Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reacting to 'While the Men Watch'

I meant to talk about this a long time ago - and now it's really late - but I'm also sure that lots of people haven't seen this.

So, CBC's Hockey Night in Canada has teamed up with While the Men Watch, an "online broadcast" meant to be listened to as an alternative to the regular (ie. "men's") hockey commentary. And, yes, it's schtick and it's tongue-in-cheek. As the site explains, "Lena and Jules...follow their 'boyfriends of the game', interview special guests, and analyze the road to the Stanley Cup in a whole new way." The 'About' page on their site also describes their webcast as "Sex in the City meets ESPN."

Lena Sutherland and Jules Mancuso.
Although I don't actually know which is which. From their website.

I don't actually find this objectionable. No, seriously, it's cool that someone is doing something like this. Standard sports commentary is generally bad, and I think it's great that people are creating - and  successfully - alternatives to it. Something kitschy and comic and a little absurd? Something playful, that pokes fun at how seriously we take sports? Sounds great.

What sucks, of course, is how it's being marketed, both by the CBC and by the women themselves: as a show "for women", and opposed to what "the men watch". That kind of dualistic framing - all the men onside with the boring, standard broadcast and traditional sports discourse; all the women onside with this gently mocking one - is unhelpful and more than a little insulting. The implication that women must not like sports and don't want to watch it or discuss it on the same terms as men? (Or that men, themselves, must all enjoy sports in only this way?) That's dumb and displays a shocking lack of awareness of their audience, not to mention a lack of respect for the women who are already a part of it. And CBC's pandering to non-fans at the expense - and to the injury - of existing female fans? Well, that could just as easily leave them with no fans.

And, I should add, it makes me not want to listen to this particular webcast. Which is a shame, because this is exactly the kind of thing that sports needs to see more of. (Well, more of the model they're following, that is. Maybe not more of this particular brand.)

Complaining about the race and gender politics of Game of Thrones

Victoria and I just finished the first season of Game of Thrones. I know, I know, it's shameful - we should've been watching a long time ago. (Though, I'll admit, we were even later in catching on to Mad Men and The Wire. The Wire had already ended by the time we started watching it!)

That said, Victoria had some perfectly reasonable, and very much political, arguments for why it wasn't worth our time. A lot of them have to do with problems that seem to be endemic to the fantasy genre itself, though it's not really clear why. And all of them question why it is that Game of Thrones, while set in some other fantasy world where magic is real and monsters exist, nonetheless makes use of some painfully familiar oppressions and prejudices.

Take, for instance, race. (I realize, of course, that I'm not the first person to write about GoT and race...) Fantasy, in general, gets a lot of criticism for its race politics; those criticisms also get angrily rebuked and denied by a mostly white audience that doesn't want to see them. The Seven Kingdoms, which appear to be rather technologically advanced, as well as politically and economically complex - that is, they bear the most obvious marks of "progress" - are entirely white. And, what's more, the class lines - with the notable exception of Robert Baratheon, at least - seem to follow some tacit racialized hierarchy, where the fairest characters are nearly all aristocrats and the darker ones tend to be grunts, servants, and peasants.

Jaime Lannister and Drogo. I probably don't need to tell you
which is the knight, and which is the horse king.

And the Dothraki "savages" across the sea who ride horses and live in tents? They are, of course, racialized in obvious and stereotypical ways - dark-haired, hairy, half-naked, violent, and really fond of their animals. Hilariously, of course, the actors have been chosen because they represent something non-white, rather than a coherent or consistent racial group - Khal Drogo is played by Jason Momoa, who is Hawaiian; the actor who plays Mago is Bulgarian; the guy who played Qotho is a Danish Arab. This is pretty sloppy stuff.

The same kinds of criticism can be made of the gender relations on the show, too. Every level of government - from kings, to lordships, to families - in every community or kingdom - Westeros, Essos, and even north of the wall - is intensely patriarchal, and male characters repeatedly demonstrate their total disdain for women. And unless a woman is married or going to be married to a powerful male character, it seems that the only way for her to gain a modicum of power is through sex work.

So, what's the point of this incredibly obvious summary? The point is that for all its cleverness and surprisingly rich characters, the show's politics are painfully unoriginal and its societies are, while seemingly exotic, are actually quite familiar. That's not to say that it's a bad show, of course - it's not - but to say that it's probably plays it too safe. Martin, like nearly every fantasy writer before him, is unable to imagine a world in which men don't rule women, and in which white people don't think themselves better than non-white people. And is that level of novelty just too much to ask?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"The Catch", 2012 edition

Some moments in sport defy description and render analysis redundant, if not totally unnecessary. For instance, this.

100% not photoshopped. Photo by Bill Wanger/The Daily News

If you want to see the video, which is equally impressive, you can find it at the end of this article.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Counter-campaign, anyone? One Million Moms and their anti-gay superhero backlash

One Million Moms is a hilariously hyperbolic right-wing organization that is "against the immorality, violence, vulgarity and profanity the entertainment media is throwing at your children." Of course, by "against...immorality" they actually mean "we hate gays", and by "hyperbolic right-wing organization" I actually mean "surprisingly polite, albeit hate-spewing, homophobes".

But there's a lot of these groups, right? And I don't typically waste time on this crap, unless they're digging their claws into something that's near and dear to me.

Unsurprisingly, then, I'm posting this because One Million Moms have decided to go after gay superheroes. Helpfully, they explain that both Marvel and DC have some major events planned that revolve around gay characters - an upcoming issue of Marvel's Astonishing X-Men will feature the wedding of Northstar and his boyfriend, and at some point next month (maybe?) DC will reveal that one of their major characters has been in the closet. DC's VP of Sales, Bob Wayne, invokes Obama in referring to the decision as an "evolution", and he's right. Even if the execution is bad - and given the mainstream comic companies' track-record, here, that's probably more likely than not - this is a good thing.

Progress! Also, how cool is it that Doop - the Cold War nuclear military
experiment who is also a green floating blob - is front-and-center?

Unless you're One Million Moms, that is. Here's a quick sampling of what they have to say. (Coupled, of course, with my own brief responses.)

Children mimic superhero actions and even dress up in costumes to resemble these characters as much as possible. Can you imagine little boys saying, "I want a boyfriend or husband like X-Men?"

I love that their fake quote is so awkwardly written. Because no one who reads an X-Men comic would ever say "like X-Men". (Also? I can imagine this, and think it's pretty great.)

Why do adult gay men need comic superheroes as role models? They don't but do want to indoctrate impressionable young minds by placing these gay characters on pedestals in a positive light.

I honestly can't figure out why they think gay men (to say nothing of women) wouldn't want superheroes as role models. Why is that, exactly? Is it because THE GAYS spend all their time and energy distorting and recruiting "impressionable young minds", and thus they can only admire villains? (Sadly, I bet that my mocking guess is really close to their actual reasons.)

Children do not know what straight, homosexual, or coming out of the closet even means, but DC Comics and Marvel are using superheroes to confuse them on this topic to raise questions and awareness of an alternative lifestyle choice. These companies are prompting a premature discussion on sexual orientation.

Wowza. I'm not sure what I find most clueless, here - the suggestion that kids don't know what those words mean, at least implicitly, or that the discussion about sexual orientation isn't already happening. (Albeit a very limited discussion that privileges straight, Disney-romance love.) Regardless, this is just dumb.

But this is easily the best part of their diatribe:

Earlier this year One Million Moms emailed Toys 'R' Us concerning the "Life With Archie" No. 16 with two gay characters getting hitched. Toys 'R' Us had the audacity to display "Archie- Just Married" at the front of the store by the checkout counters.

Amazing. AMAZING. What a spectacular failure on OMM's part, and a fantastic way to send a message to these bullies. This should happen again. Someone, somewhere, needs to make sure that this happens again. 

Cover to Life with Archie #16

So, how do we do that? Well, there's a prompt to action at the bottom of the anti-gay superhero campaign page, where they give you a form letter to send to Marvel and DC. You could start by creatively misusing the form, deleting their hateful garbage and replacing it with words of support for the two companies. That would be pretty cool. [Note: if you do this, you're required to sign-up for their email updates.]

