Big Donkey To The Rescue

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Way back in the year 2001, Adam Dunn was one of the more hyped prospects to show up on the major league scene. A star quarterback in high school, Dunn looked to have a promising future in college football at the University of Texas, Austin, but the addition of Chris Simms to the program and the coaxing of the Cincinnati Reds led Dunn to focus solely on baseball. After shredding the minor leagues, the massive Dunn (6′ 6″, 285 lbs) was called up midway through the ’01 season by the Reds, and a lot of prospect mavens believed he had the potential to be the league’s next great pure power hitter.

I recall an incident in a fantasy keeper league I was in that year, when Dunn first got called up. Being a keeper league, Dunn obviously had oodles of value at that point, and managers were on him like sharks on chum. Eventually, some guy essentially blew his load trading for Dunn, then posted a breathless message on the league’s board that Dunn would (I shit you not) become the first 50/50 player in major league history. As in, fifty home runs, and fifty stolen bases. This rant was mostly in all caps, of course. His prediction for Dunn, in case you were wondering, never came to fruition.

The reason I bring all of this up, of course, is because Dunn was acquired by the Oakland Athletics yesterday morning for minor league relief pitcher Nolan Sanburn and some cash to help cover the rest of Dunn’s contract. Dunn was brought in to help the slumping A’s offense and he introduced himself quite nicely to A’s fans, launching a towering home run in his first at-bat this afternoon. The A’s are hoping Dunn’s intimidating power bat can inject some life into a suddenly moribund offense that hit just .223/.301/.345 in August.

While Dunn never lived up to my former fantasy colleague’s rather outlandish expectations, he has had a very successful fourteen-year career. Exactly how successful, is a matter of some debate, however. Dunn has blasted 460 home runs in his career (and counting), and he’s had seven seasons with 40+ homers (and two more with 38). Any way you look at it, he’s been one of the most prolific home run hitters of the last decade.

He’s also been one of the most polarizing players in recent memory. In some circles Dunn is seen as a sabermetric darling. In others, he’s viewed as everything that was wrong with baseball in the homer-happy 2000’s. Dunn is one of the most famous Three True Outcome hitters in history, with almost exactly 50% of his career plate appearances ending in a home run, a walk, or a strikeout. This would seem to make him a hero of the sabermetric, mom’s basement stereotype who stays up all night crunching numbers in his underwear between bouts of WOW. Despite some low batting averages, Dunn’s lifetime OBP is .365, and that has generally endeared him to the saber-crowd.

However, there’s also the bad. Dunn broke Bobby Bonds’s single season strikeout record in 2004 (Mark Reynolds has since blown Dunn’s record away), and his strikeout prowess has ranged from a mere nuisance in some years to downright crippling in others. His inability to make contact has led to some perennially low batting averages, which many scribes have argued marginalizes his value. In fact, a number of analysts called his 2012 season (he hit 41 home runs while batting .204/.333/.468) one of the least-valuable 40-home run seasons of all time.

There’s also the issue of his defense. Just click here and look at his work in the outfield, and fight the urge to go take a long, contemplative shower. His glovework in the outfield makes small children weep, and his work at first base isn’t a whole lot better. So, basically, he has zero defensive value, and probably negative value. He’s like a pure scorer/non-defender in basketball who can score 20 points in his sleep while giving up 30. He’s an American League-born player who has unfortunately spent the majority of his career in the NL, and that has helped take away a lot of his overall value as a player. If you really want an example of the horror show that is Adam Dunn in the outfield, take a gander at his attempt to tame right field at AT&T Park last month. Yeah.

So his proponents point to his impressive home run totals and bushels of walks, while his detractors point to his miserable defense and low batting averages. One camp has him as underappreciated, while the other has him as an overvalued lout who is a product of a dying era in baseball. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but Dunn certainly has garnered strong and loud arguments from both sides over the years.

One fact can’t be denied, though: Dunn is one of the most interesting players in baseball (and who can forget this?). The fact that he initiates such a heated debate among fans shows that he is one of the most colorful players around, and it’s no surprise that he finds himself now on an A’s team that has prided itself on collecting an wide assortment of misfits over the past few years. In fact, Dunn is like a decade too late to this team; he would have fit right in on the Matt Stairs/John Jaha A’s of the late-90’s, early-aughts.

The A’s got themselves a seriously flawed player, but one who will still be useful for them down the stretch. He’ll be useful for the simple fact that he’s a presence. The A’s lineup fell into a funk the minute they traded Yoenis Cespedes. Whether that is causation or coincidence is debatable, but the A’s clearly sacrificed some modicum of offensive firepower in building their imposing starting rotation. There’s something to be said for the mental aspect of simply having a player with massive home run pop in the lineup. I’d argue that the Giants got that lift with Mike Morse this season. With Cespedes gone, the A’s lost some of that subconscious boost. With the acquisition of Dunn, they’ve gained it back.

