16 January 2017

Cubs in the White House

Did you see the World Champion Chicago Cubs' visit to the White House on Martin Luther King's birthday?

The players, coaches and front office people all stood around White Sox fan Barak Obama who extolled them for uniting a nation with effort and fair play.

Here's what I noticed: a gaggle of professional athletes surrounded the Commander in Chief and the only black guy in the room was...the President of the United States.

What would Jackie Robinson make of that?

09 January 2017

The National Championship: Don't Bet on a Good Game

I don't know which professional minor league football team representing a university is going to win tonight's National Championship game. No one does.


I could take a guess. It's a binary choice. Fifty percent of the guessers will be right. Being so doesn't demonstrate that they know anything.

Last year's game doesn't mean very much. It was one game. Many of the players from that game are gone. It's not likely to have a great deal of bearing on this year's contest.

I live in South Carolina, home of Clemson. I have many friends who are Clemson graduates or have children at Clemson. I like purple and orange. I'm sick of the Alabama franchise winning. So I certainly have my preference.

All that said, there is a lot of sentiment among the cognoscenti about a Clemson victory that is mostly wishful thinking. Alabama is so clearly the better team it hardly seems debatable.

Alabama blitzed through the SEC. They crushed almost everyone they played. They hammered Auburn. Their defense nearly outscored their opponents' offenses.

Clemson lost a game to up-and-down Pittsburgh. They should have lost to a mediocre N.C. State team that missed an easy field goal for the win. They edged Auburn by six. Non-BCS Troy took them to the wire.

Observers are weighting too heavily results from the semi-finals, where Clemson steamrolled mighty Ohio State 31-0 and Alabama struggled on offense in a 24-7 romp over a suspect Washington team. That Alabama would be criticized for only defeating the #4 team in the country by 17 is a testament to the powerhouse they are.

The Vegas spread on this game of 6.5 points is a reflection of two things: recency bias and nationwide sentiment. I've just described the recency bias. No team is as good as its best game or as bad as its worst.

The Crimson Tide played one game all season that ended within the 6.5-point spread, and that was in hostile territory to the team that defeated them last year. Fans want a close game tonight, if not an outright Clemson triumph. I hope they get both.

But that's definitely not the way to bet.


03 January 2017

The Questions Keep Coming

More Braindrizzling queue and eh, eh?

Q. Okay, Trout won't make the Hall with just five more seasons, but what if he plays for like, 12 average seasons. Would he make the HOF then?
A. There are two concepts that grease the HOF skids -- peak value and career value. Career value is Don Sutton -- a very good pitcher for a long time. Peak value is Ken Griffey Jr. who averaged .260 with 19 home runs a year after age 30. (Of course, that allowed him to compile career value as well.)  In your scenario, Trout would look like Junior, except for a shorter peak.

Q. Who is the best young play-by-play guy in Major League Baseball?
A.  No one. Only three of the PBP guys were even born in the '80s. I guess Vin Scully's replacement might qualify.

Q. Which of the big money relievers is most likely to flame out? 
A. There have been some questions raised about Mark Melancon because he's 31, signed a four-year deal with the Giants and is most prone to losing velocity. His four-seamers average 92 mph, a relative tortoise among closers.

Q. I've seen comparisons between Yoenis Cespedes and Edwin Encarnacion that are not favorable to Cespedes, yet EE was forced to accept a deal worth millions less. Are the Mets just stupid?
A. Here's the comparison to which you refer:
  • Encarnacion, 146 OPS+, 21.1 WAR last five years.  3 years/$60 million with Cleveland
  • Cespedes, 124 OPS+, 18.7 WAR last five years.  4/$110 milliion with Mets
Cespedes is three critical years younger (31 vs. 34) and plays the field. In addition, the Mets had no leverage; they had to sign a slugger.

Q. Realistically, how long can this Cubs team dominate baseball?
A. At least until the bulk of the lineup reaches free agency. Their combination of dominance and youth is kind of unprecedented.

Q. What is the next area of Sabermetric advancement?
A. Defense. Statcast is telling us exactly where balls are hit and what kinds of routes defenders take. And there's so much more to learn in that realm.

Q. If Clayton Kershaw pitched one more Kershaw-type season in 2017 and then retired after the requisite 10 years, is he in the Hall of Fame?
A. No doubt. Greatest pitcher of his time. Lifetime ERA+ an unfathomable 59% better than average. Top 5 Cy Young each of the last six years -- top 3 if he hadn't been hurt in 2016. Led league in ERA five times in six years.

