Friday, July 18, 2014

Baseball needs to take a cue from the NBA and make the All-Star Game about fun

Baseball took one more step toward irrelevance last week with the staging of its 83rd annual All-Star Game at Minneapolis’s Target Field. The long, slow death of this once-great July tradition has been painful to watch over the last 12 years.
It started in 2002, when, with the National and American League teams tied at seven runs apiece through 11 arduous innings, both teams ran out of players to use. The prevailing thought at the time was that it’s a meaningless game, but dammit, we’re going to try to use every single player so that everyone who showed up will be able to one day tell their kids or your kids or someone else’s kids that they played in the great Midsummer Classic.
After both managers and the umpiring crew conferred with Commissioner Bud Selig, who was conveniently seated in the front row behind home plate of the Milwaukee ballpark where the team his family still owned played its home games, Selig declared the game a tie.
Selig had been the commissioner since 1998, though he’d spent the six years prior as acting commissioner after leading a the owners in a coup to remove Fay Vincent from the role, presumably for his crimes of trying to maintain revenue equality between the players and owners, his aggressive handling of George Steinbrenner’s erratic and maniacal behavior and his desire to see the designated hitter removed from the game entirely.
To all outward appearances, Selig and the owners ousted Vincent because he less concerned about acting in their best interests than he was in acting toward the best interests of the game—a far cry from when the owners, hats in hands, approached former federal judge and noted racist old loon Kenesaw Mountain Landis about becoming baseball’s first commissioner following the fixing of the 1919 World Series and granted him absolute power over the game.
So there, in his home ballpark with the game tied after 11 innings, committed one of the game’s greatest sins and allowed it to end in a tie.
Baseball games don’t end in ties. In a way, that’s part of the sport’s poetic beauty. You’re never fighting against a clock, you’re never running out of time. There are no penalty shots, no points system dictating standings and no letting up. You can play into the next day, postpone the game so that everyone can get a few hours of sleep, then pick it back up in the exact scenario where it was left off and compete until you’re blue in the face, then compete some more. Baseball is played until one team wins and another loses.
Selig’s mistake was assigning value to a game that needed no additional value. As the commissioner, endowed by the owners with absolute power, he could have allowed players who’d been removed from the game to re-enter it. Such provisions exist even in the Little League World Series—anything in the name of finishing with a winner and a loser. By stopping the game and sending an enraged crowd home deprived of an extra-inning thrill ride which could have easily been one of the most memorable and fun games in the sport’s history.
Instead, the commish took the cowardly way out. Operating under the absurd notion that fans wanted the All-Star Game to be a meaningful affair rather than a fun exhibition—a mindset which was at the least revisionist and at the most stupidly antiquated—Selig declared that the following year, the league which won the game would receive home-field advantage in the World Series.
Prior to 2003, the leagues had alternated World Series home-field advantage each season, which, while not as sensible as granting the honor to the team with the better record, still makes a hell of a lot more sense than assigning it based on the outcome of an exhibition game played in July.
No other sport functions this way. The NBA, which unquestionably has the best All-Star weekend of all the major sports, understands that the game isn’t about bragging rights, even if it used to be—it’s about everyone involved having fun, from the players on the bench to the fans up in the nosebleeds, all the way to everyone watching on TV.
TNT’s David Aldridge, who’s easily one of the sharpest, funniest and best reporters ever to cover the NBA, once brilliantly dubbed NBA All-Star Weekend, “Black Thanksgiving.” As someone who barely follows the NBA, the skills competition and All-Star Game are still appointment viewing for me.
