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.