Saturday, October 26, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hatesterpiece Theater: College Football edition

When I'm busy not blogging, I do all kinds of interesting things. Sometimes, I eat eggs for breakfast. Something else I occasionally do when not blogging is write book reviews.

A few months ago, an editor for whose section I've written for gave me Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football by John U. Bacon, and asked me to review it. Ultimately, I told him I just couldn't do it fairly. I felt terrible about that, not only because it meant admitting defeat in this particular instance, but because I struggled so hard to get through the damn thing in the first place without wanting to light the book on fire, one page at a time.

What I ultimately wrote up reads more like an op-ed piece than a book review, and it's not destined for mainstream publication. But as a mainly Pittsburgh, mainly sports blog, that's why we're here: we pass the factory surplus of haterade on to you. Special bonus: I've left all the courtesy titles in so that you may repeatedly chuckle at the use of the words, "Mr. Bacon."

You might have noticed that we don't write a lot about college football in this space. Read on to find out why:

Kids growing up in America today generally aren’t encouraged to spend time on bouncing on trampolines or learning to skateboard. Nobody necessarily makes them learn to ride bikes or take swimming lessons.
Football, on the other hand, is an American tradition. Rare is American city, town or hamlet in which the Friday night high school game, the Saturday college game or the Sunday professional game not the most popular distraction in a given week.
In Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, author John U. Bacon profiles goings on within four Big Ten football programs — Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern. College football, he argues, is football’s oldest and most important denizen.
Mr. Bacon does this under the guise of examining how college football has changed, contrasting its historic traditions with its current realities by examining some of the game’s more admirable characters. The trouble is that he doesn’t seem to be able to separate his love of those traditions from those realities.
In this sloppily written, borderline-unreadable 350-page love letter to the way things used to be, Mr. Bacon posits that the game is being ruined by greed — that regional rivalries, school pride and the idea of passion are all suffering. In a sense, he’s right. College football isn’t what it used to be, and greed is the reason. But he also isn’t willing to embrace the kind of change the game needs, not just to fix it but to bring it closer to something less resembling organized crime.
College football isn’t just a multi-billion dollar industry, it’s the third-most profitable sport in America. Yet Mr. Bacon advances the naïvely altruistic and absurd notion that college football is above the business of business and should operate on some romanticized and antiquated idea of amateurism.
In an attempt to establish college football as something important and special, Mr. Bacon runs out a series of patently ridiculous claims.
“College football fans actually care about college football.”
Unlike hockey fans, who readily admit they’re just killing time.
“College football is one of those few passions we have in common with our great-grandparents.”
Unlike these newfangled inventions of baseball, reading and being outdoors.
Jerry Sandusky’s arrest and the scandal that followed, “surely accelerated Paterno’s decline and death.”
Sure, because the prognosis on an 85-year-old man with lung cancer is normally outstanding.
“College teams play on college campuses, where student actually go to school.”
Unless they don’t, as is the case with the Universities of Miami, Hawaii, Washington, Baylor, South Carolina, Oregon, Northwestern and Pittsburgh, just to name a few.
“College football is selling romance, not prowess,” Bacon writes. “…it is not supposed to be a business.”
I hate to break it to Mr. Bacon, but college football is a business. Just like the NFL, it’s run by an abhorrently hypocritical governing body.  And the nearly 68,000 kids who play college football every year are America’s most exploited workforce. By merely playing the game, they’re subjecting themselves to a myriad of long-term health issues — including self-destructive neurological disorders and shortened lifespans — and receiving nothing in return but the opportunity to earn a farcical education.
Every college with a football program is more than fine with this arrangement because the last thing administrators want is a challenge to an unchecked system which affords them a license to print money off the backs of young kids, many of whom are black and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
In leaning heavily on college football’s many traditions, Mr. Bacon shows he’s more interested in longing for the sport’s bygone era than he is in fixing its numerous ailments, and he offers little in the way of proposed solutions. At one point, he writes that the now widely adopted corporate approach to college athletics administration is akin to selling the Gettysburg battlefield to Disney “so they can ‘maximize the brand’ and give visitors a ‘wow’ experience.”
It’s true that tradition can be valuable. But when treated with the kind of blind reverence that brings someone to compare the sanctity of amateurism to that of blood-soaked hallowed ground on which was fought a war to end slavery, tradition becomes a sad excuse to maintain the status quo, regardless of any inconvenient necessary evils or immorality inherent in the system.
As literary candy for die-hard college football fans, Fourth and Long delivers well-reported information on of players and coaches who continue to forge ahead, both out of respect for and in the name of tradition. Mr. Bacon’s exposition on the Penn State football players who found themselves caught up in a scandal they had nothing to do with makes for an interesting story.
But anyone looking for thoughtful analysis, insightful perspective or new ideas on the abjectly broken game is better off looking elsewhere, as Fourth and Long spends most of its time preaching to college football’s stubbornly unflappable fans. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

