Sunday, March 31, 2013

Predicting the 2013 Season—National League

Here is Part Two of my 2013 MLB predictions; you can check out the American League here. Again, I'll predict each team's win-loss record, like last year. But instead of giving a full preview, I'll make a few "fearless predictions" (read: statements that have a 50/50 chance of being completely false in six months) for each team that attempt to justify my predicted record for them.

NL East

1. Washington Nationals (93–69, 1st playoff seed)
  • The Nats' offense will regress. A full season of Bryce Harper won't make up for Adam LaRoche hitting only 20 home runs and Ian Desmond's complete collapse (career 87 OPS+ before 2012). Jayson Werth's power is gone for good, making him simply an overpaid leadoff man.
  • The Nats' pitching will hold up. They will lead the NL in ERA this year as Dan Haren will regain his old form—and still be only their third best starter (behind Strasburg and Zimmermann).
  • Drew Storen will actually outpitch Rafael Soriano.

2. Atlanta Braves (91–71, 1st Wild Card)
  • Last year the Braves scored 700 runs. This year they'll score... 700 runs. The addition of Justin Upton was great, but Atlanta also lost an MVP-caliber outfielder in Michael Bourn. At least Justin will far outperform his brother BJ, who will turn in yet another disappointing year lacking either on-base ability, power, or both.
  • Atlanta will also miss Martín Prado, as their infield will be surprisingly weak. In addition to the obvious hole at third base, Andrelton Simmons will turn in an average season (.270-10-60) at shortstop, establishing more realistic career norms.
  • Dan Uggla, like Adam Dunn before him, will return to slugging a ridiculous number of home runs with a surprisingly high OBP. All those strikeouts—and there will be many in Atlanta this summer—will not prove harmful to the NL East's best offense.
  • Brandon Beachy will be this year's Kris Medlen, turning in a streak of 10 starts with an ERA below 2.00 when he returns from injury in mid-summer.

3. Philadelphia Phillies (79–83)
  • Philadelphia is a team treading water. While they did shake up their outfield, their hitting and pitching will produce almost identical results to 2012. Take off a couple wins for age, though.
  • Carlos Ruiz will necessarily produce less this year thanks to his banned-substances suspension, but a full season from Ryan Howard will take some of the sting out of it. Howard will slowly but surely start to rediscover his power stroke, aided in part by the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park.
  • Two heralded Phillies acquisitions—Michael Young and Ben Revere—will notch OPS+ scores under 90, actually hurting the Phils' playoff chances. Revere will, however, hit his first career home run.
  • Domonic Brown will be a late bloomer, finally thriving with regular playing time in the majors.
  • The million-dollar question in Philadelphia, of course, is whether Roy Halladay can return to normal. Based on his spring-training struggles, I'm saying no. Look for an ERA around 4.20 from the future Hall of Famer.
  • This team is a lot more likely to have everything break wrong and lose 90 games than to have everything break right and win 90.

4. New York Mets (77–85)
  • So much doom and gloom has been predicted for the outfield that the Mets will automatically exceed expectations there. The good news: Lucas Duda will provide 20 home runs. The bad news: that will make him one of the Mets' middle-of-the-order hitters.
  • Ike Davis is in for a big rebound–his BABIP will normalize (.246 last year), and he'll get on base at a .360 clip thanks to a great walk rate.
  • The pitching situation will be an ill-defined soup until about mid-season, when Zack Wheeler will be summoned to Flushing. He and Matt Harvey will stabilize the Mets rotation and actually lead them to a winning record in the second half. Both will finish with more strikeouts than innings and ERAs below 3.75.
  • Shaun Marcum will quickly get over his injury woes and turn in a good enough season to get him a multi-year contract next offseason.

5. Miami Marlins (58–104)
  • If the Astros are going to lose 100 games, there's no reason to think the Marlins won't. Like Houston, Miami has only one even marginally major-league-quality starting pitcher (Ricky Nolasco), and he will be traded by the end of the year.
  • Chris Coghlan will never be the same player he was when he won Rookie of the Year in 2009. Juan Pierre will continue to be the mildly useful singles machine that he is somehow still paid to be. Plácido Polanco will bounce back marginally, providing the only defensive highlights in a lineup that will be as sloppy in the field as at the plate.

NL Central

1. Saint Louis Cardinals (91–71, 2nd playoff seed)
  • An infusion of youth will lead the Cardinals to the playoffs. Oscar Taveras will be this year's Allen Craig, finding his way into the lineup and hitting over .300 in 300 at-bats. Shelby Miller will begin the season as the fifth starter but end it as high as co-ace.
  • One rookie who will not fare so well will be Pete Kozma, who will be batting under the Mendoza line when St. Louis opts to replace him from outside the organization.
  • Jaime García will maximize his home starts to return to being an above-average pitcher. If he goes down with another injury, the Cardinals have a great backup in Joe Kelly.
  • With five position players flashing WARs over 4.0, St. Louis will score the most runs in the National League—and do it as a top-five defensive team.