You could also try the other link on the campaign page, which is the One Million Moms complaint form, and tell OMM what you think of their plan. For my part, I took their own sentences from the Take Action blurb on the campaign page, rewriting and replacing words as necessary. So, if you'd like to help me build a counter-campaign by telling OMM that they're the ones that need to change, feel free to take my words and either copy-and-paste or rewrite them to suit yourself (the bold type is their original language, the rest what I've added or edited):

I am sending One Million Moms this email urging them to change and cancel all plans to continue spewing homophobic venom against homosexual superhero characters immediately. I ask them to do the right thing and reverse their decision to publicize this puerile and misguided campaign, which serves only to demonstrate that OMM is totally out of touch with contemporary social attitudes and scientific knowledge.

(Fyi, on the Complaint Form, I referred to the Name of Complaint as "Hate Speech", and the Network as "One Million".)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Quick reflections on the coverage of the ongoing Quebec student strike

Having passed 100 days, now, the strike that's been undertaken by University students in Quebec appears, amazingly, to be growing in strength. The latest major demonstration, on Tuesday, attracted more than 400,000 protesters (well, estimates seem to range from 150k to 500k) to the streets of Montreal. That's pretty damn impressive.

Judith Butler notes that the past 100 days "raises fundamental questions about whether students in Canada have a right to an affordable education". An incredibly wise letter in Le Devoir (which I can only read, and paste here, in translation) suggests that the argument against the strike has to do with inertia, and that the merits of the strike should have nothing to do with "whether or not [increasingly expensive university education]'s the norm in Anglo-Saxon North America" - even if that's precisely how the debate has been framed by most talking-heads. That's probably the most frustrating part of the discussion - people who take the default position that Quebec's Universities need to be more expensive because everyone else is more expensive, rather than considering that perhaps Quebec has it right and we should find ways to enable everyone else to charge less. What happened to accessibility? What happened to class mobility? But, regardless, these are very cool, and very necessary, conversations to be having. (As is the related, and unavoidable, conversation about what a critical mass of people can/must resort to when their elected representatives won't act for them.)

Partial picture of the protest on Tuesday, from

Equally amazing, I think, is just how many people either don't or simply refuse to understand what's happening and why. The political pundits of every party and every mainstream English-Canada op-ed seems to find it especially abhorrent that the student-movement has drawn parallels between itself and the Arab Spring. It's not the same thing, clearly, no. But when you dismiss the comparison outright, you ignore the parallels that do exist, and you ignore the reasons why they're doing what they're doing.

Of particular note, I think, is the fact that a lot of the political and media establishment continues to be surprised at the movement's momentum and power, and doesn't understand why and how they could think these "entitlements" to higher-education are "rights". That head-stuck-in-the-sand mentality, that complete failure to understand and empathize with people who are quickly losing hope in the system and that they can be happy and fulfilled within it, is precisely the sort of delayed reaction that doomed certain powers during the Arab Spring. It's a failure to understand, and even more than that - a total refusal to try and understand. And it's pretty stunning to see it happening again, here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Leafs should "take a lesson"? Which one is that, now?

Sometimes, I just hate sports writing. If you're going to write a headline that says a team needs to "take a lesson" from their peers - and, granted, Dave Feschuk wrote the article but probably didn't write the headline - then there should probably be a clear and intelligible lesson to be taken somewhere in the story. And it shouldn't be one that's contrary to observed results.

Ostensibly, this is a story about how teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs will sacrifice their body to block shots with reckless abandon. And - again, ostensibly - this is a good thing because it's all defense-first teams among the final four, and none of the league's top ten goal-scoring teams made that same list of four. (Let's ignore, of course, the fact that the teams with the 1st and 4th best defense from the regular season are not among those final four, either. And that one of them didn't even make it past the first round.) Of course, the quantitative sports-analyst in me would like some kind of evidence of increased shot-blocking - it seems to me that every round of every playoff, at least since I began paying attention ten years ago, is filled with shot-blocking. But, hey, it's a story and not quite aspiring to be a full analysis, so I can let that slide. He says that shot-blocking would appear to be key to success, and who am I to argue?

Hockey's most exciting play - the blocked-shot! Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

But, wait. Some of the data that Feschuk does report seems to be at odds with his own story, because 8 of the top 11 teams in shot-blocking during the regular season didn't even make the playoffs. So, there goes that theory that it's all about defense. Or that it's all about shot-blocking, anyway. So, what "lesson" are the Leafs supposed to take from this? Because if your hook is that flimsy, you should probably look for another hook.

It seems that Feschuk went for the shot-blocking angle, at least in part, because his source for every quote in the piece is from Dave Poulin, the Maple Leafs' VP of Hockey Operations. And Poulin, at least in this conversation, really wants to talk about shot-blocking. (Well, a lot of people want to talk about it, probably because we don't have more players punching each other in the face and whatnot.)

Yep, shot-blocking wasn't invented only this year. Though, admittedly,
I'm a bit freaked out by the lack of a helmet. Photo by Ian Lindsay.

But why not challenge Poulin on the veracity of his argument, or on some of the other slightly nonsensical stuff that he has to say? (If only to make it a better story?) Here's a quote with holes so big that if it were featured on Hole in the Wall, you'd beat it every time.

“If you took the first round of the playoffs and compared it to the first half of the season, it’s totally different hockey,” Poulin said. “You’re almost thinking, ‘Do we have to have a team (designed) for the regular season, and a totally different team built for the playoffs?’ It was that dramatically different.”

The answer to his question, of course, is a resounding "no". I don't how a person employed as a VP of Hockey Operations could even ask that. (Except, I guess, if he were doing it rhetorically. Or if he were playing devil's advocate. But he's not. He's being totally sincere.) In spite of the fact that the Vancouver Canucks, the regular season's best team, were knocked out in the first round and the St. Louis Blues in the second, these playoffs still feature two division-winners and the best team from the Eastern Conference. And a number one seed gets knocked out in the first round every other year, on average. (Which means, in turn, that the number one seeds will still advance 75% of the time.) It's really not that weird.

And let's look at recent history - while only two of the past 10 Cup winners have also been the NHL's best team in the regular season, another three were the second-seed and only one of those 10 teams (last year's Bruins) weren't among the top four teams in their own conference. (The other four were fourth-seeds, but in the NHL's seeding system that typically means that they also had the second- or third-best record in the conference.) The correlation is pretty clear, I think - you need to be one of the best regular-season teams in order to have a decent shot at the Cup.

Not that you'd know that if you read this story in the Toronto Star, though. Argh.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Live-Blogging the Blue Jays Broadcast: Game 42

[I'm starting this one a bit late, and missed most of the first inning!]

1st inning

Pat: "Batters are hitting over .500 against [Dillon Gee] when they swing at the first pitch."

There are all sorts of problems with this statement. First, Pat means to say that they're hitting over .500 when they put it play or hit it out of the park. That number doesn't account for instances where the batter misses or fouls the ball off. Also, only 15 at bats vs. Gee have been resolved on the first pitch. That's hardly evidence of, well, anything.

2nd inning

Buck: "The Mets, by starting the runner, stay out of the double-play."

One of my pet peeves about Buck and Pat is how they never critique the decision to hit-and-run. The problem with hit-and-run is that it's often a bad idea - it forces the batter to swing at pitches that he wouldn't otherwise swing at, and to take slapping contact-swings rather than full, proper ones. (It's tough to prove, mind you, but the general consensus is that it's a toss-up, at best. And that the degree to which it is a good idea depends, substantially, on the quality of the base-runner.)

Buck: "[Henderson Alvarez]'s a little rushed. He's always quick to the plate."

Alvarez has been averaging more than 20 seconds between pitches this year. That's above average, but only by a second or two. (Among starting pitchers, he's almost exactly average.)

Buck: "I think there are more good teams in the American League than in the National League right now."

I'm not sure that's an "I think" situation - you can pretty easily prove it. Buck went on to talk about win-loss records, which makes no sense - prior to Interleague play, which began on Friday, the leagues had only played amongst themselves, so the overall record in each league would be .500.