Here are a few notes I’ve taken while watching NBA All-Star Games:
·         Dwight Howard just referred to himself as “Chocolate Shoulders.”
·         (Kevin Durant hits a 3) Steve Kerr: Kevin Durant is the most athletic guy in the league.
·         (Howard dunks) Kerr: Dwight Howard is the most athletic guy you’ll see in this league, along with LeBron James.
·         (Russell Westbrook dunks) Kerr: Westbrook is probably the most athletic guy in the league right now, guys.
·         Craig Sager and Justin Bieber have an in-game, courtside condescension-off: Sager: So are you in school or something? Bieber: It’s the weekend, Craig.
·         Sager: Kobe, I saw you whisper something to D-Wade before tip-off. What’d you say to him? Kobe: Oh, it was nothing. Nothing to do with the game. It was something else that was humorous.
Fast forward to last Tuesday.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, playing his 32th and final major league season at the age of 57, got a much-deserved standing ovation when he came to bat for the first time. In deference, Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright stepped off the mound and allowed the crowd to give Jeter all the love they wanted before he stepped in to hit. It was a nice moment—not quite on par with Ted Williams’s appearance at the start of the 1999 All-Star Game when the famously prickly Red Sox great, who vowed never to tip his cap and acknowledge the crowd, did both after being surrounded and greeted by all of the players as he shakily made his way out of a golf cart to deliver the game’s ceremonial first pitch, but a nice moment nonetheless.
And then Wainwright did what any good guy pitching in a stupid exhibition game would do: he threw Jeter a few fat pitches, giving the old man an opportunity to collect what should have ostensibly been an honorary hit—a chance for the guy to stand on first or second base and take in another few seconds of near-universal love before walking away from the first half of his life having fulfilled not just every last one of his childhood dreams, but allowing the millions of kids who grew up watching him play to experience some semblance of those dreams vicariously through him.
Showing deference to an outgoing great like Jeter is the only one of baseball’s unwritten rules worth a damn. On August 30, 1942, outfielder Tommy Henrich played his last game before shipping off to spend three years in the coast guard during World War 2. It was an afternoon affair at Yankee Stadium and everyone wanted to see Henrich, whose popularity on the Yankees was second only to that of Joe DiMaggio, go out on a high note. After all, there was a very real possibility that he might not come back.
This wasn’t lost on Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Dizzy Trout, who later admitted that he threw Henrich fat, hittable pitches all game. Henrich finished 3-for-3 with a double and a pair of walks, and the Yankees beat the Tigers, 4-3, in a regular season game. The Yankees were pretty good that year, the Tigers were middling at best.
But that was a real game that counted for both teams, and could very well have had playoff implications later on in the season. It didn’t matter to Trout and the Tigers—they wanted to give Henrich something nice to take with him.
There are probably hundreds more instances just like this of guys grooving pitches and conceding hits out of deference and respect to worthy opponents. It’s not the childish eye-for-an-eye code that determines who gets balls pitched directly at their heads, and it’s not at all sinister in the way players used to commonly associate with known gamblers and throw games for money.
Maybe Adam Wainwright shouldn’t have admitted to a reporter that he threw Jeter a couple of easy ones, but I’m glad he did. Wainwright plays for a pretty good team—a team to which home-field advantage in the World Series could mean something come October. But in admitting that he went easy on Jeter in order for the Yankee captain to best enjoy the moment qualifies as a tacit endorsement of the notion that the All-Star Game having postseason implications is flatly absurd.
The fans feel that way and at least some of the players feel that way.
But Selig will be gone from the game soon. Here’s to hoping he takes his ill-conceived notions about what matter in baseball with him, and that the future of the Midsummer Classic isn’t about making it count, but making it fun.

