I call THROWDOWN! This is the first in what will be an ongoing series.
When he rated the NBA's incoming class of perimeter players using statistical methods, John Hollinger placed Eric Gordon among "the riff-raff" and wrote, "subjectively, I've been suspicious of him for some time, and I'm a little unsure what has everyone so excited."
The Sports Guy, contrarily, thinks "this kid is going to be great." He says this is one thing we'll enjoy about the NBA this year:
Eric Gordon's beautiful, moonball, knee-weakening, once-in-a-generation jump shot. It's just perfect. I love it. I love everything about it. Every time he shoots it, the Clippers crowd goes quiet for a split-second like one of the cheerleaders just pulled up her shirt. Even the spin is gorgeous. I can't say enough about it. I am in love with Eric Gordon's jump shot. I want to marry it. I want to have kids with it. I will go to at least one practice or shootaround this year just to see him hoist 200 of them. And by the way, the kid is going to be great -- he's bigger than I thought, and when he drives to the lane, defenders just bounce off him. He will end up being the third-best guy in that draft. Unless, of course -- and I'm contractually obligated to mention this since it's the most jinxed franchise in sports and we're only two years removed from Shaun Livingston's knee flying off his body and landing in the eighth row -- something horrible happens to him. Please, Lord, no. Just give us a decade of Gordon jump shots. I don't ask for much.
QUESTION: Barring major injury, will Eric Gordon be good by the end of his second year? (I'm splitting the difference between the two writers' time frames.)
JUDGMENT DAY: April 30, 2010
TERMS: For Simmons to win, Gordon must have a second-year PER of at least 15. That's Rajon Rondo territory. We don't ask him to be great, just good.
UPDATE: JUDGMENT DAY!
This one was looking bad for Hollinger early on, but he ended up winning this throwdown, though so closely that it's fairest to call it a draw. Gordon's second-year PER was 14.15, a disappointing number after 14.98 his first year. To date, Gordon appears to be better than Hollinger suspected, not as good as Simmons hoped.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
I call THROWDOWN! This is the first in what will be an ongoing series.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
How is a procrastinator like Usain Bolt--in a bad way?
After I wrote this post about Usain Bolt on my sports blog last week, Grinnell alum Hung Pham initiated a conversation about the post in which Pham used the idea of obscuring the ceiling to describe what I was commenting on in Bolt's pre-finish line celebration in the 100-meter dash.
Obscuring the ceiling is what I think Bolt successfully did in his race: I argued that by celebrating before the finish line, Bolt let everyone imagine how much faster he might have run--and those imaginings have, in fact, credited him with being even faster than he is. If obscuring the ceiling can make perhaps the fastest human who has ever lived seem faster, it is a powerful tool indeed.
Pham's phrasing helped me articulate something that had nagged at me since I praised the power of Bolt's maneuver: I've seen this before. And after a few days, I got it. Obscuring the ceiling is what a lot of my students do--and a number of people I know in other ways, but I think of this phenomenon primarily through my teaching.
To the best of my memory, when I started teaching about 15 years ago, I thought of student motivation like this: every student is more or less self-motivated, and every student has positive and negative external forces that affect performance. That is, I imagined intrinsic factors to be neutral or positive--at worst, the absence of positive motivation. What surprised me, therefore (and I've seen it surprise other new teachers), is the extent to which students will actively sabotage themselves in all manner of small and large ways: doing work well but handing it in late, making flamboyantly bad choices about time management, and so forth. I slowly came to realize that many of my students were choosing to incur penalties consistently so that I never got a chance to judge their best work in a straightforward way. That was the point. If you never try your hardest, nobody can ever find your limits. Like Usain Bolt, you have obscured your ceiling.
When I started articulating this idea, Molly Backes, an alumna of Grinnell's education program, pointed out the similarity of my thinking to Martin Covington's failure quadrant, which, as she put it, goes something like this:
* if you try really hard and still fail, you feel the worst
* if you try really hard and fail -- but you have an excuse, like
your grandmother just died -- you feel less bad
* if you don't try at all and fail, you feel better
* if you don't try at all and you have an excuse, you feel best
Another alumna pointed me to Homer Simpson's more concise formulation: "trying is the first step toward failure."