As opposed to Cespedes, Dunn is more of an Oakland type of player. Like Dunn, Cespedes had power out the wazoo, but his plate discipline had deteriorated since his rookie year, and that’s likely what soured the A’s on him. Even with memories of Moneyball fading, the A’s still love them some OBP, so Dunn should slot right in and look right at home in a patient lineup that leads the American League in walks and runs scored.

To some, the acquisition of Dunn reeked of a panic move. That might not be totally untrue, but for the price of a single-A relief pitcher, heck, why not? Again, the A’s have made it clear with the Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija trades that they’re all in this season. If it takes a Dunn to revive the offense and get the team rolling in September and October, it’s worth it.

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The Amazin’ Trades of Frank Cashen

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Monday saw the passing of Frank Cashen, the architect of the 1986 Mets World Championship team, and the colorful Mets teams that only once won fewer than 90 games between 1984 and 1990. The teams Cashen built were some of the most talented (and dysfunctional) that you’ll ever see, and Lord knows I’m a sucker for any opportunity to rant about the mid-80’s Mets.

Cashen got his start in Baltimore in the ’60’s, where he helped Harry Dalton build some perennial juggernaut Oriole teams. He was instrumental in the Orioles’s acquisition of Frank Robinson, a trade that is seen as one of the most lop-sided in history (just ask Anne Savoy).

Cashen left baseball for a while in the ’70s, but was later hired to run the Mets in 1980. The Mets in the late-70’s and early ’80’s were an abysmal wreck, struggling through the post-Seaver era where the only highlights were Lee Mazzilli and Dave Kingman’s booming home runs and surly personality. Cashen’s machinations brought the franchise out of this dark age and made them relevant again.

Cashen is perhaps most famous for his role as the architect of the 1986 Mets, a juggernaut of a team that won 108 games and beat the Red Sox to win the World Series that year. That team was like the perfect model of team building, a beautiful combination of seasoned star veterans and young talent reaching their potential. Players like Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Roger McDowell, and Rick Aguilera, all Mets draft picks, blossomed into either very good regulars or full-blown stars.

That team, and the 80’s Mets dynasty as a whole, couldn’t have been built, however, without the help of some truly incredible trades. Cashen proved himself an astute judge of talent and orchestrated some trades that bordered on the out and out criminal. Starting in 1982, Cashen made a series of deals that would turn the Mets from doormat to force of nature. Some of these deals merely brought in key complimentary pieces for pennies on the dollar, while others were genuine heists of All-Star players. The following is a list of the best trades made by Frank Cashen in his reign as Mets GM, every one of them essential in the franchise’s 1986 World Championship and 1988 division title.

April 1, 1982: Mets trade Lee Mazzilli to Rangers for Ron Darling and Walt Terrell

This must have seemed like a cruel April Fools joke to Mets fans, as Mazzilli was a Shea Stadium favorite and one of the few bright spots on some really abysmal late-70’s/early-80’s Mets teams. However, he hit just .228 in 1981 and would be no better than a bit player for the rest of his career (and besides, the Mets got him back for the ’86 stretch run, anyway).

Darling, of course, became an instrumental member of the Mets starting rotation, and won 86 games from 1984 to 1989. He’s probably remembered as being a bit better than he actually was (career ERA+ of 95; 101 with the Mets), but he was legitimately great in ’85 and ’86 and was brilliant in Games One and Four in the 1986 World Series.

Terrell pitched a couple of league average seasons with the Mets, but he was later flipped for another very useful piece, as we’ll see a bit later on.

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June 14, 1983: Mets trade Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey to Cardinals for Keith Hernandez

This trade was probably the most significant of Cashen’s entire tenure in New York, both because it brought in a franchise name like Hernandez and because it immediately put the Mets back on the map as a team to be taken seriously. Hernandez initially voiced his disgust at being traded to a perennial ne’er-do-well, but he quickly changed his tune and his arrival in New York signaled an almost immediate turnaround for the franchise. Hernandez was a former MVP and one of the National League’s premier first basemen with the Cardinals for a number of years, but his manager, Whitey Herzog, just hated him. Herzog wanted him out, and the Cards’ loss was the Mets’ gain, as Hernandez went on to post four straight All-Star-caliber seasons with the Mets, all while continuing to display his all-world glove at first base. He’d turn into a franchise icon and also later made a noteworthy appearance in a Seinfeld episode where he blew off Jerry’s invitation to help him move.

Meanwhile, Allen had a couple of years as a useful, albeit faceless, reliever, while Ownbey made seven barely-notable starts with the Cardinals. The move constituted a classic case of a personality clash between manager and star player leading to a terrible baseball move. Herzog was the man in St. Louis at the time, and clashed with Hernandez over his perceived unwillingness to run out grounders and his past substance abuse issues. The Cards were forced to more or less trade Hernandez at gunpoint, and that never, ever works out. Mex was 30 in 1984, but he still had a lot left, hitting .305/.396/.440 with the Mets from 1984 to 1987.