2. Cincinnati Reds (87–75)
  • The Reds got lucky in 2012, overperforming their Pythagorean record (90–72) by seven wins. They will fall back in line in 2013.
  • A lot of Reds had career years last year that aren't likely to recur. Look for Homer Bailey, Ryan Ludwick, and Bronson Arroyo to decline. The Reds will never get 161 games started out of its regular five starters again, and without Aroldis Chapman in the rotation, they don't have the depth necessary to withstand the inevitable injury.
  • The Reds had only the third-best offense in the division last year—barely ranking above the Pirates. Like last year, only four regulars will have above-average OPSes: Votto, Bruce, Choo, and Phillips. (Todd Frazier needs to work on getting on base, and Ryan Hanigan has no power.) Look for that to especially hurt this year with a more fragile pitching staff.
  • Shin-Soo Choo will help that offense, but his productivity will be hampered by distractions around his move to center field. He'll also hurt their defense, which won't be helped any by the quixotic managing of Dusty Baker—he'll make decisions based on veteran status more than skill that lose the Reds winnable ballgames.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (86–76)
  • The Brewers were almost impossibly unlucky with the bullpen last year (24–32 in one-run games). They will not be nearly as bad in 2013, but I also can't say they're going to have a good bullpen, either. While the leaky 'pen probably cost Milwaukee the playoffs last year, in 2013 it will just cost them a few wins.
  • Milwaukee's division-best offense will still be formidable, but it will slip to second best as Aramis Ramírez and Norichika Aoki fail to replicate their awesome 2012s. Carlos Gómez will continue to hurt the team by inexplicably being given a prominent offensive role.
  • The rotation is underrated. Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo will go win for win with Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos. Marco Estrada will become a household name thanks to a ridiculously low walk rate. If all breaks right, they could be the top threesome this side of the District of Columbia.
  • Expect youngsters Wily Peralta and Juan Segura to succeed at the major-league level by 2014. If enough of that success comes in 2013, Cincinnati will find itself in third.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (82–80)
  • The Pirates lineup is talented, but they have issues getting on base. Garrett Jones, Russell Martin, and Pedro Alvárez all provided great production last year, but they all had OBPs below .320. Unless they improve their walk and/or contact rates, Pittsburgh can't rely on that trio producing as many runs in 2013.
  • Similarly, a competitive Pittsburgh team needs Starling Marte and José Tábata to play to their abilities. They were iffy in limited time last year. If their past production in the minors can translate to the majors this year, they will be the difference between the Pirates' scoring 600 runs and the Pirates' scoring 700 runs. Unfortunately, odds are that only one, if either of them, will actually take that big step forward.
  • Starting pitchers number one and two match up well with the rest of the division, but the back end is a bit of a black hole—making the rotation clearly worse than the Cardinals', Reds', and Brewers'. (Jonathan Sánchez and Francisco Liriano will crash and burn.) It will require Gerrit Cole and Jeff Karstens to save the day.
  • The Pirates will plug those two pieces into their rotation just in time to bring their final runs-allowed number just below their runs scored. I believe they'll put together their first winning record in two decades with chicken wire and duct tape.

5. Chicago Cubs (64–98)
  • Much has been made of the decent rotation. But you can only give Carlos Villanueva, Scott Feldman, and Scott Baker a 50/50 chance each of success—and even then, the ones who pitch well will certainly be traded, along with Matt Garza, in July.
  • By the end of the year, the only remaining strong starter will be Edwin Jackson. Jeff Samardzija will remain effective, but not to the tune of his 3.81 ERA last year.
  • Anthony Rizzo will develop into an all-star first baseman, while Starlin Castro will continue to alienate himself by playing much worse than his superstar reputation. By the offseason, there will be discussion of jettisoning him à la Hanley Ramírez.
  • Chicago will send the Marlins some complimentary deep dish for being the only thing standing between them and owning the NL's worst offense.

