Defining an Ace, Part II: Introducing the Ace Line Calendar

Introducing the Ace Line Calendar.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been slowly piecing together a pseudo-objective system for gauging whether or not an MLB starting pitcher is an “ace” or not on any given day. Ace. It’s a subjective term with an extremely loose definition. It’s also a fluid term that changes month to month, year to year.

What I’ve come up with is the Ace Line Calendar. Allow me to introduce you.

By the way, if you haven’t read my first post in this series, I recommend checking it out here.

Why create this system?

First, a story.

On July 26, 2015, the Kansas City Royals acquired Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds for a trio of lefty pitching prospects. Media outlets everywhere declared that the Royals had finally added the ace their team desperately needed. And they were right. According to Bill James Online’s Starting Pitcher Rankings on that day, Johnny Cueto ranked as the 7th best pitcher in all of baseball with a score of 547.1.

Two weeks later on August 10, Cueto dazzled in his first home start at Kauffman Stadium. He threw a complete game shutout, allowing only 4 hits, walking zero and striking out 8. When BJO’s rankings were updated the next day his score had jumped to 556, good for the 5th best pitcher in baseball.

From there, you may remember, it got rocky. Cueto got shelled numerous times during the months of August and September causing him to tumble 38 points to 518.5 by the end of the regular season.

The question of who to start in Game 1 of the ALDS for the Royals would have been obvious just two months prior, but many wondered whether or not the term “ace” still applied to Johnny Cueto. Was Cueto still an ace? Or was he merely a “good” pitcher at this point? Suddenly, instead of surrounding himself with names like Max Scherzer and David Price, he was hanging around the likes of John Lackey and R.A. Dickey. Still good pitchers. But not aces these days.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have some system – some quick metric – that could answer that annoyingly subjective terminology for you? I think it would. And even if it didn’t close the book on the discussion, it’d make the conversation that much richer.

So that’s my motivation. And the Ace Line Calendar just happens to be where I ended up.

By the way, the Royals threw Yordano Ventura in Game 1.

Using the Ace Line Calendar

Despite how the ensuing paragraphs appear, this isn’t a very complicated system. Bill James has done the hardest work for me in creating a fluid ranking system to utilize. All I’ve done is compiled it, plotted it and created a spreadsheet out of the numbers the data spit my way.

The Ace Line Calendar is a list of all 365 calendar days. It begins on April 1 and runs through March 31. For every day, it gives two numbers – the first number is the Obvious Yes Line, the second is the Definite No Line. The Obvious Yes Line declares that every starting pitcher with a score higher than that corresponding number is obviously an ace. The Definite No Line declares that anyone with a score below that corresponding number is definitely not an ace. For now, anyone in between is debatable.

Go ahead, pick any date in the last 6 baseball seasons. Okay, June 30, 2014. Or, the day some nobody named Jake Arrieta took a no hitter into the 8th inning at Fenway Park. Good choice.

From there, it’s a two step process:

Step 1: Go to the Ace Line Calendar and look up June 30.

Step 2: Compare the outputs with the BJO Starting Pitcher Rankings for 6/30/14. (You can select any date in the past 6 years on the SPR page.)

The output from the Calendar: 506.8/496.2.

The list for 6/30/14…

  1. Clayton Kershaw – 584.4
  2. Felix Hernandez – 557.7
  3. Adam Wainwright – 549.9
  4. Max Scherzer – 548.4
  5. Yu Darvish – 546.3
  6. David Price – 528.2
  7. Jon Lester – 526.4
  8. Cliff Lee – 523.3
  9. Chris Sale – 522.1
  10. Zack Greinke – 521.5
  11. Anibal Sanchez – 521.3
  12. Madison Bumgarner – 521.1
  13. Cole Hamels – 520.8
  14. Jered Weaver – 513.6
  15. Johnny Cueto – 513.1
  16. Justin Verlander – 507.8
    —> YES LINE – 506.8
  17. Kyle Lohse – 497.3
  18. James Shields – 497.0
    —> NO LINE – 496.2
  19. Jordan Zimmerman – 492.1
  20. C.J. Wilson – 491.1

The list goes on, but the takeaway is clear: according to my Calendar system, on June 30, 2014, everyone from Kershaw to Verlander (who came in just over the 506.8 Obvious Yes Line) is obviously an ace, Kyle Lohse and James Shields are questionable, but Jordan Zimmerman, C.J. Wilson and the rest of the list are definitely not aces coming in under the 496.2 Definite No Line.

Aaaaaaand, that’s pretty much it. That’s the “Ace Line.” Works for any day, all year long. Give it a try. See what you think and give me some feedback. It might not be perfect yet, but it feels pretty spot on so far. I’m excited to monitor it as the 2016 MLB season progresses.

How It Works

Okay, so this is where things get more dense, but here’s how I determined those values.

In Defining an Ace, Part I, I sifted through the past 6 MLB seasons (as far back as the BJO system goes), and broke the top pitchers into groups of Obvious Aces, Hesitations and Definite Nos based purely on my gut reaction. The number of individuals in these groups varied slightly each year, but there was a definite correlation in where the break happened between the Aces and Nos. The scores as of February 5 (when I did the initial research) were all somewhere in the 485 to 500 range.

Since the values are fluid throughout the season and offseason, my next goal is to discover a formula (y=ax + b) of best fit for the data, where “y” is the pitcher ranking score, “x” is the date in the calendar year,  “a” is the slope of the line and b is the starting point on the y-axis.

For “ace” caliber pitchers, scores generally rise throughout the season and then taper off consistently with the rest of the league during the offseason. Those who pitch in the postseason can continue to add to their scores. Postseason is included in the rankings, but it needs to be adjusted to a different slope due to the fact that the vast majority of starters are no longer pitching in November and their scores, therefore, are slowly decreasing.

To find this formula, I plotted the scores of the top 50 pitchers from each season on the 1st of every month (4/1/11, 5/1/11, 6/1/11, etc.). I ignored pitcher names entirely, and focused purely on rankings which causes each position on the graph to increase at generally the same rate throughout the season.

For example, in 2015, the 2nd best pitcher in baseball (after Clayton Kershaw) changed 4 times throughout the season. Due to his dominant 2014 postseason, Madison Bumgarner began the season ranked #2. By May 1, Felix Hernandez had passed him. By July 1, Max Scherzer – aided by a near-perfect game in which the only baserunner came when Jose Tabata leaned into a pitch in the 9th inning) – took over, but by September 1, Zack Greinke jumped him and finished the season at #2.

But when you ignore player names and focus only on the score of the individual ranked #2, the scores look like this:

  • April 1: 536.7
  • May 1: 551.7
  • June 1: 564.0
  • July 1: 584.6
  • August 1: 582.6
  • September 1: 583.2
  • October 1: 583.2
  • November 1: 592.1

The lower down the list you go, the more movement there is between pitchers day-to-day, but the scores end up creating a pretty consistent slope as the season progressed (which is what I’m looking for). But what slope – what ranking – should be used to determine what constitutes an ace?

