Friday, July 24, 2009

A really good article about a really good player

I would encourage anybody who likes baseball or likes good sports writing to read Howard Bryant's recent piece on Pedro Martinez, found here.

Bryant is an excellent writer. In my opinion, he's the best writer at ESPN, the Worldwide Leader. His recent pieces on former players' union chief Donald Fehr, greatest closer of all time Mariano Rivera, the recently released Michael Vick, and keeping PED users out of the Hall of Fame have all been very good reads and well-written and researched articles. I don't always agree with Bryant (for example, his stance on PED users being banned from the Hall), but at no point have I ever said "he doesn't know what he's talking about" or wanted to punt an infant as retribution for his heinous writing (Gene Wojciechowski). Anyway, I encourage all of you to follow him.

Now, his subject, Pedro. Pedro Martinez, at his peak, was a better pitcher than just about anybody else that's toed the rubber in history. The numbers back it up. Wins and losses aren't the most important factor in determining overall value, but there must be something said for Pedro's absurd career winning percentage of .684, behind only Whitey Ford and Don Gullett amongst post-WWII pitchers, and both of those guys pitched in much less offensively challenging eras for pitchers. Pedro's 3117 career strike outs has him at 13th on the All-Time list, tied with Bob Gibson (a number which he'll undoubtedly pass when he begins pitching for the Phillies later this year), and the folks he is behind are all either Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers (barring the exclusion of Roger Clemens for PEDs or the exclusion of Bert Blyleven for the idiocy of Hall of Famer voters). It should also be noted that everybody in front of Perdo on the Ks list pitched at least 1000 more innings...which is the equivalent of 5 or 6 more seasons by todays standards. And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention his inhuman 1.051 career WHIP, good enough for 6th best all-time. Those who have bettered him? Addie Joss, Ed Walsh, and John Ward, who all pitched before 1920, and Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, who are both relievers and thus less susceptible to high WHIPs. So really, the guy has been absurdly good.

Many will point to Pedro's lack of cumulative numbers to discredit him as anything other than greatness. Indeed, some numbers, namely his 214 career wins, aren't as great as some others, it would be foolish to think that Pedro wasn't one of the most dominant pitchers of the steroid era when he, clearly, wasn't doing any. One pitcher that many olde-tyme fans like to point to as the standard bearer of excellence is Sandy Koufax. Now Koufax was a great pitcher, but was he better than Martinez? Let's examine. Now because Koufax was a victim of injuries that likely would have been fixable these days, we'll go only on average-based stats, not cumulative. Koufax's career ERA: 2.76, Pedro's: 2.91. Certainly that's advantage, if negligible for Koufax, until one remembers that Koufax played in a pitching dominant era and Pedro is playing in a offense and power dominant era. So we look to ERA+ [100*(ERA/league average ERA)], a tool which measures how much better one is compared to their respective league including a ball park adjustment, in this instance, higher is better. Koufax: 131, very good. Pedro: 154, even better. As previously discussed, Pedro's WHIP of 1.051 is better than Koufax's still impressive 1.106. In addition, Pedro's BB/9 and K/9 of 2.4 and 10.1, respectively, are better than Koufax's rates of 3.2 and 9.3. Also, they possess the same HR/9 of 0.8, even though, again, Koufax played in a era dominated by big ballparks, smaller and weaker players, and pitching while Pedro pitched in the most homer-happy era in baseball history. Of course, none of this comparison is done to take away anything from Koufax, one of the finest pitchers ever and a deserving Hall of Famer, especially for his unreal performance from 1962-1966 (though it may be done to spite some Olde-Tyme fans...they can't use the internets so I'm not really worried). Rather I make these comparisons to illustrate how good Martinez has been.

But if stats simply aren't enough for you, simply read Bryant's piece. Other major league players, trained professionals and the absolute best in the world, were in awe of the man. People will, rightly, remember Curt Schilling as one of the keys that put the Red Sox over the top and ended their 86 year World Series drought. But those same people should remember that Pedro was every bit as good as Schilling that season, and had, by far, his worst season with the Red Sox. It was Pedro who brought legitimacy and an edge back to the Red Sox and started the rush of perennial contending that Boston has enjoyed in the past decade.

