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Category: Sports

Mascots in the Wild

It’s been two years since Baseball Toaster shut down. On the first anniversary, that final day felt like it was only yesterday. Now, it feels like a lifetime ago. Not sure why, but maybe it’s because I’ve completed all the things I quit the blogging scene to accomplish.

Now as that checklist is finally done, and I’m trying to figure out what next to do with my life, I find myself drifting back to my old scene. Today, for example, Toaster alumnus Josh Wilker has a blog entry that compels me to respond with a little story.

* * *

After Toaster, I decided to take a sabbatical from baseball. Stopped watching it on TV, stopped going to games, stopped playing fantasy baseball, and only read about it minimally. I wanted to stop doing so many things half-assed, and give full concentration to my other priorities in life. Plus, my four years of running the Toaster had burned me out on baseball for a while. I needed a break.

That summer, I took a trip with my family to Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. Some good friends of ours in the Coast Guard had been stationed there. It’s a long trip. It took us longer to get there, door-to-door, than it takes me to get to my brother’s home in Sweden. There aren’t any direct flights to Detroit from Oakland, so we took a roundabout flight that stopped in Ontario (the California one) and Phoenix before arriving in Detroit. We then rented a car and drove an additional six hours to get there. Our friends’ home was literally off the last exit in the United States. Miss that offramp, and you end up in Ontario (the Canadian one).

When you’re a six-hour drive from the nearest major airport, you feel like you’re in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. All your cares back home might as well be on the moon, you’re so far from anything you’re familiar with.

One day, we take a trip to nearby Fort_Michilimackinac. While touring the fort, we come across this Native American gentleman giving a demonstration on how the local tribes worked deer hides:

At one point during the demo, he says, “When you get home, you should google my name. Levi Walker, Jr. You’ll be surprised.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. So when we got home, we googled it. Levi Walker, Jr. is the man who was once the Atlanta Braves mascot Chief Noc-a-homa.

He was right. I was indeed surprised. Because I had gone to a place on earth and a time on earth that felt as far away from my recent life as a baseball-obsessed blogger as possible. And baseball still followed me there.

At that point, I felt like if I ever went on an African safari, I’d run smack dab into Stomper. I could go snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and find Billy the Marlin swimming around. And if I took a rocket to Mars, I would be greeted upon landing by a Furry Green Monster.

You can try to let go of baseball, but it doesn’t matter. Baseball still has a grip on you. You can try to run away, but if you do, don’t bother turning around. Baseball will be gaining on you.

Addo Elephant Park, South Africaphoto © 1999 Brian Snelson | more info (via: Wylio)

 

I don’t know what this coming year has in store for me. I am free now, like a zoo animal released back into the wild. I have no predictions for what will happen next. I can only say this: Look out! Here come the elephants.

Brainyball: The Sequel to Statistics

Our old friend Moneyball will be making a comeback this year, when the film starring Brad Pitt gets released this September. Let me declare seven months ahead of time that I am sick of hearing about how the movie hype is distracting the 2011 A’s during their pennant run. I am also preemptively tired of the rehashing of old arguments, such as how the A’s philosophy failed because the Moneyball generation never won a ring. Finally, I am, in advance, savoring the irony of the A’s winning the 2011 World Series, in the very year that this antique anti-Moneyball argument reaches its crescendo.

I love me a good irony. I took my daughters Monday to see Sally Ride give a speech for the UC Berkeley Physics Department. I looked around the auditorium and noticed that darn near everyone in the room was skinny. Maybe these people burn all their fat off just by thinking so hard about the universe. Whatever the cause, I found myself tickled by this ironic idea: Physicists have very little gravitational pull.

The irony that lies at the core of the Moneyball book is that A’s GM Billy Beane was trying to find a way to weed out players who were essentially just like himself. Beane is a very intelligent guy with an chiseled athletic body whose intelligence got in the way of his performance. You look at him, and you think he was born to be a star athlete. But he never became one. He’d get so worked up about every little failure that his swing and approach got all screwed up. He couldn’t handle the mental part of the game.