Well, actually, it can’t be determined that easily because it varies year to year. The number of aces isn’t always consistent. It’s not just the Top 15 pitchers in baseball or the #1 guy on all 30 teams. That’s naive and lazy (which I tackled in my previous post on this topic). It’s fluid, not limited, so the number of aces one year might be 10 but the next year could be 18.

So I went back and looked at my lists of Yeses, Hesitations and Nos and plotted the corresponding individuals’ end-of-year ranking over the entire previous season. So in 2015, I thought Johnny Cueto (ranked #13 to end the season) was definitely an ace, Jacob deGrom (#14) and Stephen Strasburg (#15) caused me to hesitate and consider their cases, but I could quickly say that John Lackey (#16) was not an ace pitcher in 2015.

So I traced the 2015 Yes Line (Cueto, #13) back throughout the season as well as the 2015 No Line (Lackey, #16). I did this for all six seasons BJO has kept the Starting Pitcher Rankings, 2010-2015. Those individuals, if you don’t want to go back and look at the previous post again, were…

  • 2015: Cueto (Yes, #13), deGrom, Strasburg, Lackey (No, #16)
  • 2014: Strasburg (Yes, #14), Darvish, Weaver, Dickey, Shields, Samardzija (No, #19)
  • 2013: Sale (Yes, #15), Weaver, Dickey, Latos (No, #17)
  • 2012: Hernandez (Yes, #13), Gonzalez, Gallardo, Greinke, Latos (No, #17)
  • 2011: Shields (Yes, #16), Gallardo, Beckett, Garza, Price, Wilson (No, #21)
  • 2010: Lilly (Yes, #15) Johnson, Kershaw, J. Santana, Greinke, W. Rodriguez (No, #20)

When charted out, this is what those values look like. Again, this is not charted by individual, but by ranking. (If you’re on a mobile device, try turning it 90 degrees to better see the chart.)

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

4/1

490.1

475.6

487.2

473.1

481.4

475.5

489.2

479.6

486.5

470.5

487.3

468.7

5/1

488.5

472.0

488.8

480.2

491.2

483.3

498.0

489.6

496.4

476.9

490.3

482.3

6/1

499.4

487.1

504.6

496.2

493.7

491.2

501.2

493.8

495.6

485.4

501.8

495.6

7/1

504.5

499.2

513.1

492.1

503.3

496.8

509.0

499.6

502.2

492.5

513.7

498.3

8/1

511.8

504.7

509.1

503.9

511.1

503.7

509.0

502.5

502.6

498.9

519.1

508.2

9/1

525.5

510.1

511.2

503.5

530.7

514.4

529.8

514.2

524.7

506.6

528.7

515.4

10/1

525.5

510.1

531.0

516.5

523.2

520.2

526.9

523.3

526.2

519.1

531.4

518.2

11/1

518.6

509.1

522.5

510.5

518.0

512.9

528.3

513.3

524.7

512.1

524.3

511.2

Save for a few exceptions, each pair of columns begins roughly in the same place (481-490 high, 475-486 low), increases as the season progresses, reaches its height at the beginning of October before dipping down again during the postseason. If we continue these numbers into the offseason, each one decreases at a constant rate of a quarter point per day.

The one hiccup here is that the slope from April 1 to October 1 is different than from October 1 to November 1 due to postseason play. So we’ll need to find two different slopes.

When we aggregate and plot the 4/1-10/1 values, it generates the following slopes…

  • Obvious Aces… y = 7.0756x + 478.71
  • Definitely Not Aces… y = 7.2952x + 467.21

At first glance, I’m surprised that Nos have a steeper slope (7.29 vs 7.07) than the Yeses. I expected the higher ranking to have a slightly steeper slope, but the opposite is true. I’m not exactly sure why that is. I suppose the starting point is lower so the ending point is higher. Guys at the top are more established while the guys at the bottom of consideration are often up-and-coming names who and a lot further to climb.

When we do the same for the 10/1-11/1 values, we get…

  • Obvious Aces… y = -4.6333x + 532
  • Definitely Not Aces… -6.3833x + 524.28

The disparity of slopes here (-6.38 vs -4.63) appears much more drastic, and for two reasons. First, the regular season formulas above are considering 6 times the data that the postseason stats are, so the outputs are much less extreme. Second, simply put, true aces shine in the postseason while non-aces don’t.

And now that we have slopes for the entire year, we can simply “plug and chug” (as my high school algebra teachers used to say) for each date. Which yields a complete calendar of dates starting on April 1 and ending on March 31. All that’s left to do is copy/paste the results into a Google spreadsheet and share it here.

Now, none of this is perfect, and there are probably a dozen different reasons why this is off. A couple things I’m already aware of…

  1. Opening Day is not always April 1, the postseason doesn’t always begin October 1. I recognize that the better way to construct this would be around a 162 game schedule and have it begin and end exactly when the season does. Maybe if this beta version amounts to anything I can tweak it to be even more accurate?
  2. This whole thing is pretty arbitrary. Who knows how much things would change if I moved one spot up or down in the SPR data here or there. But one thing I know is the more data you average, the less variance there is over one tiny change in input. Or what if I’d chosen the 15th instead of the 1st of each month? How would the data adjust? I actually don’t think very much.
  3. What about Leap Year?! Well, I both skipped it and didn’t. I actually calculated February to be 28.25 days so I wouldn’t have to make adjustments for a 366th day. So, just read Feb 28. Or wait it out and check in March for all I care. You do you.
  4. There’s some level of error, I’m sure. And if I broke it down and plotted every single day before rather than just every 30 days, a line of best fit would be immediately more accurate. But cmon, let’s be realistic with my time here. The only place that might be necessary is between 10/1 and 11/1. More data would help there.

Besides, ultimately this is just my opinion on what makes a guy an “ace” – your threshold might be much more conservative or liberal than mine. But now that you know how I did it, you can go make your own ALC if you want. But just so everyone knows, this is the original.

-apc.

Photo cred: MLB.com accessed here.

Defining an Ace

What’s an ace?

It is, perhaps, the most subjective baseball term thrown around these days. “He’s the ace of their staff.” Or, “That guy is a true ace.” There are a lot of ways to define it, and none of them actually bring much clarity because it can’t really be done objectively. 

So the goal here might be impossible: to objectively define what makes a pitcher an ace.

The easiest (and laziest) way to define it would to be to say, “There are 30 of them – the best starter on each team.” That’s obviously bogus, and for a lot of reasons.

For some teams, there’s an obvious ace: Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez, for example. For a few teams, there could be multiple ace-calibur guys: the 2015 Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke) or Cubs (Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester). For many teams, there’s no clear ace at all: the Royals, for example, have a group of good starters but none of them are truly dominant. As much as we might call him “Ace,” Yordano Ventura is no where close to being an ace…yet.

However, every team does declare a #1 starter, and if they don’t say so explicitly, we can assume their best starter is the guy who throws on Opening Day. This yields names like Phil Hughes, Kyle Kendrick and Kyle Lohse, all Opening Day starters in 2015. We should all be able to agree these are not aces. There’s a distinct difference between an “ace” and a “number one.”