December 8, 1983: Mets trade Bob Bailor and Carlos Diaz to Dodgers for Sid Fernandez

A criminal heist by the Mets. Fernandez posted insane strikeout numbers in his first couple of years in the minors, so it’s hard to see why the Dodgers gave up on him so quickly. El Sid reached the majors at age 20, and then the Dodgers traded him for an over-the-hill bench player (who was never that good anyway) and a relief pitcher who was out of the majors in three years.

Fernandez would go on to win 98 games with the Mets and was notoriously difficult to hit, three times leading the league in fewest hits given up per nine innings. He won 16 games for the 1986 champions and 12 more for the 1988 division winners.

August 28, 1984: Mets trade Gerald Young, Mitch Cook, and Manny Lee to Astros for Ray Knight

This one didn’t look all that one-sided at first. Knight was a solid hitter who enjoyed some All-Star seasons with the Reds and Astros (he famously replaced Pete Rose in Cincinnati and hit .318), but in 1984 he looked finished, and then in 1985 he was downright miserable, hitting just .218. In the ’85-’86 offseason, though, Knight worked himself back into shape and played his way back into the lineup as the team’s everyday third baseman, hitting .298. Of course, he’s most remembered for his huge hit in the tenth inning of Game Six, and for his go-ahead home run in Game Seven, both of which earned him the 1986 World Series MVP.

Young was lightning-fast and stole 65 bases with the Astros one year, but he really couldn’t hit at all. Lee actually made his mark as an all-glove shortstop with the Blue Jays, but the Mets already had a young, up-and-coming shortstop in Kevin Elster. Cook never pitched in the majors. So the Mets basically got a starting third baseman on a championship team for a shortstop who couldn’t hit a lick.

December 7, 1984: Mets trade Walt Terrell to Tigers for Howard Johnson

Tigers manager Sparky Anderson hated HoJo for some reason, which led to this trade. Johnson was a backup infielder in ’86, but once Knight left in free agency, Johnson blew up. Johnson became the team’s regular third baseman for the next seven years and had three seasons where he hit 30 or more home runs, including an absolutely monstrous 1989, when he hit .287/.369/.559 (a 169 OPS+), clubbed 36 home runs, and stole 41 bases.

Terrell, who had been acquired along with Ron Darling a couple of years earlier, would go on to have a decent career as a league-average starter, but he wasn’t anything like the star HoJo turned into.

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December 10, 1984: Mets trade Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Herm Winningham, and Floyd Youmans to Expos for Gary Carter

The other big one. Carter’s arrival in New York turned the Mets from simple contender to juggernaut, as they won 98 and 108 games in Carter’s first two seasons with the team, respectively. The ever-smiling Carter had been a star with the Expos for years, but Expos owner Charles Bronfman absurdly singled him out as the reason the Expos kept missing the playoffs each year. Carter came over and cemented his Hall of Fame worthiness with the Mets, with big years in ’85 and ’86, and he became an icon in the Big Apple. He also knocked in nine runs in the 1986 World Series.

This trade wasn’t quite as lop-sided as many tend to remember. Here is each players’ WAR total after the trade was consummated:

Carter: 14.3

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Brooks: 8.2

Fitzgerald: 2.1

Winningham: -0.4

Youmans: 6.6

That’s 16.5 WAR for the players the Expos received, for those scoring at home. You’re going to come away with the short end of the stick more often than not when trading a star player, but the Expos didn’t get totally screwed. Brooks in particular turned out pretty well, and made the All-Star team a few times. Fitzgerald was at least a decent catcher for a number of years. Youmans looked like he was going to have a solid career before falling victim to drug problems. When you trade a Hall-of-Famer, though, and the team you traded him to immediately wins the World Series…well, you’re going to have egg on your face.

November 1, 1985: Mets trade Calvin Schiraldi, John Christensen, Wes Gardner, and LaSchelle Tarver to Red Sox for Bob Ojeda and three others.

This trade turned out to be a doubly fantastic one not only because Ojeda had a career year in his first season with the Mets, but also because Schiraldi acted almost like a sleeper agent in the 1986 World Series, virtually handing the Mets Games Six and Seven with his crappy pitching. Ojeda went 18-5 with a 140 ERA+ in 1986 to become the surprise go-to guy on the staff that year. He would never be so good again, but he did win 51 games with the Mets.

Schiraldi is seen as a villain in Red Sox circles because of his role in blowing the ’86 series. He was a largely mediocre reliever for the rest of his career, with one unremarkable season as a starter with the Cubs. Gary Carter famously questioned his intestinal fortitude when he was a member of the Mets, and he has a lasting reputation as a choke artist, deserved or not. Of the other three guys the Red Sox got for Ojeda, only Gardner had anything resembling a decent major league career, and he was just a spot starter/mop up man.