If you were never down, how would you know when you were up?

I'm a nervous person. I always have been. I'm on medication for it. But the last week's worth of baseball has taken it to heights I didn't think possible.

Extract all the butterflies and nagging self-doubt you felt during all of both middle and high school, combine it with the tenuousness of your first date, first big job interview and everything you went through while reluctantly learning to swim. Pour that into a small saucepan, then add Game 6 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals and five ounces of red wine vinegar.

Then place it uncovered on low heat for a few minutes to reduce it into a concentrate, let it cool and drink it over the course of about five hours.

That's what it felt like on Tuesday night while sitting at Kelly's Korner Bar in Lawrenceville and watching the Pirates and the Reds throw down for a trip to baseball's real post-season.

I've loved baseball as far back as my memory takes me, and I'm told that I had a predisposition for it even prior to that. My feelings toward this game are so strong and so inexorably linked with my identity that I'm sure their intensity rivals the way other people feel about their faith or their kids or Ultimate Frisbee.
But for as passionate as I am about baseball, I've never hung on every single pitch of a game with the anticipation and focus I did on Tuesday night. And though I couldn't get a ticket, the crowd was so intense that felt it through the TV for all nine innings.

All these years, I always wondered what it would be like when these guys finally got over the hump. I imagined being there. I imagined not being able to get a ticket and watching at a bar. I imagine watching with friends. I imagined watching alone, presumably for some kind of Zen catharsis. I imagined it would be tense.

I never imagined it would be as tense as it was, or that I'd be so overcome with raw emotion at a Lawrenceville dive bar that I'd completely lose my composure. I've never been a crier. When it was over, I felt lightheaded. Then I wept like a child for about 30 minutes. Right there at the bar.

Once it became clear that this was the team that would end the futility, I set what I felt was a completely reasonable expectation: either win the division or win the Wild Card Game. Either way, play in a real playoff series. Just make it to that stupid five-game divisional series and that's enough. Dayenu.

Now, these guys have taken home-field advantage away from the Cardinals and are one win away from going back to the series where this whole ignominious odyssey started.

And I'll be there tomorrow. I couldn't be there on Tuesday or today. But tomorrow, I'll get to go down to my ballpark to watch the Pirates play in a game which for years, I wasn't sure I'd ever live to see them play.

Win or lose, that's invaluable to me and I plan to savor every minute of it. Always appreciate the winning and never forget the losing. If we're lucky, some day that will be the only thing separating us from Yankees fans.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Fridays with FRANCO: Playoff Edition!

Here are some things I'm thinking, presented in a numbered list:

1. Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, Justin Morneau, and Daryle Ward should all be in the lineup today.  Lance Lynn's splits:
vs. RHB = .291 wOBA
vs. LHB = .340 wOBA

Those guys should also go up there taking pitches.  It's not that Lynn is necessarily more hittable for hefty lefties; it's that he has trouble throwing quality strikes to them.  His primary pitch is the fastball, both the four-seam and two-seam variety.  Unless a fastball is cut, it will move in a bit towards batters of the same side as the pitcher's arm (i.e. tailing in on righties when thrown by a righty, in on lefties when thrown by a lefty).  Lynn gets his outs by using that natural trajectory to sneak up on the bat handles of righties, but when lefties come up, the pitch either fades out of the zone, or gets grooved right down the middle.  In short: he doesn't have an effective way to power pitch these guys on their inner half of the plate, and because of that, he's historically been prone to walking them.