So where do we begin to create a definition amid this curious landscape?

First, we need a ranking system, which Bill James has so kindly constructed for us. Using his World’s #1 Starting Pitcher Rankings, we can see a list of all the MLB starters ranked from Clayton Kershaw to Matt Boyd.

If you want to know how the rankings work in detail, you can read more about it here. The short version is that every pitcher begins with a value of 300.0 then depending on their Game Score (which is calculated after every start they make) their overall number either goes up or down. So with each good start, a pitcher climbs the rankings as his overall score increases. If he has a poor start, or misses significant playing time, his score will decrease. The rankings are fluid. Think of them like golf or tennis rankings.

As of this post, Clayton Kershaw is currently ranked #1 with a score of 609.9. This is the third consecutive season he has begun the year as the #1 ranked starter in baseball. Prior to him it was Justin Verlander. Prior to him, Roy Halladay. Prior to him, Felix Hernandez, Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Halladay, CC Sabathia, Lincecum, Sabathia, Lincecum, etc., etc. etc. Players rise and fall. You get it.

I created a table of the Top 30 names going into each MLB season over the past 5 years as well as 2016. (If you’re on your phone, I recommend turning it sideways.) Here are the rankings…

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

Kershaw Kershaw Kershaw Verlander Halladay Halladay
Greinke Bumgarner Scherzer Kershaw Verlander Hernandez
Scherzer Hernandez Verlander Lee Lee Lee
Arrieta Scherzer Lee Price Kershaw Lincecum
Price Price Darvish Sabathia Hamels Sabathia
Bumgarner Sale Greinke Hamels Weaver Wainwright
Sale Lester Hamels Weaver Sabathia Hamels
Kluber Hamels Shields Cain Lincecum Oswalt
Keuchel Cueto Lester Shields Cain Verlander
Lester Greinke Sanchez Scherzer Hernandez Jimenez
Hamels Wainwright Wainwright Kuroda Lester Lester
Hernandez Zimmerman Price Dickey Carpenter Weaver
Cueto Kluber Hernandez Hernandez Haren Cain
deGrom Strasburg Bumgarner Gonzalez Romero Haren
Strasburg Darvish Sale Gallardo Kennedy Lilly
Lackey Weaver Weaver Greinke Shields Johnson
Zimmerman Dickey Dickey Latos Gallardo Kershaw
Dickey Shields Latos Fister Beckett J. Santana
Ross Samardzija Gonzalez Cueto Garza Greinke
Gray Fister Cain Halladay Price Rodriguez
Shields Lynn Kuroda Kennedy Wilson Arroyo
Archer Kuroda Bailey Sanchez Vazquez Sanchez
Quintana Gonzalez Lohse Lester Lilly Danks
Liriano Verlander Fister Lohse Greinke Price
Cole Tillman Wilson Bumgarner Rodriguez Carpenter
Lynn Sanchez E. Santana Harrison Santana Garza
Volquez Hughes Jimenez Arroyo Jimenez Billingsly
Teheren Quintana Strasburg Dempster Hudson Pettite
Carrasco Cobb Iwakuma Beckett Gonzalez Lackey
Chen Liriano Zimmerman Wilson Kuroda Guthrie

Two immediate thoughts. First: How did the 2011 Phillies fail? Second: What up, Jeremy Guthrie?

As I scanned the 2016 column, I began checking off the names I considered an ace entering that season. Kershaw? Yes. Greinke? Yes. Arrieta? Yes. But at a certain point, it gets hazy. For me, that certain point was Jacob deGrom. He’s the first person on the list who caused me to hesitate. My hesitation continues with Stephen Strasburg, but John Lackey is an definite “no.”

Moving over to 2015, I tried the same experiment. Adam Wainwright? Yes. Jordan Zimmerman? Yes. Corey Kluber? Won the Cy Young, yes. Stephen Strasburg? Yes. Yu Darvish? ….hesitation. I continue to hesitate on Jered Weaver, R.A. Dickey and James Shields, until I get to Jeff Samardzija and can easily say “no.”

Basically, just by using the eye test and our memories, each year can be split into three groupings: The Obvious Aces. Hesitations. Definite Nos.

As we think back to Opening Day 2014 and beyond, it gets harder to remember how we viewed each guy on the list at the time. However, I think our overall perception is better a few years later than it was in the moment. There’s no recency bias. I’m not compelled to call a guy an ace because I’ve seen his most recent body of work.

Here’s a good case: Chris Archer vs Doug Fister. There’s a chance Archer could take another step forward and be a legitimate ace in 2016. Or he could backslide. Okay, now look at Doug Fister: on the bubble from 2013 to 2015, and there was a chance for a few years he could’ve taken that last step, but he didn’t. This past season’s regression showed us he probably peaked in those years and isn’t an ace. Going into 2015, I might have been compelled to consider Fister an ace. Today, it feels silly to have ever considered it. I’m compelled to give Chris Archer the benefit of the doubt today, but a year or two from now, we’ll know the full story and will be able to look back with confidence.

As we go from column to column, here are my last “yes” all hesitations and first “no” for each year:

2016: Cueto (Yes), deGrom, Strasburg, Lackey (No)

2015
: Strasburg (Yes), Darvish, Weaver, Dickey, Shields, Samardzija (No)

2014
: Sale (Yes), Weaver, Dickey, Latos (No)

2013
: Hernandez (Yes), Gonzalez, Gallardo, Greinke, Latos (No)

2012
: Shields (Yes), Gallardo, Beckett, Garza, Price, Wilson (No)

2011
: Lilly (Yes) Johnson, Kershaw, J. Santana, Greinke, W. Rodriguez (No)

Maybe you disagree with me somewhat on where you stopped saying “yes” and started saying “no”, and that’s understandable. Each of us views these things somewhat differently – I love Zack Greinke, for example so I continued to hesitate on him in 2013 and 2011 when you may have been quick to say no. That’s fair. But generally, this is the area of the chart where, for me, I begin to question the label.

I went back to the rankings and looked at the scores, hoping to find some sort of correlation between the numbers. A trend developed. Again, these are their scores during the offseason between each season. The year above is the upcoming season.***

*** – By the way, I used the date of this research, February 5, as the date for each of these lists, only changing the year. I realize it’s an arbitrary offseason date, and I should probably choose Opening Day each year which varies up to a week each year. But for the sake of simplicity, I’ve used 2/5. Another note: these are offseason numbers, which decline steadily between the final day of the regular season and Opening Day.

