Monday, February 19, 2018

Did You Watch ‘Black Panther’ This Weekend? Let’s Talk Spoilers

February 18, 2018 by  
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Now that the director Ryan Coogler and the production designer Hannah Beachler have put an afrofuturist paradise on Marvel’s chessboard, the question is what will the company do with it? Will it become, as some on social media have suggested, the black Star Wars, with spinoff movies and TV shows that further explore the movie’s mythology and cast of characters?

The #BlackExcellence of it all

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Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) go undercover in Busan, South Korea in “Black Panther.”

Credit
Matt Kennedy/Marvel and Disney

Let’s state the obvious: this movie is very black, possessing a broad-spectrum, Pan-African blackness. There are many small moments that spoke directly to the African-American audience (did your theater erupt when Shuri re-enacted the “What are those?!” meme? Or when she and T’Challa shared that secret handshake?) and still others, like T’Challa’s sandals and the dancing at Warrior Falls, that felt recognizably African. But perhaps the bigger achievement of the movie is just how natural this all felt. It’s an argument for the difference a black director and crew can make on a blockbuster. What small moments or cultural references stood out to you?

Everybody loves Shuri

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Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s tech-obsessed sister Shuri in “Black Panther.”

Credit
Matt Kennedy/Marvel and Disney

T’Challa’s little sister Shuri — an irreverent tech prodigy who’s part Q from the James Bond movies and part Penny from “Inspector Gadget” — arguably steals the movie. It should be a star-making performance for Letitia Wright (she previously appeared in the most recent season of “Black Mirror” in the episode “Black Museum”). In the comics, Shuri eventually succeeds T’Challa as Black Panther. Might she get her own spinoff movie? Or a teen-oriented cartoon show? At the very least, expect her to play a prominent role in the inevitable sequel.

The Dora Milaje and Wakanda’s women

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Danai Gurira as General Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje, in “Black Panther.”

Credit
Marvel Studios/Disney, via Associated Press

It’s not just the portrayal of the African diaspora in “Black Panther” that pushes boundaries, it’s that of the women. This is the rare superhero movie that doesn’t treat the female characters like ornaments or seasoning and even passes the Bechdel test.

What did you make of Okoye (Danai Gurira of “The Walking Dead”) and her all-female fighting squad? Okoye’s wig-throwing and car-surfing-in-a-red-dress scenes in South Korea were among the film’s most indelible. But was her romance with W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) believable? Was it necessary?

Hello Winston Duke!

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Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of the mountain-dwelling Jabari tribe, in “Black Panther.”

Credit
Marvel/Disney

M’Baku, the chief of the renegade mountain tribe, starts out as a third-tier villain in the movie but ends up being unexpectedly heroic and pivotal to the plot. If not for him, T’Challa would have been belly up in a river somewhere while Killmonger waged World War III from the Wakandan throne.

The 31-year-old actor who plays M’Baku, the Tobagonian-born, American-raised Winston Duke, is a relative unknown (he’s had supporting roles on the TV shows “Person of Interest” and “Modern Family”) but infuses the role with gravitas, wry charm and incendiary wit. If there’s any justice in the world, he’ll be starring in a romcom next year.

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Killmonger’s motivation

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Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman in “Black Panther.”

Credit
Matt Kennedy/Marvel and Disney

A character that several critics have called the most compelling Marvel villain to date, Erik Killmonger is a unique and thoroughly American revolutionary. His bloodthirsty vision (of sweet revenge for centuries of oppression visited upon African-descended peoples around the world) is provocative because, viewed from the right angle, it offers a convincing approximation of justice.

Was his primary critique of Wakanda — that it has selfishly shirked its responsibilities to other African nations and the diaspora — ultimately correct? Or was T’Challa right that isolation to the point of invisibility was the only way to ensure that Wakanda never met the fate of its subjugated sister nations? Killmonger’s final line: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, because they knew death was better than bondage” is among the film’s most trenchant, and one of the hardest to believe actually exists in a Marvel movie.

The white characters

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Martin Freeman plays a sidekick who is the butt of many jokes in “Black Panther.”

Credit
Marvel/Disney

In a film almost entirely populated by black faces, the two main white characters — one a marauding thief (Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue), the other an intermittently useful ally (Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett Ross) — are a study in contrasts. Ross, the butt of several jokes in the movie (Shuri taunts him as a “colonizer”), exists as a kind of corrective to the “white savior” characters that are standard in earlier Western films about Africans. What did you think of the character and how did your theater react to the jokes at his expense?

Post-credit politics

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Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, in “Black Panther.”

