Saturday, March 30, 2019

MLB 2019 Predictions, Part 2

Brodie Van Wagenen and the Mets' newest stars, Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. And that other guy. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Whereas picking the American League winners is a little boring because the difference between the haves and the have-nots is so stark, the National League in 2019 has the potential for all kinds of surprises. Besides the Marlins, Giants, and Diamondbacks, every team has some potential playoff to be in the playoff mix. The October 2019 standings in the NL Central can be scrambled any which way looking at it from now. Same with the NL East (leaving aside the Marlins). It's tough to make a final determination on how things will end up here but this entire exercise is completely meaningless anyway so let's have fun with it.

(PECOTA projections from here)

National League

NL East

1. Mets
PECOTA: 87 wins
My pick: Over

Hiring a former agent with no front office experience to be their new GM initially seemed like an odd, potentially disastrous move for the Mets. When he immediately pulled off a huge trade adding two superstars, then built up an impressively deep and versatile roster, I became a believer in Brodie Van Wagenen. (His hiring of renowned stats guru Russell Carlton away from Baseball Prospectus officially confirmed my faith in Brodie.) The Mets had found a GM who clearly understood the urgency to win right now with this team in New York. The core of this team is ripe to win now. Jacob deGrom is in his prime, his historically dominant 2018 season took place at age 30. Thor is 26 years old now. Zack Wheeler is 28. Their homegrown hitters like Michael Conforto (26), Brandon Nimmo (26), and Jeff McNeil (turning 27) are all in the sweet spots of their aging curves. Supplementing that core with the additions of veterans Robinson Cano, Jed Lowrie, and Wilson Ramos, a trio that would form a solid middle of any lineup, was the kind of bold, exciting front office wheeling and dealing Mets fans hadn't seen in a while.

The GM Brodie openly boasted about his team often this offseason, feeling certain that the new-and-improved Mets were the favorite to win the NL East, a division where the Phillies just spent truckloads of money adding All Stars, the young Braves just won the division after laying a fucking clobbering on the Mets with 13 wins in 19 games last year, and the Nats had also improved and had been clobbering the Mets for years now, too. In what's being called "the division of death" this year, these four teams could potentially all win 90 games. Nothing is going to come easy in this division. Despite so much competition, I believe Brodie that the Mets are the favorites here and not just because I'm an overly optimistic Mets fan (although I definitely am that). I think Brodie correctly identified and acted on the urgency of now, while the Mets have perhaps the best rotation in baseball, to bulk up the lineup with both star talent and versatile depth,  and to bolster the flagging bullpen. The addition of Edwin Diaz to anchor that pen was an enormous move for the Mets. They also brought back Jeurys Familia who has been by far the Mets' best relief pitcher the last few years, but take a look at Familia's and Diaz's numbers next to each other and you start to understand the magnitude of how dominant a force Edwin Diaz is.

Familia, 2016-2018:   25.4 K%, 10.8 BB%, .220 opponents' average, 3.35 ERA 
Diaz, 2016-2018:       38.9 K%, 8.2 BB%, .189 opponents' average, 2.67 ERA

Diaz struck out 44% of batters last year, the 7th most in a season ever. It's going to be interesting to watch how the Mets opt to deploy Diaz, whether they stash him for just the 9th or bring him in for high leverage situations. The division is definitely stacked and every win will matter this year. As a diehard Mets fan I'm thrilled as ever with the way the team has been constructed, especially in the bullpen. Edwin Diaz is Aroldis Chapman without the walks. And he could be the deciding factor in the NL East's tightly competitive four-team battle this year.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

MLB 2019 Predictions, Part 1

With much uncertainty and turbulence in the world nowadays, I cling to baseball like a ship mast in a rain squall. The return of my favorite game puts me in a good mood for the first time in a while as I've been spending free time getting lost in reading season previews and stat projections. Or watching old World Series classics on YouTube. Or reading baseball books. Or nerding out on baseball podcasts. Or contemplating the future of the new season that begins tomorrow.

What follows here are my predictions for each team, selecting an over/under based on Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA win projections for the 2019 season (found here). I'll start off with the American League which looks to be somewhat boring standings-wise since it's very likely be the same four teams dominating from start to finish yet again (the Yankees, Astros, Indians, and Red Sox) with only a few stragglers fighting to for the last playoff spot (presumably the A's, Rays, Twins, maybe the Angels or.... the Mariners?).

Here's what I hope happens in the AL: the Rays or A's knock off the heavily favored juggernauts. Here's what I would bet on happening: the Astros defeat the Yankees for the AL pennant.

