Monday, November 26, 2012

Ford, Baird, and the anti-democractic irony to their claims of anti-democracy

The Mayor of Toronto face-plants hilariously during a football photo-op.
Incredibly-timed, given that the stumble happened a week before he was ordered to leave his office.
And doubly-unfortunate, given that he's a football coach.

The people are going to speak. I’m not going to have people saying that I can’t do this, I can’t do that." 

-Rob Ford (2012), soon-to-be former Mayor of Toronto, in response to a judge's ruling on a conflict-of-interest case, which evicted Ford from office (pending appeal)
2."We’ll go over the heads of the members of Parliament; go over the heads, frankly, of the Governor General; go right to the Canadian people."
-John Baird (2008), Conservative Party Member of Parliament, in response to the opposition parties reaching an agreement to oust the Conservatives from power (which would fail, following a) a misleading but effective campaign to vilify the move as illegitimate, and b) some procedural maneuvering by the Conservatives to delay the pivotal vote)

Earlier today, Toronto's buffoon of a mayor was found guilty in a conflict-of-interest case - he spoke and voted in a motion where he stood, explicitly, to either save or lose money - and told that he has 14 days to remove himself from his office. That first quote was one of his responses to the ruling. He's been booted because he violated the rules that are designed to protect democracy from people who behave self-interestedly. That's a provision worth protecting, especially from someone who sounds as if he's slightly megalomaniacal and thinks himself entirely above the law.
But then there's that second quote. John Baird sounded similarly unhinged and ridiculous in 2008 when an alliance of Liberal, New Democrat and Bloc Quebecois parties - who, together, outnumbered the Conservatives in Parliament - prompted him to display his total contempt for the Canadian system of democracy. As was rightly pointed out by interviewer Don Newman, Baird either didn't understand or didn't care to understand that his power was contingent, that it could be lost in an instant if the Tories, like Ford, continued to act as if it was actually absolute.
The thing is, and the lesson to take away from that second story, is that it might not matter. The Constitutional contingencies of political power? The rule of law? None of that matters so much as the appearance of legitimacy. Baird and the Conservatives were successful in controlling the narrative of the procedural wrangling, and successfully reframed a totally legal and transparent process, somehow, as an illegitimate and nefarious one. And as dumb as Ford might appear to be, that's the exact same card that he's playing. And it could still work.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Baseball follow-up: and sometimes, it's all love

I blogged yesterday about the ambivalence that I feel for pro sports. But today, I read a story that reminds me that, sometimes, I don't have to feel ambivalent. Sometimes, it's all good.

This is Ichiro, inarguably one of the world's most famous ballplayers:

For the first ten years of his career, he was also one of the world's best ballplayers - he collected the 4th-most Wins Above Replacement from 2001-10, during which he also broke the record for hits in a single-season.

Just as importantly, he's earned a reputation for being a really nice guy. How nice? This is the letter that he wrote to a fan in Seattle, how kept a running tally of how many hits Ichiro recorded every season on her Ichimeter: (apologies to Yahoo for so shamelessly stealing their image and story)

And, sure enough, Ichiro included a pair of shoes and a bat, all autographed. Pretty awesome stuff.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Love, hate, and baseball

Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays - the only sports team that has earned entirely uncritical, and unrepentant, love from me - made an insanely aggressive trade. It's not an exaggeration to say that it's probably the most exciting move that the team has made since they signed Roger Clemens, if not Rickey Henderson. And the latter happened almost 20 years ago.

But just as the trade reminds me why I love sports, it's equally capable of reminding me why I hate sports.

The Miami Marlins, with whom the Jays completed the trade, have now divested themselves of the large majority of their payroll. Last season, they started the year with (if I'm remembering correctly) ten players making over $2m, several of whom were also making north of $10m. Now, they have two, the highest-paid player making "only" $6m. In total, their payroll is now hovering somewhere around $20m.

