Play a New Game

Since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed playing the “Celebrity Look-Alike” game, and the stranger or more obscure the better. You know the drill: “You know who that guy looks like? Michael Stipe with a curly wig!”

In the last two weeks, I’ve found myself noticing not would-be celebrities, though, but people who look like people I know. One day, it was an old friend from my old haunts of Lena, Illinois, strangely out of place in the suburbs; a few days later it was my grandma; then earlier today it was a dead ringer, from behind, for one of our church’s members. As I walked behind this woman, thinking of this other woman, I realized a fresh opportunity to pray for my church member. And with that, a new game was born: for the rest of the day I looked for people who resembled people I know, and when I spotted them I offered up quick prayers of blessing and thanks for my remembered dears.

Why not try joining me in this new Look-Alike game this week? Let’s see if it creates a new habit of prayerful awareness.

For Those Who Love God, or Long To

The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, for your encouragement and joy:

If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.

If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.

If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.

If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.

If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.

If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.

If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.

He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious.

He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.

O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!

O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!

The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!

The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it!

He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!

He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions“.
It was embittered, for it was abolished!

It was embittered, for it was mocked!

It was embittered, for it was purged!

It was embittered, for it was despoiled!

It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and came upon God!

It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!

It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!
O death, where is thy sting?

O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that have slept.

To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages.


Salem means Peace

“I wish I had met my big sister.”

I was standing in the cemetery behind Salem Church in Lena, with my 12-year old son, Joshua.  Salem Church is where I was serving as pastor 13 years ago yesterday, when my wife Christy gave birth to our first child.  Caitlyn Marie Woosley was stillborn, in the 26th week of pregnancy.  Katie isn’t a morbid or overbearing presence in our lives, but neither is she forgotten. So it is that Joshua is aware that there was a child before him; so it is that we return to Salem periodically, most years as close to her birthday as possible, to remember, and to look ahead.

This year Katie’s birthday was on a Sunday, and we were able to join our friends at Salem for worship.  Going to worship isn’t easy for our nine-year old, Zach.  He’s not great at sitting in one place for an hour; he’s not great at staying quiet for the liturgy and preaching; he doesn’t exactly love unfamiliar places, especially when he has to do things like sit still and stay quiet.  So, eventually, Zach and I found ourselves outside, as worship continued inside the stone walls of Salem’s sanctuary.

I was only at Salem for six years (I’ve been gone nine years now), but as we walked out of the front of the building, onto the snowy steps, the sense of familiarity seeped warmly into me.  Zach turned left, headed for the lawn between the sanctuary and the parsonage (and even more for the play structure at the back of the parsonage).  As always, the snow formed a drifted ledge between the two buildings, but what stopped me cold was not the wind.  The large lilac bush that had long stood at the corner of the yard – a personal favorite, spreading gentle fragrance across the property – was gone.  And as I looked through the space where the lilac used to be, I could see that also gone was the cherry tree in the middle of the yard.

After Caitlyn died, the other members of my clergy group had given us a certificate for a tree – we were free to pick the tree of our choice, and to plant it in memory of Katie. When spring arrived, we selected a Montmorency Cherry tree.  I liked the idea that it would flower in April, when Katie had been due, and that it would be fragrant and fruitful.  When springtime came, we planted the tree together.

Now, where the Cherry tree used to be, there was a young evergreen, with a stake next to it for support.  My initial shock quickly shifted into the realization that the cherry tree had been there for more than 12 years, which is not an unusual life span.  It would seem the tree had died out, and the current Pastor (who has always been exceptionally sensitive to our history there) had planted a new tree, perhaps even as an intentional replacement.

Nothing in this life lasts.  Certainly not a Cherry tree.  This was no revelation, but a melancholy reminder on this birthday.  I don’t have a teenaged daughter.  I have a son who I would not have if she had survived to full term.  This year has brought reminders that I have no more control over keeping and protecting him than I had over that pre-born daughter.  I don’t enjoy those reminders, the realization that we are so limited, so powerless, so dependent upon the provision of God.

This is, in my bones, what I believe.  We are in the hands of the one who made us.  And we are living in a broken world.  Which means that God holds us, but we are not always free from the pain of the brokenness.   My daughter died during the season of Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of God in the world.  Jesus of Nazareth changed the world, and will one day further change the world.  What is broken will be no more.  No more pain, no more tears, no more death. No more separation. At the second Advent.

“I wish I had met my big sister.”

“Me too.”

“You believe that in heaven, we’ll get to meet her, right?”

“Yes, I do.”

On other days, this has led to blizzards of questions I have no answer for: what age will we be in heaven? Will everyone be (or appear to be) the same age? Will we get older? How will we recognize each other? But not today.

