Thursday, June 28, 2012

Castor Semenya still has something to prove

Whenever I teach the flimsiness of biological sex definitions to undergraduate students, I approach it via international sport and the repeated failures of "sex-testing". (Well, actually, I start by asking the students explain how we "know" someone is a man or a woman, and then to subsequently explain how they "know" that I am a man.) I won't bore you with a history lesson - you can find some of that here, or a more detailed and interesting account in books written by people like Anne Fausto-Sterling. Suffice it to say, sex-testing has been such a disaster for international sport - from a human rights standpoint, from a PR standpoint, from a scientific standpoint, from a basic fairness standpoint - that the last Olympic venue to sex-test all of its athletes was Atlanta in 1996.

Why? The problem, if you're new to the study of sex and gender, is that there's no universal standard for what makes a woman a woman. According to New Scientist, the Olympics actually uses several experts from several fields, each with their own measures and definitions: "an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist". Obviously, then, it's not surprising that the system eventually broken down for lack of a single, satisfactory definition.

(International sport doesn't actually care if someone who's competing as a man is a woman, or if a man is a mutant, for that matter. Michael Phelps is an evolutionary wunderkind who would probably fail his sex test if he were a woman, if only because his body deviates so significantly from human norms that those deviations are bound to overlap with stuff we usually associate with sex characteristics. But he's not a woman, so no one cares how his natural ability to not create lactic acid impacts his sex.)

Is he a man? (Or is he a muppet? A muppet of a man?) Photo by Al Bello/Getty.

Now, that's not to say that sex-testing doesn't still happen - it does, and a few Olympic athletes have quietly failed their tests since 1996. But there's no more pretending that a single test (or even a series of tests) can adequately address the variety of sexes offered by human beings.

But that system, and its problems, only really came to light - and blew up - when Caster Semenya became a lightning rod for the discussion in 2009. You might remember her as the World Champion long-distance runner who, it was suspected, might "actually" be a man. Officially, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) was concerned that she might have a "rare medical condition" that gave her an unfair advantage. Nice euphemism.

(Returning to Phelps, again - strangely, no one has ever suggested that his "rare medical condition" is unfair, have they? And furthermore, don't you kinda have to have a "rare condition" of some physical sort or another in order to become an elite athlete in the first place? It's not like Usain Bolt is that fast only because he trains harder than everyone else, y'know?)

Athletics South Africa (ASA) would later admit that they had administered a sex-test without Semenya's knowledge. (And subsequently suppressed the results!) And the IAAF eventually agreed that Semenya's World Championship would stand, but said nothing about whether she would still qualify as a woman for future events. (At least, not until the next World Championship was nearly upon them.) Or, for that matter, what defined "woman" for their purposes.

Caster Semenya in 2010. Photo by Erik van Leeuwen.

Getting back to my gender class, though - recently, and in response to the whole Semenya thing, I've been telling my students that most sports orgs have acknowledged the problems inherent in sex-testing and dropped the tests altogether. And that's kind of true. (There have been allusions to "secret" investigations. Obviously, I can't say much about something that may or may not exist, and that no one is talking about regardless.) But what's happened, and it seems that no one really knew until a few weeks ago, is that sex-testing has reappeared in a new and unexpectedly backward way.

Given that they can't effectively police the borderlands between male and female, this year's Olympics will police one specific element of their bodies: their testosterone levels. From the Toronto Star:

recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold. If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring.

What. The. Fuck. Hormone therapy? "The male threshold"? Who decides what that "threshold" is, anyway? And if we can't define male, how do we even begin to go about defining its threshold level? I'm not sure if this is lunacy or idiocy.

“What’s been going on here, for over 50 years now, has been an attempt to modify and refine the rules so as to be fair but also to be scientifically accurate and appropriate,” says [IAAF endocrinologist Dr. Myron] Genel. “We’ll get it right.”

And as long as they think there's a "right" test out there, somewhere, we can be certain that they'll continue to get it wrong.

One last quote from the Toronto Star article, this one from Bruce Kidd, a Canadian sports policy adviser who links the needs to define "real woman" with some very old politics and opinions:

“It’s still the old patriarchal fear, or doubt, that women can do outstanding athletic performances. If they do, they can’t be real women. It’s that clear, it’s that prejudicial,”

Mad Men: misogyny and tragedy

I wanted to write something quick and dirty about the moralizing tone of Mad Men and how, ultimately, it will or should end. (I should add that this is inspired, somewhat, by these two very different critiques of the show and its feelings about and representation of the misogyny of its era.)

The author of the Gawker essay doesn't miss the point of the show, exactly, so much as he fails to see the big picture. Mad Men is sexy, yes, and its world is oozing with masculine entitlement. And, unavoidably, it makes that masculism sexy, too.