Buck: [after Gee throws a first-pitch breaking ball] "Gee picked up that the Blue Jays are looking to ambush on the first pitch."

That's probably a good read. He just watched a rookie hit a liner off a first-pitch fastball, so it's reasonable for him to assume that they're looking for it. (Also, his fastball is terrible. So, the Jays should look for it.)

3rd inning

Buck: [in reference to a chart that shows the Blue Jays have the best starters' ERA in the AL] "We mentioned how well the starting pitching has been playing. ... The Blue Jays also have 19 starter wins. They're tied with Texas for second."

The weird thing, first, is that they're graphic shows a 3.33 ERA for starters, while Fangraphs says 3.16. Dunno what accounts for that difference. 

But this is an interesting topic, because those same pitchers - who have the best ERA in the AL and 4th best in the Majors - have posted a very bad FIP: at 4.49, it's 11th in the AL 26th overall. (SIERA says 24th; tERA says 25th/) So, that's a huge disagreement between ERA and the advanced metrics. Usually, the numbers are quite close - only one other team has a 1.00 difference, and the numbers are quite close for most teams - which implies that the Jays' fielding has been exceptional (which is another interesting argument), that their pitchers are amazing with runners on base (which has been shown to be very rare for individual pitchers, much less a whole team), or that they've been very, very lucky. My guess? When all the metrics say this starting staff if below-average and should have an ERA over 4.00, we're probably going to see a regression to that range over the rest of the season.

4th inning

Buck: "Nick Markakis and Adam Jones have been doing a great job."

Markakis - .258/.335/.440, for a 118 wRC+ - has been better than I thought, though not especially "great". That's basically how he's compared to league-average through his entire career, which is "good" but nothing amazing. (Considering, especially, that the most common assessment of Markakis is that he's failed to live up to his potential.) Impossible to argue with his observation about Adam Jones, though.

Buck: "[Kelly Johnson]'s predominately a pull-hitter."

But the graphic they showed seemed to be saying the opposite - less than 40% of his balls-in-play were pulled, which is equal to the number of hits to center. Actually, I have no idea what that graphic was actually showing - it showed 36 balls in play, but Johnson has put more than 100 balls in play. Weird. I can only guess that it was actually fly balls plus non-fly home runs. (Assuming that three of those homers were classified as line-drive and not flies.) That actually makes it seem like he's even less of a pull-hitter, then, since hitters tend to pull in the air and put balls on the ground when they push.

5th inning

Buck: "What makes Wright such a good hitter?"
Pat: "...A good RBI-man."

Good RBI-man means that he always hits 3rd in the line-up, where even an average hitter is virtually a lock for 90 RBI if he plays every day. That said, Wright fell well short of 90 in 2009, and would have only had roughly that many RBI last year, if your project to fill the time he was injured. (To be fair, though, the Mets were absolutely terrible on offense in 2009. But Buck and Pat don't talk about how important "opportunity" is to racking up RBI. As everyone who reads about RBI would know, RBI are almost entirely a product of a) the quality of the hitter, regardless, and b) how many base-runners you have.)

Hmm... Buck and Pat just don't seem to be saying anything, anymore. Probably, in part, this is because the Jays are losing 6-2 and don't seem to be doing much on offense. I may just graciously bow-out right now and promise to stick with it next time...

Friday, May 18, 2012

The logic of baseball suspension length, or lack thereof

First, a disclaimer: This blog is not going to turn into the Brett Lawrie Blog, Sometimes Covering Other Topics. (Even though, right now, it might seem that is!)

Second, an additional disclaimer: I have been harshly critical of Lawrie in the two posts that I've devoted almost entirely to him. I'm not certain that I would like him much in conversation, but I actually do really enjoy watching him play. He's exciting to watch, in part because he's already a good player and in part because he's always putting in maximum effort. The enthusiasm he displays in every moment is, I think, unparalleled in baseball, and you can feel it rubbing off on the rest of the team. And the series of handshakes that he's designed with each of his teammates are ridiculous, but in a good way.

But, the guy who seems to pull off something like every second game... the same guy who did this a couple days ago.

Understandably, he was suspended. Because as much as we all want, to put it euphemistically, to lose our shit when a call doesn't go our way - and, in fact, it was two consecutive blown calls that led to Lawrie's "Hulk Smash!" explosion - it was a terrible idea. (I know that the Pitch F/X data that's been circulating suggests that the pitch barely missed an inch high, but their range makes no sense. I can't imagine any umpire calling a pitch that's more than 3 and a half feet high a strike, much less against a 6 foot tall hitter who's a half foot shorter in his stance.)

The culture of the game is to blame, too, of course. Players and umpires are all but encouraged to get in each other's faces and scream. The system by which umpires are evaluated and made accountable for their mistakes are entirely opaque. And it should be very easy to develop a program that can call balls and strikes with better accuracy. Baseball has made no effort to address any of those things.

So, what I wanted to look at is where the punishment - four games - fits in relation to other suspensions, across various sports. In part, I want to see whether there's a consistent logic applied within baseball and across various sports; in part, and assuming that there is some consistency, I want to see if Lawrie's punishment fits it. Following from this starting point, then, I pulled together this list.

  • 1 game (<1% of season) - Bobby Bonilla, 2001 (slapping another player)
  • 2 games (1%) - Milton Bradley, 2009 (bumping an umpire)
  • 2 games (1%) - Marlon Anderson, 2007 (throwing helmet toward home plate)
  • 2 games (1%) - Lance Berkamn, 2007 (throwing equipment on field)
  • 2 games (1%) - Roberto Alomar, 2005 (throwing glove in direction of umpire)
  • 3 games (2%) - Jonathan Papelbon, 2011 (bumping an umpire)
  • 3 games (2%) - Burke Badenhop, 2009 (hitting Orlando Hudson with a pitch, after a warning)
  • 3 games (2%) - Albert Belle, 1993 (charging the mound after being hit by pitch)
  • 4 games (2.5%) - Brett Lawrie, 2012
  • 4 games (2.5%) - Moises Alou, 1995 (participating in bench-clearing brawl)
  • 5 games (3%) - Cole Hamels, 2012 (hitting Bryce Harper with a pitch)
  • 5 games (3%) - Yadier Molina, 2011 (bumping an umpire, with incidental spit)
  • 5 games (3%) - Josh Beckett, 2009 (intentionally throwing near Bobby Abreu's head)
  • 5 games (3% ) - Roberto Alomar, 1996 (intentionally spitting on umpire) 
  • 50 games (35%) - Delmon Young [International League], 2006 (throwing bat at umpire)
  • Banned for life - Jose Offerman [Dominican Winter League], 2010 (punching umpire in face)

The first thing that's made clear, here, is that baseball treats violence (and the threat of violence) against players and umpires differently. Charging the mound with your fist cocked is given the same punishment as bumping the beak of your hat against the umpires forehead. The distinction makes sense, though; you need to allow for the possibility that things will get heated between opponents, but you can't allow players to think they can intimidate the officials. (I've also heard the legal argument - of "assumed risk" - that says baseball players concede implicitly that the job is potentially violent and injurious, while umpires do not.)

Jose Offerman charging the mound in a AAA game. He hit the catcher
in the head and give him a career-ending concussion. Is that "assumed risk"?
No photo credit available.

Second, baseball has been all over the place with the lengths of its suspensions. There are three different suspension lengths for three different umpire-bumping incidents, and Yadier Molina's bump-and-spit combo (where I'm probably being generous with "incidental" spit) got the exact same length as Alomar's unmistakably intentional spit 15 years ago. There should probably be some sort of standard here, but there clearly isn't. About the only thing that they can agree on is that pitchers should get about five games if they admit, or are proven, to have hit a batter intentionally. But this has less to do with how the infraction compares to other forms of violence than it does to the fact that starting pitchers only play once every five days.

And here are the comparisons to some recent rulings in other sports leagues.

