"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Two games into all four playoff series, I have lots of questions, but none bigger than this one:
Why on earth is Barry Bonds not hitting leadoff for the Giants?
This occurred to me — in palm slapping the forehead fashion — as I discussed the relative merits of Bonds and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals with readers who disagreed with my assertion that Bonds is the hands-down National League Most Valuable Player.
Their argument for Pujols is essentially that he produced more runs than Bonds did, as measured by adding each player’s runs scored and RBIs and subtracting home runs (so as not to count them twice, since a homer results in a run scored and an RBI). By this measure, Pujols produced 211 runs (118 scored, 127 driven in, minus 34 home runs) while Bonds produced 181 (117 scored, 110 driven in, 46 homers). Pujols played a little more, but his runs produced per game are still superior. Since the idea of this whole baseball thing is to score more than the other team, the argument goes, Pujols is more valuable than Bonds.
I countered that runs scored and RBIs are stats dependent on the performance of one’s teammates. Except for his 34 home runs, every one of Pujols’ runs scored required a teammate to drive him in, and every one of his RBIs required a teammate to get on base in front of him. Bonds shouldn’t be punished because Pujols has better teammates.
But then I looked at their teammates. Guess what: Subtracting Bonds and Pujols, the Giants’ and Cards’ offensive numbers are nearly identical. How can it be that the game’s greatest slugger is not the game’s most productive slugger?
That’s when my palm hit my forehead. Bonds is hitting in the wrong spot in the order.
Because opponents flatly refuse to pitch to Bonds with runners on base, his value as an RBI man is severely limited. But: He’s on base all the freakin’ time! Nobody’s ever been on base as often. Nobody’s been close. The more good hitters there are behind Bonds, the more likely the Giants will make the other team pay for walking him. With nothing but mediocre hitters behind Bonds — Benito Santiago, Reggie Sanders, J.T. Snow and David Bell usually hit behind him — opponents walk him, and the strategy works.
How well does it work? When Bonds was hitting third, ahead of the dangerous Jeff Kent, he scored 30.3 percent of the time he was a baserunner. (That is, 30.3 percent of the time that he reached base but didn’t hit a home run.) After Giants manager Dusty Baker switched Bonds and Kent in the order, Bonds scored 16.4 percent of the time that he was on base, an astonishing, pathetic figure.
Some numbers for comparison: Giants leadoff man Kenny Lofton scored 39.1 percent of the time he was a baserunner. Pujols, the Cardinals’ cleanup hitter, scored 36.2 percent of the time once he got on base.
What’s really amazing about Baker’s misuse of Bonds is that he actually got some praise in late June when he switched him in the order with Kent, who had hit fourth for most of the previous five and a half years. The change helped Kent’s production, for the obvious reason that he got better pitches while hitting in front of Bonds. But that improvement for Kent wasn’t nearly enough to offset the neutralization of the game’s best hitter. At the time of the switch, Bonds had 50 RBIs in 71 games while hitting .354, with an on-base percentage of .574. After the switch, Bonds played in 72 games. He hit .385, with an on-base percentage of .588. He drove in 60 runs.
For those extra 10 RBIs, Bonds’ run total dropped from 69 in those first 71 games to 48 in the last 72, despite getting on base more often.
If Bonds were hitting first, opponents would still pitch around him, but he’d be likely to score a whole lot more often with Lofton, Rich Aurilia and, especially, Kent behind him. If he scored at Lofton’s 39.1 percent rate, he’d have tallied 167 runs this year, 50 more than his actual number, and tied with Lou Gehrig for the second best total of modern times, 10 behind Babe Ruth’s record from 1921. We are talking jaw-dropping run-scoring totals here.
But it gets better. Hitting leadoff instead of cleanup would get Bonds an extra plate appearance about once every three games. Bonds played 143 games this year, and remember he hit third in half of them, so let’s call it only 35 extra plate appearances. Given Bonds’ .582 on-base percentage, that means another 20 times on base, and either two or three home runs if his homer-per-appearance ratio of about 1-per-13 holds. We’ll call it two and apply that Loftonian 39.1 percent scoring rate to the other 18 times on base. Bonds scores another nine runs total. So now his run total would be 176, one short of the modern record and 59 — 59! — more than he scored this year. Even at that 30.3 percent rate he achieved from the third spot, Bonds still would have scored nearly 150 runs. And because he’s rarely pitched to with men on base, his RBI total likely wouldn’t suffer much.
It’s hard to believe an extra 30 or 40 or 50 or however many runs wouldn’t have gotten the Giants four more wins and the Western Division title. The misuse of Bonds hasn’t seemed to hurt them in the playoffs, yet. They beat the Braves in Game 1 and lost by a bunch in Game 2, and anyway Bonds has so far looked about as mortal as usual for the postseason, going 2-for-8 with a meaningless solo homer.
Still, the unique combination of Bonds’ huge on-base percentage, the unwillingness of opponents to pitch to him and the weak bottom half of the Giants’ lineup add up to the obvious conclusion that Bonds should be hitting at the top of the order. I think Baker’s failure to realize this — or his failure to convince Bonds of its necessity, if that’s what’s preventing it from happening — is a colossal failure.
While I’ve been scratching my head over the shocking misuse of Bonds — or is that a personal hygiene problem? — I’ve also been wondering about a few other things. Such as:
What did those first two games mean, anyway?
The Cardinals are the big surprise of the first set, having beaten up on Randy Johnson and gotten a win in a game started by Curt Schilling. The pontificators all said Johnson was an automatic win in Game 1 and Schilling, who was shaky down the stretch, was vulnerable. Of course Johnson got shelled and Schilling was fine. The Cards won after he was removed.