John Kruk made known how terrified he was of Randy Johnson, and Johnson responded in kind.

Four years later, Johnson had a similar exchange with Larry Walker.
I don't think Chan Ho Park was grooving that pitch to Ripken. I think he was just being Chan Ho Park.

Man, that ball went a long way.

Barry Bonds was the most reviled man in baseball when this happened, but that didn't make this any less fun for anyone involved, even Bonds.

Nothing beats this.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tony Gwynn was the consummate fans' player

Though I grew up watching baseball, I don’t recall living long under the impression that the players I most admired were admirable people. That notion was dispensed with in the early ‘90s, when certain Pirates who shall remain nameless (Carlos Garcia, Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds) completely blew off a young fan hoping to get their names on a ball.

After that, it didn’t take long to figure out which guys were straight up assholes. It was as visible through their body language during batting practice and games as it was when they’d walk by a crowd of fewer than five kids who’d waited outside Three Rivers Stadium for more than an hour after a game on a school night, just hoping to get a little attention from someone whose livelihood was to play the game those kids loved so unconditionally.

It’s what led me to love players like Jay Bell and Jack Wilson, who on top of being exciting shortstops, brought a sense of humility, enthusiasm, and gratitude for the improbable status they’d achieved as professional ballplayers.

While those two were the guys I went to watch — they played for my team — nobody exemplified those qualities more than Tony Gwynn. Gwynn died this week at 54 following a lengthy battle with cancer.

Around the time I discovered that ESPN was a thing, and that athletes who played on teams in cities all across North America were accessible via Channel 72, nothing made me happier than seeing an interview with Tony Gwynn.

As fifth- and sixth-grader who, in successive years, dressed up as Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove for Halloween, Tony Gwynn was someone to whom I could relate. Here was someone who loved the game as much as I did — as much as anyone possibly could — and whose appreciation for that game shone through with everything he said and did. Tony Gwynn didn’t wear his love for baseball on his sleeve; he draped himself in it. If he’d ever tried to hide that love, he’d have been the world’s worst liar.

In 1997, someone at ESPN had a great idea: to sit Gwynn down with Ted Williams and turn it into a SportsCenter segment. The two already had something of a casual friendship, and the ensuing conversation, which I watched at least a dozen times the week it aired, was pure gold.
The audio is still out there on the Internet — I’ve listened to it a few times over the course of the last week — but the video was priceless. Gwynn, with his round face, wide smile and perfect teeth, answering a question Williams asked about his playing weight still rings in my ears fresh as the first time I heard it.

“You weigh 227?” said an incredulous Williams, whose playing weight was nearly 50 pounds lighter. “Holy shit!”

When Gwynn’s Padres played the New York Yankees in the 1998 World Series, I vividly remember watching the fourth and final game in my grandparents’ living room. My grandmother, a Brooklyn native who probably didn’t give much of a shit, was rooting for the Yankees. Everyone in the room was, and as an uncomfortable 15-year-old, I kept my mouth shut. But I felt terrible for the Padres, Gwynn in particular. Not only did I want a more competitive series, I wanted Gwynn to prevail.

As a player, Tony Gwynn was a complete anomaly, a throwback to the turn of the 20th century, when high averages were more common among great players and home runs less so. A casual review of his career numbers shows a .338 batting average, a .388 on-base percentage, and a .459 slugging percentage. What makes those numbers truly amazing are his strikeout and walk numbers. Tony Gwynn didn’t walk much — he took free passes in just 7.7 percent of his plate appearances. But he only struck out 4.2 percent of the time he approached the plate. The other 88.1 percent of the time Tony Gwynn went to bat, he put the ball in play.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) should normally sit around .300 for all players. Anything outside of five points in either direction is considered luck. But thanks to a hand-eye coordination that was nearly super-human, Gwynn had an inexplicable ability to place batted balls outside the defense’s reach. Through 20 Major League seasons, he never finished with a BABIP lower than .303, and his career mark rounded out to .341.

To those who embrace the new wave of sabermetric statistics, that’s unbelievable — most hitters should wind up around .300. But Tony Gwynn wasn’t most hitters. He took advantage of his superb coordination by using a bat that was shorter and lighter than the bats of what’s now become known as baseball’s Steroid Era. He slapped pitches to all fields, content to take singles and doubles at a time when more popular players injected themselves with all manner of substances to maximize their home run totals.

He finished his career with a paltry 135 home runs. But he also 3,141 hits in 10,232 plate appearances, walking 790 times and striking out just 434 times. This man approached the plate more than 10,000 times between 1982 and 2001, but only managed to strike out 434 times. That’s an uncanny statistic. He never struck out more than 40 times in a full season of play. Pedro Alvarez does that in any given three-game series against Milwaukee. Gwynn’s career average against Greg Maddux, a Hall of Famer who’s widely considered the best National League pitcher of their mutual generation, was .411. Tony Gwynn could hit anyone.