2.  Gerrit Cole has never faced St. Louis.  Interesting if true.

3.  Clint Hurdle is a big dummy for leaving A.J. Burnett in there for so long yesterday.  Moreso, he's a big dummy for not having his bullpen mobilized earlier.  Same can be said for Dusty Baker in Tuesday night's game.  It's like these guys are afraid there's a charge for calling the bullpen and telling some dudes to start stretching.

Yes, the argument can be made that there was no beating Wainwright yesterday.  But if that's how you want to play it, if you just want to concede the game in the 3rd inning, then you should pull McCutchen and Martin and some other guys off the field so they don't get injured.  If you've given up on a game, then let the world know and don't take chances with your prized commodities.

What do I do differently?  I warm up Melancon and a lefty when AJ walks the pitcher.  I go out to the mound and tell him he's an asshole.  Then I pull him after he gives up the HR to Beltran.  I am not concerned with the possibility that it'll shatter his confidence; giving up 7 runs and only recording 6 outs is pretty confidence shattering, too.  So yeah, I'd bring in one of my best arms to try to limit the damage to 3 runs.  Maybe we lose the game 5-1 or 4-0 or something like that.  And the Cardinals are still up one game to none.  But we don't know that for certain in the 3rd inning.  All we know is that we have three to five games, in which we need to maintain the best probability of winning at all times.  If that means a 5% WPE vs. a 1.8% WPE, fine.  We're all gambling men at this time of the year; why handcuff ourselves to worse odds when it doesn't cost us anything to do the alternative?

4. I haven't come across a strong devil's advocate piece, yet, on The Drop Heard 'Round The World.  I was there, it was magical, the crowd was rocking and it doesn't hurt anything or anyone to believe we got inside Cueto's head.  But put everything on mute for a minute.  Johnny Cueto was up in the zone from the beginning.  He got one ground ball out, and that was Starling Marte trying to bunt for a hit.  All of his misses were up out of the zone; all of his strikes were in the upper third of the zone.  All of his outs were stingers hit to his outfielders.  Nils and I both noticed this and said that it was a good omen for home run hitting.  Sure enough, that's the kind of offense we got.  Did the chanting help?  Probably didn't hurt.  Were those moonshots completely predictable within the pattern of his prior location?  Yes.  Sometimes a dude drops a ball.  Sometimes the national sports media loves a narrative.  Sometimes the narrative is completely unassailable because of what the game means to that particular city and crowd.  This was our bloody sock, and I think it's a story worth telling. So there's my very, very conditional devil's advocate.


5. St. Louis has some really bad pizza!  A couple buddies and I stopped in for a pie when we were passing through a few summers ago, and it was terrible. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

This is why we lifted all those weights

So it's October 1st and there's a Pirates game in just under two hours. How the hell did that happen?
Dave Cameron did a fantastic analysis of this last week on Fangraphs, which is well worth a read, but four out of the five items he touches on can be traced back to one thing: they finally started paying attention to the right numbers.
It wasn't just the front office, either. The coaches and players did, too. About two weeks ago, the Trib's Travis Sawchik wrote what I think might go down as the most revealing piece of sports journalism anyone has done in this city for a while when he did a feature on the Pirates' use of defensive shifts.
Shifting is one of the items Cameron touches on in his breakdown, but from that piece came this nugget:

