The Upside of Mediocrity

Dave Cameron has a really nice piece on the Royals, who open tonight’s World Series against the San Francisco Giants. Like a lot of analysts, Cameron was critical of the Royals’ 2013 trade for starter James Shields, which required giving up super-prospect Wil Myers. Shields has anchored a pitching staff that has led the Royals’ on an improbable run through the AL playoffs, positioning KC for a chance to capture its first World Series title since 1985.

Cameron asks himself where he went wrong in evaluating the Royals’ decision-making:

The playoffs—like most short tournaments between competitors of mostly equal stature—are mostly random, with the outcomes swinging wildly on things that simply couldn’t have been predicted in advance.

There’s a decent chance that the Royals don’t even make it out of the wild-card game if Geovany Soto doesn’t get injured on a play that began when Billy Butler screwed up a stolen base attempt. The Royals’ postseason run has been amazing, but it was also six outs away from not happening, and we don’t want to treat results that could have legitimately gone the other way as evidence that this was a probable outcome. Sometimes, the answer really is just that an unlikely event occurred.

But that can also be a cop-out. We can’t take every example of our expectations not being met as an unlikely event occurring without at least asking if we got the odds wrong. If we just write off all unexpected outcomes as randomness, we’ll create a bubble in which a false sense of our own understanding thrives without being challenged. The Royals’ World Series run doesn’t inherently mean that we should have all seen this coming and my analysis of their team over the last two years has been entirely wrong, but it’d be folly to not at least consider that possibility. Maybe this was randomness shining on the Royals, or maybe I missed something.

What Cameron thinks he missed, more than any specific guesses about individual player performance, was the degree to which it makes sense in baseball to build a just-good-enough team, in a sport in which just-good-enough might be barely better than average:

In other sports, where the value of a top draft pick is so much higher than it is in MLB, the correct decision is often to either be great or terrible, with mediocrity as the awful middle ground. Perhaps too much of that sentiment crept into my own thinking about the upside of building an 85-win team, because in today’s baseball world, 85 wins and a little bit of luck can turn a franchise around. I’ve argued against losing on purpose, but perhaps I’ve argued too strongly for wins in the 88 to 95 range and not strongly enough for wins in the 80 to 88 range. The win curve is a real thing, and some wins are more valuable than others, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve correctly evaluated the marginal benefit of pushing yourself from 82 to 86 wins.

The economic upside of making a serious run now, both through better TV ratings and by engendering future fan interest and loyalty may well outweigh whatever short term payroll savings delayed gratification might confer. All of which suggests that more middling teams might make the kinds of moves the Royals have. And it appears they wouldn’t be crazy to do so.

Henry Abbott on Kobe (Update Below)

ESPN/True Hoop’s Henry Abbott has a damning account of how Kobe Bryant is sabotaging the Lakers. The portrait Abbott sketches isn’t exactly new – Kobe is selfish, difficult to play with and over-estimates his own ability. The Lakers’ decision last year to pay the aging Bryant $24 million a year in a salary capped league struck most people as ill-conceived at the time. The Lakers are bad and don’t appear poised to improve in the next couple of years.

There are a few oddities, though, in Abbott’s account:

1) contrary to a long history of attracting superstar talent, elite free agents have not been interested in recent years in taking their talents to Tinseltown. Abbott blames Kobe for this, which may or may not be true. But among the succession of free agents who have spurned the Lakers in recent years, Abbott mentions Carmelo Anthony, who re-signed this off-season with the Knicks (much to my chagrin). But had ‘Melo signed with the Lakers, this wouldn’t necessarily have helped the team much. That’s not because of “chemistry” either. It’s because ‘Melo – though he did have his best season this past year – is basically a worse version of Kobe. He’s an inefficient shooter and otherwise average or worse at most measurable aspects of performance on a basketball court, apart from rebounding. In other words, the Lakers may be prizing attributes in players that front offices tend to over value, especially those on less successful teams.

2) Abbott fails to mention the league’s decision in December 2011 to kill a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers. Paul is one of the three or five best players in the NBA. By himself, he would have added substantially to the teams win totals in recent years. It’s true that he might have left as a free agent after the 2012 season. But we don’t know that. That an old and injury-prone Steve Nash didn’t work out in LA tells us little about how Paul would have fared. CP3 was 26 years old at the time of the scuttled deal. He was in his prime and he’s good at pretty much everything on a basketball court. The recent history of the Lakers might not have included additional championship banners. But as Abbott himself says, in a league with few true superstars, possessing one is especially important. Had Paul been on the Lakers, the team’s narrative since 2011 would, I am pretty confident, have been quite different.

