me in the comments.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Anna Karenina

Is it possible for a book that has been roundly canonized to possibly live up to the hype? Of course it is, but it's not an easy task. When one opens a book expecting sheer brilliance, any missteps will doom the book, even if it remains excellent, solely because it makes the expected perfection unattainable. Fair? No, absolutely not. But this is just how it goes, living under the crushing weight of expectations. Perhaps this is why Tolstoy made all his novels 1,000,000 pages long. Some things are harder to crush than others.

So let's get this out of the way at the beginning: I have now read both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and at this point I feel safe concluding that I am a Dostoevsky man. Each of his novels seems to be sculpted to address a single topic, an extended musing on philosophical and cosmological minutiae told through half-crazed Russians who seem to passionately exclaim about 2/3 of everything they think. Tolstoy, on the other hand, moves at a glacial pace, seemingly attempting to show life in his novels, without any overt statements on the, or possibly even a, subject (The exceptions seem to be any time a character has a religious epiphany, at which times Tolstoy can be overly preachy). This novel took me a long time to wade through (And there were multiple detours into other books in the middle), as what Tolstoy does seems to be specifically designed to not grab one's attention. The cast is an ensemble, some of whom will likely appeal to everyone out there, while likely everyone will also be left cold by a character or two. Unfortunately for me, one of these doubles as the title.

I have nothing against Anna especially, but just have no sympathy for her. See, when she makes the decision to leave her husband (By the way, she leaves her husband for her lover) she knows exactly what this means for her. She knows how society will view her actions, and what their response will be. She knows she will not be allowed to keep her child. Yet she does it. The fact that later she struggles with the consequences does not excuse her from guilt, as she knew what would happen when she made her choice. The events that lead to her death (She dies too) are caused solely by herself flipping out completely. She essentially loses her mind with jealousy (Despite the fact that there is no evidence he is cheating on her. In one memorable scene she yells at him because he smiled at a delivery girl bringing him a package from a relative. She is nuts), and does everything she can to drive away the man most dear to her. When she kills herself, it's a relief. While I'm sure it's supposed to be a sad moment, I'm just left glad I don't have to deal with the crazy woman anymore. She chose everything that happens to her. Just because she couldn't take it doesn't make her sympathetic.

One thing I will give Tolstoy is that he does wonderful death scenes. Normally I don't care for these all that much in the mediums I feel traditionally revere them (Film and theater). I generally find myself wishing someone would hit the dying individual over the head with whichever blunt object is nearest so that they will finally die and we can move on. But Tolstoy does these well. Anna's death is wonderfully written, and the only chapter in the book with a title ('Death,' occurring much earlier) is also well done, if not quite as brief or powerful. This gibes with War and Peace, in which the death of Prince Andrey is one of the most memorable images I have ever read (It involves a dream and a door). It is in moments such as the spiritual revelation of Levin that Tolstoy struggles to express himself without getting on a soapbox (See: "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"), and that moment mars the end of Anna Karenina significantly. It is as bad as all this may make it seem? Absolutely not. But Tolstoy's love of a glacially-plotted affair leaves me a bit cold, wishing I could hear a little less about the formal rules of Russian societal interactions and a little more about, well, pretty much anything else (Except English societal affairs, thank you very much Jane Austen). Tolstoy's novels are almost ridiculously ambitious and overstuffed, yet nothing really happens. He lays out a great mass of humanity, but never answers the question of why. In the end, I find myself left with some questions and the feeling that I spent my time well solely due to tackling a classic, even if I didn't enjoy all of it, but I would be hard-pressed to tell another that the book is worth the time it takes to read it. In my memories, it is similar to Thomas Pynchon (Oddly enough), in that I don't have much of an image of a whole picture, but rather some minor scenes that have stuck with me. Which is enough for me to make it an enjoyable read, but not what I had hoped for before I began, or what the general acclaim would lead one to expect.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Crossing Over

I am willing to bet that most of you out there have never heard of the film Crossing Over. And that is okay. Really, it is. Your ignorance allows me to point at you and laugh derisively, which is an opportunity my ego appreciates. But enough small talk about your personal inadequacies. Let's get back to the movie by playing a strange sort of guessing game. In it, you will have to try to guess the quality of this film based on the fact that no one in the world has ever heard of it as I give you a list of true statements about the movie. Ready? Let's do this.