I had brought up this subject through the words of Malcolm Gladwell, who put the point yet another way in an interview with Bill Simmons, discussing sports:
Why don't people work hard when it's in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight?
The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.
I return to the subject now because the exaggerated glorification of Bolt's run has reminded me of the profound effectiveness of obscuring the ceiling. If the fastest runner in history can make most people think he is even faster by obscuring his ceiling, how tempting must it be for the rest of us to use the same method when we can protect our self-image?
We are starting to understand how to avoid the temptations of obscuring the ceiling: valuing the produce of work rather than the aura of talent, seeking the lessons of failure instead of making excuses, trying to improve even upon apparent successes.
I have only begun to recognize and struggle with the means of obscuring ceilings within myself, and I feel I have even farther to go in understanding how to help my students find, reveal, and shatter their own ceilings
Comments are most welcome. Especially critical ones!
(This post is crossposted at Underlying Logic.)
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Jason Kottke brought to my attention this interesting analysis of how fast Usain Bolt could have run the Olympic 100-meter dash if he had not celebrated before the finish line.
This has made me think about the effects of Bolt's celebration: even though he would have run slightly faster without it, is there any doubt that he increased the percepation (and marketability) of his athletic prowess? The perception that you can win a gold medal and break a world record while devoting a little time to expressing your joy strikes me as much more valuable than the possession of a slightly better world record. (The less scientific estimates I've heard from casual viewers tend drastically to overestimate the impact of the celebration. In other words, many people now think Bolt is even faster than he actually is.) I think it's a peacock's tail phenomenon: even if a big tail is a first-order disadvantage, surviving in spite of it shows that you are one bad peacock.
But as DeSean Jackson has learned and learned again, flashing the tail is only impressive when it doesn't get you eaten.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Big, big news about the origins of baseball: the first British mention of "base ball" has been pushed back more than half a century, to 1755.
What this article doesn't mention--but a lot of book-types will recognize--is that the first reference in the Oxford English Dictionary belongs to Jane Austen, from Northanger Abbey.
I'm surprised that the new reference pushes the date back so far, but finding previous usages must have been nearly inevitable. Thanks to digitization, scholars can now routinely discover usages that predate OED coinages--I found a couple myself researching my first book--and lots of people would be keenly aware of the importance of any reference to baseball. The most notable thing about the Austen usage--"it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books"--is that Austen seems to assume that every English reader will understand the term without effort.
Not to take anything away from this discover, of course--what a find!
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Junior of Fire Joe Morgan writes, "My new, fairly self-evident theory is that Diplodocus-intellected sportswriters elevate the importance of the statistic that is called a "win" for a pitcher simply because it's called a win. But it's still a statistic, guys, and a bad one at that -- one that depends on your offense and your bullpen."
pitcher wins : team wins :: nutritional fats : body fat
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Jason Kottke has drawn webland's attention to this chart illustrating (originally) the majesty of Michael Johnson's record time in the 200-meter dash and now showing how great Usain Bolt is. In this follow-up post, the author, Aliotsy Andrianarivo, raises the issue of Bolt's showboating in the 100-meter dash. I have three thoughts about Bolt:
1. Many have noted the Bolt-from-the-blue appropriateness of the champion's name, to the point where we have neglected the potential of the first name. I propose this usage: "19.30? That's insane!" "No, man. That's USAIN!" Usain can describe only the most freakishly impressive things and events.
2. My brain has gotten stuck on what it must have felt like to be in the next group of finishers in those races, especially the 200. I'm thinking of the men good enough to have gone into the Olympics with some hope of winning the gold. What must it mean to train for this incredibly specific task for years, then to realize not only that you have lost but that you are one or two whole levels of performance below the best? And then to set off, in many cases, for more years of training, with every training race and competition haunted by Bolt? The psychological risk of uncompromisingly striving for greatness astounds me.
