Monday, April 30, 2012

Guest-blog!: Response to the Joel Ward blog

(Victoria Kannen responds to Neil's recent blog about the Joel Ward Twitter-controversy. Victoria may not choose to watch sports, but she does choose to watch The Jersey Shore, and is a doctor of sociology.)

While I agree with Neil's apt assessment that what Joel Ward experienced following his series-winning goal was fueled by systemic racism, I also believe that the responses by these "fans" speak to larger and more complex issues occurring within popular sport as of late. I, as an admittedly non-sports fan, have begun to recently consider the ways in which "fans" are responding to those who they seemingly idolize, support, and "employ." 

Upon reading Neil's discussion, I was reminded of David Beckham's visit to Toronto in early March, where "Beckham was far from a fan favourite from the opening whistle". The "fans" booed, threw streamers and, eventually, hurled a beer can at him. The resulting commentary on this incident was discussed in terms of "the few" who ruined the experience of seeing Beckham for "the many."

Photo by Steve Russell, Toronto Star

So, where does this aggression come from? In Beckham's case, unlike Ward's, the violent reactions were unlikely to be racially-focused, yet they were similar in tone. Attempts by "fans" to demean and humiliate those who excel at the sport they are supposedly fans of cannot be easily dismissed as strictly related to team loyalty.  I feel that the ways in which masculinity, class, and race are working together are particularly important when trying to think through these reactions. 

The complexity of being a fan for sports positions the viewer as one who is both powerful and powerless. Powerful for, as I implied earlier, "employing" the teams that one is watching - buying tickets to their games, donning their gear, blogging about them, etc. which all create the existence of professional sports teams to begin with. But, fans are simultaneously positioned as "less than" - unlikely to have the prestige, ability, or earning power of those that they habitually watch play these games. 

In Ward's case, hurling violent and racist comments was easily achieved by these "fans," as hockey is a primarily white-dominated sport. For Beckham, his beauty and fame could be symbolically tarnished by those who (momentarily) were above him (in the stands). As these sports reactions exist within a cult of incoherent masculinity, it becomes clear that the most basic way to engage with feeling of cultural and social inadequacy is to take it out on those you most resent - the hero for the other team.

The week past at Big Smoke Signals...

I don't want to just double-post every single sports blog that I make - I'm currently restricting them to the new Toronto-focused sports blog that I contribute to, Big Smoke Signals - but I also don't want to cut them out entirely. So, here's my compromise: I'm going to post a summary of whatever I've written about sports in the past week to this blog, every Monday. Sound good? Good!
  • From Monday: My frustration with sports reporters reliance on tired narratives of redemption, especially when they don't fit the facts - starring the Blue Jays' Travis Snider.
  • From Wednesday: A lesson on using bad stats, in response to a meaningless hockey "record" that was reported by the Canadian Press.
  • From Friday: A critique of the knee-jerk reaction the racist Tweets targeted at the NHL's Joel Ward - you say "isolated", I say "nope".
  • From Saturday: A stats-heavy analysis of the Blue Jays' decision to walk Dustin Ackley at a pivotal moment in the 9th inning. (The Mariners would subsequently tie the game and eventually win it.)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Greatest. Muppet. Show. Sketches. Ever.

This blog post is exactly what the title says - in a radical departure from my recent spate of politically-charged blogs about race, I'm going to post videos of my favorite Muppet Shows bits. And I'm going to let them speak for themselves, more or less. (Probably "more", because I can't resist commenting.)

One major caveat: I've only watched the first three seasons, each of which I have on DVD - the rest haven't been officially released. So, I'm omitting 40% of the show's output.

3x14: Harry Belafonte vs. Animal

I thought it would be excessive to choose more than one sketch from Harry Belafonte's episode, and chose this one arbitrarily, for the most part. Which isn't to say that the sketch itself isn't great - because it is. The "problem" is that the entire episode is probably the Muppets' very best.

2x07: "Time in a Bottle"

There's something additionally poignant about this song when you consider that a) Jim Croce, who recorded it 5 years earlier, died 3 months before it would be released as a single, and b) Jim Henson, who would die about ten years later, voices the mad scientist, who sings tragically about the inescapability of his own mortality, even as he tries desperately to escape it anyway. (Arguably, of course, both Jims have escaped death - Croce's version when to #1 posthumously, and Henson's legacy survives in the Muppets themselves.)

3x11: "Jamboree"

Gonzo is my favorite Muppet, and this song probably captures the wonder and emotional complexity of his character better than any other. (Also notable? This is one of only two songs that Frank Oz is credited with writing for the Muppets. The other, "The Rhyming Song", is purposely bad and intended as something of a joke.)

