Thursday, September 29, 2011

Examining the Real Moneyball

Gratuitous use of a Brad Pitt image? Guilty as charged.

While the screen version of the "Moneyball" story is doing solid box office, the reality of how money affects Major League Baseball has become a rather complicated story.

As the dust settles on the improbable finish to the regular season, a look at this year's playoff teams makes it hard to argue that payroll perfectly correlates with success. Still, all things being equal, it's better to have than have not.

Of course, the poster children for free-spending success are back in the playoffs. Baseball's two biggest payrolls belong to the Yankees ($203 million) and the Phillies ($173 million), and the two fat cats posted the highest win totals in their respective leagues.

And but for its epic September meltdown, Boston (#3 in payroll at $161 million) would have joined the high-roller table. Instead, the unwashed Tampa Bay Rays have crashed the party. Their $41 million payroll ranks next-to-last in the Major Leagues (only Kansas City is lower). The Rays spend roughly a dollar for every 5 bucks spent by the Yankees.

Of course, technically, some of the money Tampa Bay spends actually comes from the Yankees, who annually pay into baseball's "luxury tax" fund designed to share the wealth. But it's a pittance, really; nowhere near enough to address the disparity between the top spenders and the poverty-stricken.

Still, this year's group of playoff teams puts the lie to the belief that payroll heft guarantees success in baseball. Here are the playoff teams and their payroll rankings:

American League
  • Yankees $203 million #1
  • Tigers $105 million #10
  • Rangers $92 million #13
  • Rays $41 million #29
National League
  • Phillies $173 million #2
  • Cardinals $105 million #11
  • Brewers $85 million #17
  • D'backs $54 million #25

Plenty of big spenders will be watching the playoffs rather than, you know, playing in them. The Red Sox (#3), Angels (#4), White Sox (#5), Cubs (#6), Mets (#7), Giants #8) , Twins (#9) and Dodgers (#12) are all $100 million teams whose money didn't buy them a playoff slot. In fact, four of those teams had sub-.500 records and the Twins managed to avoid a 100-loss season only by winning their final game.

The assumption around baseball is that the lessons of "Moneyball" have been learned and adopted by virtually every organization: seek undervalued assets and maximize the impact of whatever money you have. Yet if everyone is seeking undervalued assets, the guy with the biggest wallet will eventually prevail.

Still, there's hope for the underclass in all this. While it is true that 5 of this year's 8 playoff teams come from teams in the top 50% of payrolls, it's also true that two of the six lowest-spending teams (Tampa Bay and Arizona) are in. Smart? Lucky? Maybe some of both.

Bottom line: in baseball, as in life itself, it seems that money doesn't guarantee happiness. But it's nice to have.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Replay the Replay?

Advocates of video replay in sports consistently argue that the cumbersome, often-ponderous process is worth it because, above all, replays help officials "get things right".

Except when they don't.

Case in point: the Syracuse-Toledo college football game last weekend. Syracuse emerged with an overtime victory, but it turns out a missed call on an extra point late in the game probably gave The Orange a win it shouldn't have had.

Here's the replay the officials should have viewed. Apparently, the replay official focused on a sideline-camera view rather than the opposite-endzone camera view you'll see in the clip. Mid-American Conference officials are acknowledging the mistake and saying they share the frustration of Toledo's players, coaches and fans. You can imagine how good that feels in Toledo.

But what are the options here? Really, none. The PAT in question was kicked with 2:07 left in the 4th quarter. As you'll see in the clip, it was an unusual kick--the kicker pulled the pull hard to the left. Unlike a long field goal attempt, an extra point doesn't give the endzone officials time to track the flight of the ball and gauge its path. It's bam-bam.

Bad call on the field? Well, sure, but not an easy call--and both endzone officials called the kick "good". Blown call by the replay official? Certainly.

So what do you do about it? Nothing. You learn from it and move on. MAC referees will certainly be more careful from now on in asking for camera angles on replays. But the bottom line is this: stuff happens. There are bad bounces and bad calls in sports. Period.

I have trouble with fans who contend that a bad call "cost us the game". Every single call in a game makes a difference; we just tend to focus on the ones we think make a difference. Could the refs have called holding on that thrilling first-quarter TD pass? What about that defensive-holding call right after halftime? It goes on and on.

In the case of Syracuse-Toledo, the missed call gave Syracuse a 3-point lead with 2:07 to go. Toledo wound up tying the game on a field goal as regulation time ran out and then Syracuse prevailed in overtime. Plenty of other places the game might have swung toward Toledo after the call, not to mention what happened before the call.

I'm not a fan of replay in general because I believe it slows the game down and provides only an illusion of fairness, focusing on a few moments in a game and ignoring myriad other decisions. But even those who think video replay is a good thing will have to concede that at some point, even the replay can be "wrong". And then what?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Harbaugh's Big Decision

Fans don't make on-field decisions. Neither do pundits. And that's probably a good thing.