Now the series moves to St. Louis for two games, but it looks like the Cardinals will have to do without Scott Rolen, who hurt his shoulder in a collision Thursday. That’s a blow, and if the Diamondbacks can get a win in Game 3, they get to try again with Johnson and Schilling in the next two, against an offense that’s been weakened a bit. But this series was a coin flip at the start (your humble servant called tails and picked the Snakes), and it’s hard to picture either team beating the other three straight times.
It’s also hard to picture the Angels winning two more games against the Yankees, even after they put a hurting on Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and ended up with a split in the Bronx. On the other hand, it was hard to picture them winning 99 games, or putting a hurting on Clemens and Pettitte and ending up with a split in the Bronx. Your guess is as good as mine here. (Notice how I say that as though your guess weren’t always as good as mine, and usually better.)
The Twins get to play at home for the next two games after splitting the opening two in Oakland, and the Twins are awfully tough in the postseason in the Metrodome, which is a very loud, very weird place. But they don’t beat left-handers, and they’re about to face the best in the league, Barry Zito, in Game 3. Then they’ll face Tim Hudson, who had a bad day in Game 1, and who doesn’t string together consecutive bad days very often. The Twins have a big hill to climb.
As for the Giants and Braves, I thought it would go five games and the Giants would overcome the Braves’ superior pitching thanks to Bonds’ newfound postseason effectiveness. The Giants got a split in Atlanta without Bonds doing much. I still think this will be his breakthrough October.
Why do teams put three infielders out of position to defend against Bonds and Jason Giambi?
The exaggerated shift, with three infielders to the right of second base, has become popular against certain left-handed sluggers in the last few years. In these playoffs, the Angels are using it against Giambi, the Braves against Bonds. The third baseman plays where the shortstop usually does, the shortstop plays where the second baseman usually does and the second baseman plays short right field.
I’ve always wondered why they don’t just put the third baseman in short right field. That way, instead of three guys out of position, only one is. It might seem weird to have your third baseman playing in the outfield, but actually more third basemen moonlight as outfielders than second basemen do. I’d rather have my third baseman chasing fly balls than trying to cover ground like a middle infielder. Wouldn’t you? Of course you would.
Why don’t Giambi and Bonds flick one the other way against that shift?
I know you shouldn’t change your swing because that might screw you up, but why not just inside out a ball or two? No big deal, just try to dump a base hit down the third base line a few times. If it doesn’t work out, forget it. But roll two or three singles into left field and that shift becomes a thing of the past. Now the right side of the infield is opened back up.
Why do managers keep insisting on having that one really fast guy on the postseason roster for pinch-running purposes?
The guy always gets his dumb, speedy ass picked off. Either that or he commits some other baserunning blunder like Chone Figgins of the Angels failing to score from second on a single up the middle in Game 1 against the Yankees because he broke the wrong way, back to the bag, or Alex Cintron of the Diamondbacks interfering with Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen on a tough slow roller.
Neither error hurt the baserunner’s team badly. Figgins scored anyway on the next play, and Rolen, a brilliant fielder, probably would have made that play for the third out. In fact, the collision with Cintron may have sidelined Rolen for the rest of the postseason with a shoulder injury, so Cintron’s blunder actually kind of worked out for the Diamondbacks, who traded an out for the Cardinals losing a big slugger.
But still, these guys who are on the roster strictly to run the bases invariably run the bases quickly, but not well. Managers ought to learn what I’ll call the Herb Washington Theorem: A slow guy who knows what he’s doing is better on the bases than a fast guy who doesn’t.
Why do television directors insist on focusing on the pitcher immediately after he’s given up a big hit?
We always see that replay. He throws the pitch, the batter swings, the pitcher turns around to watch the play, then reacts to it.
I don’t think there has ever been a pitcher who has failed in that situation to yell, very loudly and clearly, for all of America to read his lips: “FUCK!”
I have to admit, though, that in the telecasts of the playoff games so far, the endless cutaways to crowd reaction shots have been kept to a refreshing minimum. We still get plenty of crowd, but so far we haven’t had to endure that familiar, pointless, irritating rhythm — pitcher, batter, guy in crowd, manager in dugout, pitcher, other manager in other dugout, woman in crowd, pitcher, catcher, different guy in crowd, baserunner, three teenagers in crowd, batter — before every pitch.
What did we do to deserve Chris Berman?
Is there no end to what an unlistenable boob this guy has become? It’s not even like he’s a bad sports announcer. It’s more like he’s a parody of a bad sports announcer, only a parody that’s uniquely and bravely not funny.
Berman worked a Giants-Dodgers game on ESPN in the season’s closing weeks, and I swear he quoted the lyrics from the song “Hotel California” on at least a dozen different, totally distinct occasions, each time with this sly little tone in his voice that suggested he was being the most clever son of a gun this side of Georgie Jessel. “Hotel California,” people.
His tired nickname schtick — Scott “Rockin’” Rolen, Chuck “Huckleberry” Finley — ceased to be amusing before the ’90s began. He’s convinced himself that Jim Edmonds’ home run in Game 1 of the Cardinals-Diamondbacks series is somehow related to a home run by Eric Davis of the Reds in the 1990 World Series, and he will. Not. Stop. Talking. About it. And of course he found reason to bring up “Hotel California” again during Game 1. “Hotel California.” Twenty-three skiddoo.
My only consolation is that the sound mixing on the broadcasts has been so incompetent that incidental crowd hubbub sometimes drowns Berman.
I mean drowns out his voice. Freudian slip.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)