Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Can we predict hockey standings?

The age old question. Each September hockey columnists give us their predicted standings. We read along, caught up in the impending arrival of a new season. We don't even mind when Scott Burnside calls a team "plucky". Then, if you're like me, you realize that these predictions aren't based on any quantitative measures and you're left a little unsatisfied. So here's the first step to finding satisfaction.

There are a few adaptations of the Bil James Pythagorean Expectation out there, but I decided to look at things a little differently. Let's look at the relationship between points and goal differential for the 2009-2010 season, then for all seasons post-lockout.

Hey, that's really linear! Using all post-lockout data, we can use a linear mixed-effects model to fit the data and come up with our predicted point values. Here's how the model predicts the 2009-2010 Eastern Conference standings.


Washington 121
Washington 121
New Jersey 103
New Jersey 103
Buffalo 102
Buffalo 100
Pittsburgh 99
Pittsburgh 101
Philadelphia 96
Ottawa 94
Boston 94
Boston 91
NY Rangers 93
Philadelphia 88
Montreal 90
Montreal 88

Ottawa 88
NY Rangers 87
Atlanta 85
Atlanta 83
Carolina 83
Carolina 80
Florida 80
Tampa Bay 80
NY Islanders 78
NY Islanders 79
Tampa Bay 77
Florida 77
Toronto 74
Toronto 74

And now the Western Conference:


Chicago 113
San Jose 113
San Jose 109
Chicago 112
Vancouver 109
Phoenix 107
Phoenix 100
Vancouver 103
Los Angeles 100
Detroit 102
Detroit 96
Los Angeles 101
Colorado 96
Nashville 100
St. Louis 93
Colorado 95

Nashville 92
St. Louis 90
Calgary 90
Calgary 90
Anaheim 88
Anaheim 89
Dallas 86
Dallas 88
Minnesota 83
Minnesota 84
Columbus 77
Columbus 79
Edmonton 68
Edmonton 62

The model does pretty well. Can we use this to predict the 2010-2011 standings? Yes, but we'd have to estimate each team's goal differential. Unlike baseball, we don't really have individual player level data (something like RAR) so it's a bit difficult to project how many goals a team will score and allow. I guess that's step 2.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

It's Thursday

I can't think of a better reason to post this picture of former Pirates first baseman Sean Casey holding a Haitian orphan with AIDS. It's good to know someone is going to Haiti to hold the orphans. That's important work.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

If you hit 40 HRs, you're allowed to lie about anything

Just ask Dante Bichette.

Or, more relevantly, Jose Bautista.

The former Pittsburgh third baseman now plays for Toronto. He believes the Pirates were ready to win several seasons ago, but management refused to spend the money to upgrade a too-young pitching staff. As a result, the Pirates kept losing and a productive everyday lineup was dismantled.

Which season could that have been?

2005: OPS+ 89, ERA+ 96
2006: OPS+ 86, ERA+ 98
2007: OPS+ 92, ERA+ 89
2008: OPS+ 92, ERA+ 83
2009: OPS+ 88, ERA+ 90
2010: OPS+ 80, ERA+ 79

See, I'm not sure it was the pitching staff that was too-young. I think you could pump as much money into the pitching, and the team would still suck. This is because it gave ABs away to guys with OPS+s of 88 while with the Pirates.

Eat your heart out, Dan Fox

Times are changin', folks. Nate Silver and his crazymath face have been bought by the New York Times. The Pirates employ the guy who came up with a metric for measuring the value of players on the base paths. Ned Colletti continues to trade away legitimate talent for 36-year-old closer wannabes.

We here at FTC have long been fans of the magical numbers parade, so we've cleared up some cap space and brought in our own statistician. Please welcome Nils to the FTC family, and afford him the same respect that you do to Franco, your mother and me (if not more, because he's real good at math).

