Analytical Essay Piazza Piece

Tennessee's preeminent poet and arguably the South's most influential literary critic and teacher, John Crowe Ransom was born in Pulaski and educated at Vanderbilt, where he later taught English and became the leading member of the Fugitives, whose magazine contained many of Ransom's finest poems. Ransom's students included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and such distinguished Tennessee authors as Donald Davidson, Andrew Lytle, Cleanth Brooks, Peter Taylor, and Randall Jarrell. Emphasizing close consideration of language in literature, Ransom's analytical method of reading poetry would precipitate a movement in literary theory called the New Criticism, which culminated in Understanding Poetry (1937), an anthology prepared by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren which revolutionized the teaching of college English in this country.

Ransom's skills as poet and critic were balanced by an interest in philosophy and theology, reflecting the influence of his father, a Methodist minister who preached in several Middle Tennessee towns before moving to Nashville, where Ransom entered Vanderbilt at the age of fifteen and graduated first in his class in 1909. After studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, Ransom accepted a position at Vanderbilt in 1914, where he taught until 1937, when he joined the English department at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. There he founded and edited for twenty years the Kenyon Review, an enormously influential quarterly which promoted the New Criticism, published works by many southern authors including Andrew Lytle and Flannery O'Connor, and attracted writers as diverse as Bertrand Russell, W. H. Auden, and Bertolt Brecht. Ransom died and was buried at Gambier in 1974.

Ransom's early poetry, collected in Poems About God (1919), evokes experiences and places from his Tennessee childhood and introduces many of the themes to be developed in later poems and essays: the division between past and present, nature and man, and the search for wholeness and place in an increasingly fractured and uprooted world. These concerns were shared by T. S. Eliot; however, Ransom, like Robert Frost, preferred to use provincial settings and more traditional verse forms. Most of Ransom's best poems were written during the publication of The Fugitive (1922-25) and were collected in three volumes: Chills and Fever (1924), Grace After Meat (1924), and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927).

In the late 1920s Ransom turned from poetry to social criticism. Attacking industrial capitalism and a pervading belief in the perfectibility of man, he contributed "Introduction: A Statement of Principles" and the initial essay, "Reconstructed but Unregenerate," to the Agrarian symposium I'll Take My Stand (1930). His first book of prose, God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy (1930), defends religious ritual, not doctrine, and anticipates many of the views expressed in The World's Body (1938), where Ransom argues that science studies nature in order to control it while poetry, even more than religion, can best represent the mysterious complexity of nature (the world's body). In The New Criticism (1941), which gave the movement its name, Ransom calls for a critic who can demonstrate the ways in which poetry presents the concrete body of the world through language and structure.

Ransom's literary theories mirror his poetic practice: "metaphysical" lyrics achieve a precarious balance between intellect and emotion, irony and love. The style is restrained, the subject matter often violent and shockingly varied: dead chickens, "transmogrifying" bees, and disembodied heads. In "Piazza Piece" the grim reaper is a dirty old man in a dustcoat lurking in the vines beneath a lady's verandah. In "Amphibious Crocodile" a dislocated southerner longs for green slime and suffers lewd nostalgic tremors. In mock ballads with Mother Goose rhythms, the young are deprived of their innocence and sometimes their lives while a childlike old man violently retains his innocence but loses everything else. "Captain Carpenter," like other defeated Southern men, is told he shall "bear no more arms," but fights on to lose ears, eyes, even "the red red vitals of his heart." Whether confronting the frailty of innocence or the greater vexation of mortality, the more Ransom's reserved narrators try to remain unemotional and uninvolved, the more they reveal how much they really care.

Many of his finest lyrics are iconoclastic pastoral elegies like "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," "Janet Waking," and "Winter Remembered," in which Latinate diction, reflecting Ransom's education in classical languages, and allusions to the rituals of an older, more formal southern culture are countered by colloquial diction, a skeptical modern awareness of the "forgetful kingdom of death," and the poignant "cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart."

Described by Allen Tate as one of the "best elegiac poets in the language" and by Randall Jarrell as a poet whom "generations of the future will be reading page by page with Wyatt, Campion, Marvell, and Mother Goose," John Crowe Ransom received the Bollingen Award in Poetry in 1951 and the National Book Award for poetry in 1963.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » February 24, 2011

It took four tries, but Mike Piazza looks like a likely candidate for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame when voting results are announced on Wednesday. According to Ryan Thibodaux’s BBWAA ballot tracker, Piazza has been named on 86.5 percent of public ballots this voting season, with an estimated 34.7 percent of precincts writers reporting. Last year Piazza was named on 75.1 percent of public ballots but only 62.1 percent of private ballots, so we should expect his combined total to come in well under that 86.5 percent figure. But even if that split persists, Piazza — perhaps aided by this year’s more selective voter pool — should clear the 75 percent threshold and join Ken Griffey Jr. in the Cooperstown class of 2016.