Q. As of right now, which teams have no chance to win in 2017?
A. Fans of these teams can make other plans in October: Braves, Phillies, Reds, Padres, Rockies, Twins, White Sox and A's. I wouldn't cash in my Berkshire Hathaway stock on several other teams, but these are the lead-pipe locks.

Q. Which under-the-radar signing is most likely to pay big dividends?
A. Depends how low your radar is. Let's say it's a player who didn't command a Qualifying Offer. I like the Marlins signing Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa, a reverberation of the Royals' World Series formula in which they teamed a shutdown bullpen with a wobbly rotation. Adding two consistent relievers to A.J. Ramos is critical in Miami because their best starter is no one.

The signing of Steve Pearce by Toronto is intriguing for several reasons. First, Pearce quietly hit .288/.374/.492 with 13 homers in less than half a season last year. Second, he'll play all the corners of the field for the Blue Jays. Third, he'll replace Edwin Encarnacion north of the border, which means we'll compare the two and wouldn't it be just like Baseball if Pearce, at one-fifth the cost, turns out to be every bit the addition Encarnacion is to Cleveland.

Of course, the real big-payoff signing is the one we can't predict, some guy with 13 lifetime home runs in parts of six seasons who slugs 28 and hits .280 this year. 2017's version of Adam Duvall.

Q.  Now that A.J. Preller has pushed San Diego fans through hell and high water, are you still impressed?
A. Young Preller took the reins of the Padres in 2014 and yanked them hard into expensive free agency with a bevy of stars who almost without exception cratered. Recognizing the error of his ways, he quickly reversed course and unloaded the bunch for prospects in 2015. His team has bumbled in both his seasons and he still hasn't steered the franchise entirely back on the road to success. To top it off, he was busted for falsifying information in a trade with the Red Sox. So while Preller's reign has been audacious, it has not been auspicious, but his full vitae has yet to be written.

Q. What would Matt Holiday have to do to make the Hall of Fame?
A. Age backwards? He's well short and turning 37. Hasn't played a full season in two years. When he's done, he can console himself with $160 million in career earnings and a World Series ring.

Q. Does Carlos Beltran need another crazy-good season to earn his Hall pass?
A. That would help but I think he's already in, based on the career value I described earlier. Beltran's been a very good, five-tool player for a very long time. So while he has never led the league in anything during his illustrious 19-year career, he's done a little of everything at one time or another -- won Rookie of the Year (1999) slugged more than 40 homers (2006), posted an OBP above .400 (2009), delivered an OPS+ above 150 (2011), won a Gold Glove (2006-08), stolen more than 40 bases (2003, 2004) and added post-season heroics (2004 with Houston, 2012 with St. Louis). He is rated the 9th best power-speed combination of all time.

Q. A lot of players and managers dismiss defensive statistics. Are they just Luddites or are they on to something?
A. Both. Defensive statistics are not sufficiently mature to tell the whole story. They are going to mislead us in some cases as the craft evolves. Observation by knowledgeable people has value.

At the same time, the defensive metrics add to the base of knowledge because they are unbiased. Players and managers can discern talent that stats can't, but they can also be mislead by confirmation bias and conventional wisdom. Derek Jeter was a great case in point: he was beloved, made a couple of high-profile circus catches and invented that jump throw, consequently, many observers believed he was a great fielder. But deeper analysis showed quite conclusively that he had extremely limited range on ground balls, which is the sine non qua for shortstops.

Anyone who relies on their eyeballs to the exclusion of the metrics, or vice versa, is a fool.

Q. You've railed against the ignorance of baseball media for years. Where are they now in understanding the science?
A. It's a little like race relations: we've come so far and have far to go.

Q. What do you make of Curt Schilling's HOF case?
A. Schill's arm belongs in the Hall but his mouth is keeping him out. A recent tweet about lynching journalists has prompted a serious number of voters to put his candidacy on the bench for now. Given the large number of legitimate candidates on a ballot limited to 10 choices, many of whom are more worthy than Schilling, that could cost him in the long run. This is particularly so because he has not been gracious about the very reasonable reaction to that indefensible tweet. He doesn't seem to recognize the difference between having a political point of view, which is his right, and being a jackass, which is getting him in trouble.