1x15: "Put Another Log on the Fire"

People often forget that the Muppets weren't originally meant to be a kid's program. In Henson's original pitch, he stresses that it's edgy and topical, and nothing like Sesame Street, an obvious resemblance - they both use Henson's Muppets - which needed to be actively and repeatedly disavowed. Instead, The Muppet Show was meant to be adult-oriented but family-friendly. And so, in the early episodes, you got sketches like this one, which were much more risqué and explicitly political. Candice Bergen is pretty badass, here, too. (And her episode is probably the best of the first season, which was, to put it kindly, uneven.)

2x13: "Something's Missing"

Interestingly, this was a UK Spot, that is a bit that was created exclusively for broadcast in Britain, where shows were mandated to be longer than in the US - and so probably wasn't even seen on this side of the Atlantic until the DVDs were released. It's incredibly sentimental and syrupy sweet. And sometimes? So am I.

I'm certain that some other spots - better spots, even - have slipped my mind, but that happens. If I ever get around to seeing the last two seasons, I may come back and update this. (Or, maybe, just create an entirely new post!)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Fun with analysis: Cordero vs. the intentional walk

In last night's Jays game, the Blue Jays made the decision to intentionally walk Dustin Ackley in the ninth inning. Here's how it happened: the Mariners, who were only down by one run, had a runner on first when Ackley came to the plate. With the count 3-1, (as I recall, but I can't actually verify it) J.P. Arencibia's pick-off throw flew 10 feet over Adam Lind's head and the runner, Kawasaki, advanced to third. And so the Jays elected to walk Ackley and go after the next batter, who was a pinch-hitter, John Jaso.

But was it a good idea? A bad idea? My first reaction was "ridiculous", but let's look at the numbers.

Here's how Ackley and Jaso stack-up against one another:
  • For his career, Ackley has a .282/.355/.419 triple-slash against right-handed pitchers, about 15% above-average. And with a 3-1 count he becomes a much better hitter - his expected on-base goes up about .200 points, and he goes from being a hitter who's 115% of average to 115% above average. 
  • Jaso is a somewhat weaker hitter than Ackley according to the rest-of-season ZiPS projections, only slightly above-average against right-handed pitching. (They're both left-handed bats, so the platoon-advantage exists in both cases.) But the pinch-hit penalty exacerbates the difference and turns this him into a hitter who's only a bit better than replacement-level - something like 15% below-average. 
  • Also, they both become slightly better hitters because of the presence of a runner-in-scoring-position.
  • But you know what? If you pitch to Ackley at 3-1, he has about a 55% chance of reaching base. That's really high, sure - only a 45% chance that you'll get him out and end the game right then and there. But if you walk him, intentionally? That's a 100% chance of reaching base, and no chance of ending the game.  
So, what are the odds, irrespective of hitter ability?
  • With the walk to Ackley, Toronto's win-expectancy dropped from 87% to 83.1%. That seems tiny, in a vacuum, but it's significant.
  • Seattle's run-expectancy with 2 outs and a runner at third is 0.373 runs; with 2 outs and runners on the corners it becomes 0.512. (Basically, the odds that Seattle will tie the game went from 1-in-3 to 1-in-2, which is huge.)
  • The value of a 1B - which is what Jaso hit - with a runner at third is 0.85 runs; the value of a 1B with runners at first and third is 0.96 runs. (Because the runner at first is likely to advance in to scoring position, any hit is much more damaging with the added guy on first base.)
  • I should add that Ackley's speed means that he stands a good chance of stealing second, which improves the run-expectancy (and, thus, win-expectancy) by a pretty large margin - to 0.626 - and the chances that a single scores the go-ahead run improves immensely, increasing the value of that single by exactly half a run, to 1.46.
  • In the category of Harder to Quantify, we should also consider that the need to hold Ackley opens up a big hole on the pull-side of the infield for Jaso. I'm not sure whether a study exists that covers just how much that helps, but it does.
  • In short, the Mariners' chances are improved significantly with the additional baserunner.
What's trickier - far too tricky for me to number-crunch with a great deal of confidence - would be coming up with context-specific numbers. That is, combining the base-state numbers and the Ackley/Jaso numbers. If I do something quick and sloppy, like multiply run-expectancy by wRC+, then the numbers are virtually identical. But the opportunity for Ackley to steal and that hole in the infield are enough to make me think that the intentional walk wasn't worth it.

Now, if only Pat and Buck would cover any of this...

    Friday, April 27, 2012

    Joel Ward and the racism of "a few people"

    Hockey fans probably remember the NHL exhibition game that was played in London, back in September. Not for the game itself, mind you, but for the banana that a fan threw on to the ice when Wayne Simmonds, a black hockey player, skated on to the ice for his turn in the shoot-out. People were predictably outraged, but it still took several days to identify the banana-thrower, and the whole incident was widely dismissed as an isolated one because, we were assured, London is not a racist place. But, of course, it's not "isolated" - how many times do these things need to happen before we can admit that? - and no place is without racism. (I wrote about it briefly on my personal blog, at the time.)

