French philosopher Michel Foucault was best known for his innovative, "genealogical" method of reading history and the production of knowledge. The simple -- and, of course, the hugely reductive -- explanation of Foucault's thinking is that he reads a history as primarily a history of knowledge, and reads knowledge as primarily constructed through particular "truth claims" -- statements that we recognize as natural knowledge, but that are constructed through long, complicated, and forgotten histories. The deep histories of these truth claims largely occupy Foucault's research, and the most interesting of the bunch -- "There are people who are criminals" as opposed to "there are people who commit crimes;" "There are people who are mentally unwell;" "There are people who are gay" as opposed to "there are people who have sex with the same sex" -- are claims that are constitutive of identities.
The criminal, the mentally insane, and the homosexual, Foucault suggests, are identities codified not by nature, but by history and by power at a certain moment in time. The very instant one stops being a person who has committed a crime, and instead becomes "a criminal," is the exact moment at which the state and its citizens are able to begin asking questions about the "criminal" as an entity: an actor, not an act. This is not necessarily a moment of oppression, but since Foucault was a) French, b) the student of Louis Althusser, and c) writing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, you can be fairly sure that most truth claims weren't good things. But, to be sure, the are more exactly ways of thinking about the world, not ways of critiquing it: Foucault was in the business of mandating a reading practice for history.
This may seem a somewhat out of the way detour to get to Kyle Kendrick's start tonight, but I have a point I promise (and, even if I don't, you can blame yolacrary for getting me thinking about Foucault earlier this week). The point is that, while it doesn't really have the heft he would have wanted it to, the sabermetric revolution is the moment at which a question is posed that posits a new truth claim. To be more specific, when Voros McCracken broke open the covenant of Baseba'al and declared that pitchers could only control three true outcomes -- say them with me, home runs, walks, and strikeouts -- he inadvertently set off a kind of new way of thinking about pitchers that, now, feels natural. We no longer talk about the good pitcher, or the good game, but rather the predictably good pitcher. The pitcher that can continue to perform at his current ERA or his current efficiency for weeks, months, and years to come. Barring injury, of course.
"But, Trev," you say, "Hawk Harrelson was just this week screaming about how that's all hogwash compared to 'The Will to Win' (TWTW). Doesn't that suggest that this isn't really a truth claim?" Yes, this is true, but a good Foucauldian would tell you that truth claims aren't instances of brainwashing: people are still free to think outside of them. It's just that you are always under the very terms of the conversation. So when Hawk talks about TWTW, or when people talk about pitching to the score, it's always with the implicit rejection of McCracken's codification of the actor (the predictably good pitcher) over the act (the pitcher who had a good game). And all of this is a way of getting to the reason I never believed in the new Kyle Kendrick.
I wrote a preview for Lindy's this year, basically saying that as long as Kyle kept the ball on the ground this year, he'd be okay. I figured it out by looking at historical stats. It seemed true. But it was also an admission of Kendrick's faults: he's always be a man on the edge because he couldn't control that one most important true outcome: strikeouts. That was a hasty call on my part because Kendrick might be evolving and indeed, turning a corner. His identity isn't "Bad FIP guy," and he is defined by his actions outside of McCracken's claims. Actions like tonight's game.
Kyle Kendrick pitched a complete game shutout of the Mets tonight, and he looked masterful doing so. There are other points to this game, of course: Michael Young had three hits, including a beauty of a base hit that wasn't actually beautiful except that it scored a guy from third with no outs. Ryan Howard also hit a dinger off of Mets pitcher Dillon Gee, who is admittedly a right hander, but who is a fairly decent right hander! Gee went six innings, striking out four, walking one, and giving up that wonderful, hope-bringer of a three run shot. And there were annoying announcer statements, like when Sarge insisted that Kendrick was doing well because he wasn't walking guys, but he was putting balls in play Nice. Also, TMac actually called Jonathan Papelbon cinco-ocho. Because, you know, that wasn't ridiculous two years ago when Chad Johnson actually had a job or anything. Mumble grumble.
Anyway, that's not what you're here for, so let me just give you the straight dope. Kendrick went nine innings, striking out five, walking just one, and giving up only three hits. There was this one pitch -- my favorite pitch -- where he had run a 2-1 count against Jordany Valdespin, and he threw this pitch that looked like it was going to hit him in the jaw. Valdespin lurched back, and the pitch just magically curved right and down into the glove of Erik Kratz. Called strike. Woof. Kendrick was just in control tonight, and it really made me believe in him.
And that's the funny thing about "truth claims" -- there aren't really any "criminals," only people who commit crimes; and though there are people who have mental illnesses or are homosexual, their identities aren't determined by the state's "truth claims," and they aren't just defined by their actions. They are people who have complicated lives and manifold motives. Kyle Kendrick is not a "bad pitcher," or a "predictably good pitcher," or a "pitcher due for regression." He's a pitcher who just pitched a hell of a game, and who are we to say that he's not destined to do it again. Sabermetrics tell us a lot about performance, but they tell us very little about the person performing. Kyle Kendrick has made himself a better pitcher, and it's not like we should laud his guts or his grit or anything, but we should appreciate that he is an individual and a being outside of our predictions and our truth claims.
Foucault was terrified of power codifying individuality beyond any contingency. Whether we agree with his fear or not, let's agree -- Kyle Kendrick doesn't give a damn about our knowledge construction or our preconceptions. And thank goodness for that.