NL West

1. San Francisco Giants (90–72, 3rd playoff seed)
  • First and most importantly: Tim Lincecum will be back to every bit the Cy Young pitcher he was. Along with Cain, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong, the Giants will have four starters with ERAs under 3.30—crucially differentiating themselves from the Dodgers' consistently good-but-not-great starting staff.
  • As so often happens to World Series winners, though, those performers who had career years will fall back down to earth. Ángel Pagán will prove to be the Giants' latest albatross contract (Barry Zito's is almost up; they were due for another one anyway) as he barely outplays the man he replaced, Andrés Torres.
  • Age will catch up to Marco Scutaro, weight to Pablo Sandoval, and catching to Buster Posey. Each will still be useful, but their combined reversion to the mean will take a serious toll on the San Francisco offense, which will be only fourth-best in the NL West.
  • A tale of two Brandons: Belt will be the rare Giant to build on his 2012, while the world will be reminded that Crawford was never very good in the first place.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (89–73, 2nd Wild Card)
  • The Dodgers may have spent a lot of money, but many of those deals were head-scratchers, as they failed to direct those resources to their most glaring holes. Specifically, I am extremely low on the LA infield, which could be the least productive in the league. Adrian González's power appears to be fading. Pencil him in for no more than 20 homers.
  • In contrast, the Dodgers simply have too much starting pitching. Clayton Kershaw is an ace, but everyone behind him is merely solid. Even Zack Greinke will finish 2013 with an ERA around 3.50. If the league standard for rotations were eight instead of five, the Dodgers would win the division; Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano will also impress in limited time.
  • Meanwhile, Josh Beckett and Hyun-Jin Ryu will struggle with conditioning as well as run prevention. However, large contracts and Ned Colletti's ineptitude mean neither will be replaced on the staff. At the very least, Chad Billingsley will prove reliable.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks (84–78)
  • A terrible record in one-run games (15–27) obscured the fact that Arizona should have gone 86–76 last year. That means an automatic improvement despite offseason moves that actually made the D'backs weaker (i.e., trading Justin Upton and Chris Young).
  • Cody Ross won't be worth $26 million and certainly won't make up for Young or Upton, but the offense will still be a strength. Adam Eaton and Paul Goldschmidt are the real deal; Martín Prado should hit 20 dingers in Arizona's homer-happy ballpark.
  • The rotation should put up numbers closer to 2011 (3.84 ERA) than to 2012 (4.26). To thank will be Brandon McCarthy and a renewed Ian Kennedy.
  • Heath Bell will find returning to the NL West a breath of fresh air; we'll all eventually forget that his year in Miami ever happened.

4. Colorado Rockies (71–91)
  • People are being very unfair to the Rockies; I said this last year too, but they'll surprise people by not finishing in the division cellar and playing some watchable ball.
  • Specifically, Colorado will boast the NL's second-best hitting. A full year of Troy Tulowitzki will be crucial; I also believe Todd Helton has one more good year in his bat. Nolan Arenado will mash after being called up in May.
  • The Rockies pitching can't be worse than in 2012, when it gave up 890 runs. Jorge de la Rosa and Jhoulys Chacín are both capable of better, and they'll show it in 2013. You could also do worse for innings-eaters than Jeff Francis and Jon Garland.
  • I have not given up on Drew Pomeranz. Expect him to flash brilliance in 2013 and then put it all together in 2014.

5. San Diego Padres (68–94)
  • The fences moving in at Petco Park won't boost the Padres' home-run totals much, simply because there are only two real sluggers in their lineup—Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin. Only they and Yonder Alonso will hit more than 15 bombs.
  • While it won't help their speed-based offense, the closer fences will be a real detriment to San Diego hurlers. The below-average pitching of Clayton Richards (91 ERA+ in 2012) and Edinson Vólquez (88) will be revealed.
  • Any hope the Padres have of touching .500 will be dashed by injuries and suspensions (i.e., Yasmani Grandal's 50-gamer for PED use). Expect Headley's power to be sapped by his recovery from a thumb fracture. He'll miss April entirely and won't hit his normal power stride until August.
  • The Padres' best starting-pitching performance will be the three or four months they get out of Cory Luebke (Tommy John surgery). They'll also be lucky if the talented Andrew Cashner can shoulder a full year of starting.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Predicting the 2013 Season—American League

Even though they're almost always wrong, human society just can't help but predict baseball. It's just too much fun. Yes, injuries will sap the talent of at least one of my playoff picks and prevent them from hitting .500. Yes, there will definitely be at least one Cinderella team that no one thinks is going to be any good. But hey, if one-in-nine-quintillion odds don't stop millions from filling out silly basketball brackets, I'm gonna try to call some MLB seasons.

Here's how I'll do it this year: I'll predict each team's win-loss record, like last year. But instead of giving a full preview, I'll make a few "fearless predictions" (read: statements that have a 50/50 chance of being completely false in six months) for each team that attempt to justify my predicted record for them. In case you're curious, here is how I performed on last year's picks, which are located here, here, here, here, here, and here.

AL East

1. Tampa Bay Rays (95–67, 1st playoff seed)
  • Tampa's offense will actually improve without BJ Upton and his atrocious .298 OBP. Helping in this endeavor will be bounceback years from Kelly Johnson and James Loney. Desmond Jennings will also take a step forward to become one of the league's better young leadoff men.
  • Wil Myers will be up from the minors by June 1, and he'll still hit 20 home runs. He'll anchor the lineup behind Evan Longoria.
  • James Shields's loss won't hurt the pitching staff, either; Matt Moore will take the next step into dominance, and you haven't heard the last of Jeff Niemann. Both will have lower ERAs than Shields will in Kansas City.
  • After their flirtation with Roberto Hernández (a.k.a. Fausto Carmona) goes horribly, horribly wrong, the Rays will turn to Chris Archer in the fifth slot by the All-Star break. He too will finish the season with an ERA lower than Shields's.

