Google Glass Is Not the Next Segway

Since it was first revealed in early 2012, Google Glass has been met with equal parts excitement, skepticism, and mockery. While Google itself had an underwhelming specialized gadget almost-launch with the Nexus Q, the comparison that leaps to people’s mind is the Segway, Dean Kamen’s futuristic…scooter. This is a somewhat fair comparison to make but it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Leading up to the fall 2001 unveiling, Segway, codenamed “IT” and “Ginger” was surrounded by secrecy. While a who’s who of celebrities and thinkers, including the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, were granted a private audience with Kamen and his invention, the rest of the world had only leaks and quotes to pass the time. Hearing only comments about how cities would change when IT was released, minds began to wander. Everything from a new Stirling engine to hovercraft technology was discussed about possible breakthroughs. Fantastic looking sketches began to surface in patent filings.

But at the end of the day, which incidentally was a morning (I know, I skipped school to see the big reveal) the Segway was just a standup scooter with a gyroscope so it wouldn’t tip over.

At $1500 for the Explorer Edition, Glass is not an impulse buy, world-changing gadget. But it is known. Right now Glass has very limited capabilities: taking photos and videos, using the headset in a Hangout, turn-by-turn navigation, and reading text messages/making phone calls by tethering to a smartphone to name a few. All of these features have been shown off since the initial unveiling.

The Segway? Hidden in a shroud of mystery to all but a few who could not say anything of substance about the unreleased device. Will Glass be a failure? Maybe. Will it find as much success as the Segway, a niche product that can find a home on city tours or a few other specialized uses? No reason it can’t. But no matter what the outcome, Glass is not the next Segway.

Sundar Pichai Solves Microsoft’s PR Problem

With Google I/O coming up later this week, Google OS chief Sundar Pichai sat down for a short interview with Wired’s Steven Levy. For the most part, it’s what you would expect, no huge storylines before the company’s biggest conference of the year. The head of Chrome and Android lowers expectations a bit by saying I/O is “not a time when we have much in the way of launches or new products or a new operating system” but he does provide some clarity to Google’s two-operating system initiative.

Users care about applications and services they use, not operating systems. Very few people will ask you, “Hey, how come MacBooks are on Mac OS-X and iPhone and iPad are on iOS? Why is this?”

This really struck me. It was the first time I recall Google going right to a comparison with iOS and OS X to explain the existence of both Android and ChromeOS. In the past, the theory was that Android was for touch interfaces and Chrome was meant for traditional mouse/keyboard/trackpad users. While it’s a bit of a dodge, the message is clear: the operating systems have different purposes, although the touchscreen-equipped Chromebook Pixel blurs that line a tad. Many words have been typed by others about what those purposes are and how they might be better served, but the point stands: different tools for different uses.

ChromeOS is a hands-off operating system that is maintained from afar. Chromebooks store everything in the cloud and can be wiped and replaced at will. Android devices behave like traditional computers: you install software written for the device, it gets backed up in a more traditional manner rather than syncing the entire phone online (although that does occur to a lesser extent). iOS is Apple’s mobile operating system, powering iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches. Like ChromeOS it can be synced to the cloud and restored onto a new device without a hitch. iOS is touch based but built on the same underpinnings as big brother OS X.

Why didn’t Microsoft learn from these two examples when rolling out Windows 8 and Windows RT? RT, like Windows Phone could be the touch-first operating system out of Redmond. It could lack legacy support for older Windows programs. It could skip the traditional desktop for the ModernUI interface. Windows 8, on desktop PCs would look a lot like Windows 7. No ModernUI or using that as an alternative application interface only, similar to the widget screen on OS X. Something that is sitting out of the way until you need it. The Surface tablets could still exist. RT wouldn’t have the traditional desktop at all. Windows 8 on the Surface Pro could even be set to boot to ModernUI instead of the desktop because that’s the hybrid device, like the Chromebook Pixel, pointing the way towards Microsoft’s version of the future of computing.

Why two interfaces? All Microsoft would have to say is “Users care about applications and services they use, not operations systems.” One is for touch interface, the other for the traditional desktop experience.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and “Too Much Pitching”

Sometimes a cliche is just that – a simple saying that has become so overused that it no longer has any meaning outside of being a one-liner. No cliche in baseball gets more use than “you can never have too much pitching.” It seems like the phrase is used during every game, whether the man on the mound is performing well, reinforcing the wisdom of choice, or struggling, showing the lack of planning because there is no replacement. Scott Boras probably dedicates an entire chapter to the importance (and fragile nature) of pitching depth for each starter he represents.