(PECOTA numbers as of March 24th, 2019)

American League

AL East

1. Yankees
PECOTA: 96 wins
My pick: Over

Of course the Yankees, after a 100-win season, had to go out and upgrade their rotation with top-line lefty starter James Paxton. Though he's injury prone, when Paxton is on he's among the most dominant starters in the game. Baseball-reference's similarity scores liken him to Corey Kluber, Aaron Nola, and Luis Severino. Speaking of Severino, he's on the shelf with a shoulder injury to start the year, perhaps giving Yankee haters like myself a glimmer of hope. Alas, this team is a rolling fortress built to withstand the inevitable obstacles of starting pitcher injuries. Their bullpen is a gauntlet of giants throwing triple-digit heaters and serpentine sliders. In an era when teams use their bullpens more than ever, the Yankees, ever the extremists, built the best bullpen anyone has ever seen. This has been their thing for a while now. They've only added to the fearsome batch of endgame arms as we go into 2019. Check out how far the Yanks' bullpen exceeds the rest of the league in FanGraphs' positional rankings (by projected WAR), it's absurd:

From here.

The Yankee approach to sustainable and indestructible dominance also relies on the most fearsome assemblage of sluggers in baseball. Last year the Yankees broke the all-time record for home runs hit with 267 and that was while their best hitter Aaron Judge missed 50 games and their second best hitter Gary Sanchez was hurt and hit terribly when he played. And Giancarlo Stanton had a down year, with 21 fewer homers than his MVP performance in 2017. The Yankees play in a homer haven with seemingly a dozen guys who can hit 20 bombs.

For years the Yanks have tended to sacrifice defense for good hitters, but now they added one of the game's best infield gloves in DJ LeMahieu. Troy Tulowitzki can still pick it and might be a nice fill-in for shortstop Didi Gregorius who'll be out most of the year. More likely, the Yankees' slugging middle infielder Gleyber Torres, a 22-year old product of the Cubs' farm system, will emerge as a star and take over at shortstop. They've got depth, they've got Aaron Judge, they've got a supremely dominant bullpen, and they've bulked up last year's 100-win team. I expect them to once again win 100-something games and wrangle with the Astros for best record in baseball.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

(Video) 1971 World Series, Game 7

Another classic baseball treasure. The full broadcast of Game 7 of the '71 Series between the Pirates and Orioles in Baltimore. Featuring a young Willie Stargell. Roberto Clemente in his prime. Brooks Robinson swallowing up grounders at third base. Boog Powell being a large man. Frank Robinson taking massive cuts. And Steve Blass, the pitcher who would go on to develop a mental block on throwing accurately to the degree that they named a disease after him, here pitching a complete game against the vaunted O's. 

(Video) 1986 World Series, Game 6

Been having baseball fever the last few weeks, sprung about by attending a Spring Training ballgame in Bradenton, Florida a few weeks ago and reading some baseball books this past winter. By the magnificence of YouTube, we are able to view full game broadcasts of many classic baseball games from as far back as the early 1950s. So I've been watching lots of classic baseball footage lately.

In this video you can watch, at the 7m 30s mark, a parachuter suddenly land in the middle of the field in Shea Stadium during Game 6 of the World Series. The crowd goes nuts, the players are amped up, and Ron Darling gives the parachuter a handshake as he's being escorted off the field by police. You can watch a young Roger Clemens mowing down the Mets. Prime 'stache Keith Hernandez taking his cuts. Wade Boggs roping line drives. Gary Carter leading the best Mets ballclub ever. Or skip ahead to the 3hr 15m mark to begin watching the bottom of the 10th inning, one of the most thrilling conclusions to a World Series game of all time. The Mets, trailing in the series 3-2, trailing in the game 5-3, down to their very last out, suddenly embark on an epic, back-from-the-dead rally, a level of high drama that only baseball can offer.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

For the 25th Anniversary of the Almighty Wu-Tang Clan

from here.

Been needing to compile this for a little while. First, I want to share with you a few videos from this past year when the Wu-Tang Clan celebrated the 25th anniversary of their seminal LP, Enter the 36 Chambers (1993). Wu-Tang was all over the place in 2018, these are just a select few vids that stuck out for me. Then I want to briefly share my personal history as a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan starting as a kid growing up in Staten Island in the 90s, when the imprint of Wu and what they stand for became foundational building blocks for the person I have since become.

First, here is an interview with RZA at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee from last August. RZA gets into some stuff here that I've never really heard him talk about before. Typically in Wu-Tang interviews we hear the same origin stories repeated, whereas here RZA gives some insights on identity and the eclectic array of cultures that combined to form the core elements of Wu-Tang Clan that he doesn't often get into this much detail about. (Side note: this is the first time I've heard him share this amazing factoid: that while all the early Wu-Tang LPs were crafted to sound like movies, ODB's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version album was made in the vein of a Richard Pryor record.) I often criticize RZA's musical evolution on this blog but I've said it before and I'll say it again: my mind grows when I listen to The Abbott speak.