So, why is this hate-worthy? Because the Marlins are infamous for exploiting baseball's revenue-sharing system. Designed to help poorer franchises compete with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox, teams like the Marlins instead use the money to increase their profit. From 2002 to 2010 - that is, since current owner Jeffrey Loria bought the team - the perennially-cheap Marlins averaged a total player payroll of about $55m and a pre-sharing profit of something like $15m. After revenue sharing? Most like $45m - or about 80% of their total player costs. That's not a sports team that's being run out there to actually win. That's a team that's designed to lose, and, perversely*, make money doing it.

And a year after appearing to reverse course and doing badly - having to reverse course, because they had convinced the city and its politicians that they would build a good team if the public built them a $600m stadium - the Marlins have decided to return to the reliably profitable method of tanking on the cheap. And, honestly, who can blame them? There's a lot of chance and random variation that gets in the way of turning a profit with a winning-team; but there's a formula that guarantees monetary success if you do badly enough. Given those options, it's not surprising that one or more teams would take the good-for-business, bad-for-baseball approach. It makes more than a little bit of sense.

But, fuck, it really makes me hate pro baseball.

*I say "perversely" as if capitalism doesn't routinely reward failure. It does, of course. But it's still a fair description.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Miguel Cabrera didn't win the Triple Crown


In the NHL's 2010-2011 season, Daniel Sedin - a player in the Western Conference - led the league with 104 points and won the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer. The Eastern Conference's Martin St. Louis scored 99 points, second-best in the NHL, and was awarded nothing. Corey Perry - another Western Conference player - led the league with 50 goals and was awarded the Maurice Richard Trophy as top goal-scorer. Martin St. Louis's teammate, Steven Stamkos, scored 45 to lead the Eastern Conference, but nobody noticed or cared.


One of the oft-repeated arguments in favor of pitcher Jack Morris's election to the baseball Hall of Fame is that he led baseball in Pitcher Wins during the 1980s, with 162, and every other pitcher who led a particular decade in Pitcher Wins is in the Hall of Fame. Let's ignore, for the moment, that this is actually a pretty meaningless stat - that Pitcher Wins are heavily dependent on the quality of the pitcher's team, as well as dependent on having a lot of opportunities to start, and that we have much better stats available - and see whether that's actually true.

From 1977-1986 - a full decade - Ron Guidry led baseball with 163 Pitcher Wins. (Morris had 144 over the same time-frame.) Ron Guidry is not in the Hall of Fame. From 1984-1993, Frank Viola and Roger Clemens tied for the most Pitcher Wins, again with 1963. Frank Viola is also not in the Hall of Fame, and Clemens will be hard-pressed to shake the steroid-user label and qualify for the Hall, at least for the first few years.

So, even if I limit myself to the years where Morris was also active, it's pretty clear that the argument falls apart unless it's hilariously constrained. It's all about the easy and ready-made reference points, apparently.


Rogers Hornsby was arguably one of the five or ten greatest baseball players, ever. He has the second-highest career batting average, ever. He had six seasons where he posted at least 10 Wins Above Replacement, equaling Barry Bonds and one fewer than Willie Mays. (On the high-end, Babe Ruth had ten; Hank Aaron, though, had none.)

In 1922, Hornsby won the first of his Triple Crowns, meaning that he led the National League - all 8 teams - in batting average (AVG), home runs (HR), and runs batted in (RBI). In 1925, he did it again, but did it even better. This time, he led all of Major League Baseball in average, homers, and batted in.


This season, Miguel Cabrera led the American League in that baseball traditionalist's favorite fetishistic triumvirate of stats: AVG, HR, RBI. (It's actually eminently reasonable to fetishize HR, because there's no better indicator of raw power. But AVG is demonstrably inferior to on-base percentage at demonstrating what it's supposed to demonstrate, and RBI is almost useless - it's an opportunity stat, and not particularly reflective of ability. Plenty of awful players have driven in 100 RBI, provided that they hit in the middle of the order and get to play every game.)