2016
Cueto (495.1)
deGrom (489.5)
Strasburg (488.8)
Lackey (485.1)

2015
Strasburg (498.5)
Darvish (492.9)
Weaver (490.6)
Dickey (489.4)
Shields (488.5)
Samarzija (486.5)

2014
Sale (494.0)
Weaver (493.7)
Dickey (492.0)
Latos (488.9)

2013
Hernandez (504.3)
Gonzalez (500.0)
Gallardo (493.7)
Greinke (493.2)
Latos (489.3)

2012
Shields (500.7)
Gallardo (493.6)
Beckett (492.6)
Garza (491.0)
Price (490.4)
Wilson (488.1)

2011
Lilly (500.3)
J. Johnson (499.6)
Kershaw (498.6)
J. Santana (493.3)
Greinke (491.8)
W. Rodriguez (487.2)

Do you see the trend? Even in just glancing through the names, I somehow stumbled on a consistent set of scores. I’m actually shocked there’s some level of consistency here, but somewhere between 485 and 500 is the offseason barrier between ace and non-ace.

Now, this still isn’t totally objective because each of us varies in how strict we want to view the term, but it seems to me that somewhere in this range of scores is the answer to our question.

I have a few remaining questions though, that I’m not sure I’ve figured out still.

  1. Scores decline slowly but consistently during the offseason. Then as the season progresses, the top numbers rise through the season. The gap between the Opening Day low and Game 162 (and postseason, for those eligible) high is around 40-50 points. Is there some sliding scale we can create so that the 485-500 range that works today will be consistent in May, July, and September? Probably easy to do, but that’s for another post.
  2. What do we do with injuries? Are Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright aces? Do they get grandfathered in somehow due to their past dominance, or do we require them to prove they still deserve the label and work back up the rankings?
  3. What do we do about a guy who has a meteoric rise one year, but hasn’t sustained it over time? Can we really call Jake Arrieta an ace, or does it take some time to establish himself?
  4. What do we do we call a guy with a 500+ score who isn’t the #1 starter on his team? He’s technically not a staff ace, but he still has all the other qualifications. Is there a name for that? Deuce? King? Off-Ace? Grasping.

Still working on the details, but it seems there is an objective way to say whether a starter is or is not an ace based on Bill James’s ranking system. I’ll have to do more research to determine what those barriers are over the course of the season. It’s just an algebra problem that needs plotting. Let me get my TI-83+ and follow up later.

Although, it’d be a lot easier if we just asked, “Is he better than Mat Latos?” and called it a day.

-apc.

 Image Cred: LA Times accessed here.

Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

 

In 2012, Alabama Shakes released their first LP titled Boys & Girls to rave reviews. This album is better. It’s significantly different, but significantly better. Their first album sounds like 70’s rock – guitar driven with even a slight country twang in places. The group hails from Athens, Alabama, and their first album reflects it in sound. It sounds like you’re sitting in a soulful southern joint eating some rice and beans or something.

But their second LP, Sound & Color hardly sounds like the same band. They’ve matured musically, moving into a much more complex array of sounds. Xylophones? Distorted vocals? Groovy bass lines? It’s so different and layered and complex compared to their debut work. It’s a welcomed move.

This album is more Al Green than it is Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is certainly a step up in the opinion of this blogger. That said, even with the drastically new sound, the same impressive pipes propel the album: those of Brittany Howard, whose high-pitched vocals make the muscles in my neck twinge just thinking about them. Her first squeal on the album’s single, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” is so painfully pitched one wonders how she even manages it. Her voice is unique and most likely unlike anything else you’ve heard before.

And I love it.

“Don’t Wanna Fight” (along with the other single, “Gimme All Your Love“) is the type of record you put on in the car when the road trip gets boring. It’s the perfect tune to just belt out at the top of your lungs. If your vocal chords aren’t throbbing through the first 5 tracks on this album, you’re doing it wrong. No restraint here. I’d suggest that the 3-year gap between their first and second albums was to allow for her chords to recover, but the group toured relentlessly over that stretch, so so much for that theory.

What probably took so long was simply how complex this album is. Alongside Howard, Alabama Shakes features Heath Fogg on guitar, Zac Cockerell on bass and Steve Johnson on drums, and unlike Boys & Girls, all four members are featured prominently on this album. On their first album, when Howard quit singing, the album lost it’s thrust. On this album, that’s not the case. The bass and guitar in particular drive this album just as much as the vocals in places.

The most interesting thing on this album – and the thing that ties the whole thing together – is the distortions on both the instrumentation and Howard’s vocals. Rather than just have her sing over the grooves, they chose to enmesh her vocals in with the overall sound of each track. The effect is fascinating. I keep coming back to Al Green – the moment he starts singing, you know it’s him. His voice is unmistakeable. Howard’s voice might be the closest thing I’ve heard to Green’s.

The latter half of the record (with the glaring exception of “The Greatest” – which is borderline punk rock) is ballad after ballad. It’s the closest to Al Green’s overall sound that the album comes. They’re not bad – in fact I like each song individually – but they do get a bit monotonous. While the first 5 tracks are asking to be screamed, the next 7 struggle to keep my ear. I really dig “Guess Who” and “Miss You” – which both beautifully oscillate between delicate and powerful, but it’s an album I struggle to get through from start to finish. The sound becomes expected the longer you listen to it, which really makes me wonder where they’ll go with their sound in the future.

It would be an absolute shock if Shakes beat out Taylor Swift or Kendrick Lamar, but it’s the only other one I see having any chance. It’s a distant third in this year’s field. I do think it will win Alternative Album of the Year. It’s primary competition there is Tame Impala, but I’ve always wondered how any of the other nominees think they have a chance against an album nominated for Album of the Year. If it’s not the best Alternative Album, how would it ever be the top overall?

Top tracks: Don’t Wanna Fight, Guess Who, Gimme All Your Love

Back to GRAMMYs.

 

1989 – Taylor Swift

It feels funny to write about an album that’s so universally known at this point. I should’ve written this back in early 2015 when the album initially dropped, because at this point we all know what kind of an album we have here.

Taylor Swift moved from Nashville to New York City two years ago and it’s reflected in pretty much everything here. The emotional acoustic guitar has been replaced with crisp cadences and catchy choruses. But Taylor’s need to overshare the depth of her soul is still present though, but instead of crying over lovers, it’s an album about freedom in the business of the big city. Even the more stripped down tracks (“This Love,” “How You Get the Girl,” “Clean“) are produced at a different level than her past ballads. She’d dabbled with pop in the past, but never truly abandoned her country connection. Here she goes full pop.

But it’s not remotely surprising. Nothing about this abandonment in 1989 is startling. It feels natural. Which is not something most artists ought to be able to do so seamlessly. When an artist changes his/her sound, there’s typically a backlash of some sort that laments them straying from their origins and chasing new sounds. Consumers don’t do well with change.

What is startling is how T-Swift refuses to be put in a box. She’s moved from winning country awards to winning pop soloist awards and somehow has managed to transcend both categories. She doesn’t fit in anyone’s mold. She’s a shapeshifter who never surprises you with her new look. Just when I think I’ve got her figured out, she morphs again, yet it all feels so natural. It’s just who she is.

She’s unapologetically herself, and that’s her greatest strength.

From the outset, it’s an incredibly fun album. “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” have been two of the loudest anthems across the nation this past year. It’s hard to leave the house without hearing her voice at some point. And, my goodness, if I’m not tapping my foot every time. Something about her tunes gets under my skin whether you want it to or not. And let’s be honest: You want it to.