Piazza’s bat makes his best case for enshrinement. The slugger, who played primarily for the Mets and Dodgers during his 16-year major league career, retired after the 2007 season with a career .308/.377/.545 slash line and 427 home runs, including a record 396 hit as a catcher. Even after adjusting for MLB’s high-offense environment during his years behind the plate (1992–2006), Piazza is the best hitter ever to play the position. Among catchers with at least 2,000 career plate appearances, only Buster Posey has hit better than Piazza on a per-plate-appearance basis, and the 28-year-old Posey hasn’t yet had his decline phase. Piazza’s career offensive value dwarfs any other catcher’s: His batting-runs total tops the second-ranked catcher’s by 35 percent, and the gap between him and the next-best backstop is greater than the gap between No. 2 and No. 15.

But Piazza was more than just his majestichomeruns, and any accounting that dismisses his defense underrates his overall value.

Since his retirement, Piazza’s reputation has suffered from unproven insinuations about steroid use, but it was also dinged during his playing days by his obvious shortcomings in controlling the running game. Piazza, who barely caught in college and had to learn the position almost from scratch after the Dodgers selected him in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, threw out only 23 percent of attempted base-stealers, compared to the league average of 31 percent over the same span. His weak arm overshadowed everything else he did on defense. As New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz wrote upon Piazza’s retirement, “Piazza was consistently criticized for his defense throughout his career.” Piazza put it less politely in his 2013 autobiography, “Long Shot,” where he wrote that critics implied he was an “imposter behind the plate” and claimed that he was “clinging to the catcher position” toward the end of his career in order to set offensive records at a position where elite hitting is rare.

Pitchers who worked with Piazza had much nicer things to say. “He did a lot of things well behind the plate,” Tom Glavine told NJ Advanced Media in 2014. Glavine added:

Yeah, he wasn’t the greatest thrower. That unfortunately translated into people thinking that some of [his] other game wasn’t as good as it was. He called a good game. He received the ball fine. He blocked balls fine. But so often catchers are defined defensively on how well they throw and there’s much more that goes into just being a good defensive catcher than being able to throw.

In the years since Piazza retired, our understanding of catcher value has evolved. We know now that a strong throwing arm isn’t as vital as it was once believed to be. And we also have a better handle on how to quantify catchers’ other contributions, which allows us to put Glavine’s contention to the test.

In a 2006 study, Baseball-Reference founder Sean Forman found that Piazza was a whiz at preventing passed balls and wild pitches. And in an essay for the “Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009” (which is now available online), Craig Wright — who pushed for playing time for a young Piazza during his time as a statistical analyst for the Dodgers — showed that with Piazza behind the plate pitchers allowed an OPS 25 points lower, and an unintentional walk rate 10 percent lower, than they did while throwing to different catchers in the same seasons. Subsequent work by Baseball Prospectus analyst Max Marchi in 2012 and Baseball Info Solutions founder John Dewan in 2013 also supported the idea that Piazza’s presence improved his pitchers’ results, as Piazza was pleased to point out in his book. The more sophisticated our statistical tools become, the better Piazza appears, and the more accurate Glavine’s statement seems.

Next week, Baseball Prospectus will release its latest catcher defense ratings, derived from a mixed model that apportions credit for certain outcomes — called strikes, passed balls, stolen bases — to all the participants in a play, controlling for factors like count and batter/pitcher handedness. These stats will allow previously off-limits assessments to be mined from pre-PITCHf/x eras. BP’s new arm ratings, for example, go back to 1950, while estimated blocking and framing ratings, based on ball and called-strike rates, extend to the dawn of pitch-by-pitch record-keeping in 1988 — well before the advent of PITCHf/x data made the first wave of pitch-framing estimates possible. Piazza’s revamped ratings paint him as a net-positive fielder, despite his poor throwing and middling ability to field batted balls.

PLAY TYPERUNS
Throwing-42.0
Ball-in-play-4.9
Blocking+11.0
Framing+99.2
Total63.8

Cumulatively, Piazza is by far the least-valuable throwing catcher since 1950, trailing the second-worst, Todd Hundley, by more than 16 runs. (Coincidentally, Hundley is the catcher Piazza displaced when he was traded to the Mets.) Per opportunity, Piazza ranks in the fifth percentile as a thrower among regular catchers. But he also places in the 74th percentile as a pitch-framer, and the 89th percentile as a pitch-blocker. His arm was just as bad as the naysayers believed, but that weakness wasn’t crippling, and he more than made up for it by blocking balls in the dirt and eking out extra strikes. All of that context is lost to Wins Above Replacement models that aren’t built to account for Piazza’s receiving, and future frameworks that quantify game-calling might put an even more positive spin on his prowess behind the plate.1

There’s no BBWAA bylaw that says a strong Hall of Fame candidate has to have been great at every aspect of the game. Even if Piazza had been a below-average defensive catcher, he’d be a deserving Hall of Famer on the strength of his offense alone. But Piazza was a more complete player than contemporary writers realized, which makes his 62nd-round-to-riches story all the more remarkable. Although Griffey will get louder accolades during induction week, in part because he’s steered clear of PED suspicion, Piazza’s credentials according to the most modern statistical vocabulary put him in a similar place in the Cooperstown pantheon.

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