2. Toronto Blue Jays (92–70, 1st Wild Card)
  • The Jays will be made or broken by Josh Johnson. During the half-season I predict he'll be injured, Toronto will sputter. When he's active, he'll pitch like the Josh Johnson of old and the Jays will see at least one double-digit win streak.
  • Without PEDs, Melky Cabrera won't be anything resembling productive. Why would you sign a two-year contract for the most guaranteed money (instead of a one-year bounceback deal) if you're confident you can perform at an elite level even without drugs?

3. New York Yankees (87–75)
  • Injuries to Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodríguez, and Mark Teixeira will make for a fallible offense early in the season, and the Yankees may struggle in April and May. But the trio should return by summer, and in the second half the New York lineup will be back to showing, once again, that age is just a number.
  • Unlike your grandpa's Bronx Bombers, what will keep the Yankees in the hunt in 2013 will be the pitching. You won't see any hiccups out of Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, and a trade-deadline deal for a fourth quality starter will help fuel New York's furious, but ultimately futile, September push.
  • Mariano Rivera will win Comeback Player of the Year. You can pretty much give him the award right now.

4. Boston Red Sox (83–79)
  • The hiring of a pitching coach as manager will finally staunch the bleeding of the Red Sox pitching staff. Clay Buchholz will see his ERA drop by a full run. Jon Lester will post the best ERA of his career.
  • The less money the Red Sox spent on an offseason free-agent signing, the better he'll end up being. Koji Uehara will end the season as closer; Mike Napoli will make Boston wish they had locked him up long-term with an OPS over .900. Meanwhile, Shane Victorino will prove to have lost it for good, and Ryan Dempster will be the team's worst starter.
  • John Lackey will pitch 150 innings, but, with Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster impressing in September callups, this may prove the 2013 Red Sox' worst development.
  • José Iglesias will finish with a higher WAR than Stephen Drew.

5. Baltimore Orioles (78–84)
  • That pesky Orioles run differential—which was negative for most of 2012—will finally catch up to them. Their Pythagorean record last year (82–80) will start to look desirable as their pitching reverts to the worst in the division.
  • The three things the Orioles excelled at in 2012 (success in one-run games, success in extra-inning games, and bullpen success) are also three of the most volatile from year to year. They will not see anywhere near the same level of success for any of the three. A lot of the reason why will be the exposure of closer Jim Johnson.
  • On the up in 2013: Manny Machado, who will be the only Oriole to have a better 2013 than 2012. On the down: Jason Hammel and Miguel González, who will be useful innings-eaters but not aces. On the way, way down: Nate McLouth. He'll struggle to find a job next offseason and will retire.

AL Central

1. Detroit Tigers (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • I still don't like this defense, but an offense that adds two elite hitters (Torii Hunter and Victor Martínez) and the Central's best pitching staff in 2012 can't be denied.
  • Enough with the "best rotation in baseball" stuff. Verlander and Fister are great, but Aníbal Sánchez is a mid-rotation guy being paid like an ace and Max Scherzer can be wildly inconsistent. They were eighth in MLB in starter ERA last year, and I expect them to be eighth again this year.
  • Detroit will have no trouble with their bullpen, which is deep even without an established closer. If they really need one, you can also trust their solid ownership and baseball ops team to go out and get one mid-season.

2. Kansas City Royals (85–77)
  • The offense will roar to life, with career years from Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Pérez leading the way. The trio will combine for 80 home runs. Add them to Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, and that's a scary lineup.
  • Even as a starter, Wade Davis will look more like his dominant relief-pitcher self than the version who was a mediocre starter for the Rays two years ago. James Shields likewise will outpitch his 2012 road ERA (4.54), which many naysayers are harping on.
  • If any team is going to experience the Orioles' crazy 2012 luck with one-run games in 2013, it'll be the Royals. They will have the best bullpen in the American League.
  • This isn't any kind of proveable assertion, but this club has the talent to win this division. It won't because Kansas City management will often deploy that talent in ways exactly opposite to what's best.

3. Chicago White Sox (82–80)
  • Atrophy will be the downfall of this Chicago club; slightly fewer runs scored and slightly more runs allowed than in 2012 will create a slightly different feel on the South Side.
  • Between injuries to John Danks and Jake Peavy, José Quintana and Dylan Axelrod will receive a combined 50 starts—and that's bad for the White Sox. Their mediocrity for 40% of games, exacerbated by the inexperience of their new catcher Tyler Flowers, will make getting on any kind of winning streak impossible.
  • Alex Ríos and Jeff Keppinger were mirages last season. They'll both be merely average in 2013, leaving the only legitimate lineup threats Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn.

