Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A world without Ernie Harwell is a worse world... we should probably start steeling ourselves for it. In the meantime, here's yet more evidence, if in puff piece form, of how awesome Ernie really is.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Colts suck

Apologies for another football post, but...

I'm sick and tired of the idea that somehow winning the Super Bowl is so important that a team would risk an undefeated season for the smallest hint of an improvement in their chances of winning one. Have these people gone totally crazy?

Why play sports? Why compete? If you're any kind of athlete it's for one reason: because you love the competition itself. It's the striving to be the best, the greatest, the undisputed champions that makes the competition great. No one plays a sport with the opportunity to become an alright player. No one plays a sport to go 9-7 or 84-78. What Olympic sprinter dreams of setting the second fastest time in the history of the world?

No athlete does this. Not one. Not even the scrub wide receiver on a Class D high school football team who only got to play because the team was too small to cut anyone (trust me).

So why, why, why do professional football teams insist that winning a single season championship is worth more than being able to say that you accomplished THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN THE HISTORY OF YOUR SPORT?!?!?!??! It's absolute madness.

I just cannot get over this. A Super Bowl title is given out, well, every single year. Yeah, it's great. Yes, you strive to win one. Yes, it's every team's ultimate goal, but only because going undefeated and winning it all is so damn hard that teams don't even consider it realistic enough to make it a goal in the first place! It's like saying, "Man, my goal was to save up my money and buy a Cadillac, so I guess I'll turn down this chance to own the freaking Batmobile." Why blow it when you have the chance?

And to blow it for almost nothing! The advantage you get by resting your best players, if it even exists, is nearly infinitesimal. Yes, they might have gotten hurt, but the odds of that happening are stunningly long. And if they did, where's the shame in getting up to the podium and saying, "You know what? We had a shot at immortality, at accomplishing the ultimate feat in our sport, at being the best there ever was, and we took it. It didn't work out. But we played our best every minute of every game this year and we can walk away from this knowing that we didn't leave anything on the table."

If there is such a thing as football justice, the Colts will lose in the first round. We have simply got to start the meme that resting your players and punting on undefeated seasons hurts your football karma, because if we ever needed a good bout of irrationality, getting professional teams to actually try to reach the true pinnacle of their sport would be a good place to start.

This is a shitty, shitty day for sports fans. The Colts ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Baseball apathy

So I found myself in a very weird place a month and a half ago: I suddenly found myself not that interested in baseball. I haven't been to this place in over a decade. In fact, I haven't been there since I started caring about sports in general, sometime in middle school.

But more strange and more troubling than just my general nonchalance vis-à-vis baseball was the fact that the event that triggered this creeping malaise was my favorite team winning the World Series.

This is not how it's supposed to be. Apathy is not the reaction sought for by one who invests so much emotionally in something as unimportant as baseball. Indeed, the realization that I was not super excited about his development disconcerted me greatly. What the hell is wrong with me? I've been asking myself that question for weeks now.

It's not as though I don't care greatly about the success of the New York Yankees. If you've read this blog, or watched a Yankee game with me, or needled me about the Red Sox, you know this isn't true. Indeed, I even had an email conversation with a friend in the last year in which I admitted that the first three things that came to mind as things for which I would trade time off my life were all Yankee-related events (specifically: winning the 2001 World Series, winning the 2004 ALCS, and getting Mike Mussina his 27th out).

Furthermore, there were times during this postseason when I was literally sick to my stomach because of the tension. I enjoyed the whole postseason thoroughly. Why didn't I get the emotional payoff I expected?

The first thing that occurred to me was that my predominant immediate reaction to the Yankee win was relief. Relief that we didn't blow the Series; relief that we had vindicated our position as the best team in baseball; relief that A-Rod and CC had put those inane monkeys on their backs to rest. I think that this relief was in part due to the nature of the final game (it wasn't close) and in part due to the nature of the Yankees' season as a whole (again, it wasn't close). By the time it was over, it was so blatantly obvious that the Yankees were the best team in baseball that winning the World Series was almost the thing that they had to do so that they wouldn't embarrass themselves. Actually winning was practically anticlimactic, especially given the nature of the final game.

Then there was the timing of the Yankee World Series "drought:" it lasted exactly as long as Mike Mussina's tenure as a New York Yankee. No more. No less. This was and is absolutely maddening to me, because even though I know it's just random, it still seems so cosmically unfair. This ground on me for days after the World Series win.

The Yankee victory also meant the end of baseball for 2009. That's a depressing thought, even if the Yankees went out the best way possible. It also meant that I would now have to hear about how my team "bought" a World Series and (worse) that I would have to admit to myself that the accusation was essentially true.

I've spent so much time preaching about how there's no moral component to baseball, no higher power at work directing the fates of the players, no overarching story waiting to be told, no reason why our guys "deserved" to win or had more "heart" or "wanted it more" that when my guys actually win I can't self-assuredly pat myself on the back about how awesome I am for rooting for "the good guys."

None of which is to say that I wasn't happy when they won. I was. Nor is it to say that I haven't experienced the delirium of winning a World Championship recently: I was ecstatic for weeks when the Giants beat the Patriots.

So why? Why did I react the way I did to the 2009 New York Yankees' World Championship? Why did I sit on the edge of my seat all throughout October if not for this? Why did I follow the Yankees day in and day out all year if not for this? What the hell was I expecting to happen?

I don't know. I don't think I'm ever gonna know. And that's the trouble. I've spent weeks dwelling on this and I don't have an answer.

And so that's how I found myself in this place of not caring about baseball. Indeed, I've almost dreaded baseball news because it reminds me of the weird place I'm in.

I have thoughts on the Yankees offseason, but I'm gonna save them for another time, a time, hopefully, when I will actually care.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Joe Mauer

Hey, at least 27 of 28 MVP voters made the right decision.

Tex finishing ahead of Derek Jeter is disappointing. Is Derek Jeter the most underrated overrated player ever? I think the answer has to be "yes," if you can parse what that even means.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A surprising find

Bill Simmons, of all people, makes the best argument that I've seen against Bill Belichick's fourth down decision:
Given these realities, if you're feeding me "Here's what happened in this situation historically" numbers, shouldn't we be looking at the data for two-point conversions?

After all, this was essentially a two-point pass play. The Patriots went five wide, stuck Tom Brady in the shotgun, shortened the field and tried to find a quick-hit mismatch. Sure sounds like a two-point play. So what's the recent history of teams passing for a two-point conversion on the road? Peter Newmann from ESPN Research crunched those numbers for me.

2009: 9-for-28, .321 (overall); 3-for-10, .300 (road).
2008: 23-for-52, .442 (overall); 13-for-32, .406 (road).
2007: 14-for-38, .368 (overall); 6-for-23, .261 (road).
That's a great way to look at it. I wish I'd thought of it, although I would much rather see the numbers for all two point conversions on the road, not just passing attempts on two point conversions. Bill's rationale for using passing attempts only is decent (the Pats didn't have a running back in the back field), but it's still relevant because the Colts have to make decisions about personnel before they see how the Pats line up. It's a minor gripe though.

I will also note that the two are not strictly identical, since the Pats can theoretically score a touchdown on the fourth down conversion attempt but not on the two point conversion attempt, but the difference in win probability between converting the fourth down and scoring a touchdown is not large. In any case, the two point conversion a good proxy and the numbers are pretty bad. That's a good data point against my argument.

I'd be remiss though if I didn't chastise Bill for this:
But Indy had already started and completed two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter against a good defense. Had the Patriots punted, Indy would have had to pull off a third long touchdown drive to win the game. I asked Peter Newmann to research the number of times a team started and completed three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to erase a double-digit deficit and win an NFL game since 2005. Here's how the list looked before that fourth-and-2 call.
The list, naturally, looks really, really bad. Of course, Bill is overlooking a pretty obvious flaw in his analysis: the question should not be:

"How often do teams pull off three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to erase a double-digit deficit and win an NFL game?"

The question should be:

"How often do teams pull off three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to erase a double-digit deficit and win an NFL game given that they have already pulled off two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter?"

I'm not gonna argue that drives in the NFL are IID, but there's no way that it's not relevant information that the Colts had already accomplished two thirds of Bill's criteria when the time came to make a decision. This is basically the argument that the odds of a coin coming up heads after it has come up heads twice in a row are only one in eight because the odds of a coin coming heads three times in a row are one in eight. No, the odds of a coin coming up heads three times in a row are only one in eight if we have no other information. If we know it's already come up heads twice in a row, then the odds are one in two. This is basic stuff.

Furthermore, given that pulling off two touchdown drives under the circumstances is (probably) rare, you probably aren't drawing on a huge sample once you pare it down correctly. Hell, you can even make the argument that the fact that the Colts had already done it twice is evidence that they are not more likely to do it a third time, not less.