3. Can't we get a pretty good sense of how much time Bolt lost by preening in the 100? I would like very much to have someone with the right capability to judge Bolt's peak speed and estimate any lost time at the end of the race. Is this an absurd wish?
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Let's take up a burning question in NBA circles: is Robert Horry a Hall of Famer?
OK, maybe it's a smoldering question, but it was burning during this season's playoffs, and among many other writers, J. A. Adande said yes, Horry belongs.
Those who know the general inclinations of stat geeks know that we tend to give less weight to postseason performance and to clutch performance than most other fans and analysts. Therefore, it's probably not surprising that I think Horry, whose only claim to the Hall involves some clutch shots in the postseason, is nowhere remotely close to a Hall of Famer. Many others could make that case better than I.
What separates this from a number of parallel cases (that of Jack Morris in baseball, for instance) is the media coverage of the incident in the 2007 playoffs when Horry pushed Steve Nash, and the resulting scuffle brought about suspensions to Horry, Amare Stoudemire, and Boris Diaw.
Reading and hearing reactions to this incident, I noticed a consistent pattern: in all the disputes about the dirtiness of Horry's push and about the fairness of the suspensions, everyone seemed to agree that Stoudemire's absence would hurt his team much more than Horry's would hurt his--even though Horry was suspended for two games and Stoudemire one.
My sense was that this consensus was exactly right: for all of Horry's previous clutch shooting, and even though Stoudemire hadn't won a thing, everyone seemed to understand that even in the playoffs, Stoudemire was the true star, Horry only a role player. This wire report offered the standard account:
The Spurs probably can do without Horry, a role player known for his clutch 3-point shooting. The Suns, however, will sorely miss Stoudemire, a first-team all-NBA selection and their leading scorer and rebounder in the series.
Precisely! And the League had to justify the suspensions in terms that acknowledged the obvious competitive unfairness of the suspensions:
"It is not a matter of fairness, it's a matter of correctness," said Stu Jackson, NBA executive vice president.
For almost a year, I indulged the fantasy that the comparison of Stoudemire and Horry had clarified for all the world that even in the playoffs, Horry's value couldn't touch that of a truly excellent player. That was a good year.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Can you project a baseball player's performance into the past?
I have an unusual interest in Socks Seybold, who played for the Philadelphia A's in the first decade of the 20th century. He was my great-great-great (I think) uncle--by marriage, so he deserves no blame for my own limitations as a player.
My man Socks was an excellent hitter. After a brief stint with the Reds in 1899, he began playing full-time for the A's in 1901. According to Jack Kavanagh, Connie Mack brought Seybold with him to Philadelphia when the American League commenced operations. In his second full season, Seybold set an American League record for home runs with sixteen, a record that would be broken by Babe Ruth 17 years later.
Seybold hit very well from 1901 to 1907, all of his seven full seasons: he was in the league's top ten every year in slugging percentage, and in the first six of those seasons, he was also in the top ten in OPS and OPS+. His career OPS+ mark (probably as good a quick indicator of hitting quality as any) of 130--that is, 30% better than league average--ties him with Roberto Clemente and Wade Boggs, and puts him ahead of the likes of Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray, and Jim Rice. Obviously, his was a short career--only seven full seasons--and Kavanagh writes that "an injury in 1908 ended his major league career."
Simple enough, right? A good career shortened by injury. So it goes.
But here's the key fact: when he incurred that injury in 1908, Seybold was the seventh-oldest player in the league! He was already 37 and almost certainly at the end of his playing days. Born in November of 1870, Seybold was on the old side of 30 when he began playing full-time, already in the typical declining years for a baseball player. I don't know why didn't begin playing earlier: in those days, I imagine he might simply have gone unnoticed as a local star for years, or wanted to stay in a safer or more respectable trade until a solid professional opportunity came along.