So Beane became a scout, then a GM, and tried to come up with a reliable way to weed out players like himself who can’t handle the mental part of the game, and discover the players who can. They tried to accomplish this by using a deeper understanding of statistics.

Which is odd, if you think about it. It isn’t the players’ statistics that are causing players like Beane to fail. It’s their brains. If you really want to be able to recognize players like Beane in advance, shouldn’t you try to do this with a deeper understanding of brains?

* * *

We are living at the very dawn of neuroscience. In the last ten years or so, our understanding of our own brains has exploded, and we’ve still only scratched the surface. Consider this TED talk by Charles Limb:

Limb explains what happens in the brain when jazz musicians improvise. When improvising, jazz musicians shut off a part of the brain called the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-monitoring. They literally turn off the inhibitions in their brains, so they aren’t afraid to make mistakes, and are free to be creative.

Now it would be a big leap to say that Billy Beane’s mental failures were caused by an inability to turn off his lateral prefrontal cortex while batting. But it’s not a big leap to think that this sort of understanding of the brain isn’t just possible for musicians, but for athletes, as well.

Someday, perhaps, draft preparations will include brain scans, so teams can see that a Billy Beane’s brain isn’t focusing properly when batting. They’ll know how often you can take a player with Beane’s brain profile, and train him to overcome those brain issues. They’ll discount or increase his value because of this information.

* * *

In Sports Illustrated this past weekend, Joe Posnanski looked into the question of how drafting teams can predict which quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL, and which will fail. In particular, he wonders what set Aaron Rodgers apart from other first round QBs who flopped. He makes a guess:

What you get from these quotes and just about everything Rodgers says — in addition to steady and pleasant boredom — is a sense of someone who thinks about things constantly, even little things that few others think about. He seems to be someone who simply cannot imagine staying the same, simply cannot imagine that he’s already good enough. There are so many potential distractions at the NFL level, some of them off the field (money, fame, fan fickleness …), some on the field (dealing with pain — Rodgers has a history of concussions — standing up to a heavy rush, the inner workings of a team …). And the most successful quarterbacks, bar none, are the ones who deal with those distractions and never believe the hype and continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement.

To which I ask: how does this separate him from Billy Beane the baseball player? Beane thought about things constantly. He obsessed over every failure, trying to fix every mistake. And this sent him into a downward spiral that made him worse and worse, not better.

* * *

Another player who Posnanski’s paragraph applies to is Barry Zito. I’ve written a lot of words defending Barry Zito from his detractors over the years.

I like Zito. If not for the early Cy Young Award and that ridiculous contract, he’d be the kind of underdog people like to root for. Posnanski’s phrase “continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement”: that’s Zito. He’s a smart guy. Curious. He likes to tinker. To experiment. To find a new way to get better. He tries new pitches. He tries new pitch sequences. He tries new release points. And maybe that constant search for improvement has kept him healthy and pitching in the major leagues for a decade with the mediocre-est of fastballs.

But I’d argue that perhaps as often as it’s helped him, that personality trait has gotten him into trouble. Zito has had three pitching coaches in the majors: Rick Peterson, Curt Young, and Dave Righetti. Pitching coaches tend to live by a sort of Hippocratic Oath: if it ain’t broke, dont’ fix it. Zito doesn’t seem to believe in that. Each time there was a transition between coaches, Zito decided to take advantage of his temporary lack of parental supervision to completely change his pitching motion.

In 2004, Zito decided to try a new motion out of the stretch. He’d always wanted to do this, but Rick Peterson wouldn’t let him. When Curt Young came in as the new pitching coach, he didn’t have the relationship with Zito to say no. Zito had a 4.48 ERA for the year, his worst in an Oakland uniform. The next year, he was back to his old delivery, and his usual sub-4.00 ERAs.