But that's not all that it's doing, because even when the show is endorsing a character, a philosophy, or a behavior, (think: Peggy) it's also always ambivalent about them (think: the final shot of Peggy in this season). As much as it might celebrate machismo, it undercuts and emasculates those same masculine men even more frequently:
  • Pete Campbell cheats on his wife and is sadder for it
  • he becomes more successful and confident in business, and it leads to an impromptu boxing match that he loses decisively
  • Don appears to realize that his happiness always comes at the expense of the happiness of those around him, and vice versa
  • Roger's loss of business acumen and relevance coincides with his LSD-fueled realization that other people have feelings, which seems to say a lot about how business works. 
This is a world that seduces you (and the "you", here, is implicitly a white guy) into thinking that you want to live in it, but only because you need to be within it in order to recognize that it's rotten to the core and deserves to end. (Well, it doesn't "end", really. But it loses a lot of its power and centrality.)

It's a tragedy, but a classical one. I suppose that it's also tragic in the more contemporary sense - we do feel sympathy for Roger and Don (and even for Pete, sometimes) when things go wrong. But we're also given the sense that they're all their own worst enemies. It's their hubris, more than anything else, that's responsible for their failures and the decline of their world that we, the viewers, know is inevitable. Because they have no idea that another world is possible, and that men like them won't live forever. We, on the other hand, know that the clock is ticking. And that's why the show isn't an endorsement or celebration - it's a cautionary tale.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Some quick hits...

The Cabin in the Woods
It's really kind of impossible to talk about The Cabin in the Woods without spoiling it. I mean, the film's opening scene can't even really be discussed without ruining some element of the surprise - I don't know how reviewers could even write about it. (Note: I'm not normally a person who cares about spoilers, really. If a story is well told, you can't actually "spoil" it. Except when it's kind of the point.) All I'll say is that it is so damned clever-clever, the film actually supplies an explanation for the very existence of the horror film genre. I've heard some disappointment that it's not particularly scary, but that's also not the point - it's smart, and it's unpredictable right until the very last shot.

Mad Men
I wrote elsewhere (or elsewhen, rather) that Mad Men started poorly this season before improving about a third of the way in - and it maintained that momentum right until the end of the season. In the same way that Weiner has typically ended each year, the season finale seemed to be deliberately anti-climactic - it was gently bringing the season's stories and tensions to a close and teasing at what was in store for the next one. And it was particularly ambiguous about what was going to happen with Don and Megan - the final scenes were playfully overdetermined with an absurd load of contradictory and polysemic dialogue and symbolism. No, there was no answer hidden in there - just such an embarrassment of sly, winking material that you could support any answer. And that kind of playfulness betrays an ambivalence and uncertainty, I think. Because I get the sense that Weiner and Co. themselves must not be terribly sure of how it will play out.

Ultimate Avengers, Books 1 to 3
When Mark Millar wrote the first two volumes of Ultimates, it was a pretty incredible ride. (He had difficulty closing - the resolution to Ultimates 2 was particularly weak - but there's a reason that the Avengers film borrowed so heavily from it.) Jeph Loeb's Ultimates 3, on the other hand, was a hideous mess - my hate for it is actually recorded in its Wikipedia entry. So, needless to say, I was excited to read what Millar had produced since returning. And what he produced was... um, underwhelming? Tedious? Just plain bad? The first volume seemed decent enough, until it collapsed into a total rehash of the Evil Doctor story that Millar wrote for The Authority, right down to a pop song being amplified and used as a weapon in both final battles. And it just got worse (and worse) with the subsequent books.

Game of Thrones, Season 2
It's pretty awesome that the lead character is, inarguably, Peter Dinklage's Tyrion. And that the next most interesting character, and moral-center of the show since Ned was executed, is the tomboy, Arya. It's still a predictably and stereotypically racist and sexist world that the characters inhabit, but these two make it worth visiting.

Jem and the Holograms, Season 1
My 3 year-old daughter is suddenly really into Jem. (Probably because her mom said it was her favorite show as a little girl.) And the thing that confuses me most? (Yes, "most", because there are many things about the show that don't make sense. But anyway...) The Misfits nearly murder Jem and the Holograms in every episode - and, amazingly, there's usually some sort of proof, like video or eyewitnesses. But there are absolutely no repercussions, ever. They're never arrested, never made to pay for trying to kill people every week. There should be some sort of moral imperative to these cartoons, right? Some sense that bad guys get their comeuppance? Well, not on this show.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Diving, crying, and the masculinity of international football

During either the last World Cup or the one prior to it, a soccer fan tried to recuperate the game for me on the basis that it valued a different kind of masculinity. He argued that my disdain for diving came from a particular kind of North American masculine ethic that valued 'sucking it up' and 'taking it like a man', where injury needs to be hidden rather than expressed. On that front, he was probably right. As critical as I might be of the self-destructive masochism that underlies the way boys are taught to play sports, I also slip into it very easily - in the last two years, I've finished games in which I've broken a bone in my foot and bruised my ribs. (Not in the same game, mind you.)