But the American League, like the Eastern Conference, is just a subset of half the teams in the whole of Major League Baseball. Cabrera led all of baseball in HR and RBI, but came second (or third, arguably) league-wide in AVG, behind the National League's Buster Posey. Actually, he didn't even lead all Cabreras in AVG - the NL's Melky Cabrera was more than ten points higher, though he was one plate appearance short of "qualifying" for the batting title. (Although, that said, baseball has a rule that allows him to qualify by adding an extra "out" to his season line. Melky Cabrera requested that they not that, and they complied, but we don't have to also indulge him.)


Last season, Matt Kemp hit .324 with 39 HR and 126 RBI - a season very similar to the one that Miguel Cabrera just put up this year. But Kemp didn't win the Triple Crown and didn't win the MVP. (Although he probably should have. Even if we concede that he and MVP Ryan Braun were nearly identical as hitters, Kemp is a substantially better fielder at a much harder position.) Kemp led the National league is HR and RBI, and finished third in AVG. He also led all of baseball in RBI, was 3rd in HR, and 7th in AVG.

But let's be playful, for a moment, and try to imagine how Kemp could have won the Triple Crown.

Among National Leaguers, players on only the Brewers and Mets beat Kemp's batting average. Among American Leaguers, players on only the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Tigers, and Blue Jays beat Kemp's AVG or HR. That means that Kemp's Triple Crown numbers were better than those posted by any player on the other 23 teams. Substitute the Brewers and Mets with any of the other 9 American League teams, and suddenly Matt Kemp has won a Triple Crown.

Actually, it's even easier than that. There are 14 teams in the AL and 16 in the NL. Miguel Cabrera had the best Triple Crown numbers among the players from 14 teams. Matt Kemp also had the best numbers among a group of 14 teams, but had the misfortune of playing in the larger League. If you drop the Brewers and Mets, you're left with 14 teams - the exact same number of teams and players that Cabrera was in competition with.


Getting to the point: The MVPs of baseball's two Leagues will be announced on Thursday, and the American League's MVP Trout vs. Cabrera race is being figured as something much bigger than the two players themselves: advanced stats vs. traditional ones, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) vs. the Triple Crown. But I'm going to suggest that this framing of the competition begs the question: because before we can ask whether it's more important to lead the league in WAR or in Triple Crown stats, we should probably confirm that Miguel Cabrera actually won the Triple Crown.

Baseball fans are probably perplexed, at this point - because Cabrera did win the Triple Crown, didn't he? Major League Baseball even created a trophy for it:

Obnoxious trophies aside, I'm gonna say it: Cabrera won squat. If Stamkos wasn't the Eastern Conference's Richard Trophy winner, if Kemp didn't also win a Triple Crown, then it makes zero sense for Cabrera to be the American League's Triple Crown winner. It's based on an arbitrary assignment of 14 teams to one League and 16 to another. It's misleading, at least insofar as people routinely refer to the Triple Crown as "baseball's Triple Crown". It's not a real Triple Crown.

Rogers Hornsby in 1925, leading all of baseball in the Triple Crown stats? That's a real Triple Crown, just like Corey Perry's 50 goals earned him a real Maurice Richard Trophy. Cabrera's impressive but nonetheless second-(or third-)best batting average? Second-best won Stamkos zero Richard trophies, which is precisely the number of Triple Crowns (and MVP awards) that Cabrera deserves.


Additionally hilarious thought: I'm willing to bet that the same people who would give Cabrera the MVP over Trout because the former won the AL Triple Crown would see things differently if there was only one MVP and not one for each league - you know, just like every other pro sports league. Because then we definitely wouldn't be talking about this Triple Crown thing - and without that traditionalist fetish symbol obscuring the view, Trout's superior numbers and performance are a whole lot easier to see.

