What a Night

June 3, 2010 · Filed Under General baseball, Mariners · 23 Comments 

I remember sitting in my room listening to the radio broadcast of Junior’s first home game; I was too stunned to jump around when that ball flew out to *left*, I just stared at the goosebumps on my arms.

I remember getting home from school and tuning in to the M’s in New York – a rare TV game. Every replay of that incredible catch of Barfield’s drive made it look more and more improbable.

I remember the 1996 season, with Griffey and Rodriguez drawing comparisons to Mantle/Maris. I was in college miles and miles from Washington, but people from all over couldn’t stop talking about it. Some even expressed jealousy that I was an M’s fan; this stopped abruptly in 1998/1999.

Junior slow slide into replacement level started early, but he had so far to fall that he’s hung on for a decade. Did he stick around too long? Yes, of course. But the slide may keep some fans from remembering just how amazing Griffey was in the mid-90s. Rally’s historical WAR database has a couple of seasons over 9 WAR, which equal or best Pujols’ best years, and leave Randy Johnson’s in the dust. That’s worth remembering.

Because of this, I look past the negatives – and there were plenty. I remember the acrimonious end to Griffey’s first go-round in Seattle, and I’ve always resisted the Manichean story that Griffey ‘saved’ baseball here (or the subtext that there was no baseball here pre-Griffey). But he made baseball here an absolute joy to watch for many years, and that’s enough for me.

After reading Shannon Drayer’s story here, I wonder if Griffey’s enjoying the fact that his somewhat awkward exit has been upstaged by the drama surrounding Armando Galarraga’s perfect game in Detroit.

You’ve all seen the replay by now, and you all know how horribly Jim Joyce bungled that call. Joyce himself apologized to Galarraga after the game. There’s an interesting debate going on about how MLB can ‘make this right’ for Galarraga; apparently the official scorer is looking at changing the call to an error that would at least preserve a no-hitter. Others (including our fearless leader at USSM) argue that MLB should overturn the call and retroactively give Galarraga a perfect game.

What’s somewhat encouraging is that opponents of an expanded replay are in retreat. There’s no way to argue that replay in this instance wouldn’t have 1) overturned the call and 2) not interrupted the game in any meaningful fashion.

I feel like we’re winning this war. The ALCS last year, and now Galarraga this year; it’s happening too often and the situations are too important. From all accounts, Joyce is a good guy. He never asked to be a poster boy for blown calls, and hey, we have the technology to not allow any poor umpire to feel what Joyce is feeling right now.

*edited to add the correct direction of Jr.’s first Kingdome HR. Sheesh. Since it was on radio, I had this perfect image of that shot, and I remember feeling confused and a little bit let down when I finally saw a replay of it. It looked all wrong (though still pretty cool).

Cliff Lee’s Mariner (organization) Debut

April 25, 2010 · Filed Under General baseball, Mariners, Minor Leagues · 12 Comments 

Cliff Lee made his eagerly anticipated 2010 debut today, pitching six scoreless innings against an overmatched Salt Lake Bees roster. He yielded 3 hits, an infield hit that Jack Hannahan couldn’t quite handle, a bunt (that Lee didn’t cover first base on), and a fly ball that Ezequiel Carrera lost in the clouds.
Lee got through six innings in 68 pitches, with his change-up looking like the best of his offerings. His fastball was between 89-91 on the stadium gun today, with his change-up in the low-mid 80s. Tony Blengino was on hand to watch the M’s big off-season addition, and it looks like Lee’s on track to make his next start on 4/30.

Pictures from Cheney below the jump…
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Thanks, guys

March 31, 2010 · Filed Under General baseball, Mariners, Site · 23 Comments 

It’s no secret that a Certain Other Baseball Site Dave Writes For is doing a major series right now that is generating a lot of, uh, discussion. (yeah, let’s call it that)

So, I just wanted to say, on behalf of all of the USSM crew:

Thanks to all of our regular commenters. Sometimes we take you for granted, and it takes something like watching a total trainwreck somewhere else to really make us appreciate what a good overall community we’ve managed to collect here at USSM.

(LL people, you’re awesome too, even if you won’t let me make Carlos Silva fat jokes anymore)

Overwhelmed or Overjoyed?