A desire to have enough pitching is why the Yankees acquired Esteban Loaiza in 2004 and traded Jesus Montero to get Michael Pineda in 2012. It’s why the Red Sox signed Brad Penny and John Smoltz in 2009. It’s why the A’s took a chance at resurrecting the career of Bartolo Colon and why Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Pedro Martinez have been able to make mid-season comebacks in the twilight of their careers.

The Dodgers entered 2013 with one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball. Since Opening day, however, that depth has been tested and depleted. Aaron Harang was traded to the Seattle Mariners, Zack Greinke was injured in a brawl with Carlos Quentin, Chad Billingsly succumed to Tommy John surgery, Chris Capuano hurt his leg while running from the bullpen during the aforementioned Greinke-Quentin melee and then aggravated the injury during his turn in rotation, Stephen Fife was called up from AAA and lasted just 4.2 innings before going on the DL himself. It’s a good thing the Dodgers started with so many options to fill the innings. Ted Lilly, who had been rehabbing in the minors to begin the year, no opening in sight, now finds himself with a grasp on a starting job.

Dodgers management is committed to winning and willing to spend, which is why GM Ned Colletti signed left-handed pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu out of Korea during the offseason. At the time the move seemed to indicate the Dodgers were going to part with one or two members of their pantheon of starting pitchers, but the team stood still. Ryu was just 25 at the time, celebrating his 26th birthday on April 2nd, so youth and inexperience with American baseball was on their side had the team eased the southpaw into MLB rather than handing him a rotation spot out of Spring Training. Yet the youngster impressed and in the process, pushed veterans Capuano and Harang, both surprisingly useful in 2012, to the sidelines. But that still left too many players and too few seats at the table. How could the Dodgers successfully take advantage of eight or nine capable starting pitchers?

As the other common baseball saying goes “these things have a way of working themselves out.” Injuries, poor performance, trades – any one of these can shake up a situation that looks to be set in stone. Aaron Harang was traded because there appeared to be enough depth to compensate for his loss. Chad Billingsley entered 2013 as a member of the walking wounded, having opted to skip surgery last fall and rehab his balky elbow instead. Two down of more-or-less natural causes. But Greinke and Capuano both sustaining injuries in a brawl? Unpredictable. Fife injuring himself as a replacement? That kind of poor timing is hard to imagine. Had young pitchers Allen Webster and/or Rubby De La Rosa remained in the organization rather than shipping off to Boston in the Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford/Josh Beckett trade last summer, things wouldn’t have looked so bad. But again, at the time, they were additional excess pitching capacity.

Starting pitching is a commodity fungible enough to trade and valuable enough to hoard. There is a reason teams try to develop pitchers through the draft and international signings: it’s a resource that can suddenly run out, no matter what the reserve looks like before disaster strikes. It’s why the Cardinals under pitching coach Dave Duncan and the White Sox under his counterpart Don Cooper are renowned for their ability to take marginal pitchers and turn them into contributors. Being able to “fix” a guy who seems to have lost his stuff is something many teams will try every year, but only a few succeed. Kyle Lohse had logged over a thousand innings of 4.82 ERA ball in his career before joining the Cardinals in 2008. Since then his ERA is nearly a full point lower. And from the start of the 2011 season it stands at just 3.08. Lohse came to St. Louis as a reclamation project and left finishing 7th in NL Cy Young voting.

The Dodgers may not have a Kyle Lohse or a wizard masquerading as a pitching coach, but they are the latest team to learn that no matter how many pitchers they start with, it may still not be quite enough.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum: Cy Young Fifth Starters

When the Atlanta Braves were racking up first-place finishes in the National League East they relied on a trio of starting pitchers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. When the Moneyball A’s were in their prime, they followed a similar strategy building a team around a core of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. The San Francisco Giants the past few years? Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner. And of at the back of the rotation, Barry Zito. After the 2011 season Lincecum was one year removed from back-to-back Cy Young awards and Zito had pitched 821.2 innings of 4.55 ERA baseball since joining the Giants five years earlier. It was clear who was the ace and who belonged at the back of the rotation. But is it still?

The Vet

Barry Zito signed a seven-year $126 million deal with the Giants after a 2006 season that was arguably the worst of his career. The lefty, known for his sweeping curveball, put up his third highest ERA, highest WHIP, second highest home run rate, second highest walk rate, and the second lowest strikeout rate of his career. What he did do was stay on the mound, starting an  AL-leading 34 games and tossing 221 innings. Barry Zito, one of the A’s big three, had become an innings eater.