Players like this don’t exist in baseball today. Hell, they didn’t even exist when Gwynn was playing. And with the advent of batted-ball tracking and defensive shifts, the odds are decidedly against a player like this ever existing again, but that’s not even really the point.

Our grandparents grew up watching players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Paul Waner, and Stan Musial. Our parents grew up watching the likes of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Roberto Clemente.

The generation of baseball fans now in their late 20s to 30s has had no shortage of incredible players to watch, but none quite like Tony Gwynn. When you grow up a baseball fan in Pittsburgh, which until last season was as painful as an appendectomy sans anesthesia, you have to really love baseball to stick with it. You have to really love baseball.

Tony Gwynn loved baseball the same way that people who stuck it out for 21 years of Pirates ignominy love baseball. Not only did he appreciate every minute of it, he made sure that those around him felt every last bit of the joy he did.

I never had the opportunity to meet Tony Gwynn, but in a lot of ways, I feel like that doesn’t really matter. His talent was exceptional, his enthusiasm infectious, his love for the game unimpeachable, and his character, by all accounts, every bit as genuine as even the most innocent, naïve fans would picture.

When someone like this dies, they never really leave — they remain omnipresent in the best of ways. You still hear their laugh, you know what they’d say if confronted with a particular dilemma, and while you miss them, you’ll never feel as if they’re truly gone, like that aunt or grandmother or cousin who departed this world too soon. It’s almost as if their attitude ingrains itself in your psyche. That’s not the mark of a great player, but a great person. And that’s the kind of thing that stays with you forever.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

If it ain't broke...

The Pirates announced on Wednesday that they’d retained the services of a sports architecture firm to study the long-term future of PNC Park.
Per the Post-Gazette’s incomparable Michael Sanserino:
The goal, Mr. Coonelly said, is to make sure PNC Park lasts as long as Forbes Field, which housed the Pirates for 62 years, and that it doesn’t grow obsolete like Three Rivers Stadium, which was abandoned after 30 years in operation. PNC Park opened in 2001.
Though Coonelly’s point is paraphrased, the action speaks for itself. The Pirates are entertaining the notion that PNC Park could become outdated. Think about that for a second.
Sanserino’s article posted at 10:01 a.m. Seventeen minutes later, the Pirates (specifically Drew Cloud, executive vice president, chief sales and marketing officer), acutely aware of whose opinion really matters, sent me an e-mail.
PNC Park is in its 14th season! We are proud to play in what many believe to be the best ballpark in America. To that end, we are committed to enhancing and improving not only the ballpark but the overall fan experience. We are currently in the early stages of developing a Master Plan for the next generation of PNC Park.
How does this worry me? Let’s count the ways.
First, let’s be real about something: the American professional level of baseball is the highest in the world, and demands the nicest facilities. You’re not going to go to Japan or Central America and see a nicer ballpark, and they don’t play baseball in London, Paris or Dubai. The facility in question isn’t the nicest ballpark in the country, it’s the nicest ballpark on the planet. It has been since it opened 14 years ago, and not a single new park constructed since can touch it. San Francisco’s is the only one to even make it into the conversation, but it still makes for a short and unexciting debate.
PNC Park is architectural bottled lightening. It was designed and built so efficiently that it came in under budget, allowing its builders to use a higher quality of limestone on the exterior than they’d originally planned for. It’s a gem.
If your chief sales and marketing officer is only willing to tiptoe around that notion to the tune of “in what many believe to be the best ballpark,” you need to find a new chief sales and marketing officer — or at least hire someone to start writing his material for him (I’m available!).
Second, the entire point of building this ballpark in the first place was to give the baseball team a home as timeless as it is permanent. Now we’re not even two decades into its existence, mere months removed from a period of unrivaled futility, and these assholes are already looking to fix what’s not broken.
It continues:
We have engaged Populous
I have no idea what that is.
Oh, HOK! Still have no idea who that is. Did the put the HOK in hoka hey?
There will be six (6) sessions taking place at PNC Park on Tuesday, June 17 and Wednesday, June 18. If you are interested in participating (unfortunately this invitation is nontransferable), please complete the very brief survey to determine when the session will take place and if there is still space available. For those that do participate in the sessions, as a "thank you" we will provide four tickets to one of a selection of Pirates games.
They want me to come to PNC Park and tell them what I think? I’ve been waiting years for this. I always thought it would come in the form of a desperate phone call, but this will do just fine.
I took the survey, telling the Pirates my name (Matthew), age (29-36) and the number of games I go to each year (5+, the highest available option). I was then redirected to a screen which informed me that there were no sessions open for someone meeting these criteria, but that I should feel free to fill out the comment box in the space provided with any feedback I might have.
Well that’s just fucking insulting.
On a hunch, I hit the back button and changed my answers to the latter two questions. Sure enough, if you’re younger and go to fewer than five games a year, they’d love to have you over for tea. I filled it out again with still different answers and found the same holds true if you’re older. I tried to definitively isolate the variable that was keeping me from participating in this exchange, though the website ultimately figured out after five or six tries that I had already taken the survey. That said, I have every reason to believe that the Pirates only want to hear from people who go to fewer than five games a year.
Since the Pirates aren’t interested in having me over for coffee and a hot dog, I’m going to use my special powers of editorial publication to drop a 10-ton truth bomb here and just assume someone will pass it along to them:
I know what you’re doing. I know where you guys are going with this. You don’t need to add more seats to the ballpark. You don’t need to put in a pool. You don’t need to find a way to add more luxury suites. You don’t need more dining options, racing pierogies or assholes shooting hot dog vouchers shaped like hot dogs into the stands.
You have a good thing going here. Don’t fuck it up.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