This album is hit after hit, track after track, and none of them are complex. “Style” is a straightforward boy-meets-girl anthem. “Bad Blood” is a straightforward you-hurt-me-but-screw-you anthem. There’s no metaphor here and there’s no confusion as to what she’s singing about. She writes her heart, mind and soul into her lyrics, yet it doesn’t feel like an overshare because she’s probably the most lovable human since Tom Hanks. She doesn’t fit in, and that’s the way she wants it.

It’s hard to even classify her alongside other artists. Who else with her level of fame manages to sit so completely alone and look so comfortable with it? Maybe Adele? Maybe Lady Gaga? There’s no competition here, not because she’s defeated everyone else, but because she is so unlike the competition.

You know these songs. I don’t need to tell you any more. But I’ll say this: I think she loses out to Kendrick Lamar. I won’t be surprised if T-Swift takes home a bundle, but I don’t think she ends up with the Big One.

Top Tracks: Shake It Off, Clean, Blank Space, Bad Blood

-apc.

Outfield Options

The Royals have been active this offseason and have spent more money than ever before.

They added Joakim Soria to the bullpen to help make up for the loss of Greg Holland and Ryan Madson. They re-signed Alex Gordon to the largest contract in Royals history: $74M over 4 years. They added Ian Kennedy to the second largest contract in Royals history: $70M over 5 years. They added Dillon Gee and Peter Moylan to minor league contracts hoping one or both might pan out as the next Ryan Madson or even the next Joe Blanton.

And as it stands right now, their team is better entering 2016 than it was entering Spring Training a year ago. Their overall payroll projects to be around $127M for 2016 according to Royals Review, Royals Authority and Pine Tar Press.

The only possible place they could still improve – realistically speaking, of course – is adding an additional outfield option on the cheap.

Yes, Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have both said that Jarrod Dyson deserves a legitimate shot at s starting spot in the outfield this season, and I believe them when they say it. And he’s earned it. His defense is among the best in the league. His speed is the best in the league. His role as a fourth outfielder and speed demon off the bench has been extremely valuable in helping KC make it to back to back trips to the Fall Classic.

But his bat versus lefties is poor. It’s his glaring weakness. And in order to seriously give him a shot, the Royals will have to platoon him with Paulo Orlando, who had a decent 2015, but who many believe – myself included – was mostly smoke and mirrors and is not someone we can fully trust to start roughly 1/3 of 162 games.

So the Royals may need an additional outfielder. Specifically someone who is cheap, isn’t a defensive liability, and is right-handed with strong splits versus lefties.

Here are the available outfield free agents as of this post, along with their 2015 stats, via Fangraphs. (If you’re on your phone, try turning the screen sideways to see the full chart.)

Name G PA HR SB BB% K% AVG OBP SLG Off Def WAR
Dexter Fowler

156

690

17

20

12.2%

22.3%

0.25

0.346

0.411

8.1

0.6

3.2

David Murphy

132

391

10

0

5.1%

12.5%

0.283

0.318

0.421

-0.1

-9.8

0.3

Marlon Byrd

135

544

23

2

5.3%

26.7%

0.247

0.29

0.453

0.3

-7.8

1

Jeff Francoeur

119

343

13

0

3.8%

22.4%

0.258

0.286

0.433

-6.3

-10.6

-0.7

Austin Jackson

136

527

9

17

5.5%

23.9%

0.267

0.311

0.385

-3.4

8.3

2.3

Chris Denorfia

103

231

3

0

6.5%

24.2%

0.269

0.319

0.373

-4

4

0.8

Grady Sizemore

97

296

6

3

6.8%

20.3%

0.253

0.307

0.381

-3.7

-11.9

-0.6

Will Venable

135

390

6

16

9.5%

24.1%

0.244

0.32

0.35

-1.4

0.4

1.2

Drew Stubbs

78

140

5

5

10%

42.9%

0.195

0.283

0.382

-5.4

0.2

-0.1

Skip Schumaker

131

268

1

2

8.6%

19%

0.242

0.306

0.336

-9.5

-9.3

-1.1

Alex Rios

105

411

4

9

3.6%

16.3%

0.255

0.287

0.353

-11.8

-0.2

0.2

Shane Victorino

71

204

1

7

7.8%

15.7%

0.23

0.308

0.292

-5.6

-0.9

0

Matt Joyce

93

284

5

0

10.6%

23.6%

0.174

0.272

0.291

-14.5

-7.8

-1.4

Not listed here: Nate McLouth, who didn’t play in 2015. But he’s a poor defender and he’s left handed and bad at baseball so we can just ignore him probably.

Okay. Process of elimination.

There are 4 lefties on the list: Matt Joyce, Will Venable, Skip Schumaker and Grady Sizemore. They can all be scrapped for various reasons (in addition to their left-handedness). We can eliminate Joyce and Sizemore immediately due to their atrocious defensive numbers. And as much as I would love Schumaker’s defensive flexibility – he can play infield and outfield – his defense last year was poor, and he’s a career .215 hitter off lefties, so he’s likely out of the running as well. Venable is an average defender, but he’s a career .222 hitter against lefties, so he’s out too.

Dexter Fowler is way too expensive. No time to dream here. Moving on.

Drew Stubbs is a terrible hitter. No.

Austin Jackson is the best defender on the list, and that’s always intriguing when we’re talking about Kansas City. Last year he hit .281/.333/.437 off lefties, which okay, but his strength is his glove and his legs…which sounds like Jarrod Dyson. He’s going to want a bigger contract than we’ll want to give him, but throwing his name into the mix with Cain/Dyson certainly makes one salivate a bit over the platoon possibilities. But he’s probably the most expensive guy on the list not named Fowler.

Tough to be objective about Frenchy. The Jeff Francoeur Reunion Tour would sure be fun. He had an okay year last year in Philadelphia representing the meat of their pitiful lineup. We all know about his arm and his smile, but it’s just not worth it.

That leaves these names…

Marlon Byrd
Chris Denorfia
David Murphy
Alex Rios
Shane Victorino

ESPN’s Jayson Stark tweeted this yesterday about David Murphy:

David Murphy is an intriguing option for two reasons. First, he’s got a solid bat versus lefties: .304/.360/.435 in 2015. Second, he’s a high contact guy who is tough to strike out and even harder to walk. He would fit in well offensively. But he’s a poor defender, and I agree with Stark that he’s likely out of KC’s price range for what his role would be.

Shane Victorino has never been my favorite ballplayer, but you know what you’re getting at this point. The guy has hit .300 vs lefties in his career and is coming off a season where he hit .333. He’s also a high contact guy. His defense has been solid in the past – especially when he played in the tiny right field in Fenway Park – but last year in Anaheim his defense slipped. Maybe it’s due to age, but I think it’s the size of the outfield there. And Kauffman is even larger. He’s not the best option.

