May 30, 2009

Random thoughts on cub fandom

I've got a terrible secret - I actually haven't been a Cubs fan for all that long. I grew up as a Cubs fan (and pretty much a baseball-only sports fan), but I never really knew anything about the team. I imagine that's the way it goes with most kids growing up, especially if they don't live near the team that they root for. I knew that Ryne Sandberg was the best player on the team and I knew the names Mark Grace and Andre Dawson but that's about it. My baseball fandom really just amounted to watching the World Series and watching the home run chase in 1998. Since I was basically just watching the playoffs, I enoyed watching the Yankees teams in those years, kicking ass and taking names in the height of their mini-dynasty. It wasn't until my cousin got me hooked on fantasy baseball back in 2001, not to mention the fact that when I got to college I suddenly had easy access to WGN and had the time to actually watch a decent number of games, that I took another look at this whole baseball thing.

I loosely followed the ups and downs of the 2001 and 2002 teams, but 2003 (and what might have been in the playoffs that year) is when I was really drawn in. What a team that was - Cubs legend (and soon to be shamefully treated Cubs pariah) Sammy Sosa was declining but still carrying the sub-par offense on his back, Hendry fleeced Pittsburgh in the Ramirez trade and brought in Kenny Lofton to spark the offense, and the pitching, oh, the pitching. The Cubs had a pair of aces in Wood and Prior, backed up by an on-his-game Matt Clement, some goofy Venezualan kid named Carlos Zambrano, and, inexplicably, Shawn Estes. It was just my luck that Estes was pitching the only game that I saw in person that season. It's no conicedence that this team had my three favorite Cubs players of all time (Prior, Sosa, Z). It sucks that it didn't work out for that team, but as Santo likes to say, that's baseball.

What got me thinking about this, though, is the 1998 Cubs. A year or so ago, my in-laws bought me a cd that was made at the end of the 98 season with various audio clips and songs from the season (and of course, Go Cubs Go) and listening to it makes me both really nostalgic about that team and bummed that I completely missed out on it. It feels strange to feel this nostalgia even though I didn't experience any of this stuff at all, aside from the HR race.

  • The 98 HR race between Sosa and McGuire

  • Getting to the playoffs for the first time since '89

  • Kerry Wood's rookie season

  • Kerry Wood's 20-K game

  • Harry Caray's death before the start of the season and the ensuinge tributes to him

  • Rod Beck being Rod Beck

  • And probably half a hundred other things that I've forgotten or don't know about, because I wasn't there

Maybe it's just because I still know who many of these players are that I'm feeling this, I don't know. After watching This Old Cub, the '69 Cubs are also up there too but I just don't get that same shiver I get when thinking about the '98 or '03 Cubs, even though I suspect that the '69 club was a better team than both of them.

I just went back and looked at the '98 Cubs roster and am floored. Despite all the nostalgia that team had going for it (above), that was NOT a great team. Any Cubs team since the 2003 run (excluding 2006, which we all should try to block out of our minds) was better than that one.

May 24, 2009

Book Review Clearinghouse - The Omnivore's Dilemma and thoughts on food

Since I'm waiting out a hailstorm in a Starbucks here in Los Alamos, I thought I'd finally get to work on clearing out my list of things I've read. Many of these books I read *a year ago* while here at Los Alamos, so I'm shamefully behind.

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

This was a fascinating read, albeit pretty depressing.

