Archive for the 'Sports' Category

Commonplaces: Exley on football.

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it; I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity — perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood. Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.

~ ~ ~

I had wanted to make the pilgrimage [to former Giants head coach Steve Owen’s funeral] because it was Owen, as much as any other, who had brought me round to the Giants and made me a fan. Unable to conceive what my life would have been without football to cushion the knocks, I was sure I owed him sorrow. It occurs to me now that my enthusiasms might better have been placed with God or Literature or Humanity; but in the penumbra of such upper-case pieties I have always experienced an excessive timidity rendering me tongue-tied or forcing me to emit the brutal cynicisms with which the illiterate confront things they do not understand.

–Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes

How to compare two baseball players, Part 3.

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

[Yes, it’s been nearly two years since I started in on this topic. But, hey, better late than never.]

In Part 1, we set out the basics for a comparison problem: who’s better, Mickey Mantle (maybe the best switch hitter ever) or Chipper Jones (maybe the best switch hitter today)? Part 2 addressed the problem of peak value (advantage: Mantle) versus career value (advantage: to be determined — though Jones has added to his stats a bit in the two seasons since I wrote the original installments).

Now we turn to the real core of the problem — how to judge two players in the context of different eras of baseball.

Look at the picture of Goose Goslin here. Goslin was a fine outfielder for the Washington Senators, and he was good for a long time. When he retired at age 37 in 1938, he had collected 2,735 hits, 1,483 runs, 1,609 RBIs, 500 doubles, and 4,325 total bases while batting .316 in 2,287 big-league games. Those numbers are outstanding in any era off the game.

But the baggy flannels remind us just how different the game was in Goslin’s day. Higher batting averages were common. (The entire American League averaged .300 in 1930.) Pitchers recorded far fewer strikeouts on average than they do today, but pitched complete games far more often. With the exception of a few Native Americans and light-skinned Latinos, the major leagues were the province of white men. Physical therapy and reconstructive surgery to heal injuries were rudimentary and haphazard at best. Few players lifted weights, and most of them needed off-season jobs to make ends meet. (Even in the 1960s, young Nolan Ryan pumped gas over the winter while he was a member of the Mets organization.)

To understand how numbers from then compare to numbers from today, we have to make the same kinds of adjustments that economists make when they recalculate nominal dollars as real dollars to account for inflation (or deflation) over time. If economists didn’t make these adjustments, prices or salaries from earlier eras would seem ridiculous when put alongside values from today. If we don’t make these adjustments for baseball, we’ll end up thinking that Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby — each of whom batted above .400 for a season three times — were incomparably better than today’s hitters, which is similarly ridiculous.

At this point, I’m going to not write several hundred or several thousand words talking about the evolution of park-adjusted, era-adjusted, and similar stats. I will just say that, if you look under the sections labeled “Player Value–Batting” and “Neutralized Batting” in any Baseball Reference player record, you’ll discover a whole new world of analysis. That analysis reflects many years of hard work by people who love baseball — and who have serious mathematical skills — as they have tried to figure out how to make fair comparisons between players of different eras.

Using Statistics as Blunt Instruments

In the old days, batting average was the ultimate measure of batters. If a guy was a lifetime .300 hitter, he was considered a good hitter. If he batted .310, he was considered to be that much better than a .300 hitter, Q.E.D.

Ah, but baseball isn’t so simple as that. Sure, if all I know about two players is their batting averages, then I’ll take the guy with the higher number — and hope that Mr. .310 isn’t a pure singles hitter while Mr. .300 is leading the American League in extra-base hits and walks (neither of which is measured by batting average). If all I know about two power hitters is how many RBIs they’ve each racked up over the past five years, of course I’ll pick the guy with the higher total — and hope that it isn’t a case of an above-average hitter looking better than a great one by virtue of the teammates who bat in front of him.