The kind of masculinity being performed on the pitch, he suggested, was a much more theatrical one that didn't shy away from being emotive and demonstrative, even hysterical. I'm not exactly convinced, because I'm not sure that's exploiting/celebrating an injury or an opponent's miscue - because, technically, a foul is incurred if a player touches his opponent before touching the ball, but the kind of foul is often dependent on how dramatically the fouled player goes down - is really all that laudable. Or, for that matter, that the kind of demonstration required of a dive is something we want to encourage:

This dive is actually pretty hilarious - not only is he leaping, whilst ostensibly
being tripped, but he did so well before the contact (which didn't happen)
could have happened.. No credit available.

I was reminded of how much dives annoy me during Euro 2012, when a player in one of the closing Group round matches (I think it was during England-Ukraine, but I don't actually remember...) was touched - arguably, he was also lightly pushed - on the shoulder and collapsed in a heap, grimacing and clutching his lower back. Amazingly, this dive was so egregious and shameless that it was also one of the rare instances where the commentators saw fit to criticize its obviousness.

That said, Euro 2012 has also reminded me that some good comes with the bad, and that this freedom to emote also means that players are able to behave in ways like this:

Polish players after their elimination from Euro 2012.
Photo from European Pressphoto Agency.

Unlike nearly every major American team sport, soccer players routinely cry - tears of joy, tears of frustration - after games. And with the possible exception of players who are known to dive - like Cristiano Ronaldo - no one makes a particularly big deal out of it. It's treated as if it's normal and natural. Because, well, it is.

I'm not sure if that's enough to balance my hate for diving. But it's something.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Comic books and the impossible woman: people still don't get it

So, in the past few days, this picture of Catwoman has sparked a veritable shit-storm on the internet:

Catwoman #0, cover by Guillem March.

There's a lot to dislike, here, if you care even a bit about anatomy. (And since Catwoman's abilities do not involve the reshaping of her body to fit her whim, the "it's fantasy!" argument really doesn't hold water.) Her breast plate appears to be angled outward and upward(?!), which, given the position of her tailbone, would mean that her spine is bending at something like a 50 degree angle. And bending in the wrong place. And her abdomen is about 3 feet long. (Let's not even talk about how it's being simultaneously twisted, though.) I suppose that's theoretically do-able - gymnasts can certainly bend backward - but not under these circumstances. Catwoman's legs, arms, and neck are moving against the curve of her spine, whereas the gymnasts entire body needs to contributing to make it work. The movement of her jump doesn't make sense, either - she's leaping forward into space, but her body would have to be arcing backward for this to be even slightly plausible. And to make matters worse, if you were to map out the structure of her shoulders and collar bone, you'd need to conclude that her neck is actually popping out of left shoulder. (Well, either that or her head has been dislocated from her neck. Which is possible, because the angle of her face looks wrong, too.)

But perhaps surprisingly, the frothy-mouthed barking has not come from people who hate the cover. It's come, instead, from the people defending it.

Let me back up a bit, though. There have been critics of the cover, of course. But, y'see, one only has so much energy and disbelief to devote to these things when this is probably only one of a dozen gratuitous and impossible T&A comic book covers that will grace shelves this month. Which is why most of the responses - and this has been true of most comic art since Escher Girls was created, at least - have involved gently, and hilariously, mocking and parodying the image. And, in some cases, even correcting it. (Click those links. They're pretty great.)

But about the anger - this reaction, written by Jason Kerouac, to the re-draws and critiques appeared yesterday. And he's not at all happy that people are criticizing the cover. (He begins with "Grow the fuck up", so you know he means business.)

He suggests that the pose is plausible, but he's wrong and his photo comparisons aren't even close. He also suggests that it doesn't matter because it's art - money quote: "Y’know who else exaggerated anatomy? Picasso" - but ignores the fact that this artist is actually a realist, and some basic rules do apply. And he makes the classic recourse to reverse-sexism, arguing that men are exaggerated and sexualized, too. Except that they're not, really - idealized, yes, but there's no male equivalent to the fetishization of double-D breasts, peeking through rubber-catsuit cleavage. (Centuries of sexism and the resulting imbalance of representational power will do that.) So, he provides a lot of arguments, but they don't work so well together - he plays both the realism and surrealism cards, which is weird - and none of them work separately, either.

Part of the problem, I think, is that he doesn't seem to really understand why people dislike the cover. He thinks that the response has to do with anatomy, with Catwoman being a poor role-model, and with being a "cool kid" who can poke fun. And it might have something to do with each these. But what these reactions are really responding to misogyny - to a comics industry that still can't see why a female superhero or supervillain is worth reading unless her tits and ass are magically detaching from her body and flinging themselves at you - the 90% male readership of super-hero comics - while you read about them.