Here's the thing, and the whole point of how hilariously inappropriate and deceptive the Triple Crown award actually is: if a player is the MVP of his league, then he should be the MVP regardless of (ostensibly) irrelevant alternatives. If Cabrera > Trout, then that should hold true whether we're considering him for AL MVP or the MVP of all baseball. But that's not actually true. Because Cabrera's argument hinges so totally on his Triple Crown. If we consider all of baseball - AL and NL - including Buster Posey (or Melky Cabrera) and his higher batting average, then Cabrera loses the Triple Crown and suddenly Trout > Cabrera. That's absurd. And, yet, that's how baseball traditionalists think.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Assorted post-American election thoughts


This is a single article, but it seems rather indicative of general response to the Republicans' loss in the USA's presidential election earlier this week: "Win for Barack Obama is existential crisis for American right wing." Now, I would clearly prefer Obama to Romney, (though, as I've pointed out to numerous people over the last week, Obama would almost certainly qualify as a Conservative, here, so he certainly doesn't do a whole lot for me) and it's definitely true that, in a two-party system, a party which relies on white people and the rural vote - in a country where both demographic populations are slowly declining - needs to reorient itself.

But "existential crisis"? "Destroyed"? "Destroying itself"? (There's about 80 million Google results for "Republican party +" either of those two.) "In crisis"? (Another 80 million results.) Jesus, people, I know that the 24 hour news cycle is some sort of textual-diarrhea-monster that requires constant feeding and regurgitation, but let's get real. Romney scored 48% of the vote. The Democrats have the slimmest possible majority in the Senate. The Republicans still have solid control of the House. If you want a "crisis", look at our last election, where the Bloc Quebecois was reduced to 4 seats (from 47) and the Liberals, having previously led the country from 1993-2004, had fallen to third-place and only 18% of the vote. That's awful. But losing 50% to 48%? Get real.


But it's still funny to see Republicans and their supporters totally lose their shit. And even funnier when they reinforce the stereotype of Republican-as-science-denying-neanderthal.

Here's one from Neil Stevens at Red State, who complains that the many polls that accurately predicted the outcome of the election where right because they were "rigged". (Which, I guess, is his way of saying they were biased against Romney. Because "rigged" is a hilarious non-sequitur, in the context of a poll.) The contentious bit - the "rigging" - was explained to The New Yorker by the director of Public Policy Polling thusly:

Jensen conceded that the secret to PPP’s success was what boiled down to a well informed but still not entirely empirical hunch. “We just projected that African-American, Hispanic, and young voter turnout would be as high in 2012 as it was in 2008, and we weighted our polls accordingly,” he explained. “When you look at polls that succeeded and those that failed that was the difference.”

Stevens jumps all over that word, "hunch". Which is stupid, firstly, because that's New Yorker writer Jason Zengerle's word, not Tom Jensen's. My guess - with word choices like "rigged" and "hunch" - is that neither Stevens nor Zengerle know a whole lot about statistics or, well, math. (Stevens also argues that "Jensen decided in advance what he wanted the electorate to look like," which appears to be totally unsupported and makes him sound completely unhinged.)

What pollsters like Jensen recognized is that there was bias in the raw data, (Republicans were over-represented, white people were over-represented, the demography of Independent voters was changing... and there's almost certainly more than they just didn't recognize) and the process of identifying and mitigating the effects of bias are not hunch-based or an act of rigging, it's entirely scientific - not precise or incontrovertible, mind you, but based in some sort of logical process, which is all you can ask for. (One of those biases had to do with party affiliation, which is actually kind of interesting and you can read all about here.) Now, you can argue with the methods they employ to identify those biases or the methods they employ to mitigate those effects, but Stevens' response - any alteration to the original numbers is witchcraft - is embarrassing.


It was a bit silly when Democrats said they would move to Canada after Bush was elected (and subsequently didn't). It was even sillier when Republicans said they would move to Canada after Obama was elected (because your response to Obamacare is to move to a country with universal health care? wha?) But this tops them all: an American teenager who wants to move to Australia:

And why is this funnier? Because, as it turns out, Australia's Prime Minister is an atheist and a woman. Yowza.