I was shopping with one of my sons over the weekend. The store wasn’t especially crowded, but they were short staffed and so the line was long and slow. My son is usually in motion, so waiting in line requires using a variety of sensory-input strategies to pass the time. Little stay-in-place activities like giving hand squeezes, standing on his toes, or even small bounces in place will help him to endure the tedium, and so we did these things as we waited for our turn to check out.
He also likes things to be orderly, so when items at the check-out line, like the candy displays or the plastic bars to separate orders on the conveyor belt, are misaligned he will organize them while he waits.
When it was our turn to check out he stood with me at the register as I tried to get the card reader to recognize my debit card. Then he noticed that someone at the front of the store had left a helium balloon unattended. This reminded him that he loves to release balloons to float off into the sky, and he quickly walked to the errant balloon and started for the front door. Seeing this I left the register (debit card still sitting in the card reader) and blocked his path. “No, no, that’s not yours, we need to leave it alone,” as he tried to push past me, before accepting my redirection and letting go of the balloon. The entire exchange took less than 5 seconds.
Returning to the register my card was finally accepted, and he took our bag and headed for the door. “Thank you,” I said to the cashier.
“Have a good day. And you have the patience of a saint,” she responded.
Usually this sort of comment triggers embarrassment in me, as I would rather move through these life moments unnoticed. When he was young, I would feel the burning sense that I was being judged as insufficient as a parent and a caregiver – maybe even being exposed as actually being insufficient to this role. This time, I was initially confused, and then I was angry.
Confused, because his actions in the store were so inconsequential. Nothing was lost or broken, no one else was inconvenienced beyond the seconds it took to redirect him back to line. Why did this woman think I was being patient? Then her view of the moment sucker-punched me: I was impressively patient because I related to him respectfully. That’s when I got angry.
If you haven’t spent time with my son some of his choices will be unexpected. Some of them are inappropriate (recent episodes of dumping water on cars so he can see people use their windshield wipers come to mind), but many of them are just atypical, like sing-songy vocalizations and asking for hand squeezes. Some of them are actually helpful – organizing a disorderly display, or putting stray carts where they belong. None of these choices, or any of the other unusual things he might do in any given moment, make him less worthy of respect as a person. None of it changes that at the same time he is impulsive and socially awkward he is also kind, funny, smart, playful, charming, and eager for connection. He’s fully human.
When we look at another person and decide that being in relationship with them requires super-human attributes we are denying their humanity, we are cutting them out of the picture of community. Even the “difficult” people. Even the “weird” people. We are giving ourselves an excuse to not be fully human ourselves. We are hurting ourselves, but more importantly we are hurting them and all of the people who are blessed by their presence.
Different does not mean inherently difficult, or threatening.
Include people who are different from you.
Perceive the ways they can expand your perspective.
Let them season and deepen the flavor of your community.
All the teams in Major League Baseball crossed the 40-game mark last weekend. The team I follow, the Cubs, seems to be committing a second season to not trying to compete and instead “evaluating” the talent of prospects and players existing in the liminal space between being a prospect and starting a career after baseball. Some of those players continue to tantalize fans with the hope that they might be able to be regular contributors despite the issues that caused their prospect shine to tarnish. This means I’ve spent too much time this season thinking about how productive a player can be while having a major hole in their game, or while having only one true strength. Now that one quarter of the season is complete, I decided to take a deeper look at some of the players around baseball who are succeeding or failing in unusual ways.
I focused my attention on three basic aspects of offensive performance which are typically central to why batters succeed or fail: hitting the ball, hitting the ball hard, and passing on bad pitches, which can be measured by the rate stats K%, ISO (Isolated Power), and BB%. DISCLAIMER: I am absolutely a nerd, and my fascination with looking differently at the numbers of baseball was kindled by the Bill James Baseball Abstracts of the 1980s, which I would devour to the detriment of all my high school coursework every spring. However, I cannot swim in the depths of modern statistical analysis and therefore cannot rightly call myself a stat analyst in the modern sense. We will be wading in the shallows here. I was curious to see how good a batter can be if they strike out at a high rate, or walk at a low rate, or don’t hit for much power; also, how bad can a batter be if they limit strikeouts, excel at drawing walks, or hit for a lot of power?