But we don’t live in that hypothetical information-starved world, and our analysis of baseball is just much, much better now. Our understanding of what hitters do that puts runs on the board is better. Our knowledge of how certain home parks artificially inflate or deflate hitters’ numbers is better. Our knowledge of how pitching and defense keep runs off the board is better. So it doesn’t work to stick with the blunt instruments that Grandpa used 70 years ago to compare Mel Ott to Goose Goslin.

Sticking with the old way would be like meeting a neurosurgeon, here in 2011, who’s not interested in these “newfangled” CAT and PET and MRI scans for diagnosing aneurysms. Just think about what your reaction would be if your doctor said, “X-rays and exploratory surgery were good enough when I started in medicine in 1960, and they’re good enough now.” You’d walk out immediately, because it would be insane to marry yourself to lesser tools just for the sake of . . . what, tradition? Habit? Obtuseness?

We’re better than that.

In Praise of Nuance

If you want to compare a bunch of hitters in the simplest way possible, start with these two statistics:

  • On-Base Percentage — It has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that OBP is the stat that tracks most linearly to runs scored for a team, because everything that improves OBP gives your team another baserunner without costing it an out. Everything that detracts from OBP costs your team an out, shortening or ending your team’s turn at bat and therefore reducing its chances of scoring more runs. Related: the list of the top 100 players ever by career OBP is a decent starting point for making your shortlist of the best hitters ever (once you use historical context to eliminate the players who compiled big numbers in the crazy world of 1800s baseball).
  • Slugging Average — This number expresses the average number of total bases that a hitter achieves per at-bat. So a .610 slugging average means that the hitter — and this would be a great one like Albert Pujols — averages 61% of a base for every at-bat. Singles help this number just like they help batting average, but doubles help twice as much, triples three times as much, and home runs four times as much.

If you’re comparing hitters from one era, you can go with the raw numbers — unless one or more of the men played his home games in a park that had a big effect, positive or negative, on these numbers. (This is a big deal, for instance, in considering the current Hall of Fame candidacy of Larry Walker, who piled up big numbers in the hitters’ haven of Coors Field in Denver.) We know beyond any doubt that some ballparks favor hitters and some favor pitchers, and in fact the analysis in this vein has gotten sophisticated enough that it’s easy to tell which fields, say, are neutral in terms of batting average but depress batters’ ability to collect doubles and triples.

If you’re comparing hitters across eras, you’re well-served to consider the broader environments they played in. As mentioned above, the American League as a whole compiled a .300 batting average in 1930. Yet in 1968, Carl Yastrzemski won the A.L. batting title by virtue of being the only man in the league to crack .300. That’s not because the American League forgot how to hit in the intervening 38 years, but because conditions radically favored hitters in 1930 and radically favored pitchers in 1968.

Ever More Context

It’s tempting to look for the single magic number that encapsulates the value of a player in a nutshell. But it’s dangerous. Even the best of the modern stats — VORP, WAR, Win Shares, etc. — have their drawbacks, despite trying to take into account players’ ballparks, eras, defensive positions, levels of defensive skill, baserunning abilities, and so on. (Again, I’ll save you several hundred words on why it means a good deal more to hit like Mickey Mantle when you’re playing superior defense in centerfield, as Mantle did, than it does to hit like Chipper Jones when you’re playing solid-but-unspectacular defense at third base, as Jones did. But it matters.) Yet these stats, at the very least, have the virtue that they try to account for context.

Baseball fans will never quote book, chapter, and verse on a player’s “park-adjusted Wins Above Replacement” like they do for batting titles, home runs, RBIs, and the like, which is fine by me since the older numbers are (a) simpler to remember, (b) totemic in some cases (Ted Williams’ .406, Babe Ruth’s 714), and (c) reflective of the game’s history. Just so long as we don’t kid ourselves that the old, raw numbers and the blunt-instrument thinking behind them — the X-rays from 1960 — are as good as the newer, sharper, contextualized modes of analysis. They aren’t. They can’t be.