February 24, 2010 · Filed Under General baseball, Off-topic ranting · 39 Comments 

Hello – I’m marc w, a frequent commenter here and at Lookout Landing. Dave asked to help out at USSM as the blogging equivalent of a utility player – I’ll be discussing the minor leagues with JY a bit, debating the positional battles with Dave, and discussing sabermetric research in a Mariner context. Hopefully a bit more ’01 McLemore than ’05 Bloomquist.

Like a lot of you, I’ve been interested in the discussion prompted by Minor League Ball’s John Sickels’ post a week or so ago. In it, Sickels expressed some frustration with sabermetrics – essentially saying that reading many sabermetric articles now felt like more of a chore thanks to increased ‘granularity’ that, in his mind, obscure the beauty of the game behind an array of formulae and esoteric math.

While I understand that feeling at some level (I’m more comfortable talking about Marco Scutaro than Markov chains), it’s important to point out that fans with 7th grade math and some curiosity not only have access to more information than ever, that information describes more facets of the game, in more accessible ways than ever. That is, people are doing more than squeezing another percentage point in accuracy (however you define it) from pitching metrics, they’re providing entirely new ways of looking at pitching.

Ten years ago, stats began changing the way I thought about what kind of players good teams needed (why choosing a lead-off hitter based solely on speed or batting average might be counterproductive), but struggled to give a fuller picture of any given lead-off hitter’s overall value. They could tell me that ground ball pitchers had certain advantages, but couldn’t tell us which fly ballers might be worth a risk in certain contexts. They were valuable in using larger sample sizes to temper enthusiasm about a random ‘hot streak’, but couldn’t pick out when a pitcher learned a new skill.

All that’s changing now, thanks to Pitch FX and an army of amateur analysts who’ve provided pitch databases to anyone who feels like poking around in them. We can guess why Joel Pineiro succeeded in 2009 without resorting to short-cuts like ‘Dave Duncan is magic.’ Going beyond an increase in GB rate, we can say what changed about his sinking fastball. We can say why Yuniesky Betancourt was one of the worst position players in baseball without limiting the discussion to his on-base percentage. Instead of talking about his declining range in isolation, we can talk about the impact of that decline on the M’s pitching staff.

Perhaps more importantly, these sorts of stats have begun to break down the supposed dichotomy between scouting and statistical analysis. Now, both sides can help illuminate what makes a pitcher’s ‘stuff’ so effective (as an aside, I’ve always loved the broadness and imprecision in the word ‘stuff.’ It’s the perfect umbrella term encompassing a pitch’s velocity, break, deception, consistency and degree of wiggle. No other term could describe Felix’s arsenal as well as Tim Wakefield’s.). As you can tell, I’m incredibly excited about sabermetrics right now, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface.

As Mariner fans – and as USSM readers – much of this may sound obvious. We’ve seen first-hand what can happen when a team marries new-fangled analysis with great scouting, and many of you have been in the room when the front office explains why there isn’t some adversarial relationship between their scouting department and Tony Blengino’s shop. Has seeing Franklin Gutierrez made it more difficult for me to really ‘get’ John Sickels’ complaint? Probably. Dave Allen’s graphs here or here help too. What do you think? I know this isn’t a representative sample, but do you think stats are continuing to change the way you watch the game, or have we entered a period of diminishing returns? Has watching the M’s success in 2009 (or watching a panel discussion including Tony Blengino AND Carmen Fusco) made you more likely to pay attention to new developments at Fangraphs or the Book Blog, or are you perfectly content to outsource that work to Jack Z and Tony B? Are you overwhelmed by the information available these days, or do you get just the right amount from gatekeepers (whether Fangraphs, USSM, Lookout Landing or others)?

Beltre to Red Sox

January 4, 2010 · Filed Under General baseball, Mariners · 89 Comments 

Gammons tweets.

Gammons says 1 year deal for $9 million and a player option for $5 million.

He probably wasn’t coming here anyway, so nothing to get too stressed over. Maybe this’ll get people to stop suggesting moving Lopez to first, though.