Did I say "them"? Sorry, I meant "read about her".

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Too hot for the CSA: a book review of Anthony Synott's 'Re-thinking Men'

[A little over two years ago, I requested a review copy of sociologist Anthony Synott's new book, Re-thinking Men: Heroes, Villains and Victims from the Canadian Sociological Association. The review that I submitted to the CSA was never published, and no one ever told me why. The review that appears below, then, is the one that I submitted to them. (It's a second draft. The first was, frankly, much meaner - and by that I actually mean "honest" - but I don't have a copy of it.) It's not timely, but at least it's finally seeing the light of day.]

ANTHONY SYNNOTT, Re-thinking men: heroes, villains and victims. Farnham, UK: Ashgate. 2009, 297 p., index.

            In Re-Thinking Men: Heroes, Villains and Victims, Anthony Synnott argues for the need to recognize men’s “massive and heroic contributions to social life and to civilization” (4) within an “age of misandry” (102) which, he claims, has seen men and masculinity devalued. Misandry, Synnott explains, is to men as misogyny is to women – that is, the systemic promotion of the fear and/or hatred of men – and the past half century has seen an increase in the prevalence and acceptance of misandric thought, expression, and legislation. To this end, Synnott deploys a multidisciplinary approach that considers sources as diverse as television sitcoms and poststructural gender theory in the service of recuperating men and masculinity and admonishing the anti-male feminisms which, he argues, are largely to blame for misandry.

            Synnott’s book is perhaps most useful to scholars who are unfamiliar with the literature on misandry, as a survey of its chief proponents and concerns. Following a substantial literature review, Synnott builds his argument around the chapters on ‘Heroes’ (where he “praises” men), ‘Villains’ (about those who vilify men), and ‘Victims’ (which enumerates the ways in which men are made to suffer and are not recognized for it). In the chapter on villains – which is largely not, as the book’s title might suggest, about men-as-villains – Synnott traces the trajectory of what he dubs anti-male or female supremacist feminist literature, (Greer, Dworkin, Solanas, etc.) as well as the masculinist writers who emerged in response, such as Bly, Farrell, Tiger, and Nathanson and Young. Among the many concerns that he expresses in the chapter on victims, Parental Alienation Syndrome and the disproportionate number of men in prison and/or dying prematurely – he notes that “[o]ur cultural norms are more lethal than our germs and our guns” (191) – are increasingly visible outside of masculinist literature, and Synnott’s description of the problem of male suicide – “it is a civil war” (185) – seems particularly apt.

Many of Synnott’s critiques of particularly misandric feminisms and feminists are on-target, as are his suggestion that gender equality is not best achieved through the vilification of, and by ignoring the systemic issues afflicting, one gender. Synnott also makes a fine point when he notes that the emphasis on women’s victimization has made that woundedness central to certain feminist identities, and may very well infantalize women rather than empower them (184). However, this thread of his argument remains largely underdeveloped. I should also add that it is not particularly new - Wendy Brown was making similar, more nuanced points about identity politics nearly 20 years ago. 

The particular feminists that Synnott charges with misandry have been well-documented for their oppositional and sometimes hostile relations to men and masculinity, but Synnott’s analysis does not offer anything particularly new on this front. Nor does it acknowledge that some of the feminists he characterizes as misandric, such as Betty Friedan, have also spoken against misandry, and such misrepresentations damage the credibility of his argument. His case studies are also quite dated at this point, and ignore the third-wave feminist movement almost entirely. This is a particularly egregious error because Synnott’s call for intersectional research that links issues of gender with those of race and class is a tenet of third-wave feminist work. (Many, if not most, third-wave feminists also incorporate issues of ability and sexuality into their research, issues which are largely absent from Synnott’s critique.) I would have appreciated a survey of more recent – and intersectional – feminist and profeminist works, as it is not at all clear from Synnott’s choice of mostly decades-old texts that misandry is as rampant within institutionalized feminism as he claims.

This said, while Synnott’s arguments are firmly grounded in a political project, they are not so clearly grounded within a theoretical position or methodology, and so a number of his claims are particularly vulnerable to charges of ideological bias. Though Synnott expresses hope that his book “will contribute to our mutual empathy, admiration and love” (270), he also asserts a right to engage in what he dubs “competitive victimization”, since “the victimization of men has been ignored” (212). As such, it seems fair to characterize it as polemical. While Synnott does not dispute that (some) women are oppressed, he argues that male oppression is greater: that women’s objectification under the male gaze is less harmful than men’s objectification as production units or war machines (48), that “[w]omen are harassed” but “men die” (150). Synnott’s insistence on measuring men’s oppression against the oppressions suffered by women, a comparison which often has the effect of diminishing the importance of latter, is more likely to alienate feminist and pro-feminist readers than it is to create sympathy or empathy. His points about the various crises afflicting men would be better served if it were not made to seem that their recognition must come at the expense of women.