01 January 2017

11 New Year's Wishes for Sports

The universe owes us one. We will have thrust upon us at the beginning of this year by a comatose American electorate a sociopathic, clinically narcissistic, utterly unqualified, willfully ignorant, despicable, lecherous, shallow, juvenile, jackass-in-chief.*

I hope that wasn't payback for the Cubs and Indians in a thrilling seven-game World Series. Assuming the former was the common people knowing what they want and getting it good and hard, and the latter just good luck, it's only fair that one of the following occur this year to improve the sports universe.

1. Put the N-Scam-A-A out of our misery -- its member institutions admit that they are, in
collusion with various television networks, in the for-profit sports entertainment business. They agree to treat revenue generating sports -- big time football and men's basketball -- as the business franchises they are, bidding for players with actual cash and offering everyone who wants one a scholarship to matriculate and graduate like regular students. They maintain the limits on practice time and provide time for all athletes to attend classes, but in every other way continue to treat them like the employees they are. This is the only formula that allows the member institutions to move forward without lying through their teeth every day about their athletic programs.

2. Slash the NHL and NBA playoffs in half -- so that the regular season actually matters. With only the eight best teams qualifying, most every game will count.

3. Enforce MLB's rules designed to move the game along and limit the number of pitching changes. Committee meetings are stultifying, even when they take place on the mound.

4. Have a foreign network provide the telecast of the next Olympics to the U.S. -- It's not all about us.

5. Limit the NCAA hoops tournament to a league's best teams -- No team that loses more games in its conference than it wins should be allowed in the tournament, period. We'd all much rather see a 25-4 squad that lost in the Southern Conference semi-finals make the tournament than a 16-12 powerhouse that finished 10th in the ACC. The latter did not have a successful season and the former did, and they should be likewise rewarded.

6. Begin every televised NFL game with a warning to fans: Though the officiating will not be perfect, it doesn't matter. Luck is 30% of the game. Don't sweat every call; don't worry about three inches that can't be discerned without super slow motion, stop action and three camera angles. Enjoy today's action by freakish athletes who are maiming and killing themselves for your entertainment.

7. Sometimes, tell replay to shut the @#$%&! up -- Baseball players who dive safely into a base but bounce over it while still being tagged shall be deemed safe. That's not what replay was for.

8. Eliminate crappy bowl games -- Division 1A college football post-season contests played in
Detroit, Birmingham or Charlotte, or featuring contestants with losing records in their conference, may not be called "bowls." Instead, each of these contests shall be called the "NIT," as in, the "Pinstripe NIT" and the "Armed Forces NIT" to distinguish it from a real bowl game. There shall be 12 bowl games, -- the Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Cotton, Peach, Outback, Citrus, Sun, Alamo, Music City and Liberty -- pitting only ranked teams or league champions.

9. Remove the remaining dolts from baseball coverage -- Require everyone requesting a press credential to a Major League Baseball game to pass a test demonstrating that they understand why the old measurements no longer pass muster.

10. Screw the plane. Get into the end zone for a touchdown.

11. Admit it already: sports gambling is legal. They scroll stats under football games for fantasy league players and list point spreads in newspapers. Every office and bar advertises an NCAA tourney bracket. Forty-nine states participate in lottery operations. Your bookie is just a click away. So let's ditch the self-righteous hypocrisy and end the remaining prohibitions. Good idea? You bet.

* This blog remains non-partisan. This is not an endorsement of the other major party's nominee, who, though qualified and generally adult, was also a miserable candidate. Contrary to what the news media told you during its 25/8/366 coverage of the election, there were actually more than two candidates for president, one of them an actual Republican, all of whom more qualified, mature and dignified than the ultimate victor.

30 December 2016

You Can't Fool Players or Coaches

What do Gregg Popovich, Leonard Fournette and all of Major League Baseball have in common?

They're not buying the hype.

Popovich is the championship-winning San Antonio Spurs coach who regularly flouts NBA rules by resting his best players for whole games, despite outrage from league brass and ticket-buying fans. Recently, LeBron James absorbed blowback for similarly agreeing not to make a trip to Memphis for the second half of a home-and-home series between the Cavaliers and the Grizzlies.


Fournette is the star running back at LSU who has chosen to skip his team's bowl game -- an advertising platform for Hyundai -- in order to prepare for his Major League career in the NFL, which will actually pay him a salary. The sporting public lit up Twitter and the radio and TV commentary universe with brick-a-brats for Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and others making the same decision.