Now, About Yusei Kikuchi

October 19, 2009 · Filed Under General baseball · 13 Comments 

Friday, I proposed Yusei Kikuchi as a player to look at should the Chapman bidding war get out of hand as expected. I’ve talked about him a little in the past, discussing the implications of his possible jump to the U.S., but I hadn’t profiled him to any length with regard to his abilities. Fortunately, not only do I do requests, I also get to ride in on the coattails of Larry Stone for the second week in a row, as he got a Sunday write-up giving the general overview. So, it falls to me to flesh out the scouting end of things.

Thus, Sunday afternoon, I watched a complete game of him pitching, no cuts or anything, just seven innings of the pure goodness that is Japanese prep baseball, with the cries of “taimuri hitto”, “shotto hoppu”, and of course, “san shin!” There were certainly a lot of those in this game, let me tell you.

Watching Kikuchi and Chapman in close succession is an interesting exercise. While Chapman has been drifting slightly into a more over the top motion, Kikuchi pretty much stays to his three-quarters and doesn’t seem to deviate from it all that much. Chapman also looks like he’s slinging the ball at times, whereas Kikuchi’s arm motion is more whippy. The majority of the stress seems to be in his arm, which alarmed me a little at first. I also noticed that, among other quirks, his arm can finish low and across his body and sometimes his trailing foot will drag forward as he decelerates. Aside from that, there aren’t any major mechanical concerns; the inverted W, which is in vogue now as the source of all pitching ills, was not present, nor did it look like he was otherwise putting a lot of strain on the other sensitive areas. His finishes weren’t always smooth, but his flaws were few for a pitcher of his age and generally correctable.

Getting into his arsenal, as was the case with Chapman, the 96 mph reading is about as much of an exaggeration as the 102 mph one. It is more Kikuchi’s style to stay in the high-80s range, but he is capable of reaching back for 92, 93 or 94, with about a 60% success rate, and will do so about fifteen times a game. His ability to hit his spots is otherwise solid. He doesn’t miss often, and when he does it tends to be down. Like Chapman, his pitches naturally trail from left-handed batters, so you don’t see him come in on them like he does versus right-handers, but that’s not so much of an issue at this point.

For secondary pitches, the next one up would clearly be the slider that clocks in the mid-70s. It has a great deal of lateral movement, but there were a few of them that had a sharp downward break to them and it’s clearly a pitch with a lot of potential and he recorded Ks on it at a rate roughly equivalent to his fastball. He also threw a slurve, not quite as often. His other offerings came and went as needed. For example, when a hitter led off the second with a double and the next batter came up intending to bunt him over, Kikuchi gave him a steady diet of two-seams, and while the run did come around (seeing eye single), the bunt was quickly fielded and the batter erased. He would continue to rely on it for the rest of the game. Also, I don’t know if it’s a common thing for him, but I did see him start out a batter in the first with a hilarious eephus pitch. It was taken for a ball and I didn’t see it again, but the batter had an expression on his face that suggested that he was going to go forward pretending that didn’t just happen.

His poise on the mound is another plus in his column. There were a couple of pitches that were tagged for hits when better defenders would have made the play. In one of the later innings, there was an infield hit to the first baseman, with the runner barely beating it out. No big deal. He struck out the next batter on five pitches and retired the one after him in similar fashion. While he is attentive to runners on the field, he doesn’t lose focus and his tempo is pretty much the same throughout, which ensures that he’s rarely on the defensive.

If we were looking at the same pitcher in a high school in the U.S., he’d be talked up at a potential first-round pick too. He looks like a kid who could add velocity in the future and everything else that you could ask for is present already. I would still put him as being three to four years out, easily, but if you’re in the camp that doesn’t believe Chapman is going to be ready out of the gate, that’s a tradeoff that you could probably tolerate. I’m not one to talk about the Mariners specific chance of getting him signed, or how much it would take, as this is a bit of a rare case (probably closer to standard NDFAs than Tazawa was), but I can say that he would be a top ten, or even top five prospect in most systems.

About Aroldis Chapman

October 16, 2009 · Filed Under General baseball · 16 Comments 

Coming into the 2009 season, there were three pitchers in their early 20s that were singled out as having the talent to be MLB stars in the future: San Diego State’s Stephen Strasburg, Nippon Ham’s Yu Darvish, and Holguín’s Aroldis Chapman. Strasburg, as we all know, went number one overall, and Darvish has indicated no real desire to move to the MLB, but Chapman, who defected months ago while Cuba was playing in Rotterdam, has declared residency in Andorra and is eligible to sign as a free agent any time now.