The parameters I’m using here are largely borrowed from the stat glossary at FanGraphs, and I’m also using their measurements of all these stats. I’m using WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to classify players as doing well or not; specifically, since a seasonal WAR total of 2 is considered average for a starting position player, I’m using 0.5 WAR through the first quarter of the season as the line for success or the lack thereof.
Best Players with a Bad K%
In 2021, when all who are not pitchers agreed that strikeouts were out of control, MLB batters struck out in 23.2% of all plate appearances. In 2017 that rate was 21.6%, and so far in 2022 the rate is 22.5%. For that reason, I’ve decided to label 30% or higher to be a high K rate, and 15% or lower to be a low K rate. So, which batters have been average or above while striking out at least 30% of the time this season?
And here we immediately see why I was drawn into this exercise, as the Cubs leading reclamation candidate (Wisdom) and newest hope for the future (Suzuki) are both on the list. Seiya Suzuki’s K rate in Japan was only 16%, so there is reason to hope that this high K rate is a product of him learning the league. I’m amused that the list has two Cubs (and one former Cub in Schwarber), two Dodgers and two Mariners. Half of the players on this list are bringing positive defensive value to their WAR, with Dansby Swanson being the only player who may be bringing most of their value with defense, but even without his defense he would be above the 0.5 WAR threshold.
I am surprised that there are this many players on the list; however, another way of looking at it is that there are 115 offensive players with at least 0.5 WAR so far this year (with at least 120 plate appearances, which was my cutoff), so it’s clearly the less likely way to succeed.
For what it’s worth, there are only 4 players to date who are striking out more than 30% of the time and notproducing enough to justify starting: Franmil Reyes (-0.6 WAR), Adam Duvall (-0.1), Tyler O’Neill (-0.3), and Jesus Sanchez (0.3). Two vets whose teams are counting on turnarounds (Duvall and Sanchez) and two young-ish players who are underperforming their previous levels (one of whom, O’Neill, has been put on the IL).
Good K%, Bad Results
What happens when we flip the chart on its head? Who are the players who are keeping their K rate low but not producing good value?
There are 37 players with a K rate below 15%, and 14 of them are still not producing up to the standard of an average starter. That surprised me, and my assumption was that these players were undermined by severely bad defense. I was completely shocked to find that 13 of these 14 players had negative Offensive WAR numbers – only Wilmer Flores was dragged below the average line by his defense!
Most of the players on this list have either an ISO or their BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) way below their established norms, which suggests that their teams are giving them this much room to fail because they believe that their numbers (and therefore their value) will return to normal and acceptable levels. Jesse Winker is a great example: he has a career ISO over .200, but so far this year it is at .080. Seattle certainly didn’t trade for a corner outfielder from the Deadball Era, so they are obviously going to give him time to figure things out. His new teammate Abraham Toro is another example. The Mariners are hoping he will be a useful piece for them, and he has a very short track record in the majors (not quite 700 ML plate appearances), so he’s going to still get time to figure things out.
The most intriguing cases to watch from this list are players on teams that have serious postseason aspirations. If Yuli Gurriel continues to be the less valuable version of himself will the Astros feel pressured to find a stouter First Baseman? Will Dylan Carlson be moved to the bench if the Cardinals see an opportunity to catch the Brewers, or need to cement their Wild Card status?
Provide Value and Carry a Weak Stick
Chicks dig the long ball. And by “chicks,” I mean General Managers, and marketing executives, and pretty much everybody except pitchers. So who are the players who managed to climb Major League Mountain despite possessing a gentler offensive profile?
There are 40 players with at least 120 PAs and an ISO below .100, but these are the only 11 who are providing starter-level value. Most of them do it the same way, exemplified by three guys in the middle of the chart: Myles Straw, Gavin Lux, and Ke’Bryan Hayes. All three take their walks at positive rates and play plus defense, with Straw and Lux also adding meaningful baserunning value. Most of the rest of the list follow this script, with slightly less success. Only a couple guys find enough success with a high average but minus defensive value, with Luis Arraez and Andrew Benintendi being the exemplars.
