Lies, damned lies, and Statcast

Baseball is my sport.

I enjoy watching or listening to it every chance I get. I also write about it a lot. Like here and here and here. Oh, yeah, and here and here. You get the point.

This year was particularly gratifying for me because I’m a diehard, lifelong Red Sox fan. Having grown up with Sox teams that couldn’t get out of their own way much of the time, I’ve reveled in the past 15 years of teams that often can’t lose. Especially this year. I’ve never seen a team like the 2018 Red Sox and I may never again.

The fact that I saw most of these guys when they were just kids playing pro ball for the first time with the Lowell Spinners in short season single-A ball (including all the killer B’s: Betts, Bradley, Benintendi, and Bogaerts) makes it that much sweeter.

Having said all that, this wouldn’t be a proper blog post if it weren’t full of griping. 🙂

My latest beef is with this goofy marketing tool disguised as meaningful data known as Statcast. It used to be we had to somehow manage baseball discussions with trivial stats: wins and losses, RBIs, average, ERA, triples, and the like. Thanks to Amazon Web Services, we can discuss crucial data such as exit velocity, launch angle, hard hit, and barrel, the last of which is a stat that takes an entire page of text to describe and is still as confusing as a knuckleball.

You’ll note one common thread connecting all these new statistics: None of them has anything to do with winning baseball games. Last time I checked, a home run is worth one run, regardless of its distance, launch angle, or exit velocity.

There are plenty of other more recently developed crazy stats like WAR and WHIP and OPS. I can live with these because, as convoluted as some of these numbers can be, at least they have something to do with scoring runs and winning and losing, which is what the game is all about, after all. Exit velocity is a stat for losers who need something tangible to back up their obscene contract demands. Sadly, this crap works.

Another one: Catch probability is just so much hooey. If a ball is caught, the probability is 100%, if not, it drops down to about, oh, zilch. I expect the probability of catching a ball depends mostly on the fielder. If it’s Jackie Bradley Jr. the catch probability is pretty darn high no matter where the ball goes. If Aaron Judge is plodding after it, not so much.

One final example: I read an article talking about how desirable a commodity Manny Machado will be as a free agent during this offseason’s hot stove league. Most of the argument was based on Manny’s Statcast “hard hit” data. Not surprisingly, there was no mention that this guy is likely to be poison to any baseball team. When a player doesn’t run out ground balls and stands to admire his “home run” that was actually a double but which he turned into a single through his arrogance, it doesn’t matter a rat’s turd how hard he hits the ball! That kind of player is an albatross on any team he plays for. Anyone who pays this prima donna big bucks deserves to be dragged down into the loser-gutter with him.

Which brings me to what might be the most tantalizing aspect of baseball. In spite of all the stats and data and computer models, it’s largely a game of hunches and gut feelings. That’s what makes it great. That’s how a journeyman like Steve Pearce ends up being World Series MVP. It’s how the ’67 Impossible Dream Red Sox won the pennant and almost the Series. It explains how a bunch of idiots won it all in 2004 and a band of bearded overachievers did the same in ’13.

I love this game. Let’s not ruin it in the name of Amazon corporate profits.

 


Note: For those in Eastern MA, I’ll be doing two “author appearances” at local venues. The first is at Chelmsford Public Library. The event is Saturday 11/3 from 1-3 PM, although I will only be there until about 2 PM. All the details can be found here.

The other is at a great little shop in Chelmsford center called Artisans Exchange. I’ll be hanging out there on Friday night, 11/16 from 7-8.

I hope some of you can come out to say hello and do some early local (author) holiday shopping.

Belichick Bingo

With the advent of new NFL season upon us, it’s time to prepare. The players and coaches prepare, why should we fans not do so? It’s a grueling season. If we slack off now, we might be unable to make it to the end.