As a younger fan, I never cared too much about who was pitching for any team other than the Orioles, but I did care about Pedro. I remember seeing him throwing in the outfield before a Red Sox-Orioles game that he was not scheduled to pitch in and thinking, "This guy is no-bigger than does he do it?" And that's the thing; there is no explanation. Pedro was simply better. I don't know if he'll be successful with this comeback stint with the Phillies, but I really hope he is.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Both of your authors, for whatever reasons, don't have much love for the Chicago White Sox. I don't think we really hate them, but we certainly dislike them. But one player that both of us have always loved is Mark Buehrle.

Buehrle is an efficient pitcher who throws tons of strikes, generates lots of ground balls, and works quickly. He threw a no-hitter on April 18, 2007. And now he's thrown the 18th perfect game in major league history. He used just 116 pitches and a spectacular catch by Dewayne Wise to thwart any offensive attempts by an imposing Rays' lineup.

So congratulations to Buehrle. He will undoubtedly be a key cog in the White Sox' playoff hopes and will continue to be the most likeable player from the South Side.

Well this is great news

I've always liked Phil Mickelson. He's a nice guy. He's left-handed. He has a beautiful wife and kids. He finally got that no-major monkey off his back. He's pudgy. What's not to love?

Well, it turns out that Lefty is even cooler than we thought. That's right, Phil Mickelson is trying to buy 105 Waffle House "restaurants".

Seriously, the Waffle House serves horrendously greasy food that has caused more than one person to reconsider their religious affiliation and question why there is evil in the world. But like any good diner, dive bar, or brothel worth its salt, it's about the atmosphere with Waffle House. And that atmosphere says, "I'm drunk, high, or too poor to care."

So Phil, I hope this works out for you.

Monday, July 20, 2009

In an effort to maintain our usual standards...

Nick's recent review was entirely too professional and good. So I counter with this:

Review: The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow does not care what you think.

She is not interested in your flag-waving git-r-done jingoism, and she is not interested in your left-wing apologist psychobabble. What Kathryn Bigelow is interested in is delivering one of the greatest war films ever made. And with The Hurt Locker, she has succeeded.

Most people agree that World War II was the apex of American heroism. At no other time in human history has the USA been held in such high esteem by its allies. As such, films depicting American deployment, combat, and experience in Nazi-occupied France all have the saccharine, yet historically accurate, undercurrent of unshakable bravery amongst its American protagonists.

Thirty years later, America was embroiled in the Vietnam War, a warped return to the battlefield that seemed to turn World War II's noble conquest of evil inside out. Clean-cut PFC Johnny from Iowa City didn't want to serve his country and make it home to his young wife anymore; he wanted to make Charlie bleed and get laid and smoke his painful memories of home away. Americans, just a generation removed from their collective identity as the world's saviors, were killing innocent people, killing women, killing children, killing their own college students in Ohio. As before, the American public educated itself of its country's servicemen through Hollywood, but now, the images were darker, bleaker, angrier. The Thousand-Yard Stare of Colonel Nicholson's heroic lads gave way to Travis Bickle's sociopathic monologue in front of his mirror.

Today, the world--with America invariably entrenched within it--is at war once more. And, as before, the mood has shifted with the passage of time. The recurring theme of the Iraq War, begun in March 2003, is the ebb and flow of emotion and trust. The physical threat to the American soldier is greater than ever--there is no gentleman's agreement between combatants on the battlefield--and the downtime is more customizable than ever. GIs can have protein powder shipped to their bunks, play Xbox 360 off-shift, call their wives at any time. There is no particular routine or arrangement or schedule to military life in the Middle East. And with this new purgatory of the constant switch between duty and simple self-preservation has arisen a new kind of soldier, a new kind of man.