The Weirdest Ones
There is a reason all manner of Chicks dig the long ball, though. It’s almost impossible to hit for power and not be valuable. Here is the entire list of players with more than 120 PAs and an ISO over .200 who have not accounted for at least 0.5 WAR through a quarter of the season:
You can hit below .200, but if you do it with power you can still accumulate value (Christian Walker and Kyle Schwarber).
You can strike out 40% of the time, but if you generate power in enough of the other 60% of at bats you can still accumulate value (Patrick Wisdom).
You can walk 4% of the time, but still accumulate value if you hit for power (Rafael Devers).
You can be truly atrocious on defense and overcome it by hitting for power (surprisingly, former Gold Glovers Anthony Rizzo and Paul Goldschmidt).
However, if you hit for a low average and strike out a lot and play “defense” and create mayhem on the bases for your own team, your power will not save you.
This is the lesson.
Don’t Walk, Produce Runs
Finally, we come to the extremes of walk rate. In 2022 the league walk rate is 8.5%, and in 2021 it was 8.6%, so we will use 8.5% as our baseline. So, how many players are walking less than 4.5% of the time and creating value?
Bobby Witt, Jr.
Through the first quarter of the season 8 of the 22 qualifying players with low walk rates were achieving starter-quality value, which is a worse ratio than the high K rate players (10 of 17) but better than the low ISO batters (11 of 40). If there is a point to be taken from this it is the affirmation that Babe Ruth was on to something with his decision to strive for power. I suppose we already knew that by now.
These 8 non-walkers gain their value in the full range of manners – hitting for high average (Tim Anderson and Rafael Devers), hitting for impressive power (Devers again, and Bobby Witt, Jr.), and playing great defense (Travis d’Arnaud, Jorge Mateo and Witt) – or just doing everything other than walking better than average (Wander Franco and Luis Robert). I think this list has more exciting players – like Franco, Robert, Devers and Anderson – than any of the others.
Okay, He Can Walk. What Else Can He Do?
Finally, we come to the last group of outliers. Surely a high walk rate is desirable, but who are the least valuable walkers?
The story is the same for just about everyone on this list: power and batting average have tanked for these guys early in the season, and they play positions which which do not provide defensive value (think corner OF, DH and 1B). Hicks and Ortega are primarily centerfielders, but they aren’t playing the position well enough to help. Most of these players are established and their teams are waiting for them to return to their previous batting form; Steven Kwan is a rookie who Cleveland hopes can tap into a little more of the power he showed in the upper minor leagues; Tsutsugo and Ortega are here because someone has to take the field for the Pirates and Cubs.
The other takeaway from this group is the observation that there are twice as many high-walk-rate batters who are producing value as there are players on this unfortunate list. Again, since most of these players have track records of success, it can be expected that they will be given every chance to move off this list and into the value category.
I didn’t think I watched a lot of movies in 2021 (except November, which I’ll explain shortly) but when I added them up I was well over 20. Plus, I decided to take up the Noirvember challenge and watch a classic film noir each day. Somewhere in the middle of that 30 day journey I realized that one reason I thought I wasn’t watching as many movies is that (like everyone) almost all of my post-Covid movie watching is at home, and my household is active enough that carving out 2 or 3 hours to get immersed in anything is hard. Modern movies are so much longer than the lean noirs of the 1940s and 50s, which rarely topped 100 minutes; in most cases, this extra length brings no added benefit. Saying modern movies are bloated is obviously a cold take, but my November experience confirmed that my problem isn’t watching movies at home, just watching long movies at home. Because when I looked at my list of modern movies, I realized that I watched most of them in 2 or more sittings.
Because of the volume of movies I watched this year (more than 50 overall) I’m only going to offer extended comments on my favorites. I want to highlight that if you really enjoy well-made movies you should consider The Criterion Channel. For $11 a month, you get hundreds of classic films and modern cinema from the US and around the world. Like all streaming services there are films that come and go every month, and they also will offer specially curated lists of films themed by subject matter, era, filmmaker, and style. I find something new to add to my watchlist every time I log on.