    So, I wasn't surprised when this happened. You've probably seen those tweets, because they're everywhere: the Washington Capitals' Joel Ward scored the series-winning goal against the Boston Bruins' Tim Thomas, and in so doing set the Twitterverse afire. Oh, and Joel Ward is black, so by "set afire", I mean "pissed off a lot of racists". (Actually, there is one thing about the responses on Twitter that surprise me. Of the forty tweets listed on that Chirpstory page, only three have been deleted, a full two days after they were first posted. Really? You still haven't figured out that posting a racial slur to your public Twitter account is a bad idea?*)

    photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

    But one of the most interesting things to come out of this are the telling comments from Ward's mom, for whom this isn't isolated and who reminds us that even Toronto, where Ward grew up, is a racist place. In a Toronto Star article, she recalls "players and their families drawing attention to the young black player on the ice, telling him to play basketball, and even a referee calling him a monkey."

    Equally telling, though, are all of the other comments from people involved in the game: Ward's teammate Jason Chimera describes it as a problem with "a few idiots", the Capitals' owner calls out "these folks", and even Ward reduces it to just "a few people". And here we are, sliding back into characterizing it as an isolated incident and a problem that belongs to only a very small number of people, rather than recognizing that it's one of many symptoms of a much larger, systemic problem. Plus ça change, and all that.

    [* In the Toronto Star article that I've linked above, they quote one of those many Twitter users, who 'apologizes' to "anyone [he] may have offended". This is, of course, not an actual apology because he takes no responsibility for causing offense. He also adds that he's "not racist", and that it was said in "the heat of the moment". Yes, because every single one of us is known to drop the n-bomb when we get too excited, am I right? Only, no.]

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012

    Dumb and dubious "records"

    Some stats and records just aren't worth writing about. From the Toronto Star:
    "The Rangers are trying to avoid the fate that befell the Vancouver Canucks, the top seed in the West, who lost in five games to the Los Angeles Kings. That left Ottawa as the only Canadian team alive, a lunch-bucket crew who started the playoffs as a happy-to-be-here bunch and perhaps surprised even themselves with how far they’ve gone. But they find themselves fighting history. Never before has the NHL lost both top seeds in the first round since the conference format was set up in 1993-94."

    So, why is this a dumb record? It implies that these are somehow dependent events - that Vancouver's loss is in some way predictive of Ottawa's chances and that it has in some way made it more unlikely that the Senators will win. Which makes no sense, because these aren't dependent events and Daniel Sedin's concussion has nothing to do with whether Daniel Alfredsson will come through on the power-play.

    The history that the Senators are fighting - the history that has some bearing on their chances, and so would have made much more sense to report - is the woeful performance of #8 seeds in first-round match-ups against #1 seeds. ("Woeful" is relative, of course. Compared to the NBA, this record is stellar!) Since the turn of the century, the #8 team has won only 5 of 22 series. (My sincerest apologies for using a Bleacher Report link. I find their "slideshows" and pop-ups unbelievably annoying, but they were also the easiest source to locate for the info.)

    So, if you need to give the Senators a historical record to fight against, use 23%, not 0%. Not only is it better math, but it also bears a much closer resemblance to reality. (Which, as I understand it, is something that journalism aspires to?)

    Tuesday, April 24, 2012

    Anders Breivik and what the question of his sanity says about us

    As much as I am loathe to admit that I'm impressed by how smart a white supremacist mass murderer is, it bears mentioning that Anders Breivik actually has some half-decent insight into the way he's being framed by the media. And not just that he has any insight at all, but that he probably has more meaningful insight than the media itself.

    Yesterday, Breivik made a couple of points about why his detractors want him to be found insane, some of which were surprisingly astute. (And some that were hilariously misdirected, but still not entirely wrong.)
    • No one would question his sanity if he were a "bearded jihadist." Now, Breivik is wrong about the reason that this double-standard exists, but he's right that it needs to be pointed out: Timothy McVeigh and David Koresh were batshit nuts, but Osama was a coolly-rational evil genius. Indeed, we've been told that all "militant" or "extremist" Muslims - not just the "crazy" ones! - are capable of killing large numbers of people, and that such violence is the predictable - if not logical - result of having been raised that way. But those positions can't both be right - either the Muslim and Christian extremists are equally nuts, or they're not. But that similarity needs to be denied, repeatedly but softly, so that we can maintain that shaky line between "us" and "them". (We - and by "we", I mean mainstream white America/Canada/Europe - don't even really entertain the possibility, do we?)
    • That he needs to be found insane, because it would "delegitimize everything [he] stand[s] for". Quite right, even if he gets the reasoning wrong. If he's insane, then we can deny the existence of racism among "sane" white people, and racism becomes something entirely exceptional and restricted to society's fringe.
    • That racism is responsible for the differential treatment. Yes, though - and I'm sure I don't have to explain why - he's completely wrong about what kind of racism is at play, here.

