Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Best Albums of 2008

When I was a senior in high school. I made my first ever mix CD. This wasn’t a romantic gesture for a girl (although, er, that might have happened at a later date) but just a way to consolidate some music that I liked. Fifteen tracks long, it included such erstwhile hits as Don McLean’s “American Pie”, Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”, and Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”. In addition to a thoroughly enjoyable compendium of songs, the CD (which eventually grew to possess the imaginative title of Beck Mix I) also functioned as an indicator of sorts, a beacon broadcasting one unavoidable fact: I knew absolutely nothing about popular music.

This wasn’t really my fault. Growing up, the dinner-table music at my house generally alternated between Rossini, Dvorak, and Les Misérables. I never listened to the radio. I never bought CDs. Short of hearing popular songs featured in movies (the first time I heard The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” was when I watched Almost Famous in 2000), I suffered no exposure to the corrosive, addictive influence of pop music.

This finally changed this past year for two reasons. First, my friends Brian and Pat – both extraordinarily learned audiophiles (that is, musical snobs) – simultaneously encouraged me to developed a more extensive library. Brian had previously introduced me to the exquisite Pandora, which served as a gateway of sorts, introducing me to a variety of artists and sounds, if not full albums. Armed with a pair of quality headphones (thanks Dad), I listened to Pandora constantly at my job, often for over 10 hours a day.

Then, in March of 2008 (after finishing the most recent Manifesto), I finally bought an iPod, approximately five years after they’d gone mainstream. In the past, I had acquired and listened to music on a track-by-track basis; the iPod allowed me to listen to albums in their entirety, the way artists intended. It’s one thing to appreciate Band of Horses’ “Funeral” as a great song – it’s quite another to see how it fits into the schema of Everything All the Time.

And I was off. With the help of Pando (a spectacularly useful file-sharing program that’s actually legal), Brian and Pat gave me a kick-start, supplying me with some of the best albums of 2007. I foraged for more myself, using Pitchfork Media and other elitist Internet rags as a guide. My iTunes now includes more than 5,000 songs – not a great number, to be sure, but it’s a start.

Of course, I don’t pretend to pass for a music critic (whereas I certainly pretend to pass for a film critic). I still don’t really know how to listen to music and think critically about it – I just, you know, listen to it. I also tend not to actively dig into an album’s lyrics. If certain lyrical phrases pop out to me during the course of listening, I’ll happily absorb them, and there are certain bands for which I aggressively attempt to learn the lyrics, but that isn’t always the case.

(This may be an admission of guilt as a lazy listener, but it also gives me pause when considering the integrity of pop music as an art form. If comprehending a song’s lyrics is critical to comprehending its meaning, then shouldn’t I be able to understand what the fuck the lead singer is saying without resorting to pressing my ear against the speaker or looking the lyrics up on the Internet? Is it some sort of vaguely artistic decision to cloak lyrical meaning in a haze of sound, thus providing it with a tantalizing ambiguity? And isn’t it a little weird that for a number of my favorite songs, I barely know any of the words?)

Regardless, listening to music became an important structural component of my psyche this year, so it’s only fitting for me to provide a year-end overview. As for how I selected the forthcoming albums, it’s really pretty simple: My favorite albums were those I revisited again and again. That seems to me to be the best criterion for determining great music – how often do we keep coming back for more? Now, you could argue that this simplistic approach imparts a certain Plebian sensibility to my evaluative methods. You could also argue that it proves I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. As long as you actually read the post, I won’t be too picky.

(Disclaimer: The following list is necessarily incomplete. There are two major issues at hand. First, there’s the quantity issue: With dozens of albums released every week, there are only so many I can consume. Second, there’s the awareness issue: Whereas with movies I can generally keep abreast of all of the major releases of the industry, there is no “paper of record” for the music industry (although Pitchfork sure tries hard enough), so I can’t keep aware of every successful album. If anyone feels I missed anything specific, by all means send your suggestions my way – I’m always looking for more music.)

So here goes. With a Rotoworld-style tiering approach, the Manifesto presents the Best Albums of 2008. (Albums within tiers are listed in alphabetical order. Also, albums can be provided via Pando upon request.)

Tier 5: Wow Do I Wish These Albums Were Better

Counting Crows – Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings: Look, I think this is a good album. I just haven’t become obsessed with it yet. And anyone who knew me in college knows that I was at one point unhealthily obsessed with Counting Crows. I went to one concert in four years of college – it was Counting Crows. I listened to “Round Here” approximately 725 times in a year. I knew every word to “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream”. Sure, I got into them about 10 years after they became popular, but they were still my band. So when I learned they had released their first album since the grossly underrated Hard Candy, I got all psyched up to become obsessed again, and it just hasn’t happened. Yet. Frankly there’s still time.

Jewel – Perfectly Clear: Ibid.

Tier 4: These Are Appealing, Just Don’t Ask Me Why

Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us: A series of male-female duets, each oddly catchy if completely inoffensive.

Nada Surf – Lucky: An album that opens with more punch than it can ultimately sustain, there are some terrific songs on here. “See These Bones” is a gorgeous opener, and the follower “Whose Authority” is everything a pop single should be. I tend to drift after the groovy midpoint of “Weightless”, although “I Like What You Say” is impressively straightforward and earnest.

The Notwist – The Devil, You, + Me: Hovering just outside the grasp of cognitive relevance, I can’t quite understand this album, but it sets an engaging mood. “Sleep” always snaps me out of a reverie, only to draw me into its own.

R.E.M. – Accelerate: If Counting Crows was my band in college, high school was devoted to R.E.M. (“Losing My Religion” kicked off the aforementioned inaugural Beck Mix). Accelerate is too short and modest to be a great album, but there’s still some great stuff on here. “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” is an ass-kicking opener, with hard-driving electric guitars backing a furious-sounding Michael Stipe, while “Supernatural Superserious” builds and swerves giddily. Sadly the album ends in a whimper, with its final three tracks offering minimal substance, but there’s plenty on here to herald R.E.M.’s return to relevance, if not quite greatness.

Rachel Portman – The Duchess: I know I shouldn’t put a movie score on here, but Rachel Portman’s work for The Duchess is so lush and exquisite that I couldn’t help myself. Whenever I read in my apartment, I always put on instrumental music because lyrics interfere with my concentration, and this score has quickly become my go-to choice. (Oh, and if you’re interested in reading about the movie, by all means check this out.)

Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust: Don’t ask me what it means. I have no idea. I just know that after listening to the nine-minute “Festival”, I want to change the world.

Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer: I haven’t been able to fully absorb this album – frankly I think it’ll take several more years – but that hasn’t stopped me from being intrigued. “California Dreamer” builds so insistently that it cannot be ignored, and the closer “Kissing the Beehive”, clocking in at nearly 11 minutes, demands consideration at the very least for its epic ambition.

Tier 3: Albums I Return to Again and Again

Does It Offend You, Yeah? – You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into: This isn’t a great album. It might not even be a good album (although I guess any album with a song titled “Attack of the 60 Ft. Lesbian Octopus” has to be pretty good). But here’s what I know: Whenever my job gets me angry – I mean, sends me into a pure, homicidal, “I want to pick up this ping-pong table and hurl it through a plate-glass window” type of rage – I turn on this album. And trust me, it helps. The instrumental opener “Battle Royale” – a power-punk bass-and-synth combo backed by a pumping snare drum and even overlaid with a blaring siren – spills into “With a Heavy Heart (I Regret to Inform You)”, a venom-laced assault that unleashes pure fury and seems to include backing vocals from the Rancor from Return of the Jedi. By the time it gets to “Dawn of the Dead” (the only track on the album that bears any resemblance to a standard pop song), I feel better.

Hot Chip – Made in the Dark: Wildly inconsistent yet resolutely independent, this electro-dance-pop album could be even better than it actually is. The band’s refusal to conform to any standard archetype might score them some points for individuality, but it also makes any attempt at a cohesive album impossible. Tracks such as “Shake a Fist” – which jarringly breaks down halfway through – and the sluggish introduction of “Bendable Poseable” unquestionably march to the beat of their own drum; that might be commendable philosophically, but it sure doesn’t help listeners dance to that beat. Still, there’s a hell of a lot to like on Made in the Dark. “Out at the Pictures” is a great mood-setter, building slowly into a propulsion of jittery syncopation. Later, “Ready for the Floor” is helplessly catchy in its simplicity, “Touch Too Much” instantly magnetizes listeners, and “One Pure Thought” fluidly combines punchy dance beats with steady choral arrangements. The title track is the most memorable on the album, a haunting composition of aching, heartfelt beauty. Made in the Dark may not be perfect (or even try to be), but it’s more than enough to make me eagerly anticipate Hot Chip’s next album.

Keane – Perfect Symmetry: Sometimes, subtlety is overrated. Keane used to draw comparisons to Coldplay – now they’re pretty much U2 filtered through Jerry Bruckheimer. The opening outcry of “Spiralling” (“ooo!”) announces this album as a jubilant, grand expression of joy, longing, and undiluted emotion. Check out the goofy lyrics on the chorus of “Lovers Are Losing”: “You take the pieces of the dreams that you have / ‘Cause you don’t like the way they seem to be going / You cut them out and spread them out on the floor / You’re full of hope as you begin rearranging.” Make sense? Didn’t think so, but Tom Chaplin sings that chorus with such sincerity that I can’t help but get caught up in it. By the time Perfect Symmetry progresses to the desperate plea of its title track (“Wrap yourself aroooooooound me”), I’m hooked. The album may not be finely textured, but it sure is a blast.