January 16, 1986: Mets trade Billy Beane, Bill Latham, and Joe Klink to Twins for Tim Teufel

Yes, that Billy Beane. Of the three players Cashen dealt for Teufel, only Klink would go on to contribute anything in the majors, and that was basically two years as an interchangeable lefty with the A’s. Teufel wasn’t an All-Star, but he was a useful platoon second baseman (spelling Wally Backman against lefties), and he hit a robust .308/.398/.545, with 14 homers, in 1987. He accumulated 7.4 WAR in six seasons as a Met

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March 27, 1987: Mets trade Ed Hearn, Rick Anderson, and Mauro Gozzo to Royals for David Cone

How do you steal a future All-Star from a Hall of Fame GM for a backup catcher and two faceless relievers? Ask Cashen, who ripped off future Braves general manager John Schuerholz in this now-legendary fleecing. Cone had control problems in the minors and apparently that was enough for the Royals to send him along for a bunch of tripe. Cone, as we all know, broke out with the Mets, winning 194 games in the majors and 81 in the Big Apple. His breakout 20-win season in 1988 was instrumental to the Mets rolling to 100 wins and the division title.

None of the players the Royals received for Cone did anything in the majors after the trade, although Hearn did pen an inspirational biography detailing his battles with kidney disease.

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As is the case with every general manager, not every trade Cashen made turned out in his favor. In the interest of fairness, we should take a look at a couple of deals where Cashen and the Mets came out losers.

December 10, 1982: Mets trade Mike Scott to Astros for Danny Heep

This one nearly came back to bite the Mets in a big way, as Scott almost single-handedly won the 1986 NLCS for the Astros with two utterly dominant starts. Heep spent four seasons with the Mets and was a pretty good fourth outfielder and bench bat. Scott, of course, went on to win 110 games with the Astros and earned the Cy Young Award in 1986.

It’s hard to fault Cashen for trading Scott away in this instance. Scott was 27 at the time of the trade and had just come off a horrible 1982 season. He hadn’t shown anything up to that point to indicate that he would turn into even a decent pitcher, much less a star. It would have taken a crystal ball for anyone to predict that he would go on to develop the split-fingered fastball (or another, less legal, pitch) and start dominating the league.

December 11, 1986: Mets trade Kevin Mitchell, Stan Jefferson, Shawn Abner, and two others to Padres for Kevin McReynolds and two others

Whether this was a bad trade in the end depends on how one decides to look at it. McReynolds had some big years with the Mets, most notably 1988 (he went 21 for 21 on stolen base attempts), and filled a big void in left field. In six seasons (two stints) with New York, he hit 122 home runs. Mitchell came from a rough upbringing and was seen by more than one Mets front office person as a bad influence on Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry (lest we forget this rather dubious story).

On the flip side, McReynolds was seen as a complete zero in the clubhouse by his teammates and wasn’t particularly well-liked (one common accusation was that he cared more about duck hunting than winning). It didn’t help that Mitchell got his behavior under control and turned into one of the most fearsome sluggers in the National League, winning the NL MVP in 1989 with the Giants. Mitchell accumulated 6.9 WAR in 1989; McReynolds racked up 3.6. The Mets lost the division to the Cubs that year by six games, so this trade didn’t kill their playoff hopes all by itself, but it certainly didn’t help.

June 18, 1989: Mets trade Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to Phillies for Juan Samuel

Just an awful trade, and one that marked the end of the Cashen-era Mets dynasty. The Mets traded their center fielder and an effective reliever for a second baseman-turned-center fielder with a .309 career OBP. It went about as well as expected. The only way this makes sense, then and now, is as a dump of Dykstra’s personality. Samuel wasn’t much good when the Mets got him, he sucked in half a season as their center fielder, then he was immediately traded away for Mike Marshall.

It’s one of the all-time head-scratchers, for sure. Dykstra was and remains a creep, but he was just 26 and would develop into something like a star with the Phillies. His monster 1993 season led them to the World Series. McDowell had another six or so seasons left as a good reliever. Just a stinker for the Mets, any way you look at it.

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Stop the Tim Lincecum Roller Coaster Ride, I Want to Get Off

Tim Lincecum pitched a no-hitter yesterday. We love him again!

Tim Lincecum pitched a no-hitter yesterday. We love him again!

On May 28th, Tim Lincecum pitched five no-hit innings against the Chicago Cubs, earning the victory in an eventual Giants win. Why was he only allowed to go five innings, you might ask, with a shot at a feat that only comes about once in a blue moon? Well, it’s because it was perhaps the ugliest five no-hit innings you’ll ever see, with four walks, a hit-by-pitch, lots of deep counts, and 96 pitches all told. Bruce Bochy was less concerned about Lincecum’s bid for history at that point than he was about his own long term health deteriorating after having to watch that display.