Last weekend, Larry Stone profiled Chapman for the Times, alluding to the M’s interest and listing them as one of the teams in attendance when he threw a bullpen session in Madrid. Most of it is the standard fare; the M’s are players because they have money and Chapman has pitched against Ichiro in the WBC and knows about Felix, for whatever that’s worth. His agent, relative unknown Edwin Mejia, has thrown out the familiar line of his guy being the type of player that “comes across every 40 or 50 years”, and word is that Chapman is going to want $60m on the market, nearly double what Jose Contreras got from the Yankees years ago. So, is he worth it?

There are a few videos of Chapman pitching in online, from the ‘07 World Cup, to ’09 WBC preliminaries, to his WBC stint earlier in the year. The’07 video shows why it would be easy to get excited about him. He’s not the archetypal pitcher, he’s long-limbed and tends to throw from a high three-quarters slot like he’s slinging the ball to the plate, but the ball jumps out of his hands, looking much faster than the low-90s it was being clocked at, and has tremendous lateral movement. The follow-through is also workable, in that he doesn’t fall over, despite taking a few steps forward on some landings, and he manages to keep his eyes on the glove as he’s pitching. The curve, his second best pitch, was a low-70s offering, nothing eye-popping in terms of vertical break, but an effective pitch and one he seemed comfortable with. He’d only bust out the slider every now and then, which would come in about five to ten MPH faster and functioned as a third pitch.

The ’09 videos are a bit more revealing, being slightly more than the standard highlight reel. All his pitches seem to have gained a few MPH and he’s now throwing in the mid-90s with his fastball on a regular basis. This is out of line with his hype of hitting 102 on the radar gun. He can reach back for triple-digits, and I saw him do it, but this was not a regular occurrence. He seemed to have additional confidence with his slider and was more readily throwing it. The talent is all there, and he seems to be progressing, and those cover enough positives to warrant interest.

The negatives? Chapman is fundamentally a thrower. One would gather as much given that he ranked near the top in walks and wild pitches, in addition to strikeouts, during his tenure with Holguín. The same came out in the WBC. What I saw was his showing against Australia (going against former Mariner Travis Blackley), not the Japan game in which he ran into trouble. Even so, there were flaws that would be exposed elsewhere. His delivery has gone even higher over the past couple of years, but it’s as inconsistent as it was before. His tempo and his release points are both uneven. When he gets more over the top, he loses his fastball command. It’s difficult to say why he’d even be throwing there either, as his curves were best around three-quarters. So, the delivery, while not setting off injury warnings, is going to need ironing out in order for him to be in any way efficient.

As a result, he was giving the catcher a workout and probably hit his spots less than half the time. When he was missing, it tended to be up in the zone. Thus, the majority of his outs seem to come in the air. The other thing is that his fastball, when moving, tends to dart into the right-handed batter’s box and down. If he’s capable of pitching in to left-handers, I didn’t see him do it much, not that he really needed to. Chapman seems to live and die by his fastball command. Even with the tight, but unspectacular curve, the fastball was his out pitch, and more Ks came on that than any other.

We’re due to see the bidding war start any time now, with the usual competitors in the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels. Chapman may get a huge paycheck, but realistically, you’re looking at a guy who isn’t going to be MLB-ready from the get-go. I’d put him as a year or so split between double and triple-A at least, just to get the mechanics in order. After that, you’re still hoping that the breaking pitches manage to develop a little more. They have so far, and are fine for how he uses them, but I wouldn’t call them plus pitches, or signature weapons (that would still be the fastball). If the bidding starts to get out of hand, and it might, I think the M’s would be better served going after Japanese prep left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who will be meeting with teams next week in advance of the Oct. 29th NPB draft, and maybe adding Taiwanese right-hander Chih-lung Huang, who is also mulling over the idea of jumping the pond. You could probably pick up both and then some for less than it’s going to take to get Chapman alone.

Yusei Kikuchi: Next Japanese Import?

September 30, 2009 · Filed Under General baseball · 23 Comments 

We are now a few weeks removed from the historic event of Ichiro recording his ninth consecutive season with two hundred or more hits. Aside from the usual bumps leading up to the milestone, these events have become commonplace, and so it’s strange to think now that a decade has passed since the second wave of Japanese imports started proving themselves in the states. While something of a curiosity then, met with some initial derision from the scouting world, they’re well on their way to becoming an institution.

