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”.
Posts Tagged ‘Sports’
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.
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.
See, I knew the Yankees and Red Sox dragged things out interminably. Whenever these guys play, I feel like I can go to the fridge, start making a sandwich, realize I don’t have any meat, buy a gun, sit through the waiting period, get the gun, go into the woods, lie in wait, identify my animal, wait for it to grow bigger, stalk and shoot it, take it home, cut and cook the meat, make my sandwich … and it will still just be the third inning. Announcer love it, but it drive me crazy.
It was worse back in the 00’s when the A’s were good. When they played the Yankees in the post-season, you could have replayed the Hundred Years War in one Jason Giambi at-bat.
It’s behind the pay firewall but today Bill James compiled his list of the greatest baseball teams of all time. It’s an impressive effort as he is considered single season performance, multi-year performance, post-season performance and the quality of the team (i.e., was this time comprised of great players or guys just having good years).
My 1995 Atlanta Braves ranked 3rd, slightly ahead of the Big Red Machine.
This will, of course, sound ridiculous to anyone who’s not me or Bill James. After all, the Braves of the 90’s only won one world series. But consider the totality of what they did between 1991 and 2005.
I was there for most of it. I watched every night, I frequently went to Atlanta, I attended World Series games. It was like nothing I had ever seen before or ever will again. We just knew they were going to win. There was an aura about the team that was remarkable. Even if they fell behind in the standings — 10.5 games in 1993 — we knew they would close the gap.
The reason the Braves are not generally considered one of the greatest teams of all time is because of who is #1 on Bill James’ list — the 1998 Yankees. The Braves, like the great Brooklyn Dodgers before them, had the misfortune to be contemporaries with one of the greatest teams of all time. And they lost twice to them in the World Series including in 1996 when the Braves were clearly the better team.
People wonder why I hate the Yankees so much as I’m not a big Red Sox guy. 1996 is why. The Braves had blown out the Yankees in two games. And then, with some bad luck and bad ump calls, it fell apart. And it became even worse after since the media swooned over the Yankees, portraying it as a wonderful story that they had won their first title since all the way back in … 1978.
I’m still bitter about it. It still hurts. And one of the reasons it hurts is because it blinds people to the greatness of those Braves teams. Had they won the ’96 World Series, no one would question their greatness. But because they lost, they don’t get mentioned.
If only Tim Welke had gotten out of Jermaine Dye’s way…
Mike’s Rule #3: Human beings aren’t very good at reasoning; but we are dead awesome when it comes to rationalizing.
It’s Hall of Fame ballot time again and if any group illustrates Mike’s Rule 3 perfectly, it’s the Baseball Writers of America. You will rarely find such a pure distillation of the frailty of the human thought process. For every Joe Posnanski or Joe Sheehan, who use facts and data to inform their positions, there are five others who:
1) decide in advance what they think
2) twist the facts to suit their pre-conceived opinion.
You can see it perfectly in the debate over Jack Morris vs. Bert Blyleven. It’s possible to vote for both, for neither or for just Blyleven.
But it’s really difficult to vote for just Jack Morris. Blyleven had both better career numbers and better peak numbers and his post-season performance was a good (if not as notable). But there are a slew of writers who will, on the one hand, tell you that Blyleven was never the best pitcher in baseball, that he never won a Cy Young Award, that he was just a “compiler” of stats (as if there’s something wrong with that) — and then, on the other hand, will conveniently forget that those arguments apply doubly-so to Morris.
That’s difficult to wrap your mind around until you understand that they are not reasoning, they are rationalizing. As Bill James observed long ago, many HOF voters and agitators care more about individuals than arguments. The Blyleven-no, Morris-yes writers don’t care about arguments … they care about Jack Morris. And whatever argument they have to use to make their case, they’ll use it, consistency and reason be damned.
But nowhere does rationalizing become more painful and more odious than the debate over steroids and whether to put players from the steroid era into the HOF. Over the years I’ve laid out my thought on this (here, here, here). There are basically three options when it comes to voting on players from the Steroid Era:
Option 1 – Vote for No One. This has the advantage of being clear and consistent. It also has the advantage of creating a very high horse from which the media can make up for their massive failure to uncover the scandal as it was going on (Wilstein exempted). The disadvantage is that it throws the innocent in with the guilty and means a very empty hall.
