Tuesday, June 3, 2014

You Know You Have a Baseball Problem When...

Because I have a nose for bullshit, even when I'm analyzing my own words, I always wince when I catch myself saying, as a way of explaining my recent switch in allegiance from the Dodgers to the Giants, "I just love baseball."

Take last Sunday. I did a reading at Bazaar Cafe, a little gem of a coffeeshop in the Richmond/Seacliff area of San Francisco. The owner bought a book, explaining that he was a big baseball fan. Later I caught him wincing as he checked the score of the Dodger game on his cellphone. I told him I grew up in LA, and he said, "So you're a Dodgers fan." He grinned, because being a Dodgers fan in the Bay Area is like being a Communist in 1950s Washington DC.

"Well," I said. "I used to be."

"Don't tell me you root for the Giants now. How could you!"

I backtracked a bit, explaining that the McCourt years turned me off the Dodgers, and that the Fox years weren't much better. He agreed on those points, but said he couldn't imagine switching teams. After all, he'd been a Dodgers fan when they were still in Brooklyn...

And that's when I said it: "Tell you the truth, I just love baseball."

BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT! BEEP BEEP BEEP! Sirens blaring, lights flashing and strobing.

Except, hold on -- maybe it's not bullshit. Here's another anecdote:

Yesterday evening, while my elder daughter was at dance rehearsal, I walked the two younger kids over to the town little league diamond, where we found a playoff game underway. The teams were named for two local businesses, a gas station and a restaurant, and I knew the families of players on both teams. It was a good game: an elimination match for both clubs. The players were amped, and the pitching was surprisingly crisp. The kids and I watched the first couple of innings before heading back to pick up their sister.

And then this morning it hit me, almost first thing after I woke up: I wonder who won the game...

Not the Giants game. Not the Dodgers game. The little league game. I wanted to know who won a little league game that none of my children had played in.

In another era I might have dismissed the thought out of hand, because how the hell would I find out who won? Little league scores don't make the papers--at least not around here.

But now we have the Internet. And parents in the stands with iPads. In less than a minute I found the results: the gas station team had beaten the restaurant team, 5-4, with the winning run coming in the bottom of the sixth (the final inning in little league), driven in by one of the players I knew.

To me, this story proves two things. One is that people in my community probably have too much time on their hands (the score was accompanied on the little-league website by a "wrapup" article...) I'm ambivalent about giving kids' sports too much serious attention. The "Friday Night Lights" phenomenon has always seemed too parochial, too navel-gazing, for anyone's good. Who wants to peak at seventeen? Or twelve, like these little league kids? But who cares. I'm probably the only non-parent who has ever visited the town's little-league website.

Which brings me to the second lesson: I really do just love baseball.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Zone with Two Strikes

Today a friend at Stanford sent me an article, Do We Shy Away from Pivotal Calls?, about research a couple of business-school students have done to quantify how an umpire's strike zone changes when there are two strikes against the batter. According to the study, which won second place at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, umpires prefer not to call a batter out on strikes if the pitch is borderline. In fact, according to the charts below, umpires will only call strike three on a pitch down the middle of the plate 70% of the time.

The image on the left shows a typical strike zone when there are 0 or 1 strikes against the batter. The image on the right shows the typical zone with two strikes.

The revolution in baseball analytics has resulted in several different kinds of discoveries. First is the eye-opener, where new evidence dispels a long-held notion about the way the game should be played. The guys Michael Lewis profiled in Moneyball demonstrated, for example, that a high on-base percentage (OBP) is as valuable or more valuable than batting average (AVG). Sabermetricians have also shown that the sacrifice bunt is unwise in most situations. Both of these arguments challenged the status quo and were highly controversial, at least for a while. (Sacrifice bunting, actually, is still a topic of debate.)

The other kind of sabermetric revelation has the opposite effect, providing statistical evidence to support a pillar of received wisdom. Even a casual observer notices that umpires' strike zones change according to the situation. How could they not? Put yourself in the ump's shoes. Imagine calling a borderline pitch strike three to end the World Series. What if you got it wrong? Thankfully, the new MLB instant-replay regime does not allow for review of ball/strike calls, but still, isn't it just more prudent, from the ump's perspective, to err on the side of caution?

Not really. Umpires are paid to be objective. Ideally -- and I'm sure umps would tell you they strive for this ideal -- a ball is a ball and a strike is a strike regardless of the count. The Stanford study suggests not only that this isn't happening, but that this kind of objectivity is not possible. Think about it. If a major-league umpire can't be objective, who can?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THE SETUP MAN spotted at Giants Spring Training

Scottsdale, AZ, 3/24/2014

That's Marty Lurie of KNBR-AM 680 on the left, and Giants GM Brian Sabean on the right. Photo by author and Giants superfan Jane Ganahl.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Observer Asks Y

Because it is my goal to report on only the most important trends in pro baseball, I just spent the better portion of a coffee break searching for coverage of the large and growing influx of players whose first names begin with Y.

Am I the only one who’s noticed the invasion of the Y Guys? Bewilderingly, Google says yes.

You know what I’m talking about: Yasiel Puig, Yu Darvish, Yoenis Cespedes, Yadier Molina, Yunel Escobar, Yovani Gallardo, Yuneskys Betancourt and Maya. A quick search at baseball-reference.com yields 15 current major leaguers with Y names. Once upon a time, the list consisted of a single name: Yogi Berra.