In any case, the two point conversion proxy analysis is a great idea. I still stand by my original conclusion that Belichick made the right decision, but I am now less confident that I am correct.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Sorry, all you non-VORPies out there, the nerds just won:
“I thought that could push him over the top, because his won-loss record was way better than mine,” Greinke said. “But I’m also a follower, since Brian Bannister’s on our team, of sabermetric stuff and going into details of stats about what you can control.”
And later on:
“That’s pretty much how I pitch, to try to keep my FIP as low as possible,” Greinke said.
Yeah, that's Zack Greinke, AL Cy Young award winner. And, yeah, that's FIP: Fielding Independent Pitching, a geek stat that estimates a pitchers ERA independent from his fielder's ability.

Players are starting to adopt this stuff. They're starting to learn from it and use it to make them better players. How long until mainstream sports analysts catch up?

(Hat tip: Rob Neyer).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A quick football post

If you didn't watch Indianapolis rally in the final four minutes to beat New England tonight, you missed a fantastic game. More importantly, you missed an amazing decision by Bill Belichick. Here's the setup:

The Patriots had a 13 point lead with just over four minutes to play. Peyton Manning, unfazed, marched the Colts down the field for a touchdown in less than two minutes without using any of Indy's three remaining time outs. With the two minute warning also remaining, Indy decided to kick it deep to New England and trust their defense to get a stop. New England could not convert a third and two from their own 28, and so were facing a fourth and two with just over two minutes remaining, deep in their own territory.

Belichick decided to go for it.

I loved this call. Absolutely loved it. Let's look at the possible outcomes. If you punt, you give Peyton Manning the ball with what amounts to an eternity for him: over two minutes with two clock stoppages (the two minute warning and one timeout). Yeah, you're probably still likely to win, but he's Peyton Manning. Furthermore, there's some evidence that your defense is worn out. I really think this is a shitty position to be in. Maybe that's just the fan in me, but no one wants to see their team playing Peyton Manning when all he needs is one touchdown drive to seal the game.

If you go for the first down conversion and you make it, the game is basically over. You might need to get one more first down, but if you don't and still have to punt, the two minute warning will be long past and the Colts will have burned their last time out. That is an astronomically harder situation for Manning. Furthermore, you've been having your way with Indy's defense all night. The probability of converting that fourth and two is extremely high.

But most importantly, the cost of not converting is just not that high, in my opinion. You're talking about a forty yard difference compared to punting, but that forty yards is highly likely to be made up by Manning in less than a minute, given the way defense is played in that situation. Furthermore, because you are up by six, even if the Colts get the touchdown, it's impossible for them to end up ahead by more than two points. This means that you could win the game on a field goal.

In other words, the worst case scenario for the Pats was not that Indy would get a touchdown. The worst case scenario is that Indy would get a touchdown with no time left on the clock. This scenario is far more likely if you punt than if you fail to pick up the first down (and of course, getting the first down is the ultimate win).

This call took a lot of balls and I think it was the right one. I just don't think that the forty yards you'd net on the punt matter all that much in that situation. Peyton Manning is just so highly likely to make those yards up and still have plenty of time to win it that the price of failure is easily offset by the reward of success.

It didn't work, of course. Indeed, New England then made what I think it was their truly critical mistake (other than wasting their timeouts earlier in the half): they let Indy run time of the clock by tackling Joseph Addai inside the five yard line with about a minute to go. At that point, your best chance to win is to let Addai score and play for the field goal. You just are not that likely to deny Peyton Manning and the Colts with four cracks at the winning touchdown inside the five. Far better to let Tom Brady have a chance to get into field goal position at that point.

Anyway, I wish Belichick's gambit had succeeded because it would make other coaches less reticent to try the same thing. I firmly believe that NFL coaches treat fourth downs too conservatively. Belichick lost this time, but hopefully he's not naive enough to let the result of one play (and the ensuing media backlash) alter his conviction. In the long run, that style of play will pay off.

**EDIT** I should note that the call should have worked. The receiver on the play, Kevin Faulk, bobbled the ball and thus did not receive forward progress beyond the first down marker. Had he not bobbled the ball, he would have gotten the first down. Furthermore, he still may have converted it, but the spot by the officials was not favorable to New England and with no timeouts they were unable to challenge the decision.

**EDIT #2** According to this website, the failure to convert knocked New England from a 77% chance of winning to a 66% chance of winning. If we assume that New England would have won 90% of the time if they had converted, we find that New England needs to convert that play only 50% of the time for it to be the right call. I guarantee that New England is likely to convert that play better than 50% of the time. Almost any NFL team is likely to convert that play better than 50% of the time, and this is one of the best offenses in the league. It was a good call.

**EDIT #3** The website linked above put up this post also defending Belichick's decision.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

World Championship Thoughts

  • Wow. I've got a whole bunch of actual non-Yankee baseball thoughts kicking around in my head, but I think I'll save those for a later date.
  • This is the fifth Yankee championship that I've experienced. The win in 1996 was amazing simply because it was so unexpected. The Yankees really haven't been the underdogs since. In 1998, winning was something that had to happen. You can't win 114 games and not win the World Series. The victory was as much about not screwing up as it was about making the case for being the greatest team in history. In 1999 and 2000, we were building a dynasty. This time I can't really describe how I feel. My perspective on baseball is completely different from nine years ago. The Yankees were the best team in baseball this year, but that's been the case for many of the years we didn't win. Winning here is as much justification of the 103 wins during the regular season as it is anything else. I also feel vindicated personally for seeing my faith in A-Rod (which is to say my faith in talent over superstitious mumbo-jumbo) pay off. I feel great for him.
  • Part of me is also annoyed that we managed to win in 2000 and 2009, but couldn't manage a win in 2001-2008, which happen to correspond to exactly the years Mike Mussina was pitching for us. I know it's just a freak coincidence, completely random, but it's still sad to me that we managed to completely bookend his stay in New York. I'm sure that I'm exactly one of two Yankee fans that feel this way, but I loved me the Moose. Sorry, Mike.
  • Joe Girardi is going to get plenty of accolades for his managing because he won. Some of those will be deserved: going with only three starting pitchers, aggressively using Mariano Rivera, using Damaso Marte over Phil Coke; others will not: benching Nick Swisher, burning through relief pitchers like crazy, overmanaging for small advantages at the expense of the big picture. It's important to remember that all these things were true ex ante. They aren't any more or less true simple because the Yankees won.
  • Fox sucks. It's just amazing how much advertising they can cram into each broadcast. I can't get over how progressively absurd their "Keys to the Game"-type feature kept getting. They had a handful of good moments, but mostly it was all lost in a sea of advertising.
  • You couldn't ask for a better face for your team than Derek Jeter. It was sweet seeing him hoist the trophy again. I can only imagine how sweet it feels to be back on top after all that early success and the subsequent failures. And as usual, he made me happy to be a fan of him and of the New York Yankees. I get tired of the doe-eyed fawning over Jeter that seems to never cease, but I really do love the guy, not because he's clutch or calm or a great leader. Nah, I love him because he's a great player who doesn't seem to have the affectations of one. His personality is such that he makes you think that he's the guy you'd be if you were as awesome as him at baseball. I couldn't even begin to identify with Derek Jeter, but Derek Jeter makes me think that I can. Who knows why that is (I certainly don't), but whatever the reason, I can't not feel anything but awesome every time Derek talks about winning championships for the New York Yankees.
  • I'm tired. I got work tomorrow. I'll be digesting this one for weeks. But for now:


Monday, November 2, 2009

Quick World Series Thoughts

  • A-Rod now holds the New York Yankees' RsBI record for a single postseason. No joke.
  • How can you give Cliff Lee the Player of the Game award for his Game 5 start? He pitched decently, but he only won because his team scored eight runs. I mean, WTF does Chase Utley have to do?
  • Speaking of Chase, at this point there's a decent chance that he could win the World Series MVP award without the Phillies winning the series. The Yanks are in an odd position where no one has really stood out. A-Rod has had big hits, but is still only hitting around .200. Damon's been great offensively, but a liability defensively (not that I expect the voters to care about that part). CC's pitched decently, but would probably need a good to great Game 7 to win it. It's a really funny situation.
  • From The Department Of Things That Mainstream Analysts Will Ignore While Lauding Derek Jeter, I couldn't help but notice that Cap'n Clutch hit into a devastating double play with two on and no one out trailing by three runs in the ninth inning today. It's just baseball, folks. There's nothing special about clutch situations in the postseason.
  • The Phillies forcing a Game 6 is good for baseball. You really can't keep having the World Series decided in five games or less year in and year out.
  • Is this the year that people will realize that home runs and doubles (as opposed to bunts and stolen bases) are what wins baseball games in October? I suspect not.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Further ALCS thoughts