With respect to Synnott’s methodology and the parameters of his project, Synnott refers repeatedly to events surrounding the Titanic and 9/11 disasters as proof of male heroism – and they may very well be – but Synnott does not explain why these two examples should be regarded as such. Without a justification for the choice of these particular case studies – and one of them is nearly 100 years old – it is not clear why they should be understood as exemplars of maleness or masculinity. Similarly, it is not clear why it is only the heroes of the Titanic and the World Trade Center that should count, and why the men responsible for the tremendous loss of life are not simultaneously proof of men’s arrogance and/or villainy.  

            Many of the methodologies and positions that Synnott does deploy often appear to be premised on measurements of popular consensus. He notes in his introduction that “[m]en are surely associated with far more positives than negatives” (14), and corroborates the claim in the chapter titled ‘Heroes’ with reference to Time’s list of the 20th century’s most influential people – a list that is “mostly positive” – as well as lists of Greatest Britons, Canadians, and other lists of great men and humanitarian accomplishments. Whether all these associations are equal, regardless of number, or Time’s list is actually a reliable and critical indicator of men’s contributions to the good or ill of society are questions that go unasked. Elsewhere, and bizarrely, Synnott is not strictly consistent in applying this approach. He admits in his chapter on power that women comprise only a tiny proportion of murderers and serial killers, but sees fit to devote more pages to them than he does to any specific male murderers. It is probably fair to suggest, then, that the title of the book is not entirely apt – as much as Synnott would like you to re-think men, he equally wants you to reappraise women. 

            Synnott deploys a similar common sense logic in his chapter on ‘Men and Women: Models and Muddles’, dismissing Judith Butler’s theory of performativity with the suggestion that “most people surely do not believe that sex and gender are ‘radically distinct’” (87), and so Butler must be wrong to assert that it is so. Of course, Butler would agree that most people believe sex and gender to be synonymous – this is, in fact, central to her argument about the persuasiveness of performativity. Gender studies scholars will also surely take issue with the essentialism of Synnott’s definition of masculinity. Despite his admission that biological dualisms of gender are highly problematic (6), Synnott’s own model of masculinity grafts them on to Connell’s theory of plural masculinities, as he posits the existence of both it and a complementary “core masculinity” that “embraces both culture and nature, sociology and biology” (52). It is difficult to see how Synnott is not himself reproducing those biological dualisms that he decries.

Explanations of Synnott’s theory of power are mostly absent from the text, which is especially surprising given that ‘Power’ is the title of one of his chapters. He references Michel Foucault, but only so as to argue that power constitutes a “complex strategic situation” (213) – as opposed to simplistic notions of vertical axis of domination and resistance – and not because Synnott’s arguments are Foucauldian, because they are not. Like the chapter on ‘Heroes’, ‘Power’ is not oriented toward a theorization of gender and power so much as it is to surveying various fields – health care, education, business – and listing and counting the spaces that men and women occupy within them. Despite his statements to the contrary, Synnott repeatedly relies on these vertical expressions of power in asserting that men reside disproportionately at the “pinnacles of power” and “bottom rungs of the ladder” (5), thus claiming that men as a single class do not have a disproportionate hold on power. But such a reductive metaphor belies the reality of a “complex strategic situation” and hardly constitutes a systemic assessment of gender systems and power. 

To the detriment of his analysis, Synnott also uncouples power from three of his major topics: gender, heroism, and love. Synnott writes that the reason most occupants of his heroes and villains lists are male is “a function of power rather than gender” (141), as if one is not always already implicated in the other. Elsewhere, and somewhat contradictorily, he notes that “heroism is not about power, but love” – while becoming a hero is a function of power, the exercise of heroism has nothing to do with it. (And in this equation, love is evidently the opposite of power.) Synnott’s account of heroism as sacrifice and altruism – to say nothing of his accounts of gender and love – could also benefit from a more complex treatment.

Synnott’s argument is perhaps most compromised by his repeated dismissal of women’s historical oppression, his comments to this effect also often unfortunately paired with an all too patronizing tone. Synnott is fond of suggesting that patriarchy has “sometimes oppressed women” (58), and even suggests that it has “perhaps in the past been oppressive of women” (72), but does little to substantiate these claims. He also credits patriarchy with the liberation of women and while he admits that this “need not elicit much gratitude” (58), many will surely wonder why the liberation of women by patriarchy from patriarchy – if, indeed, this is an accurate assessment – should elicit any gratitude.