The National – The Virginia EP: I’ll freely admit that The National are one of my favorite bands, and I’ll also admit that this is a lesser work. But hey, it is an EP after all, and it still has all the hallmarks of what make The National so great – Matt Berninger’s velvet mumble-croon; stark, often astonishing lyrics; soft-pedal guitars that build momentum even as they channel Americana-style folk-rock. I can’t listen to “Santa Clara” or “Tall Saint” without becoming fully absorbed. “In my city, I didn’t make a sound / When I fell over and cracked my crown / Heard a woman say, ‘Stay down, champion’ / ‘Stay down.’” I don’t care what it means, I still get the chills.

Okkervil River – The Stand Ins: One of my all-time favorites albums is Okkervil River’s The Stage Names, an homage to cinematic spectacle that bounces between tonal shifts like an acoustic pinball. There’s the epic anthem of “Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe”, the bubbly rapid-fire delivery of “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene”, and the equally epic elegiac sadness of “A Girl in Port” (among others). The Stand Ins possesses a similar desire to capture a variety of moods, but it lacks the graceful fluidity of The Stage Names. Whereas on the earlier album, every song mattered equally, here some are just filler, biding time until the band get to their next great slice-of-life. That’s disappointing (if perhaps expected), but it’s also worth mentioning that there are no fewer than four truly great songs on here. “Lost Coastlines” is a gorgeous travelogue that ebbs into “Singer Songwriter”, a jaunty jab at a life of disaffected privilege (“You got taste / What a bitch, ‘cause that’s all that you have”). Later, “Pop Lie” is a meticulously constructed piece of, well, pop music, and it bleeds beautifully into “On Tour with Zykos”, a far more sensitive portrait of the disaffected, this time – naturally – a pop star (“I wonder who you’ve got your hooks in tonight? / Was she happy to be hooked / And on your arm did she feel alive?”). The rest may be insubstantial by comparison, but albums with four legit showstoppers don’t come along very often.

The Rosebuds – Life Like: Imagine Screech helping Zack Morris to pick up a girl, and you can envision how unlikely it would be for me to introduce my buddy Brian to a great album of which he was ignorant. As such, one of my finest achievements in life was uncovering Night of the Furies – last year’s delectable treat from the Rosebuds – then learning that Brian had never heard of it, sending it to him, and watching from afar like a proud father as he fell in love with it. It may never happen again, but it sure was fun. Anyway, this year’s effort from The Rosebuds isn’t as perfect as their prior album, but it’s nevertheless an agreeably solid set of tunes. Even better, it intersperses its best songs throughout; the opening title track sets the dark mood with a rippling, creepily insistent bass, while five tracks later “Another Way In” offers a chorus of desperation disguised as hope. In between are the uppers, the buoyant “Bow to the Middle” and the playful “Nice Fox”, while the closer “In the Backyard” sends us on our way wanting more.

The Stills – Oceans Will Rise: It’s tempting to dismiss this album because one of its songs – the super-powered, no-holds-barred single “Being Here” – is so much better than anything else on it. But that should hardly count as condemnation, especially since there are a number of good songs on here. “Snow in California” suggests its alarmist message of incongruity with literal alarms, “Hands on Fire” crescendos until it threatens to crack, and “I’m With You” easily embodies steady, hard-driven rock. But let’s not fool ourselves: “Being Here” is the real reason to listen to Oceans Will Rise. Every time I listen to it when I’m driving, I suddenly find myself going 85 in a 55 while screaming the chorus. Pure euphoria.

Santogold – Santogold: I’m not sure when I started to enjoy dance-pop, and I’m still not sure I fully embrace it as a sub-genre of pop music. But there was a stretch earlier in the year when I had to listen to this album every single day. Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta has to stab Uma Thurman in the heart with a needle loaded with adrenalin? The opening pump-pump-pump of “L.E.S. Artistes” – one of the catchiest fucking songs I’ve ever heard – kind of feels like that.

Tier 2: Rock Me the Fuck Out

Coldplay – Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends: It may be that, for all of the great music they’ve produced over the past decade, Coldplay’s legacy will be their derogatory inclusion in the classic “You know how I know you’re gay?” scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin. And that’s fine with me – any time one of my favorite comedies gets more press, that’s a good thing. But it shouldn’t diminish Coldplay’s emergence as one of the truly iconic bands of the new millennium, a band that has carved out its niche in musical history through the composition of tightly crafted (if oddly inaccessible) pop songs. My favorite thing about Viva la Vida is that it’s suitable for any mood. From the instrumental opener “Life in Technicolor” to the bombast of “Lost!” to the invigorating hooks of “Viva la Vida”, the album strikes a remarkable blend, a harmonious merger of soothing emo and urgent alt-rock. That it’s such an effortlessly appealing set of songs may lead naysayers to label it as innocuous, but that isn’t the case. Both universal and intimate, global in ambition yet personal in scale, Viva la Vida is everything a big pop record should be.

The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound: To be fair, this album isn’t exactly replete with variety. Of the 12 tracks on The ’59 Sound, 11 of them sound pretty much the exact damn same. But they all sound really fucking good. Building from a reliable verse-chorus-verse-chorus template, each song drives forward insistently, generating an up-tempo rhythm that is refreshingly old-fashioned. It helps that the hooks are fantastically catchy. “Old White Lincoln” and the title track each make their case, but my personal favorite is the nostalgic refrain from “High Lonesome”: “And Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand / I always kinda sorta wish I looked like Elvis / And in my head there’s all these classic cars and outlaw cowboy bands / I always kinda sorta wished I was someone else.” Any time you pay homage to Counting Crows’ “Round Here”, you’re going to get my attention.

TV on the Radio – Dear Science: This album is being heavily hyped by a lot of snobbish indie rags on the net; odds are it’ll be #1 on Pitchfork’s prestigious (if oft-horseshit) year-end list. Listening to it, I’m weirdly reminded of a line from “West Wing”, when someone asks Toby if he believes the Bible to be literally true. His response: “Yes sir, but I don’t believe either of us is smart enough to understand it.” Well, that epitomizes my feelings on Dear Science – I recognize that it’s great music, even if I’m not musically savvy enough to understand it. (Not that I necessarily feel that way about the Bible, but never mind.) What I do know is that it’s a thoroughly active record, melding a great variety of sonic avenues into an undeniably compelling mixture. It takes some effort to sift through the jangling before the underlying texture emerges (and I haven’t even started with most of the lyrics yet), but Dear Science is a true grower in that it happily rewards repeated listens. As for those lyrics, I certainly intend to dig deeper in the future because on one listen I randomly caught the opening lines of “Red Dress”, and golly look what I found: “Hey Jackboot, fuck your war! / ‘Cause I’m fat and in love, and no bombs are falling on me for sure / But I’m scared to death that I’m living a life not worth dying for.” Bob Dylan just got a whole lot funkier.

We Are Scientists – Brain Thrust Mastery: “We all recognize that I’m the problem here.” That’s the opening line of “Ghouls”, the moody, darkly atmospheric leadoff hitter of this album. It might portend a record laden with regret and self-loathing, but it’s really misdirection, as Brain Thrust Mastery pulls a complete one-eighty with its second act, the deliciously poppy “Let’s See It”. In fact, the majority of the album is hugely entertaining precisely because it is defiantly unapologetic. The band’s gung-ho attitude – one that fully embraces the pure pleasure that the best pop music can provide – is never more evident than on “After Hours”, one of the most enjoyable songs of the year. Surrounded by a vibrant bass that acts less as accompaniment than as propeller and electronic guitars that simply rock, Keith Murray implores, “Time means nothing, say that you’ll stay!”. If you insist.

Tier 1: The Top Five (Plus One)

Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours: Talk about unapologetic. There’s something profoundly satisfying about listening to a record that aims purely to, well, satisfy. There’s no pretension in Cut Copy’s energetic new-wave beats or gorgeously shifting synths, only earnestness. “Lights and music are on my mind” Dan Whitford informs us on the head-bob-inspiring “Lights and Music”, and honestly, what else would be on his mind? It’s the music that matters here, not awards shows or politics or literarily significant allegory. And so Cut Copy have fashioned an album that simply pleases, and it does so with such grace that listening to it results in the involuntary sensation of bliss. Tracks flow into one another effortlessly, such as the way ethereal “We Fight for Diamonds” breathes life into the triumphant “Unforgettable Season”. The record isn’t just cohesive, it’s alive, and it transfers that vitality to its audience. Try listening to “Hearts on Fire” without shouting the “Ay! Aha!” interjections that form the pathway to the song’s refrain. You won’t stand a chance.

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs: Everything I have to say about this album, I said here. Nothing has changed. “Grapevine Fires” still stops my heart every time.