The Wu-Tang Clan, minus Mef and Ghostface, put on a show for NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert series" in December. It was a thrill to see them perform in this format, ad-libbing, freestyling, taking turns throwing darts, with RZA playing the role of DJ. I wish they'd do this kinda thing more often, it's fresh as could be. Since it's a live show and there are so many members, there's some noticeable discord---especially between Raekwon and RZA who've been on different wavelengths for years now---but Wu-Tang performing live is still one of the greatest shows on earth. I especially love RZA's verse at the end here (19-min mark), a typically scientific-mystic Abbott verse that sounds like a taste of his long-promised album The Cure, delivered over classical orchestra strings. "Wu-Tang is for the kids!"

In October, the entire WTC formed like Voltron for a live performance of their classic single "Protect Ya Neck" on an episode of the Jimmy Kimmel show filmed live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House. It's rare to see the full collective come together and perform on a platform like this. Altogether this was a fantastic Wu-Tang showing, not in the least bit sullied by the lame audience clearly not being a typical Wu crowd.

There have been a few attempts at making a Wu-Tang documentary, none of them truly hitting the mark thus far, but this newly announced series on Showtime called "Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men" definitely looks promising. Here's the trailer:

And here's an interview with the director of the new documentary, Sacha Jenkins, who rocks a Mets ballcap and therefore shares not one but two of the greatest loves of my life. This looks like it'll be dope:

*   *   *

Saturday, February 9, 2019

(Video) Madlib Meets Ethiopian Legend Ayaléw Mesfin

Madlib meets legendary Ethiopian funk musician Ayaléw Mesfin whose music he has often sampled. The story of Ayaléw Mesfin, his struggles under an oppressive government, his humble appreciation of political asylum in America, and his emotional return to the stage to perform his music years later---there's a lot to appreciate in this 13-minute video. Ayaléw was jailed by an oppressive Communist regime that took over Ethiopia in the 70s. Arrested for distributing his music to the public for free, released only on the terms that he stop making and performing music.

A student of music in all its forms, we witness Madlib meet one of his idols and discuss their respective crafts as well as the harrowing story of what Ayaléw suffered through. Had to post this here as it really resonated and I'm glad to see Madlib showing love to one of the musicians whose work he's inspired by, while shedding light on an obscure artist for the fans.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Album Review: Ghost Files: Bronze Tape

Ghost Files: Bronze Tape (Remixes) - Ghostface Killah & Bronze Nazareth
(released Nov. 30, 2018).

It finally happened: in the year that marked Wu-Tang Clan's 25th anniversary, we were finally blessed with an album from one of the nine generals fully produced by their most talented Wu-Element, Detroit's "hip hop blues" wizard Bronze Nazareth. After a productive decade-and-a-half waiting in the wings of the W---producing or featuring on tracks with virtually the entire Clan* and producing albums for Wu Killa Beez like Dom Pachino (of Killarmy), 60 Second Assassin (Sunz of Man) and Timbo King (Royal Fam)---in 2018, Bronze Nazareth got to design the soundscape for an official Ghostface album. Tony Starks, whose penchant for soul sounds is right in Bronze's wheelhouse. Indeed Bronze, given a chance to take a Ghost album for a spin, roars out the gate in a hail of fire, jetting along curves like a Bugatti, carting a dump truck full of jukeboxes jangling soul sounds over a rocky road of chunky bass and snares. That's the sound of Ghost Files: Bronze Tape. Keeping with the motorcar metaphor, the journey is punctuated by a few brief stoplights featuring dramatic dialogues from dusty old films while soul jams loop quietly in the background. With such heavy presence by the producer deploying cinematic clips and heavily orchestrated bangers, manipulating beats to embellish bars, the overall audio experience conjures classic Wu in a fresh form.

The project began in October with The Lost Tapes, a new album from Ghostface stuffed with notable features and fully produced by talented beatmaker and imposturous internet author, Big Ghost Ltd. Eight weeks later, fans were gifted a special double-edition of remixes to that album, the Bronze Tape (prod. by Bronze) and the Propane Tape (prod. by Agallah). While the Agallah version and the original Big Ghost Ltd version are both solid, in what amounted to a three-sided producer battle to craft the best Ghostface album, the kid from Motown put on a clinic. In this review I want to focus on how the Bronze Tape embodies what sets Bronze apart as a producer and why this record offers promise to diehard Wu-Tang fans hungry for fresh production.

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