  • 20 games (24% of the season) - rulebook suspension for intentionally tripping a referee [NHL]
  • 25 games (30% of the season*) - Raffi Torres [NHL], 2012 (blindside check to Marian Hossa w/head contact)
  • 15 games (39% of the season) - Dani Benitez [La Liga], 2012 (throwing water bottle at referee)
* the NHL's playoffs, like the NBA's, are so long and include so many teams that it's probably not fair to assign a percentage

The soccer suspension is completely out of whack with anything else that I've ever seen. It's actually maybe the nearest to the Lawrie incident, insofar as both throws seemed to be expressive of frustration and not an intent to injure. On the other hand, Benitez was trying to hit a referee, while Lawrie threw his helmet with such force that the possibility of accidental injury was greater (though still small). But that length is just nutty. And I've included the Raffi Torres incident in order to illustrate, again, the difference in punishments when we're talking players vs. officials. And while the NHL isn't anywhere near La Liga, when it comes to punishing players who lash out at referees, I think it's fair to say that they both take is a lot more serious than baseball does.

I don't have any solid conclusion to end with. Even though baseball's punishments appear to have no strict system of application, they're all so short (mostly between two and five games) that it's difficult to argue that Lawrie's suspension is surprising or inconsistent with past practice. The real question, though, might be whether baseball's practice is a good one, because Lawrie's actions would certainly earn him a longer suspension in either the NHL or La Liga. But that's something that all of baseball would need to start thinking about.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Round Table #1: Josh Beckett's back-injury and golf

[Context: Two weeks ago, Josh Beckett was scratched from a start due to back-tightness. Last week, it was revealed that he subsequently went golfing. In his own defense, Beckett explained that he often golfs on off-days and it's never been an issue before. For those keeping track, Beckett was also the reputed "leader" of the group of Red Sox at the center of last season's drinking-beer-in-the-clubhouse-during-games controversy.]

Photo by Jeff Haynes, Reuters


Insofar as Beckett's pursuit of (drinking and) golf interferes with his job, it is assuredly a problem.  I mean, if golf (and/or alcohol) interfered with my job, I'd be fired and Beckett makes far more money (for a far less meaningful 'job').

That said, proving that his baseball troubles stem from disinterest and/or distraction is another matter entirely.  Thus, the converse also holds: insofar as they are not interfering with his ability to do his job, the public outcry is potentially unfair.  More often than not claims of disinterested play seem to come about in bi-directional fashion (see Yunel Escobar).  That is, teams with rules/standards/practices that don't connect well with a given player's demeanour (much like management disconnect from staff in many workplaces) fails to generate a substantial return on investment.  Often when struggles arrive, press, fans, managers grasp at straws:  Beckett is struggling at baseball while golfing a lot, therefore golf must be the problem.

However, Josh has every right to golf and perhaps we should simply stop at the first clause ("Beckett is struggling at baseball.")  Golf, alcohol, personal problems aside, when most players struggle to this degree changes are made (trades, demotions, placed in bullpen or on DL, etc) but it seems to me that placing the blame on Beckett's non-baseball activities does little to resolve the problem.

Photo by Jim Rogash, Getty

It is tempting to unite with Boston fans and media in indicting Josh Beckett for playing golf during the season, particularly on the heels of last year's chicken and beer fiasco. After all, pro athletes like Beckett make a relative fortune playing a game many of us pay to play in our leisure time. Tempting as it might be, however, it isn't fair.

The disciplinary structure of high performance sport instructs athletes to understand their bodies as machines. That is, it encourages a dualistic approach that separates the mind from the body and positions the latter as inferior and thus subordinate to the former. This is an instrumental approach to the body that makes it possible to treat it as a weapon in violent sports that can inflict harm on the other, and, slightly more benignly, as a tool to be manipulated by the mind in others like baseball. Part and parcel of this dualism is the notion that the body must be cared for like a machine--it must be fed, watered, and conditioned to achieve optimal performance. Like a machine, however, it also means that the body is disposable. It is a means to and end, and that end is ultimately more important than the costs accrued to achieve it. Thus, the athlete is exhorted to destroy the body in the quest to win for the team, and for the fans who vicariously find meaning through the team.

So, why this abstract meditation on the culture of high performance sport? What does it have to do with Beckett? My case is that athletes like Beckett should be encouraged not to see their bodies in such instrumental terms. By playing golf, Beckett reveals a more playful understanding of his body. His lack of concern over how to optimize its performance suggests that he has not been entirely socialized into this damaging culture. While this may mean he suffers injury in the short term, it may also mean that he is less willing to subject it to extreme forms of harm over the long haul. It also models for other, younger, aspiring players that there are different ways to approach sport. Like, for instance, as if it was just a game.

No credit found for this one, unfortunately!


I'm a big fan of Dirk Hayhurst - relief pitcher (former Blue Jay!), blogger, memoirist, and fantastic Tweeter - and, in thinking about Beckett, I'm going to draw a bit of inspiration from his own ruminations on this topic.

A career-minor leaguer, Hayhurst has made a whole 25 appearances at the big-league level, (and, barring a miracle, won't make another) and is unapologetically honest when it comes to talking about the stresses and pressures that come with being a pro athlete. So, when Hayhurst is asked to either tell kids that they should 'play for the fun/love of it', or is criticized by fans/parents/coaches because his writing is too serious and shows that he doesn't just 'play for the fun/love of it', he inevitably disappoints them. Because, for Hayhurst, it isn't particularly fun - it's his job, (both the baseball and the writing that it inspires) he has responsibilities to his team and the fans, and it's how he feeds his family. But he also talks about the moment where pros admit to 'not caring anymore', and by this he doesn't mean that they stop playing hard - he means that they accept that their careers will eventually end and they need to have something more going on in their life.

So, where am I going with this? I can't help but feel that some of the animosity has to do with the bizarre expectation that athletes must be 100% committed to their sport, every single moment of every single day, at least during the season. We have this weird expectation of pro athletes that suggests that proper "discipline" or "focus" requires complete devotion, if not unhealthy obsession. But playing other games, showing interest in other things? This is good. Beckett needs to be doing these things for himself, owes it to himself to live a balanced life and develop a wide range of skills and interests, because his baseball career will be over before the end of the decade.

But the baseball job? Like Hayhurst says, Beckett isn't just doing that for himself. And to the extent that golf could easily lead to an injury that affects his ability to pitch, it's a bad idea. (It's possible that Beckett has a technically sound golf swing and that his swing coach and doctor are in agreement that the muscles he uses in his swing are not the same muscles that he injured pitching. But I find that kind of forethought very unlikely.) It has nothing to do with optics, (although, certainly, it does look bad) and everything to do with living up to the responsibility he has to others - his family, his teammates, the people of Boston. (And, I begrudgingly admit, to the guys who directly employ him. They do, after all, owe him another $45 million, give or take a couple million bucks.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Chief Wahoo and racist myth-making: an FAQ, of sorts

A couple weeks ago, I read a really nice piece by Peter Pattakos in the Cleveland Scene. (You should probably check it out.) In it, Pattakos talks at length about the Cleveland Indians' mascot, Chief Wahoo, the origin of the "Indians" team name, and the politicking that has surrounded the two for the past few decades. Needless to say, the author is soundly on-side with the anti-Wahoo folks who rightly deride it as horribly racist and unnecessary. And, needless to say, the comment thread quickly filled-up with people - some of whom obviously hadn't actually read the article - who came up with all sorts of, let's face it, patently stupid defenses of Chief Wahoo.

So, without further ado, here are some of those myths - some stupid, some not so much - debunked in what I hope is a much easier-to-consume form.

Myth #1 - The baseball team was given the name "Indians" in 1915 out of respect for Louis Francis "Chief" Sockalexis, a Native American who played for the Cleveland Spiders in the 1890s.

Well, actually... the name was meant to evoke the stereotype of the savage, blood-thirsty Indian of the then-recent Indian Wars.

