2021 Media Journal: Books

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.

Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (Jeremy Beer). Maybe the first great Black baseball player, a generation before the guys you know. He’s worth your attention.

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (Brad Balukjian). What if you met all the guys in a pack of baseball cards? Great idea, disappointing execution.

Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy (Margaret Sullivan). Local Journalism is in trouble. So is America. These truths are related. Short, clear, direct. Worthwhile.

The Conquest of the Illinois (George Rogers Clark). First-person account from the general who secured the Illinois River Valley during the Revolutionary War. Short, fascinating.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Kristin Kobes Du Mez). The timeline of hyper-masculinity poisoning American Evangelicalism. Clearly documented and explained, damning evidence of the state we’re in.

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask (Jon Pessah). A fascinating man, but the writing style grated. Like 500 pages of ESPN The Magazine pieces. Wish I liked it better.

Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art (James Nestor). Fascinating, easy to follow, not jargon-laden. Practical techniques well explained. I’ve found it helpful and healthful.

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Fleming Rutledge). Profound examination of the event of the Crucifixion and the Biblical motifs related to it. Important contribution to never-ending topic.

The Disabled God (Nancy Eisland). An early approach at theology of disability. An important voice in an essential conversation. Challenging, with important insights.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Beth Allison Barr). Clear, detailed history showing Complementarianism as veneer for non-Christian patriarchy. Also personally examines the cost to the whole Church.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (David Epstein). Explores the advantages for those who have had diverse experiences in work, training and development, contra the “Laser-Focused” approach.

A Study in Emerald (Neil Gaiman). Graphic novel imagining Sherlock Holmes in the Lovecraft Cthulu mythos. A blast if you like either or both of those.

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell). Amazing. Science-fiction, faith, religion, philosophy – all at once. Don’t read about it before you read it.

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez). First book of a trippy graphic novel about a family, a house, and a wild set of keys. Fun read.

The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead). Beautiful and horrible, depicting life for boys on the edge in the Jim Crow South. I cried, and gasped. Actually.

What Is the Bible? (Rob Bell). I liked it. YMMV on his style, but his explanation of how to read the Bible is pretty solid. Worthwhile.

Ted Strong Jr.: The Untold Story of an Original Harlem Globetrotter and Negro Leagues All-Star (Sherman L. Jenkins). The inspiring life of a Negro League All-Star and Harlem Globetrotter which was almost lost to history. Joyous read.

The Prophetic Imagination (Walter Brueggemann). A reading of the Hebrew Scriptures which sees the prophets as divine agents of counter-culture. Brief but rich, must-read classic.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead). These both won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason. Again, beautiful and devastating. An alternate version of pre-Civil War America that casts new light on old horrors.

Four Lost Cities (Annalee Newitz). The author looks at current archeology to consider the forces that can make seemingly healthy cities and civilizations disappear.

A Burning In My Bones (Winn Collier). Authorized biography of beloved pastor/author/translator Eugene Peterson. Gave human scale to a larger-than-life figure, affectionately.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Bessel Van Der Kolk). Understanding trauma, how it affects body and mind, and the ways of healing that are restoring people. Profound and empowering.

From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Brendan Purcell). Purcell considers human origins from the discipline of philosophy, a fresh angle which offers fresh insights. Friendly to science and religion.

Klara and the Sun (Kazuo Ishiguro). A meditation on what it means to be human and our need for belonging. Joyful, sad, beautiful.

Tear Down These Walls: Following Jesus into Deeper Unity (John H. Armstrong). John is a personal mentor and inspiration who has committed himself to Christian unity. This is his latest work exploring that vision, and it is a beautiful expression of his mission.

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.

The Old Man and the (2012) Season

My favorite baseball player for 2012 is going to be Jamie Moyer.  In fact, for every remaining season of his career, Jamie Moyer is going to be my favorite player.  What can I say, I love my Cubs prospects!

Jamie Moyer is coming back from Tommy John surgery (reconstruction of one of the ligaments of the elbow); he missed all of the 2011 season, but he has made the Colorado Rockies Roster, and is in their starting rotation.