We have lots of tools, such as similarity scores and Bill James's favorite toy, to look at a career cut short and project a hypothetical future. As far as I know, we have none that help us see what the missing first half of a career might have looked like. I can say that eyeballing the thirtysomething years of the Hall of Famers I mentioned above, only Clemente (definitely) and Winfield (possibly) look like they might have posted an OPS+ of 130 or better at the ages Seybold played.
I wonder whether a retroprojection tool might be useful not only for cases similar to Seybold's but also for examining more recent players who might have been brought up from the minor leagues too late.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
When I see that a baseball team has improved dramatically, I enjoy watching the popular narratives of the success develop. Usually, some combination of these four reasons comes up:
1. Charismatic leadership
2. General team chemistry (perhaps resulting from the departure of one or more bad apples)
3. Better players
5. Avoidance of major injuries
My sense is that dominant media narratives generally emphasize the first two factors, whereas statheads emphasize numbers three and four. Both sides are just beginning to catch up to the importance of injuries, an area that seems to capture everyone's interest these days. (Tom Verducci's recent article on Tim Lincecum captures the drama of biomechanical analysis beautifully.)
Incidentally, I see one of the most interesting questions in contemporary sports to be whether statheaded skepticism about charisma and chemistry in baseball should apply equally to sports such as basketball and football, where sustained concentration and teamwork matter so much more.
Anyway, to the Rays: listening to Chicago sports radio on a recent travel day, I heard four analysts in two forums describe the success of this year's Tampa Bay Rays almost entirely in terms of charisma and chemistry, with only an occasional mention of whether the team simply got better at playing baseball this year.
Given the fact that Nate Silver predicted in February that the Rays would experience precisely this kind of improvement (to the tune of 22 more wins, said Silver) and correctly pegged the key factor to be team defense, I have wondered whether any mainstream outlet would pick up the fact that Silver's model, which cares not a whit for chemistry, got this prediction so right. Granted, Silver wrote his article for an obscure regional rag called Sports Illustrated, but still, you'd think someone would pick up this story and run with it, right?
I lost all hope last week, when Silver's own organ, Baseball Prospectus, put out a podcast in which host Brad Wochomurka referred to the Rays' season that nobody saw coming. If the success of Silver's model hasn't convinced his own colleagues, I'll wager we have a long way to go before other outlets engage it.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
In the course of making its funnies, Fire Joe Morgan applies statistics to baseball as well as just about anyone, but I think Ken Tremendous makes an interesting mistake in this takedown of the site's eponymous punching bag. Joe Morgan writes that the Red Sox are "the best team in the game," and KT replies, "The Cubs have a better team ERA and a better team OPS. For the record."
Leaving aside the question of whether a snapshot of team performance is a good way to call one team better than another, I want to focus on the use of ERA and OPS as measures of team performance. They are generally excellent measures of individual performance. The best quick justification of OPS, however, is that it basically explains where runs come from--team OPS correlates better with team runs than, say, batting average. And OPS scales well to the individual: one player's OPS gives you a pretty good sense of how much that player contributes per plate appearance to his team's scoring.
If we want to look at team performance, however, we can eliminate the middleman: it's all about the runs. Forget stats that correlate well with runs--use runs! And on the pitching side, we can drop the "earned" component of ERA, since the whole point of that is (however roughly) to separate individual from team performance. Again, use runs!
A recent Rob Neyer column about the Tampa Bay Rays touched on another case where statistics work fundamentally differently at the team and individual level. Neyer points out that the Rays have taken a huge step up in defensive efficiency this year:
[T]here's an incredibly simple statistic that tells us almost everything. Defensive Efficiency -- invented by Bill James in 1975 -- never really has caught on, which is sort of bizarre because it essentially answers a most basic question: "When a batted ball is put into play against a team, what percentage of the time does that team succeed in turning that ball into an out?"
In 2007, the Tampa Bay defense turned 66.2 percent of balls in play into outs. That figure was 30th best in the majors.
In 2008, the Tampa Bay defense has turned 72 percent of balls in play into outs. That figure is second best in the majors.
