Posts Tagged ‘Sports’

Does Defense Win Championships?

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

So Super Bowl XVIII went exactly as expected. Opening safety. Broncos shut down. Seattle dominating.

Well, it wasn’t as expected, obviously. But if you listen to the Sports Media Twerps, we should have foreseen it because “defense wins championships”. If you put a great defense against a great offense, especially in the playoffs, the defense will win. Right?

Right?

Well, Joe Posnanski threw a little bit of cold water on this:

The ultimate sports cliche was trotted out again and again on Sunday: Defense wins championships. I don’t believe that’s actually true. Great defense certainly CAN win championships but great offense can too. For every dominant defense like Seattle, I can point to a dominant offense like Kurt Warner’s Rams team; you talk about the great defense of the 2008 Steelers, I point to the great offense of the 2009 New Orleans Saints.

But I think there is SOMETHING to the cliche, and it’s this: We do often forget the power of great defense. Great offense is easier to see, easier to understand, easier to build up in our imaginations. I think it was easier to imagine the Broncos scoring a lot of points against Seattle because we saw them score so many points all year; those touchdowns are vibrant in our minds. So then we watch a great defense dominate the way the Seahawks’ did, and it’s jolting, it’s visually gripping, and we think: “Great defense is better than great offense. Great defense wins championships.”

And the next time a great offense comes along, we start the whole process over.

I would rephrase that a little bit. Great offenses capture our attention. So when they flop in the playoffs, we notice. Great defenses, unless they are historically great, tend to be missed. So when they flop in the playoffs, we don’t notice.

This tendency has been exacerbated the last few years because of the changes in the game. Every year, records are being set for scoring so whichever offense happens to be the best is hailed as the greatest offense of all time. This is clearly insane. If Jerry Rice’s 49ers — who led the league in scoring six times and won two Super Bowls in those years — were around today, they would be putting up similar numbers. The game has changed. And that tends to warp our perception. So when we see record-setting offenses stopped in the Super Bowl, we immediately jump to the conclusion that defense wins championships. After all, if Manning’s record-shattering offense can’t win the big game, that must mean offense is over-rated, right?

I wanted to look at this systematically and without a bias toward recent years. So I went through all 48 NFL post-seasons and tracked the records of the league’s best offenses and best defenses. I kept it simple, just looking at total points. Doubtless, someone like Football Outsiders can use a more sophisticated metric, but I wanted to do this in a couple of hours with a web browser and a spreadsheet.

So does defense win championships?

  • The league’s best offenses were 65-33 in the post-season. The league’s best defenses were 66-33. So, defense doesn’t win championships.
  • Or maybe it does. Top offenses were 10-12 in the Super Bowl while top defenses were 14-5. When the two have faced off, the top defenses were 4-1.
  • Or maybe not. Overall, top defenses were more likely to fall in the divisional and wild card rounds. Outside of the Super Bowl, top offenses were 3-3.
  • Or maybe it does. There have been some great offenses — Fouts’ Chargers, Marino’s Dolphins, Kelly’s Bills, the Patriots of the last seven years — that have failed to win championships.
  • Or not. Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters didn’t win a title. Atlanta’s great ’78 defense didn’t even make the playoffs. The early 80′s Eagles couldn’t win one. Chicago won the Super Bowl in ’86, but that year they also had a great offense. They didn’t make the Super Bowl again despite having the best defense in two of the next three years. New Orleans had a great defense in the early 90′s that went nowhere.
  • Or maybe it does. In the last 15 years, the top defense has won five Super Bowls while the top offense has won one.
  • or maybe not. During the 90′s, the top offense won five Super Bowls in nine years while the top defense won twice. And one of those years, the top offense and defense was the same team.
  • My point is that you can cherry-pick these data all you want to make any point you want. But based on looking at all the data, I would say that Joe is right. Defense doesn’t win championships; but it can. So can offense. You could make a slight case that when defense is at a premium, having a great defense can give a team an advantage (as it has for the last decade). And when offense is at a premium, having a great offense can give a team an advantage. But in the end, there are many ways to win a Super Bowl. The best way is to be good at everything.

    SEC Forever

    Monday, January 6th, 2014

    A few years ago, I invented my own Bowl Championship Points system in response to the Bowl Championship Cup. You can read all about it here, including my now hilarious prediction that the 2013 national title game would be a close matchup. The basic idea is that the Championship Cup was silly, as evidenced by ESPN abandoning it. It decides which conference “won” the bowl season by straight win percentage with three or more bowls. So it is almost always won by a mid-major conference that wins three or four bowls. The Mountain West has claimed five of them, usually on the back of a 4-2 or 3-1 record.

    My system awards points to conferences that play in a lot of bowls and a lot of BCS bowls. As such, it is possible for a mid-major to win, but they have to have a great year. The Mountain West won in 2010-2011, when they won four bowls including a BCS game. But it will usually go to a major conference.

    This year, it isn’t really close. The Pac 12 did well, with 9 points (6 bowl wins). The ACC could vault into third with six points if Florida State wins their Bowl, despite their losing record. How? Their conference is top heavy with most of their teams struggling but Clemson and FSU having a chance to win two BCS bowls and a national title.