It wasn’t always that way. A first-round pick by the Oakland Athletics in 1999 (ninth overall) Zito began his Major League career with in 2000 finishing tied for sixth in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Kazuhiro Sasaki, Terrence Long, Mark Quinn, Bengie Molina, and Kelly Wunsch while tying Steve Cox, Adam Kennedy, and Mark Redman, each of whom received just one vote. As a fun aside, Lance Berkman also received a single vote for the NL Rookie of the Year that same season, though voters at least picked Rafael Furcal to win. His career has been a bit more noteworthy than Sasaki’s. Zito went on to throw 214.1 innings in his sophomore season, the first of six straight years he would accomplish that feat. A modern horse, Zito started 35 games, again, a feat he would match three more times, including his 2003 campaign.

2003 was the year made for Barry Zito’s memorabilia collection. A shiny 2.75 ERA over just shy of 230 innings, the best WHIP and walk rates of his career, second highest K/9 (although still just 7.1) and a Cy Young award made it a year for his Wikipedia page. Zito would win Game 2 of the 2003 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox but lose the series-deciding Game 5. After 2003, Zito would begin a trend of rising ERAs, hits allowed, and walks, while also striking out fewer batters and giving up more long balls.

While a move to the National League, where pitchers hit (or, more often, simply stand at the plate with a bat in hand) has been known to rejuvenate aging American League starters who make the transition, the bleeding didn’t stop when he crossed the Bay. In his first five years in the Senior Circuit, Zito saw his ERA settle in the mid-fours, his walks average 4.1 per nine innings, and his strikeout rate fall to just 6.4 per nine. Barry Zito had become a hundred-million-dollar bust. No longer an ace, no longer a solid top-of-the-rotation pitcher. In five years he had failed to see a boost in the NL and was treading water while slowly sinking.

The Freak

With the tenth pick of the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft the San Francisco Giants selected a slight right-handed pitcher with a funky delivery named Tim Lincecum. Lincecum had been drafted twice before, first in 2003 by the Cubs in the 48th round and then in 2005 with the Indians in the 42nd round, but stuck with the University of Washington and watched his stock and his ability to command a large signing bonus rise.

Lincecum started eight games after signing across A- and A+ levels in 2006 tossing 31.2 innings of 1.71 ERA with a mere 58 strikeouts or 16.5 Ks per nine innings. The next spring he would be rated #11 overall by Baseball America and would start five games for AAA Fresno, striking out 46 in 31 innings, before getting the call to the Majors. Lincecum would start 24 games for the Giants that year striking out 150 batters in his 146.1 innings. While his walk rate (4.0 BB/9) was a little high, the high strikeout rate offset the damage. And that was just the beginning.

Over the next two years Lincecum would put up seasons many players would like to have just once in their career: 452.1 innings, 526 strikeouts (10.5 K/9) against 152 walks (3.0 BB/9). He would toss six complete games, three of them shutouts, and have a combined ERA of just 2.55. He would win back-to-back Cy Young awards. The sky was the limit. The Freak was unstoppable.

In 2010 and 2011 Lincecum would take a small step back, edging a little closer to the level of the ordinary “ace” rather than the extraordinary. His ERA crossed the barrier of three to 3.08, he averaged 9.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 with 451 strikeouts and 162 walks in 429.1 innings across sixty-six starts. Lincecum also chipped in during the 2010 World Series run with 37 excellent innings including a complete game shutout of the Atlanta Braves and an eight inning, one-run outing against the Texas Rangers.

However, some warning signs were there: over his first four full seasons Lincecum’s strikeout rate fell each year and his walk rate rose in each of the last two years after falling from 2008 to 2009.

2012: Turnabout Is Fair Play

Even given the decline in performance in 2011, Tim Lincecum was still a valuable pitcher heading into the 2012 season. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner were there at the top of the rotation as well and Zito was still around for the back end. Ryan Vogelsong had been contributing admirably since his return to American baseball. And then the season began.

Lincecum had a very un-Lincecum debut allowing five runs in 5.1 innings while Zito tossed a complete-game shutout in hitter-friendly Coors Field. By the end of May Zito’s ERA stood at 3.41 while Lincecum’s was 5.82. The Freak had four starts where he allowed at least five runs in just two months after having just five such starts in each of the previous two years. After back-to-back 3.1 inning starts to begin July, things began to turn around after the All-Star Break. The former Cy Young winner allowed more than four runs just twice and put up a 3.83 ERA over his final fifteen regular season starts. The strikeouts weren’t quite there, just 86 over his final 89.1 innings,  and twelve home runs in just under 90 innings isn’t great, but there was hope that he was figuring out his issues and fixing his problems. For most of the postseason Lincecum came out of the bullpen and allowed just one run in eleven innings of relief. His lone start was a 4.2 inning, four-run outing against the Cardinals in the NLCS and Lincecum returned to the bullpen for the World Series putting up an 8:1 strikeout to walk ratio in 4.2 innings as the Giants defeated the Detroit Tigers.