That start basically sums up, in a nutshell, what Tim Lincecum has become in the past couple of years. The high-strikeout ace of yore seemingly died the second the curtain fell on the 2011 season. What we have now is a pure, inefficient mess. He’s still kinda difficult to hit, as evidenced by the 8.6 hits per nine innings in 2012-13. However, as we all know, his walks and home runs have gone through the roof and most of his starts these days degenerate quickly into pitch count hell. The quick inning became a foreign concept to Lincecum some time around 2012.

In fifteen starts before yesterday’s game, Lincecum had averaged just 5.5 innings thrown, mostly because he was racking up high pitch counts after one or two innings, even in his good starts. He’s frustrating, sometimes just flat out unwatchable, and there are times when I ponder (as I did here) just why in the hell the Giants felt they needed to hand him another $35 million to come back.

Then he goes and pitches a beauty of a no-hitter, one measly walk from a perfect game, and I start to ponder why I even bother projecting rage onto a keyboard on a barely-read blog anymore. Lincecum’s work on the mound in Wednesday’s game against San Diego was pure artistry, a performance on the scale of Olivier or Oldman, only without the anti-Semitic apologia. As opposed to his 148-pitch slog of a no-no against the Padres last year, Lincecum needed just 113 pitches to get it done this time, allowing nary a baserunner after the second inning. He was a dominant force, pure and simple.

Amazingly, Lincecum is only the second pitcher ever to throw two no-hitters against the same team. Many pitchers have thrown multiple no-nos. Hell, Nolan Ryan did it seven times, but never twice against one opponent. I guess on a large scale that fact is merely a barely-relevant historical curio, but on a more micro level, it’s kinda cool for a pitcher to know that he can call one franchise his bitch.

Naturally, no-hitters do things to fans to make them think and do irrational things, like a meteor from space that crashes and turns people into brain-eating zombies. It gives fans the (nonsensical) belief that one brilliant start means that the pitcher has turned over a new leaf. After Phil Humber threw his perfecto a couple of years ago, you would have thought from the fan response that he was the next Don Drysdale. Phil Humber! No hitters are amazingly fun, but not really indicative of long term success. Lots of great pitchers never threw one. Conversely, lots of crappy pitchers have thrown one. Bobo Holloman threw one, for God’s sake, and in his first major league start! Who is Bobo Holloman? Hell if I know!

I’ve seen some Giants fans suggest (to prominent national baseball writers, no less) that this second no-hitter should cement Lincecum’s entry to Cooperstown. Um, no. I love Timmy as much as anybody, but let’s get real, here. Two no-hitters don’t wash away two-and-a-half years of crappy pitching. Not to mention the obvious wrinkle that he was facing an unfathomably miserable Padre offense (albeit one that had somehow scored 13 runs in the previous two games against the Giants). That in no way devalues Lincecum’s achievement (no-hitters are hard against any lineup just going by probability), but still…he wasn’t exactly facing Murderer’s Row.

What’s my point here? I guess it’s that Tim Lincecum pisses me off…but in a good way. Franchise icons are great, and essential, and basically a major reason we as fans hold long-standing allegiances with our baseball teams. When franchise icons do historically amazing things, like throw two no-hitters in the span of a year, it sends a fan base into a joyous frenzy, and it very well should.

If Yusmeiro Petit had completed his perfect game last year, it would have obviously been an unforgettable moment in Giants history, but that was Yusmeiro Petit, random Quad-A starter in there because Barry Zito sucks. It wouldn’t have been quite on the same scale. Tim Lincecum pitching two no-hitters in two years is just more important because he’s our guy. He’s the two-time Cy Young winner who put the Giants back on the map on the national stage and he was perhaps the instrumental player who paved the way to the team’s resurgence and eventual championships in the post-Bonds era.

No matter what happens from here on out, we’ll never forget yesterday’s no-hitter, or last year’s no-no, because it was just another moment where Lincecum cemented his status as a Giants legend. Think something like the generation before watching Juan Marichal or Willie Mays accomplish amazing feat after amazing feat to make their mark in Giants lore. Every time Timmy pulls one of these performances out of his hat, it’s the next step towards our kids or grandkids posing next to a statue of Lincecum somewhere in China Basin.

And yet he pisses me off. He pisses me off because we know this isn’t going to last. I don’t need to list off the declining numbers or go to Fangraphs and copy and paste his sinking velocity charts. Lincecum has been teasing us like this since the beginning of 2012. If it isn’t a no-hitter, it’s a lights-out bullpen performance in the playoffs, or an 11-strikeout performance against the Braves. Every time we get our hopes up, and start to believe that he’s going to morph back into Tim Lincecum: Ace (or, hell, even Tim Lincecum: League-Average Starter), he goes out in his next start and gives up seven runs in three innings and suddenly that mustache changes back from “sorta creepy-yet-adorable” to “oh god I want to light that wispy piece of shit on fire” again. I don’t think I even need to mention that his road ERA this year is made of nightmares.