    But first this year is the SEC, currently riding on 12 points thanks to their 7-2 record and with a chance to break their own 2007 record with 15 points if Auburn pulls off the upset.

    This actually surprised me as I expected the SEC to tumble. For all the hype, the SEC dominance peaked in 2008. Moreover, the SEC has shown a lamentable lack of defense this year. Their dominance — and the Big 10′s dominance a decade ago and the Big 12′s dominance in the early 00′s — was the result of having powerhouse defenses that could stop the much-hyped offenses of Oklahoma, Oregon and USC as well as spectacular offensive lines. This year was a poor year for SEC defense and I expected them to tumble.

    In retrospect, however, I think the SEC’s dominance (and to some extent, the Pac 12′s, which is second only to the SEC) is structural. The SEC has been one of the big winners in conference realignment, picking up powerhouse programs Missouri and Texas A&M while the Big 12 and Pac 12 are patching things with West Virginia, TCU, Utah and Colorado — all schools in a down cycle. The American Conference (formerly Big East) is basically a mid-major at this point and the Big 12 is on their way to being Texas, Oklahoma and the Texas-Oklahoma-ettes.

    We are clearly headed to an era when four conferences — SEC, ACC, Pac 12 and Big 10 — will dominate college football. We might even be heading for two conferences dominating the league. The Pac 12 and SEC, which went 1-2 in my system this year, have extraordinary depth: according to Sagarin, ten of the Pac 12′s teams are in the top 50 teams, ten of the SEC’s 14 teams are in the top 50 (and the two out are Florida and Tennessee in down cycles). No conference can match that kind of depth. None is even close. The ACC has the best team in the country, but FSU and Clemson are the only ones ranked in the top 30 and and only seven of their 14 are in the top 50. The Big Ten has three great programs, but only six of their 12 programs are in the top 50. Only six of the Big 12′s 10 teams are in the top 50. Only three of the American’s ten teams are in the top 50.

    I really don’t like re-alignment because of the way it throws out old rivalries in favor of dollars and has created the superconference situation we find ourselves in. When I invented this system, it was kind of fun because you could see more-or-less equal conferences rise and fall. Now it seems to be tracking which conferences are rising in falling in terms of wooing members out of other conferences. If the NCAA really cared, they’d have done something about it long ago. But they don’t. And so my points system will probably go the way of the Championship Cup. Because what’s the point of tracking this thing if it’s going to be the SEC and Pac 12 every year? You don’t need a points system to figure that out.

    The Authentic Games Metric

    Thursday, December 5th, 2013

    In Tuesday Morning Quarterback’s most recent column, he suggested picking post-season favorites based on what he calls Authentic Games:

    Power rankings, strength-of-schedule, likes on Facebook — there are many ways to assess NFL teams. As the home stretch approaches, Tuesday Morning Quarterback makes his annual contribution: the Authentic Games metric.

    Authentic Games are those against other potent teams. The regular season is a smorgasbord of strong and weak; in the postseason, only strong opponents trot onto the field. That makes how a team performs against equal-caliber opposition the gauge TMQ likes.

    The Authentic metric values most W’s over best percentage. Thus I rank the Denver Broncos at 4-2 ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts at 3-1. The reasoning is that the more wins a team has versus power opponents, the better prepared the team is for the postseason.

    In principle, the Authentic Games Metric makes sense. A great team should be able to beat other great teams rather than pounding on cupcakes. But I was immediately suspicious because it plugs into what I call the Grand Championship Delusion: the belief that the team that wins the championship is always or even usually the best team. We want desperately to believe that the team that wins the title is not a team that had a good season and then got hot. Or a team that had a good season and then had a few breaks go their way. We want to believe that they possess some ineffable quality — clutchiness, manliness, moxie — that makes them win. And the idea that their record in “Authentic Games” is tempting as a way to measure their supposed manliness.

    However, once my skepticism was aroused, I came up with numerous problems with the Authentic Games Metric:

  • There is a great deal of parity in the NFL. If you opened up the playoffs to all 32 teams, we would doubtless see the occasional one seed upset by the occasional 16 seed. And the likelihood of upsets only increases as the teams become closer in quality. A team’s record in a 16-game season is subject to enough random variation, chance plays, tipped passed and blown calls. When you narrow it down to 2-6 “Authentic Games” between teams of near-equal quality, you’re basically just looking at noise.
  • This is born out by research that Football Outsiders has done: great teams are usually defined by their ability to dominate lesser teams not win close games. A great team puts games out of reach; a lucky team wins the nail-biters.
  • Even if Authentic Games gave you some read on who is really the best team in the NFL, applying those to playoffs results invokes even more uncertainty. You’re now dealing with an even smaller sample of 11 games involving teams that are nearly equal in quality.
  • Basically, I think this is yet another attempt to find the “special sauce” that would enable us to know why some some #5 seeds win the Super Bowl while #1 seeds fail. Because, to our simian brains, “football happens” isn’t enough. We don’t want to believe that the winner is a result of team quality convolved with a lot of luck and random chance. We don’t want to believe that a team wins the Super Bowl because they just happen to have three or four good games in a row. No, there has to be a reason behind the madness.