Defensive efficiency is like measures of individual fielding that attempt to discover a player's ability to convert balls hit near him into outs; at the individual level, such statistics are always beset by the difficulty of establishing the player's zone accurately. At the team level, aside from relatively minor park effects, the problem disappears: every team is responsible for the whole field. And for a single team playing in the same park, year-to-year comparisons become sublimely simple.
The moral of my story: sometimes the nuances of measuring individual performance cause us to overlook simple, powerful team statistics.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
In the latest NBA scandal fueled by the downfall of Tim Donaghy, I haven't seen any news coverage of the most revealing word in the NBA's defensive posturing: criminal.
"There's one criminal here," says says David Stern, referring to Donaghy. Or check out this statement from Stern:
"He turned on basically all of his colleagues in an attempt to demonstrate that he is not the only one who engaged in criminal activity," Stern said Tuesday. "The U.S. Attorney's office, the FBI have fully investigated it, and Mr. Donaghy is the only one who is guilty of a crime. And he's going to be sentenced for that crime, regardless of these desperate attempts to implicate as many people as he can."
Criminal, crime, crime. If you look at other statements from the league offices, you'll see the same wording, over and over again.
Today's New York Times article does raise one way in which this language is fishy: "Stern's implication was that if the authorities had discovered other criminal misconduct, they would have acted on it. That is not necessarily the case, according to legal experts."
But there is another, deeper fishiness about this: Donaghy has alleged many abuses of power among NBA referees, abuses that would certainly violate professional ethics and possibly league rules. But few, if any, of these charges are allegations of criminal conduct--Donaghy is a criminal because of the way his misconduct connected with gambling.
Stern is issuing classic non-denial denials; such carefully parsed denials are nearly confessions of the misconduct they are crafted to keep silent. He is so far getting away with them.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
I'm hardly the first to say that we're only beginning to understand what the steroids era has done to player evaluation in baseball. One of the most underappreciated elements of the steroids controversy, it seems to me, is that the impact of steroids seems to have been greatest at the same time that new methods of statistical evaluation were gaining influence. I keep remembering moments that have taken on new meaning in retrospect: an argument with a friend, for instance, about whether Paul LoDuca could hit Major League pitching. The stats said no; the news out of spring training said yes. The statistical models were wrong. My friend won the argument, but now we know that LoDuca had juiced himself out of the statistical models. Again and again, I was bewildered by the ability of players such as LoDuca to avoid the fates marked out for them by comparable predecessors.
Similarly, when I saw Curt Schilling's much-publicized reaction to the Mitchell Report naming Roger Clemens, I remembered another moment. When Dan Duquette made his notorious remark that Clemens was in the "twilight of his career" and opted not to re-sign Clemens for the Red Sox after the 1996 season, I was living in Philadelphia and participating regularly in an email group of hundreds of Phillies fans. The Clemens situation arose for discussion on the group. I supported Duquette's position: Clemens' struggles and age indicated that he wasn't worth the money he was asking.
Taking the other side and defending Clemens was the group's most famous member: Curt Schilling, then a Phillie, who thus became the most notable person who has condescended to argue with me. Roger had plenty left in that tank, said Curt, citing Clemens's famously maniacal training regimen. It wasn't hard to see what Schilling had at stake in the debate, as a power pitcher thinking of his own value and future.
Obviously, Dan Duquette would have done much better by himself and the Red Sox if he had agreed with Schilling and not with me. And Schiling's identification with and support of Clemens at the time helps explain his investment in the findings of the Mitchell report now. Schilling had invested a lot of faith in Clemens in 1996.
So how will steroids continue to make us rethink our knowledge of the past? Yes, the issue clouds the statistical achievements of Clemens, Bonds, LoDuca, and the rest. But consider how deep the implications of this story are: Duquette's decision was a major reason for his downfall in Boston and a key test case pitting statheads like Duquette and me against the legions of anti-statheads who held almost undisputed sway in those pre-Moneyball days. If Clemens responded to the Duquette "twilight" comment by getting juiced, as has been alleged, and thus changed the shape of his career, was Duquette's tenure as GM of the Red Sox another casualty of the steroid era? And how fundamentally was the process of talent evaluation altered as a result?