The Hold Steady – Stay Positive: When I wrote earlier that I tend not to focus on lyrics when listening to music, The Hold Steady serve as the primary exception (perhaps along with Death Cab). Minnesotan Craig Finn is less a singer than he is a storyteller, and to him, the words seem to matter more than the music. This is not to say that the band is lacking sonically – on the contrary, their bar-punk, street-wise sound is impatient and forceful. “Our songs are sing-along songs” Finn declares on “Constructive Summer”, and so they are, full of rip-roaring hooks and seductive yowls. Such participatory spirit has never been more palpable than on “Slapped Actress” the album’s closer that concludes with an exultant series of “Whoa OH! Whoa-oh-Ah-oh” cries. Singing along isn’t a suggestion, it’s compulsory.

But it’s in the stories where The Hold Steady truly distinguish themselves, and it’s the stories that bring me back again and again. There’s “Sequestered in Memphis”, the colorful tale of an ill-fated pickup (“In the bar light, she looked alright / In the daylight, she looked desperate / But that’s alright, I was desperate too”). There’s the agonizing desperation of “Lord, I’m Discouraged”, a religious man’s last gasp at salvation after a woman’s repeated spurns have nearly drowned him (“And I come to your altar, but then there’s just nothing / And she keeps insisting / The sutures and bruises are none of my business / She says that she’s sick, but she won’t get specific”). And then there’s “One for the Cutters”, an utterly terrifying narrative of a good-girl collegian mucking about with townies that is made all the more frightening for its stark realism. There’s murder, mayhem, and not a remedy in sight. “Mom, do you know where you girl is / Dad, do you know where your kids are?” Finn asks. The answer will keep even the most confident of parents up at night: “Sniffing at crystal in cute little cars / Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars.” Best of luck looking Princess in the eye after listening to that.

The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride: The Mountain Goats’ front man John Darnielle could be mistaken for a long-lost cousin of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. Both possess unorthodox vocal styles (Finn tends to speak as much as sing, while Darnielle’s delivery is a tad nasal), and both place an inordinate emphasis on narrative structure when composing their music. That’s where the similarities end though, as The Mountain Goats offer a far more delicate and laid-back sound than the Hold Steady, although they can turn up the volume every now and then. But Heretic Pride is mostly content with being small-scale, and it just so happens that nearly every song on the record is beautiful. “San Bernardino” is a sweetly touching profession of love tinged with sadness (“It was hard, but you were brave, you are splendid / And we will never be alone in this world / No matter what they say”). The guitars pick up a notch for the title track, a defiant defense of individualism and a solemn promise to enact revenge (“They pick me up and throw me down / And I start laughing like a child / And I mark their faces one by one”). The steady strum of “Autoclave” introduces a tormented man full of self-loathing (“I am this great unstable mass of blood and foam / And no one in her right mind would make my home her home”), while “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” – the closest the album comes to a true rock song – rushes and tumbles to a paranoid frenzy (“Woke up afraid of my own shadow! / Like, genuinely afraid! / Headed to the pawnshop to buy myself a switchblade”). These myriad tones might suggest an overall impression of inconsistency, but Darnielle has such a canny knack for the universal – his songs are specific stories and yet can be about anyone – that Heretic Pride unites its disparate narratives into a cohesive whole. It may be an intimate record, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be for everyone.

Shearwater – Rook: By turns haunting, opaque, eerie, and gripping, this is assuredly not an album for everyone. But wow does it grab me. The vocals are the real key. Jonathan Meiburg (formerly of Okkervil River) slips effortlessly in and out of falsetto, lending an epic aura to the band’s shimmering woodwinds and ceaselessly shifting percussion. That shifting is emblematic of the album as a whole; the opener “On the Death of the Waters” begins as a whisper, only to explode halfway through with a guitar-powered avalanche. It’s a jarring transition, but it firmly announces that the record will not be constrained by adherence to genre. “Rooks” and “Leviathan Bound” may be simplistic in structure, but Meiburg’s voice elevates them to grandeur, while “The Snow Leopard” coils and prowls as restlessly as its subject, bulging toward passionate release only to retreat suddenly to stealthy quiet. As a singer, Meiburg is revolutionary; as an album, Rook is everlasting.

And my favorite album of the year:

M83 – Saturdays=Youth: Spellbinding. That’s really the only way I can describe it because, quite frankly, I can’t describe it. Unlike any album I’ve ever heard, it doesn’t even seem like an album, or if it is, it was created in an alternate universe that possesses vast, alien technology, then was beamed to our planet to see if we were capable of processing it. I understand that sounds melodramatic, but you have to understand that listening to this album is an utterly transportive experience for me – it brings me into a different world. When I turn this album on, I don’t really listen to it – I let it surround me, envelope me, overpower me. Its soundscapes are so lush and expansive that I’m tempted to label the album cinematic in that it could fit snugly in the context of a film, but that’s somehow demeaning, because Saturdays=Youth is so richly textured and fully realized that it’s almost a movie in and of itself. It has its own characters and its own stories – the lovers of “Kim and Jessie”, who live in a secret world of their own creation; the death-obsessed, wise-beyond-her-years teenager of “Graveyard Girl”; the girl yearning for flight beyond all physical limits in “Up!” – and they’re all encapsulated within this endlessly coalescing sonic lattice of sound and speed and beauty. Saturdays=Youth is music at its apex of power.

If you have to listen to one album from 2008, make it this one.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

2008 Fantasy Baseball Analysis: Best and Worst Draft Picks

The great thing about fantasy sports is that they provide you with verifiable data with which you can better insult people. I’ll readily label anyone who defends Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain a complete moron, but those who disagree with me can always supply some half-assed, wildly pretentious defense about how Aronofsky brilliantly inverted the conventionally accepted apparatus of narrative filmmaking in order to achieve a greater level of surrealism. Yeah, that’s bullshit, but without any raw numbers to back up my point (other than perhaps to mention that watching The Fountain physically damaged my eyelids), I can’t categorically win the argument, so I wind up just getting frustrated/beaten up by someone bigger than I am.

(For the record, other movies that fall into this category include, but are not limited to, I Heart Huckabees, Elephant, The New World, and The Darjeeling Limited. And yes, all of these films received positive reviews – if not outright raves – from the New York Times. Just further proof that I could never be a professional film critic.)

Fantasy sports, however, give you argumentative ammunition. For example, the next time an obnoxious Yankee fan gushes to me about Derek Jeter, I can always retort, “You mean the same Derek Jeter who was ranked one-hundred-fourth among all hitters in 2008 and didn’t rank in the top 50 in any major categories? That Derek Jeter?”. It’s always more satisfying to know that I’m right and the other person’s wrong when I have statistical data to actually prove it.

This is one of the reasons I do a best-and-worst pick analysis of each round of my fantasy baseball draft every year – to arm myself with an array of statistically valid insults that I can use at next year’s draft. It’s also instructive to look back and see how actual performance differed from projected performance. Plus I think it’ll help me get laid. (Note: One of these three reasons is untrue.)

The mechanics of the analysis are straightforward and mirror those used to construct the Manifesto’s Fantasy Baseball All-Star Team back in July. I ran Z-scores on a decently sized sample for each of the categories used in my 5x5 roto league. For hitters, these includes runs, home runs, RBI, stolen bases, and OPS (with the latter replacing the more standard but increasingly irrelevant measure of batting average). The pitching categories include wins, strikeouts, ERA, WHIP, and (for relievers) saves. If you don’t know what any of these categories mean, this post probably isn’t for you.

(For those interested in the nitty-gritty, the sample includes baseball’s highest-ranked 230 hitters, 75 starting pitchers, and 30 relief pitchers. I also used a multiplier of 0.75 on steals and 1.50 on saves for relievers. I’m pretty sure it’s mathematically inappropriate to use multipliers when working with Z-scores, but given how few innings relievers pitch, it’s critical to boost the relative value of saves. As for steals, well, I don’t really have a justification for lessening the impact of steals other than that I can’t stand them. Still, I used an even lower multiplier of 0.5 back in July, so you could argue I’m improving. Anyone who wants my spiffy spreadsheet, feel free to email me. God I’m such a nerd.)

I should also point out that, in selecting the worst pick of each round, I tend to ignore injuries when possible. The theory behind this is that if a top pick gets injured, fantasy owners can immediately pick up a replacement who can provide at least 75% of the injured player’s value. (Note: This assumes that said fantasy owner is actually paying attention to his team as opposed to leaving the injured player in his lineup for three weeks, thereby dramatically altering the competitive balance of the league and eventually getting himself booted for the following season.) If, however, a top pick is healthy but simply performs poorly, owners will invariably keep that player in their lineup in the hope that he turns things around, suffering the consequences as he systematically sabotages their team. Therefore, drafting players who get injured isn’t necessarily as detrimental as drafting guys who stay healthy and just plain suck.

Finally, the concept of worst pick in a given round tends to lose its zip in the second half of the draft; it’s hardly appropriate for me to ridicule someone for making a particularly poor selection in the seventeenth round when most picks in that round wound up getting cut anyway. As such, while I’ll detail the best pick in all 20 rounds in the draft, I’ll only specify the worst pick in the first 10, when there was plenty of talent still available.