Credit
Marvel/Disney

To the politically minded, the Wakanda of “Black Panther” offers an almost too perfect rebuttal to President Trump’s comments in January in which he referred to African nations with a disparaging expletive. (Of course, the film was completed well before those comments were made.)

In the first of two post-credit sequences, T’Challa addresses the United Nations with a speech that includes this line: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” Is that a pointed reference to the proposed border wall? Or just an apropos aphorism for Wakanda’s climactic embrace of internationalist foreign policy?

Let us hear your Wakandan war cries about all the things we called out above (and anything we did not) in the comments section.

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Eric Hosmer striking it rich in San Diego is crazy enough to work

February 18, 2018 by  
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While most of America was either tucked away in bed or deep into Saturday night revelries, the tortoise pace of baseball’s lingering offseason quickened. The most divisive member of this year’s class of free agents finally found a home: Eric Hosmer is a member of the San Diego Padres.

According to reports, Hosmer’s deal runs for eight years with a total value of $144 million. Meanwhile, MLB.com reported that there is an opt-out clause after the fifth year, and Bleacher Report reported that the deal is front-loaded: The first five years are at $20 million per season (with a $5 million signing bonus); the last three are at $13 million annually.

The back end of that contract — the three years and $39 million — is a fascinating way to structure a deal that overall, frankly, isn’t going to register as “smart” by most analytically charged readings. But we’ll get to that.

The practice of front-loading deals is one that might become a trend, given the typical shape of free-agent deals — albeit without the opt-out. The opt-out protects the player in case of serious injury or a rapid decline in performance. It doesn’t do as much for the team. This structure does limit the back-end downside for the Padres, in theory, because of the lower salaries. The hope is that the surplus value created by the first five years of the deal will cover the club for the last three, less-costly campaigns. But it all comes down to properly valuing those first few seasons.

It’s a risk: If the next phase of Hosmer’s career is better than his first, then he’ll surely opt out when he can in five years. By then, the Padres will have already have paid out $105 million of the $144 million in potential value. If Hosmer ages in that way, which is unusual, the surplus value the Padres would have gotten at the end of the contract would be moot. But that’s not the way things tend to work out with these big free-agent deals, which is what makes this contract structure so interesting.

At first blush, this deal is tough to justify by metrics — but not impossible. According to FanGraphs.com, Hosmer has accumulated 9.9 WAR during his seven big league seasons, 4.1 of which came last season. In easily his best overall campaign, Hosmer overcame a slow start to hit .318/.385/.498 with a career-high 25 homers, 94 RBIs and 98 runs.

It’s important to understand the rough math to see why this contract is likely to be hotly debated in analytical circles, just as Hosmer’s free agency has been a hot-button issue for the past year. Hosmer is projected for around 2.8 WAR this season in most systems, with his forecast being the product of a reasonable degree of regression coming off a career season. If Hosmer plays out this contract to its completion, that would take him through his age-35 season.

Let’s give Hosmer three years at 2.8 WAR apiece, taking him through his age-30 season and his likely peak seasons. Then let’s take off a half-win for the remaining years of the deal, which is a standard rule of thumb when it comes to the aging curve — though Hosmer isn’t necessarily a standard anything, and players age in different ways. Anyway, that gives him these WAR totals for Years 4 through 8: 2.3, 1.8, 1.3, 0.8, 0.3. The total WAR he’d compile during the deal in this case would be 14.9. For the Padres to break even on this investment, the average cost of a win during the course of the contract would need to be around $9.7 million.

With that figure in mind, perhaps the best way to justify the terms of the deal is reflected in the work of Matt Swartz, writing for FanGraphs. The key point is that with revenues and payrolls rising across baseball, the cost of a win in the free-agent market has been on the rise. That trend may or may not be blunted or even reversed by this year’s slow market, but that remains to be seen.

If Swartz’s estimates prove to be close, then we can estimate that the above WAR forecast for Hosmer could yield up to something like $180 million of value, not only justifying the outlay but actually giving San Diego a nice buffer if market values stagnate. That said, Hosmer’s performance was below replacement in 2016, and there is literally no value created by that kind of performance. Plus, he’s joining a new team in a new park that is the toughest power-hitting venue for a lefty hitter in the National League.

We don’t always know how a player will translate to a new context, and if Hosmer turns out to be more 2016 than 2017 early in the contract, the deal will be an albatross. It could also be a problem if the costs of a win stagnate or decline. In any event, despite what many are likely to conclude about this contract, it is far from certain how this deal will look in hindsight. It really depends on how San Diego projected Hosmer internally, if that projection is close to right, and how close their estimated costs of a win are to reality. In other words, there is plenty of room for interpretation on a deal of this length, for those dollars and for that player.