Peter Pattakos covers this one adeptly in the article, but it bears repeating. To quote Joe Posnanski, "Why exactly would people in Cleveland — this in a time when Native Americans were generally viewed as subhuman in America — name their team after a relatively minor and certainly troubled outfielder?" Sockalexis wasn't even liked by the Cleveland fans, who were known to shout racist slurs and throw garbage - and this guy played for the home team. The Indians' nickname was, in fact, originally given to the team by the 1890s journalists who jokingly (that is, mockingly) referred to Sockalexis' entire team as "Indians". When the team adopted the name at the behest of the next generation of journalists in 1915, contemporary stories include zero references to Sockalexis but numerous mentions of racist stereotypes, like the suggestion that the team will be "on the warpath all the time, and eager for scalps to dangle at their belts". But don't take my (or Pattakos') word for it:

From The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1915.

Myth #2 - Chief Wahoo represents old-time baseball and childhood memories of trips to the ballpark, not actual Native Americans.

Well, actually... it can be, and is, both about old-time baseball (and all the baggage that old-time baseball carries) and actual Native Americans.

First, nostalgia for its own sake is always a pretty weak argument. Don't just say that it's good because it's old and familiar and you remember it fondly. Resorting to an 'it's tradition!' argument doesn't actually explain why it's a good thing. Second, the way that nostalgia idealizes the past is especially problematic, here. When we choose to remember or recognize only the good, we have to conveniently ignore the bad. Like, in this example, the memory of the shitty treatment given by the city of Cleveland to Sockalexis, their supposed inspiration. Because, let's remember, old-time baseball was also about excluding or alienating everyone who wasn't white.

Myth #3 - Whether you see a racist caricature or not is a matter of individual perception. It's all relative, so don't force your opinions on me.

Well, actually... just because it's relative doesn't mean that every opinion is equal, especially when the people who don't see a caricature are often operating from a position of blissful ignorance.

Whenever someone uses "relative" this way, they deserve to be slapped, because it's being used in an incredibly reductive way in order to imply that if something isn't a fundamental law of the universe - ie. the definition of "racist" or "offensive", as opposed to the chemical composition of water - then it's entirely up for grabs. Only, that's not actually true, and history and social consensus can't just be dismissed without consequence.

Take, for instance, the colour blue. Now, I could start referring to the colour blue by the name "red". And you might find that endearing, at first. But you would probably tire of it, eventually, and you might even grow concerned if I didn't stop, and either start correcting me (because I'm either colour-blind or, I suppose, an idiot) or refer me to a doctor (because I've lost my mind). In any case, even though the combination of the colour and its name are totally unmotivated and relative, that doesn't mean that they can be ignored at will and without repercussion.

So, whether you see a racist caricature has a lot to do with whether you're conscious of racist caricatures and their history - you don't need to know what a Sambo character is, or what they look like. I don't think that you need to be aware of how degrading Sambo-type caricatures were intended to be, how much pain they caused, and exactly what defined their appearance. Because you can just look at Chief Wahoo and the Indians logo and easily recognize that this isn't a flattering representation: knowing nothing else, you can be certain that it's unrealistic, pretty sure that it's comedic, and relatively confident that it's mocking.

Aaron Sechrist's comparison of Chief Wahoo to a Sambo caricature

Myth #4 - People who are offended by Chief Wahoo take themselves too seriously. They should worry about more important things.

Well, actually... "important" is relative, too.

If you identify as a member of a group that has historically been mocked and/or villified - and made to feel less than human for it - you'd probably be sensitive, too, when a pro sports team continues to shove that in your face and tell you that your opinion and feelings don't matter. What's not important to you, personally, could be incredibly important to someone else.

So, there's an empathy problem here - a lot of white fans, for instance, are able to say this because they can't relate to the feeling. Which is probably why someone made this logo:

T-shirt from Shelf-Life Clothing Co.

And let's be careful with our use of the word "important", especially to avoid being inadvertently ironic. Because if we're saying it isn't important because people are children are starving somewhere, then surely a bat-and-ball game played by millionaires, who are employed billionaires, isn't important either, right? And if a ball game isn't important, then neither is Chief Wahoo - why not just change the damn logo?

Myth #5 - But some Aboriginal/Indian/Native people are fine with it, so it must be okay.

Well, actually... no one person, or group of people, can speak for everyone. And we aren't always conscious of the ways in which we're being oppressed.

But it's also true that we ignore or excuse a lot of inequality, even when it affects us directly. Purely as a defense mechanism, we don't want to believe that racism or sexism or homophobia exists. Even when we're victims of these processes, we often don't see them - in part, because seeing them would require us to see that we're complicit in processes that similarly discriminate against other people and benefit us.

And if that doesn't convince you... just think of every time you played pick-up sports as a kid, where your team lost the argument if one of your teammates agreed with the position of the other team. Regardless of the facts, that was always the deciding factor. It was dumb, but it was forgivable, too, because you were all just kids and your solution didn't necessary have to be logical. Adults, though, need to be held to a higher standard.

Myth #6 - If the logo is racist, then that makes everyone who likes it racist. So, you're calling me a racist.

Well, actually... plenty of people unknowingly do and say racist things all the time, often without any awareness of it.

My favorite anecdote on this topic came from the first summer that I worked in a government office. One of my co-workers, who was reviewing my work, said that I didn't have to worry because, and I quote, "I'm not gonna Jew ya." And she had no idea that the verb, 'to Jew', had anything to do with Jewish people. No, seriously. (In her defense - I grew up in Sudbury, which, according to the 2006 census, is 93% white. Ignorance of obviously racist things is pretty common.)

The real problem is when you know the arguments, you've heard the evidence, and you just ignore it all.

Myth #7 - The logo's not racist.

Well, actually... if you're still saying that, I'm hoping it's because you didn't bother to actually read this article. (Or that you're illiterate.)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

White trash and the monstrous other

It's fashionable to say that fat and fat people constitute the last socially-acceptable category of open derision and discrimination. And it's not that I disagree with the spirit of the statement - certainly, overweight and obese people are mocked and discriminated against, both in media and interpersonally, with a sometimes almost sadistic enthusiasm. It's the "last" part that I disagree with.

Because it's still equally kosher to hate on people who would be considered, for lack of a more precise descriptor, trash. I know, "precise" sounds weird to say, doesn't it? Especially because "trash" sounds unnecessarily pejorative. I use "precise" because the trash label isn't strictly a class thing, as it might first seem - not all poor people are considered trash; not all people who are called trash are necessarily poor. It's also a cultural- and/or social-capital thing. (Calling someone "new money" is, after all, a bit like saying they're trash with cash.) And, I'd add, a race thing - because trash is so overdetermined, implicates so many different levels, to call someone trash is to put them on a level so far below the racial norm that they're basically occupying another category altogether.

But why am I saying this? Mostly, I'm saying it in response to the trailer for Chernobyl Diaries, the supernatural/radioactive-monster horror movie that's being released later this month.

Glad to see that the Scary Kid trope is still alive, too!

Now, I fully admit that I could be reading this particular film wrong. It might not be about evil mutated Ukrainian Euro-trash that not-so-subtly equates the class and culture of poor Eastern Europeans with being a homicidal monster (and I use "monster" both literally and figuratively). It might not be like The Crazies. Or The Hills Have Eyes. Or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And let's not even talk about the kinds of characters who pop up as sociopathic serial killers on Criminal Minds or the X-Files. (I don't know Jason or Freddy all that well, but I suspect that they'd fit the thesis, too.)

Creepy dude in the shadows! Watch out, attractive American cultural tourist!

So, my point, simply, is that this is flying under the radar, and has been for a long time. Maybe only Nazis are used more often when the plot calls for an insanely evil white person. (Maybe.)

But prove me wrong, Chernobyl Diaries. Prove me wrong.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Solving the beanball problem

Okay, so my title is begging the question: is there actually a "beanball problem" in baseball? I'm taking it for granted that there is, and that you agree with me. (This is inspired, of course, by the Cole Hamels-Bryce Harper controversy from less than a week ago.)

Hamels explained that he threw at Harper because the latter is a rookie, and because
Hamels' plays "old school". Reportedly, Hamels also kicks opponents in the groin and grabs
runners by the belt, just like Ty Cobb did. Old school! Photo from The Washington Post.