    Anyway, here’s what I did to test the Authentic Games Metric:

    I took all 60 playoffs teams from the last five years. I then went through their schedules and kept track of how they did against other playoff contenders. I then tracked how well this predicted playoff results. In the case of a tie, I went with the team that had more Authentic Games. Since we are subject to noise, I did a second test just looking at strong predictions — where one team was two or more games over or under .500 against fellow playoff teams during the regular season and their opponent was not.

    As a control, I then checked predictions made based purely on their regular season record (with a tie going to the higher seeded team) or which team had home-field advantage. I then checked against predictions based on Football Outsider’s team rankings.

    The result? It really isn’t even close. Teams that won the most Authentic Games were 25-25 in their matchups. For strong predictions, teams were 17-18. Essentially, the Authentic Games Metric is the same as flipping a coin. Of course, using the regular season records was 27-28, which bears out TMQ’s criticism that seeding and the regular season don’t tell you nearly enough about the relative quality of the best team.

    However, I did find two predictors that were useful. One was homefield advantage. Home teams were 30-20 in the playoffs. Even if you discount home teams in the divisional round, who have had a bye while their opponent was playing, home teams still win 60% of the time (I’m obviously excluding the Super Bowl here).

    Of similar quality was Football Outsider’s team efficiency ratings, which went 32-23. Not great, but pretty decent all things considered. FO would be the first to admit that predicting the winner in a football game is a fool’s business. Not only do you have the problem of random luck and chance, you have the problem that football is about matchups. A team may be, by some metric, the best. But if they have a weak secondary, they can get torched by a “lesser” team.

    Breaking it down by year reveals just how random the Authentic Game metric is:

  • In 2008, Arizona went 1-4 in authentic games and came within a hair of winning the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Indianapolis (5-1) died in the first round against San Diego (0-5). Philly (4-2) made the conference final but only because they played New York, also 4-2.
  • In 2009, Indianapolis and New Orleans were both 3-1 in Authentic Games, which would seem to give the metric some credence. But Minnesota (4-1) died in the conference final while Baltimore (1-6) made the divisional round. This was actually the best year for the Authentic Games Metric.
  • In 2010, Pittsburgh (2-4) made the Super Bowl while New England (6-1) died in the first round. The AFC final matches two 2-4 teams in Pittsburgh and New York.
  • In 2011, Baltimore and Green Bay went 6-0 in Authentic Games. Only Baltimore even made the conference final. The New York Giants went 1-3 and won the Super Bowl. Detroit went 1-5 and lost in the first round. New Orleans went 5-1 and lost in the division round. Atlanta went 1-4 and lost in the first round. San Francisco went 4-1 and lost the conference title game. Instead of a matchup of Baltimore (6-0) and Green Bay (6-0) we got New England (1-2) against New York (1-3).
  • In 2012, Seattle was 4-1 in Authentic Games and lost in the divisional round. Green Bay went 2-4 and lost in the division round; Baltimore went 2-4 and won the Super Bowl. Instead of Seattle (4-1) against Indianapolis (3-2), we got Baltimore (2-4) against San Francisco (3-2).
  • You see? You can occasionally pick out a team that did well in both Authentic Games and the playoffs but it’s mostly random. Part of this is, again, the vicissitudes of football. But FO’s rankings don’t do too badly. I think it’s more of a flaw in the Authentic Games metric itself. Because a metric based on 2-6 games is going to be worse, not better, than one based on 16.

    If you want to predict how the NFL post-season will go, here’s my system:

    1) When in doubt, pick the home team or the team with better FO ranking.
    2) Have a lot of doubt.

    The Agony of Atlanta

    Friday, October 4th, 2013

    The most miserable sports town in America is, without a doubt, Cleveland*. The Indians have not won a world series since 1948 and the city had a great team in the late 90′s that fell just shy (in heart-breaking fashion in 1997). Only the Cubs have a longer world series drought. The Cleveland Browns have not won a championship since 1964, although they have a lot more company in their misery than the Tribe do (for all the NFL’s talk of competitive balance, they are far more dominated by franchises than baseball). The Browns also had heart-breaking losses in the 1980′s. The Cleveland Cavaliers have not won a title in any of their 43 seasons. During the last decade, they had one of the best players in league history but couldn’t win a title. He then ran off to Miami, where he’s won two.

    That’s 157 years of misery for Cleveland fans and 49 years since they could claim to be champions. They have it the worst. There are 20 cities in North America that have at least three major sports teams. The second longest drought is Minnesota at 22 years (and Washington, but the Ravens have won twice since then). And Clevelanders have born this burden with about 6% of the whining with which Boston fans endured the Red Sox drought while their Celtics were dominating the universe.