  • What a performance by A-Rod and CC Sabathia so far this postseason. There's not much I can really say. The media will do a fine job of lauding them without my help. But still: damn.
  • Good to finally have a bit of a laugher, though even still this game was tight and exciting until the eighth.
  • The bad umpiring (and man was it bad) continued in Game Four. Fortunately, two of the bad calls (the blown Swisher pick off and the blown Swisher tag up) mostly cancelled each other out, and the stunning what-the-hell-was-that-how-are-they-not-both-out call at third didn't lead to anything, but still... not great. I don't like the idea of using instant replay NFL-style. I don't like the idea of adding challenges to the strategy of the game. No, baseball needs two things: a lighting fast, deadly accurate ball-strike system that can be invisibly relayed to the home plate umpire who will call them as normal, and a dedicated replay umpire with the ability to overturn any call at any time without the field umpires having to stop play. These two measures would be completely invisible as long as the right calls are being made. The game would look and feel the same. Nothing would change, except for the quality of the umpiring.
  • I don't know why the Yankees have Freddy Guzman on the roster. Joe Girardi prefers to use Gardner, even when he's pinch running for the DH, negating Gardner's defensive value. The Yanks clearly don't want Guzman hitting, since they chose Cervelli over him in Game Three. They don't want him playing left field, since they chose to lose the DH rather than play him there. Eric Hinske, on the other hand, would actually have been useful in almost 1,000,001 situations in Game Three. Another baffling management situation from the Yanks.
  • I wonder if the mainstream media will pick up on just how much this postseason has demonstrated the importance of hitting home runs and not giving them up. The ability to strike at any time is so much more important than any of the "small ball" skills even in a close game, but only long ball skills let you put the game well out of reach.
  • I hereby authorize use of the term "Girardiproof" to describe games in which a starting pitcher carries his team for eight or more innings while his offense accumulates a lead of five or more runs. Apologies to anyone who may have already started using this term. What a relief not to see Joe deploying his quick hook over and over and over again tonight.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

ALCS Thoughts

Bullet point style!
  • Man, Game 2 was amazing. It really felt like one of the Yankee playoff games from 1996-2000.
  • I can't decide if Joe Girardi is some kind of mad bullpen genius or a poor bullpen manager. His pattern of plowing through relief pitchers even in the face of extra innings is maddening, but on the other hand, it's also working. It's entirely possible that the way the probabilities break down, the right play is to burn through pitchers in an attempt to keep the game scoreless and accept that you will basically have to forfeit if the game goes too long. I'm not sure that's the case, but if Joe's strategy keeps working, I'll have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  • Tim McCarver's impassioned defense of Derek Jeter from all the people out there proclaiming him "done" last year really rubbed me the wrong way. First, no one claimed he was "done;" no one sane anyway. Second, most of the performance analysts who were saying he was on the decline were at the front of the line to talk about how great he's been this year. Third, many, many people, even in the mainstream media, have talked about how much better his defense has been this year. This implies that it was worse in previous years.
    Therefore, it was fantastically ironic that both Joe and Tim agreed that if you wanted a groundball hit at one guy with two outs in the ninth of seventh game of the World Series, it would have to be Derek Jeter. Not only does this bizarre and idiotic platitude not have anything to do with Jeter's range, but later in the game he booted a groundball hit right at him. I guess one out with a runner on first in the eighth inning of a tie game in the ALCS isn't clutch enough for him.
  • In that same vein, let me be the first to point out that Alex Rodriguez is not clutch, not in any meaningful way. Yes, there is evidence that clutch skill exists, but the effect is very, very tiny. No, Alex is mostly the same player in the postseason that he always has been: one of the greatest of all time. He's more likely to succeed in clutch situations mostly because he's simply so much more likely to succeed in general.
  • I understand why the Angels were so mad about the ruling that Erick Aybar didn't touch second base. The so-called "neighborhood play" is really common. Nonetheless, he didn't even make a hint of an attempt to touch the base, nor did he ever come close to doing so. Furthermore, he did this on purpose in order to not have to deal with the oncoming runner. There has to be a line drawn somewhere, and I think that this play was on the other side of line. You've got to at least pretend to try to touch the base. Yes, I know I'm biased because I'm a Yankees fan.
  • Returning to Joe Girardi's bullpen usage, I do want to give him special props for his usage of Mariano Rivera. Mo pitched efficiently, and Joe used this efficiency to stretch Mo out over 2.2 high leverage innings. Brilliant. Now let's work on doing the same with Phil Hughes.
  • Jerry Hairston actually screwed up when he scored the game winning run. If Chone Figgins had simply picked the ball up cleanly after Aybar threw it away, Hairston would have been dead meat at home plate, turning a bases loaded, one out situation into a second and third, two out situation. That's a critical mistake. Aybar's throw was bad, but Figgins' failure to simply pick the ball up was just as costly, if not more so. The Angel's screwed up twice on that play and Hairston was the benefactor.
  • Bobby Abreu played the right field wall really well in these two games. Where the hell was that last year, Bob?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Misleading journalism

I don't know why, but for some very poor reason, I found myself reading this piece by Wallace Matthews of the New York Post.
There's no need to go through [Alex Rodriguez's] October numbers once again except to say that he did more in the three games of the Division Series against the Twins than he had done in his four previous Yankees postseasons, at least after Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS.
Let's try to forget for a moment that this piece is the predictable response on a good series by A-Rod: a backhanded compliment designed to remind the reader of how much A-Rod sucks and to set up the story line in case A-Rod plays poorly in the future. Baseball writers just can't get enough of the "A-Rod is a choker" story, so they're gonna try to keep it alive at all costs.

But let's try to forget about that for a second. The real highlight of the above quote is the way Matthews deliberately skews the reader's perception of Alex Rodriguez's past postseason performance with the New York Yankees. You see that last dangling clause there" The one that says, "at least after Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS"? That phrase does three things to poison the well against A-Rod:
  1. Conjure up memories of the 2004 ALCS, every Yankee fan's worst nightmare.
  2. Sweep away games before Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS as being irrelevant to the discussion.
  3. Leave the impression that the period before Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS only barely alters the argument.
There's only one problem: Matthew's claim is completely unsupportable if one considers the period he's trying to exclude! The impression that he's deliberately attempting to leave is completely at odds with the facts, and it's not close! A-Rod's performance before Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS was incredible. He hit .421 against the Twins in the ALDS that year with three doubles, a home run, three runs scored, three RsBI, and one very clutch stolen base. In the first three games of the ALCS, Alex accumulated six hits, including a home run and two doubles, scored seven runs, and picked up three RsBI.

So, yeah, if we ignore some minor games where A-Rod got fourteen hits, five doubles, two home runs, ten runs scored, and six RsBI, then his series against the Twins in 2009 obviously dwarfs all his previous accomplishments.

Also, it should be noted that in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Alex hit a two run home run in the third inning while the game was scoreless. You'd have been forgiven for thinking that Alex was a one man postseason wrecking crew at that time. He didn't start playing poorly until Game 5.

Remember: never let facts get in the way of a good story.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Postseason thoughts

  • Don't be distracted by the media throng clamoring to tell you why it's different for A-Rod this time around. The story is not about how he' s more relaxed, more focused, having more fun, doing more of the little things, or feeling less pressure. The story is that anything can happen in a small sample. Given enough time, the real A-Rod was going to show up in the postseason, as he has in the past.
  • Sentences like these: (emphasis mine)
    "With Weaver picking up right where Lackey left off for the Los Angeles Angels, not even Josh Beckett could keep the Boston Red Sox off the brink of playoff elimination."
    "Erick Aybar followed Izturis' RBI single with a two-run triple during the Angels' two-out rally in the seventh to break up a stellar pitching duel between Weaver and Beckett, Boston's ace and most reliable playoff pitcher."
    make me wonder if anyone actually paid attention to the postseason last year, when Beckett was stunningly awful and crushed the Red Sox' chances to win. As with A-Rod, the story with Josh Beckett is that he is very good pitcher when healthy, not that he has some magical postseason powers.
  • I've absolutely had it with Joe Girardi's bullpen management. He has a decent idea of who to pitch in particular situations, but he manages like any relief pitcher that throws more than five pitches must be removed from the game. Seriously, what the hell was he going to do if the Yanks hadn't won in the 11th last night? He had used every relief pitcher except Chad Gaudin! This is not uncommon. Girardi burns through pitchers in a quest to win the most marginal of advantages by matching up against hitters. It's got to stop. At the very least, your relievers must be able to through complete innings, sometimes even against both right and left handed hitters.
  • Baseball has an umpiring problem and it's getting embarassing. The biggest issue is with the erratic strike zone, but it's affecting every area of the game. You have to feel for the Twins, who got robbed of a potential lead in the 11th inning on maybe the worst call I've ever seen. Tigers fans will perhaps see this as poetic justice, but baseball needs to see it for what it is: a big, big problem that needs to be addressed in the offseason.
  • TBS has been a mixed bag for me broadcasting. I like that their HD broadcast has PitchTrax displayed for every pitch. They've gotten some great reaction shots from players. On the other hand, the commentating has been atrocious (and getting worse) and there isn't a single thing to which they won't attach an advertisement. *sigh*

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sportscaster laziness

I think what mostly drives me crazy about sportscasters isn't so much that they do not see the baseball world like I do. There's room for healthy disagreement there. No, I think the thing that drives me crazy is that they are too often lazy in their analysis. Willing to fall back on clichés, they often slip into a sort of absurd autopilot in which certain events automatically trigger certain comments regardless of their correctness.