    What Breivik's observations illustrate especially well - unknowingly and unintentionally, of course - is just how invested Euro-American society is in disavowing its own racism. And the need to find him insane? That's just a symptom of the problem.

    Monday, April 23, 2012

    Wildrose bearing the White Man's Burden

    So, there's a provincial election happening in Alberta this week, and it's largely being waged between an incumbent Conservative Party and an upstart even more conservative party called Wildrose. And this happened:

    This is actually a pretty wonderful "teachable moment", even if it's a mildly idiotic statement. (I say "mildly" because, let's face it, it could've been a lot worse.) Because a lot of white people actually do believe this and would probably find themselves in complete agreement with Ron Leech.

    What makes this particularly teachable, though, is how succinctly it manages to demonstrate three things that people who study race know to be true about what it means to have white skin:
    • That white people often don't think they have a "race". In the discourse of critical race studies, we talk about how whiteness is akin to invisibility - that what actually marks "race" is its difference from white skin. Thus, someone who lacks those visual markers appears to lack race altogether.
    • That having a race (or, perhaps, having too much race) is a disadvantage. What Leech says, here, is that people who have race also have difficulty seeing past it and their own race's interests. (Of course, this would hardly be inflammatory if he hadn't already removed himself from the tacit list of People With a Race.) To belong to a "special interest group", it's implied, is to have primary responsibility to that group, and only a secondary responsibility to society as a whole.
    • Leech, though, demonstrates that he thinks he has no special interest group, and so his responsibility is to all of society. And that's because white people forget that they, themselves, constitute an interest group - but the only one that routinely mistakes itself for the whole of society.
    There is, probably, a White Man's Burden thing happening here, too. Leech seems to be saying that the non-white folks in Alberta can't get along on their own, can't listen to or understand each other (but he can! ha!), and so the white man needs to take care of them and demonstrate what leadership looks like. (And I mean "looks like", of course, in both the literal and figurative sense.) Because, y'know, that kind of colonial thinking has always worked out so well in the past, right?

    Travis Snider and annoying sports narratives

    Some Blue Jays fans might be wondering how the loser of the only real Spring Training competition is doing in AAA - as it turns out, he's doing quite well! Explains the Canadian Press, "Travis Snider is sending the Toronto Blue Jays’ brass an early-season message. The 24-year-old slugger, who lost the battle for Toronto’s left-fielder job to Eric Thames at spring training, is off to an excellent start with the triple-A Las Vegas 51s."

    Travis Snider, sans last year's mullet

    Excellent might actually be an understatement - in 69 PAs, Snider has a triple-slash of .450/.522/.800, good enough for 153% better than the park-adjusted AAA average. (To clarify, that isn't 153% of average, which is superstar-level - that's 153% above, which is comparable to Barry Bonds vs. the MLB average in 2001-4.) That means it's completely unsustainable, of course, and that Snider is getting insanely lucky - especially because he's only (I should probably say "only") hit four homers in that span and has a ridonkulous .469 BABIP. But I'm already letting numbers get in the way of the narrative...

    So, to what do we attribute Snider's seeming improvement? Tweaks to his swing mechanics? Some new workout regimen? Random variance? The fact that this is his third go at AAA, which means he's dangerously close to becoming one of those AAAA guys who, for some reason,  just can't hit Major League pitching and is successful by virtue of preying on much less experienced opponents?

    The CP article continues, "While he’s had spurts of such productivity before, this time he’s doing it with a high level of confidence and maturity." Ah, I see. It's maturity. Snider also says something about focus, which also becomes part of the narrative, because "[t]hat renewed focus seems to be paying off for the Jays’ former first-round pick."

    I've already hinted at how his performance is so far beyond explanation that we need to attribute some significant portion of it to fluke. But the CP article actually anticipates my next critique with its reference to "spurts of such productivity before". Because Snider was also excellent last year at AAA, where he hit .327/.394/.480. (And he was even better in both 2009 and 2008.) If he's found his focus at AAA this year, it wouldn't be the first time - and one hopes that he doesn't lose it as quickly and completely as he did last year. Which isn't to say that you can't build a story around "focus", but if you're going to frame the story that way, you need to account for last year, too, or the frame just flies apart at the seams.

    I realize that the guy who wrote the article is just looking for an angle, but why go to the trouble of inventing one - especially one that's so boring? Why not put some work into it and try to find the actual explanation?