    However, I would argue that Atlanta comes in second in sports agony**. Consider:

  • The Atlanta Braves have won one title in almost half a century of play. They were an awful team for their first 25 years — Lewis Grizzard once joked that Michael Jackson and the Atlanta Braves had one thing in common: they both wore one glove for no apparent reason. They then turned into one of the best franchises in sports. They have had two losing season in the last 23 years and went to the post-season 14 straight times. But they only won one title, including heart-breaking loses in 1991 and 1996. In recent years, they have flamed out every year and seem well on their way this year. The last time they even won a post-season series was 2001. Throughout the 90′s they lost on freak events, such as horrific umpiring in ’96 series. Last year, they lost on a fluke bad call.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have also gone nearly half a century without a title. They were also awful for a long time but have recently been one of the better franchises in the NFL, with five straight winning seasons. They have flamed out in the playoffs every time, only making one Super Bowl during their existence. Last year, they lost on a batted down fourth and goal pass that would have won the game.
  • The Hawks have not won a title since moving to Atlanta in 1968. During that time, they have made the playoffs 29 times and had the best conference record 4 times. They have not made an NBA final. They have not even made the conference final since 1970.
  • For good measure, the Atlanta flames played eight years and made the playoffs six times. The Atlanta Thrashers played eleven years and made the playoffs once. Neither team even made it to a semi-final.
  • The Georgia Bulldogs won a national championship in 1980. They lost the championship the next two years. Since then, Georgia has not made a title game. Over the last few years, they have been an SEC powerhouse but can’t put together a championship season. Last year, they lost the SEC title and a possible trip to the BCS title game when a pass was deflected and caught by a receiver, letting time run out inside Alabama’s five. Georgia Tech split a title in 1990 and have not done much since. That title, incidentally, should not have been split. It only was because of Colorado’s fifth down play.
  • Last year was particularly hideous for Atlanta sports fans. The Falcons, Dawgs and Braves all went down on fluke plays falling literally yards shy of a Super Bowl, a BCS title game and an NLDS appearance, respectively. And this year looks no better. The Falcons are already 1-3 and have lost three games because of an inability to punch it in from the red zone. The Dawgs lost a close game to Clemson and have looked shaky on defense. The Braves lost tonight and have looked hapless over the last few weeks.

    My brother thinks Georgia teams are cursed. I’m starting to believe him.

    (*After I posted this, the Great Posnanski posted similar thoughts.)

    (** Being me, I actually compiled a table for this. There are 20 metro areas that have three or more sports teams and six more that have had three at some point in the last 50 years. I compiled the number of championships and the number of years played since 1963. Some New Yorkers or Chicagoans may take offense at my math since I’m combining teams that play in the same city. Meh. I figure if you’re a Yankees fan and can’t get some small pleasure from the Mets winning a World Series, that’s your problem. A more meritorious gripe might be leveled at my merging of San Francisco and Oakland as well as Washington and Baltimore. But there is a lot of overlap between those fans.

    Anyway, every city has won at least one championship in the last fifty years. New York, LA, San Francisco-Oakland, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh have at least ten. New Yorkers, if you throw in the Islanders and Devils — and I will — have basically enjoyed a championship every other year. All good and decent sports fans should cheer against New York teams. I mean, unless they’re from New York. The other cities have enjoyed a title once every 2-5 years.

    The cities with only one title? Seattle, San Diego, Cleveland, Atlanta and Phoenix. If you divide the number of seasons by the number of titles, the most barren cities are Phoenix (1 title every 102 seasons), Cleveland (1 every 144), San Diego (1 every 115) and Kansas City (1 every 104).

    Atlanta, however, comes in at 1 championship in 158 seasons of sports. Now that’s misery.)

    PS: Some more facts that came to me this morning:

  • Up until 1995, the only championship any Atlanta team had ever won was the Atlanta Chiefs, who won the inaugural season of the North American Soccer League.
  • Before then, you have the minor league Atlanta Crackers. Seriously.
  • 1991 was the first time any major championship was played within 500 miles of Atlanta.
  • Tebow Out of NYC

    Monday, April 29th, 2013

    Tim Tebow was released by the Jets today, ending one of the most baffling sports acquisitions I have ever witnessed.

    When Tebow was with the Broncos, he crossed me as a poor man’s Doug Flutie — a QB who lacked some essential tool (height in Flutie’s case; passing ability in Tebow’s) but nevertheless found ways to win. I was dubious that it could be sustained. But it seemed like he’d found a niche — a team with a great running game and offensive line — where his skills were useful.

    When the Jets took him, I hoped they would find some creative ways to use him and Sanchez. Two QB sets, especially at the goal line; wildcat formations; using Tebow as running back who could sometimes pass. Instead, the nailed him to the bench and used him as an alternative to Sanchez. But, without the Bronco’s running game, that wasn’t going to work. And it didn’t. It’s obvious now that Tebow can never be a feature QB.

    However, I have to disagree with those, like ESPN, who are saying this is the end of the road for Tebow. He’s still young, still well-liked and still has some skills that will make your jaw drop. Some team is going to sign him for publicity if nothing else.

    But what I would really like to see is Tebow fall into the hands of a Belichick-like unconventional guru; someone who could use what Tebow does well (run, lead, use his instincts) without exposing what he does poorly (pass). Someone who would put in a two-QB set at the line to give defenses fits.

    In an odd way, I’m reminded of Reggie Bush. This is a bit of a stretch, since Bush was heavily touted coming out of college (although, in a post that disappeared in the event horizon, I was skeptical). But he never became the stud that everyone thought he would. Oh, he was good. But until 2011, he’d never a thousand yard season. What the Dolphins seemed to figure out was that he wasn’t an MVP type who could pound out 350 carries a year and gain 2000 yards from scrimmage. But there was nothing wrong with that. He was a guy who could run 200 times, catch 40-50 passes and get 1500 yards from scrimmage. And that guy was very very useful.