Synnott also does himself a disservice in his highly prejudicial characterizations of “victim feminists” who “continually carp and whine” (115) – as opposed to the heroes who “overcome horrendous difficulties” with “no self-pity” (117) – about “alleged obstacles to success”, such as glass ceilings, as opposed to “real obstacles to success” (131). Synnott’s dismissal of sexual harassment as “very rarely rape” (149) – as if sexual harassment is only a worthy concern if it is rape – is also troubling, as is his outrageous characterization of the damages awarded to a woman in a sexual harassment suit as “[n]ot a bad deal for early retirement” (150). In the rare instances where Synnott acknowledges queer and trans men and women and the ways in which they complicate his topic, his language can even be transphobic, as he insensitively and too jokingly notes that “thanks to surgery, we can change sex, and be a bit of both!” (81). Such a tone is unbecoming of scholarship that purports to be anti-oppressive.

While Re-Thinking Men: Heroes, Villains and Victims is aimed at scholars of gender studies in general, its polemics and tone are unlikely to ingratiate it with the feminist and pro-feminist scholars that tend to populate these fields. However, it may be of interest to precisely these scholars at least insofar as it serves as an effective introduction to, and overview of, a subfield of gender studies that is not going away. As well, it provides a useful summary of the dangers that come with being a North American man in the 21st century and these concerns are too often ignored. However, while Re-Thinking Men: Heroes, Villains and Victims may succeed in bringing additional attention to the costs associated with being a man – which are, as Synnott claims, substantial – it is more likely to harden the battle-lines rather than open or soften them.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Do the LA Kings deserve to be playing for the Stanley Cup?

My biggest pet peeve about the NHL is how they count Over-Time Losses (OTL) as points in the standings. No other major North American sport does this - baseball doesn't award points for going to extra-innings, basketball doesn't for over-time. (It might actually make some sense in the NFL, considering how flukey their over-time can be and how much your chances hinge on the coin-toss, even considering the rule changes that they made last year.) I prefer the simplicity and honesty of just counting wins and losses, and have never really understood arguments to the contrary. If the game only ever resolves in a win or a loss, then that's all you should count.

The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series. But if extra-inning losses
counted for a half-win, they wouldn't have even made the playoffs. Photo by Elsa/Getty.

(Some sport leagues - I think that the IIHF does this - count extra-time losses as a single point but deduct those points from a regulation win - which is worth three - so the extra-time win is worth two points, which addresses another one of my pet peeves. Namely, that the NHL has some 2 point games and some 3 point games, and so you need to do some serious math to determine whether a team is even .500. [Note: after looking it up, the break-even point was 91 points, this year.] But while I'm not particularly fond of the standardized 3 point game approach, it's definitely an improvement.)

Whether you like the extra point or not, Tyler Dellow points out that the OTL point produces some really annoying effects, most of which you would think the NHL would not be too keen to encourage:
  • This past season, 29 of 30 teams played more defensively (as defined by their share of total shots taken, known as a Fenwick score) when staked to a one or two goal lead to start the 3rd period. And the defensive-shell is a terribly boring strategy to witness.
  • In those games, the 3rd period ended tied more than 50% more often than random distribution would normally predict. This time, we see that both teams play more defensively in the final 10 minutes of a tie-game, which, again, is boring.
  • Bad teams benefit disproportionately from the extra OTL point. So, it increases the chances that a poor team will make the playoffs or win their division over a stronger team.

That said, amazingly, the OTL rarely factors in to the process of determining who makes the playoffs. It often affects where teams are seeded, but somehow the 8 teams with the most wins in the conference nearly always manage to be the 8 teams that make the playoffs. And considering that it would usually only affect the last seed, who is usually eliminated in the first round, again, it's not a big deal. But this year, it factored in a big way.

Sure, this guy has a lot to do with why the L.A. Kings are in the Finals.
But so do the NHL's rules. Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty.

Not only were the L.A. Kings the 8th seed in the standings, but there were two teams with better win-loss records that didn't make the playoffs because L.A. had more Over-Time Losses.

Rank     Team              Div G  WL OTL GF GA PTS
8Los Angeles KingsPA8240271519417995
9Calgary FlamesNW82372916
10Dallas StarsPA8242355
11Colorado AvalancheNW8241356

Both Dallas and Colorado won more games than L.A. So, by my reckoning of "fairness", the team that currently leads the Stanley Cup Finals two games to none - the team that is likely to win the Stanley Cup - shouldn't have even qualified for the playoffs! (There's a caveat, here, though. Dellow's research indicates that teams play for the tie, presumably because of the promise of that guaranteed point. If that guarantee were removed, then many fewer games would have gone to overtime, and it's possible that L.A. would have won some of them in regulation, as a result.)

There's a kooky twist to this story, though, which is that, somehow, the NHL playoff format managed to make a mistake that - by chance, not design - produced a better result. You can see from that tiny selection of the final standings that, based on goal-differential, the Kings probably are a better team than either the Stars or Avalanche - they outscored their opponents by 30 more goals than Dallas or Colorado. As I recall, a Win (in terms of Wins Above Replacement) is equivalent to five goals or so, so that means that L.A. is "actually" six wins better than those teams - a huge margin, especially considering that they posted more wins than L.A. So, the win-loss record might not show that, but it's pretty clear - L.A. was definitely an above-average team and the other two were not.