In 2007, he signed a huge contract with the Giants, and showed up at spring training with a radically new delivery. Pitching coach Dave Righetti was horrified, and they settled on a compromise semi-radical new delivery. The results were just as bad as the other time he tried to overhaul his delivery: Zito’s worst year in the majors, a 4.53 ERA. (Followed the next year by an even worse 5.15 ERA.) Two years into his Giants tenure, Zito finally tinkered himself back into some decent success, with two consecutive years now of ERAs around 4.10.

* * *

Recently on Fangraphs, Jonah Keri suggested that the Yankees try to trade for Zito.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong the arguments he gives, but it is, like the Moneyball story, missing the psychological element.

Psychology clearly matters in the outcome of sports careers. The question is, understand enough about sports psychology that such data points are useful in evaluating players, or is the information we have so primitive that we should discount such information altogether?

The Yankees are unique in that they also deal with the theory that there are some types of personalities who “can’t handle New York“. This theory may or may not be valid, but I’m willing to consider that it is possible.

I’m not going to come out and say that Barry Zito is another Ed Whitson. But New York media pressure or not, we do have these data points: each time Barry Zito has had a change of scenery, he used the opportunity to make a royal mess of his delivery.

I think if you’re Brian Cashman, and you’re thinking of trading for Barry Zito, you should know these data points. There is a non-zero risk that Barry Zito’s brain is going to get in the way of his performance, because it seems to have happened to him before. And there’s a non-zero risk that the New York media pressure will trigger this effect, because it seems to have happened to other players before. And to the extent you’re willing to believe those risks exist, you have to discount Barry Zito’s value.

* * *

In Billy Beane’s case, the constant striving for improvement was nothing but counterproductive. In Zito’s case, we see some mixed results. So even though it’s a different sport and a different position, I have a hard time believing that the key to Aaron Rodgers’ success is simply a matter of willpower, that same constant striving for improvement.

If I had to guess, a quarterback’s success involves spacial pattern recognition, the ability to quickly recognize types of player movement, to filter out inessential patterns and recognize significant ones, and act on them. Maybe some players filter out too much information, and others not enough. Maybe there are places in the brain that Aaron Rodgers turns on or off in better ways than the quarterbacks who failed. Those places are mostly a mystery to us now.

But they won’t be a mystery forever. A new era is dawning.

Birth of a new age.

First Rule of Sabermetric Marketing…

…is don’t talk about sabermetrics. So I’m going to talk about being kicked in the balls, instead. Then I’m going to explain how my being kicked in the balls is totally relevant to marketing sabermetrics. OK? Let’s go:

I once wrote a blog entry on my old Catfish Stew blog about being kicked in the balls during an indoor soccer game. It went a little something like this:

Somebody forgot to give the goalie the message. Instead of easing up when we got close to contact, he came at me like some freakish combination of Ronnie Lott and Scott Stevens. He ran full speed for the ball, jumped as high as he could to knock it away from me, and in the process, sent his knee full force straight into my groin, and slammed the rest of me right into the hockey-style boards.

The follow-up to that story is that earlier this year I ended up playing on the same team as the goalie who had crushed my testicles a few years before. So I had to forgive, if not forget. Now, you may suspect that the moral relevant to sabermetrics is that those who seem like an enemy could may turn out to be your greatest ally later. Perhaps thats true, but..I wouldn’t temporarily pull myself out of my blogging retirement to make so simple a point.

No, I want to add a more complex point to the conversation going around about the marketing of sabermetrics. The conversation was initiated by Will Carroll, picked up by Tango Tiger, and finally reached Carson Cistulli’s keyboard yesterday.

Reading Cistulli’s message reminded me of an old YouTube video of Steve Jobs introducing Apple’s Think Different and Screw the Grammar ad campaign back in 1996.