The first half of the book is all about industrial farming. I knew that corn is in just about everything, but the stuff he reported on in the book went even above and beyond what I thought about corn's dominance of the food market. The thing that surprised me the most is that a vast majority of the corn we see growing in the fields is not edible as it is grown - most of it goes to huge processing plants where it is broken down into 'corn commodities', like corn syrup and the myriad of corn-derived chemicals that you see on your food labels. I don't remember if it was this book or somewhere else (but probably this book) that pointed out that agriculture is incredibly susceptible to Prisoner's Dilemma-type situations. The price of corn (or whatever) goes down, which entices you to plant more and more crops on your land, which further drives down prices and continues to suck the nutrients out of your land. Smart policymaking *could* fix this, but the dept of agriculture is very much in the hands of big agriculture and is geared for large-scale farming, which is incredibly short-sighted and where monoculture farming fits their profit models much better. Current agricultural policy vastly discourages diversity in farming (unless you consider switching between growing nothing but soybeans and nothing but corn 'diversity'), which is much better for long-term farming outlooks. Pollan didn't mention it much in this book, but the Corn industry's lobbying power is why HFCS is cheaper than sugar in the US.

The other big topic in the first part of the book is where most of our meat comes from. Probably the most interesting fact that I came away with was that the old 'corn-fed beef' cliche that we've been inundated with for years is a fallacy in and of itself. Cow stomachs were evolved to digest grass, and are not able to correctly digest corn. Industrial meat 'growers' use corn as a method to fatten up their cows quickly. It does lead to that nice marbled steak which is the gold standard of the meat industry, but in order to keep the cows healthy while they eat all that corn, they have to pump them full of medicine and antibiotics etc in order to make sure that they stay alive long enough to be slaughtered. It's similar for chickens, though for different reasons. Most industrial chickens are heavily medicated due to their close conditions, as opposed to eating an unnatural diet (corn fattens them up too, but chickens are more versatile). The living and slaughtering conditions are quite disgusting too (lakes of manure = gross), but somehow I don't have quite as much of a problem with it. Maybe because it's not a chemical issue, I don't know, but I think it's something that can be more easily fixed, even if it means more expensive meat. I know that both problems come from large-scale production, but somehow I see the first problem as more fundamentally wrong, while the sanitation stuff is more of a cost-cutting type thing. But I digress.

The rest of the book was about sustainable farming, with a brief final chapter on hunting and foraging (that I didn't find all that interesting). The sustainable farm that he visited (and worked in) was in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and was quite fascinating. Their farm was incredibly integrated with nature and natural patterns, and he had several cool methods for his farm. Probably the coolest was the pest control/sanitation - his chickens moved around in a mobile henhouse (which I think was an old schoolbus, I can't remember) that followed the cows around as they rotated pastures. Eash day he'd let them out and they'd eat all the bugs that inevitably bred in the cow manure that the cows left behind. His chickens laid the most incredible eggs, according to the Charlottesville chefs that bought them, because they ate what chickens evolved to eat - bugs (not grains). There was a long section describing his various battles with the ag department (mainly over his chicken-slaughtering operation), and it was pretty cool all around.

The problem with his farm (and larger scale organic operations), is that they only work because they are so small-scale. They do not scale well and require a lot of manpower to generate the amount of food that people require. In my opinion, though things are getting better as far as awareness goes, nothing will change until there is a FULL change in food culture, which I do not see happening. Due to the economics of industrial agriculture, the cheapest foods are the foods that are most processed and soaked with chemicals. which adds another dimension to the culture wars in this country. It's no surprise that the right jumped all over Obama when he made his infamous 'cost of arugla' comment during the primary season. But until prices get a lot closer, fast and processed food will be a large part of our consumer culture.

American food culture is spreading too, especially as regards to meat, and ingrained food habits are very hard to change. 2 years or so ago I was challenged by a fellow mathematician that I met (who was a vegetarian) to try to go a whole week without eating meat, or even go a whole week only eating meat once a day. It was a lot harder than I thought - it's been ingrained that a meal isn't a meal without some meat in it. It doesn't help that I find most protein substitutes unappetizing, for the most part. I like tofu and other soy stuff *sometimes*, but for the most part, it subtracts from my enjoyment of what I eat. I think I do eat less meat now than I used to, but I'm not too broken up about it. I like most meat, a lot. The biggest thing I (usually) remember to ask myself is when I'm making a meal is whether having meat in/with it really necessary? I've more or less stopped eating meat on the few occasions when I have breakfast (unless I have a bacon jonesing), often omit it from pasta sauces, and usually choose other toppings for pizzas that I make/order for myself. The other key thing that I try to remember is Pollan's mantra from his other book (In Defense of Food): "Eat food, not a lot, mostly plants". I do a pretty good job at the first one, though not as good at the other. I've found that I like vegetables a lot more than I used to, but it's still hard to get over my childhood prejudices against vegetables - they're still too complementary in my head.