    Thursday, April 19, 2012

    Update on my blogging habits

    While I've only rarely blogged about sports on this blog, I've started another one that deals specifically with sports topics, and it can be found here:

    This is probably going to affect my ability to post stuff here in any sort of consistent or timely fashion - although, let's face it, that's always a problem for me. But I've created a new blog for it because I'm also trying to convince some friends of mine - some who already blog about sports, no less! - to join me in making it a communal blog.

    So, we'll see whether that actually goes somewhere, or if those thoughts eventually just migrate back here.

    Brett Lawrie and 'playing the game the right way'

    When the Oakland A's Eric Byrnes finally managed to stick with the big league team in 2003, it was with some serious concerns about his durability. Sure enough, Byrnes did a lot of The Right Things: when Fangraphs last deemed him worth writing about - in 2010 - they noted that he was both beloved and mocked for his "grit", and even his Wikipedia page notes that he was known primarily for his "hustle". Which is to say that he demonstrably tried really hard.

    Byrnes, making a play on a routine fly ball. Because that's just how he rolls.

    Of course, pushing yourself and hustling non-stop can certainly be a bad thing. (On a personal note: I play really hard, and I only play rec-league softball. Last year, I pulled my rib cage; the year before, I broke a bone in my foot.) Those concerns - made prophetically by scouts and analysts during his breakout in '03, when he was still hitting .350 and leaping for every ball in the outfield - had mostly to do with the fact that he tried too hard, played too recklessly, and couldn't last an entire season. And they were right: Byrnes hit .334 and was 50% better than league average on offense - according to Tom Tango's wOBA - in the first half of the year, which is superstar-calibre hitting; he hit .146 and was 50% below average the rest of the way, which probably isn't even deserving of a spot on the bench. (Though the split isn't as extreme over the length of his career, it remains: his best months were May and June, where he was about consistently about 10% above-average, and his worst were August and September, where he was about 25% below.) As for his durability, he would only once play more than 143 games, and in the eight years between his breakout and retirement - he retired at 34, which is very young for a once-star player with speed and fielding skills - he only averaged 120 games a year, or about 75% of a full-season.

    But Brett Lawrie's name appears in the title of this post, doesn't it? And here I am, wasting hundreds of words on Eric Byrnes.

    Now, granted, I haven't watched every Blue Jays broadcast so far this year. But when I have, one of Pat and Buck will inevitably make reference to how hard Lawrie plays - often invoking the cliché of "he plays the game the right way". And if you're really lucky, they'll say it repeatedly!

    I would ask "what the fuck does that even mean?", but that would be disingenuous - because I do know what it means, and you know that I know what it means, if only because I just went through that whole Eric Byrnes story. (Also, you probably know what it means!) What it means, even if they're incapable of clearly articulating this, is that he runs hard on every ground-ball, he dives for everything remotely near him, and he slides hard into every base. Just like Eric Byrnes.

    Lawrie, following an intentional-walk. Seriously, you should see this guy run out a ground-ball.

    I actually have a surprisingly clear memory of Lawrie's first Major League triple. He hit it at home (against the Angels - I had to look that up) and it could have easily been a stand-up, because he's that fast. But, because he was probably too pumped up to notice that there was no play, he dove into the base, head-first and hard. Which seems pretty innocuous, but - and maybe you shouldn't take my word for this, because Lawrie has about 10x the pectoral muscle-mass that I have - holy shit, does sliding on your chest across dirt ever bang up your body. It was completely unnecessary. And it certainly wasn't the only time he's done it without having to.

    And while all this might sound laudable, it really isn't. It doesn't actually make sense for an MLB player to run their hardest on every grounder, because 99% of the routine ones will be fielded, thrown, and caught cleanly. Likewise, it may make sense to ease up on fielding a difficult ball in a low-leverage situation, or choose to slide feet-first rather than the considerably more dangerous (but more controllable and possibly faster) head-first. Injury is probably the most important factor, here, (lemme say it again: Eric Byrnes) but common sense should come into play, too - don't use all your bullets unless/until you need to. Because, make no mistake, your body only has so many dives, slides, and full-speed sprints locked inside of it.*

    But back to "playing the game the right way", and the full implications of what it means to say that. David Savran once wrote that masculinity is an accomplishment, but a particularly masochistic one - a constant struggle to measure up to an impossibly high standard, one where your failures and their accompanying pain are themselves the mark of normative manhood. It's not about "mastery" but "the act of being subjected, abused, even tortured". (I think there's space, here, for a totally different but entirely interesting discussion about why we like to celebrate the plucky guys who live on the fringe and hate/resent the guys who make it look too easy.)

