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 OrdoƱez 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.