May 23, 2009

Making the most of the Scrap Heap

Let's take a look at the Cubs' collection of scrappy middle infielders, all of whom have seen much more playing time due to Ramirez's injury. Note, per media parlance, Bobby Scales cannot be a 'scrappy' middle infielder - we'll just have to call him 'athletic' instead.

The projections here are taken from the Updated ZiPS projections on Fangraphs, which take into account performance so far this year for the end of season line and as inputs to the rest of season projection.

PlayerSlash LinewOBAK%Projected Slash LineProjected wOBACareer K%

Fun fact: Theriot is projected to hit 4 more HR by ZiPS.

The clear 'winner' in these projections is Bobby Scales, who should be playing every day with Ramirez out. Fontenot has been terribly unlucky (more on that in a moment), but even when readjusted for luck it appears that he isn't nearly as good as some of those optimistic .340+ wOBA projections were giving him. To be fair though, ZiPS was the most down on Fontenot of any of the projection systems on Fangraphs. From what I recall PECTOA was really down on him, but I don't have my annual with me here in NM. Miles and Freel have been especially awful. Freel will probably be sent packing when Ramiriez comes back, though it would behoove the Cubs to give Scales and Fontenot some reps at SS, because Miles's ability to play that position is the only thing keeping him on the roster.

There is some reason to suspect that Fontenot (especially) will bounce back - he's had some terrible luck. Looking at the numbers:

PlayerBABIP (2009)BABIP (Careeer)LD% (2009)LD% (Career)

I left off Scales and Freel for sample size reasons, and because we don't have any career data for Scales. It actually looks like Miles has been even more unlucky than Fontenot - despite a LD% significantly above his career norms, Miles has a terrible BABIP.

What this boils down to is that even though Fontenot doesn't appaer to be nearly as good as we were thinking he would be going into the season, he's not *THIS* awful. It's pretty tough to sustain a .205 BABIP, and it's not like he's hacking any more than usual either. The Cubs should run him out there against every RHP, and Scales too.

May 10, 2009

Last night's trainwreck, Bullpen reshuffling

As you may have heard (or worse, seen), Chad Fox's elbow fell apart mid-pitch during the Brewers' blowout of the Cubs last night. He wasn't really a great pitcher anymore, but you have to admire a guy for coming all the way back from three separate Tommy John surgeries. The Cubs placed him on the DL today, and his career is likely over. However, while on the DL, he will accrue more time towards his MLB pension, which will hopefully go a long way to helping him recover from all those injuries. Best of luck to you, Chad Fox.

Speaking of last night's game, what a mess. Gallardo did not bring his A-game at all last night, and the Cubs did not take advantage. They had guys on first and third with no outs in the second and failed to score, had two runners on in the third and fourth and failed to score, and had the bases loaded against the Brewers bullpen in the 7th and failed to come away with any runs. Following that, Lou put Dempster out for another inning despite the fact that he was at 110+ pitches. He promptly gave up back to back HRs to Counsell and Braun before being removed. Cotts and Patton then came in and (hopefully) finally punched their tickets off the roster by coughing up another 4 runs. The Cubs finally showd some life and Fukudome actually got a hit with runners in scoring position, but it was too little too late. After Fox's injury, Heilman came in and walked three straight batters and coughed up a single and sac fly before striking out Weeks and their pitcher. The final score was 12-6 Brewers.