(By the way, if you’re wondering how my team fared this season, I’ll tell you: After spending the majority of the season in tenth place, my squad gained about 20 points in the standings in the last three weeks of the year, only to finish in fourth, one point out of third. Why is that excruciating? Because only the top three teams win prize money. This was like the Indians’ extraordinary late-season surge in Major League, only if Ricky Vaughn had given up a homer to Haywood and Taylor had been thrown out at first on his bunt attempt. Even worse, if my pitching staff had managed one more win – just one more fucking win – I would have forced a three-way tie for second place. In related news, I had the Mets’ Oliver Perez starting for me on the last day of the season, only the pathetic Mets offense couldn’t get him a win against Florida. So in addition to stomping on the hearts of their brutally abused fan base for a second consecutive year, the Mets also managed to ruin my fantasy season. Thanks guys.)

Enough of the prelude. The Manifesto now proudly unveils the Best and Worst Picks of the 2008 Fantasy Baseball Draft:

Best pick: Albert Pujols, Cardinals. Back in March, polling revealed that American citizens were predominantly concerned with three major issues: the war in Iraq, the sub-prime lending crisis, and Albert Pujols’ elbow injury. At least one turned out just fine. Amidst rumors that he was considering Tommy John surgery, Pujols’ average draft position slid all the way from second to eleventh, which is exactly where he went in my draft. The results? Pujols’ 1.114 OPS didn’t just lead the majors – it was the highest of his entire illustrious career. He also ranked tied-for-fourth in homers (37) and ninth in RBI (116). Throw in 100 runs, and he carried the highest overall Z-score among all hitters in baseball. Apologies to: Hanley Ramirez (MLB-leading 125 runs, .940 OPS, 35 steals, by far the top shortstop), Ryan Howard (MLB-leading 48 homers and 146 RBI), David Wright (115 runs, 33 homers, 124 RBI, .924 OPS).

Worst pick: Jimmy Rollins, Phillies. It made sense that Rollins went in the first round, given that he had a monstrous 2007 season (139 runs, 30 homers, 94 RBI, 41 steals) en route to the MVP award, but it turns out that was a mirage. He did manage 47 steals this year, but his performance in the remaining categories declined dramatically, as he tallied just 76 runs, 11 homers, 59 RBI. Those translate to declines of 45%, 63%, and 37%, respectively. Just for good measure, his OPS dipped from a career-best .875 in 2007 to just .786 this year. So where does Rollins’ Z-score rank among all major league hitters? Seventy-seventh. Not exactly what fantasy owners were looking for from their first-round pick.

Best pick: Mark Teixeira, Braves/Angels. This turned out to be an extremely tight race between Teixeira and two outfielders, Carlos Beltran and Grady Sizemore. Teixeira actually has the lowest Z-score (ranked twelfth in the majors compared to ninth for Beltran and eleventh for Sizemore), but I’m giving him the edge because of his huge advantage in OPS (.962, ninth in the majors, compared to .876 for both Beltran and Sizemore). He also drove in considerably more runs (121 vs. 112 for Beltran and 90 for Sizemore), hit 33 homers (matched by Sizemore, six more than Beltran), and scored 102 runs. Beltran led the trio with 116 runs scored, and Sizemore tallied 38 steals (Beltran had 25, Teixeira just two), but with those OPS-RBI numbers, I’m inclined to favor the power hitter. Apologies to: Beltran, Sizemore.

Worst pick: Carl Crawford, Devil Rays. Crawford’s one of those guys who gets taken in the second round every year because of his sexy track-star athleticism, even though he really should go in the fifth. His steal total was cut in half from last year (from 50 to 25), and with just 69 runs scored, 57 RBI, and eight homers, he should barely crack fantasy lineups. He did miss 53 games this year, but that doesn’t excuse his abysmal .718 OPS. The fifteenth player selected overall, Crawford’s ultimate Z-score ranked one-hundred-forty-third among hitters. Whoops. Sigh of relief for: Brandon Phillips (.754 OPS), B.J. Upton (nine homers, 67 RBI).

Best pick: Manny Ramirez, Red Sox/Dodgers. As if Red Sox nation needed any additional data to fuel their disgust with Manny, consider this: When I ran my All-Star team analysis in July, Manny ranked twenty-seventh among hitters. At the end of the year, after spending two months basking in the summer sun of Los Angeles, he ranked third. That’s what happens when you drive in 53 runs in 53 games for your new team while crushing 17 homers and compiling a preposterous 1.232 OPS. Ramirez finished the year ranked tied-for-fourth in homers (37), sixth in RBI (121), and third in OPS (1.031). What a bastard. Apologies to: C.C. Sabathia (17 wins, 251 K’s, 2.70 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, third-best starting pitcher), Lance Berkman (114 runs, .986 OPS).

Worst pick: Justin Verlander, Tigers. Victor Martinez and Erik Bedard are also options here but are spared due to injuries. Martinez played in only 73 games, making his pathetic .701 OPS (down from .879 last year) less of a detriment; Bedard’s ugly 1.32 WHIP (up from 1.09 in ’07) was mitigated by his low innings total (81). Verlander, however, tossed 201 innings, and every one was ugly. The 25-year-old did win 11 games while fanning 163 batters, but he also sported a 4.84 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. Among the 75 starters in the sample, both of those ranked seventy-first. So much for his label as an ace. Sigh of relief for: Martinez, Bedard.

Best pick: Cole Hamels, Phillies. Hamels, the eighth-best starting pitcher, gets the nod over a pair of power hitters (Adam Dunn and Justin Morneau). In addition to a solid 3.09 ERA and 196 strikeouts, Hamels’ sparkling 1.08 WHIP ranked fourth in the majors. Oddly enough, the lone area where he struggled was wins (14) despite playing on the NL East champion Phillies, further proving that wins as a stat are completely obnoxious and make no sense. Apologies to: Dunn (40 homers, 100 RBI), Morneau (129 RBI, third in the league), Dan Haren (16 wins, 206 K’s, 1.13 WHIP).

Worst pick: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies. Travis Hafner’s bum shoulder is the only thing that saves him here – his .628 OPS could have been disastrous had he played more than 57 games. Tulowitzki, however, played in 101 games yet managed only eight homers, 48 runs, and 46 RBI to go with his .732 OPS. That meager OPS was actually his best relative stat, and it still ranked one-hundred-seventh-eighth among hitters; overall, Tulowitzki’s Z-score ranked two-hundred-eleventh. There’s a reason Ryan Braun won Rookie of the Year last year. Sigh of relief for: Hafner, Carlos Guillen (10 homers, 54 RBI), Derek Jeter (11 homers, .771 OPS).

Best pick: Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox. I hate rewarding fantasy owners for drafting closers early in the draft, but no other picks in the fifth round distinguished themselves, so I’m forced to select the Boston manimal. Papelbon amassed 41 saves and 77 strikeouts in 69.1 innings to go with solid peripherals (2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIP), ranking him as the second-best closer in the game. He was also the only reliever to rank in the top 10 in all five pitching categories (he also managed five wins) other than that old guy who pitches for the Yankees. Apologies to: Dan Uggla (32 homers), Bobby Abreu (100 runs, 100 RBI, 22 steals).

Worst pick: J.J. Putz, Mariners. See, now this is what usually happens when you draft a closer in the early rounds. Putz’s tremendous 2007 campaign included a minuscule 1.38 ERA and 0.70 WHIP to go with 40 saves – unfortunately, both the ERA and WHIP more than doubled this year (to 3.88 and 1.60, respectively), while the saves dropped to 15. He pitched only 46.1 innings due to injury, but among the 30 relievers in the sample, he ranked twenty-eighth overall (the WHIP ranked dead last). Let that be a lesson to anyone who considers drafting a closer prior to the eleventh round. Sigh of relief for: Eric Byrnes (.641 OPS and six homers in 52 games), Robinson Cano (.715 OPS, 14 homers).

Best pick: Tim Lincecum, Giants. The likely NL Cy Young winner also emerged as the top-ranked fantasy pitcher in 2008. In 227 innings (an alarming total for a 24-year-old), he struck out a whopping 265 batters while compiling a 2.62 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. He also won 18 games, exactly one-quarter of San Francisco’s 72 victories for the year. Now Giants fans just need to hope his arm doesn’t fall off. Apologies to: Chipper Jones (1.044 OPS, second in the majors), Carlos Peña (31 homers, 102 RBI), Francisco Rodriguez (those 62 saves have to count for something).

Worst pick: Aaron Harang, Reds. Ordinarily I’ll argue that a pitcher’s win-loss record doesn’t properly reflect his performance – unfortunately for Harang, his 6-17 record in 2008 was in no way misleading. After a career year in 2007 (16-6, 218 K’s, 1.14 WHIP), his ERA ballooned to 4.78 (sixth-worst in the sample), and his 1.38 WHIP (tied for eighth-worst) wasn’t much better. Throw in just six wins, and of the 75 pitchers ranked, he placed sixty-ninth. In related news, he’s never pitched in the postseason. Sigh of relief for: Ryan Zimmerman (14 homers, 51 runs, 51 RBI).