    Whoever picks up Tebow needs to stop squeezing him into a pocket passer hole. Tebow is not that guy and never will be. But he is a guy who could throw 50-100 passes a year, run for a thousand yards, score few touchdowns and drive opposing defenses crazy. And he’s only 25 years old.

    Sunday Linkorama

    Sunday, April 28th, 2013
  • A fascinating look at how dollar bills move, courtesy of the Where’s George website. I find it fascinating the Pennsylvania is divided in half.
  • This is what I mean by Sports Media Twerp. They are never wrong and everybody else is just an idiot.
  • Really interesting blog on the least visited countries in the world. The writer is trying to visit every country at least once. Wish I had the resources for that.
  • I wish climate scientists would not overstate their conclusions. It makes it so much easier for people to pretend global warming is a hoax.
  • John McWhorter has a great article disputing the notion that texting is destroying the English language.
  • The contention that FDR was anti-semitic does not really surprise me. Years ago I read a book called While Six Million Died that detailed, point by point, how FDR did almost nothing to stop or prevent the Holocaust. It was only when members of his own Administration confronted him over foot-dragging on the issue of saving Romanian Jews that he did anything. He defeated Hitler, of course, which was why he became a hero to my grandparents’ generation. But the idea that he was immune from the anti-semitism that gripped much of the country and the world is absurd.
  • Fascinating and kind of frightening photo essay of high-density living. Think of all the stories you see in each picture.
  • Baseball Player Salaries

    Monday, April 15th, 2013

    You know, I thought these articles had gone out of fashion:

    In 1972, the year I became aware of baseball, its highest-paid player, Hank Aaron, earned $200,000 per season—the equivalent of around $1 million today. Aaron’s salary was 18 times the median household income in the United States. This year’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, stands to earn $29 million, which is 580 times the median income. (In fairness, Verlander may be a more egregious example of inequality than Rodriguez, since he pitches in the nation’s poorest big city. In the first year of his new contract, Verlander will earn $20 million—around 800 times as much as Detroit’s median household income.)
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    Over the past 40 years—the period of rising economic inequality that former Slate columnist Timothy Noah called “The Great Divergence”—Americans’ incomes have not grown at all, in real dollars. But baseball players’ incomes have increased twentyfold in real dollars: the average major-league salary in 2012 was $3,213,479. The income gap between ballplayers and their fans closely resembles the rising gap between CEOs and their employees, which grew during the same period from roughly 25-to-1 to 380-to-1.

    As baseball players accumulate plutocratic riches (Rodriguez will have earned a third of $1 billion by the time his contract expires), I find myself wondering why I’m supposed to cheer for a guy earning $27.5 million a year—he’s already a winner. When I was 11, I hero-worshipped the Tigers’ shortstop because I could imagine growing up to take his place. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now. Since my past two jobs disappeared in the Great Recession, I can’t watch a professional sporting event without thinking, Most of those guys are set for life, while I’ve been buying my own health insurance for 5 1/2 years. Paying to see a baseball game feels like paying to see a tax lawyer argue in federal court or a commodities trader work the floor of the Mercantile Exchange. They’re getting rich out there, but how am I profiting from the experience? I know we’re never going back to the days when Willie Mays lived in Harlem and sold cars in the offseason, but the market forces that have overvalued ballplayers’ skills while devaluing mine have made it impossible for me to just enjoy the damn game.

    McClelland even criticizes the Seitz decision, thinking players would be better off if they were bound for life to one team. Or, actually … I don’t think he cares about the players. What seems to be damaged here is a deranged sense of economic justice.

    I shouldn’t bother but … I’m in a fish-in-barrel kind of mood.

    First, let’s consider the point made by honest liberal Matt Yglesias: owners will price tickets, concessions and TV for as much as they can get. There is a myth the media like to promulgate (and MLB owners like to hear) that high player salaries drive high prices for games. This is baloney. The owners will charge whatever they can. When was the last time a team dumped payroll and then cut prices? I remember when Peter Angelos was on Baltimore radio flogging this myth. Someone called up and asked if he was going to cut prices now that the Orioles had dumped all their expensive players. He didn’t have an answer.

    All that free agency has done is give players a bigger piece of the pie — a pie that they actually baked since no one ever payed a plugged nickel to see an owner (and it’s not like the owners are struggling). Frankly, I wish more businesses were following their example and bumping up salaries.

    A few more things to factor in: athletes are taxed at very high rates; they typically only play for a few years, if that; most of those that do reach the highest levels have pursued it with a single-minded devotion. They will have to live on those earnings for a long time. Frankly, if equity is what you’re worried about, I’d spend more time flogging the low salaries of minor league players compared to their MLB counterparts.