It’s not the X-ray’s fault that it conveys less information about the aneurysm than the MRI does. But it’s true.

Mantle vs. Jones

Confession time: when I started this series of posts in 2009, I was smarting from a blunt-instrument verdict delivered by an acquaintance of mine — a big Braves fan — who hit me over the head with Jones’s batting average, waved away Mantle’s many other achievements, and told me that I couldn’t just assert Mantle’s superiority in the face of the numbers (like lifetime batting average) that proved that Chipper was better than The Mick. Part of the reason I let this final post languish for so long was that I wanted to let go of the idea of convincing this hard-bitten fan of the inescapable errors in that position. This was less about baseball analysis than it was about trying to pick my battles, and not trying to argue with someone’s whose mind was already closed to alternate interpretations.

I tried to approach the writing of the earlier posts — and this one — with an open mind. What I found verified the opinion shared by me and, I’m going to guess, well over 99% of serious baseball analysts: that Mantle was clearly superior to Jones in terms of peak value (see the previous posts for more on that). But I also discovered that Jones was a lot closer to Mantle than I thought in terms of career value. So I did learn something, even if my initial conclusion — that there’s no way Chipper’s as good as Mickey — still holds up.

What I’d like to convince you of now is that there’s room in baseball analysis for all kinds of numbers, including old favorites like batting average, RBIs, and even pitcher’s wins. They tell us what happened: Greenberg hit a double and drove in Gehringer from first. But the old favorites — love them though we do — simply don’t tell us as much about a player’s performance as the newer, more contextualized numbers do, especially across eras. They can’t.


(Photo of Goose Goslin from the Library of Congress via Bob Bobster, used under a Creative Commons license.)

A Brief Observation on Playoff Baseball.

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Last night, the Texas Rangers looked great against the New York Yankees for seven innings. A decade ago, the Juan Gonzalez-Ivan Rodriguez Rangers served as the first-round playoff whipping boy for the Yankees three different times, but it looked like the men from Arlington might finally win a fight against the perennial bully of the American League.

Then their starter, C. J. Wilson, faltered a bit, which wasn’t a problem, and Rangers manager Ron Washington went to his bullpen, which was.

Here’s the brief observation:

  • During the regular season, one of the most subtle jobs for any manager is his use of the bullpen. You want to keep relief pitchers fresh by using them often enough . . . but not wear them out by using them too much. You want to give the highest-leverage innings to the best relievers . . . but you also want to give the lesser members of the bullpen a chance to elevate their own levels of performance. Above all, you want to properly distribute the huge pitching workload that comes from a 162-game schedule. Doing it well is an art, really, and it’s all about knowing which tool is the best one to reach for in which situation.
  • In the playoffs, the best tool to reach for is virtually always the biggest hammer you have, because it’s of paramount importance that you win TODAY. Get this win in the books and, except for holding the next game’s starting pitcher in reserve, don’t worry about tomorrow. That means that you want maximum innings from your best starters and relievers, and minimal innings not just from your worst pitchers, but even from your middle-of-the-road pitchers. The best playoff managers (recently: Joe Torre with the Yankees, Terry Francona with the Red Sox, Mike Scioscia with the Angels, Joe Maddon with the Rays, and Charlie Manuel with the Phillies) get this. When in the slightest doubt, drop the hammer — even to the point of sometimes ignoring the usage patterns you established during the regular season, if that’s what it takes to win THIS game.

Last night, faced with a Yankee surge, Washington went to his Nth-best reliever four times in a row, where N = any number besides 1. His closer, Neftali Feliz, never got into the game.

Now, there were close plays (Gardner’s headfirst slide) and tricky hops (A-Rod’s grounder past Young) involved, too . . . but that’s what happens in baseball, and no manager can control that. What they can control is which pitcher they put into the game when. Last night, faced with the horror of things unraveling quickly in a game that the Rangers dearly needed to win, Washington never dropped the hammer.