Ascanio was recalled to replace Fox, and he was probably the guy the Cubs should have called up in the first place. Ascanio has been red-hot in AAA, putting up a 2.26 FIP in 26.2 IP thus far. He's not that good (his projections hover around a 4.7 FIP in the bigs), but I've always liked his stuff and he has to be better than David Patton, who is pitching his way off this roster. Patton has a 5.71 FIP thus far, pretty close to his projection of 5.6. No one should be surprised that he has pitched so poorly.

Speaking of AAA starters, Randy Wells wasn't half bad on friday, filling in for Zambrano. He had some early jitters, which were to be expected, but then he settled down and struck out 5 Brewers in 5 innings without giving up a run. Lou seemed impressed by the outing and has hinted that Wells would stick around when Z returns. Sadly, it will probably mean that Ascanio will head back to the minors, but we can hope that he replaces Patton instead.

Other pitchers throwing well in the minors (small sample size caveats apply)

Jeff Stevens, RHP (AAA) - 3.06 FIP
John Gaub, LHP (AA) - 1.04 FIP, career 2.42 FIP v LHH
Esmailin Caridad, RHP (AAA) - 4.77 FIP
Jay Jackson, RHP (AA) - 3.93 FIP
Jeremy Papelbon (AA) - 3.92 FIP, 1.61 FIP v LHH

Watch your back, Cotts and Patton.

Good news

We took the dogs into the vet yesterday for a series of shots/checkups, and got good news on our buddy Zeus.

Zeus is an older dog that we adopted from rescue last May. He started to develop some heart problems last fall. We're not sure if it's genetic, due to old age, or due to the fact that he was very overweight and fed a poor diet for most of his life, but it is what it is, as they say. Last December he had complications due to his heart issues and almost died before the vet was able to stabilize him. He wasn't sure if Zeus was even going to survive the winter, and advised us to be careful about overexerting him, which meant no more dog park visits (his favorite place!).

However, since then he has responded very well to his new medications and his heart murmur has almost completely disappeared. Our vet has dialed down his medication some and cleared him to return to the dog park! We're going to take him back tomorrow for his first visit in almost 6 months to celebrate the 1-year anniversary of his adoption.

May 08, 2009

Gathright traded for Freel

According to the Baltimore Sun, Joey Gathright has been traded for Ryan Freel. I like this trade because Freel has similar speed but more flexibility, position-wise than Gathright. Gathright plays better D in the outfield of course (especially CF), but after the rash of injuries the Cubs had last month they really could have used an extra infielder. I think though that Freel sees about as much time in the OF as Gathright did, and Lou's going to use Johnson when he feels like he needs a defensive replacement for Bradley or Soriano. We're more likely to see him taking ABs away from Aaron Miles and spelling Mike Fontenot/Aramis Ramirez than anything else. Hopefully it also means that Fontenot spends more time playing 2b, where he is a plus defender, rather than at 3b.

I don't really understand this deal from the Orioles perspective. They already have a plus defensive center fielder (and ex-Cub) who can't hit in Felix Pie. Gathright is ticketed for AAA, but still, I don't see what Baltimore has to gain from this.

Bonus! Per Robothal, the Cubs are paying Gathright's (800k) Salary and the Orioles are paying Freel's (4mm) salary. Awesome! I like this even more for the Cubs and even less for the Orioles.

Projected wOBAs:

Freel: .315
Gathright: .308
Miles: .310

Freel's been all over the field for the past few years, so he doesn't really have a big sample at any position. He plays about average defense at CF, 2b, and 3b. Now if only the Cubs tried to use Fontenot to back up Theriot at SS, we could get rid of Miles...