If you’re interested in the problems of marketing sabermetrics, you should watch this whole video. But here’s the quote that is particularly burned onto my brain:

The dairy industry tried for 20 years to convince you that milk was good for you…and the sales were going like this (downwards). Then they tried “Got Milk” and the sales have gone like this (upwards). “Got Milk” doesn’t even talk about the product. In fact, it focuses on the absence of the product. –Steve Jobs

Now there’s a reason that quote comes to mind so easily for me. The insight — that listing a bunch of facts about your product is not very effective; the best marketing campaigns make an emotional connection between your core values and those of your customers — is brilliant, but that’s not why I remember it so well. The insight itself is just one in a list of facts about marketing, and probably wouldn’t stick with me very long without an emotional connection.

The reason is this: when I became teammates with the goalie who had earlier impaled me, I found out that in his day job, he was the milk industry executive who had spearheaded the whole original “Got Milk” marketing campaign.

Ever since I learned that, I can’t help but pay extra attention any time I hear any variation of the phrase “Got Milk”. There are very few emotional connections as effective as a solid kick in the nuts. Thus, when Carson Cistulli writes something with similar themes to the Steve Jobs speech, and the quote about “Got Milk” pops right up in my mind.

Now, to turn Steve Jobs’ point into a lesson for sabermetrics: Creating a list of facts explaining how sabermetrics is better than old-school analysis is not the best way to market sabermetrics, just as explaining how MacOS is better than Windows is not the best way to market Apple.

What makes it particularly difficult in this case is that sabermetrics is essentially about removing emotions from the equation. That makes an effective marketing campaign for sabermetrics somewhat of a paradox.

Nonetheless, the questions remain. What are the core emotional values of sabermetrics? What are sabermetricians committed to in their souls? Once you’ve answered those questions, then you start formulating a way to make sabermetrics more mainstream and popular.

So, baseball fans: Got Facts?

Ben Grieve in the Year 2000!

Rany Jazayerli tweeted that Billy Butler is close to a record pace for grounding into double plays this year. Dave Studeman responded by looking at the rising trend of double plays, which brought back to my mind the worst non-Jim Rice season of GIDPs ever: Ben Grieve In the Year 2000.

I always thought growing up that at the Turn of the Millenium I’d be rocketing to Mars and driving a flying car. Wow, were my expectations off. Actually, I spent the year 2000 watching Ben Grieve ground into 4-6-3 double play after 4-6-3 double play. Well, that’s not exactly true. Occasionally, it would be 6-4-3. But mostly 4-6-3. Man, that dude rolled over and hit weak grounders to second base a lot.

At the time, watching all those double plays made me wonder this: when would you want to bat a player like that leadoff?

If a slow guy like Grieve makes X% of his outs by grounding weakly to 2B, but still has a decent OBP, you could remove 20% or so of his double plays by simply batting him first. And with the worst hitters on the team ahead of him the next time through the lineup, he’ll hit with men on base a minimum amount of time.

Of course, that may mean removing a better OBP from the leadoff spot. And it may also mean scoring fewer runs if he hits a home run. And usually, the slow guys are powerful, so tradeoff probably isn’t worth it. But if you morphed the 2000 Ben Grieve (32 GIDP) with the 2001 Ben Grieve (.264/.372/.387), you might have such a strange high OBP/low SLG slothlike mutant where you’re better off batting him leadoff just to avoid the negative consequences of the double play.

BTW, I wonder if Grieve didn’t blow his whole career changing his approach to avoid those double plays. He never got anywhere near 32 GIDPs again, hitting into only 13 the following season after being traded to Tampa Bay, but he also immediately lost about 100 points in slugging percentage, and never really ever got them back again.

Don’t Yet Bid Kid Adieu

No! Ken has not really retired!
He’s not stiff, ceased to be, or expired!
His beautiful plume
Hasn’t gone to the tomb;
His voice ain’t invisible choired!

No, his squawk isn’t really declining.
He’s not nailed to his perch for enshrining.
I assure you his Voom!
Will shortly resume
As soon as he’s done with his pining.

The Least Important Batting Order Ever?

MLB.com’s new A’s beat writer Jane Lee tweeted her suggested A’s lineup today. I found it hard to argue for or against her suggested order. It seems like every player in the lineup is roughly a .280/.335/.410 player, so it didn’t seem to matter much to me what order you put them in.