Finally, if a movie was one of my favorites this year, I’ll bold face the entry.
Anyway, on to the list…
New Movies (2020/2021):
Wonder Woman 1984 – You’ve heard (and maybe experienced) enough disappointed takes on this one by now.
Bad Education (HBO) – Pretty interesting. Hugh Jackman and Alison Janney chew up a lot of scenery.
In and Of Itself – filmed adaptation of the Derek DelGaudio stage show around the themes of being seen and identity. Oddly affecting and astonishing, but I don’t think I had the profound reaction many had.
Zach Snyder’s Justice League – So long. So, so long. Still, more coherent than the original release, and I think I prefer it. Just not in one sitting.
Wolfwalkers (Apple TV+) – A visual and emotional feast. Hand drawn animation, the third film in an Irish Folklore trilogy by Cartoon Saloon. The story of people who are wolf at night at a time when the forest is ceding to the encroaching village. So many themes flow through this tale: love, loyalty and friendship, welcoming the outsider, environmental degradation, parent/child relationships. Don’t be too grown up for animation – see it.
Godzilla Vs. Kong – Man, this movie was dumb. That special combination of bad storytelling and numbing action sequences. Truly, a disaster movie.
Nomadland– A gentle film that had me on edge throughout, because I am so used to films in which characters succumb to menace that I never trusted that this would just be a human story in which people lived their lives. I appreciate that it was that kind of story, with people like Fern and Dave simply being brave without being heroes and without the world utterly changing. Watching this helped me reflect on the reality that I didn’t really go after the “American Dream,” and I still don’t know how that is going to turn out for me and mine.
Pixar’s Luca – because we see all the Pixar movies. Not in the top rank.
Summer of Soul– Oh, what a delightful collection of performances, and a fascinating story. As I think about it now, ?uestlove probably had as much or more footage to work with as Peter Jackson did for “Get Back”, and that project (which I also liked a lot) highlights how challenging it must have been to tell the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival for one single sitting. I would definitely take the 9 hour cut of this, if it exists.
Marvel’s Black Widow – I thought this was a solid movie, better than many of the films in the Avenger/Thanos cycle, and I wish that they had figured out how to make it and fit it during that run instead of after. I think for all the glue Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow provided to the rest of the MCU she deserved that. On the other hand, maybe not having to have her film be burdened with carrying the Grand Storyline another 5 yards downfield was a gift.
Jungle Cruise – don’t ask. I mean, if you want to watch Jesse Plemons play a pudgy German bad guy, go for it.
The Suicide Squad – I didn’t hate it. Not that I remember a lot of it, except the Polka Dot Man.
Free Guy – Sure, it’s dumb. And I’ve heard it referred to more than once in ominous tones as the future of movies. Honestly, we could do worse. I enjoyed myself.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – A pretty promising start to the next phase of Marvel Studios World Domination. Fun, funny, not quite as destructive on a massive scale as the last phase. I’ll take more of this sort.
No Time to Die – I’m in the camp of not hating this. Keep in mind, Daniel Craig is my entry point into Bond, and having a through line connecting the movies didn’t bother me. I would prefer if that was the case for however long a particular person was playing Bond. Disconnected from one movie to the next seems really weird to me.
Dune – I never saw the David Lynch Dune, and I don’t know why. I think I confused Frank Herbert with L. Ron Hubbard and thought I needed to stay away from it. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I’m looking forward to the next one. I think I almost liked it enough to bold face it.
The Beatles: Get Back – As I mentioned above, there was a lot here. It was almost as long as the first Hobbit movie. I did like it, and I found the things it seemed to reveal about creative process and interpersonal group dynamics to be really interesting. And I now like John Lennon more than I did.
Classic (or at least Older) Movies:
M– Oh, man. Is this the first serial killer movie? Fritz Lang creates a wild journey. Peter Lorre is creepy. Seriously creepy. Lang tells the story in a way that keeps pushing all parties toward an explosive conclusion. The courtroom scene (of a sort) is maybe my favorite part of any movie I saw all year. Seriously, this is why I’m saying you have to get The Criterion Channel!