Best pick: Roy Halladay, Blue Jays. Everyone seems to have already awarded the AL Cy Young to Cliff Lee, and while the Indians’ southpaw had an incredible year (22-3, 2.54 ERA), Halladay should certainly enter the discussion. The Jays’ ace won 20 games himself, struck out more batters (206 to Lee’s 170), and ranked second in the majors in WHIP (1.05 vs. Lee’s 1.11) and eighth in ERA (2.78). And about those wins: Halladay won 20 games while receiving 4.72 runs of support per game, which ranked sixty-ninth among MLB pitchers who tossed at least 140 innings; Lee won 22 games with 6.13 runs of support, which ranked ninth overall. Just remember this when Lee goes 8-16 next season. Apologies to: Adrian Gonzalez (103 runs, 36 homers, 119 RBI, seven fans who actually noticed).

Worst pick: Gary Sheffield, Tigers. An oblique injury limited Sheffield to 114 games this season, but it was still enough to damage his owners. After a stellar 2007 season that saw him score 107 runs and steal 22 bases, Sheffield played like a 39-year-old this year, scoring only 52 runs and swiping just nine bags. He also drove in just 57 batters and finished with a paltry .725 OPS, his lowest mark since 1991. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Sigh of relief for: Nick Swisher (69 RBI, .742 OPS), Felix Hernandez (nine wins, 1.39 WHIP).

Best pick: Jason Bay, Pirates/Red Sox. O.K., maybe that Manny trade wasn’t completely horrible. Bay’s numbers weren’t extraordinary, but he put up solid totals in all categories (111 runs, 31 homers, 101 RBI, .895 OPS, 10 steals, zero distractions), good enough to rank him seventeenth among hitters. For the record, all of these numbers were substantial improvements over his statistics from 2007 (including a ghastly .746 OPS), when I drafted him in the second round. And you wonder why I was less-than-ecstatic about the Manny trade at the time. Apologies to: Jim Thome (93 runs, 34 homers, 90 RBI).

Worst pick: Andruw Jones, Dodgers. I really shouldn’t select Jones here, given that he played less than half the season, but I can’t help it, not when his Z-score ranks him dead last. Jones’ numbers this year were simply obscene. In 75 games, he scored 21 runs and drove in just 14 while putting up a .505 OPS. To put that OPS in perspective, the only players within 100 points of him were Michael Bourn (.588) and Willy Taveras (.604), and both of those guys are pure speedsters (109 steals between them) – Jones didn’t steal a single base. The worst part, though, is that after mashing 41 homers two years ago, Jones hit exactly three in 2008. Now, some statisticians might measure that on a per-at-bat basis, i.e., Jones averaged one home run every 70 at-bats. That’s brutal, but I prefer to look at it like this: Despite Jones finishing 2007 with a .724 OPS, the Dodgers still signed him to a two-year, $36 million contract last offseason. Therefore, for each home run Andruw Jones hit this year, the Los Angeles Dodgers paid him exactly six million dollars. What a country. Sigh of relief for: Fausto Carmona (5.44 ERA, 1.62 WHIP), Chone Figgins (.685 OPS, 22 RBI).

(By the way, Jones is the only possible player who could have saved Carmona from “Worst Pick” status – his ERA and WHIP each ranked next-to-last of all pitchers in the sample, and his Z-score placed him dead last overall. And just to recap: The 2008 Cleveland Indians featured the American League’s (second) best pitcher (who was so terrible last year that he had to be sent to the minors), the American League’s worst pitcher (who was so good last year that he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting), and the National League’s best pitcher for the last three months of ’08 (who was so bad the first month of ’08 that many fantasy owners cut him even though he won the Cy Young last year). Cleveland: city of light, city of magic.)

Best pick: Josh Hamilton, Rangers. The funny thing is that for all the publicity Hamilton received this year, his OPS actually dropped from his half-season with the Reds last year (from .922 to .901). No matter. The Natural still finished second in the majors with 130 RBI, and his 98 runs and 32 homers weren’t bad either. Oh, and he also was never arrested or found dead, which was a plus. Apologies to: Mariano Rivera (39 saves, 1.40 ERA, microscopic 0.67 WHIP, easily the highest-ranked reliever), James Shields (1.15 WHIP).

Worst pick: Jeff Francoeur, Braves. Lot of candidates here. Jorge Posada (three homers in 168 at-bats) and Howie Kendrick (43 runs, 37 RBI) are spared due to injuries (51 and 92 games played, respectively). Matt Cain and John Maine were both impressively bad, but at least neither of them was sent to AAA for a week to “figure things out” as was the case for Francoeur. It didn’t work. Never a patient hitter, Francoeur’s hitting stroke disappeared entirely this year, resulting in a limp .653 OPS (eighth-worst in the sample) to go with just 11 home runs in 599 at-bats. Unless your fantasy league includes outfield assists, don’t draft him next year. Sigh of relief for: Posada, Kendrick, Cain (eight wins, 1.36 WHIP), Maine (10 wins, 4.18 ERA, 1.35 WHIP).

Best pick: Chad Billingsley, Dodgers. No contest here. Billingsley ranked ninth in the majors with 201 strikeouts and also sported a 3.14 ERA while winning 16 games (both ranked in the top 20). If he can ever cut down on his walks (his 1.34 WHIP was fifteenth-worst among starters), he’ll be an absolute stud in Los Angeles. Half-hearted apologies to: Pat Burrell (33 homers).

Worst pick: Pedro Martinez, Mets. The tenth round was simply brutal for pitching – it featured four of the five lowest-ranked starters in the entire sample. Sadly, Pedro was the worst. His ugly 1.57 WHIP was third-highest among starters, but even worse was his 5.61 ERA, which ranked dead last. He also won just five games in 20 starts. Theo Epstein, if you’re reading this, take comfort in knowing that you made the right call letting him walk after 2004. Sigh of relief for: Ian Snell (5.42 ERA, league-worst 1.76 WHIP), Jeff Francis (four wins in 24 starts, 5.01 ERA, 1.48 WHIP), Francisco Liriano (1.39 WHIP).

Alright, that takes care of the “Worst Pick” classification. We’re all positive from here on out, and we’ll also be more brief. Probably.

Best pick: Ben Sheets, Brewers. It’s tempting to go with A.J. Burnett here, given that he ranked third in the majors with 231 strikeouts and was also tied for fifth in wins (18). But his 4.07 ERA and 1.34 WHIP each ranked in the bottom 15 of the sample, and with his 221.1 IP, those poor numbers could drag down a team’s totals considerably. In contrast, Sheets ranked tied-for-fourteenth in ERA (3.09) and tied-for-twelfth in WHIP (1.15) while pitching 198.1 innings, his highest total since 2004. Apologies to: Burnett, Matt Kemp (93 runs, 35 steals), Johnny Damon (95 runs, 29 steals), Jhonny Peralta (104 runs, 23 homers, 89 RBI).

Best pick: Brad Lidge, Phillies. Closers were in vogue in the twelfth round of my draft, with nine of the 12 players selected working from the bullpen. Lidge, coming off a mediocre 2007 season where he saved just 19 games, was the best of the bunch. Not only did his 41 saves rank tied-for-fourth in the majors, but he led all closers in strikeouts with 92 (a whopping 11.9 per nine innings) and put up a 1.95 ERA (fifth-best in the league). I look forward to him blowing two late-game leads against the Dodgers this weekend. Apologies to: Francisco Cordero (34 saves, 78 K’s), Kevin Gregg (29 saves, seven wins).

Best pick: Joakim Soria, Royals. Let me put on my Fantasy Condescension Hat for a moment: There’s a theory that circulates within the more ignorant fantasy circles that owners should draft closers who pitch for the league’s best teams because these teams will win more games, thus giving their closers more save chances. Wrong. Good teams often win games by more than three runs, thus depriving relievers of save opportunities; in contrast, bad teams will still win a handful of games but are unlikely to blow out their opponents, translating to a number of save chances for closers. No one epitomized this in 2008 better than Soria – the Royals won just 75 games, but Soria saved 42 of them (third in the majors). He also ranked second among closers in WHIP (0.86) and fourth in ERA (1.60). Apologies to: Jermaine Dye (96 runs, 34 homers, 96 RBI), Ted Lilly (17 wins, 184 K’s).

Best pick: Derek Lowe, Dodgers. There were eight starting pitchers drafted in the fourteenth round, including high-profile guys like Andy Pettitte (who was subpar with a 4.54 ERA and 1.41 WHIP) and Barry Zito (who was abominable with a 5.15 ERA and 1.60 WHIP). Lowe, meanwhile, flew under the radar as always but ended the year with a nifty 1.13 WHIP (ninth-best in the league) to go with a sturdy 3.24 ERA. He also managed to win 14 games despite receiving just 4.82 runs of support per game (sixty-sixth among starters with at least 140 IP). And there’s still no way the Red Sox are going to re-sign him. Dammit.