The hit-by-pitch in baseball is, to some extent, unavoidable. In the last 60 years or so, Major League Baseball has averaged a bit less than 0.5 hit batters per game. (And that 0.5 includes both teams - so individual teams' pitchers hit one batter every four games, and one of their own batters is hit by opposing pitchers once every four games. And that includes intentionally hit batters, which surely inflates the number a bit.) Even pitchers who have a reputation for being particularly wild or willing to throw inside only hit one batter every 20 innings - and normally, 20 innings would be spread over three starts.

So, what I'd like to suggest (y'know, for all those baseball executives who read this blog) is a yellow-card/red-card system for pitchers who hit batters. It would look something like this:
  • if you hit 2 batters in the same inning, you earn a red-card and are immediately ejected
  • if you hit 2 batters in different innings of the same game, you earn a yellow-card
    • [assuming that you don't later earn a red-card, that yellow-card stays with you for the next 7 days]
  • if you hit a 3rd batter in the same game, you earn a red-card and are immediately ejected
  • if you enter a game while having a yellow-card from a previous appearance, your 1st hit batter  extends it for another 7 days
  • if you hit a 2nd batter in the same game, you earn a red-card and are immediately ejected
  • every red-card is subject to automatic review to determine whether an additional suspension is warranted
  • after your first red-card of the season, every additional red-card carries an automatic 7 day suspension, plus a review to determine whether an additional suspension is warranted

I think that covers the ground that it should cover, but I might be missing something. The idea, though, is to provide enough of a penalty that pitchers might try a little harder to avoid hit batsmen, while at the same time not doing so much that pitchers would be afraid to throw inside. (Unless, of course, they have a yellow-card against them. In which case, they probably should be a bit afraid to throw inside. But that's just how penalties are supposed to work.)

There's one obvious gap in my logic, though, which is that it might actually incentivize batters to lean into a pitch, or simply not get out of the way. I'd like to think that most batters aren't that dumb - letting an 85-95 mph ball hit you, in any part of your body, is probably a bad idea. At the same time, we know that happens, and some batters - I'm thinking of Larry Walker - were particularly good at "turning away" from the ball in such a way that they actually increased the likelihood that they would be hit.

For that reason, any beanball that resulted in a yellow or red-card would be subject to video-review after the fact - and the card would be rescinded if the reviewer found that the batter didn't actually make an effort to get out of the way. (Also? Let's starting calling batters out when they don't actually try to get out of the way. Because I'm not sure that I've ever seen an umpire do that.)

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"Money puck": when bad sports research attacks

My University of Toronto email account gets these periodic bulletins with all sorts of random info about what's happening at the school and faculty or students who have been in the news. This story popped up in the last bulletin, and while the headline filled me with skepticism - the shamelessness of "Money puck" is almost too much to bear - I was genuinely interested in the research that this engineer, Tim Chan, and his student, David Novati, were doing. [Full-disclosure: I actually work for the University of Toronto. In Engineering, no less.]

Quick - which one is the student and which the professor? Photo by Raj Grainger.

Having read the article and their second paper, I realize now that I probably should've skipped the whole thing. But I didn't, so you're going to hear about it.

The fluff piece immediately throws up a bunch of red flags. The authors explain that their study confirms that Sidney Crosby is a valuable player (really? someone who's regularly compared to Gretzky is good? what a surprise!) and that guys who get in fights and rack up penalty minutes are not valuable (it's bad to give the other team a power play? another shock!) So, unless this study is meant to be read by people who only listen to Don Cherry, it's immediately difficult to see what they're adding to the conversation.

An aside: One of the complaints that Tom Tango makes about academics who wade into statistical sports analysis - apropos of nothing, I think that this is too often the case with my other research interest, comic books - is that they don't bother to check the non-scholarly research, first. And this is a huuuuge problem. Because, y'see, the work that these academics are trying to do - "quantify[ing] [each player's] individual contributions to his team’s performance" - has been done and is being done, and very well. (And we know it's being done well because, as with many of the baseball analysts, their work wins them jobs with pro teams.) Here, for instance. And here. And this one, which is one of my favorites because it's surprisingly accessible. Also, here. Here's another one. This one, too. And here's a slicker option that's also pretty readable and very comprehensive. And one more. (To Chan and Novati's credit, though, they actually referenced the very last site on this list.) But academics ignore them, because that's the nature of the game - you reference other academics because they have academic prestige, thereby increasing your own academic prestige; and then you hope that other academics will reference you, increasing your prestige again.

Ryan Miller and Jim Corsi. Corsi's name should appear somewhere in this paper.
It doesn't. And that's a bad thing. Photo source unknown.

So, when their abstract begins with reference to "[r]ecent literature in hockey analytics" and it references only one non-academic advanced statistics site? (Which is, hilariously, equal to the number of references they make to both Bill James - who has nothing to do with hockey - and their own work.) That's a bad sign that, no, they aren't familiar with what's happening in the recent literature. (Or that their definition of "recent literature" is much too narrow.) And when the first line of your abstract is just plain wrong...

Some other (not-so) quick and dirty comments:
  • From the abstract: "Top ranked players in terms of point shares tend to be winners of major NHL awards, are leaders in scoring, and have the highest salaries. ... Overall, a better understanding of individual NHL player characteristics may provide a foundation for deeper, data-driven player analysis." Okay, so I don't get it. Why do we need "deeper" analysis if, in the first sentence, you're saying that your top-ranked players are also the ones who win awards and get paid well? Doesn't that imply that the current evaluation system works just fine? That you can add nothing to it? There's no hook, here.
  • They reference their earlier paper, which uses k-means clustering to establish four player types. Now, admittedly, I know virtually nothing about algebra. But I can tell when someone's approach is begging the question. What benefit does clustering actually have, here, to a game that is determined solely by goal-count? Where does the need to establish "types" come from and what point does it actually serve? And why limit yourself to, for example, four clusters of forwards and define them in the way that they have? I suspect that it's because most teams use four lines of forwards, each characterized by those particular functions (two scoring lines, a defensive line, and a "physical" one), but this is exactly the kind of "traditional" thinking that needs to be challenged, (or confirmed) not taken as a given.
  • This is more of a personal preference, but I've never been sold on Win Shares or Point Shares. (Nor has most of the advanced stats community, since most sports seem to prefer some version of Wins Above Replacement.) Especially in a sport like hockey, where 10% of your team's points may be derived from shoot-out wins, team wins and points simply aren't the best way to evaluate individual talent-level. (Also, given the point I just made about shoot-outs, you'd think that they'd incorporate shoot-out stats into their analysis. But they don't.)
  • They use only the most obvious, traditional stats. Now, goals make sense (though shooting percentage is better, and they should also account for the difference between even-strength and power-play goals, because the latter are so much easier to attain), but it's horribly problematic to use assists without differentiating between the quality of different assists - earning the second assist often means you had no direct involvement in the goal, or at least you were just as involved as the guy who fed you the puck but didn't earn a point himself. They use penalty minutes but, at least, admit that this is to help determine the player's function, not because penalties are good. (This is where the analysis is unclear me - is the "physical" component actually a negative component?) And they use plus/minus, which is where I start to feel The Outrage boil up. Plus-minus is a terribly way to assess a player's value - just click on that link, which explains why the best defensive players routinely have terrible plus/minus ratings. And then The Outrage explodes when I see that they use unadjusted GAA and... Goalie Wins. Um, no.
  • Relatedly, they completely ignore all of the tremendously useful advanced stats that have appeared over the past decade: they never use the terms GVT, Corsi/Fenwick (ie. shot differential), zone starts (where was the puck when the player got on to the ice? when he got off?), quality of competition, or some version of WOWY/quality of teammates (how did his teammates do when he was on the ice vs. off the ice?) If you're totally unfamiliar with these, you can read about what most of them mean here. The point, though, is that these metrics already exist and they've been proven to do a better job of assessing player ability than the stats that Chan and Novati rely on. I don't know if the reason is hubris or laziness... but, wow, they dropped the ball on this one. (Or dropped the puck. Made a bad cross-ice pass. Let one go through the five-hole. Insert your own metaphor here.)
  • Their metric normalizes for playing-time, but you can't do that. (Well, obviously, you can do that. But you shouldn't.) You can't give everyone equal playing-time because some players are simply injury-prone - their inability to stay on the ice has an undeniable effect on their value, except that normalization does deny it. Endurance and fitness is another factor - some players can simply play at a high-level for a longer time than others. But, perhaps most importantly, you have to account for the context of those minutes. Because if you normalize the total on-ice minutes without also normalizing their power-play and penalty-killing time - to say nothing of the various even-strength roles that players are given - then "normalizing" actually becomes something of misnomer, because you'll exaggerate those contextual differences.
Now, all that said, I can see some use for this research. In the fluff piece, it says that they hope to create an online tool that will help you draft your fantasy hockey team. And, yeah, I suppose that could work.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Chocolate-covered Avengers (or, why i decided to stop worrying and love the Avengers)

One of the first things I did when I got home from seeing The Avengers on Friday was tweet about how it was both awesome fun and entirely superficial.