1. It stars Harrison Ford.

2. It co-stars Ashley Judd and Ray Liotta.

3. It was produced by the Weinsteins.

4. It was released THIS YEAR.

5. There really isn't a 5. That should be enough.

Okay. So, taking all those things into consideration, how bad do you think the movie would have to be for no one in the world to have ever heard of it, and the people involved in its production to have already forgotten about the entire experience, possibly due to some Eternal Sunshine-esque brainwashing experiment? Oh no. It is far worse than that.

Crossing Over aspires to follow in the footsteps of Crash, offering an honest take on a subject that is difficult to have a discussion about in our society (Racism in the case of Crash, immigration in this film). But it fails in this. Crash was a good movie, probably not Oscar-worthy, but a quality film. It had many central characters whose stories intertwined as the movie progressed, rather than the traditional, front and center Main Character. These people were fleshed out as the movie went on through a time-honored art of writing called characterization, a long-standing tradition evidently unfamiliar to those responsible for Crossing Over. This made them actual people about whom it was possible to care, getting the viewer interested and invested in the film. Crossing Over is what would happen if you took the script for Crash, translated it into Portugese using only Babelfish, then translated it back and made the movie without changing a thing. The people we see on-screen all are shockingly revealed, as the film goes on, to be exactly what they seemed to be upon first glance. Out of 8 or so main characters, only one of them even experiences something that could be viewed as a moment of doubt. I am not in the mood to be charitable to this steaming pile of script, so I will not give it that nicety.

Let's do some character studies. Harrison Ford, for example. He appears almost immediately in the film, and is quickly revealed to be The Good Cop, in the most stereotypical fashion possible. That is it. As the movie goes on, he never has an internal struggle. He is an amalgam of the Good Cops that have previously graced the screen, completely devoid of life. How about Ashley Judd? She works for the Department of Justice or Immigration or Something as an attorney for those oppressed by the cold-hearted US Government. As such, she has a heart of gold. Nothing changes this. At the end of the movie, her husband is arrested pretty much in front of her. She stares at the camera for about a second, then proceeds to continue adopting the underprivileged child she was already in the process of adopting, and never addresses the subject of the husband. How about the husband? From his initial appearance, he is clearly sleazy. He continues to be sleazy in the exact same unchanging manner throughout the remainder of the movie, even when presented with a clear emotional conflict by another character. At this moment of confrontation, what happens? He leaves the room, and nothing changes. These are not people. They are terribly artificial constructs of a scriptwriter clearly incapable of operating on an emotional level higher than that of a kindergardner. Any time the film wants to try to get the viewer invested in the movie, it simply has the Big Bad US Government tear apart another poor immigrant family. Unfortunately for the immigrants, their characters are as flat as a piece of paper from the script they were working from, and therefore are impossible to care about. Crash was the student in class who wasn't the brightest, but always tried really hard, so the teachers gave it good grades. Crossing Over wears a helmet to protect itself, and isn't allowed near sharp objects.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wait, What Did They Just Say?

If I may return to pop music for a minute (I know the month is over. I just don't care), I'd like to discuss the song "Don't Trust Me" by the band 3oh!3 (I swear to God, Google says that is the band's name. I will judge them a bit based on that alone. In a negative way). This is getting quite a bit of airplay on the corporate pop behemoths that bestraddle this continent, owing allegiance only to ClearChannel and the almighty dollar. It features a laughable/terrible intro, featuring some low synths and a series of godawful lyrics sung at least 85 decibels louder than they merit. Let's ignore them completely. The song then goes into a fairly catchy chorus featuring the singer adopting a falsetto while the rest of the band goes for your basic four on the floor dance-rock beat. But this is just the first half of the chorus. Here, in full as played on the radio, are the lyrics for the second half. Breaks between lines are the band's, not mine.