Here's the example that set this off. During the top of the ninth inning of today's game pitting the Tigers against the White Sox, the Tigers had a double play opportunity with a runner on first and no one out while protecting a two run lead. Mark Kotsay hit a groundball to Adam Everett. Everett went to second for the force, but Placido Polanco's relay to first was slightly offline, and Miguel Cabrera came off of first to field it, so the runner was safe. Rod Allen (I know, I know; fish in a barrel) immediately praised Cabrera for his decision to leave the bag and ensure that the runner didn't move into scoring position.

This is autopilot extraordinaire. It's the ninth inning with a two-run lead. That run does not matter. Any baseball fan worth his salt knows this. The only thing that matters are outs. The only advantage of keeping the runner on first by coming off the bag and forfeiting any shot at a double play is that you keep the double play in order for the next batter. Note further that even if you stretch and don't get the double play, it's not assured that the ball will get by you. You still may knock it down and prevent the runner from advancing. Thus, to come off the bag in that situation, you have to believe that the odds of not getting the double play AND having the ball get by you were so high that it was more likely that the next batter would hit into a double play.

This is highly unlikely. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that for any relay throw that is not truly atrocious (which again, Polanco's was not), the better play is to stretch for the throw. Furthermore, Fernando Rodney, the current pitcher, is not an extreme groundball pitcher (he's roughly neutral for his career). Alex Rios, the next batter, is not a groundball hitter (about three groundballs for every four flyballs in his career).

Sportscasters should know this. They should be able to make this point. They should be able to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of each decision. They should not default to meaningless and unhelpful platitudes. Rod had a great chance to talk about the little details of baseball and he blew it because he, like so many other sportscasters, are just up there spewing trite baseball clichés and cashing a paycheck.

I should note that the fact that Rios actually hit into a double play does not change the analysis. This result was far from certain and could not have been known ex ante.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Payroll and Playoffs

Rob Neyer discusses the implications of the fact that six of the nine top teams in payroll are making the playoffs this year:
Well, you can't really compete with the Red Sox. Not unless you're the Yankees, anyway. But there are still plenty of teams wasting plenty of money. The Twins probably aren't going to the playoffs, but they certainly could have. The Rays are stuck in the wrong division. And more to the point, we just can't read too much into one possibly anomalous season.
The Forbes article to which he links also notes: "In 2006, three postseason clubs (Tigers, Twins and Padres) ranked 14th or lower."

Here's the thing. The Tigers are now one of those top payroll clubs making the clubs. Payroll is not static. Should we hold it against the Tigers that they've turned themselves into a top spending club in just a few years? That's a good thing. We want teams that spend to have greater success. It encourages owners to keep investing in their product on the field. The Tigers are a great example of what we should be encouraging in baseball.

Looking at payroll is misleading because teams let their payroll rise and fall over time depending on how they perceive their chances of success. Teams correctly recognize that they should spend more money when the marginal value of a win is the highest. Generally this occurs when a team is the 88-92 win range and additional wins will drastically increase the likelihood of making the postseason. Teams can and do let their payroll spike when a playoff berth is in range.

Thus, focusing on payroll is missing the point. No, the focus should be on whether or not all teams have roughly equal opportunity to support a large payroll. What Major League Baseball needs is a revenue sharing system based on teams' revenue potential, not their actual revenue. This correctly lines up the incentives in the system and ensures that all teams have an opportunity to let their payrolls rise when they get the chance to make the playoffs.

Higher paid teams are always going to be (and should be) more represented in the postseason. Instead of trying to fight that trend, MLB should be trying to find better ways to balance access to revenue.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Is the wins statistic useless?

Over at Rays Index, they make the case that wins, as a statistic, are not useless (hat tip to Rob Neyer).
The problem with Wins as an evaluator of starting pitchers is not that it is bad statistic. It is simply a matter of sample size. In a single game, a win or no win is not a good indicator. Why? Small sample size (n=1). However, ERA, for example, is a per inning stat. So in a single game, a pitcher’s ERA will have 5-9 data points (n>>1). Over the course of a full season, stats like ERA+, FIP and tRA have a sample size of 150-220 for each pitcher.
And later on (emphasis all mine):
In fact, in the absence of other stats, Wins is a very good, if not great, indicator of a pitcher’s value. So next time you hear somebody say Wins is a crappy way to evaluate a pitcher, throw a drink in their face and then make them read this post.
To me, this is a lot like saying that in the absence of anesthetic, a piece of wood to bite down on is a good pain management tool. Yeah, I guess that's sort of true, but it's also a completely useless observation in the modern world where anesthetic is always an option. Sort of like how, given the plethora of available information, wins are... ...completely useless. You would and should never prefer them when you have access to other, better statistics. Opting for wins to evaluate a pitcher is like opting for the piece of wood when your leg is being amputated. In the modern world, it's never defensible.

Also, the problem with wins is emphatically not small sample size. Even if pitchers played 1,000,000,000 games every season, wins would still be worth shit because pitchers play with the same offense and bullpen day in and day out. Those pitchers with better offenses and better bullpens will get more wins than those without and there's nothing that a large sample size can do about it. Indeed, larger sample sizes will make clear exactly how large this bias is. Wins are bad because they can do nothing to correct this bias.

Do not use wins. That is all.

**EDIT** J.C. Bradbury gets in on the action here. Worth reading.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Let the games begin!

Which is to say, now that the Yanks are in the postseason, let's all start dissecting Alex Rodriguez like he was a stale frog in high school biology! Fangraphs' R. J. Anderson gets the party started with this fun piece. I can just smell the formaldehyde!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sabermetric groupthink?

This post by J.C. Bradbury collects some comments on the notion of sabermetric groupthink: the idea that those of a sabermetric bent, like myself, tend to unjustly treat those who don't adhere strictly to sabermetric orthodoxy as morons. I'll leave aside the question of whether a particular sabermetric orthodoxy exists. Rob Neyer addresses that question well here. I want to make a more general point.

The overarching sabermetric philosophy is not related to baseball. The core sabermetric principle, as I understand it, is that baseball must be analyzed as a science. That's it. If your analysis of baseball is scientific, it is sabermetric. Of course, the "gotcha" here is that science is empirical. It is very, very hard to have science that spurns numbers of some kind or another because numbers are the language of empirics. Thus, sabermetrics tends to focus on numbers, on the quantitative over the qualitative.

Sabermetrics does not reject qualitative analysis. There is certainly a role for scouting and experience in baseball. No sabermetrician worth his salt disputes this. However, the use of qualitative analysis cannot be an excuse to flout systematic application of scientific principles. Qualitative analysis still must be backed up by empirical research. It must have a sound empirical basis and it must be vetted empirically.

How might a team do this? A good start is trying to systematically quantify how good your scouts are. Which scouts provide the best reports? How much information do these reports provide beyond what is available statistically? Can scouting data be incorporated into a useful model of player performance?

The point is that no matter what analysis you are undertaking, it must be systematic. You must know, in advance, how new data will inform your thinking. Too often this is not the case. Too often numbers are used ex post facto to provide faux-intellectual cover for unsystematic decisions. Too often numbers are used to confirm preexisting biases of those using them. Too often numbers are ignored when they provide evidence that runs counter to a cherished belief. Too often people use scouting and experience as escape hatches to avoid having to deal with the rigors of systematic, scientific analysis.

This is what causes sabermetricians to go crazy. It's not that we can't deal with scouts. It's not that we don't like baseball stories and anecdotes. It's not that we don't think men with experience have nothing to offer. Far from it. No, the problem is that we cannot stand the unsystematic, unscientific analysis that those in highly visible positions often engage in. It's lazy and worse: it's absolutely wrong. It must be shunned wherever it is found.

Let me close with a quotation from Malcolm Gladwell from this interview with Bill Simmons:
That's why I'm such a fan of the "Moneyball" generation of baseball GMs: It's not so much that their analytical tools are brilliant ways of predicting baseball success (and I have my doubts, sometimes), it's simply that they have an analytical tool. And when it comes to personnel evaluation, any tool is better than no tool...
Bingo. The merits of any particular tool, whether it be batting average, on base percentage, VORP, or scouting reports, are always up for debate. The important thing is that you have a tool and that you apply it systematically.

**EDIT** Here is a link to the Ken Rosenthal article that started it all. I like Ken. He does good work. Unfortunately, this article is an example of exactly what I'm talking about above. Ken throws out a bunch of numbers and throws in some other observations for good measure. And the result is... what exactly? How does he propose to use all this information to come up with a decision? Ken doesn't say.

Let me highlight this extended quote:
The first criterion for the award is "actual value of a player to his team, that is strength of offense and defense." Twenty-four of Mauer's 114 starts this season — more than one-fifth — have been at designated hitter, a position that requires no defense. Mauer also trails other candidates in the second criterion, number of games played.