Bringing back Alex Rios isn’t out of the question if the price is right. We all know Rios’s trajectory from last year: Great first week of the season before he was hit by a pitch in the hand, spent time on the DL and took basically the entire year to recover fully. He looked off the rest of the way. His defense is worse than Orlando’s but his bat is still better. We paid him $11M in 2015, and he’d have to take like a $7M pay cut to come back. But he played the hero numerous times in the postseason. And dem legs. Plus he’s a familiar face in the dugout. Last year he struggled overall and only hit .265 against lefties, but in 2014 he hit .325 and slugged .525. If the price is right, I don’t hate it.

Marlon Byrd, along with having one of the coolest names in baseball, is 38 years old, and even though power isn’t really the Royals M.O., he’s still got some pop in his bat for his age. He sucks against righties and his old guy defense is obviously below average. He spent time in Cincinnati and San Francisco last year, hitting .271 against lefties and slugging just shy of .500. If the Royals added him, he would need to compete for Orlando’s role. He’d be a safety net in case of injury, but I see him being a solid bench bat at best. I’d rather stick with what we’ve got and call up Bubba Starling or Brett Eibner in case of emergency instead.

Finally, we come to Chris Denorfia. He’s a career .285/.353/.419 hitter against lefties, and his defense is the second strongest on this list after Jackson. He was the Cubs 5th outfielder last year, and Royals fans may remember him as the guy who took Miguel Almonte deep in the 11th inning of that Wrigley makeup game last September. (See above.) He had a disappointing year in 2015, spending two stints on the DL with a hamstring issue, and struggled against lefties for the second year in a row.

Denorfia versus LHP since 2010…

2010 – .295/.382/.381 with SDP
2011 – .328/.391/.496
2012 – .337/.390/.500
2013 – .284/.355/.479
2014 – .220/.287/.300 with SEA
2015 – .211/.294/.303 with CHC

Not sure what to make of that decline over the past two years. He clearly liked hitting in San Diego. The Cubs only paid him $2.6M, and with his struggles last year I’d imagine he’d be a $1M option. We could even offer him some performance incentives to keep the payroll safe. He’s 35 years old – same age as Victorino, a year older than Murphy and Rios – but he’d be significantly cheaper than all three of them. He’s not a risk at all, but has the potential to compare with them offensively if he can get back some of that Padre lefty line. The Royals have a history of looking past recent struggles and more at a full body of work. If they believe they can resurrect Denorfia’s ability to hit lefties, they could take a flier on a guy with minimal risk.

So who do you want out of that group? Well, it all depends on what you really are looking for.

If you want a cheap guy to supplement a Dyson/Orlando platoon while you wait for prospects to be called up, I’d give Denorfia a look despite his 2014-15 numbers and hope he bounces back. If you want a guy who can step in and be an every day outfielder and push Dyson and Orlando back into their 2015 roles, I’d suggest bringing back Rios over stretching the bank for Victorino or Murphy. If you want to blow the payroll and bring in a guy who’d be a great fit for Kauffman Stadium, I’d suggest Jackson.

And it’s entirely possible Dayton Moore might value the status quo over any of those options, and I’m fine with that too. I’d be more inclined to spend big at the trade deadline than break the bank before the season even starts. If they sign anybody, I’m in for Chris Denorfia. Stay tuned.

-apc.

Image cred: NBC Chicago accessed here.

1945 World Series

The 1945 World Series is considered by some to be one of the worst World Series ever played, mostly due to how World War II had depleted the MLB rosters. I wrote a lot about what the war did to MLB rosters in my 1944 World Series post.

Researching these wartime World Series is tough. Every stat I look at, every performance I read about, needs an asterisk next to it that reminds me: “The best baseball players on the planet weren’t even playing that season, so of course they dominated.”

Imagine facing the 2015 Dodgers if Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke both enlisted in the military. Suddenly Buster Posey is hitting .400 off Brett Anderson and Friends and the defending champion Giants are making a postseason run in an odd year for a change.

But the flip side of the conversation is also true: If the Dodgers didn’t have their staff aces, then the Giants probably wouldn’t have Buster Posey or Madison Bumgarner either. So the featured matchup is no longer Kershaw/Posey…instead you’re really excited for Brett Anderson vs Nori Aoki or something. Shoot, if half the league was off to war, suddenly Aoki might be an All Star and a Gold Glove outfielder.

My point here is two-fold. 1. Wartime baseball was mediocre baseball all around the league and 2. Statistics can’t be given any significant value. It’s all a mirage.

So when I tell you the Chicago Cubs led the NL in team ERA (2.98) and batting average (.277) take those stats with a grain of salt. This is exemplified in Phil Cavarretta, who hit .355/.489/.500 and won the NL MVP that season, despite never coming close to those numbers in any other year. He was a career .293 hitter, but his best years were 1944 and 1945 due to the war.

Bullpens have evolved over the years as teams are becoming more and more aware of their value, but the Cubs apparently never had one. They led the league in complete games in 1945 with 86 – over half of their games. Their primary regular season arms were Claude Passeau, Hank Wyse, Paul Derringer and Ray Prim, but they acquired Hank Borowy from the Yankees mid-season and he became their best pitcher down the stretch. Chicago Manager Charlie Grimm leaned heavily on this battery in the Series – especially Borowy and Passeau – and, in the opinion of this blogger, was the primary reason the Cubs failed to win it all that year.

There are two other major reasons the Detroit Tigers managed to come back from a 2-1 series deficit and steal 3 of 4 games at Wrigley Field to win the 1945 World Series. One is a human. The other is not.

Hammerin’ Hank

The human is Hall of Fame slugger, Hank Greenberg, who was the first ballplayer to return to baseball from active duty. He hadn’t played since 1941, yet on July 1, 1945, he hit a home run against Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics in first game back in the bigs. From there, he started poorly: .219/.324/.438 in his first 29 games back. Essentially for the month of July he was 2015 Omar Infante with a slight power boost. But then over the final 49 games of the season he hit .362/.448/.603 and powered the Tigers to the AL pennant finishing a game ahead of the Washington Senators.

b635a90483db032a0d84db9618fd68db

Here’s a fun story: on the final game of the 1945 regular season, the Tigers were playing in Sportsman’s Park against the reigning AL Champs, the St. Louis Browns. The game was 3-2 Browns in the 9th. It was getting late and the umpire was about to call the game due to darkness. The bases were loaded for Greenberg, when the umpire said, “Sorry Hank, I’m gonna have to call the game. I can’t see the ball.”

Hank replied, “Don’t worry, George. I can see it just fine.” He hit the next pitch over the fence and the Tigers won the pennant, avoiding a one game playoff against the Senators.

In the World Series, Greenberg hit over .300, slugged nearly .700 and hit the only two Tiger home runs of the series. So if the Cubs want to point the finger at one person who cost them the 1945 World Series, it’s Hank Greenberg.

But Cubs fans rarely point the finger at a human at all. Instead, they blame a goat.

The Curse of the Billy Goat

The Cubs went into Game 4 – the first game at Wrigley Field – having taken two games in Detroit and leading the series 2-1. All they needed to do was win 2 of the next 4 at home.