“Katie, I’m sorry we were late getting over here.  I, uh, got lost looking for your headstone, and then I was stuck waiting for dad to get the snow out of my shoes.”

“I hope everything’s good there in heaven.  I mean, it is, right, Dad?”

“That’s what I believe.”

“I look forward to meeting you someday, Katie.”

Me, too.


Warming Up the Hot Stove

The most rewarding part of the baseball season for a Cub fan might be the offseason, when one can dream about what yet might be, instead of dwelling on what has already been.  Since my youth, winter has been a time to build hope for another season by scheming over what players the Cubs could acquire to fill their various holes, or anticipating which prospects will be ready to make the leap to valuable contributor to the next great Cubs team.  You may call me optimistic for this outlook, or merely delusional, but it is the means by which I enter a new season with anticipation rather than dread.

As I have grown older, this process has matured and become more realistic without losing hopefulness.  I do not suppose that every free agent stud really wants to play on the North Side, that every prospect will be an All-Star, or that every Cub squad has a realistic path to 90-plus wins.  Having an honest sense of the possible helps me look to the coming season with enthusiasm instead of dread.

In a baseball era of huge money (on all sides), constant coverage and voluminous (often misunderstood and misused) data, there is another route to Hot-Stove fandom that seems to dominate the conversation.  The current conversations happening in Chicago media (newspapers and radio, in particular) exemplify this approach.  The cry goes up, “Trade Starlin Castro! Get something for him while you can!”  The trade partner du jour is the Arizona Diamondbacks, possessors of Justin Upton.  However, this pairing seems to be less about infatuation with Upton, and more about dissatisfaction with Castro.  The primary charges against Castro are:

  1. He’s not the “control the strike zone, work the count, pile up walks” type of hitter Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer prefer.
  2. He’s not good enough defensively to play shortstop.
  3. Javier Baez is almost here anyway, and he’s going to be better than Starlin Castro.

Maybe Theo and Jed will trade Castro for Upton, or for something else, and Baez will begin his ascent to be the next great shortstop to lead the Cubs to the promised land (which would make him Joe Tinker 2.0, I suppose).  Whether that happens or not, though, these arguments are mostly nonsense, built on the slack observation skills and critical thinking for which most radio talk show hosts are famous.

He’s the Wrong Type of Hitter

Lost in the complaint that Starlin Castro doesn’t walk and doesn’t control the strike zone is that he actually showed meaningful improvement in that area in 2012.  On June 12, the Cubs dismissed hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and put James Rowson into the job.  On the day Jaramillo was fired, this was Castro’s batting line:

59 255 6 42 .309 .322 .449 .348

And this was Castro’s batting line for the rest of the season:

102 432 30 57 .268 .324 .421 .294

(Obviously, I didn’t give you everything, but some categories that matter for this conversation)

Look at how Castro’s walk rate jumped – from 2.3% of his plate appearances to 6.9%.  Maybe this is due to random forces.  Maybe he just started walking more.  But look at the numbers in 25 game increments (nothing magical about 25 game increments, just an easy way to divide the games):

25-game block # Walk percentage
1 5.8%
2 6.5%
3 7.7%
4 (last 27 games) 7.7%

That looks to me like Castro was learning something throughout the year, and acting on it.   There is another line in those charts that looks like improved strike zone control – his strikeout rate dropped significantly in the Rowson Era – from 16.5% of his plate appearances to 13.2%.  Walking substantially more, and striking out less doesn’t make him the Dominican Dandy of Walks, but it’s improvement.  It suggests a new level of plate discipline, after two years of decline in that area.

Perhaps you are concerned, though, by that low batting average during the last 102 games of the season (.268, compared to .309 to begin the year, and a .304 mark over his first two seasons).  The last line on that chart I gave you was Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP).  That means what it says – what the batting average was when you take out strikeouts and home runs.  It tends to be a pretty stable number over time for batters, so when you see a big dip in their BABIP number, it tends to mean that they are either having bad luck, or they are hitting fewer line drives (see this for some explanation of that idea).  What does that mean for Castro’s BABIP decline in the last part of 2012?

Well, in July Starlin Castro’s line drive rate was about half of his historic average (11.9%, down from 20.1%) – that was also the worst month of his career, batting-wise.  The rest of the year, though, his line drive rate was normal, which suggests that he was a victim of bad luck.  And, in fact, during the last 27 games of the year, Castro’s BABIP was .340 (almost exactly his pre-2012 career average of .345).  So, what did he do during those 27 games?

117 9 2 2 9 11 318 376 495 871

Raise your hand if you think Theo and Jed don’t want that kind of player.  Since this is the internet, I can’t see you raising your hand, but someone will be along to help you eventually.