    So, part of what it means to "play the right way" is, in fact, to subject your body to unreasonable amounts of stress and risk injury - and to prove your worth and suitability through the accumulation of injuries. And while his career ended early, this style of play ultimately proved to be a pretty good investment for Eric Byrnes. How's that? Well, he parlayed his best season and reputation for grittiness into a $30 million contract, a contract that he would never come even close to making good on. But, obviously, what's good for your masculine credibility is bad for your body. (And bad for the team.) It would just be nice for the people within baseball, cheering on the masochism, to acknowledge that more often.

    * I realize that this might sound contradictory or hypocritical, because in my first live-blog I criticized Pat Tabler for suggesting that guys "concentrate more" when the game is on the line. But this isn't a concentration thing - if anything, it's the opposite, because I'm saying that players like Lawrie lose their concentration and seem to let their adrenaline dictate their pace of play.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012

    The NHL and Disciplining Fight Culture

    First, I should confess: I think that fighting in hockey is stupid. It's certainly a part of the culture of the game - and not, as its proponents would argue, a part of the game itself - but it is nonetheless stupid.

    How stupid, you ask? After Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux - the former one of the leading scorers over the past 7 or so years, the latter the 3rd leading scorer of the past season - fought one another in a playoff game a couple days ago, Giroux's coach said “I thought it was great. A couple of the best players in the world dropping the gloves, going at it. In the end, that’s really playoff hockey, isn’t it?” Did I mention that both players have had concussion problems, and that Crosby's concussion issues have been so persistent and painful that there's been talk about whether he should just retire? And that fighters, in hockey, are notorious for collecting head injuries? And that the coaches already know this, and are encouraging their best players to engage in something that's incredibly risky and totally unnecessary? Yeah, that stupid.

    Really, though, these guys already have about a half-dozen concussions between the two of them.

    It gets stupider, though. Because the reasons that are generally given in support of fighting just don't stand up to scrutiny, and the people making these arguments should realize this, if they're paying any attention at all.

    (So, if you're not on the same page as me after that, then you should probably stop reading right now. Okay? Good.)

    We're told that fighting is a necessary, exciting part of the game, but it practically disappears once the playoffs start. (The present Penguins-Flyers series notwithstanding.) We're also told that it's simply an effect of the intensity with which the game is played, but it's all but absent from all elite hockey leagues outside North America and in international play. And we're told that it's a necessary policing tool to use in retaliation or as a deterrent to dirty play. That's probably the hardest argument to refute, but we can go ahead and do that anyway.

    In a study by the pseudonymous advanced-stat gurus Hawerchuk and Tom Tango, the two found that most fights happen during blowouts, and that most fights are instigated not as a policing measure, but because the visiting team wants to take its frustrations out on the home team. (The home team also becomes increasingly likely to start a fight when they're losing badly, but nowhere near as frequently as the reverse.) Unsurprisingly, then, they find that "goons" (what they define as "the 'pure' enforcer... he has high fight totals but so lacks other talents that he is never used on special teams") see their ice-time increase late in the third period when the game is out of reach, and are effectively benched when it's late and close. The lesson here is that, regardless of the reasons that the pro-fighting lobby gives, fighting is still mostly a dumb exercise in beating people up because you need to assert the validity of your masculinity in the face of evidence (ie. the score) to the contrary.

    So, what to do, given that fighting is the common sense solution to a non-existent problem? Well, I've been finding myself increasingly using the yellow/red card system from soccer and finding ways to apply it to the other major sports. This is admittedly a half-baked thought, but I'm going to roll with it, anyway.
    • Award red cards to players who fight. They're out, for this game and the next. (Not that goons play much to begin with, but that would certainly prevent the Crosbys and Girouxs from involving themselves. It might also dissuade players from involving themselves in brawls, where more than one player might earn an ejection and a red card.)
    • Do the same thing for egregious, intent-to-injure fouls - the kind that fighting is supposed to dissuade.
    • Introduce a yellow-card for dives and suspected dives. (Maybe there's a committee that votes on suspected dives?) Yellow cards can also cover fouls that don't fall under 'intent-to-injure' but are serious enough, for whatever reason, to require a mild punishment. Two yellow cards in a defined period of time and you earn a red.
    • The cards, except for fights, are given only after a post-game video-review.
    • Also, make the suspension aspect cumulative. If a player has already received a red card once this season, the next one earns a two game suspension.
    • I'm tempted to add another penalty to the red card, like refusing to allow the team to dress another player in that spot for the length of the suspension, but I can see how that might actually encourage fighting - a team with meaningless or relatively easy games might be tempted to start something with an opponent who has a tougher upcoming schedule.
    • And, of course, other suspensions will still exist, but make the infraction and punishment much clearer. Create a chart with Infraction on one axis and Context on the other - because the length of suspension should be affected by the timing/location of the foul. And then stick to that chart in all but the most exceptional cases. (I wouldn't link suspension length to injury, normally, but this would allow for some flexibility - as in, say, the Bertuzzi-Moore incident, because I can't imagine that punching someone in the face from behind, away from the play, would normally be much cause for concern.) Also, apply the appropriate cumulative red card penalty to these suspensions.
    All told, I suspect that the yellow card is probably the most useful and necessary addition, here: something to dissuade undesirable behavior before it becomes necessary to take drastic action against it. That is, bringing discipline to the sport within overtly disciplining the players. That kind of subtlety might just be the sort of thing they can get behind, too.(?)