Best pick: Rich Harden, A’s/Cubs. Ugh. Alright, I could write 2,000 words explaining why Rich Harden represents what Dr. Henry Jones would call the slime of humanity, but just take my word for it that he and I have issues. But after a strained shoulder sidelined the oft-injured hurler in April, Harden returned to the mound in May and wound up pitching 148 innings, the second-highest total of his career. He led the majors with a 2.07 ERA, ranked third in WHIP (1.06), and struck out 181 batters (good for 11 per nine innings, also tops in the majors among starters). Despite winning just 10 games, his composite Z-score ranked him as the sixth-best starting pitcher in the league. And God do I hate that I just wrote that. Apologies to: Carlos Delgado (third-best 38 homers, 115 RBI), Kerry Wood (34 saves, 1.09 WHIP, 84 K’s in 66.1 innings).

Best pick: Jon Lester, Red Sox. A mediocre WHIP (1.27) and poor strikeout rate (152 in 210.1 IP) prevented Lester from reaching elite status this year. But in addition to tossing a no-hitter in May, he won 16 games and sported a solid 3.21 ERA. Now he can focus on doing what he does best: winning in October.

Best pick: Nate McLouth, Pirates. Who? McLouth had a reputation as a speedy outfielder entering 2008, but he was supposedly battling Nyjer Morgan for a starting job. He doesn’t need to battle anymore. McLouth’s 113 runs ranked tied-for-sixth in the majors, and for a guy billed as a speedster (23 steals), he did just fine in the power department (26 homers, 94 RBI). He finished ranked as the twenty-second best hitter in the league despite 105 batters being selected ahead of him. Of course, no one outside of Pittsburgh knows who the hell he is.

Best pick: Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox. Most Red Sox fans are pushing hard for gritty second baseman Dustin Pedroia to win the MVP, and while he’s had a terrific year, they’re backing the wrong guy. Pedroia’s 118 runs ranked second in the majors, and his 20 steals were a stunning surprise (he had seven in 2007), but Youkilis ranked tied-for-tenth in RBI (115) and eleventh in OPS (.959, 90 points ahead of Pedroia’s .869 mark). He also scored 91 runs and smacked 29 homers, placing his Z-score twenty-first among hitters (Pedroia ranked thirty-first). In related news, I traded him in April. For Oliver Perez. Apologies to: Jason Giambi (32 homers, 96 RBI).

Best pick: Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers. There weren’t any particularly impressive picks in the draft’s penultimate round, but after sliding into the closer’s role following a Takashi Saito injury, Broxton grabbed 14 saves while striking out 88 batters in 69 innings. He also sported solid peripherals (3.13 ERA, 1.17 WHIP).

Best pick: Ervin Santana, Angels. Here’s a perfect example of how staying focused during the final rounds of the draft can pay huge dividends. Santana was the two-hundred-thirty-seventh player selected and wound up ranking as the league’s ninth-best starting pitcher. His 214 strikeouts ranked fourth in the majors while his 1.12 WHIP ranked eighth. He also won 16 games while putting up a 3.49 ERA. In related news, the champion of my league drafted him.

And just for fun…

Hitter: Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals. I freely admit that I’d never heard of Ludwick until he started mashing homers early in the season (he hit nine in May alone). I’ll remember him now. The St. Louis outfielder ranked tied-for-fourth in the majors with 37 home runs and also placed sixth in OPS (.966) while scoring 104 runs and driving in 113. All told, he ranked as the eight-best hitter, one slot behind top overall pick Alex Rodriguez. Fantasy sports can be strange. Apologies to: Carlos Quentin (96 runs, 36 homers, 100 RBI, .965 OPS, ranked fifteenth overall), Aubrey Huff (96 runs, 32 homers, 108 RBI, .912 OPS, ranked twenty-third overall), Dustin Pedroia (118 runs, 20 steals, ranked thirty-first overall).

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee, Indians. It’s easy to excuse owners for not drafting Lee – he finished 2007 with a putrid 6.29 ERA and 1.52 WHIP. Whether he simply trained hard in the offseason or sold his soul to Satan, something changed in 2008, as Lee finished tied for the major-league lead in wins (22), tied-for-third in ERA (2.54), and tied-for-sixth in WHIP (1.11). He might not deserve the Cy Young Award that he’ll likely win this month, but as the pitcher with the fourth-highest Z-score, he certainly earned the title of best waiver wire pickup. Apologies to: Ryan Dempster (17 wins, 187 K’s, 2.96 ERA), Ricky Nolasco (15 wins, 1.10 WHIP), Mike Mussina (20 wins), Edinson Volquez (17 wins, 206 K’s).

Relief Pitcher: Brian Fuentes, Rockies. After being dumped from the closer’s role in 2007 in favor of Manny Corpas, Fuentes reclaimed his spot less than a month into the season thanks to Corpas’ struggles. Once there he excelled, saving 30 games while striking out 82 batters in 62.2 innings. A free-agent-to-be, Fuentes’ excellent peripherals (2.73 ERA, 1.10 WHIP) ensured he’ll receive a tidy reward this offseason. And when he gets bounced from closing duties for the Tigers in May 2009, don’t be surprised. Apologies to: Salomon Torres (28 saves, seven wins).

And that’s that. Hope everyone enjoyed it, see you all back here for fantasy football draft analysis in January. In the meantime, maybe I’ll actually post about movies …

Sunday, September 28, 2008

If that's a Duchess, I want to be a Duke

There’s a great moment in “The West Wing” when Josh is preparing to meet some brainy NASA scientist who wants to take him stargazing and show him how majestic the night sky is so she can secure White House funding for a mission to Mars, or something like that. Normally it’s not something Josh would be caught dead doing, but the scientist is a chick (played by Christina Chang), and she isn’t ugly. Josh’s shrewd secretary, Donna, calls him on it. “Would you be going if she weren’t attractive?” she asks. He thinks about it, then replies, with spectacular honesty: “We’ll never know.”

That’s basically how I feel about The Duchess. Would I have enjoyed this straightforward British period piece as much as I did if it didn’t star Keira Knightley, whom I firmly believe to be not only the most beautiful woman in the world but also the finest actress of her generation? We’ll never know. But as it is, golly I sure did like it.

The movie’s story is familiar but nonetheless intriguing (it’s also apparently mostly true, though that matters little to me). It concerns Georgiana, a beautiful, intelligent, middle-class woman who catches the eye of an aristocrat; he promptly weds her despite having been in her presence only twice before. Sadly for our heroine, her well-to-do husband sees her not as a companion for life but as a piece of fertile property whose job is to bear him a male heir.

The husband in question is, of course, the Duke of Devonshire, and it doesn’t hurt the movie’s meticulous pedigree that he’s played to haughty perfection by Ralph Fiennes. It’s been 15 years since he embodied evil in Schindler’s List, but Fiennes hasn’t lost his taste for villainy. Earlier this year he chewed the Belgium scenery as a mildly psychotic hit man in In Bruges, and he’s once again encapsulating malevolence as Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies. Here he’s far cooler but no less cruel, and his supreme indifference falters only when it gives way to sexual animalism. Near the end of The Duchess, he forces a smile, his only one of the film – it looks as though making such a gesture must have made his jaw hurt.

But for all his splendid entitlement, Fiennes only has a supporting role – after all, the movie isn’t called The Duke. Director Saul Dibb knows who his star is, and he makes sure we know it too. His camera frames Keira Knightley in closeup again and again, leading and following and circling her, exalting in her beauty and her grace. She makes his job easy; when she’s gliding toward the camera, eyes fixed on you, you won’t be looking anywhere else. There is plenty of beauty to be found in The Duchess – it captures the lavishness of aristocratic privilege with a lush grandiosity befitting the period – but none more so than in the high cheekbones and hypnotic eyes of its star. Unlike Keira Knightley’s prior film, The Duchess won’t damage your soul, but it’s certainly pleasing to the eye.

About that other film, let me just be clear: The Duchess is no Atonement. Not even close. This is hardly damning criticism – Atonement was so emotionally provocative that it nearly put me into a coma, and those types of shockwaves don’t get produced very often. It was a flawless picture, whereas The Duchess manifests a few problems, the central one being that Georgiana is destined to fall in love with Charles Grey, played by the moderately handsome and altogether bland Dominic Cooper. Perhaps I was put off by Cooper because he isn’t as dreamy as James McAvoy was in Atonement, but the romance between Georgiana and Charles – a passion the plot requires to be charged and all-consuming – is flat. It seems to function more as a plot device than as mutual, desperate longing. There’s a marvelous anticipatory scene early on where Georgiana’s friend, Bess (Hayley Atwell, who looked gorgeous earlier this year in Cassandra’s Dream – standing next to Keira Knightley here, she looks downright frumpy, but I suppose that isn’t her fault), gives her a taste of pleasure, but that teasing encounter winds up trumping the real thing when it occurs later on.

This is not to say The Duchess is devoid of emotion. Georgiana’s predicament is a dire one, and Keira Knightley again effortlessly utilizes her commanding screen presence to draw us into her character’s pain. Most of the film’s early scenes capitalize on her vibrance and vitality, with her delicate smile lending the proceedings a light, buoyant air. As the plot grows darker, however, she taps into a deep reservoir of emotion to reveal desire and, more acutely, despair. A scene late in The Duchess ends with Georgiana wailing, but we don’t need to see tears on that beautiful face of Keira Knightley to recognize when she’s in pain. One look into her eyes says it all.