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Say I call you up tonight and offer you a wonderful car--a loaded, new BMW that was once owned by Tom Hanks, your family's favorite movie star. And then I say that what I'm really offering you is the chance to buy that car from a dealer. Oh, and that I've already told your family that you're giving them that exact car for Christmas. And I told the dealer how much you all adore Tom Hanks. Think how much stuff you'd want to give me in return for the favor I've done you.
That's why the Twins got such a crappy package for Johan Santana.
On his podcast last week, Bill Simmons (this blog's eponymous Sports Guy) proposed that the Minnesota Twins' general manager had done so poorly in trading Johan Santana that he should be fired. This got me thinking about the kinds of value that were involved in the Santana trade, and my thoughts helped me understand how the Twins might have received so little in return for such a terrific player.
Every sports analyst I've heard is talking about the Santana trade as a gift to the Mets, a deal in which the Twins received 60 or 40 or even a very few pennies on the dollar. This view comes from what seems like common sense: the Twins traded one of baseball's best players and received nobody who appears likely to become anywhere close to as good as Santana. I accept that assessment of the quality of the players involved.
But this is the crucial fact of the trade: the Mets didn't exactly trade for Santana. They traded for a brief window of time in which they could negotiate a contract that would persuade Santana to waive his no-trade clause. The negotiations did not involve the competitive bidding of free agency, but the lack of competing bids arguably made the Mets' position weaker: they could not withdraw gracefully after being outbid, as they could after making an offer to a free agent. Instead, they faced a situation in which every observer I know of thought they absolutely had to sign Santana to consummate the deal and thereby avoid the insupportably embarrassing circumstance of appearing to steal Santana from the Twins and then give him back.
In other words, the trade gave Santana overwhelming strength in the negotiation, to the extent that he could easily force the Mets to pay as much or more than Santana would have received as a free agent.
And reader, the right to pay market value or more for a commodity is simply not worth very much. Santana now has a gargantuan contract; he may be the best pitcher in baseball, but he is now also the highest-paid pitcher by a fair margin. Given legitimate questions about his health and his poor performance at the end of last season, Santana does indeed seem to have benefited from his extraordinary leverage in negotiating with the Mets.
The Mets, therefore, traded four prospects of some value in order to overpay a player. The Twins received not only the prospects but many millions of dollars. They would have paid Santana more than $13 million in 2008; his replacement will make vastly less, and the lost ticket revenue will--unfortunately--be balanced by the income the Twins will receive from the perversely structured revenue sharing agreement. I'll guess that the total savings comes to about $8 million, but I welcome refinement of the estimate.
Therefore, instead of thinking about the quality of the players alone, we can think instead of the stuff each team actually received.
The Mets received a terrific player but one with (at least) a fully valued contract.
The Twins received four prospects and maybe eight million bucks.
The only reason for a team to give up substantial value for Santana would have been defensive: a team could reason that Santana's value was literally incomparable because he so thoroughly outclassed players available by trade or free agency, so even above-market compensation made sense if it meant blocking anyone else from gaining a uniquely desirable asset. This is the Yankees-Red Sox scenario, in which either time could have overpaid to block the other from acquiring Santana--just as both were willing to overpay for the rights to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka's case was, in fact, much more closely analogous to Santana's in economic terms than more apparently similar trades such as that of Erik Bedard, who had no negotiating power with his new team.
If the Yankees and Red Sox did not view Santana as a singularly market-altering property, or if each team simply realized that the other was not seriously pursuing Santana, the Twins were left with almost no trade leverage. Their weakness seems surprising given Santana's raw value as a player, but in economic terms, the Twins had very little to offer another team. Having little to offer, they received little in return.
Addendum: The Twins appear to be using the money they've saved to piddle away millions on medium-sized contracts for replaceable players. If they want to know how that will work out, they might investigate the track record of the 1990s Pirates.