Of course, as a native of Massachusetts, my job is easier. I’m rooting for the greatest team in the history of the sport, the New England Patriots. If you favor a different team and hate the Pats, I fully understand. I’d hate them, too, if I were from, say, Philadelphia or Oakland. Or Denver. Or Indy. Or… well, you get it. Sour grapes is an unappetizing but necessary part of the diet of the football fans of those cities, just as it has been for baseball fans from Boston. Until recently. 🙂

Below you will find an important new tool in your appreciation of the sport. Post-game news conferences are about the least enlightening 10 minutes of our lives, filled with platitudes, generalities, and more evasiveness than a Dion Lewis run. Especially if the speaker is the inimitable Bill Belichick. He’s the best coach in the history of the game, but he’s the least forthcoming. Listening to him in a post-game news conference gives one the distinct impression he’d rather have his gums scraped than stand in front of a room full of reporters trying to trip him up. Probably because he would.

To help you pass that painful time, I’ve created the following game: Belichick Bingo. Print the card out and, as you and your family and friends listen to the coach respond to the inane questions reporters throw at him, mark off the phrases you hear. The first to get a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal row of five filled in wins!

You can even make your own cards with different common phrases from the Belichick post-game lexicon. Here’s a list of more possibilities to get you started:

  • turn the page
  • [player] has done a good job for us
  • good ball skills
  • ball security
  • they do/did a good job
  • doesn’t matter what we did last week
  • players win games
  • good effort
  • ready to play
  • gets better every day/week
  • have to do a better job
  • no question
  • there’s a lot of things we can still improve on
  • keep grinding
  • on a regular basis
  • have a lot of work to do
  • we’re just thinking about [next team]
  • everybody contributed
  • I don’t know
  • every week is different
  • situational football

There you go! The most fun you can have in the NFL without developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy!

Obsoleting Reality

These are not good days for reality. They haven’t been for some time, but the old boy’s decline seems to be hastening. From all indications, people don’t have a lot of use for reality.

As an entity, reality has been, as we were wont to say in the software world, deprecated. That means it’s still out there somewhere, but you’re discouraged from using it. It’s just as well. It’s getting as hard to recognize as it is scarce.

The reality (there’s that word again) of the situation has been driven home for me most recently with the suddenly huge and profitable enterprise known as fantasy football. Fantasy sports have been around for a while, mostly played out among friends and co-workers. The lunatic fringe started getting involved. That was bad enough. Then it became Big Business, giving us all the gift of legalized gambling in all 50 states.

fantasylandThe fantasy versions of sports have surpassed their reality counterparts in importance to many people. At least it’s called “fantasy” because it isn’t “real”. (Would that TV showed the same discretion, q.v. below.) Unfortunately, some people take it to extremes and trade reality in for fantasy. They forget the actual sport – or worse, interfere with the actual sport! – in favor of the fantasy version. Read “Fantasyland” by Sam Walker for a glimpse at the insanity of it all in baseball.

Worse is when we slap the word “reality” on things that are anything but. It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I’m talking about so-called reality TV. And by reality I mean fantasy. How did that happen? In this case, reality refers to something that is surreal, absurd, contrived, and a slew of other qualities that are in reality (I mean it this time) descriptive of things such as fiction, fantasy, and general nonsense.

That situation isn’t all that distinct from the average based-on-fact movie today. Maybe in days of yore movies that were about people or things that actually existed were factual. There’s no such pretense these days. Movies simply aren’t telling true stories anymore. In order to squeeze into the save-the-cat mold or whatever other generic screenwriting template is in vogue, films are dramatized often to the point of camouflaging the truth beyond recognition. You see the disclaimers at the end of the ridiculously long credits:

Although this movie is based on actual events that may or may not have happened, none of the characters are real. The settings and dialogue have been fabricated for dramatic effect. Organizations depicted herein are not and have never been and most likely never will be real. The story has been twisted like a Möbius strip in order to maximize income for the producers. However, it is true that there once was a guy.

Movies use a variety of descriptions that, if analyzed correctly, reveal how far they’ve drifted from historical veracity. Here’s a sample:

  • a true story – This means what it says: It’s a true story. You will never see this claim.
  • based on a true story – There was indeed a story once. The movie is a fictional retelling of that story.
  • based on actual events – There were some events. One or two might have accidentally ended up in the movie.
  • inspired by actual events – Forget about it. Any connection to reality is purely coincidental and probably a mistake. You could say this about “E.T.” It could have been inspired by the actual event of a kid who ate Reese’s Pieces and faked being sick so he could stay home from school.