When Mauer first stepped onto the field on May 1, the Twins already were 22 games into their season. Mauer obviously cannot be faulted for needing to recover from offseason kidney surgery, but two other MVP contenders — Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera and Jeter — have appeared in 141 and 139 games, respectively. Mauer has appeared in 120.

Am I nitpicking? Perhaps. But Mauer's absence in April, combined with his time at DH, raises the possibility another candidate may — repeat, may — be worthier. It certainly creates the opportunity for debate, which is my entire point.
Gee, if only we had a systematic way to weigh all these factors (playing time, quality of performance, positional adjustments, etc) to come up with an answer to our question! Oh, shit, we do! We have tons of them, and they all originate in sabermetrics.

So is there still room for debate? Of course there is! None of these systems are complete. They all have weak spots. Some are better than others. We can debate the merits of any particular system until the cows come home. The point is that you can't just throw out a bunch of disjointed pieces of information and then pull an answer out of your ass, not if you want to claim any sort of validity to your answer. You must be able to establish ex ante how one can determine who the best player is and then you must let the results of that process, that system, provide you with the best answer.

A fact

There is no good reason to deny Joe Mauer the MVP.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More MVP talk

My mother (of all people) points me to this article by Allen Barra in the Wall Street Journal echoing my thoughts on Derek Jeter's MVP candidacy. A few thoughts:
  • The tone of the article is pretty funny. It essentially acknowledges that Joe Mauer has been better and should win, but says, "Hey, Derek's been great for a while and has been robbed a couple times. Let's give him this year's award anyway, as a kind of lifetime achievement award." I can't get behind that reasoning, but at least it's honest.
  • Naturally, the article falls back on intangibles to make Derek's case. This leads to one of my new favorite baseball quotes:
    "Some people will argue that intangibles don't exist, but in the ninth inning of close games everybody believes in them." - Marty Appel
    It's not quite as pithy as "There are no atheists in foxholes," but the sentiment is the same, and likely equally true.
  • The article strangely does not note the strongest part of Derek's case: the fact that he plays shortstop and none of the other contenders do. You don't need intangibles to close the gap between Derek and a first baseman with better offensive numbers. You just have to understand the massive, massive value of playing a tougher position.
  • Derek's longevity really is incredible. More than anything, this is what will get him in the Hall of Fame one day.
Thanks for the link, Mom!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dear MVP Voters...

...if you must vote for a player on a playoff team, please vote for Derek Jeter. You guys go on and on all the time about how valuable he is to New York, and this may be his most valuable year yet. His defense has been very good: by UZR, only two shortstops have saved more runs this year with the glove. He's hit for average (0.329) and, for a shortstop, power as well (17 HRs). He's stolen 22 bases and only been caught 5 times. He's got all those intangibles.

You may be tempted to vote for Mark Teixeira. Mark's been a better hitter than Derek, but not by as much as you probably think. Don't be swayed by his RBI and HR totals. They are not spectacular totals for a first baseman. Furthermore, who do you think he's been driving in? Derek Jeter, that's who. First baseman who can do what Mark does are much more common than shortstops who can do what Derek's done this year.

Look, things can change in the next month, but I implore you to look beyond a few somewhat gaudy numbers and appreciate the man who really makes the Yanks go. You assure us all the time that the game isn't about numbers. That it's about people. Prove it. Vote for the guy whose value is tied up in more subtle things than RBIs and HRs. Vote for Derek Jeter.*

* Personally, I'd vote for Joe Mauer and then Ben Zobrist before Derek, but if you think being on a playoff team is important, Derek's your man.

**UPDATE** Never mind. Derek just sacrifice bunted with a two run lead in the second inning, no one out, runners on first and second, and Jose Contreras struggling. This is a terrible, terrible play, for which Michael Kay is rightly excoriating him, noting that Derek is a great hitter having an MVP type year. Al Leiter is trying to defend him, but it's a real reach. It doesn't matter that Derek leads off now (not that lead off hitters sacrifice bunt a lot anyways, Al). It doesn't matter that it's small ball. You can't give up outs in that situation. You just can't.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Atrocious Wednesday Night Broadcast

I've been watching (on my DVR) tonight's broadcast of the Yankees and White Sox on ESPN2. The broadcast team is Dave O'Brien and Rick Sutcliffe. I mean no offense to either of these guys personally but...

This broadcast is seriously awful. It's completely unfocused and disjointed. Sutcliffe just rambles about whatever the hell he feels like, throwing out random and asinine assertions left and right. Every correlation is a causation. Every random anecdote "tells you something." It's just stunning to me that these guys can blabber on for three hours and say nothing important or relevant.

If I'm not mistaken, Sutcliffe chose Derek Jeter as his pick for greatest shortstop OF ALL TIME. I love DJ, and that's just flat out insane.

Also, it seems like A-Rod has fielded every single ball in this game. That's weird. And now Jorge Posada is hurt. That's just awesome. Crap.

Anyways, let me apologize for this post. I assure you it is more informative than tonight's broadcast.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The White Sox fail horribly

In the bottom of the second inning against Boston today and leading by the score of 2-0, the White Sox found themselves defending against a first and third situation with two outs. The runner on first, J.D. Drew, attempted to steal second base and the White Sox had him thrown out by thirty feet.

So what happened? They got him in a pickle and while they wasted a bunch of time trying to tag Drew out, the runner on third, Jason Bay, scored. The second baseman, Jayson Nix, even checked the runner on third before continuing with the pickle.

Now, it's not clear to me from the replay when Bay started running or how close the play might have been. It doesn't really matter though, because it's horrible baseball. If Bay was stealing at the same time as Drew, then the catcher should have simply held on to the baseball and put Bay in a pickle. Bay knows this. Everyone knows this. Thus, it stands to reason that Bay waited until he saw that Drew was in trouble. This is standard baseball fare: when a runner gets caught in a pickle, other runners try to advance.

What's really surprising is that the White Sox appeared to trade the run for the out. Let's look at the math:

Run Expectancy for possible outcomes:

Runner on 2nd, 3 out, 0 runs scored: 0.0. In this scenario, the White Sox throw home and get Bay out. I expect that this is what usually happens.

Runners on 1st and 3rd, 2 out, 0 runs scored: 0.54. In this scenario, the White Sox simply chase both runners back to their respective bags and fail to record an out. It is also our baseline scenario.

Runners on 2nd and 3rd, 2 out, 0 runs scored: 0.58. In this scenario, the White Sox prevent Bay from scoring, but allow Drew to take second. Note that it is almost no worse than the baseline and far, far better than any of the next two outcomes.

No one on base, 3 out, 1 run scored: 1.0. This is what actually occured.

Runner on 2nd, 2 out, 1 run scored: 1.32. In this scenario, the White Sox fail to get either runner and they both advance, scoring Bay.

The White Sox would have gained .42 expected runs by simply hanging on to the baseball and letting Drew steal second! Then, after throwing through, they chose not to throw back home, preferring not to risk 0.32 expected runs for the chance at -1.0 expected runs (the difference between the best and worst outcomes and what actually happened, which was itself the second worst outcome). In order for that to be a good play, you would have to believe that you had only a 25% chance at throwing Bay out. This strikes me as fantastically unlikely. It honestly seemed as if the White Sox were consciously trading a run for an out. If so, that is a gross misunderstanding of the costs and benefits involved.

And as I am typing this, the epic FAIL continues. With the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the third with the White Sox now up 4-1, David Ortiz dribbles a ball up the 1st base line. It's a fantastically easy play for the first baseman, who can tag Ortiz out by about 15 feet with plenty of time to field the ball... ...except Jose Contreras, the pitcher, runs over and muffs the play by trying to field the ball himself depsite the fact that he has a terrible angle on the ball and the runner. Run scores, no one out. It's actually stunning how bad a decision this is. Even if he picks up the ball cleanly, he has a tougher play than the first baseman.

He then walks in a run, throws a wild pitch to tie the game at four apiece, and servers up a three run bomb to Basil Rathbone Mike Lowell for good measure. Thanks for nothing, White Sox!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Why do we believe any given proposition? To my mind, there are two valid reasons for belief in any proposition. First, your belief may be logically derived from a set of axioms and other derived true propositions. Not many beliefs fall into this category because truly axiomatic propositions are not in great supply.

So what is the other valid reason for believing in a particular proposition? In my opinion, it is also valid to believe in a proposition if the balance of evidence shows it to be likely to be true. For many propositions, it is appropriate to consider both the truth and falsehood of any particular proposition according to the likelihood that each is the correct value of the proposition. For other propositions, the nature of the evidence is such that it is not worth the effort to consider the likelihood that it is false because this possibility is infinitesimal. Whether or not one should factor the likelihood of a proposition's truth value into any decision is directly related to the costs and benefits of the possible consequences of the decision.