    The Slate readers are actually pretty savvy and make many of these points in the comments. However, you do get the occasional “why do we pay teachers and fireman so little and ball players so much!” This was always my favorite argument against high player salaries because it is so obviously absurd. At any given sporting event, an average of 30,000 people show up, buying tickets and concessions. They put in a significant amount of effort and money to watch someone like Justin Verlander pitch. How many teachers teach to 30,000 students at a time? If a teacher could teach that many 162 times a year, would she not be paid like Justin Verlander? The fact is that the skills needed to teach — patience, intelligence, hard work, empathy — are thankfully common. There are literally a few million people doing it. The skills needed to fight fires or fight wars — self-sacrifice, strength, courage — are also thankfully common. The skills needed to be a Cy Young winner — while having less value in an objective sense — are much more rare.

    Yes, it’s true that Justin Verlander can’t teach a class or fight a fire or do astrophysics for that matter. It’s also true that I can’t hit a curveball. So what?

    But doesn’t the huge amount of money spent on sports show that we have our priorities out of whack? Shouldn’t we spend more on education that we do on baseball? Well … we do. Major league baseball made $7.5 billion last year or about $10 for all 75 million people who went to a game and considerably less for those who watched it on television. We spent approximately $800 billion on education — over $10,000 per child in public schools. The difference is the number of people into whose hands that money is concentrated — three million teachers against a thousand athletes. If our devotion to a cause is judged by the how much we spend, how much we worry, how much we argue and how many people devote decades of their lives to it, education is far, far more valued in this country than all sports combined.

    So, no, I don’t think athletes are paid too much. I think they are paid what they are worth. The market has not “overvalued” ballplayers nor has it “undervalued” writers. There are maybe a few hundred people in the entire world who can play baseball at a professional level. But there are millions who could write poorly reasoned articles that drip with wealth envy.

    A final thought: my enthusiasm for sports bothered me a little bit when I was younger. Surely, I thought, I shouldn’t devote so much thought to such a trivial pursuit. Is not Shakespeare worth ten pennants? I departed from that thought when I realized that one can pursue all interests: Shakespeare, astrophysics, sports and, um, blogging. But it was actually Jonathan Swift who converted me, with his compelling argument that a truly enlightened race (the Houyhnhnms) would, once they had beaten down the necessities of nature, devote themselves to the pursuit of both mental and physical excellence. Whether it is writing, playing piano, measuring stars or hitting baseballs, the pursuit of a craft, the perfection of it the pinnacle of possibility — that is what drives us as a race.

    When I watch a baseball game, I see Justin Verlander throw a ball 100 mph with the right spin to make it move just enough to be almost impossible to hit. I see Albert Pujols, in a split second, decide to swing and launch the bat into the precise position to hit the ball as hard as possible. I see Austin Jackson, at the crack of the bat, take off and pursue it into the gap at just the right angle that he can spear it with his outstretched arm. Every game, I see something that should be impossible but isn’t.

    Isn’t that worth $10 a head?

    The Bowl Championship, Reloaded

    Sunday, January 6th, 2013

    A few years ago, I invented a Bowl Championship Points System. The basic idea was response to the Bowl Championship Cup, which was awarded, for a while, to the conference that did the best in the bowl season. But because it was given out for winning percentage with a minimum of three games, it almost always went to the conference that played in … three games. If a conference went 2-1 or 3-0, they would “win” the cup over a conference that went 6-2 and won two BCS games. This crossed me as absurd and a result of not understanding the effects of small numbers on percentages.

    In my system, each conference gets two points for a bowl win, an extra point for a BCS bowl win and loses a point for a bowl loss. So it rewards conferences that are both in a lot of bowls and do well in them. Yes, it favors the major conferences. But it should favor them as they usually have far more depth than the mid-majors. The system is fair, I think, because it mostly favors the top conferences but a mid-major can win if they have a really great season. And, in fact, one has and another might this year.

    I’ll just quote my old article on past results since the inception of the BCS in 1998 and contrast my system to the bowl championship formulation. (And no, I am not going to correct for the Stalinist revisionism of vacating wins from either Penn State or USC).