Free agency and the posting system have not yet proven to be the death of the NPB or any of the surrounding leagues, a claim that was perhaps exaggerated at the time, but it has become increasingly common for teams to bypass the usual limitations by finding some way to grab prep players. This has been talked about in Korea and Taiwan for years as being a talent drain, but recently it’s come up as an issue in Japan as well, where the Mariners signed Kenta Suda out of Hideo Nomo’s baseball program a few years ago and the Red Sox made waves by signing Junichi Tazawa, who snuck through by joining up with a lesser unaffiliated league and then insisting that he not be drafted. The trend looks to continue this winter as left-hander Yusei Kikuchi is deciding between the MLB and the NPB, a move that is will have some repercussions as he’s eighteen, whereas Tazawa was twenty-two at the time, and he would be going number one in their draft otherwise. The Mariners, as ever, are linked to Kikuchi.

Though baseball has again been nixed from the Olympic schedule, losing out to rugby and golf for the 2016 games, the international presence is ever on the rise, with the World Baseball Classic essentially filling that role on the stage. South Africa and China have both funded programs to popularize the game in their own countries, India recently produced its first two prospects, and the Caribbean Leagues continue to go strong all throughout the winter. The relationship with Japan, however, is still quite different, with its own established history going back more than half a century and a schedule that conflicts with the MLB season. You can’t blame players like Tazawa and Kikuchi for wanting to come over, but their choices are putting a strain on the current arrangement. Along with the emergence of new markets in the coming decades, we’re also likely to see a restructuring of the setup between the MLB and NPB, if the latter is going to remain competitive.

Why I’m enthusiastic about the MLB Network

January 1, 2009 · Filed Under General baseball · 25 Comments 

I’m a little excited, and not for the reasons MLB’s pushing.

MLB has an amazing opportunity here.

First, in showing off great moments in baseball to demonstrate why it’s a great game. ESPN Classic hasn’t cut it.

Second, in drawing in new people in other ways and converting them to dedicated fans of the game. I’d love to see shows with different managers talking about strategies, and you could do some amazing things walking through big decisions in their careers. I’m not a Tony LaRussa fan, but I’d love to spend an hour hearing him talk about how his bullpen management philosophy came about, and where he thinks it’s won games and where it’s failed him. Earl Weaver’s still alive — put that guy in front of a camera and start showing him game footage. I’ll bet it’d be must-watch television.

Third, in bringing great games people don’t normally see nationally to everyone. The temptation to build ratings by broadcasting every Yankee-Red Sox game that ESPN and Fox don’t pick up is probably going to be too much. But there’s still be game on game every day they could eventually be showing: great pitching matchups, milestones threatened, rivalry games, interesting debuts, especially by pitchers… if you’ve ever had the Extra Innings package and are anywhere near as baseball-obsessed as I am, you’ve seen this — every day, there are games that are interesting and worth watching, and for MLB, it’s worth showing people that and talking about the why.

Fourth, in giving us a winter fix.

A long time ago, I had a random, half-formed idea about doing a baseball channel and broadcasting essentially second-tier games for the crazed fan (at the time, to tie this into the M’s, my particular pitch was being able to watch Nick Johnson, who I’ve always been a huge, huge fan of, and who I know really hope the M’s pick up). And then in winter, you air the AFL games, Venezuela games, international competitions, whatever you can buy a feed to or put a camera on. Kids in Hawaii on a backlot, it doesn’t matter. Get people their fix through the winter. And then, of course, analysis… so I called someone I’m not sure wants to be named here but who is amazingly smart and savvy about this stuff and he started to laugh when I was a couple sentences into it.

“We can’t do it,” he said. “I tried this a while ago. Guess how much (domestic minor league) wanted for television rights.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “They’re don’t have distribution now, I’d guess $foo and then an ad split.”
He named a figure that curls my hair to think of now. It was field-a-major-league-team high.
“I couldn’t put together enough funding,” he said. And then we started to talk about rights and demographics, so I’ll stop the digression.

MLB has the money, the distribution, and can make this happen.