May 06, 2009

Series Preview: Cubs (14-12) at Astros (11-15)

Following their spring training-like game yesterday, the Cubs travel to Houston for another short series. How lame is a two-game series anyway? If I were a player, I'd rather see more 4 game series or maybe even 5 game series between teams than shorter ones like these - it must suck for traveling. I imagine the scheduling is built around the assumption that the same teams play on friday-saturday-sunday, since they can/have to play day games on the weekend. Still though, I'd much rather see more weeks where a team plays fri-sun at one place and mon-thursday at another one, or some other overlapping combo (thu-sun or fri-mon). For divisional foes it would seem especially important, because teams are less likely to dodge a bullet (or get unlucky) rotation-wise in a long series.

Honestly, I'm surprised the Astros are only 4 games below .500. Once again they have their usual aging stars-and-scrubs roster, which can have flashes of good baseball but is generally a prescription for diappointment. I think that the Cubs momentum (spring training game yesterday notwithstanding) keeps rolling into this series.

Pitching Probables:
Monday: Harden (R) (4.76, 3.1) v Mike Hampton (L) (4.3, 4.95), 7:05 PM

Hampton hasn't shown an ability to go deep in the games he's pitched, which means more work for a generally lousy bullpen. He is a groundball pitcher who's never been much of a power pitcher - he just needs to hope that the ball doesn't go to Tejada, who is well below average on defense, rather than the other infielders, who are pretty decent on defense. Blum especially surprised me with his UZR numbers - he's had double-digit UZR at third base for the past four seasons. As far as the Cubs go, we'll just have to see which Harden shows up. There was some chatter from Will Carroll (granted, not the greatest judge of Cubs pitchers) that Harden's stuff in his last start were largely a product of fatigue. There's not much you can do when you play so many games in a row though - it's not like the Cubs are going to run out 6 starters to save Harden's arm. Harden is the poster child of pitchers that you point to when people wonder why pitchers don't throw 300 innings a season anymore. There's no way his shoulder could take that kind of load, and his stuff is pretty special.

Tuesday: Lilly (L) (4.57, 4.3) v Russ Ortiz (R) (5.39, 5.0), 7:05 PM

Good Ted Lilly showed up in his last start against the Marlins, going 8 innings and striking out 10 batters with no walks. However, he was knocked around for 4 HR against the Astros in 5 innings (and still got the win, thanks to the Cubs jumping all over Brian Moehler in the first inning). That was some pretty low-leverage pitching though, and came right out of Lilly's WBC-shortened spring training. It will be interesting to see if he shuts them down this time. Ortiz came in as long relief after the Cubs chased Moehler and gave up a few more garbage-time runs (including a HR by Fontenot as soon as he came in the game). Ortiz is the kind of guy that the Cubs should jump all over - he has lousy stuff and has a hard time finding the strike zone.

Cubs sweep!

May 04, 2009

Series mini-preview: Giants (12-11) v Cubs (13-11)

The Cubs take on the Giants for a short series at Wrigley field this week. The Cubs offense is finally starting to head up, and most importantly become healthy. Of course, just as Ramirez returns, Z goes on the DL. Scales is being called up for a few days until Zambrano's replacement comes to take his rotation spot - he should spell Fontenot/Theriot/Miles, who have been playing every day (though I hope we keep seeing Fontenot in the lineup, as he is good at hitting baseballs).

Pitching Probables:
Monday: Sanchez (L) (4.78, 3.9) v Dempster (R) (4.73, 3.8)

If you just look at the ERAs, this looks like a mismatch. Sanchez has a nice ERA thus far but his FIP says otherwise, while Dempster's numbers are off in the opposite direction. Not much to say here - both of these guys can have problems with walks - in fact they seem like very similar pitchers. The Cubs have a better (and hotter) offense, so I think they squeak out a win here.

Tuesday: Lincecum (R) (1.89, 3.0), v Marshall (L) (3.9, 4.6)

Lincecum is good at pitching. Marshall took a good first step at proving me wrong in his great last start - he really had his curveball working for him. Factor in the offenses and this game is closer than at first glance, but I think SF wins this one.

Prediction: Split series