So in the end, an open letter to Tim Lincecum. I love you, man. We all love you. That no-hitter was an amazing moment, probably the highlight of my week and that of many others, and it was exactly what the Giants needed in this rough stretch of games. But you’re seriously turning me into the guinea pig of a self-administered trial to determine if antacids can turn into an addictive substance, and this seriously needs to stop.

Naivete runs high when no-hitters are thrown. Fans start thinking crazy things, and when that happens, it leads to disappointment and incoherent KNBR callers demanding AAA scrubs be traded for Mike Trout. Remember the wisdom of the aforementioned flesh-eating zombie analogy (or was it brain-eating?). Let’s bask in the moment, savor the no-hitter over the next five days, but keep our wits and our common sense about us, and not develop the baseball equivalent of the taste for medulla oblongata. Take Lincecum’s no-no for what it is: an important part of Lincecum’s status as a Giants immortal, but not a foreshadowing of amazing things to come.

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Godzilla (2014)

I was into plenty of nerdy crap growing up, but I never got into the Godzilla movies at any point in my childhood, despite having them constantly showing up on Saturday afternoon TV and always staring me in the face at the video store. I don’t think I ever actually sat through any of the old Toho Godzilla films, not even the original, at any point. In fact, as ashamed as I am to admit this, the first Godzilla movie I ever watched was the 1998 abomination starring Matthew Broderick. So my introduction to the King of the Monsters was, uh…misguided.

Nonetheless, I had been enthusiastically looking forward to Gareth Edwards’s reboot of the big fella ever since the first trailer hit last year. Despite not ever getting into the franchise as a kid, I was excited for this one for the simple fact that it promised to satisfy my recurring need to see giant monsters beating the hell out of each other for two hours on a big screen. On that level, it most definitely succeeded.

Godzilla brings the big, bad King of the Monsters back to his roots, and plays less like a reboot of the franchise and more like a loving tribute to the many Toho films that featured the characters throughout the decades. The standard elements are all here: the monster-fueled mayhem, the massive destruction of entire cities, the fleeing hordes of people, and the scientists and military personnel who throw in everything but the kitchen sink in a totally unsuccessful attempt to kill the big guy. It’s a Godzilla movie at heart, and a vast improvement over the 1998 Roland Emmerich version that was basically a crappy Jurassic Park sequel (thankfully, the real Godzilla kicked the crap out of that lame guy a few years ago).

While Godzilla contains the requisite amount of monster mayhem, it’s also refreshingly grounded, or at least as grounded as a movie about a giant, fire-breathing lizard can possibly be. As opposed to the general mindfuckery of many of the Toho movies, this film presents a fairly realistic setting in Tokyo and San Francisco, and drops monsters into it, with its human characters acting pretty much as you’d expect them to. There are no magic pixies or trips to Monster Island. Godzilla doesn’t fly to the moon to save the Earth from aliens. The film lives up to the standards of the monster flick without wandering into the completely ridiculous or cliched, and that’s why it works well.

Director Edwards also channels his inner Spielberg by holding of on showing Godzilla in full until the second half of the film. Some fans were put off by this, but I thought it helped build up our expectations for when he finally arrived and started tearing shit up. In movies like this, you can’t really reveal too much too early, or else the film can become monotonous and lack suspense. By not playing his cards too early, Edwards keeps his audience in anticipation until the inevitable final confrontation between Godzilla and the film’s other gigantic monsters, and boy is it a doozy.

Godzilla is a solid three star film, a giant monster movie at heart, but made with enough skill and faithfulness to the original material to let it rise above something more than throwaway summer movie junk. After so many decades, it’s nice to see the big guy finally get an American-produced film worthy of his name. And Cranston. There will always be Cranston.

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Ranking the Tarantino Films

I re-watched Django Unchained recently and it got me all inspired to finish up something I’ve been contemplating for a while now: a ranking of Quentin Tarantino’s films, from the best to the worst. I’ve often found that I enjoy each Tarantino movie a lot more the second time around, most likely because I have another opportunity to take in the numerous nods to old cult films that pepper each of his works. For instance, when I first watched Kill Bill Vol. 1, the constant allusions to the cheesy spaghetti western Death Rides a Horse were completely lost on me. When I later watched Death Rides a Horse (and loved it), then later watched Vol. 1 a second time, my enjoyment of the movie escalated a thousandfold.

Tarantino, of course, is one of Hollywood’s foremost autuers, and he happens to be one of my personal favorite filmmakers (and I’m hardly alone in that). As any fan of his can tell you, his films are distinctive for their hip, smart dialogue, myriad references to past pop culture, and their tendency to be extremely (and often almost cartoonishly) violent.