And that's still true. The film is utterly unrelenting in its action - most of the movie is one extended, real-time, multi-site battle - but absolutely lacking in subtext.

The battle direction is superb, and one continuous shot where the Avengers work together to kill the invading alien horde is surely the single greatest teamwork sequence that I've ever seen. The storytelling is sharp and every seemingly arbitrary storytelling choice - is there any particular reason that Loki's staff must pierce them through the heart? why yes, yes there is - has some sort of satisfying purpose behind it. And the dialogue is written by Joss Whedon, so it's hilarious and wonderful.

But, yeah, it still has all the substance of a marshmallow. There's a shadowy global security organization that wants to nuke New York, but that's what passes meaningful political dialogue. Certainly, there's nothing that approaches the thoughtful engagements with international terrorism, American neocolonialism, and realpolitik that made the source material, Mark Millar's The Ultimates, so compelling. There's no character-work here, either, save for Cap's intro (which they never build on in any meaningful way - that's for his solo sequel, I guess) and a few throwaway lines from Bruce Banner and the Black Widow. In fact, as my friend Noa noted, there's nothing relatable about any of the heroes, and they're all larger-than-life demigods. (I think, again, that Whedon recognized this and tried to make the Black Widow more accessible. But it totally didn't work.)

All that said... I'm starting to think that I missed the forest for the trees. To quote some guy who I saw re-Tweeted on the internets:


Over on the facebook, Geoff Klock said that he "loved the Avengers as a tonic to the dread seriousness of Nolan's Batman". And he's right, because we do need movies like this - and that's especially clear when you see the trailers that precede the Avengers, which are for the next Dark Knight film and the new Spider-man movie. (Unfortunately, it looks like the new Spidey is taking its cues from the Nolan films rather than the Raimi Spider-man series. And I'm gonna make the call right now: that's a big mistake.) 

If every other super-hero film is aiming for overwrought, despair-inducing gravitas, then we should applaud Joss Whedon for going in the total opposite direction. It might "only" be "chocolate covered orgasms rolled in happiness", but if you're going to eat anyway, you can do a whole lot worse than chocolate covered orgasms.

Is it okay for stars to be jerks?

Years ago - so long ago, in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't remember - I got in an argument with Nathan about Tiger Woods. I told him that I didn't like Tiger because he was a jerk, with respect, specifically, to how he gets mopey and petulant when he does poorly, as if he wants to pick up his ball and go home. I don't remember the details of his response, exactly, but he disagreed. [Nate might want to clarify this a bit.]

Tiger looking despondent after a bad shot. (Or, rather, The New Normal.) Photo from Agence-France Presse.

Anyway, I'm mentioning this because Lance Armstrong has been in the news a couple times in the last month for, of course, being a jerk. If you didn't know, he's now an Iron Man Triathlete - a race length that's roughly four times that of the Olympic length. But he's still the same poor-sport that he was renowned for being whilst doing the cyclying thing.

In the stories that I've linked, Lance is criticized for doing a number of jerky things:
  • refusing to shake hands with the winner of a race, after Lance came in second
  • refusing to shake hands with the guy who passed Lance at the finish-line of another race (but this was only for sixth place) and, subsequently, ignoring his 10 year-old daughter as she tried to give him a participant medal
Snubbing his daughter. Classy. Screen cap by
  • mocking Olympic triathlon as a "shampoo, blow dry & 10k run" (singling out the "drafting" strategy of having a teammate sacrifice himself in order to help the team's star conserve energy - which, hilariously, is a strategy that every team uses in the Tour de France) and thus offending a bunch of his ostensible peers.
Nice. But this is where the Woods and Armstrong examples converge, for me - is there something about the single-minded focus and intensity that's required to be The Best that can explain (or justify?) that kind of behavior. If you need to dial it up to eleven in order to be The Best, does it in fact make perfect sense that you would take losing - or being embarrassed, as in that second example from Armstrong - really poorly? If you're that invested in the outcome, personally, should you not be really upset when it doesn't work out? But even if that's true, is it justifiable or excusable? And am I simply trying to rationalize some problematic effect of masculine machismo?

Honestly, I'm not sure.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Some mid-season Mad Men notes

A couple very quick thoughts about the current season of Mad Men, which was (as usual) a bit slow in getting started but has really hit the ball out of the park with the last three episodes.

I'll use this as a shameless excuse to show the too-photogenic Jon Hamm. Photo by someone at AMC

The first four episodes of the season had me worried that the show had fallen into the trap of over-referencing itself. By way of reintroducing us to the show, they cleverly established that each of the cast of characters (who work at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, at least) has moved/grown/fallen into the role that was occupied by someone else in the pilot: Peggy had become impatient and ambitious, like Pete (but she's also become the creative center of the firm, like Don); Pete had become arrogant and restless, like Don; Don had become complacent and distant, like Roger; Roger feared he was old and useless, like Bert.

Even the newest member of the team, Ginsberg, fits into the pattern - he has the old Peggy's nervous energy and doting parent, and in his first presentation makes the same gaffe that Pete did in the pilot. So, yes, clever, but also overplayed - this kind of self-referencing is effective in small doses, where we feel smart for having caught some tiny nod, but not when it hits us over the head with its obviousness. And not when it appears to be passing itself off as major - and perhaps the only - onscreen character development.

Thankfully, the last few episodes have moved away from this direction: Peggy can't run the show and is showing an increasing discomfort with the fact that she's become one of the guys, even as (or, rather, because?) she seems to fit in with increasing ease; Pete's self-loathing lacks the subtlety of Don's, and he seems to be regressing personally, even as he becomes more outwardly confident and ruthless; Roger refuses to curl up and die.

But, naturally, it's Don's arc that propels the show, and it's his moment of recognition - courtesy of Bert's plea that he needs to take control of the ship - that, I think, is at the core of this season. Don's always at his best when he's operating from a place of sheer terror (this says something about masculinity and the demands that it makes on us, of course, though I won't go on about that at length. not here and now, anyway) : the fear that Dick Whitman will be revealed, that his other women will be discovered, that his place of work will be stolen from him, that they'll lose the big fish. And that terror is back - is worse, even - because he's always escaped (or wanted to escape) his problems.

The thing is, this time he is the problem. And while Don has been at the heart of his problems in the past, (of course) there's always been a degree of removal - his past, his inability to keep it in his pants, etc. Because everyone has always liked and wanted Don and his work, and has always appreciated that he's hard (impossible?) to pin down and is just a bit mysterious. And now all those virtues have been turned on their head just a bit - his work is perceived to be poisonous; he's finally being taken to task for his history of womanizing and his lady-killing skills have been reframed, literally, as deadly; his mystique and mystery, which were central to his creative allure, now fuel his clients' mistrust. Interesting stuff.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Victoria's Secret and Brett Lawrie: the jokes write themselves

Brett Lawrie flirts with a model while enthusiastically gripping a bedazzled phallic object.
Yep, this is news. Photo by Carlos Osorio

I'm not going to discuss the story that this picture comes from. The Toronto Star does a decent job of that, as do the bloggers that they link to in that article. No, I just wanted to post this picture of Brett Lawrie and one of the Victoria's Secret Angels, because it's both hilarious and shameless. How Lawrie continues to allow himself to be photographed like this, especially after all of the other embarrassing pictures that have been leaked to the internets - pictures that initially had Jays fans questioning his judgement and, uh, "make-up", to put it euphemistically - boggles the mind.