Something else to keep in mind about Hosmer is this: His WAR totals have possibly been deflated by a consistently average-to-worse defensive showing in the metrics. However, last season’s Gold Glove was his fourth. This is as Jeter-esque a divide between measured defensive value and perceived performance as you’ll find. Indeed, if you watch Hosmer play first base for any length of time, then go to the numbers, it’s hard to make sense of it. Teams don’t use the measurements we’re quoting here. They have their own systems, and if Hosmer’s glove carries more value than systems such as defensive runs saved seem to think, that changes his outlook considerably.

Also working in his favor is his athleticism — few first basemen in recent memory have been better on the basepaths than Hosmer. Generally speaking, the more athletic a player is, the better he ages. Finally, there is real reason to believe that Hosmer has untapped potential at the plate. His bloated ground ball rates have been the subject of a lot of hand-wringing, but the fact of the matter is that few players hit the ball as hard consistently as Hosmer. Given the right adjustments, it’s entirely possible that last year’s breakout was evidence of a powder keg about to go off.

Hosmer was one of the youngest free agents on the market, and the fact that he’s entering his age-28 season explains the length of the deal his agent, Scott Boras, was able to extract even from this locked-up market. And for all of this technical picking apart of the contract’s terms, those terms are tough to judge based on cold metrics analysis.

There could also be a considerable opportunity cost from the team’s perspective. This is money that the Padres might have been able to spend on a player with a more stable performance record — but the “might” qualifier in that statement is important. Hosmer was willing to come. There is no guarantee another marquee player would have. You could also state that the uncertainty expressed here is the very reason the Padres shouldn’t have taken the plunge. It would be a reasonable response.

Nevertheless, why San Diego?

For one, the Padres are a team on the move. Or at least it will be — just not in 2018. After plugging Hosmer into San Diego’s depth chart and moving incumbent first baseman Wil Myers to left field, the Padres’ 2018 win forecast jumps by a whopping 1.5 wins — all the way to 71.2. (This is a baseline number, before being run through a schedule simulator.) This signing isn’t so much about what Hosmer brings to the Padres this season, but the foundation he’ll provide for the seasons to come.

From the day he arrived in the big leagues, Hosmer was the heart of the Royals’ clubhouse, and that remained the case through Kansas City’s gradual rise to a World Series title in 2015. He set the tone in terms of playing smartly and aggressively, always willing to adjust his approach to the situation, a trait that marked those Royals teams. And he was there all through the rise of a team from bottom-feeder to champion. Still young, he can now be that person for another franchise, one still seeking its first World Series crown.

Are intangibles worth at least $105 million, or possibly $144 million? Of course not. But there are plenty of reasons to believe — call it hope — that this deal will work out for the Padres, as the likes of Luis Urias and Fernando Tatis Jr. and Cal Quantrill and MacKenzie Gore make their way to Petco Park over the next few years. They will join a clubhouse in which Hosmer sets the tone, and as a former champion, he’ll command the respect that such veterans always do in big league clubhouses. Maybe you don’t value that; the Royals clearly did, and the Padres clearly do.

As for the metrics, just remember this: The Padres, led by general manager A.J. Preller, believe in analytics. They aren’t ignorant of the various valuations floating about. In fact, just last month, San Diego hired FanGraphs writer Dave Cameron to work in its front office. If Cameron couldn’t talk Preller out of signing Hosmer, couldn’t it just be that teams work with better information than the rest of us have?

That last question might not be the right one. Sure, teams have better data. But teams also make mistakes in the free-agent market, and the Padres haven’t played in free agency at this level, well, ever. This is the largest contract in Padres history.

For several weeks now, Hosmer’s market has appeared to be just two teams: The Royals, who gained another high draft pick for their rebuild with Hosmer’s departure, and the Padres. Maybe this shouldn’t be that surprising. The market for first basemen just wasn’t robust this winter. Besides, the very things that make Hosmer so well thought of in the industry are perhaps more valuable to teams like the Royals and Padres than they would be to a more established, star-laden team.

In other words, the Padres and Hosmer are a better match than they appear to be at first glance. In a few years, we might well look at this late Saturday night splash as the moment San Diego began to turn the corner. Or, if the metrics hounds prove prescient, it might be the night the San Diego rebuild hit the skids before it really ever got started. The outcome may depend on soft factors we analysts tend to despise.

Either way, this is the most interest the national baseball media has taken in the Padres in years. Doesn’t that, in itself, speak volumes?