4. Cleveland Indians (70–92)
  • The Indians have to add 13 wins to last year's total just to make it to .500. That's unrealistic. An improvement of just two wins may seem low, but their Pythagorean record last year was only 64–98; they should have been the AL's worst team.
  • As long as they keep Trevor Bauer down, Cleveland will repeat last year's feat of having the AL's worst pitching. As much as I like Scott Kazmir, he won't last the whole season in the rotation, while Ubaldo Jiménez and Justin Masterson will further convince us that their one good season each was just a fluke.
  • Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn will be a positive influence on the patience of the Indians lineup, which will rank in the top four in the AL in OBP. Unfortunately, the lineup has one too many speedsters and will struggle to actually drive in those runners.

5. Minnesota Twins (63–99)
  • If Cleveland doesn't have the AL's worst pitching, their division rival Minnesota will. Kevin Correia in particular will prove an ill-advised addition.
  • Minnesota is simply entrusting its fate to too many unproven commodities. While I expect Aaron Hicks to hold down center field, will Brian Dozier produce in the majors, and can Trevor Plouffe reproduce his out-of-nowhere power surge? (Hint: I think the answers are "no.")
  • In addition to simply playing in a much-improved AL Central, internal organizational turmoil will cause the Twins to play even worse than their talent level. Ron Gardenhire will be let go in the middle of the season, and a mini–fire sale will take place at the deadline.

AL West

1. Texas Rangers (90–72, 3rd playoff seed)
  • Both the Angels and Rangers will be good but flawed—except the Rangers will be a little less flawed. The difference will be in the starting rotation, which for Texas will be both deeper and better. Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish are aces capable of registering ERAs below 3.00; it will also be surprising if Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando aren't above average. Colby Lewis will also provide a boost when he returns from the DL.
  • Sure, the loss of Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli will hurt. But in Lance Berkman and AJ Pierzynski, the Rangers will recoup at least 60% of that production. With an AL-high 808 runs scored last year, Texas can also take the hit.

2. Los Angeles Angels (90–72, 2nd Wild Card)
  • On the last day of the regular season, the Angels will be forced to burn Jered Weaver to tie the Rangers for the division. They'll lose the play-in game because neither Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas, or Joe Blanton will be reliable, with season ERAs above 4.00 for each of them.
  • At least one metric will find that the Angels' Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton, and Albert Pujols will have been three of the MLB's five most valuable position players in 2013.
  • At least one metric will find that Peter Bourjos will have been more valuable than one of those three in 2013, thanks in part to his fantastic defense.

3. Oakland Athletics (85–77)
  • Some luck from 2012, like Brandon Moss's and Josh Reddick's power, will not carry over. But some—virtually all of it pitching-related—will, resulting in a respectable season by the Bay. Brett Anderson will challenge for the Cy Young Award.
  • The Oakland staff will be good, but when you control for park factor, they'll actually be a shade worse than the Rangers' pitching. Without the matching offense, Oakland will have a hard time catching Texas and Los Angeles.
  • The outfield will be so much more productive than the infield that Bob Melvin will try Josh Reddick at first base. The addition of Jed Lowrie will help, but as usual, he'll be on the DL half the time. Hiroyuki Nakajima will take a year to get used to American pitching.

4. Seattle Mariners (74–88)
  • All that spring-training success will vanish once the games start to matter. Franklin Gutiérrez will get hurt again, and while Michael Saunders will flash some impressive power with the fences moved in, that won't help his out-making problems (.283 career OBP).
  • It won't matter that Seattle doesn't have a place to put Jason Bay or Raúl Ibáñez; they're both finished as productive major-leaguers.
  • Tom Wilhelmsen is a very nice story, but I just don't think a career minor-leaguer can hold down a major-league closer job. The rest of the bullpen is dicey, too.
  • Joe Saunders will have his worst season to date with the dimensions of Safeco Field shrinking; only the invincible King Felix and ground-ball pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma will be unaffected.

5. Houston Astros (53–109)
  • The league change won't matter, for better or for worse. Despite predictions that this will be an historically bad team, its level of play will be essentially unchanged from last year.
  • No Houston batsman will eclipse 20 home runs.
  • The pitching has a chance to be decent, but their ace, Bud Norris, will be someone else's fifth starter by year's end.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Your Quick and Dirty Guide to the #SC01 Special Election

Unlike our first special election this year, the race for the South Carolina First—vacated by Tim Scott when he was appointed to Jim DeMint's Senate seat—could sport a competitive general election, a rarity in the deep-red Palmetto State. The First District came within four points of electing a Democrat in 2008 (admittedly, under different district lines), and this year's almost-certain Democratic nominee, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, is a formidable candidate—in case you've been living under a rock, she has access to the deep pockets and national microphone of her brother Stephen.

But in this R+11 district, the likely next congressman from the Lowcountry remains the victor of the Republican primary, which takes place here on Tuesday. The problem is that we have no idea who's going to be that victor—or if we'll even know by Wednesday, thanks to South Carolina primary rules that require the winning candidate to get a majority of the vote. (With a field of 16 Republican candidates, it seems likely that we'll be forced into a runoff between the top two; that runoff would occur on April 2.)