The Executioner– Black comedy from 1963, by Spanish filmmaker Luis Garcia Berlanga. Man is trapped in his life. Every move he makes to free himself gets him more tangled in the web of life. The only certainty in life is absurdity.
The Searchers – Many consider this the greatest Western, and I can see that. It’s got beautifully sparse landscape shots, the primal elements of the anti-hero, and John Wayne.
The Birds – I’d never seen this, somehow. What I thought was amazing about this was how utterly unresolved it is. It is a slice of life – really a long weekend – that abruptly ends, and no questions get answered. I think today that would seem to be the set up for a sequel, but here it just leaves you unsettled. That’s pretty great.
Hunt For the Wilderpeople– I’m a total sucker for the very things at the heart of this movie. Funny, but sad and a little bitter. Characters who have to learn to accept each other and come to need each other. Spiraling misadventure. Sam Neill is great. The Taika Waititi point of view is pretty obvious, right from the start.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball – Delightful Netflix doc about the Portland Mavericks, an independent baseball team playing in the organized minor leagues in the 1970s. A fun look at a moment in professional sports that probably can’t ever happen again.
The Noirvember List:
The Maltese Falcon – Obviously. It’s the archetypal noir, and with good reason. Bogart defines hard-boiled private eye, but Peter Lorre is my favorite part of this one.
Night and the City – One of the things I really enjoyed while watching all these was finding films that varied in one or more ways from the most notable conventions of noir, particularly locale (typically cities, even more particularly San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York). This film is set in England, and was my introduction to Richard Widmark, who shows up in several classic films. Widmark fascinates me because he plays a Menacing Bad Guy several times, but he was not tall, or beefy, and he was blonde. The menacing isn’t on the surface, it all comes from within, which may be why he was also able to play a hero at other times. The other unusual element of this film compared to other noir is that it is about wrestling.
Gilda– Femme Fatale? Here’s your Femme Fatale: Rita Hayworth. Glenn Ford (another actor whose menace comes from within, not from his appearance) plays Johnny, who ends up as the right hand man to a mobbed-up casino owner in Buenos Aires (another unusual locale). When the boss brings home a new wife, it turns out the three of them form a nasty triangle. This is a classic for a reason.
Out of the Past – I’m not completely sure that Kirk Douglas holds his own against Robert Mitchum, but who does?
In a Lonely Place – One of several on this list that looks at Hollywood. A different kind of character for Bogart. One of the most unexpected endings of any film I saw this year.
The Third Man– Saying anything about this is saying too much. Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles are great. Just see it if you haven’t.
Sunset Blvd– Billy Wilder made a movie that still feels contemporary in the way it speaks meta narrative. Watch it (or watch it again) and see probably two dozen ways subsequent films and tv shows have cribbed from it.
Nightmare Alley – A distinctive noir in that it wasn’t based in the city, but in the carnival. They slapped a “happy” ending on to satisfy audiences (the book ends darker)…except the happy ending still isn’t very happy. I haven’t gotten to Guillermo del Toro’s remake yet, but I love the audacity of making it, because that setting made this feel like maybe the hardest film on this list to translate to 2021 audiences.
Laura – Vincent Price plays a very different character than you’re used to from him.
No Way Out – Sidney Poitier’s first leading role, and he’s up against Richard Widmark at his most menacing. Unflinching on racism and race relations. Poitier’s hero is one of the only characters in all of these films who does not have obviously mixed motivations. Still, I loved this movie.
Panic in the Streets – Widmark again, this time in one of the good guy roles. Again, a different kind of noir, as it’s built around a medical emergency. Since that medical emergency is a highly contagious and fatal disease, you might want to wait on this one for now.
The Night of the Hunter – Again, different setting than classic noir, as it ends up in a small town with a foster mother who is more than she seems.
Stray Dog – Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s take on noir ends up on the rough streets of post-war Tokyo, where old-world and new-world Japan were still trying to co-exist.