While this option is reasonable, I don’t think its viable for one big reason — it rewards cheaters from earlier eras. Even leaving out sign stealing, corked bats and segregation, we know that PEDS long pre-date Mark McGwire. Baseball players chomped amphetamines for decades. HOF pitcher Pud Galvin drank a concoction with monkey testosterone. And steroids specifically have been around for several decades. I think it’s highly likely we will find out, in the near future, that someone already in the HOF used steroids. And when that happens, option 1 collapses.
Option 2 – Innocent Until Proven Guilty In this option, the writers admit anyone who has not been implicated in or confessed to PED use. So guys like Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, etc. would be out while guys like Maddux, Johnson and Thome would be in. This has the advantage of requiring evidence of cheating before punishment is meted out.
But I don’t think this option is viable either. First, it rewards players for not getting caught and makes it nearly impossible for players to be honest about what they did and didn’t do. Indeed, Mark McGwire has gotten caught in a catch-22 where the writers clamored for him to talk, then turned on him when he did. Both his silence and his admission were seen as incriminating. Innocent until proven guilty encourages players to lie and cover up.
Even worse, it opens the door to smear, innuendo and statistical malpractice. Nowhere is that seen more clearly than in this year’s debate over the candidacy of Jeff Bagwell. You can read Peter Gammons and Joe Posnanski on why Bagwell should be an absolute lock Hall of Famer. And then, you can read Jeff Pearlman‘s ridiculous smear job. Pearlman asserts that Bagwell should be thrown in with the guilty since (a) he got bigger as he got older (see here on how little this means — check out Puckett specifically); and (b) he had “guilty knowledge” — i.e., he didn’t speak out about it.
The latter point was the impetus behind Christina Kahrl’s diatribe on media arrogance and I agree with much of what she says. The guilty knowledge argument not only ignores that baseball culture is extremely hard on those who rat on team-mates (see Bouton, Jim), it makes the media the focus of the debate. That may be gratifying to their tiny media egos, but it’s terrible for the debate.
And ultimately the innocent-until-proven-guilty argument founders on the same rocks as strategy (1): eventually we will find out that a steroid user is in the Hall. And since the door into the Hall only goes one way, he’ll stay there, a constant reminder to the players to keep their mouths shut.
(As self-indulgent as Pearlman’s article is, Perrotto’s article is equally self-effacing. He admits to not asking the hard questions and acknowledges that this makes him uncomfortable being judge and jury for the players. It’s one of the most refreshing things I’ve read this week.)
Option 3 – Curve the Era In this option, we simply set a higher bar for players from the Steroid Era, especially when it comes to hitting for power. 500 home runs ceases to be an automatic admission, high slugging percentages weigh less. We only take the best players from the era. In this scenario, known steroid can use can be used as a factor in judging borderline candidates (the HOF voting instructions include a character clause). But it’s not a determining factor.
In the end, this is the option I favor. For one thing, it acknowledges that the Steroid Era was about more than steroids. The power explosion of the late 90’s was a result of many factors, including smaller ballparks, smaller strike zones, more elastic balls and players standing on the plate to drive outside pitches. In fact, it’s not clear at all that steroids had that big an impact. As Joe Sheehan has pointed out relentlessly, many of those who tested positive for PEDs were not power hitters at all, but fringe players and pitchers. The biggest impact of steroids may have been keeping players on the field (for a while, at least).
Another advantage is the acknowledgment that we will never know, with absolute certainty, who used and who didn’t and what impact it had on their performance. The best way to deal with that uncertainty is to let it be, not try to slice and dice it based on rumors, gut feelings and rookie baseball card pictures.
Finally, one of the defining elements of the Steroid Era, as I noted before, was the complicity of the league, the teams, the media and the fans. As homers soared out of ballparks, no one asked the tough questions, no one cried “foul!”, no one wanted to hear the whispers. We created an environment in which PED use was, if technically illegal, still tolerated and even tacitly encouraged. To block players from the Hall because of steroid use — real or imagined — is to put the onus entirely on them.
Granted, they are the ones who stuck needles in their bodies. But they did it because everyone else looked the other way. They did it because, as Buck O’Neil said, they could.