The most famous of these candidates is, of course, ex-governor, former rumored presidential candidate, and Appalachian Trail hiker Mark Sanford. After his 2009 affair with an Argentine woman (whom he has since left his family to get engaged to), Sanford actually served out the rest of his gubernatorial term, retiring silently into the night in 2011. Only two years later, he's apparently ready for a political comeback, and he's mounting it in the same district where he got his start (he was the First District's congressman from 1995 to 2001). Right now, Sanford is the near-certain frontrunner in the 2013 special just because of name recognition (he's famous with a national audience, so imagine how crisply South Carolinians remember him). He also has a boatload of money; he already had approximately $120,000 left over from his old congressional campaign account, and he raised $334,397 more in January and February alone.

The other 15 Republicans are therefore probably racing for the second spot in the runoff. We can safely rule out probably half of this group, but, excitingly, there is a lot of uncertainty as to how seriously, exactly, to take each of the so-called serious candidates. One formidable contender, and probably the one with the second-highest name recognition, is Teddy Turner, who has distanced himself from the liberal views of his famous father and namesake. Thanks to his own wealth, Turner raised even more than Sanford ($376,433) during the same period. Former Charleston City Council member Curtis Bostic is also generating buzz—though not cash—as a conservative grassroots candidate. But he may be hurt by the revelation that he actually doesn't live in the First District. (Awkward.)

A trio of Columbia veterans are the remaining realistic candidates, thanks in large part to loans to their own campaigns. Former State Senator John Kuhn loaned himself $500K for a total take of $550,103 in two months. He has gone after Sanford the most aggressively, even boasting about the longevity of his marriage at a recent debate. State Representative Chip Limehouse collected $540,115, including a $400,000 loan to his own campaign. A member of an old Charleston family, Limehouse has received several high-profile endorsements (though these are often meaningless in a race like this). And State Senator Larry Grooms raked in $323,815, only $100,000 of which was a personal loan.

It's anyone's guess where these candidates stand in relation to one another; there have been no public polls of the race whatsoever. All the data we have to go off are in the form of internal polling whose specific numbers were never actually reported—we just have vague approximations from (probably biased) anonymous sources! The great local reporter Gina Smith has talked to these people about "several" polls, and she relays that Sanford holds a comfortable lead in all of them with about a third of the vote—not nearly enough to avoid a runoff. Apparently, however, the polls disagree about who is in second, with Limehouse, Turner, and Kuhn mentioned as the "most often" runners-up. Grooms and Bostic are also "making gains," she reports.

Unapologetically opinionated website FITSNews also talked to some sources about some specific polls. You probably shouldn't heed these as much as Smith's holistic approach, but they're worth sharing. A poll reported on March 6 found that Sanford's "forgiveness" ad (attempting to address his affair) hurt him, dragging him from the mid-thirties to the mid-twenties. Bostic was apparently the candidate who benefited, shooting up to the "upper teens." (Indeed, all reports are that Bostic has momentum. Could the grassroots candidate eke out a win?) In a close third was Turner, and in a close fourth was Grooms. Limehouse slid into fifth place, although FITSNews registers some serious doubt that he could be so low. A week later, FITSNews shared a separate poll with some slightly different results. Sanford was back near 30%, while Turner and Bostic shared second in the "low teens." Limehouse and Grooms occupied the "high single digits."

Here's an overview of the polling that's hopefully easier to digest. Remember, these are all internal polls (and we don't even know whose campaign did which poll), so take them with huge grains of salt.

3/6 3/13 Gina Smith roundup
Mark Sanford ~23–27% ~27–29% ~31–36%
Teddy Turner ~14–18% ~11–15% "most often following" Sanford
Curtis Bostic ~16–19% ~11–15% "making gains"
John Kuhn N/A N/A "most often following" Sanford
Larry Grooms ~12–17% ~6–9% "making gains"
Chip Limehouse ~3–9% ~6–9% "most often following" Sanford

So who has the edge for second place? The composition of the district could be a clue. If you look at a map of the district, you'll see it hugs the southern half of the South Carolina coastline, from Francis Marion National Forest down to Hilton Head. However, there's an odd growth to the district that protrudes north of Charleston, pushing inland to Lake Moultrie (but conveniently bypassing heavily black—and Democratic—North Charleston). According to Dave Wasserman's excellent spreadsheet, the district is 70.1% white, 19.4% black, and 6.5% Hispanic, although in a Republican primary, that's not likely to matter a whole lot.

By far, most of the votes in the district can be found in Charleston County; the state's largest city and the county that runs up and down the coast around it accounted for 41.3% of the total votes cast in the 2012 congressional race here. Three of the frontrunners—Sanford, Kuhn, and Limehouse—hail from Charleston itself, while a fourth (Turner) lives in the adjacent suburb of Mount Pleasant. Now, Sanford is likely to draw his votes equally from all corners of the district due to his general name recognition. Turner has never held elected office and is not better known in Mount Pleasant than elsewhere, so he too seems unlikely to get a regional boost; indeed, his support should be wide thanks to airing more TV ads than anyone else. That leaves Kuhn and Limehouse to split what's left of the Charleston vote—so about 10% of the total district vote, at most, each. That squares with their positions in the polling, and it's simply not enough to break the top-two threshold by itself. Since they don't figure to pick up much more support outside Charleston, I'd say the math just isn't there for those two.