    (This yellow/red card system could probably be useful in other sports, too. Something to revisit later?)

    Saturday, April 14, 2012

    One Direction and subtle misogyny

    As if it weren't bad enough that boy bands are back with a vengeance, these are the sort of lyrics that they're giving us:
    You're insecure
    Don't know what for
    You're turning heads when you walk through the door
    Don't need make-up
    To cover up
    Being the way that you are is enough
    Everyone else in the room can see it
    Everyone else but you
    This is from One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful", by the way. And this opening verse seems pretty innocuous, as if they're saying that the "you" should be more confident. Even the part about not needing make-up isn't necessarily judgmental, and could actually be a compliment that isn't saying anything specifically about make-up or what it signifies.

    But, no, a subtly nefarious judgment does creep in, in the chorus:
    If only you saw what I can see
    You'll understand why I want you so desperately
    Right now I'm looking at you and I can't believe
    You don't know
    Oh oh
    You don't know you're beautiful
    Oh oh
    That what makes you beautiful
    Because, as it turns out, the girl is beautiful precisely because she doesn't know that she's beautiful. That's the catch, and that's what makes those seemingly harmless lines about make-up a great deal more loaded than they first appear. A girl who doesn't wear make-up is, presumably, unaware and ignorant of her sexuality (ie. she's still pure and innocent) while one who does is comparatively world-weary and, ostensibly, has been around the block a few times.

    So, that insecurity that they were complaining about in the opening line? That wasn't actually a complaint. It was actually a precondition for finding her desirable. And confidence? Well, if she should have it, it's clear that it should only come from the affirmation that the singer offers. And, by extension, that a girl's confidence only ever comes from guys. Which means that girls who are already confident and self-aware - the kind who wear make-up? Well, they must have gained that "knowledge" from other boys, and this, of course, means that they're not innocent and not actually beautiful.

    One last bit on the logic of beauty, according to One Direction. Hilariously/disturbingly, the lyric holds that a girl can never actually know that she, herself, is beautiful. If unawareness of one's beauty is what makes them beautiful, then someone who is aware of their beauty would, ironically, no longer be beautiful. The only options are ignorance and self-deception. Super.

    [These lyrics also reminded me of a story about a male high school student near Toronto who was suspended for distributing a letter that celebrated girls' "inner-beauty". Which he did, unfortunately, by not-so-subtly excluding the girls who "dress in revealing clothing". Who, clearly, couldn't possibly possess inner-beauty.]

    Friday, April 13, 2012

    Live-Blogging the Blue Jays Broadcast: Game 7

    [I did this once, last year, on my personal blog, and I want to try doing this with some frequency. The basic idea is to snark about the nuggets of common sense analysis and conventional wisdom that the Jays' announcers - Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler, ranked 24th in the MLB by Fangraphs fans - have to offer. More productively, though, it's also about doing some homework in order to prove or disprove whatever it is they've claimed. Which is actually surprisingly fun.]

    2nd inning

    Buck: "Earl Weaver was playing Moneyball before it was called Moneyball."
    Pat: "Great starting pitching and great defense. Moneyball."

    If I knew nothing else about how clueless these two are, I might actually be fooled into thinking that they know what "Moneyball" means. Because it sounds like they think it means defense. And it doesn't. In fact, it doesn't actually refer to any specific element of the game - it refers to a way of buying/trading/developing players by identifying skills and player types that are undervalued. Or, to use the cliché, it's about finding "market inefficiencies." Ten years ago, that meant finding players who grade well according to advanced defensive metrics, and before that it was players who aren't particularly athletic but have good plate discipline. (ie. Guys who "know how to take a walk.")

    3rd inning

    Buck: "[Morrow] was really pounding the zone [last start]."

    This sounded like one of those claims that Buck and Pat are just prone to making up, so I checked it out the PITCHf/x data on Fangraphs. In his last start, Morrow put 45% of his pitches in the strike zone. For his career, he's around 49%; the league average is just about 50%. So, no, not only was he not pounding the zone, but one could argue that he was avoiding it. Why it may have appeared that he was pounding the zone, though, was that he was not missing bats with his pitches - his contact rate was 88%, while his career rate is only 75%. So, many more pitches were ending up in play, which could certainly give the appearance that he must be hitting the zone with more frequency.