FTC's Stanley Cup Final Preview

Welcome, dear reader, to the final installment of our playoff previews and predictions! Just to recap, I developed a statistical model a couple of months ago in an attempt to predict how the playoffs will unfold. Please check out the first round preview, second round review, and conference finals preview.

There were no surprises in the conference finals, with the favored Rangers and Kings both winning their series. Before the first round, our model gave the Kings the best chance of winning the West and the Rangers the 2nd best chance of winning the East, so the model did its job pretty well. I'll do a full review and evaluation of the model after the Kings-Rangers series. Ok, on to the Cup prediction. Remember that even the Cup prediction is based on regular season numbers, and doesn't take into account how the teams have played to get here.

Los Angeles Kings vs. New York Rangers
Again, This Stanley Cup Final match-up shouldn't surprise anyone. Both teams were favorites in all of their series. Outside of guys like Tyler Dellow and Eric Tulsky, I don't think many people considered the Rangers as Cup contenders back in April. The Kings were the best possession team all year, in terms of score-adjusted Fenwick. The Rangers were the 6th best. Johnathan Quick was pretty average this season, and has really not played well in these playoffs. Meanwhile Henrik Lundqvist has been brilliant. I've been reading a lot of stuff about how the Western Conference Final was the REAL Cup Final, and that the winner of that series should have just been handed the Cup after Game 7. That's ludicrous. The Rangers are a good team. Hockey is a funny game with a lot of inherent randomness. Our model shows the Kings as favorites, but not overwhelming favorites. This is the first time all playoffs that the Rangers are underdogs. Enjoy the series!
61% chance of a Kings victory.
39% chance of a Rangers victory. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Chase-ing Pete Rose: UPDATE

Remember when Chase d'Arnaud famously told Pete Rose he'd out-hit him someday? You may not remember this, dear reader, but a couple years ago, we here at FTC, in one of our boldest predictions ever, said that there's no way this will happen. Just for fun, I wanted to see how Chase is doing so far in his quest. Take a look.

Yep. After his age 26 season, Rose had accumulated 899 hits. d'Arnaud has racked up an impressive 31 hits though his age 26 season. Chase needs to get to work. Of course, he has to play his way onto the major league roster first.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

NHL playoff predictions: Conference Finals edition

What have we learned from our projections of the second round of the playoffs?