I say this because 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is enduring a fair amount of second-guessing for his 4th quarter "keep the field goal" decision in the Niners loss to Dallas. It's coming from people who think Harbaugh erred by keeping David Akers' 55-yard field goal (and a 10-point lead) rather than accepting a penalty that would have given them a first down at the Dallas 22.

The criticism seems to be rooted in an assumption that the 49ers would have probably then scored a touchdown to go up by 14 or, worst case, kicked another field goal to wind up with the same 10-point lead.

Nice dream. The reality of "red zone" possessions is this: last year, the NFL's best "TD in the red zone" percentage was 25%. That's it. And that was the New England Patriots, who have not recently been confused with the San Francisco 49ers.

Some may have been confused by the often-cited "red zone scoring" stat, but that figure includes field goals and still isn't a lead-pipe cinch. Year after year, the best teams in the league post a red zone scoring percentage stat of around 66%. In other words, on average, a third of the red zone forays by the best teams in the NFL come up empty. And I haven't even started on the red zone turnovers.

I'm not arguing that coaches should only consider the percentages (although if they did, they'd go for it far more often on 4th down). There are always other considerations: personnel, weather, intuition.

But only fools ignore the statistics, and it doesn't look like Jim Harbaugh is anybody's fool.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Is Boring Better?

The Harbaugh Era is here, and the 49ers are undefeated in the regular season.

OK, they beat Seattle in their first game under Harbaugh and it's not clear if the Seahawks are any good but, still, it's a start.

Except: there remains a sort of unease about a team that wins with only 124 yards passing, and was nursing a less-than-a-field-goal lead before Ted Ginn's kick-return madness in the 4th quarter.

The Bay Area's favorite athletic whipping boy, QB Alex Smith, threw only 20 times. Frank Gore didn't even crack the 60-yard rushing mark. Time and again, the Niners chose to run (usually unsuccessfully) on 3rd down.

In short, except for Ginn, a game remarkably devoid of spine-tingling moments. This begs a question: were the 49ers playing it close to the vest because that's the hand they hold? Or maybe another question: did the labor strife-shortened NFL summer lead to this?

It's possible a new head coach, still establishing a relationship with his quarterback, is going to keep it simple. But it's also possible that these are the Harbaugh-era 49ers. Fans sometimes forget the goal of the game is to win. Coaches don't get bonus points for excitement and style; they get them for W's.

If Harbaugh calculates his best chance to win is not to lose, then a controlled passing game that averages 6.2 yards per attempt might be preferable to one that takes the bigger downfield risks. By the way, that "yards per attempt" stat is worth watching; the team with the higher "YPA" figure in a game will win more than 80% of the time. And if you need something to brag about, tell your skeptical fantasy-league buddies that Smith's YPA was higher than Michael Vick's in Week 1 (the Eagles averaged 5.2 yards per passing attempt in their win over St. Louis).

Bottom line for Niners fans: a win is a win, and one week does not a trend make. Give Harbaugh and Smith their due, for it's better to be 1-0 than 0-1. But if you like your offense wide-open, don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Baseball Judaica

One of the things I love about sports is the historical record. Baseball, in particular, has been blessed with (or, depending on your point of view, cursed by) diligent record-keepers right from the start. John Thorn's book "Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game" makes it clear that people were keeping score and maintaining statistics long before the game went pro.

My latest trip into stats-land came courtesy of KCBS (and Eyewitness Blues Band) colleague Doug Sovern, an occasional contributor to our KCBS Sports Fans podcast. Doug wondered if Ryan Braun's hot streak (as of this writing, he's .001 behind Jose Reyes atop the NL batting stats) could make him the first Jewish batting champ. If not, who was the last one?

I did some quick research, and here's what I found:

I'll let the Tribe (not the baseball team based in Cleveland) decide the thorny issue of "Jewishness" on this one: Lou Boudreau was born to a Jewish mother but, according to my research, adopted and raised in a Christian family. He won the AL batting title in 1945 (and of course, those of us of French heritage claim him as one of ours, too) by hitting .327 as a member of the Tribe (the team in Cleveland).

Hank Greenberg hit .313 for his career, is a member of the Hall of Fame...and never won a batting title.

The other "close but no latke" story is Al Rosen, who had a monster 1953 season (also as a member of the Tribe--in fact BOTH Tribes). Rosen went .336/43/145 and missed the Triple Crown only because Mickey Vernon hit .337.

As Doug noted in his original query, 7-time batting champ Rod Carew is, in Doug's own word, "Jew-ish", having married a Jewish woman. Again, this is one for the Talmudic scholars and I will defer.

But the House of David does have one--and only one--clear-cut, no-room-for-debate batting champ. Buddy Myer, who was born in Ellisville, Mississippi and attended Mississippi State University, hit .349 in 1935 to win the AL batting title as a Washington Senator. Myer hit .303 over a 17-year major league career, and stole 157 bases. The Jewish Tribune lists him as the "all-time Jewish stolen base champion" but in fact, Myer's 157 is short of Shawn Green's 162. Neither figure inspires awe among fans of the stolen base.

So Ryan Braun would not be the first Jewish batting champ, but he could well become the first Jewish NL batting champ. And that's something.