MASTER NOTES: All-Star break thoughts while listening to Stan Getz’s The Bossa Nova Years*

I don’t like the All-Star Break. Call me selfish, but I don’t like doing without real games for four days. (Yes, I know there’s a game on Thursday, but for some reason that just irks me.) Also, I don’t care for the All-Star game, and only I heard the end of the home-run derby by accident.

I do like one thing about the break: It lets me stop and do some reading and thinking about the game. That’s what I did these last four days, and I’d like to share some of these thoughts with you.

I re-read three baseball-related books over the break. Jon Pessah’s 2015 The Game covers the tumultuous 1992 season, as well a bit of what happened before and after. The book goes behind the scenes to explore Bud Selig’s role as Commissioner, including his relationship with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Selig’s role in using the steroids issue to get the upper hand in contract negotiations with the players’ union. It’s a page-turner.

I also re-read John Feinstein’s 2014 book Where Nobody Knows Your Name. It’s a terrific journalistic study of the life of minor-leaguers, vividly reported and written. Feinstein’s books are pretty uniformly terrific, and this one is no exception.

The most interesting of the three was The Arm, Jeff Passan’s extraordinary 2016 book about pitchers’ arms. The surface idea is that the pitchers put a lot of stress on their arms by throwing as hard as they do, and starting as young as they do. But he argues successfully that those stresses are putting a greater—and widely unrecognized—stress on the game itself: with attrition rates as high as 50%, the sport might run out of pitchers.

The book is amazingly thorough. Passan looks at the issue from myriad angles. The most telling are the personal stories of MLB pitchers Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey (who had Tommy John surgery twice), but Passan also looks into practices in “travel leagues,” which encourage overuse by young pitchers in the pursuit of winning, and at the preponderance of “elite training centers” where young boys and full-grown men go for advanced coaching to help them pursue their (or their fathers’) major-league dreams.

He energizes the book with anecdotal stories about and involving scouts, agents, “advisors,” front-office types, doctors, coaches and managers, “experts” (some not as expert as others) and, of course, pitchers. The book gets into some in-depth reporting of biomechanical issues and the many disagreements about them. My favorite parts were Passan’s discussions with Tommy John and with Mike Marshall, the former big-leaguer whose unorthodox ideas about mechanics have kept him out of baseball since he retired from his Cy Young-level career as a reliever.

Passan’s conclusion: despite the potential to make or save literally billions of dollars with a workable and consistent solution, there isn’t one, largely because there are so many hucksters and charlatans out there in what seems more like an old west medicine show than a disciplined research effort.

Pitching wins a lot of fantasy leagues. If you want to know more about the crucial issue of the arm and pitcher health, you should read this book.

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One of the things I’m going to watch with great curiosity over the rest of this season is whether Ian Desmond can continue mashing taters (hee hee) despite an almost historically low FB percentage. Desmon had 18 HR at the break, on track for 25 or so, with a 21% FB rate (and a 62% GB rate). More than a third of his flies have left the yard.

I checked back from 1999 to 2017, and you know how many players have 25+ HRs in a season in which their FB% was 21% or lower? None. The closest was Christian Yelich, who hit 20 HR in 2016 with a 21% FB rate. You know how many have maintained 33% or high HR/FB rates for a full season with 20 HRs? Ten, and all of them prodigious sluggers: Jim Thome (2002 and 2010), Wily Mo Pena (2004, and remember him?), Ryan Howard (2005 and 2006) , Gary Sanchez (2016), and JD Martinez, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Matt Olson (all 2017).

One of these things—Desmond—is not like the others. You almost have to take the under on any Desmond HR prop bet, but do you dare?

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I said this on the BaseballHQ Radio podcast this week, in our mid-season roundtable discussion with Ray Murphy and Todd Zola: I think the Mets are going to trade either Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard, and my money is on deGrom. (To the Yankees, if you want me to go even further out on my limb). Apparently, his agent has already started agitating for an extension, which the Madoff-mangled Mets probably don’t want to do. And since he turned 30 last month, it’s hard to blame them.

Yes, I know he’s under team control until 2021 (he’s arb-eligible next year, but that process will keep him well under market value), which makes him seemingly more valuable to the penny-pinching Mets. But the extra control years could also actually help the Mets get in return what they need even more than a 30-year-old starter: top prospects and maybe even young MLB-level talent.

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A guy I also think could be traded across leagues is J.A. Happ of TOR. If you’re in an NL-only and looking for that big help at the deadline, think long and hard before committing a ton to Happ. He’s been OK this year—$12 so far in 5x5—but that’s largely due to 10 wins. His ERA is over 4.00 and his xERA is a quarter-run higher still.

Most worrisome: In his last five starts, three were PQS-DISasters, his ERA was over 6.00, his WHIP was over 1.50 (including six walks in a 2.2-IP stink bomb on July 7). He gave up 7 HR in 26.1 innings, too. I know that in single-league formats, Happ might be all there is to spend on with your hoarded FAAB bucks. Be careful. I’m just sayin’.

Enjoy the second half!

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*This edition of Master Notes was titled with gratitude to the late Lewis Thomas, whose book of essays Late Night Thoughts On Listen to Mahler’s 9th Symphony was an important inspiration to me in deciding to be a writer, and set for clarity and elegance a standard I rarely meet. It’s a great book, even though (or maybe because), like the all-star break, there’s no baseball in it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

This Master Notes is also titled with reference to the brilliant series of five bossa nova albums recorded in the early 1960s by tenor sax legend Stan Getz. The first (Jazz Samba) featured American guitarist Charlie Byrd; the second (Big Band Bossa Nova), a large ensemble; and the last three (Jazz Samba Encore!, Getz/Gilberto, and Stan Getz With Guest Artist Laurindo Almeida) were with different Brazilian bossa nova stars.

Other than catching an early game, there’s no better way for me to enjoy baseball in an afternoon than sitting outside on a sun-dappled deck, streaming some Stan Getz bossa nova, and catching up on the week’s stories.


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