And now my life is complete.

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Because I have been quoted in Sports Illustrated, people — that’s why. Phil Taylor does the honors:

Time to Call a Reverse

Dig it. (My part is at the end.)

A few words on NBC’s Olympics coverage.

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

The furor over tape delay of events: Overblown.

The mix of pro-American and pro-other-people coverage: seems reasonable to me. (Relevant footnote: Aksel Svindal seems like an amazing person.)

Last night’s obsessive showing of pair after pair in the compulsory segment of the ice dancing competition: unforgivable.

And those are the thoughts I have to share for now.

I’m a sucker for the Olympics.

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Who’s with me?


NFL: And Then There Were Two.

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Finally some placekickers had a good day in the NFL playoffs. Last night during the Vikings-Saints game, Fox answered my question from last week — “Is it just me, or has the kicking really been that bad?”

The answer: “No, it’s not just you.” During the regular season this year, NFL kickers hit more than 80 percent of all field-goal attempts; to that point in last night’s game (i.e. not including Hartley’s game-winning kick in overtime), kickers had barely broken 55 percent as a group during the playoffs.

Anyway, I picked right for both of the conference title games, and now we have the matchup called “Archie Manning’s Nightmare.” I expect 5,000+ stories on Manning in the next two weeks, and 50+ live shots of him when his son leads the Colts against Archie’s longtime team in Miami.

By the way, my buddy Kyle and I have matched each other round for round — pick for pick, in fact — up to this point in the playoffs.

And now, my Superbowl pick . . . Colts by 3, which would cement Peyton Manning’s historical reputation beyond any doubt.

That said, I’m hoping the Saints will pull it out. Even 4+ years after Katrina, New Orleans still needs all the love it can get.

What’s your pick?

(Photo by Alysha Jordan, used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.)

What I was going to say about steroids.

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

As you might expect, Joe Posnanski

  • beat me to it;
  • said it better than I would have; and
  • said it longer and in much more detail that I would have.

Read it here. And make sure to pause, think, and think again before you ascribe all of the offensive explosion in baseball in the 1990s and 2000s to performance-enhancing drugs.

A horrible year for NFL kickers.

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Mind you, I haven’t looked at stats to determine if field-goal accuracy really is down across the board this year, but the failures of good placekickers in the current NFL playoffs have been many and awful. The kickers for Cincinatti, Arizona, and, in last night’s excruciating loss, San Diego have all put up brutal showings at the worst possible times for their teams.

Also anecdotally, I feel like I’ve seen more bad kickoffs this year than at any time in my memory. My question to you, O NFL fan:

Is it just me, or has the kicking really been that bad?

On to other things, namely my past and future picks for the NFL playoffs.

  • Last week I picked the Saints, Colts, Cowboys, and Chargers, so I went 2-for-4 in the games just completed. This is a fair sight better than my first-round showing of 0-for-4.
  • Hoping to continue my upward trajectory, I now pick Saints over Vikings and Colts over Jets for the conference championships.
  • I think the Colts are the favorites from here on out. That said, any ultimate winner besides the Colts would be more interesting, in my book, since the other remaining teams have either never won a Superbowl, or haven’t won one in ages and ages.

Who do you like from here on out?


(Image source.)

My NFL picks for the coming weekend, BECAUSE YOU CARE.

Monday, January 11th, 2010

How do I know you care? Because, geez, I can feel your concern all the way over here, people. Maybe if you cared a little less, I could ignore this disturbance on the psychic plane and get some work done, you know?


  • Saints over Cardinals.
  • Colts over Ravens.
  • Cowboys over Vikings (upset!).
  • Chargers over Jets.

Keep in mind that I went zero-for-four on playoff picks in the weekend just passed, so you should probably just adopt the Costanza Rule here and pick the opposite of what I do.