Don't trust a
Never trust a
Don't trust a
Don't trust me

Those of you paying attention may have noticed that those are not, technically, complete sentences. Or even sentence fragments. With the beat of the song, if the radio is censoring a word there, that word is one syllable long. So here's a fun game you can play at home if you like: What one-syllable word that would require censoring would fit there? Google lyric searches are cheating. I have spent way more time than is healthy thinking about this, and haven't come up with anything that makes a lick of sense yet, so I am just about ready to conclude that the band got distracted in the middle of the songwriting process (Possibly by a shiny object) and forgot to finish writing the song itself. Somehow this did not hurt its (The song's) marketability. I suspect cash factors into this somehow.

But anyway, this is not even the most unfortunate part of the song. After we go verse/chorus/verse/chorus, per time-honored tradition, it is time for the bridge. Here now are the bridge lyrics, sung by what sounds like the collective extended family of the entire band, over solely a drumbeat (Yes, all the music is dropped to better allow us to focus on the poetry at hand):

Shoosh (sp? Shush? Shhhhhhhh?) girl/Shut your lips
Do the Hellen Keller/And talk with your hips

Now, I don't feel I'm usually one to get my knickers in a twist (At least not seriously. It's kinda fun if I'm joking about it), but isn't this actually offensive? I liked the Official Girlfriend's take on it, "I must have missed that part of The Miracle Worker'." It might have made that movie more interesting, I'll give it that. I guess it's what the kids are listening to these days, and the children are our future. So, as always, that is why I hope to die young.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Great Moments in Rock: Christianity Is Stupid

Back in the dark days before digital editing software was so ubiquitous that your grandmother could use it (Mine has her own experimental techno band), Negativland took care of tape manipulation so that you didn't have to. And you never even thanked them. The band released their first album in 1980, and over the course of two more developed a distinctive sound featuring live instrumentation, genre-hopping, and both narration and found sound as the frequent vocal tracks. A good amount of sampling was also involved, and as often is the case, this got the band embroiled in some copyright lawsuits. But that is a story for a different song, a story which I will probably write sometime and post here, even though the band has already written a 270-page book about the subject (Mine will filter the actual event through my uninformed knowledge of the event, so that should be fun and/or unique and wrong). On Negativland's 4th album Escape From Noise, released in 1987, they moved from their own Seeland records to punk label SST, and for the first time found themselves having to deal with the demands of someone other than themselves. And one of these demands involved touring. As a primarily studio-oriented concept, this was something they had never got that heavily into during their formative years, and advance ticket sales looked as though the band members would each be losing a significant amount of money on the label-mandated tour. So what to do? Well, why not take credit for a murder?

This was in the 80's, the time of strange haircuts, regrettable fashion choices, and the Senate porn rock hearings. Two years earlier Judas Priest had been accused of causing two boys to commit suicide through masked messages in their music. Tipper Gore was using her authority to order Steve Dallas' decapitation. And so Negativland did what any group of trendy musicians would do and jumped on the bandwagon. When David Brom killed his family with an axe, they issued a press release stating that the FBI (Specifically agent Dick Jordan) had asked them not to leave town due to their song "Christianity Is Stupid" being involved in the murder investigation. Jordan did not, technically, exist, but this did not stop the media from jumping all over the story. But before we get to that, let's talk about the song for a minute.

As propagandists everywhere know, quotes and audio clips can be taken out of context to make almost anyone say almost anything. So in this spirit, Negativland took a sample from a 1971 Christian film entitled "If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?" as the centerpiece of Christianity is Stupid. Over an industrial-metal beat and guitar line, the song features a repeated vocal sample from the film of a man announcing "Christianity is stupid. Communism is good. Give up." Intended, as many Negativland creations are, as a joke with a point, the band claimed that Brom had been arguing with his Christian parents over the song on the night of the murder. Once the media ran with it, the band fueled the fires as much as they could, in the simplest way possible: By announcing that their attorney, Hal Stakke (Who also did not exist), had advised them not to make any comments. However, they were not ignoring the media completely. No, while the media worked itself into a fine lather, Negativland were recording them. The follow-up EP, Helter Stupid, broke down the media coverage of the fake controversy in often-hilarious fashion (All the other stories the media jumps to are about serial killers as well, and when Rolling Stone calls to ask about the murders, they are answered only by someone repeatedly shouting "Now it begins!" into the telephone as they ask about possible backwards masking in the song). The end result? Negativland got a funny story to tell, and didn't have to tour. And in the end, the media proved to be far stupider than Christianity.