Grooms is an interesting case because he has the district's third-largest county, Berkeley, all to himself. A native of Bonneau, in the northern protuberance part of the district, Grooms could lock up a significant share of the 19.5% of 2012 voters who live in Berkeley County. The problem may be Curtis Bostic. As the grassroots Tea Party candidate, Bostic could also stand to win a lot of votes in this, the district's reddest county in 2012. (I'm not counting the district's sliver of Colleton County, where Tim Scott received 540 of 649 total votes cast.) Not living in the district himself, Bostic doesn't really have a regional base, but look for him to run up the count in some of the district's more rural areas thanks to his evangelical base. While Grooms probably does have a golden opportunity in Berkeley County, it's close to impossible to eke out a win working exclusively out of an area containing only a fifth of the total vote share.

A real wild card is Beaufort County, which is the district's second-most populous area and home to Hilton Head Island. No candidates hail from this region on the southern end of the South Carolina coast, so theoretically those votes are up for grabs. Look for the candidates with the district-wide strategies, like Sanford and Turner, to do well here. (Bostic maybe less so, since this is the second bluest county in the district... Although remember this is relative, since every county is solidly Republican.)

The bottom line is this: anyone who thinks they can tell you with any kind of certainty who the two runoff finalists will be is conning you. But right now, given the regional splits of too many of the candidates, I have to lean toward the two who have district-wide appeal. My for-entertainment-purposes-only guess: Sanford 35%, Turner 20%—two points ahead of Bostic in third place.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Team Snooze-S-A

The other day, I made an unpatriotic claim on Twitter. "I would be fine if Team USA failed to advance from the first round," I wrote. "Most boring team in the #WBC if you ask me."

I didn't get much pushback to this obviously outrageous claim, which must mean I didn't make it strongly enough. (It certainly couldn't have anything to do with the fact that I'm still in the triple digits in Twitter followers.) This can only be remedied with a full blog post on the topic. And that topic is, "I have literally gone through the rosters of all 16 World Baseball Classic teams, and without exception, the USA is the least interesting team in the tournament."

To me, the World Baseball Classic is fun because it showcases talent from all around the world—much of which is often not on display to the American fan. As the WBC proves, there are major-league-caliber players who don't play in the major leagues. Shinnosuke Abe hit two home runs this morning to lead Team Japan to the top seed in its pool. A squat catcher and onetime Nippon Professional Baseball MVP, he would be a beast on any continent. And while they have been eliminated from the tourney, it's hard not to daydream about which players from Team Cuba will be playing in the major leagues in a few years, as 2009 Team Cuba headliners Yoenis Céspedes and Aroldis Chapman now are. (Personally, I couldn't stop seeing ace Ismel Jiménez in a Red Sox uniform.)

Certainly, the exotic is erotic, but there are also plenty of parochial fans who just care about the Blue Jays or Padres. For them, the WBC offers the random European countries that often serve as showcases for minor-league systems. I've particularly enjoyed watching the Netherlands in this year's event, featuring the exploits of Red Sox phenom Xander Bogaerts and the Orioles' Jonathan Schoop. (Soon enough, even the casual baseball fan won't have to look up how to spell those two names.) Most fans get to glimpse their team's future in action only a few times a year, in September and during the rare televised spring training game. The WBC does them one better by giving these prospects a starring role.

After watching these players, how can you turn the dial over to Team USA, which is full of good-but-not-great players whom we're going to get to see 162 times this summer and whom we've seen hundreds of times in the past? David Wright is nice and all, but he's a bit overexposed in that New York media market. The bullpen is full of the anonymous cast of characters that comprise most teams' setup corps: Jeremy Affeldt, Luke Gregerson, Mitchell Boggs. I mean no disrespect to these players—they are fun to watch in the major leagues when the stakes are higher, and they are more skilled at baseball than most others—but they're so familiar. In a nutshell, they're not why we watch the WBC. They bring no value added.

I admit you could have this same complaint about the Dominican or Venezuelan rosters, and I do, to some extent. But what makes them merely "meh" rather than flat-out dull is that at least they are truly national all-star teams. Indeed, for many Latin-American countries, the WBC is a serious matter, and success in baseball is a major part of national pride. This brings almost all their major-league stars out of the woodwork and into WBC camp. In contrast, only one of the top five Americans in bWAR in 2012 (Ryan Braun) is on Team USA. But there are also so many eligible American major-leaguers that Team USA will never have to dip into its minor-league talent pool, despite the exciting possibilities that that presents. The result is a roster with only a handful of America's many possible superstars supported by a bunch of average or replacement-level players. In other words, the result is not an all-star team, nor a team of scrappy underdogs. It's exactly the talent distribution of a typical, but random and faceless, major-league team. If I wanted to watch that, I would just tune into a spring training game featuring my major-league team. Again, there is absolutely no value added to watching the WBC for Americans used to MLB.