    Pat: [in a response to a stat that says the Jays are hitting .203 as a team, but around .350 with runners in scoring position] "Make 'em count. Concentrate just a little bit more when you got to hit in a guy."

    This is one of those bits of baseball wisdom that really doesn't make sense. It implies that you don't really need to concentrate unless runners are in scoring position (RISP), which would be a great way to lose your job, fast. On the whole, everyone hits better with RISP. But this is a particularly big gap, and looks significant until you consider that the season is six games old and the Jays have had about 250 plate appearances, which means... they've had 50 at bats, tops, with RISP. That means about 18 hits. If only four of those don't fall in - which, simply as a matter of luck, is perfectly plausible - suddenly we're talking about how badly they do with RISP and how they're failing to "concentrate".

    4th inning

    Pat: "Pitchers are pitching differently to Jose [Bautista] this year. They're pitching everything outside. I looked at the directional hits, and he has more to the opposite field."

    I looked up the pitch data again, and even with so few games, Pat's definitely on to something. Strangely, Bautista saw only about 50% fastballs in the last two years - because he's absolutely destroyed them - but is seeing them 65% of the time so far this season. And he's posted negative run values against them. He's also seeing more strikes and making contact with strikes less often; but also making contact with pitches outside the zone more often. The conclusions are pretty easy to reach, here - if you miss balls in the zone, then you're missing the pitches that you can hit well; if you hit balls outside the zone, you tend to hit them poorly. (Not to overstate the matter, but this is the exact same kind of trend that we saw with Adam Dunn over the course of the whole season, last year.) I can't find data on where those pitches outside the zone are located, but I'm totally willing to trust Pat on this one.

    Buck: "Bautista, with a one-out single, got things going."

    He "got things going" only if you believe that Bautista's single somehow influenced Reimold to misplay Lind's flyball and Davis to miss Hunter's throw. Which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (I know, this is just one of those things that announcers say, and he probably didn't mean it literally. But it's still dumb.)

    6th inning

    Buck: "The Blue Jays have won 39 of their last 44 home games against the Orioles."
    Pat: "The Blue Jays play their best ball against the Orioles."

    That's certainly shocking, but what's more likely - that the Jays are that good, against this one team, or that the Orioles are that bad?

    7th inning

    Buck: "[Arencibia] has now just picked up the first sacrifice bunt of his career."

    This is notable precisely because it deserves to be criticized. Arencibia doesn't bunt, first of all, and this was a very bad bunt that probably should've failed. I couldn't quite tell whether the Orioles middle infield was caught off guard and failed to cover second, but Arencibia hit the ball really hard and almost directly back at the pitcher. So, Buck probably should've mentioned one of the following two things: that he was a bad choice for the bunt in the first place and that it was poorly executed. And this is to say nothing of the fact that bunts with none away and a runner on first usually don't actually help the team. But Win Expectancy is the simplest, clearest way for us to judge this decision: after the sacrifice, the Jays' WE dropped from 81.3% to 80.1%. It hurt the team, and that deserves to be talked about.

    8th inning

    Buck: "Interesting match-up here. Jones has only faced Oliver four times, but is 0 for 4. This shows you how much Farrell trusts Oliver. ... This is really an interesting move by Farrell. ... He likes the match-up with Oliver."

    Well, he shouldn't. Jones is a right-handed batter and Oliver is a left-handed pitcher, and platoon splits in baseball are pretty significant. (And Oliver, specifically, is an elite pitcher against lefties, but only an average reliever against righties.) There are two right-handed pitchers warming in the bullpen, but you leave your lefty specialist in to face an above-average right-handed hitter? That's usually an obviously bad idea. There's absolutely no reason to leave Oliver in, unless you think that the 0 for 4 is really meaningful. And if you know anything about sample size, you know that it isn't. What's worse is that this is a one-run game with one out, a runner on third, and in the 8th inning - the leverage index in this situation is extremely high, which means it's incredibly important. This is exactly when you should look for every small advantage that you can find.

    (Buck later speculated that Oliver was left in because Wieters will bat from the right side, which is his worse side. But Buck subsequently pointed out that there are three left-handed pitchers in the bullpen, right now.)

    Thursday, April 05, 2012

    That Gaga/Foucault Meme

    This has been circulating for months, (a year, even?) so my comments are beyond late. But anyway:

    It's a cute joke. And it's right. But the meme only really works if you assume that Gaga's being totally sincere.

    Now, I don't think she's being insincere. She's telling kids that they weren't born 'wrong', that they're aren't mistakes by virtue of being different than the norm. It's pretty basic stuff, but that's the audience it was written for, too - adolescents that have never heard of queer theory, kids in Middle America who aren't hearing this message from anyone else.

    And seriously? Look at that picture. She has prosthetic spiky cheekbones and horns. I'm willing to guess that she wasn't actually born that way.