Each of Tarantino’s films are odes to the movies (mostly exploitation or drive-in cult movies) that inspired him as he grew up. His early works borrow heavily from French New Wave films by directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. His later movies have tilted more toward homages to kung fu films and cheesy ’60’s spaghetti westerns. Due to their violent nature and coarse language, Tarantino’s films are almost always controversial, but even his most vocal critics can’t deny that they’re unique, especially in this age of never-ending reboots and retreads.

This ranking only applies to the full-length features that Tarantino has directed. True Romance and From Dusk Til Dawn are both amazing movies which he scripted, but since he wasn’t behind the camera for those, they aren’t included. Also, I obviously didn’t include the sequences in Four Rooms and Sin City which he directed, nor, God forbid, My Best Friend’s Birthday. Enjoy!

8. Death Proof

I admit I haven’t watched this since it first appeared in theaters in 2007, and frankly I have absolutely no desire to watch it again. I nearly walked out of the theater the first time I saw it. Tarantino’s entry in the Grindhouse double feature (along with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror) is an utter slog, a long, boring mess until an exhilarating final fifteen minutes or so that don’t even come close to redeeming the movie. The plot centers around Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a deranged stunt car driver (Kurt Russell) who is invincible as long as he stays behind the wheel of his Chevy Nova. He targets and kills pretty young girls, but eventually he screws with the wrong group of ladies and ends up getting his ass handed to him by a trio of free-spirited chicks on a roadie.

Tarantino falls victim to his worst indulgences in this one, as in a scene where the four female leads engage in catty banter in a restaurant for twenty straight minutes, which should lead any moviegoer sprinting for the fire exits. The overall result is basically unwatchable. The Grindhouse films were meant as a tribute to the gory exploitation double features of the ’60’s and ’70’s. Rodriguez made Planet Terror over-the-top and entertaining. Tarantino made this one stupid and boring.

Best scene: There aren’t a whole lot, but the film’s final chase sequence, featuring real life stuntwoman Zoe Bell clinging to the hood of a speeding Dodge Challenger, is undeniably awesome.

7. Jackie Brown

Tarantino’s only film thus far that was taken from a source other than one of his own original screenplays (it was adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel), and that’s probably why it seems like his most, dare I say it, conventional. Jackie Brown serves essentially as a showcase for Pam Grier, the star of so many blaxploitation films from the 1970’s (which this film pays tribute to), and that certainly isn’t a bad thing. The film retains Tarantino’s gift for colorful dialogue and is certainly watchable, but it goes on too long and there’s not a lot to distinguish it from any other late-90’s crime drama, much less any of Tarantino’s other work.

Best scene: Samuel L. Jackson trying to explain to Chris Tucker why he should climb into the trunk of his car for a rendezvous with some Chinese gun dealers. Note: never let Samuel L. Jackson convince you to climb into the trunk of his car for any reason.

6. Kill Bill Vol. 2

The second act of Tarantino’s revenge saga is a lot talkier than its predecessor and, as a result, doesn’t live up to the lofty standard set by Vol. 1. It takes place right where the first movie left off, with Uma Thurman’s revenge-hungry bride Beatrix Kiddo going after the two assassins she didn’t knock off in the first film. Vol. 2 moves at a much more leisurely pace, and anyone expecting the supercharged, non-stop action of Vol. 1 is going to be sorely disappointed.

On its own, though, it’s a clever tribute to the spaghetti western genre, with the requisite Ennio Morricone cuts all over the soundtrack. Every frame is basically one pop culture reference or another, and David Carradine’s charming but sadistic Bill foreshadows another of Tarantino’s great villains, the “Jew Hunter” from Inglorious Basterds.

Best scene: The hilariously cramped trailer battle between Beatrix and one-eyed (soon-to-be no-eyed) Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah).

5. Django Unchained

Tarantino tackles slavery this time, as Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave freed by bounty hunter Christoph Waltz who joins his rescuer by going into business killing bad guys for money. When he learns his wife is in the clutches of slimy plantation owner Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), he and Waltz develop a scheme to try to rescue her. Waltz more or less takes over the film here, charmingly playing a character who is essentially the moral antithesis of his “Jew Hunter” from Inglorious Basterds. Django is bereft of the types of brilliant scenes that characterize Tarantino’s best, and the ending is standard revenge movie bloodletting, not nearly as clever or inspired as Tarantino’s better movies, like Basterds.

Best scene: Calvin Candie’s disturbing phrenology demonstration on the skull of a dead slave that inevitably leads to a horrifying confrontation between Candie, the bounty hunters, and Django’s wife.