Greek immigrant and tavern owner, Billy Sianis, purchased two tickets to Game 4. And accompanying him to the game was his pet goat, Murphy. The goat had fallen off a truck outside his tavern one day and Sianis decided to take in the animal as a sort of mascot. The goat was allowed to enter the ballpark, and was allowed to stay in its seat through part of the game. Some complaining from nearby fans were quelled early, but after a short rain delay, the goat began to stink, and that was when Sianis and his goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field.

Upon leaving, the angry tavern owner supposedly declared a curse on the Cubs, stating that the team would lose the game, the Series, and would never play in a World Series again.

billygoat.jpg

The Cubs lost Game 4, and proceeded to lose Games 5 and 7 as well, dropping the series 4 games to 3, and as of this post, 1945 was the last time the Cubs have ever played in a World Series. Despite a few exceptionally good Cubs teams, the Curse of the Billy Goat has yet to be broken.

Charlie Grimm loves Hank Borowy

But again, when I look at this series on paper, I don’t think Hank Greenberg OR Murphy the Goat were the reasons for the Tigers eventual triumph over the Cubs. If I’m pointing the finger somewhere, I’m pointing it at manager Charlie Grimm’s use of starting pitcher Hank Borowy.

Borowy debuted as a rookie in 1942 and even got some MVP votes. He won 14 games for the Yankees’ 1943 championship team and won Game 3 of that series. In three and a half years in New York he won 56 games to the tune of a 2.74 ERA. And down the stretch with Chicago in 1945, he was even better, going 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA. He was downright dominant – all during the war, mind you…he was exceptionally average in 1946 and beyond.

So sure, ride your ace to the championship. I get it. It’s a solid strategy that we’ve seen play out numerous times. But this was on another level.

Hank Borowy

First of all, Borowy threw a complete game shutout in Game 1 in Detroit scattering 6 hits and 5 walks and a hit batsman. The Cubs led 4-0 after the first, 7-0 after the third, eventually won 9-0. A potential first demerit against Grimm: the game was well in hand after the first few innings, why couldn’t he have rested his best pitcher a bit? And it’s not like he was dominant – he faced 37 batters and allowed 12 baserunners. But you can’t really get on his case about it. It was a different era entirely, and why waste other pitchers? It’s nitpicking, I suppose, and inconsequential to Grimm’s major blunder later in the series.

So since he threw a bazillion pitches in Game 1, he didn’t pitch again until Game 5 in Chicago. He made it into the 6th with minimal damage – the score was tied 1-1 at that point, the only run coming off a sac fly. But then the floodgates opened the third time through the Tigers’ lineup: Doc Cramer singled, Greenberg doubled making it 2-1, Roy Cullenbine singled advancing Greenberg to third and Rudy York singled scoring Greenberg and forcing Borowy out of the game with 2 baserunners on, nobody out, and the score 3-1. Those two baserunners would score, making it 5 earned runs credited to Hank Borowy, who would got the loss.

Game 6 was a marathon. It was 5-1 Cubs entering the 7th inning, but when starter Claude Passeau – who had thrown a 1 hit shutout in Game 3) gave up his second run of the ballgame, Grimm made a move and brought in Game 2 starter Hank Wyse.

Wyse was, in a word, awful. He gave up another run before getting the final out in the 7th. The Cubs scored 2 in the bottom half with Wyse striking out with 2 outs and the bases loaded to end the inning. Wyse came back out for the 8th and gave up 2 more runs before getting an out. Grimm had seen enough and made another move bringing in Game 4 starter, Ray Prim, who gave up 2 more – one inherited form Wyse and the other his own. The Cubs failed to score in the bottom half. The score was 7-7 entering the 9th.

It was an ugly chain of events. Grimm couldn’t have known Wyse and Prim would be so awful. Nor would he have known the pitchers spot would come up with the bases loaded after the Cubs sent 8 men to the plate the next half inning. Up 2 with 10 outs to go, He probably thought he could ride Wyse and Prim to victory and bring back Borowy for Game 7 on short rest. Plus, now with the Cubs one loss away from elimination, Grimm had to pull out all the stops.

When Charlie Grimm looked over at the bullpen, he saw 5 options…

Paul Derringer, Hy Vandenberg and Paul Erickson had thrown the most during the regular season. Derringer was in the rotation before Borowy was acquired from New York, and was moved to the bullpen for the World Series. He had also thrown 2 innings the day before. Vandenberg and Erickson had both made appearances in Games 4 and 5 the previous 2 days and weren’t as fresh, but in an elimination game everyone is available.

Bob Chipman was probably just happy to be there. The 26 year old was one of the few young guys in the Series with the majority being drafted into military service. He’d faced two batters the day before, walking one before recording a groundout. So he was availble. But he was a lefty, and the Tigers had Rudy York, Jimmy Outlaw and Bob Swift coming up – all righties. Not a terrific option either.

Which left the guy who had just given up 5 earned runs in 5+ innings the day before: Hank Borowy.

Incredibly, Borowy was awesome. He allowed two singles to reach in the 9th before Houdini-ing out of the jam with a play at the plate. He then faced the minimum the rest of the way allowing two more singles, but getting Greenberg to hit into a double play in the 10th and Joe Hoover was caught trying to steal in the 12th.

He went 4 scoreless before the Cubs finally managed to win 8-7 in 12 on a Stan Hack walkoff double scoring the speedy pinch runner Bill Schuester from first.

The Cubs had survived, but the Tigers had forced the bullpen dry. With a day off between Games 6 and 7, the Cubs manager had another choice: Who should start Game 7?

Derringer was the best option. The guy was a 6-time All Star once upon a time, and he had finished in the Top 10 of MVP voting three different times and as recent as 1942. He had logged 30 starts and 213.2 innings during the regular season. And he was fresh having not pitched since Game 5. Grossly under-utilized.

Vandenberg, Erickson and Chipman were all options too. They’d combined for 26 starts during the regular season and had each put up an ERA in the low- to mid-3’s. Prim and Wyse had only thrown an inning or so each, so should’ve both been available to start. Even Passeau, who had thrown 6.2 innings two days ago, would’ve been a better option than the man who got the ball.

Because Grimm did the unthinkable.

He gave the ball back to Hank Borowy.

I mean, come on. He’s literally the only guy who should not have been an option. Sure, he’d shocked everyone by throwing 4 shutout innings just two days ago, but he was fortunate to get out of that unscathed, and he’d thrown 5+ innings and taken the loss just the day before that magic act. How in the world Grimm thought the solution to the problem was Hank Borowy is beyond me.

To start the game, Borowy gave up 3 consecutive singles and Grimm pulled him for Derringer. The Tigers scored 5 in the 1st and went on to win the game 9-3 and the Series 4-3.

The Tiger were beatable. The Cubs were the better team outside of Greenberg. Cubs fans can act like they’re cursed by some smelly wet goat, but the truth is this: Charlie Grimm’s inability to manage his pitching staff is what cost the Cubs the 1945 World Series. Overusing Borowy and underusing the rest of the bullpen, specifically Derringer.