Ace in the Hole – Kirk Douglas plays a newsman who is willing to do what it takes to make sure a big story continues to be a big story – and only his story.
The Lady from Shanghai – Orson Welles takes big swings here: shooting on location instead of at a studio (unusual at the time), specifically seeking out a documentary-style look, making his losers creepy in unexpected ways. The climactic funhouse mirror chase has been endlessly referenced.
The Big Sleep – Bogart in the first of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories to make the screen, trying to figure out just how many people are playing him at once. The whole “Bogie & Bacall” thing originates here.
Somewhere in the Night – Eh. Moody, about an amnesiac trying to figure out who he is. I prefer “Memento”.
Elevator to the Gallows – Amazing storytelling, as a devious plot spirals out of control and just keeps spiraling. Also amazing: the Miles Davis soundtrack.
Hangover Square – Weird and affecting story about a London composer who keeps losing track of time. This one has the classic elements (crime, mystery, femme fatale) but stirs them in a very different way.
The Big Heat – Glenn Ford originates the trope of the lone cop taking on the department and the bad guys. This movie is more overt in its violence than anything else on this list; the bad guy throwing a pot of hot coffee in his mistresses’ face is here.
Murder, My Sweet – Dick Powell gives a take on Philip Marlowe that is radically different from Bogart’s. History has sided with Bogart, but I thought this was really intriguing. And, of course, it’s a great Chandler story.
Shadow of a Doubt– Thorton Wilder writing, Alfred Hitchcock directing, and Joseph Cotten creeping everyone out as Uncle Charlie, the long lost little brother whose been up to bad things. You thought your relatives were bad? Hope they aren’t Uncle Charlie. This is a standout.
The Asphalt Jungle – The birth of the heist caper by a masterful John Huston. Seriously, this invents the genre. Twisty, with double crosses abounding as the walls close in on everybody who thought they were a step ahead.
Touch of Evil– Welles again, and it’s wild. This is from 1958, and Welles has given up on controlling his personal appetites. Bloated, sweaty and haggard is how Welles the director shows Welles the actor, and the actor pays it off as the soul of the character matches the appearance of the man. Charlton Heston is opposite him as a Mexican cop (Seriously!) in this story of border-town crime and corruption. Mexi-Heston might not even be the craziest thing here. Dennis Weaver is a simpering hotel Night Manager, and Janet Leigh is made the woman-in-peril in truly unnerving ways. Even with all of that insanity, I will definitely return to this film.
Where the Sidewalk Ends – Cops on the take, twists, crises of conscience, and some actual detective work by Karl Malden (!). Has more of a moral than most noir, which might be why I thought it was good but not great.
Criss Cross – Men do stupid things for the women they love. Sometimes, it might just be because they are stupid. This might be one of those times.
The Killing – Stanley Kubrick’s debut, and it’s amazing. He takes the caper and executes it perfectly, but throughout imbues it with the same dim view of corrupt human intentions that shows up later in Dr. Strangelove, which continues to blossom right through the final scene. The funniest noir ever, I am sure.
Sweet Smell of Success – This didn’t do it for me. Probably my least liked film of this entire cycle.
The Killers – The twist here is that the investigation which unspools the plot is carried out by an insurance investigator. The opening sequence is great, and the performance by Burt Lancaster is strong.
Have you seen any of these? Tell me what you thought? What did I get right or wrong?
In 2021 I attempted to keep a detailed journal of all the new (or at least new-to-me) books, movies, tv shows, music and podcasts I experienced during the year.
I made it through May. After that, it gets a little dicey.
Looking back at the accounting of it has been eye-opening. There’s so much more of it than I realized. Reviewing the year has really helped me get a sense of what has stuck with me and what has turned out to be forgettable. So, I thought I’d share it here, starting with books (since I’m the kind of guy who likes to believe that I’m a book-first person). Rather than take up a lot of your time with mini-reviews I’ve decided to describe every work in 20 words or less. The rest is up to you.
In community, we are learning interdependence, allowing independence to reveal the beauty of each individual and allowing dependence which does not produce shame or despair in the dependent, or a sense of superiority in the one depended upon.