It also doesn't help Team USA's appeal that they seem to be the one team uninterested in winning the WBC. Joe Torre has been criticized for not putting his heart—or the full talent of his roster—into his managing. And while I'm not as militant about WBC draft dodgers as some, their reluctance did set the tone very early for Team USA—that these were more akin to exhibition games than to the World Cup. Whether it's passion for their recently deceased leader or the promise of freedom from military service, it's clear that the Latin-American and Asian teams bring more of a sense of urgency and all-out-ness to their play. Heck, even for the European minor-league collectives, there's a thirst that comes from wanting to prove themselves against rosters stacked with major leaguers; these teams are at least fun to root for because we all love an upset.

Oddly enough for a country that is often seen as fanatically patriotic, when it comes to baseball, our love for country may never eclipse our regional loyalties to the local nine. Perhaps that's appropriate in a country that sometimes places its faith more in corporations than in its own government, and in a country as sectionally polarized as we are now. But more likely it's just that, to Americans, the WBC isn't yet a prestigious, or even very competitive, event. It has had two championship games, as opposed to MLB's 108 World Series. As long as that's true, the WBC will primarily be about scouting, gawking, and enjoying baseball for baseball's sake. That means looking beyond the faces we have grown accustomed to.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Go Ahead, Say "Sequester"

What do you call something automatic, self-inflicted, and worth $85 billion in cuts to the US government and economy?

To millions of people, the answer is "the sequester." But grammar wags on Twitter and elsewhere insist the real answer is "sequestration." The former, they claim, is incorrect grammar and a fine example of DC jargon.

I'm a grammar wag too, but this is amateur hour by most of my compatriots, who often love nothing more than to tell the ignorant public they're misusing a word or misconstructing a sentence. There is actually nothing wrong with using "the sequester" to describe the automatic spending cuts that went into effect last Friday, and it's particularly brazen to claim otherwise, given that their usage of "sequestration" is as artificial as the back-formation of "sequester."

The best-known meaning of "sequestration" is the act of being sequestered (i.e., hidden away), but the political use derives (as do so many of the people in politics) from the legal sphere. In a legal dispute, when two parties cannot agree on something, some valuable assets of theirs are taken away by the court as a kind of collateral; this action is called "sequestration." That's certainly a fitting way to describe our current congressional stalemate—but also apparently one in 1985, when the idea of budget sequestration was first instituted. Specifically, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985 provided that, if Congress authorized more spending appropriations than it provided for in its annual budget, then a series of automatic cuts would take place to balance them out.

That bill in 1985 marked only the first use of the word "sequestration" in politics, and this usage is not yet recognized by mainstream dictionaries such as the Oxford English, Merriam-Webster, or (my favorite) American Heritage. The usage that self-appointed grammar purists are disingenuously defending is made up—and only 28 years old to boot.

By definition, then, it's also government jargon, which is exactly the charge being leveled at "the sequester." If anything, "sequester" is actually more legitimate—it was invented and popularized by the general public, while "sequestration" was invented and promoted by legislation wonks. The first rule, after all, that grammarians must get used to is that usage drives grammar, not the other way around. Elites don't dictate the rules; the people who actually speak and use the language en masse do. A language is only correct insofar as people understand it. As we stand today, "the sequester" seems to be much more popular than "sequestration"; it's used five times more often on Twitter. Maybe people are attracted to the fact that it's shorter, easier to spell, and easier to say than "sequestration"—sounds like a sensible evolution of language to me. As long as we're making up terms, why don't we make one up for this particular fiscal fight that actually rolls off the tongue?

Many people's problem seems to be that "sequester" is used as a noun but supposed to be a verb. This is a silly objection. Verbs become nouns all the time, and nouns like "move" and "invite" likewise make language easier to use. No one objects to them today the way that "ask" and "get" are pilloried, but only because their use over time has cemented them as part of the lexicon. It's also hypocritical that elites get all worked up about corporate and government misuses of words, but they give a free pass and even praise to poets and playwrights who commit the same "crime." I am thinking specifically of Act III, Scene 4 of William Shakespeare's Othello, which declares, "this hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer." Shakespeare frequently made up words—countless of which I bet are fixtures of your vocabulary—to fit his metrical patterns, and on line 40 he uses "sequester" as a one-for-one substitute for "sequestration." "Sequester" critics, please redirect your rant to the Bard.

To complain about "sequester" is to be selective and inconsistent in your application of the rules of language. At its worst, it smacks of self-righteous armchair grammarians looking to pick a petty fight. Those who take the time, however, to actually consider how language works cannot deny that both variations have their problems and yet both are still perfectly acceptable to use. Like the sequester itself, the grammatical backlash against its epithet is simply a manufactured crisis.