Despite my lamentations last week about baseball and technology, I've now watched four straight Yankee playoff games in their entirety (mostly because my stepfather is in town and insisted), and it's been fun! But sweet heaven, have you seen Aaron Judge? In this year's playoffs, he is now 4-31 with 19 strikeouts. That's really, really bad. It's so bad that he set an embarrassing record in the ALDS against Cleveland, striking out 16 times to set a new MLB mark for a single series. And it was a five-game series! But somehow, the terrible numbers don't tell the true story of how hopeless he looks at the plate. Watch this MLB Tonight segment to see Judge in action—he's pathetically far from even making contact on most of these Ks:
What do you do with your most famous player when he's easy pickings for any pitcher who can throw an outside curve—which is all of them? Do you leave him in to humiliate himself and hurt the team, just because he's the star? Or do you bench him and give the team a chance? If you're a Yankees fan right now, you're praying that Joe Girardi does the smart thing and swaps him for someone—anyone—who isn't an automatic out.
On to the superlatives!
Home Plate Collisions are Stupid, and Joe Maddon is Wrong
The wrong-headed "sports traditionalist" of the week is Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who is a very smart man and very good at his job, but absolutely wrong about home plate collisions. Watch this play from Saturday night's Game 1 of the NLCS, when the Dodgers' Charlie Culberson tried to score on a single, and was stonewalled by Cubs catcher Willson Contreras at the plate:
The "out" call was reversed because Contreras blocked the plate with his foot before he had the ball, preventing Culberson from having a clean slide into the plate. A few years ago, this would have been legal, but MLB changed the rule in 2014 in order to cut down on violent collisions at home plate. Under the old rules, a violent collision is exactly what would have happened—Culberson, knowing Contreras could block the plate, would have barreled into him at full speed (with Contreras looking in the other direction, mind you) rather than sliding. It's exactly what happened to Buster Posey in 2011, when his legs got caught beneath him and he fractured an ankle, ending his season. The new rule, which states that a catcher can't block the plate without the ball, and the runner can't go out of his way to collide with him, is often called the "Posey Rule."
Of course, anytime there's a sensible rule change, there's always a demented grunt out there to protest. This week's demented grunt is Joe Maddon, who got ejected arguing the call. That was already pretty dumb, since he admitted later that the umpires interpreted the rule correctly—he may as well have gotten tossed for screaming at a rule book. Then, he took the idiotic step of comparing it to...well, read the quote:
"The umpires did everything according to what they've been told," Maddon stated. "From Day 1, I've disagreed with the content of the rule. ... That was a beautifully done major league play that gets interpreted tantamount to the soda tax in Chicago. ... All rules or laws aren't necessarily good ones."
On cue, John Lackey and Conteras backed him up:
"That's straight from New York," Lackey said. "We [Lackey and the umpires] had a discussion on how soft baseball is getting."
"I think we need to go to Walmart, get some toys and then play," Contreras said sarcastically. "It was an amazing play. The ball took me to that position."
So, okay, this isn't complicated—it's the same "this isn't a sport for sissies!" argument you hear in football every time some defensive back gets ejected for flying headfirst, missile-like, into a defenseless receiver. I think it's a terrible argument in football, too, since concussions and paralysis and potential death are bad things, but I've got an even hotter take for you:
Baseball is a soft sport, physically. Baseball should be a soft sport, physically.
I have loved baseball for a long time. I grew up playing baseball, and even though technology has ruined my attention span to the point that I have trouble watching it on TV anymore, I still think it's a beautiful sport. But look—you can go an entire baseball game without touching another human being in the course of play. Tell me another sport where that happens—cricket, maybe? It's the ultimate non-contact sport.
Sure, you can get hit by a baseball traveling upwards of 100mph, and that's no picnic. Yes, somebody can slide into you and tear up your leg with metal spikes. But these are not integral parts of the game. Baseball is about finesse, and skill, and strength, but it's the most individual of all games. It's a game of mental toughness, but it's not a game of collisions. In a brilliant take back in 2013, Tom Verducci pointed out that in the past, players could throw a ball at a runner to get them out, kickball style, or slide in spikes-high at second base, or bat without a helmet, or crash into outfield walls with no padding. Would anybody argue for bringing back that era? No, of course not—but I bet somebody at the time was pissed off at how "soft" their sport was becoming.
Tough guy: Helmets are for sallies!
Tough guy: Fine.
Collisions at home plate are the same. That's not what baseball is about. They are stupid, and pointless, and result in totally avoidable injuries. You're wrong, Joe Maddon...way wrong. (And for the record, even though it was repealed in Chicago, the soda tax is a good idea.)
The Anthem Protest That, Amazingly, Didn't Result in a Complete Freak-Out of the Week: Ian Troost, Pitt Panthers
Ian Troost is a reserve placekicker for the Pitt Panthers, and he's white, which makes the fact that he did a solitary anthem protest this weekend pretty remarkable. Even more remarkable was the school's reaction, spearheaded by head coach Pat Narduzzi. Here's what he said:
“Our guys have First Amendment rights and freedom of speech,” he said following the game. “I’m never going to tell a guy he can’t do something. What we’ve talked about is if you’re going to do that and try to make a statement, we’re going to stick together. Someone had their hand on his shoulder, saying ‘Hey, we’re with you.’ Everybody’s got their deal. I know I’m going to stand and put my hand over my heart and give everybody their option of what they want to do.”
My God! You mean, they didn't kick him out of school, or demonize him, or suspend him, or suggest that he was singlehandedly undermining the U.S. military? They actually respected his right to exercise free speech without levying some draconian out-of-proportion punishment? Stop right now, I won't believe it. Next you'll tell me there's hope for decency and rational behavior in a polarized country, at which point I'll have to scream "fake news!" at you until both of our heads explode.
Class-Act Coach of the Week: Dabo Swinney
I hate to do this, because I hold the fundamental belief that all good football coaches are dark geniuses and full-fledged sociopaths. But Dabo Swinney did a few things in a 24-hour period that I think are pretty cool.
1. Got upset by Syracuse, and, though he was surely pissed off and frustrated, hugged the opposing coach and gave him a legitimate congratulations:
2. Actually visited the Syracuse locker room to congratulate them in person, and took photos with a few of their players.
3. Less than 24 hours later, he attended a reunion of the 1992 Crimson Tide football team at Alabama's stadium, where he was sure to endure a few boos and other insults.
That's some good "I'm an actual human" work by Dabo right there. In the same situation, I have to think Nick Saban would have ignored the opposing coach and all the players, skipped the reunion, and spent hours in his personal subterranean torture dungeon exorcising his demons.
Life-Sparing Umpire Decision of the Week: Astros-Yanks Crew
This kid reached over the fence to snag a home run ball, and it immediately went to replay:
If the home run had been overruled, the Yankees could have won the game, which went into the ninth as a 1-1 tie even with the homer. Instead, the home run stood, the Astros walked it off in the bottom of the ninth, and everything was fine.
But, my God, can you imagine if it had been overturned, and the Astros lost? Stadium security would have escorted the kid out of the game, we'd all know his name by now, and his life would be ruined. It would be like Steve Bartman all over again, but with the extremely public trauma visited on a nine-year-old this time. That kid's whole existence would be miserable.
Honestly? I don't know if it was the right call, but it was the right call, if you catch my meaning. There should be a special clause in the MLB rulebook that says "all things being equal, we won't ruin a kid's life." Good job, umpires.