Last year, I suggested a way baseball could bring some relevance back to the regular season: by recognizing the team with the best record as the League Champion. This year’s League Champions, under that formulation, would be New York and Washington. I find that a far more useful metric of overall team quality than “made the post-season”.
Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category
The recent massive trade between Los Angeles and Boston, in which Boston is dumping most of their high-paid stars to LA, has brought the Ewing Theory back into the lexicon. Here is Bill Simmons’ 10-year old explanation of the Ewing Theory. The Ewing Theory — better described as the Ewing Effect — is when a star player leaves a franchise, the media all assume this spells doom for the franchise and the team “inexplicably” (although usually quite explicably, if you look closely) wins anyway. It was first brought into light by Simmons, a writer I generally like, in the context of the Mariners’ surprising 2001 season.
The Ewing Theory has kicked around for a while and I’ve never liked it. I’ll get into the weeds below but the basic reason is that it exemplifies many of the worst things about sports media coverage and sports fandom. Sports writers and sports fans simple love to tell us how a great player isn’t really that great. They love to talk about how some player they don’t particularly like is really a loser who fails to elevate his team. When a team flops or stumbles or simply can’t win the championship — keeping in mind that winning a championship is a team effort and, by definition, only one team can do it every year — the media/fans will often pick out the best player and vent their frustration on him. And those who never liked him anyway will gloat about his lack of leadership. This tendency has become far worse in the last few decades as player have started to make more and more money.
But is it possible that a player can, on paper, be really excellent but drag his team down? Well, it’s possible. A great player could eat up so much salary that the team can’t sign other great players. A great player could be blocking an even better player. A team could center their strategy on the great player at the expense of even better components. The latter may especially be true in a sport like football, where there are a lot of moving parts on any team.
But the Ewing Theory seems to postulate something different: that the very absence of a star player can elevate the existing team to be better. And after looking at it, I’m convinced that this effect either doesn’t exist or is very small. The Ewing Theory keeps foundering on much more secular and concrete explanations.
See, this is why I point and laugh at sociologists:
[N]early three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball. Notice anything they have in common? The researchers did. “It is now customary for the participants in all of these events … to wear the equivalent of a bathing suit,” they note in their analysis, which appears in the journal Electronic News.
Track and field, where the clothing is almost as minimal, made up another 13 percent of the women’s prime-time coverage. “The remaining sports represented—rowing, cycling, and fencing—are not, by traditional standards, ‘socially acceptable’ sports for women, and make up approximately 2 percent of coverage,” the researchers write.
First of all, it’s common to wear the equivalent of a bathing suit in almost every Olympic event. They cherry-picked this study to 14 events, leaving out things like Tennis, Sailing, Synchronized Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics that might dispute their theory. They also made the odd choice of putting cycling in the “non-sexy” category despite the skin-tight outfits that are worn. I’m sure if cycling got more coverage, they’d flip it back into the sexy category.
Second, they ignored that Americans prefer to watch events where they are likely to medal and the events they list are where we tend to clean up. We don’t win a lot of medals in rowing, cycling or fencing. Softball and soccer get lots of medals and little coverage, true. On the other hand, there have been numerous complaints from the public about the lack of coverage and they only recently became medal events (1996 for both).
Third, if you look at the study’s graphs, you’ll see that men’s coverage is equally skewed, with almost all the coverage going toward … beach volleyball, diving, gymnastics, swimming, track and volleyball. In short, no one wants to watch fencing. It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women doing it. I don’t want to watch fencing and I used to fence! Maybe if the US started dominating those events, they would be watched.
Fourth, notice the catch-22 underlying the study. If we aren’t watching women’s events, it’s because of sexism. But when do watch them, the most popular event, by far, is women’s gymnastics. But this just proves our sexism because they’re in leotards!
Fifth, notice that exceptions to their theory — Lindsey Vonn, Picabo Street, Bonnie Blair, Jackie Joyner Kersey, Wilma Rudolph, etc. — are just ignored. Their theory is deliberately made plastic enough — defining “socially acceptable” sports arbitrarily — that they can sneak any damn conclusion they want into it. I skimmed through the study and found numerous references to track and field being socially unacceptable for women — these studies published at a time when Marion Jones, Flo-Jo and Jackie Joyner Kersey were some of the most popular and recognizable women in the games. I was personally at the 1996 women’s 100m final when Gail Dever and Gwen Torrence finished 1-3. The build-up was huge; the coverage extensive and the stadium exploded when they won.
What the fuck are these people talking about?
Now I will let on about one thing. People tend to pay less attention to women when they play sports that were designed by men and emphasize masculine traits like strength. They pay more attention when women play sports designed with women in mind that emphasize feminine traits like grace, coordination and beauty. Gymnastics is popular precisely because the people who designed the sport understand this. The events are very different for the two genders. The men’s events emphasize strength and endurance; the women’s coordination and grace. Both are entertaining, grueling and incredible displays of athleticism; but they are also expertly tailored to the sexes.
Really, the more I look at this, the more it sounds like someone started out with their conclusion and trolled the data to support it. This is what passes for research in sociology.