Reality. headstone

I miss it.

Yanks to Fete Steinbrenner Next

[This important sports item has just been released.]

The venerable New York Yankees, after the ultra-successful whirlwind retirement tours of Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, have decided to follow up with a round-the-horn circuit by “The Boss”, the late George Steinbrenner.

We want to maintain the momentum established in 2013 and 2014,” explained Yankee Director of Chutzpah, Steuben Lowe. “When we looked at our roster, however, we found a serious dearth in expected retirements for the next few years.” Mr. Steinbrenner, who passed away in 2010, was the next logical choice.

He’s a legend,” claimed Lowe. “He singlehandedly transformed baseball from an athletic competition to a virtual meat market. To top off his regime, he transformed ‘The House that Ruth Built’ into ‘The House that George Demolished’. No other owner in baseball history can claim achievements of that significance.”

As the Yankees visit each ballpark during the 2015 season, honorary local volunteer pall-bearers will carry Steinbrenner’s coffin to home plate where he will receive the accolades due his reputation as fierce competitor and ruthless executive.

Of course, he’ll have no use for the vehicles, artwork, and memorabilia of the type showered on Mariano and Derek,” Lowe told reporters. “But all those goods can be converted into cash to sign future retirees.” eBay has been contracted and is already gearing up to handle the expected bonanza. Donations to Mr. Steinbrenner’s favorite cause, the Yankee Free Agent Fund, will be accepted and welcome.

Being honored in all those ballparks would have brought a genuine thrill to Mr. Steinbrenner, especially Fenway Park, which held a special place in his heart. I only wish Shea Stadium was still around for The Boss to occupy. It will be a bittersweet time, that’s for sure,” the Yankee executive said with a well-placed tear in his eye.

Lowe further explained that, what with the Yankees recently losing such stars as Robinson Cano and Andy Pettitte, the pipeline for “quality retirees” is dry. “The storied history of the Yankees demands higher profile pensioners than those currently available. Gone are the days when we could have filled an entire decade with Hall of Fame caliber players to drain the pockets of kowtowing competitors. Lou Gehrig in particular was a missed opportunity of exceptional proportions.” Lowe later added that the level of available plundering has not always been as rich as it is today. “With the advent of interleague play, the stakes are much higher. The amount we could have extorted before the interleague era pales in comparison to today’s potential take.

Depending on the outcome of his suspension and various appeals, Alex Rodriguez is generally regarded as the next viable tour candidate. Unfortunately, his availability will be in doubt for some time. A traveling Congressional inquiry with Rodriguez as the key witness has been discussed but the legalities involved could make such a tour prohibitive.

If A-Rod falls through, rumor has it that Jacoby Ellsbury, speedster centerfielder signed away from the rival Red Sox, will be asked to take early retirement after the 2016 season to fill the gap. “We signed Ellsbury not only for his baseball skills but for his estimable marketing potential,” declared the Yankee’s General Manager, the ironically named Brian Cashman. “He has nothing to lose taking early retirement. The Yankees’ severance package is, as you might imagine, generous to a fault. Additionally, Jacoby will be allowed to keep the cars, shoes, bling, and other offerings that are de rigueur for these tributes.”

Reaction to the announcement from around the league was mixed.

This is not only good for the Yankees and for baseball, frankly, it’s good for the Tampa Bay Rays,” declared Rays Senior Vice President of Overachievement. Merry Chase. “We don’t draw flies here at the Trop unless one of the big money teams comes to town. These tributes boost our attendance tremendously as retired New Yorkers flock to the stadium to pay their respects to their returning heroes. That’s fine with us, as long as they put out for the proverbial peanuts and Cracker Jacks.”

Orioles brass were less enthusiastic. A source who wished to remain anonymous summed up their feelings, saying, “What a bunch of greedy bastards.”