And most importantly it’s another step towards making MLB a more nationally-oriented game with shared revenue. MLB’s current territorial system structure massively and unfairly favors the New York teams and there’s nothing anyone can do about it until it’s reformed. I understand MLB’s been trying to reform this behind the scenes for years, and Selig for all his faults is amazing at putting together a consensus he can get passed. I’ll spare everyone an off-topic rant about baseball’s revenue inequities, though.

This helps — it provides an example of how baseball is extra-territorial in the same way MLB.com has. It helps to ease the disparity if it’s handled right. If in a few years every team’s making an extra $10m, $20m from the MLB Network revenues, that helps Kansas City a lot more than it does the Mets. It provides recognition that baseball fans in the Midwest play a vital part in baseball’s national success out of proportion to their cities’ population relative to New York. I’m hopeful it could help the push towards territorial reform and better revenue distribution.

I’ll offer one cautionary note, though — don’t expect serious analysis from MLB TV. Don’t get your hopes up at all. They have the opportunity to experiment, but looking over their earlier schedule they’re trying to reach out to a couple of audiences and if they’re even interested in the informed, SABR-friendly baseball fan, they think they’ll pick them up with more general-interest programming.

And on that same subject, don’t expect objective or interesting analysis either. I know there are examples (right now particularly, the NBA is letting some of this run) of company shops criticizing the product. It’s not going to happen here. We don’t need to look any farther than how MLB.com is run: their streaming product is now amazingly good, the game coverage is decent enough, and it’s a fine source of quotes, but if you read the disclaimer that

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

without rolling your eyes or seeing the subtle distinction they’re making there, well, please send USSM a bar off the stash of leprechaun gold you and your unicorn steed will stumble across shortly.

MLB.com has no negative coverage. Not of teams, players, anything. The harshest thing you’ll see said about the worst player is that they’re having a challenging season, or they’re struggling. It’s boosterism, nearly nonstop, designed to promote the product in the same way the team’s broadcasts are commercials for the team and not news broadcasts.

If they do put together any content that’s openly critical of the product or any players, I’ll be surprised, but I’m sure they’re cynical enough to put together something that proves they’re objective and edgy, within what are sure to be well-defined boundaries. Even then, though, maybe that would prove popular and lead them to loosen up on content restrictions… I’m hopeful.

Don’t let any of that take away from the overall point, though: this could be a leap forward for baseball, worth checking out now as well as a sign of progress and yet things to come.

Don Larsen’s perfect game is on tonight, followed by an interview with Larsen and Yogi! I’d rather watch that than the Orange Bowl.

Congrats to Rob, Keith…

December 10, 2008 · Filed Under General baseball · 10 Comments 

…and some other internet writers at my alma mater.

The Base Ball Writers of America (I’d link to their website but it will burn your eyeballs) admitted two more ESPN writers, Rob Neyer and Keith Law, along with BP’s Christina Kahrl and Will Carroll. They all now get to vote on awards and Hall of Fame ballots, which hopefully will continue to drag those awards towards rationality, if not outright respectability.

Neyer is particularly satisfying to me. Neyer, more than any other writer, is responsible for me being the fan I am today. He was the first to demonstrate that quality baseball analysis could come from the internet, bringing the insight and statistical analysis of Bill James to the unwashed internet masses in a way that everyone could understand, with humor and sometimes a lot of mustard on his arguments. He often focused on the common-sense application of statistics in looking at baseball problems, showing how to reason through a problem. That stats didn’t have to be about arguing about a .1 run difference in setting replacement level offense but about how teams won and lost games and seasons.

Last year was the first year that the BBWAA waved in any internet-only writers, and I was so incensed that Rob didn’t get in that if I’d written about it you wouldn’t have been able to pick out the point from the swearing.

It makes me glad to see him get in today.

To move to Keith, it should be clear from his ESPN pieces there’s an enormous amount of work behind the improvement in their draft coverage (to pick one), and I’m happy his contributions have been recognized.

And congrats to the BP crew. I feel in writing this I risk starting the standard flame war, but allow me to be entirely positive: as much of a roster construction geek as I’ve become, I owe a huge debt to Christina Kahrl, who was the first to get me thinking about how small transactions make up a large season, and player skill sets complement each other in building a roster. And there’s a reason everyone reads Will’s stuff since he started doing injury analysis on BP.

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