All of Major League Baseball regularly sits its star players from time to time in order to rest them for the grueling six-month, 162-game schedule. No one comments.

Their Own Best Interest
The common thread is this: the people involved recognize, even if their hypocritical overseers don't want to acknowledge it, that their best interests don't dovetail with those of the money counters in their sport. Contrary to the Association's best efforts to bamboozle fans about the abject irrelevance of its interminable regular season, Popovich understands that his team will cruise into the over-stuffed playoff field regardless of its lineup in any given game. He knows that seeding is, as Harry Truman famously quipped about the vice presidency, as relevant as the fifth teat on a cow. And he knows that championships are won on fresh legs, not on victories in Game 26 of an 82-game season against an out-of-conference opponent. And finally, he is well aware that he answers to the owner of the San Antonio Spurs, not the commissioner of the NBA.

Fournette, McCaffrey, et. al. are unmoved by the NCAA's best efforts to befuddle them about their "amateur" status. They are professional revenue generators for their schools, no more so than during bowl season, when a single game kicks back a multi-million dollar payout, even if it is the desultory Buffalo Wild Wings Sun Bowl to which McCaffrey's Stanford squad has been relegated. Each of them is acting in his own best interest. The swami of the NCAA, whatever irrelevant personage that is today, won't reimburse these NFL prospects if they get injured or fall in the draft because they offered their talents for free to the university's capital engine for one more game.

Some of the derision aimed at Fournette, McCaffrey and their ilk has centered around their "abandonment" of teammates. This is hysterical. Both are leaving school after their junior year, a well-worn tradition against which no one has ever railed for "abandoning" teammates. Coaches regularly "abandon" recruits for better-paying jobs at bigger football programs. That die was cast long ago.

A Base Hit for Baseball
Once again, baseball gets it right like no other sport. It's commonly understood that in a long season players need occasional rest in order to perform at their best for the most games. Fans purchase tickets aware that their favorite player might play spectator that day. Ironically, unlike the NBA, MLB's regular season actually does matter. One game can and often does cost teams an opportunity to earn a playoff spot that can lead to a championship. Yet everyone involved readily accepts the notion that resting players is a long-term investment.

What really separates baseball from college football and the NBA is that the latter two sports are built on foundations of hypocrisy, inevitably propping up a precarious structure prone to a collapse of logic. For all its warts, Major League Baseball at least is what it says it is, which is why no one complains when its athletes skip a meaningless game.

28 December 2016

The Projections System Got It All -- Right?!!

Remember this?



And this?

 
They were Baseball Prospectus's projected standings for 2016 last March. At the time, I made sport of the sabermetric community for continuing to expose themselves to ridicule. BP can no more predict next season's results than can any nominally educated fan .

Want proof? Look at that very first line. They have the 68-94 Tampa Bay Rays winning the East, while tabbing the Baltimore Orioles, a Wild Card entry, as the worst team in the AL. With projection systems like this, why not just throw darts, right?

But Wait, There's More...
Well, keep looking. BP pretty much nailed the rest of Baseball. Sure, the Rangers won the West, but there's lots of evidence that their level of play was much more like a lucky .500 team. The rest of the AL is dead on. As projected, the World Champion Royals did stumble. The Indians did indeed run away with the Central. The Angels, with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, did in fact stink.

Take a gander at their NL projections. Nationals, Mets, Cubs, Dodgers and Giants in the playoffs. Spot on, but for the Nats and Mets switching places. The new and improved Dbacks? Correctly unimpressed. The 98-win Pirates? Stumbled even worse than projected. The Braves' tear down? BP nailed their record.

PECOTA's High BABIP
We could analyze what happened in the game that led to this unlikely result. The big spending teams in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles delivered. The bad teams lived down to expectations. There's no evidence that the projection system, called PECOTA, learned any new tricks.

If you were projecting BP's projections for 2017, you would regress them to the mean and peg them for largely on target but for some big misses. But BP had a high BABIP last year and avoided the injury bug. They outplayed their third-order Pythagorean record.  I project that BP's 2017 projections -- and everyone else's -- will stumble about like Andy Capp, with some home runs and some big whiffs, no better than a semi-educated fan's best guesses. They won't nail all the playoff teams in either league, but they'll get the Cubs and Dodgers right, maybe the Astros too.

Next year this time, we can review my projection of BP's projection and determine who the bigger dope is. I'm betting that baseball's unpredictability vindicates me.