I don't trust Bob Nutting because he's a secret Muslim who is trying to take my guns and sell the Pirates to the Vatican

Portions of the Pirates' 2007-2009 finances were leaked to the Associated Press on Sunday. And now that we've had a few days to stew in the crock pot of details and soak up that moist, spicy information we never thought we'd see, here's what we know for sure:

1) Because the leaked information only goes back to 2007 -- the year during which Frank Coonelly took over as team president -- we have minimal insight into the organization's finances, how they ran and what they looked like prior to Coonelly taking over. This means we know almost nothing about the way the team was managed during the McClatchy years, apart from how much gents like Derek Bell and Jeromy Burnitz took home. Because we don't have this information, we don't have much context with which to judge the efficacy of the Coonelly operation.

2) After reviewing the AP story, the PG's coverage, a local CPA's analysis of the books, and the financial documents themselves, it seems to me like the Pirates under Coonelly and Neal Huntington are doing exactly what they say they've been doing all along. See Franco's post below for a general outline of what we feel that strategy has been.

3) While organizations will occasionally leak their own information as a matter of PR strategy, this leak doesn't appear to have come from the Pirates. In fact, it looks like it was designed to smear the Pirates. The quick and easy message here was that the Pirates have been profitable while fielding a crappy baseball team. When you toss in that the leak was to the AP and not a preferred local media outlet, such as the Post-Gazette, and that the AP also obtained a check stub from a payment made by the Pirates to Seven Springs, the Nutting family-owned ski resort, that's only going to fuel the long-running, local speculation that the Nuttings have been filtering money from the ball club to other ventures for some time. There was just enough information leaked to make the club look bad at first glance whether they're doing things right now or not, and most of the people who will read about this won't give it more than one glance. My money is on Major League Baseball as the source of this leak, as the league would have had all these documents from the independent audits they do of each team's finances, and that it was designed as a warning shot to get the Pirates to make some kind of significant payroll increase at the major league level.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fridays with Franco

Hope you all liked it when FTC came out of the woodwork to comment on Big Ben and LeBron, because we may just pile on, regarding the woeful Rocket.

Matt makes some good points in his post, and that's why we keep him around. However, he's wrong. Clemens is worth indicting, and if found guilty, deserving of punishment.

We can all agree that Congress was absurd in spending tax payer money on steroid hearings. But beyond that, let's consider two things: 1) the US government's relationship with MLB is absurd, and 2) the steroid inquiry wasn't just about grandstanding, but also political diversion. It came about after George W. Bush mentioned the topic in the 2004 State of the Union address. Between redefining the mission of the Iraq War to no longer include WsMD, and warning Americans about the perils of gay marriage, the president took time to address performance enhancing drugs in professional sports. I remember Jon Stewart pillorying him for such a lame diversion, but lo and behold, George W. was right on the mark-- and a full year before Jose Canseco's whistle blowing.

Not to be too cynical, but our politician leaders act in accordance with news cycles, and when they anticipate a particular week, or month, or more to be potentially brutal, the typical ploy is to reinvent the news. The Bushies were getting slammed in the polls, and the news cycles were being dominated by things like Abu Ghraib. This is where the grandstanding over steroids found its groove.

But none of this has to do with Clemens.

Here's the thing: for as absurd a use of government as the 'roid hearings were, what became an even more scandalous sight was the way Congress treated one, unintended victim. You see, Roger Clemens is a friend of the GOP, a friend of George HW Bush, and a friend of George W Bush. His being caught up in all this was an unintended consequence, and as such, the republicans on the oversight committee were charged with protecting him.

But let's be even more specific here: Clemens didn't need protection from anything. The finger-wagging, grandstanding, diversion hearings were totally unenforceable. Congress called a couple famous juicers before them, got them to cry, and then let them go. Clemens got in trouble because he came back for more.

He is being accused of perjury, not because the US government wasted time and money subpoenaing his shrunken nuts, but because the US government's time and money was wasted by Clemens voluntarily coming before it, for the purpose of defaming his accuser.

The US Congress used Clemens and others as props in its PR campaign. Clemens came back and used Congress as a prop in his own PR campaign. While it's hard to respect the government institution's actions in this case, the appropriate recourse for us, The People, is to demand better; not to disrespect the institution with our own actions. No one should be allowed to use Congress as a platform to tell lies; not politicians, not citizens. If we really want to get back to believing in the institution, we must hold everyone accountable to this contract.