The only real disadvantage of option (3) is it throws in the innocent with the guilty. If a clean player hit 400 homers, he sits out of the Hall while a dirty player who hit 500 gets in. Furthermore, it encourages future cheating for just that reason — that a small extra advantage could be the difference between stardom and immortality.
I’m not entirely comfortable with that. But in the end, there is no perfect solution and the “curve the era” option, for me, has the best combination of trade-offs (especially since I think the impact of PEDs on the game was and is overstated). As with most human endeavors, we simply need to do the best we can. And curving the era seems the best we can hope do with the information we have.
As for tomorrow’s ballot … I expect Alomar and Blyleven to get in. I expect Morris and Larkin and possibly Lee Smith to surge ahead, possibly getting elected in 2012. I expect Edgar Martinez and Jeff Bagwell to both poll in the 30’s or 40’s. Everyone else will poll in the 20’s or lower, including Raines, Trammell and McGwire, who deserve better. Walker, Palmeiro, John Franco and Kevin Brown will stay on the ballot, but many of the other first-timers will go quietly.
But the real story is coming two years from now. For many of the players on the ballot, they need to get elected by 2012 or they won’t get elected at all. Starting in 2013, there will be a slew of massively-qualified guys hitting the ballot. For my money, we will see six definite HOFers in 2013 (Bonds, Clemens, Biggio, Schilling, Sosa and Piazza), five more in 2014 (Glavine, Kent, Maddux, Mussina and Thomas), three more in 2015 (Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz) and at least one already in 2016 (Griffey).
It’s going to be very interesting to watch what happens with such a crowded ballots, especially as a number of those guys are going to struggle to make it due to steroid allegations (Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Piazza) or writer ignorance (Biggio, Kent). The BBWAA has not elected more than two players in a year since 1999. The last time they elected four players was 1955. They not elected five since the first election in 1936.
We may be in for a calamity like we did in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when there simply too many qualified candidates for anyone to command enough votes to get in. The Hall had to respond with run-off elections and I suspect they will end up having to do the same about 2016.
Expect a long backlog that drag outs until at least 2020, followed by the Veteran’s Committee picking up the stragglers like McGwire, Martinez and Raines, who simply got crowded off of the platform.
Update: Tom Verducci disappoints me by throwing in with the “I know a steroid user when I see one” crowd. He even quotes Andre Dawson … since no one in Dawson’s era used PEDs … as the players having “chosen their legacy”.
What sanctimonious claptrap. The players did not choose their legacy — baseball did by not taking the issue seriously until an unpopular player started breaking records. The players were the largest part of that, obviously. But they played in an environment in which the only negative impact of steroid use was long term health risk — something many would trade for success. What Verducci and others are trying to apply is an ex post facto judgement. They looked the other way when steroid use was happening. Now that it blew up in their faces, they suddenly want to start issuing retroactive penalties.
Verducci even dusts off the criticism of McGwire and Bagwell for claiming that steroids did not make their careers. While I think the players are wrong to claim this, it puts the players into yet another BBWAA Catch-22: we will not forgive you until you admit that your entire career was a fraud. After which confession, of course — as they did with McGwire, as they did with Pete Rose — they will turn their backs again and say, “Well, I definitely can’t vote for him now.”
In the end, what the BBWAA wants is not consistency, justice or logic. What they want is for the players to grovel to them, to suck up to them, to kiss their feet, to show what they think is requisite amount of contrition. This was the chief reason the narrative on steroids changed when Barry Bonds started using them — because he was famously hostile to certain members of the press (although that too involved revisionist history — they elide the part of the infamous “back off or I’ll snap” incident where they were trampling his kid).
I see every reason to hold players accountable for what they did. But I see no reason to let everyone else off the hook. And I see no reason why players should have to crawl and grovel to a bunch of people who continually forget that voting for the HOF is a privilege, not a right.
In the end, they are going to end up with egg on their faces when it turns out that an existing HOFer was a steroid user. And their self-righteousness and preening will be revealed for exactly what it is.
Update: Jayson Stark comes through, as he usually does. Stark is one of those writers, like Gammons and Verducci, who I’ve watched evolve and change over the last 15 years. The man thinks, which is rare.