However, even when it is highly likely that a proposition is true because of the nature of the evidence for it, you must go one step further if you desire to be truly veracious. You must be able to identify those conditions that are sufficient to disprove the proposition you believe. You must show how the proposition is falsifiable.

If you cannot identify these conditions, then you do not have a reason for believing in that proposition. You must admit to yourself that the evidence that you are using to support your proposition is simply confirming a preexisting bias because no evidence would convince you to change your mind.

Indeed, the ideal is to identify the full set of conditions that falsify the proposition. It is quite easy to identify a highly improbable criterion to falsify a proposition. We should not take satisfaction in this. If there are other falsifying conditions, we need to identify them too. Otherwise, we will build a disingenuous shield around our cherished biases by finding only ridiculous falsifying conditions. This will give us the misguided self-satisfaction of believing that we are intellectually honest while stacking the deck in favor of not rejecting the beliefs we cherish.

Identifying a set of falsifying conditions is not easy. Indeed, it is likely that we will never fully identify the set of falsifying conditions for any particular proposition. Nonetheless, by seeking to know those conditions that will cause us to validly reject the things we now wrongly believe, we maximize the likelihood that what we believe will be true. That is the best we can do.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A-Rod is so clutch

Contrary to his reputation, Rodriguez has actually been quite clutch this year; twelve of his 21 homers and 34 of his 63 RBI have either tied the game or given the Yanks the lead.
Of course, this has as much importance as all those statistics that people throw around when A-Rod fails to hit in the clutch: none whatsoever. It's just random, people. It's just random.

Rob Neyer on the MVP case for Mark Teixeira

Rob Neyer absolutely crushes the argument against Mark Teixeira for MVP. He's right in almost every way, from the general tenor of the argument to its finer details:
You know what? Let's just be honest. The argument for Teixeira is an argument for doing it the way it's always been done. Teixeira is just another big RBI guy on a team with a great record. If he were a Twin and Mauer were a Yankee, Teixeira would hardly be an afterthought.
Look, Teixeira's been great, but he's not even the most valuable Yankee: that would be Derek Jeter. Joe Mauer, despite missing a month, has been far and away the most valuable player in the league. That's what happens when you hit .377 with power as a catcher.

Look at it another way: Joe Mauer is the only player in the AL with an OPS over 1.000 (currently 1.071). In fact, it's nearly .100 higher than the guy in second place, Kevin Youkilis, who has a 0.988 OPS. Only nine players, Mauer included, have an OPS over .900. Again, Joe Mauer is a catcher.

The only way for Mauer to not be the MVP at this point (remember, anything can happen in the next month and a half), is if you believe that an MVP should come from a team in contention and that the Twins are not sufficiently in contention. Of course, you still wouldn't get to make Teixeira the MVP at that point. You'd have to find a way to get Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria disqualified too. And, of course, then the MVP would be Jeter. Good luck getting him out of the way without disqualifying Tex at the same time.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The final word on New Yankee Stadium?

It does not appear that the ball carries well at New Yankee Stadium. In fact, it appears that it carries poorly. Nonetheless, it is very easy to hit a home run there. This implies that the fences are shorter than suspected. Details here (highly recommended).

I will note that this does not address how well the ball carried at the old stadium. It's possible, though I suspect not likely, that the ball carried very, very poorly at the old stadium so that the new stadium, while not absolutely high on the carry scale, still rates highly relative to the old stadium.

My bet is that the dimensions are slightly wrong. That seems to be where all the evidence is pointing.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Jorge Posada stat of the day

Granting that this is some pretty hardcore data mining, I thought I'd note that there are only seven players ahead of Jorge Posada on the list of catchers who have caught at least 1,000 games when sorted by OPS+. Of those seven, only one, Mike Piazza, has a significantly higher OPS+. The other six are within four points. All seven are in the Hall of Fame, as are the next two guys behind Posada on the list (Campenella and Fisk).

Naturally, there are better ways to analyze a Hall of Fame candidacy, especially for catchers. Nonetheless, Jorge is in elite company offensively. Guys who hit like he has hit for the last decade and stick at catcher for the course of their career come along once in a generation, if that.

The truest thing ever said about steroids

Bronson Arroyo sounds like a jackass in the interview cited here, but this quote is pure gold:
"If Mark McGwire is hitting 60 homers, the only thing that matters is his performance," Arroyo said, according to USA Today. "People don't own teams to lose money. If you ask any owner whether they would rather make $20 million and come in last place or lose $20 million and win a World Series, there's only one guy who honestly would take that championship: George Steinbrenner. Nobody else."
This is why Yankee fans can't help but love George M. Steinbrenner III. It hardly matters if Arroyo's statement is literally true; the fact is that George is the only owner who aggressively maintains the image that he's more concerned with winning championships than making money. And he spends like he means it. That's why even when he's getting under your skin, it's almost impossible for any Yankee fan to truly hate The Boss.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

David Ortiz

It's old news now, but in case you had not heard, the New York Times has reported that David Ortiz was on the list of players that tested positive for performance enhancing drugs back in 2003. This was the preliminary testing put in place to determine if regular testing was to occur. This is the same list that Alex Rodriguez was on.

Ortiz has now commented on the situation. He flatly denied using steroids and attributed the positive test to his "carelessness" purchasing legal supplements and vitamins. It has long been speculated that foreign born players, and those from the Dominican Republic in particular, are more likely to accidentally consume banned substances because regulation of these substances and other legal substances is more lax in Latin America that in the United States.

As I've talked about in the past, there is a deep epistimological problem embedded deep within the steroids issue. Who knows what one can believe with any confidence?

While on the one hand I recognize that the players here have every incentive to cheat and every incentive to lie about cheating, I also do not find it plausible that every player who was on the 2003 list was attempting to cheat by taking performance enhancing drugs. There are bound to be some mistakes. Nor do I believe that any player who may have taken now-banned substances prior to 2003 is necessarily a vile human being who should be cast out of of Major League Baseball into some fiery pit where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Therefore, I think that we need to examine more than just whether or not a player was on the 2003 list. For example, with Alex Rodriguez, I thought that his admission to more than was publicly known was important for establishing credibilty. Similarly with David Ortiz, his past statements on the issue and his reaction to the current incidient seem credible to me. Furthermore, neither Alex nor David has failed a test since 2003. This is a large piece of evidence that must count for both of them. Otherwise, what is the point of mandatory drug testing?

We must remember that very, very few people, a group that does not include many, if any, members of the media that break these stories and drive the coverage, really know what did and did not happen. Their inferences and speculataions are perhaps only slightly more valid than my own. I don't need some moralizing columnist whose overarching goal is to sell newspapers or generate hits telling me why this player or that player is a disgraceful, lying cheat. Therefore, my position is to give the benefit of the doubt to players who appear to me to be behaving credibly.

I think David Ortiz still deserves the benefit of the doubt and I'm going to give it to him. Certainly, my trust could be misplaced. If more information comes to light and it appears that Ortiz or Rodriguex have been less than truthful, then I will reevaluate my position. Until then, I do not feel inclined to rush to judgement.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Line of the day

From my brother, Robert:
Other than the C on Varitek's chest, you know what the difference between him and Posada is? The Yankees aren't scrambling to get a replacement for Posada at the trade deadline.
This was, of course, in reference to the absurd equivalenceies the media draw between one of the best catchers of this generation and a guy who had a couple good years.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Revisiting the American League DH advantage question

You will recall, Dear Reader, that I addressed not long ago the question of whether or not the American League should have an inherent structural advantage over the National League due to the existence of the DH. I concluded that it should not and speculated that one of the reasons that the AL is dominating the NL in interleague play could be simply that the AL has more resources at its disposal.

This appears to be the case, as Tom Tango notes here:
The effect is that the average NL payroll for those five years is 74MM per team, and the average AL payroll is 84MM. Each AL team has 10MM more dollars of talent than the NL teams.
Does this explain all of the effect? I don't know, but it certainly goes a long, long way.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A pithy observation on the salaries of professional athletes

Allen Barra in a short article at the Wall Street Joural outlines exactly why we as consumers should not get upset about the high price of tickets.
It isn't some vague indefinable "they" who pays the players. It really isn't even the owners. It's you, or rather, it's us. If we put our money where our mouths are and support cancer, AIDS or Down syndrome research and then buy our tickets with what's left over, athletes and rock stars will actually be paid what we pretend they should be paid.
He also includes this brilliant quote from Bill James:
One of the unwritten laws of economics is that it is impossible, truly impossible, to prevent the values of society from manifesting themselves in dollars and cents. This is, ultimately, the reason why athletes are paid so much money.
That really is James at his best: pithy, clear, and enormously insightful.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

First guessing

Joe Girardi just brought Mariano Rivera in in the eighth with two on and two out in a one run game. I have no idea how it will turn out, but I support this move 1000%. I just want to be up front about these things. I'm not always second guessing.

**EDIT** Mo got the strikeout. It looked like strike three was a ball inside according to's Gameday. Now we'll see how the ninth goes.