I have no problem agreeing that our justice system is whack, and that punishments rarely fit crimes in the cases of celebrities or athletes. But let's step back from all the goofiness, and just look at this for what it is: a man voluntarily testified in front of Congress, after being advised by the panel to either not testify, or tell the truth exactly. It's now clear that he may have lied under oath, and therefore it is reasonable to charge him with obstruction of justice and send him away for about a year. Yes, it's victimless, and that's why we're saying he shouldn't get the chair. Yes, it's lying under oath in front of a very high institution, and that's why we're saying he should get some kick in the ass.

That's my take on it.

Moving on...

Let's give Neal 'real deal' Huntington a shout-out. Three years ago, he took over this mess of a baseball franchise. His plan was unpleasantly long-term, and loaded with opportunities for Pirates' ownership to shirk paying up. The plan was outlined like this:
1) Cut everyone in the majors who makes above minimum wage; we're terrible, and don't need to spend money to keep losing. (DONE)
2) Use the money saved by the major league purge to relaunch our development program; oversees recruitment and domestic scouting. (DONE)
3) Infuse unprecedented cash into the draft, so that we never have to fear negotiating with the best player on the board. (DONE)*
4) Spend big bucks at the major league level when the good players arrive from the minors. (PENDING)
5) Win. (PENDING)
6) Trade good players for a net growth in our farm system, so we not only have enough good players to win, but also good players to deal for a third generation of prospects. (PENDING)

Part 6 sucks, but not as much as being stuck in parts 1-4. And truthfully, there is something neat about the trade-to-replenish model. A league without a salary cap is an unfair game, and there is certainly an art to winning it.

Anyway, I mention all this because this past week marked a big moment in this plan. No one was going to doubt that the ownership would be fine with part 1; as Pirates fans, we expect our front office to be cheap. And part 2 is the kind of under-reported thing that takes a while to gauge. What happened this past week was that Neal Huntington gave us a sign that he has every intention to fulfill his promise on part 3. He signed the big two pitchers in this draft, gave them boatloads of money, and then continued to spend on the lower rounds. Obviously we're still waiting to see if ownership will keep its promise to lock up this talent once it develops, but knowing that they came this far is a big deal.

Our congratulations to Huntington is still pending, but our faith in him is renewed for another while.

Let's project our psychological hangups onto athletes!

Taking a break from the warm and fuzzy uncertainty that the New York Times apparently likes to call my "emerging adulthood" (read: applying for jobs I will never get and realizing that society has ostensibly no idea what to do with me or anyone else my age), it's time to go back and hit the ol' blog.

Yesterday, Roger Clemens was indicted on six counts of perjury. According to the Altoona Mirror's Cory Giger, Clemens belongs in jail. I must preface this diatribe with the disclosure that I've known Cory for several years, that I hold him in the highest possible regard as both a friend and mentor, and that I think he's damn good at his job. In this case, though, he just happens to be comprehensively wrong.

It's my belief Roger Clemens lied to Congress about using steroids, and now he deserves to have his you know what thrown in the slammer.

Many stuck-up, ridiculously entitled, mega-rich professional athletes think they can get away with anything. Clemens is finding out that isn't the case.

Au contraire, mon frère. That is absolutely the case. Anyone who has ever covered college or professional sports for any good length of time has stories about athletes doing despicable things for which, because of their status as athletes, they're never made to answer and for which they are never held accountable. The volume of what the general public still does not find out about the secret lives of athletes is astonishing.

The superstar former pitcher was indicted Thursday on perjury and other charges. Clemens has vehemently denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but come on, everybody knows he did it, and several people close to him have testified to it.

We have something in this country called due process. It's in the Constitution or the Bible or the Articles of Confederation, or some such historically yellowed piece of paper. Not that I disagree with Cory's assessment of Clemens' guilt. I think he's guilty of using performance enhancing drugs, and I think he's guilty of having lied about it. But we, as a nation, have a more successful track record of maintaining separation of the courts of law and public opinion than we do in keeping the balance between church and state. That's why you don't typically see prosecutors utilizing the "come on, everybody knows he did it," strategy.