“We had a buy-in that we were going to do it starting in spring training,” Hurdle said. “We brought Dan (Fox) in, and I brought in all my coaching staff.
“I know this game is built upon tradition, and players are territorial. They have comfort zones in the infield. You lay out the factual information … and with facts, there's no argument.”
The signings of Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin proved great moves. So too, for that matter did bringing back Charlie Morton on a one-year deal. But that Neal Huntington was able to get Clint Hurdle and his staff into a place where they were open to the idea of managing with a sabermetric bend to the game goes beyond just employing defensive shifts -- it's an absolute game-changer.
Last October, Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout hosted a bloggers' round table with the Trib's Dejan Kovacevic. This was in the wake of the reporting on what appeared to be the militaristic, non-baseball culture the Pirates had established in their minor league system. During the hour-plus chat Dejan did with the bloggers, I brought up the question of numbers, and what if any role Dan Fox was playing in the team's decision-making.
FTC: What’s Dan Fox doing? Do they just not listen to anything he says? Clint Hurdle definitely doesn't listen to Dan Fox.Dejan: This is true, actually. Not sure if you’re being hypothetical there, but you’re right either way.

This was the last information anyone outside the organization reported until Sawchik told the story of Huntington meeting with Hurdle and selling him on the idea of maybe hearing what Fox had to say.
From Sawchik's piece:

“Nothing gets implemented from where I sit. I have no power to make it happen, so Clint's willingness and openness to information is key,” Fox said. “They committed to it.”

It's impossible to emphasize how huge this has been for the Pirates, but it also fundamentally changes our understanding of the organization. It's evidence of a method to the madness after a pair of seasons during which we had significant reason to question the existence of or adherence to any method. 

2011 and 2012 were all smoke and mirrors, and the peripheral stats all said so. That wasn't the case this year. So while I approached July with trepidation, numbers like xFIP and BABIP, combined with the pitching staff's eminently reasonable walk rates, all said that this was more likely real than not. Then, they brought up Gerrit Cole and shit became incredibly real.

Before the season started, FTC completely panned the signing of Francisco Liriano. What evidence did we have that the Pirates knew something everyone else didn't? After two straight epic collapses, what credibility did they have to make such a claim?

It turns out the Pirates knew the same things about Liriano as everyone else; the only difference is that the Pirates decided they'd get more out of Liriano if they politely asked that he never rear back and try to throw 97, and instead focus on making his two-seamer -- which was already a fantastic pitch -- the center of his repertoire. And while they were at it, they had all their other starters do that, too.

In the season preview, FTC said the ceiling on Russell Martin was "not a colossal waste of money." Another gross miscalculation. Not only was Martin not a waste of money, he wound up being one of the 20 best players in the National League, having the second-highest WAR among catchers, and turning out the best defensive season that any catcher has had in at least the last 11 years. Certainly, part of this is pitch-framing. But Martin has also been outstanding at throwing out runners and blocking balls in the dirt, the latter of which, it turns out, is exactly a skill you want your catcher to have when you're fielding a rotation of guys who rely so heavily on sinkers. 
Once we know more about defensive metrics for catchers, it's going to be fascinating to look back at Martin's 2013 campaign to see where it fits with regard to his career.

What looked like a pair of last-ditch moves to make a run at .500 turned out to be well-considered attempts at implementing a coherent and logical organizational philosophy: groundballs, strikeouts, defense. So yes, I was wrong about those guys and I'm completely happy to admit it. This has been the most fun season of baseball I've ever experienced, and no amount of being right is worth the reality that we're going to be playing ball today (I add, parenthetically, that FTC was dead-on with its preseason lauding of Mark Melancon and Justin Wilson, and its straight-up dismissal of Jonathan Sanchez, Brandon Inge and James McDonald).

It absolutely kills me that I'm not wearing black down on the North Shore right now. I am, however, about to make my way over to a certain undisclosed location in Lawrenceville to watch the game and hopefully live-tweet. If they win tonight, I'm really hoping I'll find a way to get to the divisional series -- in fact, I'd give multiple years off the end of my life to be there. If they don't, I probably won't get out of bed tomorrow, and I'll be holding Nils and Franco personally responsible for going to the game without me.