Jamie Moyer is 49 years old.  Jamie Moyer had elbow surgery to allow himself to continue pitching at the age of 48.  The list of pitchers in all of major league history who even pitched at age 48 or older is 4: Satchel Paige, Hoyt Wilhelm, Jack Quinn, and Phil Niekro.  That was Niekro’s final season, because he’s lazy, obviously.  Wilhelm and Quinn each pitched as 49 year olds (25.1 and 15.2 innings, respectively), so if Moyer can make 5 or 6 starts, he should pass both of them for innings pitched at that age.  Satchel Paige didn’t actually pitch between ages 47 and 57; he made a 3 inning comeback as a 58 year old.  So Jamie Moyer is trying to have the first legitimate season by a pitcher at this age.

The list of hilarious facts about Jamie Moyer’s career can go on and on (most of these from my friends at Baseball Think Factory):

He was drafted, and made his major league debut, during the Reagan administration.

Jamie Moyer was born before the Second Vatican Council happened (to connect back to another recent post).

When Jamie Moyer was born, the Beatles were in their second month of getting used to their new drummer, Ringo Starr.

When Jamie Moyer made his major league debut, there were only 26 major league teams (now there are 30).  Of those 26 teams, 20 of them have built new stadia during Moyer’s career.

Since the start of Jamie Moyer’s career, Roberto Alomar and Barry Larkin both made their debuts, played their entire careers, retired and were elected to the Hall of Fame.

Jamie Moyer made his major league debut on a Monday; the preceding weekend, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off opened in theaters.

One of Jamie Moyer’s first teammates was Chris Speier.  Chris Speier has a son, Justin Speier, who has had a 12-year major league career and retired three years ago.

Jamie Moyer is old.  But he is still a major league pitcher, and is 33 wins away from 300 for his career.  I want to see him get there.  That would make him the second of the Cubs 1984 draft picks to get to 300 wins (the first was this guy).  In fact, other than those two guys, all of the other Cubs draft picks from that year played in a total of 243 major league games.

In summary: Jamie Moyer is old, and he still loves baseball, and I love him for that.

In Praise of The Kid

Today is a special day for me.  The Chicago Cubs pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training, which means it is now baseball season in my world.*  However, it’s also been a sad couple of days for many baseball fans: on Thursday, Gary Carter died, less than a year after his doctors discovered brain cancer.  I’ve been sad about this too.

*For most of you, baseball season will start when the actual season starts in April, or perhaps a few weeks before in late March, or perhaps sometime later in the year if you are not gripped by baseball.  To all of you, I say: you should try my way of doing things.  You see, not only does baseball season start now, but Spring has begun.  It’s a happy place.  Granted, our winter has been more like spring this year, but we’ll probably get one more big snow, and lots of you are going to be plunged back into the winter that never happened.  I’ll be enjoying Spring.  

Being sad about Carter’s passing surprised me a little.  He started his career playing for the Montreal Expos, a team that meant nothing to me*, and then he moved to the New York Mets, who were in the midst of a season of spiteful rivalry with my Cubs.

*Well, not nothing.  That’s what it meant to Bud Selig and Jeff Loria.  But not much, since I am a Cub fan, and didn’t spend much time thinking about the Expos.  I did always love their funky M logo. 

Gary Carter wasn’t the most unlikeable member of those Mets (that, of course, would be Doug Sisk) (Just kidding, Doug!), but disliking Mets was what we did.  As I’ve been thinking back to those years, my recollection is that the thing I disliked Gary Carter for most was his sincerity.  Almost anything you read about Gary Carter will talk about his joy at playing, and that was annoying (as an opposing fan).  But that was pretty much it – the man was happy to be a baseball player, he seemed completely sincere about it, and he was really good at it. I look back at that now, and I’m reminded one thing: I had some dumb ideas as a kid.  I suppose we all did (or do, for the many teens who just love to read what I write – hi, young adults!).  Dislike someone because of their sincerity and joy?  I’d rather now celebrate him for those same things.