**EDIT #2** Mariano just picked up his first big league walk, time on base, and RBI! It's 4-2 Yanks after Mo walks with the bases loaded against K-Rod in the top of the ninth. Here's hoping Tex can ice this one.

**EDIT #3** Mo gave up a dinky two out hit in the ninth before locking it down. Again, at no point was the game more on the line in the ninth than it was in the eighth. That's why you have to be flexible enough to use your best pitcher when it really matters. Tonight, Girardi was, and he was rewarded for it.

**EDIT #4** Just watched the video of Mo's RBI. He took a nice hack at a 2-2 pitch. He certainly doesn't let himself get cheated. Awesome.

**EDIT #5** Mariano Rivera is one of the few athletes to whom I can remain attached on a personal level without the jaded cynicism that seems to permeate my relationships with other athletes. Go watch his ESPN interview. Mo has an almost childlike demeanor throughout. He isn't out there trying to get a message out or trying to deflect criticism (as if there were any). For the best player ever in his role, he practically radiates humility. Indeed, he almost seems embarrased to be interviewed. Yet, he loves talking about the sport he loves playing. I will probably cry when Mo retires.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


It's the bottom of the eighth inning. The New York Yankees lead the Atlanta Braves by a score of 6-3. Brain Bruney is pitching for New York. He's been good this year, but tonight he starts out the inning by walking Chipper Jones. Not to worry, he promptly strikes out Brian McCann and induces a groundball to first from Garret Anderson.

Then things go south. Bruney walks Casey Kotchman and then gives up a run scoring single to Jeff Francoeur. Suddenly, it's 6-4 with two on and two out. The go ahead run is coming to the plate. The Yankees have been scuffling. They can't afford to let this one get away. So...

They go get Mariano Rivera.




Why wait!? He's rested! He's awesome! He can get four outs! Don't let him rot while the game slips away. Go get him. You have him pitch to Kelly Johnson right now. Not tomorrow. Not next inning. Now.

And the result?

Mo struck him out.

Then he struck the next guy out.

Then he struck the next guy out.

Then he struck the next guy out.

Game over.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A must read

Malcolm Gladwell adresses issues of strategy, social convetion, ability, effort, and taking Goliath down here. It truly is an excellent read.

I quibble with only one small part of Gladwell's piece. He puts too much emphasis on the fact that David wins with effort over Goliath's ability. This is true of the examples he provides in his story, but the real message is that, as Gladwell says, "when the world has to play on Goliath's terms, Goliath wins." Recognizing what your strengths are and using them to attack an opponent's weakness, especially a weakness that he exposes because of simple convetion, is the essence of the story. If your strength happens to be effort, so be it.

Think about this story the next time you hear someone complaining about breaking up a no-hitter with a bunt, or about not "playing the game the right way," or about how big sluggers "clog up the bases." It's just Goliath complaing that David won't play by his rules.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Does the AL have an inherent advantage in interleague play?

Rob Neyer addresses the question of the American League's superiority in interleague play here. Then, the crowd at the Baseball Think Factory slams his post here.

A common argument against Rob's claim that the American League teams are superior to National League teams is that AL teams have an innate advantage in interleague play purely as a matter of rules. Some seem put off by the idea that the American League simply has more talent that the National League right now. Therefore, they are looking for a way to explain the AL's interleague dominance without admitting that the AL might just be better at the moment.

The argument goes like this: American League teams must have a designated hitter throughout the season, so they make an effort to acquire a good one. The National League teams do not do this, and so bat a much inferior player as a DH when they play AL teams in AL parks. However, AL pitchers generally bat nearly as poorly as NL pitchers, so the advantage is not returned when AL teams visit NL stadiums. Thus, NL teams are at a net disadvantage when it comes to playing AL teams.

On its face, this argument seems sound. I believe that it is also incorrect. Allow me to elaborate.

Certainly, if the only difference between two teams were the quality of their DHs, the team with the superior DH would be at an advantage. Certainly, we would expect the American League to have better DHs than the National League. Others have tried to argue that the DH rule does not give American League teams an advantage, but in the long run, if the only difference between the American and National Leagues is the quality of their DHs, the American League must be said to have an advantage.

But should we assume that American League teams and National League teams ought to be equally talented apart from the DH position? The question here is solely that of whether or not the existence of the DH gives American League teams an advantage in the total accumulation of talent. In other words, does the existence of the DH allow American League teams to field teams genuinely superior to National League teams?

What do I mean by "field a superior team?" I mean simply that unless the existence of the DH rule allows American League teams to accumulate more expected win production on their teams, we will have no reason to expect them to be superior to National League teams. On average, the teams will be of equal quality. The DH rule will not bias talent distribution towards the American League.

Let us assume that every team has an equal budget at the start of each year. Let us further assume that every single player is a free agent at the start of each year. Finally, let us assume that teams make correct determinations of player value. Clearly, each team should end up of equal quality since they all have the same resources, the same pool of players, and have all valued each player correctly. So, how will the DH rule change the talent distribution between the American and National Leagues?

The American League will certainly have better designated hitters. After all, they are worth more to American League teams. However, they also consume resources that could have gone to acquiring non-DH talent. The National League does not have to budget for a DH. Thus, they can devote more resources to acquiring superior non-DH talent.

There is an opportunity cost to spending money on a DH. National League teams do not have to pay this cost. American League teams do. Thus, while American League teams should have superior DHs, the National League should on average be superior everywhere else. Thus, while American League teams will have a superior team while the DH rule is in effect, this should be balanced by the fact that when the DH rule is not in effect, National League teams will tend to have superior players at every remaining position, this giving them the advantage.

What if our assumptions did not hold? Well, if the first assumption, that of equal budgets, isn't true (and it isn't), the conclusion doesn't really change. If the American League is superior because its teams can purchase both high quality DH talent and high quality non-DH talent, the cause is not the existence of the DH. If the DH went away, the American League would still be superior because its teams could devote more resources to non-DH players.

If the second assumption, that of perpetual free agency, is not true (and it isn't), the conclusion still does not change. There may be fluctuations due to timing in the talent market that give American League teams a temporary advantage. However, this same timing could also swing the pendulum the National League's way. If too many American League teams end up with too many resources committed to underperforming DHs, this would definitely be the case. On average, this should not cause the DH rule to favor the American League.

Finally, if the third assumption, that of perfect talent valuation is not true (and it isn't), the conclusion again does not change. If National League teams are inferior because they are inferior at evaluating talent, this is not a strike against the DH rule. It is a strike against National League front offices.

So what can explain the current gap between the two leagues? Who knows? Perhaps this is simply some cyclical variation. Perhaps American League teams have cultivated a resource advantage over National League teams (the AL is home to the Red Sox and Yankees, after all). Perhaps AL teams have been luckier in the draft.

The bottom line is that wins are wins, no matter how you get them. Therefore, teams should be willing to pay the same amount for a win no matter where it comes from on the diamond. The American League simply has to allocate its resources differently, but this should change the fact that, like National League teams, they are simply trying to maximize the number of wins they can accrue with the resources they have.

Over the long run, the DH rule cannot explain the difference between the two leagues.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Let's make sure this horse is really dead

Last night, the Yankees lead the Boston Red Sox 3-1 with six outs to go. There was a man on first base and the top of the Red Sox line up was coming to bat. C.C. Sabathia had been cruising. He's an ace. I have no problem with having him face Dustin Pedroia in that situation.

Then Pedroia walks after a gritty* ten pitch at bat. Now it's first and second, no one out, in the bottom of the eighth inning, with a two run lead. Joe Girardi went out and asked C.C. how he was feeling. C.C. waved him off and Joe went back to the dugout. Again, C.C. had been cruising. He's an ace. I have perhaps only the smallest of quibbles with this move.

But then he gave up a single to J.D. Drew. Now it's a 3-2 lead with the heart of the order coming up. C.C. is clearly tired. He's up near 120 pitches. It's unequivocally time to go to the bullpen. Joe Girardi agreed with me. And he summoned... Alfredo Aceves.

I just... I just don't know how else to put this: you must bring in your best relief pitcher. This is it. This is the game. This is without any reasonable doubt the most critical situation you will be facing in any of the next two or three games.

This is where I get fried by bullpen usage. WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WAITING FOR?! You have the Death Star of baseball, Mariano Rivera, in your bullpen. He's like that guy from The Seventh Seal, only he doesn't fuck around with a game of chess before he separates your soul from your body. He is the ultimate weapon in the baseball universe. USE HIM! USE HIM!! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, USE HIM!!!

Last night, Mariano was well rested. He hadn't pitched in either of the series' first two games, games against the team you are battling for first place. Even if you don't want him to pitch two innings, you can't save him for the ninth. You can't save him for the bottom of the Red Sox' lineup with no one on base at the start of an inning. You do not have that luxury. Why?