I also think that the volume and severity of truly criminal activity we let slide in this country is so great that trying to send Roger Clemens to jail for perjuring himself during the most useless set of Congressional hearings since Joseph McCarthy tried to have everyone in Hollywood exiled to the Urals would make just about as much sense as trying to prosecute a fourth grader for cheating on a spelling test.

Clemens looked washed up a few times in his career, only to miraculously bounce back and become nearly untouchable several times. Yeah, like that happened naturally and with only hard work.

Stop with the charade, Roger. You're guilty, you know it, you lied about it under oath and now you deserve to go to jail.

There's just so much that's wrong with this that I hardly know where to begin.

1. We don't know with any degree of certainty the effect that steroids had on baseball during the "steroid era." This is true of hitting, but even more so of pitching. Any fan of baseball, any writer, pundit, or conscious observer who claims with certainty that steroids make you better at baseball is just as dangerous to the integrity of the game as a single-issue voter in a polling place is to the integrity of our political rhetoric. Eric Walker's "Steroids, Other 'Drugs' and Baseball" should be required reading for anyone who wishes to keep having this conversation. The range of potential realistic answers to the question of how steroids influenced baseball performance begins with "it is almost impossible to know" and ends with "not very much."

2. For whatever we think we know about how steroids may have aided hitters -- and we don't know too much -- we know even less ab out how steroids may have aided pitchers. It might be possible to know more about the impact PEDs had at the plate than on the mound because we have a working knowledge of the physics of hitting. Ted Williams' "The Science of Hitting," which remains an industry standard on the subject, reveals that bat speed is the most important factor in the equation. One or two extra miles per hour in bat speed contribute much more to the distance of a batted ball than one or two extra miles per hour on the speed of a given pitch. This isn't conjecture. It's physics. I guess this is all just a roundabout way of bringing up the fact that throwing hard was not what helped Clemens' longevity, nor was it his massive, allegedly enhanced physique.

From his rookie year in 1984 through the fascinatingly entertaining 1998 season, Roger Clemens had maybe two or three down seasons, and even in those seasons (1984, 1993, and 1995) he was still an above average major league pitcher. During the entirety of his career in Boston and Toronto, Clemens averaged a 2.95 ERA, a 1.143 WHIP, a 151 ERA+, and 6.2 WAR per season. That's really good. And that takes him from age 21 to age 35. Between the ages of 35 and 44, the New York and Houston years, Clemens predictably declined. He averaged a 3.48 ERA, a 1.231 WHIP, a 129 ERA+ and 4.0 WAR per season. So he declined with age, as all players do.

But even IF steroids have some positive impact on performance, and even IF everyone during that era of baseball was juicing, and even IF you feel everything is tainted and your childhood innocence is ruined, none of that changes the fact that Roger Clemens was astonishingly good for an unreal length of time, and that not once between 1985 and his final year in 2007 did Clemens ever rate as a below-average pitcher. At his worst, he was merely a league-average pitcher. Were you to eliminate the steroid question from the equation entirely -- wipe the whole slate clean for every single pitcher -- Clemens would still have stood out, and that's impossible to deny.

3. He deserves to go to jail? No. He doesn't.

In 1998, Rams' defensive end Leonard Little drank too much at a birthday party, got behind the wheel of a car, and ran over and killed a woman. He got four years probation and 1,000 hours of community service. He was arrested in 2004 for driving while intoxicated, failed three field sobriety tests, and even told police he had been drinking. The charge was later dropped. Leonard Little deserves to be in jail.

Donte Stallworth was legally drunk in 2009 when he ran over an off-duty construction worker with his Bentley. He served 24 days of a 30-day jail sentence, got 1,000 hours of community service and eight years probation. Donte Stallworth deserves to be in jail.

The entire leadership of British Petroleum, from the top on down to the lackeys who do cost/value and risk/reward assessments have raised the ceiling for criminal negligence in allowing the single largest man-made ecological disaster in history. We are going to be feeling catastrophic effects from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for years, and in a plethora of different ways. The BP people belong in jail.