  • 1998-1999: Both systems favor the Big 10, which went 5-0 with two BCS wins.
  • 1999-2000: Both systems favor the Big 10, which went 5-2 with two BCS wins.
  • 2000-1: The Mountain West had the best record at 3-0, but my system favors the Big East’s 4-1 record with a BCS win.
  • 2001-2: The Big East took the BC Cup based on a 4-1 record. My system would have given it to the SEC since they were 5-3 but won two BCS games.
  • 2002-3: Both systems give the cup to the Big 10, which went 5-2 with a BCS win and national title for Ohio State. If you’re counting, that’s three wins for the Big Ten in five years. Just keep that in mind when the SEC starts winning and you claim I’m biased.
  • 2003-4: The ACC wins the BC cup based on a 5-1 record. My system puts the SEC in a tie because they went 5-2 with a BCS win. This is a perfect example of how the systems differ because the Cup favors the conference that had fewer bowl games while my system favors the conference that had more bowl games. I don’t weigh national titles in the system because of my belief that such title are arbitrary (see previous rantings). But if I used it as a tie-breaker, the SEC would win since LSU took a share of the national title.
  • 2004-5: The Cup went to the Mountain West based on a 2-1 record. I gave it to the Big 12, which 4-3 with a BCS win. That was the lowest winning score (6 points) of any winner. And simultaneously an example of why the Bowl Cup was always stupid because it went to a 2-1 conference. This was the most balanced year on the books as only the Sun Belt was more than one game away from .500.
  • 2005-6: The Cup splits between ACC and Big-12 as both had 5-3 records. My system gives it to the Big 12, which also won a BCS game and a title.
  • 2006-7: The Cup went to the Big East based on a 5-0 record. My system puts the SEC in a tie. Although they went 6-3, two of those wins were BCS wins and one was for the national title. People pretend the SEC has dominated forever only have memories going back to 2006, which is when the SEC began to dominate. The Big East’s 5-0 record was impressive and I can understand people thinking they were the best. But the SEC played in almost twice as many bowls.
  • 2007-8: Again, the Mountain West wins the cup with a 4-1 performance. My system gives it to the SEC, which went 7-2 with 2 BCS wins. Their 14 point performance is the highest out of any year in the system and their seven bowl victories the most for any year. This was actually the peak of SEC performance. The hype has trailed it.
  • 2008-9: Another year where one conference — the Pac-10 — goes 5-0. But with a 6-2 record, a BCS win and a title, the SEC earns a tie in the point system. 5-0 is awfully impressive for a major conference. The Big 10, once the mightiest conference in the land, reached its nadir with a 1-6 bowl record. They weren’t the worst conference, though. The MAC went 0-5.
  • 2009-10: The Mountain West wins its fourth cup by virtue of a 4-1 record. My system favors the SEC again, which went 6-4 with 2 BCS wins. This is another year where the sheer weight of the SEC — ten bowl teams — propels them to the win. Had TCU won the Fiesta Bowl, the Mountain West would have become the first mid-major to win the points system. This demonstrates, I think, the wisdom of the system: an exceptional performance could propel a mid-major to the title. Under the Bowl Championship system, winning enough Weedeater Bowls is enough.
  • 2010-11: In 2011, the Mountain West became the first mid-major conference to win the points system when TCU won the Rose Bowl. Of course, they later bolted to the Big 12. But with a 4-1 record, they just edge the SEC (5-5, 1 BCS) and the Big East (4-2). While we’re on the subject, the Big East has to be most resilient conference in the country. No matter how many teams flee, they still do well at bowl season, second only to the SEC in the database.
  • 2011-2012: The Cup is split between Conference USA and the MAC, with 4-1 records. My system favores the Big 12, which went 6-2 in bowls with a BCS win. However … it should be pointed that the SEC became the only conference in the system to ever play a bowl game against itself. I thought it was ridiculous at the time to face off two teams from the same conference. Of course, if the LSU and ‘Bama had been in two different bowls, they might have both lost. So I’ll stick with the Big 12.
  • It may seem like my system is biased in favor of the SEC. But I designed it when the SEC was in a down cycle and it was favoring the Big-12. The SEC does better in my system simply because they get into more bowls and win more bowls. Over the BCS years that I have now entered into the system, here are the records of each conference coming into this bowl season.

    SEC: 67-47 (16 BCS wins) = 103 points
    Big East: 43-27 (7 BCS wins) = 66 points
    Big 12: 54-53 (9 BCS wins) = 64 points
    Big 10: 45-54 (12 BCS wins) = 48 points
    Mountain West: 31-20 (3 BCS wins) = 45 points
    Pac 10/12: 37-40 (11 BCS wins) = 45 points
    ACC: 45-53 (2 BCS wins) = 39 points
    Conference USA: 29-40 (0 BCS wins) = 18 points
    MAC: 19-23 (0 BCS wins) = 15 points
    WAC: 21-29 (2 BCS wins) = 15 points
    Sun Belt: 8-11 (0 BCS wins) = 5 points
    Independents: 7-12 (0 BCS wins) = 2 point

    It’s fine to hate the SEC. I probably would had I not been raised in Georgia. But their dominance in the BCS era, particularly from 2006-2012, can not be denied. The other conferences cluster near .500 but the SEC is away ahead. This is true if you use W-L, national titles, BCS bowl wins or my system. On win percentage, the Mountain West or Big East would take the lead (but with a fraction of the bowl appearance). Those are the only two conferences that could be said to have legitimately matched the SEC in bowl performance.

    So why am I posting this now, while we still have two bowls left in 2013? Here’s why. With the old bowl championship system, Conference USA would have already have “won” the bowl season by virtue of winning the Beef O’Brady Bowl, the Hawaii Bowl, the Armed Forces Bowl and the Liberty Bowl. While I’m happy for those teams, this doesn’t really cross me as exactly dominating college football.

    As of right now, the points system has Conference USA, the much-maligned ACC and the hyped SEC in a tie at 7 points. Should ‘Bama win their third title, the SEC will take the points system with a 6-3 record and a BCS win. However, should Notre Dame win, the SEC will lose it (as they should, having already lost one BCS game) and Conference USA/ACC will split the title.

    The SEC is still the dominant conference, but they have waned a bit in recent years even as the hype has exploded. From 2006-2013, they have placed first or second every year, which sounds about right for a deep conference that has won six straight titles, gone 41-22 in bowls and won nine BCS games. But their peak was three years ago. They have come down to earth enough to be beatable as Northwestern, Clemson and Louisville have shown.