Because if you don't go get him, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay could both single, snatching the lead from your grasp with the best relief pitcher in the history of baseball left unused for an entire three game series against your biggest rival with first place on the line. And this is exactly what happened.

I ask you, is there really more pressure pitching the ninth with a one run lead against Jason Varitek, Rocco Baldelli, and Nick Green than there is pitching the eighth with a one run lead with two and and no one out against Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, Mike Lowell, and David Ortiz? I cannot see how this could be the case. It would make next to no sense.

I don't have anything else to say. I am completely dumbfounded.

* Hi, Cous!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Sentences to ponder

From Lawrence Lessig:
Words have meaning. We don't get to choose their meaning. If you call something "X" people will hear the equation. They won't read the fine-print which says ("By X, I mean really not-X).
(So it's not baseball related. Shoot me.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fun with small samples

Alex Rodriguez, 2009 Season through 5/19/2009:

AVG: 0.194
OBP: 0.383
SLG: 0.611
OPS: 0.994
ISO: 0.417 (!)
BABIP: 0.083 (!!!)

It's pretty hard to be valuable when you get hits on less than 10% of the balls you put in play. You essentially have to do nothing but walk and hit homeruns, and that's what A-Rod is doing. It will all even out, of course, but for now, that's a pretty damn funny line.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Today's must read blog post..., of course, not found on this website. It is found here. It's short, and it has a cool animation. Check it out!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mailbag, Vol. 1

A reader asks:
What would happen if pro sports stadiums weren't publicly funded? ... Suppose that you hold demand (not quantity demanded; the entire demand schedule) as constant. I think that this is basically the case, though I could be wrong. Now, assume that there is no public funding of stadiums, and that every team needs a new stadium right now.

What does the team do? Do they raise ticket prices for the new stadium, and allow QD (attendance) to fall accordingly? Do they build a smaller stadium than they otherwise would, anticipating said drop in QD? Alternately, does someone within the team organization pick up the tab that otherwise would have gone to the taxpayer? Somone's surplus is going to be lower. Will it be the owners? The players? The fans?
I love this question because it presumes that I know something about both baseball and economics. I suppose I do dabble in both of them, but I still had to go to The Font Of All Knowledge to make sure I correctly understood the difference between demand and quantity demanded. Happily, I did. In any case, those with actually expertise in the area of economics in general or stadium economics in particular may feel free to correct me if this post is completely off base. Now, on to the answer!

I think the first key point is that the baseball team is always going to select the profit maximizing price for its tickets, regardless of the cost of the stadium (or players, for that matter). Thus, if the same stadium is being built with or without public subsidy, the ticket price should be unaffected. The same product is being offered, so there is no reason to expect a change in the price the consumer is willing to pay.

Again assuming that the same stadium is being built with or without public subsidy, it is also true that the operating costs of the stadium, including players, will be unaffected. If paying A-Rod $300 million is a money maker with a stadium subsidy, then it is a money maker without a stadium subsidy. Thus, if the same stadium is being built in both cases, the only group that can take a loss is the team itself. 

Another way to think about it is that a fixed subsidy amount doesn't change the optimal configuration of the new stadium. If investing the subsidy in extra features for the new stadium could be expected to turn a profit, then the team would do it regardless of the existence of the subsidy. Likewise, if investing the subsidy in extra features for the new stadium was expected to be a money losing proposition, the team would (if able) cut back on its own contribution to the stadium, in effect pocketing the subsidy money.

However, a key element is left off of this analysis. The stadium plan is usually a large part of the negotiations with the local municipality. While it may not be cost effective for a team to invest $100 million in, for example, a retractable roof, it might be worth it if it only had to invest $50 million with the local municipality agreeing to kick in the rest.* Thus, the team will try to add features to the new stadium as long as the public subsidy increases to a level that makes the extra features a good investment of the team's money. The subsidy amount is generally not fixed with respect to the stadium plan.

What does this mean? It means that if public subsidies for private stadia ended, the team would start cutting the marginal features of the new stadium.** That retractable roof may no longer make sense. Of course, this adds a further complication. Since we are now dealing with two separate stadia, we cannot expect that operating costs and optimal ticket prices will be unchanged. Indeed, since fewer ammenities are being added, we would expect the profit maximizing ticket price to fall, not rise, since people would presumably be willing to pay more to attend games at a nicer stadium.

Thus, I conclude that public subsidies of new stadia lead to higher ticket prices for fans, but also to nicer stadia. Ending public subsidies would lead to lower ticket prices for fans, but also fewer and less opulent new stadia.

Let me finish with one final comment on the closing line from the email in question:
I just looked up the Jake on Wikipedia, and it said that they publicly funded their stadium, then sold out 455 straight games.
Jacobs Field is often used as an example of the benefits of new stadia. However, we must be very careful not to confuse correlation with causation. Yes, fans flocked to Jacobs field, but only a small amount of that should be attributed to the new stadium bounce. Indeed, the primary cause is likely to be that the Indians' general crappiness from 1987 through 1993 allowed them to draft a stunning core of players that fueled their run as a top team in baseball from 1994 through 2001. Think about what the Tampa Bay Rays are going through right now. It's like that, only in a town that actually cares about baseball. The new stadium was only the cherry on the top of the winning baseball sundae.

* I will further note that it is often the municipality that bears the risk of cost overruns. This provides a perverse incentive for owners to underestimate costs so as to drive down their share of the initial cost with the local municipality bearing any extra costs due to the low initial estimate.

** It is not clear to me what the effect would be on stadium capacity. I suspect that capacity is a relatively low cost item in the stadium plan with a correspondingly high marginal value. Indeed, ending public subsidies could even increase stadium capacity. It may be that if a team cannot charge hundreds of dollars for a more exclusive experience with many ammenities that the best option is to instead try to get as many normal blue-collar Joes as possible. In any event, I find it unlikely that capacity would decrease.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How rapidly can one naturally increase strength?

Squawking Baseball addresses the allegation that A-Rod must have been using steroids because of how rapidly he increased his bench press. It's a short read, but hard to quote succinctly, so let me sum it up like this:
  1. It is very possible to naturally increase the amount of weight you are lifting very rapidly.
  2. It is even more possible when you are as young as A-Rod is alleged to have been when he made his rapid strength gains.
  3. It is even more possible when you consider that A-Rod was already outlandishly gifted physically with massive incentives for increased strength.
Yes, I am aware that point three is also an argument that he did use steroids.

It's important to remember that weightlifting was something in which baseball players did not engage for many, many years. Untangling the effects of naturally increasing strength due to weightlifting from the effects of increased strength due to PED usage while weightlifting is nearly impossible.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Craig Calcaterra hits it out of the park

What I do care about -- and the reason I have quoted all of this stuff by and about Selena Roberts -- is the culture of character assassination that has become inextricably linked to the subject of steroids in baseball. Every big name who has tested positive has not only been branded a cheater by the media, but a dirty cheater with evil and chicanery in his heart. Every assertion of innocence -- even to subordinate allegations -- has been met with scorn. In addition to censuring players under the rules of baseball, the media (and the public at large following the media's lead) has further demanded that high-profile steroids users be ostracized, and that the historical record be expunged, as best it can be, of their very existence. It has been a shameful few years in this regard, and I hope and pray that one day some semblance of perspective on the subject of performance enhancing drugs in baseball prevails. But we're certainly not there yet.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Maybe it's not the new stadium...

From here:
The distance of the home runs being hit this year (the true distance, i.e where they actually land, as well as the standard distance, which factors out weather and altitude) is significantly higher than last year, with the average standard distance being 8.5 feet longer this year than last. 
The p-value actually works out to 0.0000341, which is a very strong indicator that something is making 2009 home runs fly farther than 2008 home runs, in isolation of the weather, and to me that implicates the ball. 
Ball speed off the bat is also up. And, as you would expect, so are home run totals. I will say that, as others have observed, the ball has appeared to me to be exploding off bats this year. I've been amazed at some of the balls that have gotten out at Yankee Stadium. Maybe my observations are being influenced by other people's commentary, but I thought I'd throw that out there. Apparently, this phenomenon is going on everywhere.

One of the most underreported stories of the so-called "Steroid Era" is that the spike in offense was not the gradual increase that one would expect if steroids were slowly permeating the game. It was a very sharp spike in the early 1990's (starting in 1993, if my memory serves; could be 1994). If we are to accept that steroids caused the surge in output, we must accept that hitters all started using simultaneously. This is highly unlikely. The much more likely explanation is that something changed about the playing environment, something universal.

The most likely culprit is the ball, and indeed there is empirical evidence demonstrating that the core of the ball changed and changed enough to cause a spike in home runs. It appears that something fishy is going on again this year. I'll be very interested to see how this plays out.

UPDATE: Apparently Brian Cashman reads the same blogs I do. ESPN reports that "Cashman also said home runs are traveling about eight feet farther so far this year compared to last season." Furthermore, Cashman is quoted as saying, "The ball is going farther in every park, not just ours." Fascinating.

**EDIT** Fixed typo noted in comments.