Roger Clemens lost a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at a Congressional sleepover/circle jerk. Roger Clemens does not belong in jail.

There are consequences in life, and many spoiled-rotten athletes think they are above reproach and will never have to deal with repercussions when they screw up.

They think this because everything about they way we treat our athletes in this society encourages them to think this.

And please, stop with the whole "Congress is only on a witch hunt" argument, or "Congress has better ways to spend its time and money." You want to gripe about the government, fine, but that's not what this is about.

But here's the thing: that's exactly what this should be about. If Roger Clemens is two things, he's an incredible ballplayer and he's not very bright. The reason perjury and obstruction of justice are offenses worthy of incarceration is because the people who wrote federal law were under the deluded impression that any societal issue worthy of its own Congressional hearings would be important. The Congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball were not only thoroughly unimportant, they were straight up unnecessary, political grandstanding. Using banned substances to enhance performance, while a crime, is a crime without victim. I don't give a damn about Roger Clemens one way or the other, but taking steroids and then lying about it isn't nearly as bad as having an extramarital affair with a 15-year-old girl. If you want to make it about that, we can make it about that. Otherwise, there is no getting around the fact that these hearings were about anything other than an ill-conceived play for Oversight to expand its political clout, and even that descended into partisan bickering.

Lock him up for a year or so. Teach him and every egomaniacal athlete who thinks he or she can get away with anything a lesson.

Roger Clemens is absolutely an egomaniac. He's a dumb, 48-year-old egomaniac. And it's precisely because of this that you're not going to accomplish a damn thing by putting him in jail for a year. This is a guy who, since he was about 18, has lived a completely different reality than people like you or me. He's spent 40 or so years walking around on a pedestal. It is just as utterly pointless to try to teach Roger Clemens a lesson or make an example out of him as it would be to try to have a heart-to-heart with Antonio Cromartie about parenting or discuss Dadaism with Matthew Stafford.

One phrase Cory used to describe these athletes he dislikes so strongly was "ridiculously entitled." I agree that a lot of athletes have absurd senses of entitlement, but that's because we do nothing to discourage that behavior and everything to encourage it.

And with regard to the issue of entitlement: it needs to disappear from the psyche of the modern sports fan. I will concede that some athletes are bad people. But at the same time, they don't owe us anything. We plop down all kinds of money and we feed the fire. I'm beyond sick of the "role model" debate. Good people are role models, bad people are not. An athlete who happens to be a genuinely good dude, say, Troy Polamalu, is perfectly fine as a role model. Ideally, as a sports loving society, we'd reach a point where even young fans were able to understand the difference between the athletic performance and the off-field conduct of a figure like Clemens. In most cases, it's possible to admire the performance completely apart from the person. That part? That's on us.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

More baseball; football coming soon

According to the AP, Ozzie Guillen doesn't think people are giving the White Sox enough acclaim. According to the standings, the White Sox are 63-49 and tied for first place in baseball's weakest division. What the fuck do you want, Ozzie? A parade?

Also in baseball: Fight! Yours Truly's campaign to breed bile in the NL Central seems to be working.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A story and a photograph

Seeing the Pirates get the crap kicked out of them is nothing new. In fact, some would say it's getting old.

What was new for me, when I saw them get beat up in Denver, was that I was rewarded for it... in the form of tacos!

You see, every time the Rockies score 7 runs at home, every ticket holder is gifted 4 crunchy Taco Bell tacos for the price of $1. (Of course, the way I was looking at it, the deal was really more about Paul Maholm allowing those 7 runs than it was about the Rockies offense. I mean, after 18 years of misery, I feel like we have to have earned something.)

Anyway. I'm stoked about this. Sure, I'm leaving the stadium feeling a little depressed that I can't go anywhere without watching the Pirates lose, but whatever: I had scored some tacos.