In fact, if you look at the full standings you can see that the Kings' success is not quite as surprising at might have initially seemed. They had the 6th best goal differential in the West (only a couple of goals behind San Jose) and 11th best in the NHL. (New Jersey, their Cup Final opponents? 9th best.) Not a great team - and it's still a huge surprise that they bumped off both Vancouver and St. Louis, who had much better teams - but not a bad team either.

Ironically, then, the L.A. Kings probably weren't good enough to make the playoffs, but they're certainly good enough to play in them.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Errors in baseball: fix them, or just end them

We're in the fourth inning of today's Blue Jays game, and already there have been four difficult scoring-decisions that have perhaps all been called incorrectly:

  1. 2nd inning: A fly ball to CF is misplayed by a lightly-jogging Colby Rasmus, landing in front and slightly behind him. But he doesn't touch it until after it bounces once. It's called a hit.
  2. 3rd inning: A short-hopping line-drive - an absolute screamer- is hit directly at shortstop Mike Aviles. He misplays it and it hits his throwing hand. He recovers in time to make a throw to 2B, but it's too late to get the runner. It's called an error.
  3. 4th inning: A fliner is hit off the wall in RF. Jose Bautista plays it on the rebound, quickly double-pumps and throws to 2B. The throw isn't in time and the ball lands directly in front of Yunel Escobar, who misses it completely. Neither the 3B, Brett Lawrie, or the P, Kyle Drabek, is correctly positioned to back-up the throw and it goes past both of them, allowing the batter to advance to 3B. The throw is called an error, which means that the error is given to Bautista.
  4. 4th inning: A bouncing come-backer is hit to the pitcher. He jumps and knocks it down with his glove, causing it to bounce directly in front of him. He reaches out to bare-hand the ball after the first bounce, but this time it bounces off of his hand and rolls away. It's called an error.
Of the three calls, the only one that I would have definitely made myself is #2. It doesn't matter how hard the ball is hit or if it skips slightly to one side or another off the short-hop - if it's hit directly at you, then the expectation is that you must field it. [Update: Ha! In the 5th inning, they changed the ruling on this one to a base-hit. Hilarious that they would change the only one that I was confident they had gotten right.]

I can't make a call on #4 without seeing where the other fielders were positioned. If the shortstop is in position to field the ball, provided that the pitcher doesn't touch it, then it's an error; if it was likely to go up the middle, then the leaping pitcher probably shouldn't be given an error.

#3 is a bit of a strange one. The throw wasn't ideal, but Escobar erred in staying on the bag when the batter was going to be safe. He probably should have conceded the base and taken two steps forward to play the throw in the air. Likewise, the advance to 3B doesn't happen if either Lawrie or Drabek are covering the throw, so they've also erred. (Amazingly, then, the error was given to the one player who did the best job on the play.) There's an argument to be made, here, for one of two things: breaking with convention and somehow giving an error to all three of Escobar, Lawrie, and Drabek, or giving an error to the team but not to a particular player.

#1 is just dumb. The convention, again, is that it's not an error if an outfielder misses a fly ball, provided that he doesn't touch it until after it bounces. Regardless of why, though, Rasmus overran the ball and needs to be penalized for that. (Again, hilariously, he would've received an error if he had overrun it by a smaller margin and managed to just touch a small part of the ball. Like I said, dumb.)

An old photo of Rasmus dropping the ball for the Cardinals. Timeless.
Photoshopped by (or, at least, posted to) StL Cardinal Baseball.

But back to example #3. I've seen the team error suggested before, and it makes perfect sense, here, where the fault lies with at least three players, maybe four, and the error doesn't happen if only one of them does his job properly. The rules don't allow for that recognition, which is a shame - but it's also something that could be easily corrected, if anyone cared.

Or, conversely, they could just do away with the errors, and these attendant headaches, altogether. All there really good for is determining which runs are earned or not, anyway, and entire articles have been written about why ERA is misleading (because it even deems some HR unearned, which is madness and because ERA makes groundball pitchers look better than they are, to name just two reasons) and Reached-On-Error isn't random, but a repeatable skill at inducing errors by fielders (as demonstrated by the career-ROE leaders, whom tend to hit groundballs and are really fast runners).

Not that I expect either of those things to happen, of course.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Joey Bats follow-up: It looks like the time to worry is over

A month ago, I blogged about Jose Bautista's awful April, and asked what went wrong and whether it was reasonable to expect a rebound. You can click on the link for the full details, but I concluded with this reasonably optimistic sentence: "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."