To test my hypothesis, I ran the 2010 Marcel Projections through David Pinto’s Lineup Analysis Tool. I don’t think the tool produces particularly realistic or accurate results, even though I had a little hand in developing it. But if it’s useful for something, it’s getting an estimate on the theoretical size difference between the best and worst possible lineups.

When I’ve run this before on potential A’s lineups, the difference between the best and worst lineups has been about 45 runs per year. For the projected 2010 lineup, the difference is 29 runs. And since no one is going to bat Coco Crisp cleanup with Jack Cust and Kevin Kouzmanoff eighth and ninth, you can probably say that any reasonable batting order Bob Geren decides to run out there this year will be about as good as any other.

I’m too lazy/busy to run the numbers, but it makes you wonder, how many teams in baseball history have had a lineup where the batting order mattered less than the 2010 A’s?

Slight Preference, Extreme Results

You have to look at philosophy from two levels: the individual, and the group. A slight preference at the individual level can result in extreme results when those slight preferences add up at the group level. Here’s an example of that mechanism in action:

In sports, you see this effect in amateur drafts all the time, particularly in baseball where draft picks can’t be traded. Let’s say a baseball team like the Oakland A’s values college players a mere 1% more than other teams do. The A’s may say and believe that they don’t reject high school players, but the effect of their slight preference is that they end up taking almost exclusively college players, simply because the high school players they prefer are all chosen ahead of them, and invariably when their turn to choose comes up, their highest ranked player just happens to be a college player.

In the NFL, where draft picks can be traded, you could create extra value for yourself if you know that you value players differently than others. The Oakland Raiders have a unique valuation on amateur talent, and nearly every year their selections are a complete surprise to those following conventional wisdom. Because their valuation system is so unique, they could probably create extra value for themselves by always trading down. The player they want will often still be available lower in the draft. Sadly for Raiders fans, the Raiders almost never do this.

In crafting a philosophy, we should be aware of this feature of group dynamics. Groups, moreso than individuals, tend to move either towards the middle, or to the extremes. In America, we see this in our politics. Most Americans are rather centrist, but the system of primaries to choose nominees attracts the more loyal partisans at either end of the political spectrum. So instead of a runoff between Candidate 40th-percentile vs Candidate 60th-percentile, our choices in the general election often ends up as Candidate 10th vs. Candidate 90th. The result is a legislature that is far more partisan than the general population, and is far more despised than it would seem necessary.

How do we keep a set of 60/40 preferences from unintentionally turning into 100/0 behavior, or for that matter, turning 80/20 preferences 50/50 behavior? It’s easy to blame the people involved for behaving badly (see my last article on Willpower Bias) and to argue “don’t do that, you bad people”. But it’s hard to change individual preferences, and especially hard when individual preferences are being affected by group dynamics. More often, the solution is to structurally reduce the amplification. In sports, enabling trades of draft picks at least makes it possible for teams to find more accurate values for their picks. In politics, open primaries or ranked voting systems would probably make the distribution of elected officials look more like the general population than the extremes.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t possible benefits to 0-50-100 group behavior over the messier alternatives. But it’s hard to believe that this tendency will always yield optimal result. If the optimal solution lies at 33 or 67, we want the quickest, most effective way to hit that optimal result. Ping-ponging between the extremes may get us there in the end, but you have to think it would be better to move their directly if we can. Being fully aware of the differences between individual and group dynamics can help us find optimal solutions in an optimal manner.

Rooting Interests

Can you watch a sporting event dispassionately, without rooting for one side or another at all? I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. To some extent, I always end up picking sides. For me, it’s impossible to remain objective.

The curious thing is that I can’t help it. I don’t decide that I need to pick a team. I don’t go through some conscious, analytic process to choose a side. It just happens. Even if I try not to pick a side, I still pick a side. It’s subconscious, outside my willpower, and fully automatic.