Chicago-Cubs-Wrigley-Field-World-Series-1945.jpg

The Last of the Living from 1945

One last bits of info: the last living ballplayer from that Detroit Tigers team is Ed Mierkowicz. The only action he saw in the World Series was playing left field the final three outs of Game 7 as a defensive replacement for Hank Greenberg.

The first batter of the inning singled to Mierkowicz in left, but Detroit starter, Hal Newhouser (who got roughed up in Game 1, but threw all 9 innings of Games 5 and 7) gets the next three outs to end the game and Mierkowicz gets to party on the field, running in from the outfield. I encourage you to go read his story by The Detroit News here.

And the last living Cub from that 1945 team died last Spring. Lennie Merullo was 98. He played shortstop for the 1945 squad. Here’s an article from the NY Times about his life and legacy.

-apc.

Image credits: Program here. Billy Goat here. Wrigley facade here. Greenway card here. Borrow card here.

 

To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

Before I say anything else about this album, I need to say this: I have the highest respect for Kendrick Lamar. As an artist, as a role model, and as a human being, I’m extremely impressed with who he is and what he hopes to stand for as someone with fame and influence.

And that’s what To Pimp a Butterfly comes from: Kendrick Lamar’s deep desire to utilize his influence for good. It’s an album about leadership and celebrity. It’s Kendrick wrestling with the temptations associated with his new platform – the “evils of Lucy” (aka Lucifer) as he calls them. It’s his sophomore album – which typically has insane pressure to build off a successful debut project – isn’t anything what you’d expect from a rising star in the world. Instead of diving deep into his newfound wealth and power, he has chosen to take a step back and comment on how his status can be problematic, and how he strives to “pimp” that status for the benefit of others. Speaking value into his home community.

Kendrick Lamar is from Compton. He was raised in a world with a certain perspective and a certain way of life. No one ever told him he could amount to anything – that there was a world out there he could explore and learn from. He was born into a system of madness – which is the focus of his first album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” – and one of his primary goals in his new album is to preach potential to his community back home.

The opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” speaks to poverty and imprisonment. Opening up the collective mind of the systematic oppression experienced by those who grow up in the narrative of Compton and similar communities. There are places to visit, there’s a world out there to learn from – there are other ways of life. You’re not stuck in the narrative of cyclical generational poverty you’re been raised into.

It’s a fascinating album from a structural standpoint. The album continues in that vein through “King Kunta” and “Institutionalized” and “These Walls.” But the album seems to be framed in two parts around two songs: “u” – which focuses on the depression and suicidal feelings stemming from Kendrick experiencing a lack of control in painful things in his life – and “Alright” – which is the inverse narrative declaring that regardless of how bad things get, “we gonna be alright.”

Laced throughout the album is a poem. The first time you hear it, it’s only the first couple lines, but each recitation reveals more and more of the complete poem.

I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home…

The first time through the album, it’s confusing and disruptive. It’s tempting to skip the spoken portions to get back to the music, but the listener does him/herself a disservice if he does it. If Kendrick Lamar was about writing singles and pop hits, he’d never want the monologue there. It segments the flow and forces you to consider the words through repetition. The words provide the thrust of the album’s content.

But then you get to the end of the album – to “Mortal Man” – and you realize this isn’t a poem at all, but it’s a letter to Tupac. Apparently, while Kendrick was in Germany, some dude gave him a recording of an interview with Tupac from years ago when he was still alive. Kendrick takes that audio and creates an interview dialogue out of it between he and Tupac. It’s unbelievable. If you didn’t know/believe Tupac was dead, you’d be convinced he somehow sat down with Kendrick. It’s seamless and still so relevant to the world today.

In fact, get this: the orginal title for the album was going to be Tu Pimp a Caterpiller – Tu.P.A.C. – but went with butterfly instead because it represented Kendrick’s desire to pimp the beautiful things in life. There is so much happening here structurally it’s hard to nail it down unless you take the time to zoom out and consider the full context. The whole structure of the album is brilliant. Once the first listen is over, suddenly the end opens up the entire album in a new light – like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, to be honest. Lamar doesn’t shy away from the painful realities in the world, so there are moments on the album which, when taken out of context, can communicate something totally different than Kendrick’s big idea of the album. But when you listen to its entirety and begin to break down the themes and what he’s doing structurally, the album manages to open up to something incredible.

Admittedly, this isn’t an album that you can sit down and bump around to. It’s also not an album with singles you can throw into a playlist and listen to individually. Again, his goal isn’t to create a bunch of pop hits (which is basically exactly Taylor Swift’s goal in creating 1989) – it’s a cohesive creative unit with a message throughout.

The only single that was released for the album was “i” where features a looped Isley Brothers sample that really grooves. The phrase “I love myself” is repeated in chorus. It’s an anthem for those who society puts down – specifically young black community. Instead of believing the narrative of their world, to discover that everyone has value and ought to love themselves.

Except then on the album, it sounds like a live version! What?! Why would you do this to us Kendrick?! You can hear a crowd clamoring and someone introducing Kendrick as a guy who has “traveled all round the world but came back” – so apparently he’s performing for the people of Compton.

And then toward the end of the song he stops singing and starts talking to the people instead. He’s addressing the community about what it means to be black in the world – trying to create a new narrative for his home. He asks how many people have died in 2015 alone before doing a sort of etymological study on the N-word. He presents the Ethiopian word “negus” meaning “royalty” – a reclamation on a word taken and perverted by Americans over the decades.

By releasing the single version and then changing the album version, Kendrick further pushes his agenda. In fact, he actually sets up the speech in the “live” version by giving the single version beforehand. People come to the album expecting to bump to “i,” but end up startled by Kendrick’s message to home.

The album is honest and vulnerable. Kendrick’s message of positive influence is clear. He wants to denounce the evils associated with fame and celebrity and focus on communicating positivity to the system he came from.

It’s clear that Kendrick Lamar views himself as the butterfly that was able to come out of the system he was born into – not in a boastful or arrogant sense, as is the norm in hip hop. Rather than chasing more money and status and pointing the finger at his success, he points the finger at his struggles and pain. The album is about transformation. He hopes to change the narrative of those who grew up in the culture he did. The caterpillar he talks about in the final minute of the album are all those who are born into that system, and Kendrick hopes his voice can be one that begins a process of transformation.

If you want to know more, I recommend watching this 4-part interview Lamar did with MTV. Here’s the first of the four interviews…

Again, I respect the guy immensely. To Pimp a Butterfly is an incredible album. One with a purpose of making this world a better place. Most people probably don’t get that, and they won’t look past the controversial album cover. I believe strongly that this album deserves to win Album of the Year at the GRAMMYs. I’m rooting for it. It’s obviously highly regarded (Kendrick led all artists with 11 nominations), but can it beat out T-Swift’s 1989 – one of the most successful pop albums in recent history? We’ll see. No offense, Taylor.

Top tracks: u, King Kunta, Alright, i, Mortal Man, Wesley’s Theory

-apc.

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