May Bautista will smash April Bautista. Or wants to fly like an eagle.
Photo by Jim Mone/AP

It's probably a bit unfair and not entirely telling to compare April and May in order to see whether I was right - I'm comparing one rather small sample to another, after all - but let's look anyway. So, how did Bautista fare in May as compared to April?

2011 --- 655 0.302 0.447 0.608 0.306 0.309 20.2% 16.9% 0.441 181
2012 April 103 0.181 0.320 0.313 0.133 0.171 15.5% 11.7% 0.288 78
2012 May 120 0.257 0.342 0.552 0.295 0.247 10.8% 20.0% 0.382 143

It's not even close, actually. In April, Bautista was a replacement-level hitter; in May, he was a star. His 143 wRC+ makes him the 35th best hitter in MLB over the course of that month, and on the season he's a respectable 60th out of 160 qualified batters. Interestingly, too, his numbers in May are right around what was being predicted for him by the major forecasting systems in 2011, following his first monster year in 2010.

So, the power has come back - Bautista belted 9 homers in May, tying him with Edwin Encarnacion for 8th most - as you can see from his Isolated Power number being almost exactly what it was in 2011. And his BABIP is much closer to what it was in 2010, which accounts for why the batting average is around his career mark and not his 2011 number.

There are still two worrisome numbers, though - his walk-rate, while still good, has absolutely cratered. But Bautista hasn't walked as little as he did in May since his second season in MLB, which makes me think it's a bit of a fluke. And his K-rate has risen to above career-average territory, which is all the more surprising because it has been around 17% for the last two years. But, really, that's only a difference of 4 strike-outs over the course of a month.

2011 --- 655 0.79 16.0% 36.9% 47.0% 15.2% 22.5%
2012 April 103 0.88 15.1% 39.7% 45.2% 21.2% 9.1%
2012 May 120 0.76 18.3% 35.4% 46.3% 21.1% 23.7%

The higher May BABIP seems to be a result of more line-drives; the fact that it's still rather low, though, would seem to be explained by the fact that he's still hitting infield flies at an alarming rate. Last time, I suggested that the problem, here, might be that he's not quite getting around fast enough on high fastballs. That might still be a problem - though less of one, obviously, because the home run-rate is back to last year's level.

2011 --- 655 50.3% 17.6% 11.3% 30.7
2012 April 103 59.6% 15.5% 6.9% -0.7
2012 May 120 49.2% 15.3% 10.1% 3.4

Here's where we start to find an explanation for these numbers, too. Bautista is seeing fewer fastballs, but hitting them much better than he was before. (Not nearly as well as the last two years, mind you, but back into 'excellent fastball hitter' territory.) He's also seeing more curveballs, cutters, and change-ups. This has me wondering if the pitch-selection in April suffered from some sort of selection-bias - if the Jays were simply seeing a lot of pitchers who through a lot of fastballs. Because you would think that Bautista's struggles in April, and the recent development of batting Encarnacion behind him, would lead to more fastballs, not fewer.

Month PA Con% Zone% O-Sw% Z-Sw% Swing% O-Con% Z-Con%
2011 --- 655 79.3% 44.4% 21.2% 57.9% 37.5% 64.2% 86.3%
2012 April 103 80.4% 47.4% 25.3% 54.7% 39.3% 77.2% 82.0%
2012 May 120 83.2% 39.8% 26.0% 55.6% 37.8% 71.6% 90.5%

And now we're back to the zone and contact numbers - which, I'll remind everyone, stabilize a lot faster than any of the other stats we've looked at.

Amazingly, while Bautista is striking out twice as much and walking much less than in April, he's also seeing fewer pitches in the strike-zone and swinging less often - he's back near his norm from the last two years, actually. And his contact rate has actually gone up. Those are really strange numbers to see in combination, and I can only assume that he's seen a really abnormal number of called third-strikes.

The O-Swing number have, unfortunately, not changed a bit. And the Z-Swing number has barely changed. So, while pitchers have clearly approached him differently in May, Bautista hasn't actually changed his approach. The difference, though, seems to be in his contact-rates - he's missing more often on outside pitches (which is a good thing) and making contact more often on strikes (which is also a good thing). What's unclear, though, is whether those contact rates are the result of April's bad luck regressing to the mean or the result of Bautista doing something differently.

So, the end result is this: in May, pitchers returned to pitching Bautista like they did last year, and they've paid for it. Bautista continues to swing much like he did in April, but both his O- and Z-Contact rates have swung dramatically in his favour.

On the plus-side: Given his history - and the fact that May aligns far better with his 2010-11 numbers than does April - it would seem to me that the May Bautista is the one we'd expect to see the rest of the way.

On the minus-side: His swing and contact profile, while improved, still look markedly different from 2010-11. (Well, they look somewhat like 2010, but not much like 2011.) It's looking increasingly likely that that Bautista won't re-emerge.