That man is Staff Sergeant William James, our rapscallion hero in The Hurt Locker. He is not charming, he is not particularly handsome, he does not have a snaketongued quip always at the ready. He is a dude, a dude who drinks and swears and defuses bombs, because it's all he's got, dude man. James has a wife and son thousands of miles away, but we do not care about them, because he does not care about them. The compound simplicity and gripping terror that comprise James' life in Iraq also comprise our film experience. The Hurt Locker has two settings: on and off. Movies do not work this way. But this one does, and flawlessly.

The plot of The Hurt Locker revolves around the aforementioned Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) and his three-man Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit during their final 30 days in the stir. James has only just arrived to the unit, and his unorthodox and extremely dangerous style immediately puts him at odds with his two subordinates, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the increasingly distraught Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).

There are more than three people in this film, but you will not be blamed if you only pay attention to Renner. It is difficult to imagine a performance more challenging than one which requires the actor to convey complete sincerity in his boredom and angst. We rightfully praise actors who take on the "difficult" roles--Harvey Milk, Idi Amin, Andrew Beckett--but Renner's task is equally as tall, for nothing--not a covertly wired stash of six IEDs, not a stone-faced suicide bomber, not an unseen sniper--fazes him. Not because he is a one dimensional action hero, like Rambo or the Terminator, but because he is caught somewhere between apathy and insanity. Maybe he doesn't care if he lives or dies; maybe he is just as frightened as Eldridge. He simply has his game face on at all times because he can't afford to remove it, and even if he could, it's likely he's forgotten how to do so. It's truly a brilliant, understated performance that cannot receive enough praise.

The Hurt Locker would be nothing without its sensory accomplishments. You can include all the expository dialogue and giggling drunken bromance you want, but if you make a movie about defusing homemade bombs and you can't pull off a credible explosion, well, you have yourself a worthless film. Fortunately, director Bigelow and English cinematographer Barry Ackroyd beautifully present a dusty land of mistrust and danger. In an filmmaking era in which the mantra seems increasingly to be "make it grittier," Bigelow and Ackroyd have done a simply masterful job of balancing the heat, sand, and wind with the audience's need to actually see what is taking place on screen.

Do not be confused: The Hurt Locker can stand shoulder to shoulder with the grittiest of films. But it doesn't do so at the expense of its stark, exceptional imagery. It won't make you want to visit Baghdad anytime soon, but the photography is beautiful nonetheless. Ackroyd is on an impressive streak, having helmed cinematography duties on the Oscar-nominated United 93 and the Irish independent film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which won the Palme d'Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Though Bigelow employs a Canon Phantom HD for the film's handful of slow-motion shots, the bulk of The Hurt Locker was shot on 16 mm Fuji Eterna 250D film stock, which was popular about 25 years ago, through Aaton A-Minima cameras--also about a quarter-century past their peak usage. This unheralded choice of equipment makes a huge difference; the film is crisp and frenetic, like so many modern nailbiters shot on video, but still looks like it belongs on a 30-foot screen.

The lasting image of The Hurt Locker, perhaps, is that of James' bomb disposal suit; it is enormous, bulky, hot, and green; it requires three men just to suit James up; when the camera is inside it, you can hear James breathing heavily, struggling to take his next lumbering step. There is nothing manly or enviable about this suit. Your son will not want an action figure of this suit. Much like that suit is the war which necessitates its use. The camera flits over dead-eyed locals weary of the American occupation of their home and over Eldridge's panicked face as he desperately tries to clean blood off of his rifle's bullets so that he can reload in the middle of a firefight. The Hurt Locker is not a depiction of heroism or cowardice, of nobility or shame. It does not ask its audience to reevaluate its reception of the American military's presence in Iraq. It offers no one dimensional characterizations of villains or champions of justice. It simply invites us to witness and experience the harrowing, exhausting, terrifying, yet encompassingly simple existence of the new American soldier. And that experience just so happens to be one of the greatest films you will ever see.