All I remembered from the scoreboard announcement was that I'd get to redeem my ticket the following day, and something about six o'clock. The next day rolls around, I'm heading out of town around 1pm, but before I leave, I pop into the Bell. Turns out the promotion is only good from four to six o'clock. Blah! Somehow I persevere and pay full price for a couple of tacos (I think it came out to like $2.80something). I get in the car, fully intending to book it for Utah and leave my tacos behind.

But then the Rockie Mountains happen, and my car turns into a 1992 Ford Taurus. I spend all afternoon chugging along at low speeds, from one redneck service station to another, trying to keep the engine alive at three miles above sea level. Finally, I pull over for dinner in this charming little Deliverance-esque township, where the front page of the evening newspaper is about a woman who had the good instincts to play dead when a bear started chewing off her arm.

This place, my friends, was no place for humans to be.

Anyway, I found myself there because I saw on the highway signs that they had a Taco Bell. However, as my car crawled off the exit ramp, I realized what time it was - 6:08 pm. The minutes ticked even further away as I pumped gas and contemplated: Do I go in there and cry? Just let it all hang out? The raw emotional state of driving for four days in a row with no end in sight? The trauma of automotive failure in bear country? The 18 years of shitty baseball?

Believe me, I had the tears ready.

Ultimately though, I chose not to. I kept the ticket, and some day, when the Pirates break .500, I still won't have my tacos. So it goes for Bucco fans everywhere.

Speaking of fans-- guess who I saw at the game...

That's right, it's FTC's old friend, Salman Rushdie. I would have been in the picture with him, but someone had to hold the camera (and it sure as hell wasn't going to be a Coloradoan).

In conclusion: down some tacos, up some Rushdie. Success.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Can you say that?

After Thursday's game, I can say I've seen Paul Maholm lit-up on both sides of the Mississippi. We're done with California teams this year, so I won't be able to say I've seen it in three different time zones. But you know what... someday.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Spot the Yinzers!

Outside the stadium, as I was buying a ticket, a young guy in a #21 jersey came up to me to seek validation. You see, I had what we in the business call "street cred[ibility]" because I was donning not only my Pirates hat, but my Super Bowl XL commemorative Troy Polamalu jersey. Anyway, the guy proudly showed off his Clemente shirt, but then admitted he was wearing a Rockies' shirt under it.

THIS is not a Yinzer, folks. It's just a dude who owns some Pirates gear and wore it because it was topical, not because he gets what it means. I wanted to ask the guy how many dangerous, relief missions he went on to earthquake shattered countries, but he went into the stadium before I got a chance.

Moving on.

I thought this kid had it figured out:

Upper deck, sitting with his family members, none of whom are wearing Pittsburgh gear. Good for him, reminding Denver that Jake Plummer sucked.

(I have a picture of the kid when he turned around, but I'm not sure we're allowed to post child faces on this site. Matt: please clarify.)

Also, there was this guy.

Turns out Heath gets pretty good seats, because this was taken right behind home plate.

In conclusion, as I was making the losers' walk back to my car, a young pacific-islander girl on a bike shouted "Hey! Polamalu!" I turned around, ready to explain in disappointing detail that I was not in fact Troy Polamalu, but what I saw from her was just a very cheerful smile. Sometimes it's not about winning at baseball, I realized; it's about being a tastelessly obsessive fan of the whole package, and just enjoying the fact that there are other crazy people like you out there.

That said, someday we're going to win at baseball.


Monday, August 2, 2010

This is Ubaldo Jimenez

He didn't need any help from the Pirates to be a dominant pitcher that day. Likewise, the Pirates didn't need any help from Ubaldo Jimenez to be completely terrible. They both just kind of went out of their way on helping each other, I guess.

I distinctly remember liking how few curveballs Jimenez threw. It was an afternoon of 97-99 MPH fastballs, with an occasional 89 MPH change for variety (coincidentally, 89 was where Maholm's heat was sitting). Anyway, I appreciated that Ubaldo felt like his time was being wasted by our bullshit team, and that he in turn didn't want to waste my time by throwing junk. He got out there and just poured it into the zone. Someday we'll have a guy like that.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

FTC on location

I went to a Pirates-Rockies game this past week. During the next couple of days, I'm going to live-blog my memories of the experience.