Granted, 15 players in a pool of around 750 is still just 2 percent, but I challenge you to come up with another letter adding players at this rate! The letter Z for instance (adjusted for the hundreds of California-bred Zacks infesting rosters at the moment) boasts only a single current major leaguer, Yankees’ outfielder Zoila Almonte. Some unfortunate letters are actually losing representation. The letter O, for example, has fallen on hard times. A league once filled with Ozzies, Oswalds, and Oil Can Boyd is now down to Octavio Dotel.

But Y is hot! The 15 players mentioned above include a startling number of All Stars (Yu, Yadier, Yovani, Yasiel), perhaps a higher proportion than any other letter. And Yogi Berra, of course, is in the Hall of Fame.

How do you explain this madness? My hunch is that it’s a cultural phenomenon. With very few exceptions (most notably Darvish, who is Japanese and Iranian), Y Guys tend to be from Latin America. Cubans and Venezuelans are especially likely to have a Y name. I tried searching for coverage of a larger phenomenon, a baby-naming trend in Cuba for example, but my limited Spanish, coupled with the inability of Google to penetrate a country where ’57 Chevys still ply the roads, failed me.

Whatever the reason, consider yourself informed. When the 2014 season begins next week, and you find that the opening day lineup of your hometown team includes a Yorvit, a Yamaico, and two Yoervises – remember where you heard it first.

PS – I’m changing my name to Y.Y.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Opening Day

The baseball season may be three weeks away, but you can get a head start this morning: The Setup Man is now on sale. The scouting reports have been stellar: "a must-read book" (The New York Post); "a treat" (Kirkus Reviews); "a clever debut" (Publishers Weekly).

Early feedback from readers suggests the book may be habit-forming. I have already been blamed for one reader's loss of productivity. Caveat lector: This is not a self-help book. I unleashed Johnny Adcock on the world; what he does from here is his business.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fighting Sexism with Sabermetrics: A Proposal

Baseball is a sexist game. If you don't believe me, try explaining to my ten-year-old daughter why there are no women players in the major leagues. Or why girls interested in baseball have to play another game, with a larger ball, and they have to pitch underhanded.

"Daddy, this isn't baseball..."
But that’s not news. The news in baseball, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is a bunch of new statistics. Batting average and ERA are no longer seen as useful measures of a player’s performance on the field. Instead, we have new acronyms like OBP, WHIP, and the all-knowing omnibus statistic, WAR, which stands for Wins Above Replacement and measures, in one handy number, the value of a player relative to the average performance at his position.

The other new thing is that major league teams are flush with cash like never before, thanks to lucrative new contracts with cable sports networks. It seems the networks have realized that live sports are the onlly type of content that can’t be downloaded free with BitTorrent. (They can, but then they wouldn’t be live, which is sort of the point of live sports on TV...)

I smell a bubble, and I’m not the only one

I am, however, the only one who knows what to do about it. The new salaries can stay. Teams just need to attract more viewers. Specifically they need female viewers, since these astronomical cable contracts seem to assume that every American man and boy with access to TV will be watching major-league games every night forever.

So baseball on TV needs female viewers. That’s fine, except that baseball is a sexist game (see above).

Enter my wife. She’s irreverent, observant, and swears like a sailor: precisely the qualities required to appreciate baseball. I’ve watched dozens of baseball games on TV with my wife, but she’s still shaky on the rules. For example she’s not sure how many balls make a walk, or even why they call it a “walk” when the players seem to be jogging down to first. 

You might expect that my wife would prefer to be watching something else on TV, that she’s indulging me by keeping the game on, but the truth is she likes watching baseball.

How can that be? She doesn’t understand what’s going on! 

Au contraire. She understands perfectly well what she wants to understand, which is that baseball players are hot. 

“Where have these men been all my life?” she exclaimed one night during the 2011 World Series.

Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly, one of my wife's favorites 
I had to break it to her that baseball has been around for well over a hundred years, which means “these men” have been around at least that long.

Here’s another fun fact: she prefers watching games on TV to seeing them in person. Why? Because she gets to see the players up close. Which is important if you watch baseball like she does.

Women like my wife watch baseball now and then, but they could be watching it every night if we made an effort to draw them in. (Cable companies, are you listening?) Statistics like WAR have made it possible for fans to focus on the best players, to tailor their viewing so that not a minute is wasted on scrubs and losers.

Marco Scutaro, known in our house as "The Gentleman"

Let’s not leave women like my wife in the cold. We need a statistic that measures a player’s sex appeal the way WAR measures his performance.

What will this new stat be called? I propose ROF, which stands for Relative Objective F*ckability. My wife prefers COCK, which stands for nothing but cuts right to the point.

How will the stat be derived? Leave that up to the quants. For now, let’s just resolve that we need it. Imagine the possibilities! Fifteen or twenty years from now, when women are watching baseball in droves and mid-season games between the Astros and the Marlins are pulling ratings like Gray’s Anatomy, maybe we can start talking about real progress, like letting girls play hardball and making the major leagues co-ed. It may be a long way off, but imagine telling your granddaughter you helped open up baseball for girls. First thing’s first. Let’s get ROF.

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, ahead of his time, c. 1983