    Notre Dame has a very good chance in this game because they play defense. For all the hype lavished on the SEC’s speed, what has made it the dominant conference is being one of the few to take defense seriously. If you look at the powers — ‘Bama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, LSU — they all have great defenses. When SEC titans clash, you don’t get 50-45 shootouts like you do in the Big 12 or Pac 12. You usually get low-scoring slugfest. A classic SEC game features a tough running game, punishing defense and enough passing to keep things lively. This year, we’ve seen SEC teams rise and fall with their defense. Georgia has trouble with Nebraska until their defense clamped down. South Carolina won, in part, because their defense clamped down, setting up the last minute heroics. Florida failed because their defense was completely lost at sea. Even Texas A&M, for all of Manziel’s amazing performance, pulled away when their defense shut out Oklahoma in the second half.

    In previous years, we’ve seen offense juggernauts like Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon get beat because their offense hadn’t really faced a tough defense before. I remember the 2008 title game, when the TV broadcast had a clock for how fast Oklahoma’s offense moved. They stopped using it because Florida, unlike most Big 12 teams, had an actual defense and put some of their best athletes on defense and Oklahoma was forced to slow down.

    That’s why Notre Dame could win this. They have a great defense and can match Alabama stop-for-stop. It should be a low-scoring game that could turn on anything.

    This is also why I think the Big 10+ is destined to rise again. The Big 10 is the only other conference to take defense seriously. They had a bad year this year. But then again, two of their best teams were kept out of the bowls.

    Looking Ahead to 2013

    Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

    Any year you can walk away from is a good one right? I ended 2012 with my family and career intact, so I don’t think I can complain too much. Abby had a great year with her first real birthday party and a good start to kindergarten. I landed a couple of grants and got a couple of big projects off my plate, including the image gallery for the mission.

    On the other hand, I had my gallbladder out and had a sudden awful onset of bad migraines, something I still have not quite gotten control of. My mother-in-law died. My stepmother got cancer. We spent a fortune on fertility treatments and got, for all our pains, one miscarriage and a bad MS relapse. So … yeah, not our best year.

    In sports, my Braves bowed out in ignominious fashion and the hated New York Giants stomped over the Falcons, Packers and Patriots. On the other hand, the Falcons had another good regular season, the Braves have a lot of young talent and Chipper Jones went out in grand fashion.

    Politics? Oh, God. This was one of the most frustrating disillusioning years I can remember. I looked at both parties and eventually slammed my head into the desk and voted for Gary Johnson. We had a huge amount of sound and fury. More digital ink was spilled than ever before. I blogged my guts out over at Right Thinking. And the result? Obama is still President, Congress is still split, Congress is still stupid, the deficit is still huge and the economy is still sluggish.

    But, for some strange reason, I have a good feeling about 2013. 2011 was a the year of false hope — personally, professionally and politically. 2012 was a tough grinding exhausting year. But I feel like things have put in motion that will make 2013 suck a lot less. I can’t put my finger on anything specific. That probably means I’m wrong.

    Oh, well. Without further ado, my bold predictions for 2013:

  • Alabama over Notre Dame; New England over Green Bay; Miami in the NBA, Cincinnati over the Angels
  • Movies look like a mixed bag. Bad remakes and sequels galore (Evil Dead, GI Joe 2, Hangover 3, Die Hard 5, etc.). Beautiful Creatures and Pacific Rim look hilariously bad. And I’m not optimistic about Oz, Man of Steel or The Great Gatsby even though I want to be. I’m worried Hobbit 2 will suffer from Middle Chapter Syndrome (even more than Hobbit 1 does). But maybe something will surprise us.
  • We’re going to have a debt ceiling crisis that will hurt the economy and result in almost no spending cuts of note. Nevertheless, the economy will lumber on. And, for the first time in years, the deficit will notably shrink.
  • The Supreme Court will have another interesting year, likely striking down Prop 8 but on very narrow grounds.
  • Japan and China will rattle sabers but no fighting will break out. We will probably eventually intervene in Syria. The EU will continue to lumber toward a unified state.
  • So, yeah. Even looking at that, I’m not predicting a great year. But 2012 was so lousy, 2013 is almost bound to be better.

    We must always remember that the arc of history is long and, over the last decade, has pointed toward progress. On a global level, things are improving. Steadily, haltingly, frustratingly. But improving. And maybe 2013 will be the year things start improving around here — slowly, haltingly, frustratingly. In the end, the future is what we create. And I intend to bend my shoulder a little bit more this year and push a little harder.

    2012 League Cups

    Thursday, October 4th, 2012

    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”.

    Labor Day Linkorama

    Monday, September 3rd, 2012
  • The latest population panic. You would think that having been wrong over and over and over and over and over again for the last five decades would teach these guys some humility. You would think wrong.
  • Five other sports cheats.
  • Thanks Cracked. Thanks a ton. Now that you’ve brought this year old story to my attention, I have something in my eye.
  • See this is why I get nervous about digital content. You don’t own digital content. You only borrow it.
  • The Ewing Theory

    Sunday, August 26th, 2012

    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.

    (more…)

    Gender Skew in Olympic Coverge

    Sunday, July 29th, 2012

    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.

    Olympic Records

    Friday, July 27th, 2012

    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.