Few of us choose our sports allegiances through some rational process. Does anyone believe that there exists some objectively “correct” team to root for? While one could probably invent some formula to calculate the “optimal” team to support, most of us would consider such a process silly and beside the point. The emotions, the pure irrationality of our fandom, is the whole point of the exercise.

On the other hand, philosophy feels different to us. We suspect that there exists, if not a single “correct” philosophy, a scale in which some philosophies are better than others. While we have no objections to letting our subconscious passions decide our rooting interests in sports, there’s a sense that when it comes to religion, politics or other types of philosophy, this same decision-making process is flawed.

And yet, can there be any doubt that for the vast, vast majority of people, the decision-making process for picking sides in both sports and philosophy is exactly the same? A large majority of us end up choosing the same religion as our parents, and the same political party. If we chose them by a purely objective process, you’d probably see a far weaker correlation between the people around us and the philosophies we choose.

Suppose we did want to choose a philosophy using some objective method. We’d need to avoid taking sides in advance, in order to avoid letting our prejudgments cloud our analysis. But when it came to sports, we found we usually can’t really help who we choose to root for. It just happens, subconsciously, automatically.

So here’s the big question: even if we want to avoid prematurely picking a philosophy to root for, can we? Is it humanly possible at all? We’ll explore that question next time.

Happy Bat Day

We have guests arriving at our house tomorrow for Christmas, plus we’re going to start a big remodeling project right after New Year’s Day.  So I’ve been clearing out a lot closets lately.  Here’s something I dug out this afternoon:

The bats were acquired at various Bat Days at the Oakland Coliseum over the years.  The top one is from 1999 or 2000 and “autographed” by John Jaha.  The middle one is from 1976 and has Don Baylor‘s signature.  Not sure when I got the third one without a signature, but it was either late 70s or early 80s.

Missing is my childhood favorite bat, which was from 1975 and autographed by Bert Campaneris.  I played with that bat out on the asphalt of the cul-de-sac I grew up on every day, to the point where nearly all the green paint had been chipped off.  Somehow that bat got lost in dozen or so times I’ve moved since then.  I don’t have much sentimental attachment to these three bats, but I miss my Campy bat.

I remember when I got the bat.  Back in those days, the A’s didn’t just hand the same bat to everybody.  There were bats from nearly every starting player in the lineup, and every kid was randomly handed one when you went through the turnstiles.  I went with two of my best friends.

“I got Reggie Jackson!” said my first friend.

“Oh, you lucky dog!  I got Campy Campaneris.  That’s cool.” I said.  Then I turned to my other friend. “Who’d you get, Wayne?”

Wayne frowned.  He looked at his bat again, to make sure he hadn’t seen incorrectly. Quietly, he read the words to us.  “I got…Ray Fosse.”

“Oh.”  Pause.   “Sorry, man.”

Why San Jose is Better for the A’s than Oakland

I’ve found that culture has generally been missing in the discussion about Oakland vs. San Jose for the A’s.  In a conversation on BaseballThinkFactory on this topic, I commented as follows:

Look, here’s the thing: San Jose is the world capital of the computer industry. San Jose and its suburbs are the home to nearly every major company on the whole friggin’ Internet. It’s the engine that is driving the entire economy of the planet, the whole thrust of globalization. OK? I’ve worked there, met with these people, I can tell you: every President, every Vice President, every Director, every Manager, every CEO, CTO, CFO and VC knows that they are all the most important people doing the most important work in the history of the planet Earth.

These people will all buy tickets to this stadium in San Jose. They will not care what it costs, because they are too important to have such concerns. It will not matter to them if they ever use the tickets themselves. What matters is that they deserve these tickets, because they are such important people. And when they can’t use these tickets (which is most of the time, because they are so very very busy doing very very important things), they will give these tickets to their little people, partly as thanks for helping them do such important things, but also to display what kind and generous people they truly are.

This is how Silicon Valley works. And this is why the San Francisco Giants would much rather have the A’s five miles away in Oakland than 45 miles away in San Jose.

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