He Can’t Play Shortstop

I’ll keep this one briefer.  It’s possible that you think Starlin Castro hasn’t improved as a Shortstop, particularly if you think the only defensive statistic that exists is Errors.

2010: 27

2011: 29

2012: 27

However, there are other defensive statistics.  Fielding Percentage, which is still a pretty limited statistic, shows us that Castro is committing errors on a smaller percentage of his Total Chances:

2010: .950

2011: .961

2012: .964

Now, the league fielding average for shortstops was .970 in 2012, which means that the average shortstop, fielding as many balls as Castro, would have only committed 23 errors.  He was 4 errors worse than average.

Except…Castro doesn’t get to an average amount of balls.  In fact, he led the league in Putouts and Assists in both 2011 and 2012.  He gets to a lot of ground balls.  Some of this is a product of him being very durable and playing almost every inning, but not all of it: he also led the league in Range Factor/G (Putouts and Assists per game) in 2012.  Castro created 4.51 outs in the field per game in 2012, while the average shortstop created 4.26, which means over the course of the whole season, he created 40.5 more outs at shortstop than average.  4 more errors, but 40 fewer hits allowed – seems like a pretty good trade-off  doesn’t it?

Of course, defense is even more complex than that. Maybe Castro gets more ground balls than other  shortstops because of the type of pitchers on the Cubs staff, or because of random luck.  Thankfully, there are now people who chart all of that sort of stuff, to give an even more precise picture of defensive contributions.  Without going into all of those details (you can find them places like Fan Graphs  or Baseball Reference), the consensus is that Castro was  mediocre defensively in 2010, below average in 2011, and average to slightly above average in 2012.  He has a lot of range, he gets his glove on a lot of balls, and he makes some errors that drive fans nuts.  But he’s been getting better, and isn’t a liability.

Javier Baez Will Make Us Forget Starlin Castro!

Finally, there is the assertion that Castro can be moved because the man behind him in the prospect pipeline, Javier Baez, will be pushing him off of shortstop eventually.  This based on Baez raking at low-A ball as a 19 year old in 2012, which Starlin Castro did not do.  Of course, the reason Castro did not do this is that he played his 19 year old season at high-A ball and AA.  Where he held his own.  Baez got 86 PAs at high-A at the end of the year, and his OPS was 87 points lower than Castro’s in the same age and league (not to mention that Castro moved to AA and raised his OPS).

Baez has more power than Castro had at that age, but he also has even less plate discipline, with a walk rate of 4.4% (to Castro’s 5.7% at the same age).  Baez did have a higher fielding percentage than Castro at that age (.950 to .937) but again, Castro’s range factor shines (4.86 outs per game to 4.31 for Baez).  It’s possible that Javier Baez will turn into Starlin Castro.  But what will Starlin Castro turn into?  One more graph:

A 691 29 12 14 36 283 323 430 105
B 551 34 4 14 16 297 320 458 106

Player A is Starlin Castro in 2012.  Player B is Robinson Cano in 2005, as a 22 year old rookie.  So, is it possible that Castro turns into Robinson Cano?

Cub fans seem to forget how accomplished Castro is at such a young age, because he’s already been around for so long.  But suppose Javier Baez turns into Starlin Castro, and Castro turns into Robinson Cano.  I’d rather have two infielders who can hit like corner outfielders, and then go find another corner outfielder, or hope the pipeline develops one.

Good Church, Bad Church?

I’ll assume you’re familiar with the ol’ “good cop, bad cop” routine.  If you’re not, I’ll encourage you to turn on your television to find one of the many iterations of “Law and Order” currently playing at this minute (well, unless it’s past the bottom of the hour, in which case we’ve moved on to the “Law” part of the show, which is a less likely place to find good cop/bad cop), and you will become acquainted in short order.

Anyway, while we were on our most recent vacation, I ran across a couple of church signs that made me think of good cop/bad cop.  With apologies to Ed Stetzer (who publishes noteworthy church signs each week), I give to you:









So, that seems welcoming, doesn’t it?  At least, sort of.  God wants to talk to you!  Come on in!

But then there’s this:









See?  There’s the bad cop!  Maybe you’ve already picked up that these are the same church sign, on two different sides.  When you’re coming into town, you get the welcoming church.  But when you’re headed out of town, you get the warning church.  I’m not sure if there is special significance to that.  I wonder if some weeks the church is really welcoming, and other weeks, they’re pulpit-pounders.  Or, maybe this is the church-sign equivalent of A/B testing.  I wonder if anyone was enticed to come to church, or even think more about their relationship to Jesus because of one of these signs.

That makes me wonder: what could a church put on a non-moving sign that would actually catch your attention to read, in a positive way?