Zito’s final fifteen starts would see him return largely to the Barry Zito that had been in San Francisco for several years: 85.2 innings of 4.31 ERA. But Zito limited the damage. By allowing more than four runs just once, and getting some help from his offence and bullpen, Zito would win eight of his second-half starts and the Giants would win twelve as they marched towards their second World Series in three years. Under the bright lights of the NLDS stage Zito wilted, lasting just 2.2 innings but he rebounded for the next two rounds tossing 13.1 innings of one-run ball across two starts. In un-Zito-like fashion he struck out 9 while walking just two. After not even making the roster for the Giants previous World Series run, Zito was redeemed in San Francisco.

2013 and Beyond

Whatever magic Zito uses to start the season seems to have continued into 2013 as the crafty left-hander began the new year with two scoreless seven-inning outings before the Milwaukee Brewers roughed him up for nine runs in just 2.2. Of course, he followed that up with another seven scoreless against the San Diego Padres.

Zito is in his last year of his deal with the Giants but the club retains an $18 million option for his services in 2014. Should they decline, Zito is due a $7 million buyout, so the Giants are really looking at a one-year, $11 million deal for a fourth or fifth starter who essential is what he is: dependably average.

2012 raised more questions about Lincecum than it answered. It showed a pitcher who was no longer at the top of his game as a starter but who could still dominate in relief. It showed a guy who had a bad first half and a decent second half. 2013 begins along the same lines: four starts into the season Lincecum has two good outings and two bad. He has two games with at least seven strikeouts and one with seven walks. Lincecum signed a 2 year $40.5 million contract after the 2011 season when the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal. The Giants are probably breathing a sigh of relief on that one.

Which pitcher will perform better in 2013: the low-risk low(er) reward Zito or the high-risk, high reward Lincecum? Who will have a spot on the 2014 team? The answer to both questions may be Barry Zito, who, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of his Cy Young season has become a pitcher who can never live up to his contract but can be counted upon to reach a baseline of performance.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Alfredo Aceves Needs A New Home

As the Red Sox disastrous 2011 season came to an end, Alfredo Aceves was one of the notable successes, besides of course the MVP-caliber performance turned in by Jacoby Ellsbury. Aceves made four starts and fifty-one appearances out of the bullpen with a combined 2.61 ERA in both roles. While his starts were nothing special (14 runs in 21 innings although 8 of those came in one start) his body of work for the season was beyond what the Red Sox could have hoped for. At the time, much was being made about the club “stealing” Aceves away from the Yankees who had released the swingman due to injury concerns before the season started.

By the end of 2012 the goodwill was gone. A 5.36 ERA 8 blown saves and fighting with the manager – even embattled Bobby Valentine – will do that. Aceves rushed to join a brawl in the WBC and then began 2013 with an ERA approaching 9. Aveces was optioned to AAA Pawtucket, but he may not be long for the Red Sox organization. If the Red Sox finally cut ties with the troubled right-hander, through trade or release, where might he find work?

Los Angeles

The Dodgers entered 2013 with one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball. Since Opening day however, that depth has been depleted. Aaron Harang was traded to the Seattle Mariners, Zack Greinke was injured in a brawl with Carlos Quentin, Chad Billingsly succumed to Tommy John surgery, Chris Capuano hurt his leg while running from the bullpen during the Greinke-Quentin melee and then aggravated the injury during his start, Stephen Fife was called up from AAA and lasted just 4.2 innings before going on the DL himself. It’s a good thing the Dodgers started with so much depth. Management is committed to winning, willing to spend (though Aceves is relatively inexpensive at about $2 million this season) and has a good working relationship with the Red Sox. Don’t expect another Allen Webster in return, but a transfer to warmer climates might help all parties.

Houston Has a Pitching Problem

No team entered the season with lower expectations than the Houston Astros. Through Sunday, Astros pitchers – starters and relievers – have combined for a 5.51 ERA. Aceves could help out of the ‘pen, spot start if needed, and generally be out of the spotlight.

Canada

The Blue Jays have not gotten off to the type of start that many expected. A rebuilt starting rotation has Mark Buehrle (6.35 ERA), Josh Johnson (6.86), and R.A. Dickey (4.50 ERA) joining Brandon Morrow (5.27 ERA) and not retiring as many batters as expected. J.A. Happ (3.86 ERA), brought in to compete for the fifth starter spot has been the only bright spot.

It’s only the end of April, but almost every team can use extra pitching depth. With his history of starting and relieving, Alfredo Aceves has the skills to contribute to many organizations. Including the Red Sox, if he can put himself back together.