1)  The Canadiens pulled off quite an upset. This is probably the first true upset of the playoffs. In the preview, I said, "If the Canadiens are to win this series, Carey Price will have to be amazing, and the Habs will need to win the special teams battle." Well, that is exactly what happened. Even though the Bruins were better at puck possession, Carey Price (.943 5v5 save %)  out-goalied Tuukka Rask (.929), and the Canadiens scored 7 power play goals compared to 3 for the Bruins. The Bruins were clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference, but now Milan Lucic will have to get his kicks by spearing pizza delivery guy in the nuts.

2) The Pens blew a 3-1 lead. Here's the thing: the situation isn't as bad as it seems. The Pens had better possession numbers in this series. Marc-Andre Fleury was good. However, Henrik Lundqvist was brilliant, especially in the final three games of the series. The Pens ran into a hot goaltender and some bad luck, and unfortunately gave up early goals. A lot is being made about Sidney Crosby's scoring woes, but he was a dominant possession player who ran into bad luck and a hot goalie. I fear we're going to see a lot of overreaction from Pens' ownership, but that's for another post. Bottom line: the Rangers had a better score-adjusted fenwick %, 5 on 5 save %, and penalty kill % than the Pens all season. Make no mistake: the Pens had a 3-1 lead and should have finished the series. But the Rangers are probably the better team. In the first round projection, I said, "The Rangers are a darkhorse; don't be surprised to see them go deep in the playoffs.

3) The Kings had more trouble with the Ducks than I thought they would. Losing defensemen Willie Mitchell and  Robin Regehr to injuries hurt the Kings, and the emergence of John Gibson really boosted the Ducks. The Kings are the better team, and likely the best team remaining in the playoffs.

4) The Wild had a solid showing against the Blackhawks, but it wasn't enough. The Hawks are a really solid team.

Speaking of the Blackhawks, I've commented on how the model may be underestimating their chances, Well, I think I figured out why: I use 5 on 5 team save percentage as a predictor in the model as a way to measure goaltending. The numbers are easily available, and they seem to be a good measure. There are some cases where this isn't true. For example, the St. Louis Blues acquired Ryan Miller at the trade deadline this season. The save percentage I used in the model was based on a lot more Jaroslav Halak (40 games) and Brian Elliott (31 games) than Ryan Miller (19 games). So the number in the model probably didn't reflect the true goalie situation. The Blackhawks are similarly affected. They had the worst 5 on 5 save % (.914) of  any playoff team. It was because their backup goalies were awful. Corey Crawford was fine (.925), but the Hawks backups played 30 games and pooped this out: Antti Raanta (25 games, .896), Nikolai Khabibulin (4 games, .833), Kent Simpson (1 game, .714).  So the Hawks goalie numbers are skewed by the terrible performance of their backups. In the future, I may need to use the numbers of the anticipated starting goalie for each team.

Ok, now onto the conference finals predictions. Keep in mind that the third round projections don't take into account how the teams played in the first and second rounds. So, we're assuming that a team's performance  is independent of its performance in rounds 1 and 2.

Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers
Both teams are playing their best hockey right now. Henrik Lundqvist was brilliant toward the end of their series against the Pens. Carey Price was equally good. The Rangers are the better possession team, but will playing two 7 game series, including 4 elimination games, affect them? This should be a great series.
68% chance of a Rangers victory.
32% chance of a Canadiens victory.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings
These were the two best possession teams in the NHL. This is going to be some great hockey. Like the Rangers, the Kings have played two 7 game series. They've faced elimination six times. Will it affect them going forward? The Blackhawks know how to close out a series, so the Kings can't count on making another dramatic comeback.
77% chance of a Kings victory.
23% chance of a Blackhawks victory.

Now, just for fun, I ran the model using the regular season 5v5 save percentages for the four starting goalies for these teams. The Rangers become more modest favorites (60/40) and the Kings also become more modest favorites (62/38). I also ran Cup winning simulations based on both team and starting goalie 5v5 save percentage. The Blackhawks' chances improve more than two-fold using starting goalie numbers.

Updated Stanley Cup probabilities

team 5v5 save %

starting goalie 5v5 save %
Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles Kings
New York Rangers
New York Rangers
Montreal Canadiens
Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks
Montreal Canadiens