Update: One last point. They complain that women only get 48% of media coverage despite winning 50% of the medals. That … doesn’t really cross me as significant. And breaking the coverage down by athlete is ridiculous. The media’s coverage of the Darling of the Games is notoriously fickle.
This interactive graphic, showing how world records in olympic events have changed over time, is pretty damn cool. The improvement in the discus is particularly stunning.
While part of this has to do with improved training and technology, these are just part of a larger trend of tapping deeper into the human potential. The people we were a century ago were a shadow of what we are now — well-fed people with all our teeth, marbles and bones who can live functionally into our 80′s. Vaccines and the reduction of childhood disease, in particular, have created an explosion in human healthy, lifetime and potential.
I do think we are reaching the limits this side of genetic engineering. Watch how the records asymptote. I just hope the same isn’t true of our progress in science and technology.
The frustrating thing about Gregg Easterbrook is that he often makes good points but goes too far in his argument. Today’s TMQ on how rivals.com ratings of high school players are a bit overblown:
Rachel Bachman shows that 54 percent of the high schoolers that earned a five-star ranking, the top classification, not only were not drafted high by the NFL, they were never drafted at all.
High school football players — being on Rivals, the ESPN 150 or any similar ranking is a big thrill and a way to get college coaches to call your cellphone. But being listed has NOTHING to do with whether your athletic career will go well and might even hold you back by swelling your head.
A 46% chance of being drafted in the NFL is really good. As Bachman notes, only 10-20% of lower-ranked prospects get drafted. So a five-star prospect is 2-5 times more likely to end up in the NFL than a lower-ranked prospect. And probably even more likely to be there than unranked prospects.
Scouting is a difficult business. All sports have busts and unexpected stars, despite the tens of millions spent on scouting. It’s fair to say that the rivals.com ranking is no a guarantee of success. But to say it is unrelated to success is bullshit, because it clearly is.
I still like Tuesday Morning Quarterback, but Gregg Easterbook’s ignorant shooting from the hip is beginning to grate.
TMQ continues to think Atlanta has become so obsessed with its no-huddle offense — everything called at the line, with multiple checks before the snap — that the Falcons are losing track of the fundamentals. When receivers and linemen don’t get the actual call till two seconds before the snap — Matt Ryan sometimes uses more than one “sim” call before he checks to the real play — there just isn’t time to get set mentally.
Atlanta is 22-3 when it features the run and Michael Turner rushes for at least 100 yards. Of course, some of those games are ones in which Turner got carries because the Falcons had a second-half lead. But the Falcons are trying to be too fancy; they need to go back to basics. The Packers, Patriots and Saints can be super-quick fancy. Ryan is good but he’s not Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees.
This is categorical garbage. Atlanta’s season turned around when they de-emphasized their moderately effective running game and leaned more on Matt Ryan. Early in the season, they were fading in the second half because Michael Turner is not the star he was and their running game couldn’t ice games. Don’t believe me. Try Football Outsiders who rank Atlanta with the 8th best passing game and 25th best rushing game. They also rank Turner as the 28th most effective RB, despite the 1300 yards. Meanwhile, Ryan is rated as the 7th best QB in the league. He’s not Rogers, Brady or Brees, but he’s comfortably in the same tier as Manning, Stafford, Romo and Rivers.
Update When Easterbrook gets his facts, he’s good. The article contains a debunking of the “we’re slashing fire departments” lie making its way through progressive circles.
You know that excitement index I blogged about? Tonight’s game shattered the record. 4.5 — the highest in 110 years of baseball post-seasons. The old record was 4.1.
For once, I think the system is right.
Back in 2007, I created the excitement index to rate post-seasons. The idea was to create a very simple way of using box scores to measure how exciting a baseball post-season was. It’s quick and dirty; not perfect. I’m sure others have more robust methods that use win probability or something. But it’s mine and I’ve posted on it in 2008 and 2010. The 2007 post has the details, last year’s some more data. Just some highlights:
To give you a sense of scale. The average games scores 1.9 points. The average 5-games series scores 7.2. The average 7-game series 10.8. The average modern post-season scores 60 points. The most exciting post-season in history was 2003, which came in at a whopping 74.1 points. You may remember this one as the year both the Red Sox and Cubs were five outs away from a pennant and blew it. Pro-rated, however, the 1991 post-season comes in slightly better (40.2 points pro-rated to 78.5). That was the year the Braves came from nowhere to take the Pirates and then the Twins to seven games. The most boring post-season, as I noted above, was 2007. Five series sweeps and a surprisingly dull 7-game ALCS. It game in at 47.6. The most exciting 7-game series was the 1991 World Series (17.2). As a survivor of that, who watched the greatest Cinderella team ever lose a 7-game heart-breaker, I can vouch for that one. Coming in second is the 2001 World Series (16.1). The dullest 7-game series was 1989′s blowout of San Francisco by Oakland in which the Giants never took a lead. It scored a pathetic 5.4. The most exciting 5-game series was 1980′s Philadelphia-Houston epic ALCS which featured four extra-inning game. At 13.5, it outdid most 7-game series. The most boring 5-gamer was St. Louis blowing out San Diego in the 2005 NLDS. There have been games that have scored better than the 3.9 the whole series did. The most-exciting game, at a whopping 4.1, was game two of the 1997 NLDS. Huh? That game featured 8 ties or lead changes and was won on a walk-off single by Moises Alou. I’m inclined to think this a quirk of the system. Even though game seven of the 2001 world series only score 3.3, I would give that the nod as the greatest game. There are many candidates for boring games. Technically, game seven of the 1996 NLCS scored the lowest (1.06). But the Braves’ 15-0 victory capped a comeback from a 1-3 series deficit. Game five of that series (a 14-0 blowout, 1.07 in the system) is another candidate, as is game one of the World Series that year. But I would probably go with game one of the 2005 ALDS (1.08), Chicago’s 14-2 blowout of Boston.