4. Inglorious Basterds

Tarantino’s World War II saga, centering around a platoon of Jewish-American soldiers whose mission is to go behind enemy lines to kill German soldiers and collect their scalps. The film gleefully rewrites history, with Hitler getting machine gunned to death at the end and the rest of the Nazi higher-ups getting blown sky high in a movie theater. The movie is basically a collection of different story lines concerning plots by various players to assassinate Hitler, all of which come together at the film’s climax. Several scenes are absolutely brilliant, particularly one incredibly intense sequence (featuring Michael Fassbender) in which a spy rendezvous in an underground tavern goes horribly, horribly wrong. Parts of Basterds are definitely better than the whole, but all in all it’s a deliciously original war movie.

Of course, the actor who steals the whole show is Christoph Waltz, playing SS Colonel Hans Landa (aka “The Jew Hunter”), who immediately became one of the best movie villains of the past thirty years. Despite his repugnant task of tracking down and eradicating fugitive Jews, Waltz’s character is so cheerful, professional, and unfailingly polite, that you start to genuinely like the guy…at least until he orders the cold-blooded execution of a Jewish family or brutally strangles a female spy to death.

Best scene: The basement standoff is a gem, but it’s tough to beat the almost unbearable tension in the film’s opening scene (which pays homage to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), when Colonel Landa diabolically breaks down a French farmer into admitting that he is hiding a Jewish family underneath his floorboards.

3. Pulp Fiction

Told in similar non-linear style as Reservoir Dogs, this is considered by many to be Tarantino’s best. Pulp Fiction, which gives us several memorable accounts of various low life denizens of L.A., doesn’t move quite as fast as Dogs, but it is much more polished. Many of Pulp Fiction‘s scenes have, understandably, become iconic, and the film is generally hailed as a modern classic.

The more famous moments include an awkward “date” between hitman John Travolta (whose career was resurrected by this movie) and mob boss sweetheart Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson quoting the Book of Ezekiel before blowing away a group of clearly in-over-their-heads mob bagmen, and Bruce Willis’s and Ving Rhames’s ill-fated foray into a dank gun shop. In addition, who could forget Christopher Walken’s rather creative method of smuggling a watch out of a POW camp in Vietnam, or Tarantino himself playing Jimmie of Toluca Lake, who just wants a dead body out of his house before his pissed-off wife comes home?

Best scene: There are so many classic moments, but the film’s final scene, where two would-be robbers run afoul of Samuel L. Jackson while trying to stick up a restaurant, is one of the great things you’ll see in film.

2. Reservoir Dogs

The most quotable of all of Tarantino’s films, and probably one of the most quotable movies of all time. Tarantino’s first film is also his most raw, filmed on a low budget and taking place mostly in an abandoned garage, at times playing like a three-act stage play. This story of a group of bank robbers trying to figure out who ratted them out after a heist gone wrong is a violent but incredibly stylish tribute to French New Wave filmmakers from the ’50’s and ’60’s. With this film, Tarantino’s gift for dialogue was evident from the start, and the memorable lines are countless.

It wouldn’t work without skillful performances, and a knockout cast (including real-life tough guy Lawrence Tierney as the group’s ringleader) breathes life to the snappy dialogue to give viewers what amounts to an ensemble acting tour de force. We’re given a treasure trove of classic characters, each identified only by a different color, i.e. Mr. White, Mr. Pink, etc. It’s a true bloody gem.

And remember, in the words of the inaptly-named Nice Guy Eddie: “You beat that prick long enough, he’ll tell you who started the goddamned Chicago fire. That doesn’t necessarily make it fuckin’ so!”

Best scene: Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) explaining to his comrades why he is morally opposed to tipping waitresses in restaurants. This part is legendary, and vintage Buscemi.

1. Kill Bill Vol. 1

Pulp Fiction gets most of the plaudits for being Tarantino’s magnum opus, but I consider Kill Bill Vol. 1 to be his masterpiece. A high-energy tribute to chop-socky films of the ’70’s, the film centers around spurned (to say the least) bride Beatrix Kiddo’s one-woman mission to, well…kill Bill, along with the rest of his assassin squad, who left her for dead after slaughtering her fiance and unborn baby.

Vol. 1 features just the right blend of Tarantino’s typically-smart dialogue, stunning action sequences, and eye-popping cinematography to make it the director’s best film both on an artistic level and for sheer entertainment. Packed to the brim with references to old western and kung fu films (Uma Thurman’s now-iconic motorcycle suit in the final act is itself a tribute to the Bruce Lee film Game of Death), and featuring a career-defining performance from Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is, quite simply, exactly the kind of experience we desire when we go to the theater to enjoy movies.

Best scene: Uma Thurman’s epic battle with the Crazy 88’s, in all its bloody, ankle-slicing glory, is one of the best action set pieces in recent memory. Not to mention, it’s all done practically, without aid of computer-generated effects, a welcome change in an era oversaturated with (often bad) CGI-aided action sequences.

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