And, honestly? I realize it's Victoria's Secret and all, but did they really need a lingerie model? Could they have made it any clearer that this line isn't for the average female baseball fan? And that the clothes aren't even made for the women who wear the clothes, but rather for the men who'll see them wear it? (As opposed to, say, men's merchandise, which isn't restricted to underwear and pyjamas, and is designed to fit and flatter all sorts of body types?)

At the very least, they could pair the ballplayer Brett with a female ballplayer - match an athlete with athlete. "Well, who could that possibly be?" you say? Well, at least one name springs to mind immediately. And Brett Lawrie has even taken pictures with her before!

That's Brett's sister, Danielle, btw. Can't find a photo credit.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Joey Bats: Seriously, is it time to start worrying?

In what has become a discomfortingly familiar sight, Bautista pops out last night. Photo by Nathan Denette.

Jose Bautista is off to an awful start. But don't take my word for it - here's a simple comparison of his ratios from the past few years:

2009 404 0.235 0.349 0.408 0.173 0.275 13.9% 21.0% 0.339 102
2010 683 0.260 0.378 0.617 0.357 0.233 14.6% 17.0% 0.422 166
2011 655 0.302 0.447 0.608 0.306 0.309 20.2% 16.9% 0.441 181
2012 99 0.190 0.333 0.329 0.139 0.179 16.2% 11.1% 0.301 88

In every category but K-rate, (strangely, but more on that later) Joey Bats' numbers have taken a nose-dive. He's walking less than last year, his batting average on balls in play is absurdly (and unsustainably, thank god) low, and his isolated power is actually below league-average. And overall - and this is what you see in those last two columns, weighted on-base average and weighted runs created plus - he's about 10% below league-average on offense. The Bautista that we see in 2012 looks nothing like the one from 2010 or 2011 - he doesn't look much like the one from 2009, either, but if we were compelled to choose the best comparison...

"But", you're saying, "this is a small sample-size. If his BABIP were closer to his career average (of .273) and just 1 or 2 deep fly-outs had left the park, we wouldn't be worried at all!" And you're probably right. But his BABIP has been low and he does only have 5 extra-base hits (after posting 92 and 69 in the past two years), so let's see if we can find an explanation. First, we'll check out the batted-ball details:

2009 404 0.98 16.7% 41.3% 42.1% 10.4% 12.3%
2010 683 0.57 14.4% 31.1% 54.5% 14.9% 21.7%
2011 655 0.79 16.0% 36.9% 47.0% 15.2% 22.5%
2012 99 0.85 13.7% 39.7% 46.6% 20.6% 8.8%

Again, given the caveat that these are small samples, it looks like some sort of explanation is starting to emerge, and it reconciles well with what the eyeball-test tells me - Bautista just isn't getting good wood on the ball, and is either driving it into the ground or blasting it sky-high. (In Sunday's game, he hit three IFFBs in one at-bat - one fell foul because of a miscommunication, one fell just a couple rows into the stands, and the last was finally caught by Seattle's shortstop.) His line-drive rate is noticeably down, his ground-ball rate is rising to pre-2010 breakout levels, and he's hitting harmless pop-ups at a really alarming rate. And when he does hit flies, they just aren't leaving the park. This also explains a lot of the BABIP, by the way - the expected batting average on LDs is about .700, while the expected average on IFFBs is almost .000.

Bautista wonders about the BABIP on bunts - hint: it's not enough. Photo by Mike Cassese.

So, why is this happening? Is he doing something different? Are the pitchers doing something different? Based on the next spread of numbers, it seems like that it's a bit of Column A and a bit of Column B.

First, the pitches he's seeing:

2009 404 59.9% 14.6% 10.7% 4.1
2010 683 49.5% 19.3% 12.7% 38.9
2011 655 50.3% 17.6% 11.3% 30.7
2012 99 59.6% 15.5% 6.9% -0.7

This is where it starts to get interesting - pitchers don't seem to be afraid to throw fastballs to Bautista anymore. A typical MLB batter sees around 56% or 57% fastballs, but Bautista's 50% in 2010-11 was the 6th fewest among qualified batters - a number beaten only by other sluggers like Ryan Howard and Josh Hamilton. A 60% rate, though puts Bautista in the company of guys like Michael Bourn and Michael Cuddyer. Again, this seems to jibe with the eyeball-test (and, amazingly, with Pat Tabler's analysis) - pitchers who were previously afraid to throw the high-heat to Joey Bats are now throwing it routinely.

But they would only throw it if he wasn't hitting, right? And you can see that he's not hitting it well in that last column - the one that shows that Bautista has posted a negative run-value on fastballs in play, after two seasons where he hit fastballs better than all but two other players. So, let's look at what Bautista is or isn't doing with the bat...

PA Contact% Zone% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
2009 404 80.1% 52.3% 17.5% 55.6% 37.5% 59.7% 86.0%
2010 683 80.5% 48.5% 22.0% 60.0% 40.4% 66.1% 86.1%
2011 655 79.3% 44.4% 21.2% 57.9% 37.5% 64.2% 86.3%
2012 99 80.4% 47.4% 25.3% 54.7% 39.3% 77.2% 82.0%

I could probably have started with this one chart and referred only to this one chart. That's because plate discipline is the one instance where the sample-size may not be an issue - swing and contact-rates in baseball stabilize much faster than anything else. (Of course, I'm going to break those rates down into sub-sets, which makes it a little questionable, again. Sue me.)

Now, Bautista's Contact% number looks pretty solid, but if you look at the other columns it's also a misleading number. Because, while the overall number looks consistent and encouraging, its components have changed pretty dramatically.

First, Bautista is swinging much more often at pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) and less often at pitches inside the zone (Z-Swing%). Bautista's numbers in both columns are still well below-average (which are around 30% and 65%, respectively), because he's an exceptionally patient hitter, but the trend is obviously troubling.

Second, and perhaps more indicative of his problems, Bautista's contact rate inside the zone has dropped by a pretty sizable margin, while, again, his contact rate on pitches outside the zone has increased dramatically. Bautista has always made contact in the zone at a slightly below-average rate, but that's not surprising - power has a significant negative-correlation with contact, so power hitters do tend to whiff at a high rate. More remarkably, though, he used to miss outside pitches more often than league-average (68%), but is now making contact well above that average.

Especially when you think about how power and contact correlate, Bautista's contact rates are a bad development that goes a long way toward explaining the early season problems - if Bautista is making more contact with less hittable pitches, then it follows that the balls he puts in play will be more poorly hit. Not to sound like I'm hitting the panic button, but when I saw these numbers I was reminded of another power hitter who's infamous for his plate discipline and tattooing fastballs, but saw his Z-Contact% drop slightly and his O-Contact% increase dramatically last year, resulting in a complete inability to do anything useful against fastballs - Adam Dunn.

No one wants to be compared to 2011's Adam Dunn. Not even Adam Dunn. Photo by Jerry Lai.

So, where does that leave us? My quick and dirty summary is this: Bautista has to stop swinging at pitches outside the zone. Unless you're Vlad Guerrero in his prime, putting O-Zone pitches in play is deadly to a batter's production. And, really, it's not like he even has an excuse for chasing bad pitches out of the zone - he's seeing more fastballs in the zone than he has in years! (Less helpfully, I'd add that he needs to start hitting fastballs, again.)

No, all is not lost - not even for Adam Dunn, whose 2012 peripherals and production look a lot like his pre-2011 numbers, and is also back to destroying fastballs. In all likelihood, Bautista just needs to adjust his approach ever-so-slightly, to something more closely resembling what he did over the past two years. For what it's worth, this looks to me like a problem with discipline and patience - something that Bautista has been shown to have in spades.