I’ve now taken the database through the entire 20th century. I’ve included the 9-game series of 1903, 1919-1922 and I’ve left out the games from the 1907, 1912 and 1922 series that ended in ties.
One of the things I love about this exercise is being able to uncover things I didn’t know. For example in 1943 and 1945, the world series used a 3-4, rather than 2-3-2 format, presumably to save expenses. (The 1944 series was all St. Louis). I now feel a great kinship with Brooklyn Dodgers fans, whose world-series losses were as frustrating and agonizing as the 90′s Braves. And one of the great unknown games of all time was Game 3 of the 1914 World Series. Special mention should be made of the 1905 Series, where every game was a shutout.
The most exciting post-season was 2003. However, the most exciting pro-rated is now the 1972 post-season. After having the ’69-’71 LCS series flop badly (all but one were sweeps), ’72 went the full measure, two 5-game series and one 7-game series. It featured:
All told, it gets 36.16 points, best of the 1969-1984 era and pro-rated to 87 points.
Anyway, 2011 is shaping up to be a good post-season. With 55 points, it’s guaranteed to be average and a great world series could push it up into the high 60′s, a level not reached since 2003. Five of the six series have been above average although only the Cards-Phils series was really great.
Joe Posnanski has a post up about how the best team in the league rarely wins the World Series. This set off a thought.
I wonder if one thing we could do to increase the drama of the regular season is to give the league championship title to the team with the best record, rather than the one that wins two playoff series. I was inspired in this by the Premier League in England, which gives out a League Cup to the team with the best overall record. It’s not like the FA Cup, which is won in a tournament. But it at least recognizes a season-long achievement. And the best teams in football are those that win the “double” of both cups.
Baseball has separate leagues, so you would have two teams each year eligible for the “double”. And it seems reasonable to do so since it’s not always clear which league is better (although you could tip it to whichever league wins inter-league play). There’s also the problem of divisions, that the team with the most wins is sometimes from a weak division. Meh. Maybe that will create an incentive to abolish the division structure. I think we would stick with most wins because any scheme to correct for schedule difficulty ends up a matter of opinion and we don’t want this to become the BCS.
If such a scheme were observed in baseball, here is the list of league champions for the wild card era. I’ve included 1994, when we didn’t have a world series. Bolded teams would have won the “double” for wining the World Series as well.
1994 – New York (70), Montreal (74)
1995 – Cleveland (100), Atlanta (90)
1996 – Cleveland (99), Atlanta (96)
1997 – Baltimore (98), Atlanta (101)
1998 – New York (114), Atlanta (106)
1999 – New York (98), Atlanta (99)
2000 – Chicago (95), San Francisco (97)
2001 – Seattle (116), St. Louis/Houston (93)
2002 – New York/Oakland (103), Atlanta (101)
2003 – New York (101), Atlanta (101)
2004 – New York (101), St. Louis (105)
2005 – Chicago (99), St. Louis (100)
2006 – New York (97), New York (97)
2007 – Boston (96), Colorado/Arizona (90)
2008 – Anaheim (100), Chicago (97)
2009 – New York (103), Los Angeles (95)
2010 – Tampa Bay (96), Philadelphia (97)
2011 – New York (97), Philadelphia (102)
A few things to note: First, in contrast to the list of World Series winners, the league championship shows a much clearer picture of which teams were dominating baseball. Atlanta would have won five straight championships and seven overall. The Yankees would have won eight. The great Cardinals and Phillies teams would have gone back-to-back. Montreal would have been league champ in the aborted ’94 season. That’s a much cleaner version of baseball history than World Series title.
Second, notice the teams that win “the double”. The 98-99 Yankees, in the running for greatest team of all -time, win two in a row. The 2007 Boston Red Sox, 1995 Braves, 2005 White Sox and 2009 Yankees also join the list.
During the 1969-1993 era, when we had playoffs but no wild card, doubles were a lot more common, since you only had four playoff teams, two of which were eligible for the double. But even then, there some standouts, particular the 75-76 Reds and the 92-93 Jays, who won back-to-back doubles.
I have no illusion that an idea on a backwater blog will get anywhere. Hell, Bob Costas could suggest this and baseball would demur. But if they want to inject just a little bit of drama back into the regular season, maybe recognizing the team with best record would be a good first step.
And at least I can stop thinking about it now.