But if I’m making The Duchess seem like a downer, don’t be worried. It has its sad moments, but it’s truthfully meant to be enjoyed, for its splendor and execution and its luminous star. It’s escapist entertainment, really – the opportunity to spend 100 minutes with a beautiful, talented, and altogether magnificent actress. How could I not enjoy that? Because let’s face it: If Keira Knightley ever offered to take me stargazing, I wouldn’t think twice.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The 2008 Fantasy Baseball All-Star Team

The All-Star break generally signifies one thing in my life: misery. With baseball taking a three-day break, exactly zero of the major sports that I like are currently in season, unless you count NBA Summer League games (which can actually be perversely enjoyable if you want to see if guys like Darrell Arthur can actually pick up 10 fouls in a game). Since The Dark Knight doesn’t arrive in theatres until this weekend (or Friday at midnight at the Common, to be precise), I decided to spend a little bit of time analyzing the first half of the baseball season from a fantasy perspective. In related news, I’m single.

(By the way, I’m not going to get into a philosophical discussion about the merits of fantasy sports – either you play them or you don’t, and that’s that. I’m also not going to go all Dolores Umbridge on you and patiently explain how roto leagues operate, so if you aren’t interested and want to skip this post, I assure you I won’t be offended, and I’ll get back to movies next time. I should mention, however, that many people who play fantasy sports and take them seriously are surprisingly normal. I am not one of those people. Anyway.)

I’ll wait till the end of the season to unveil my massive round-by-round analysis of the fantasy draft (always worth the wait), but with the Mid-Summer Classic being played Tuesday, it’s only apropos for me to announce my selection of fantasy all-stars. Obviously, this is focused purely on fantasy statistics – defense is utterly irrelevant, as are other commodities (situational hitting, slapping groundballs to second to move runners along, running hard down the first-base line, spitting tobacco 437 times in a single inning, etc.).

My league is a typical 5x5 roto league, with the exception of OPS replacing batting average. If you happen to be in the batting average camp like most of the statistically retarded rest of the world, well, I honestly don’t feel like justifying the substitution of OPS – to quote David Paymer from The American President, I could explain it better, but I’d need charts and graphs and an easel. Just take my word for it that I’m right and you’re wrong.

As such, the hitting categories are runs, home runs, RBI, stolen bases, and OPS, and the pitching categories are wins, strikeouts, ERA, WHIP, and saves. As far as the sample goes, I took the top 200-ranked batters and pitchers according to Yahoo’s enigmatic “Rank” statistic and calculated some Z-scores, then broke everyone out by position. I weighted steals half their value for hitters (I’m not sure if that’s statistically viable since I’m using Z-scores, but lord do I hate steals), and I actually weighted saves 1.5 times their value for relievers, since saves are pretty much all relievers are good for in fantasy league given how few innings they pitch. For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed performing all of these calculations. God, Microsoft Excel rocks.

Without further ado, the Manifesto presents the 2008 Fantasy Baseball All-Star Team:

C: Brian McCann, Braves. This one’s a no-brainer. After a relatively down year last year that saw his OPS drop nearly 200 points (from .961 to .772), McCann is currently leading all catchers in home runs (18), is second in OPS (.940, slightly behind Ryan Doumit of all people), and third in both runs (42, tied with Doumit) and RBI (53). He doesn’t give you speed, but with the exception of Russell Martin (10 steals on the year), no catchers do.

Runners-up: Geovany Soto (56 RBI to lead all catchers), Russell Martin (49 runs to go with the steals), Joe Mauer (only because my boss will fire me if I don’t put him on here).

1B: Lance Berkman, Astros. If McCann was a no-brainer pick, Berkman is Rain Man at a math bee. The top-ranked hitter overall, he leads all first basemen in runs (79), OPS (1.096), and … wait for it … steals (15). In his career, Berkman had never stolen 10 bases in an entire season. Now he’s on pace for 26. Oh, and he’s also second among first basemen in home runs (22, tied with Adrian Gonzalez) and RBI (73). Not bad for a third-round pick. (That sound you just heard was my buddy Tom strangling himself with his labrador’s leash.)

Runners-up: Ryan Howard (leading all 1B in homers and RBI, third in runs), Gonzalez (top four in runs, homers, and RBI), Albert Pujols (only 1B other than Berkman with an OPS over 1.000).

2B: Ian Kinsler, Rangers. This one kills me. I’m going against my own Z-scores here, as well as my own first-round pick and man-crush Chase Utley. Utley is tops among second basemen in both homers (25, a big edge over Kinsler’s 14) and RBI (69 vs. Kinsler’s 58). However, OPS is a relative wash (Utley leading .954 to .945), and Kinsler has a substantial lead in runs (84 vs. 68) and steals (23 vs. 10). With that differential, I think the speed gives Kinsler the edge.

Hmm, then again, those 23 steals aren’t even two standard deviations above the mean, whereas Utley’s 25 homers are a whopping 2.9 times the standard deviation above the average …

2B: Chase Utley, Phillies. Much better. Runners-up: Kinsler, Dan Uggla (23 homers, position-leading .979 OPS).

3B: David Wright, Mets. What a fucked up position. Chipper Jones has been by far the most valuable third baseman in 2008, not least because of a monstrous 1.086 OPS (trailing only Berkman for the major-league lead). But the rest of his numbers are oddly mediocre: He ranks tied for fourth among third basemen in homers, tied for sixth in runs, and a stunning fifteenth in RBI. With an .879 OPS, Wright has hardly been an All-Star-caliber hitter, but he leads all third basemen with 70 RBI, is tied for first with 60 runs scored, and ranks second with 11 steals. Regardless, the position is oddly weak this year and lacks a true separation fantasy player.

Runners up: Ryan Braun (leads all 3B with 23 home runs), Alex Rodriguez (top three in steals, OPS, and homers), Jones.

SS: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins: I don’t understand how this guy even exists. How can a speedy infielder (third among shortstops with 23 steals) also lead everyone at his position in home runs (23) and runs scored (80), plus have the patience to compile a .957 OPS? It isn’t fair. (That said, before any Sox-haters start with the “How’s Josh Beckett and his 3.94 ERA treating you?” jokes, kindly remember this. Yeah, exactly.)

Distant runner-up: Jose Reyes (tops with 32 steals, second with 68 runs).

OF: Josh Hamilton, Rangers; Nate McLouth, Pirates; Carlos Quentin, White Sox. O.K., so here’s where things get a little crazy. Like, wow.

Up till now, things have gone roughly according to plan. Of the five players I’ve awarded All-Star spots to thus far, three were taken in the first round (Utley, Wright, and Ramirez), Berkman went in the third, and McCann was the fourth catcher taken overall. But these outfielders, I mean, come on. This would be like Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan, only if Shakespeare in Love had been made by a random studio in Transylvania and starred Chris Farley and David Spade. The performance among outfielders thus far has been, shall we say, unexpected.

O.K., Hamilton I kind of get. Everyone always knew The Natural could hit (and field, for that matter) – he just had that little problem he had to deal with. Now he seems to have dealt with it, even if it potentially requires three Ranger lackeys to follow him around tazing any semi-suspicious character who comes within 50 yards of him. Anyway, to say he’s leading the majors in RBI is a slight understatement; he’s on pace to drive in 162 runs, which would be the most since Manny Ramirez drove in 165 in 1999. He also has 21 homers and a .919 OPS. For the love of Christ, let’s keep the crack pipe away from him.

But Hamilton is one thing. Nate McLouth? I was convinced steals were still unfairly affecting his Z-scores, but even if I drop the multiplier to 0.3, he still ranks third among outfielders (probably because he only has a pedestrian 11 steals). He leads all outfielders in runs scored (69), and he also ranks tied for fifth in RBI (65), which is a tad odd given that he’s the freaking leadoff hitter on an NL team. By the way, he was drafted in the seventeenth round in my league. Yeah.

But hey, at least he was drafted. Carlos Quentin was a relatively unsung waiver-wire pickup who has quietly found himself ranked in the top six in homers (fourth with 22), RBI (third with 70), and runs (62, tied for sixth). His OPS of .900 is 253 points higher than last year’s mark of .647. I give up.

The weird thing is how poorly all the highly ranked outfielders have been performing. Matt Holliday, who was universally regarded as the top fantasy outfielder entering this year’s draft, ranks fifteenth at the position. Vladimir Guerrero comes in at #21, Carl Crawford is #24 (and that only rises to #19 if steals are equally weighted), Magglio Ordoñez is #28, and Ichiro Suzuki is, hehe, #42. When did the outfielders and third basemen give up their talent to the second basemen and the shortstops?

Runners-up: Grady Sizemore (tied for second with 23 home runs, .913 OPS), Ryan Ludwick (65 RBI, .962 OPS, countless “Who the fuck is Ryan Ludwick?” exclamations), Milton Bradley (tops at the position with a 1.050 OPS, only one known meltdown).

SP: Justin Duchscherer, Athletics. The weirdness gets weirder. Another waiver-wire pickup, Duchscherer barely gets elected here (I’m violating the Z-scores), as he’s only pitched 108.2 innings thus far, whereas Roy Halladay has pretty awesome numbers with 146.1 IP (thus giving his average-based stats more heft). That said, any time you compile an ERA under 2.00 in over 100 innings, you should win the starting job at the All-Star game, and Duchscherer’s is a sparkling 1.82, with a minuscule 0.87 WHIP to match (also leading all starters). Just behind Duchscherer are fellow waiver-wire pickup Cliff Lee (12 wins, 2.31 ERA, 1.03 WHIP in 124.2 IP, not to mention thousands of “I had him last year and he fucking ruined me” grumblings) and Halladay (2.71 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 121 K’s, seven “Oh my God I hope his arm doesn’t fall off” complete games).

Runners-up: Lee, Halladay, Edinson Volquez (12 wins, 126 K’s, 2.29 ERA), Dan Haren (0.95 WHIP, the only pitcher under 1.00 other than former teammate Duchscherer), Tim Lincecum (135 K’s, 2.57 ERA), Cole Hamels (126 K’s, 1.02 WHIP).

RP: Mariano Rivera, Yankees. Unfortunately, this one is fairly straightforward. Restricting the sample to pitchers with at least five saves, Rivera leads the pack in both ERA (1.06) and WHIP (0.64), and his 50 strikeouts in 42.1 IP aren’t bad either (fifth overall). He’s untouchable here even with the saves multiplier set at 1.5 (his 23 saves rank just ninth in the league) – without the multiplier, his Z-score is over 50% higher than any other closer (only Berkman and Ramirez can make similar claims).

Runners-up: Jonathan Papelbon (28 saves, 51 K’s in 40.2 IP), Joakim Soria (25 saves, 0.72 WHIP), Francisco Rodriguez (even with a below-average 1.26 WHIP, those 38 saves have to count for something).

And that’s that. Now excuse me, I need to start prepping for my football draft.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Why Wall-E Made Me Happy

Back in March when I learned that the seventh Harry Potter book would be split into two movies, I immediately told my roommate Nate the good news. He quipped that I was excited only because it would “give me reason to live for that much longer” (rather than one movie bowing in December 2010, the new schedule called for the first movie to be released late in 2010, with the conclusion following in summer of 2011). Nate was being funny, but he wasn’t entirely wrong – I’ve often wondered if I’ll be subject to Post-Potter depression following the franchise’s cinematic finale (I certainly did my share of wailing after finishing the final book).

Last week, however, I determined that I need not worry. Not that I’m implying that the filmic culmination of the landmark fantasy series of my generation is insignificant; on the contrary, I’m confident I’ll be downright inconsolable watching Harry’s final duel with Voldemort at the Boston Common three years from now. But there will be other movies, other books, other franchises, other incarnations of populist entertainment with their own brand of magic. And last weekend I savored a delectable dose of such magic, a testament to the enduring power of the movies. I saw Wall-E.

If I seem to be going over the top, I mean to, because I want to emphasize that Wall-E provided me with such undiluted joy as I have not experienced in some time. As with Pixar’s Finding Nemo (the last film that Wall-E’s creator, Andrew Stanton, directed, and the only Pixar feature that might possibly stand as its equal), it functions as a feature of total immersion. Watching it, we involuntarily leave our reality behind and obligingly enter Wall-E’s universe, a world of breathtaking beauty and astonishing imagination.

Not that the scenery on display in Wall-E is necessarily delightful, at least not in the childlike sense of the word; nor is the film’s story bereft of darkness. (That story, quite simply: Overwhelmed by pollution, humanity has taken temporary refuge in outer space while Wall-E – the last of a line of robots whose acronym stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class – cleans up our mess.) True, Wall-E’s nighttime hideout – a vehicular cavern where he stashes various artifacts of humanity (a Rubik’s cube, a lightbulb, most memorably a spork) – is cutely reminiscent of Ariel’s treasure trove in The Little Mermaid. But by day Wall-E operates in a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape less at home in a Disney movie than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Dust storms are rampant, the sky is clouded and grey with the sun feebly drifting through, and the only skyscrapers are made of trash cartons that Wall-E has stacked to the dreary heavens.

Things change, as they must, with the arrival of Eve, a sleek, high-powered, egg-shaped robot whose lone human-like feature is a pair of seemingly unblinking bright-blue LED eyes. (Eve’s hi-tech awesomeness stands in stark contrast to the boxy Wall-E, a tread-enabled automaton who appears to have been assembled out of a bargain bin from the ‘50s, with solar panels replacing double-A’s.) And it is here where the true source of Wall-E’s power emerges, for the movie – for all its technological wonderment, futuristic vision, and semi-political theology – is first and foremost a love story. And its protagonists are, well, robots. Oh, and they don’t really talk.

Granted, as far as outlandish premises go, this one is pretty damn outlandish. But it is also, ingeniously, the key to the movie’s success. You see, ever since Toy Story, all Pixar movies have looked incredible. The preeminent studio in the increasingly crowded computer-animation genre, Pixar has consistently raised its own bar with each successive feature. From Buzz Lightyear’s faux-flight in Toy Story to Marlin’s frantic dash through a vibrant ocean in Finding Nemo to Remy the Rat’s culinary shenanigans in a Parisian kitchen in Ratatouille, the studio’s animators have consistently dazzled audiences with their bright colors and startling surrealistic imagery. Again: The visuals have always been awesome.

Now, in most cases, the stories and characters have been exceptional as well. The breathtaking splendor of Finding Nemo’s coral reef wouldn’t be nearly as memorable if it weren’t for the non-stop hilarity of the film’s dialogue, and the bold action sequences of The Incredibles would have little dramatic weight did they not feature a family of superheroes attempting to cope with their own alienation. This is because visual excellence is only part of the equation – you need great stories and three-dimensional characters in order to elevate a movie from impressive to extraordinary.

Ah, but in Wall-E, the visuals are the story, and the animation defines the characters. Wall-E and Eve don’t talk. Theirs is a courtship of beeps, shrieks, and sonic throbs (not to mention the occasional discharge of high-powered ammunition). But their true method of communication is through nonverbal expression and body language, and it is in this arena where Stanton and his faction of Pixar nerds make their money, and also what makes Wall-E so revelatory as cinematic achievement. Since it is essentially a silent picture (with Stanton playing the role of Chaplin), Wall-E’s success depends on its characters’ – O.K., it’s robots’ – ability to emote without speaking. That, my friends, is a challenge. And damn if Stanton and his cronies aren’t up to it.

Because the romantic interplay between Wall-E and Eve is some of the funniest and most affecting interaction between two characters at the movies I’ve ever seen. Describing it is almost fruitless; all I know is that every emotion these robots feel is made so abundantly clear to the audience that dialogue would be extraneous. I suppose it’s mostly with the eyes. Those bright-blue diodes of Eve’s blink and flash and wink and flip upside-down and around into half-moons and somehow seem to smile and frown – it’s as if she’s capable of an entire array of facial expressions simply through the contortion of those two blue LEDs. For his part, Wall-E’s own binocular-style eyes possess such depth that they seem to reflect his very soul. He also employs a variety of twitters and squeaks that brilliantly anthropomorphize his character’s zaniness and somehow supply indications of the robot’s enthusiasm, delight, fear, and love – all emotions, as it happens, I felt while watching the movie.

(Wall-E is “voiced”, as it were, by Ben Burtt, a sound-design guru who worked in the sound department on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies and whose efforts here are incalculable.)

You know how with most funny movies, it’s always fun afterwards to quote the particularly amusing lines of dialogues with friends (or in my case, when I’m by myself)? Wall-E offers something similar, but in this case it implores viewers to recall sidelong glances and subtle animated gestures. Remember Wall-E’s amazement after Eve hands him back the Rubik’s cube? Remember Eve’s sheepish embarrassment after she’s a bit too vigorous operating the eggbeater? Remember the warmth that develops in Eve’s eyes when she’s watching past footage from her security camera? Remember Wall-E’s anxiety after Eve nearly ruins his favorite cassette? Remember, remember, remember?

The point isn’t that Wall-E provides impeccable animation as well as memorable characters – it’s that it provides both simultaneously. The visuals are the characters. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff in Wall-E to gush about besides the nonverbal banter between its two robotic leads. Its tale of humanity being unknowingly nuzzled at the breast of technology is both coyly penetrating and wryly humorous, as are its homages to various science-fiction hallmarks of cinema past (most notably Alien and 2001). And its visuals possess extraordinary clarity and imagination, as well as a tender regard for space as the final frontier – Wall-E’s journey from earth to the space station (buoyed by Thomas Newman’s rich score) is a particularly thrilling and beautiful sequence.

But for all of Wall-E’s grandeur and inspiration, it’s the beeps of the two robots that I remember. That’s what transported me into its world, and that’s what makes it the first film since Atonement that has led me to breathlessly gush, “You absolutely have to see this movie,” to friends and family.

And that’s why I’m now confident I can survive Life After Harry Potter, because now I remember that there’s always the possibility that another movie like Wall-E is out there, waiting to be seen. Though I can’t help but think that I’ll never see another like it again – a movie about two robots finding love, and one viewer finding happiness.