3) finally, Abbott says the problem with Kobe is that his skills aren’t so transferable to today’s NBA:

By the old points-per-game measure, he was not just a perennial All-Star but one of the best players ever. But the league has changed around Bryant, and swiftly. The movement of people and the ball, 3s, rim attacks, coordinated defensive effort and generating open shots for teammates are what’s winning now.

As Dave Berri has pointed out many, many times, overvaluing points per game is endemic to the NBA. And it’s not an “old” habit that front offices have outgrown. Nor is it true that shooting a lot, even if inefficiently, was at one time a recipe for success in the NBA. Great NBA teams have generally always featured prominently a superstar who both shot efficiently and could move the ball – Magic, Bird, MJ, Hakeem, LeBron to name a few NBA champions over the past three decades. Kobe’s profile as a player hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically as Abbott suggests. He’s always been overrated because shoot-first guys have always been overrated. Kobe’s just had enough great players around him to help him win a bunch of rings.

Abbott’s piece will generate lots of buzz. But there’s less here than meets the eye.

Update: The teaser line at the top of the article says “Kobe Bryant is arguably the greatest player in the history of the Lakers’ franchise.”

Sorry, this is not serious. To take just one example, Kobe doesn’t hold a candle to Magic, as I’ve previously detailed. The greatest Laker line is a clever little foil for the rest of the piece. But it’s just silly.

Weekend updates – Jameis Winston, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin

1) the ongoing mess that is sports media’s attempt to talk about character is especially apparent in coverage of Jameis Winston. Michael Rosenberg made the appropriate distinctions this week between the knuckle-headed stuff on the one hand and a profoundly serious accusation on the other. As to the latter, as Rosenberg is at pains to point out, Winston has not been found guilty of anything. Nor for that matter, has he even been charged (for apparently disturbing reasons). But commentators frequently toss dopey stuff into the same pot as they do far more disturbing allegations. Then they throw around mindless words like “maturity,” “judgment” and “distractions,” as if a player’s readiness to play and help his team is the ultimate test of that aforementioned “character.”

These already murky waters have been further muddied by new allegations that Winston was paid to sign autographs – a violation of NCAA rules. The prohibition on payment is a joke, of course, a reflection of the NCAA’s hypocritical and incoherent defense of “amateurism.” But while some pundits, like Mark Schlereth, have taken the time to say explicitly that the rule is a “farce,” this latest scandal is only deepening the character morass.

Character is central to sports analysis in order to make plausible a normative agenda – that sports are a morality tale, in which wins and losses reflect higher truths. This is little more than a fairy tale, built on often warped presumptions about what it does and doesn’t mean to be a “good guy.” But I guess that’s the point.

2) It’s apparently news that ESPN ranked Kobe Bryant as only the 40th best player in the NBA heading into this season. Bryant is now 36 years old. He first entered the league 18 years ago. He missed almost all of last year due to injury. As they say, he’s not getting any younger. In 2012-13, a season in which Kobe played quite well, he finished 25th in the NBA in Wins Produced. I know many basketball analysts and fans believe it’s a great skill to be able to take and miss a lot shots. Since I don’t share that view, I will continue to rely upon Wins Produced as the best measure of a player’s overall contribution to his team’s wins. By that measure, assuming Kobe stays healthy, he will be doing well if he finishes in the top 40 in that category this season.

3) I know The Player’s Tribune is getting panned in some corners, but Blake Griffin’s piece about Donald Sterling was kind of interesting. Griffin comes across as self-aware about how athletes are viewed, about the peculiar universe in which they live and about how they are supposed to understand their own roles in the larger world.

I liked it.

Memories

This will be a quickie. Yesterday, Deadspin published a piece questioning claims made by Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who is vying for Democrat Mark Udall’s U.S. Senate seat, that he played high school football in the early 1990s. Deadspin relied substantially on a former teacher and stats man for the Yuma high school football team, Chuck Pfalmer, who said he remembered Gardner but was definitive that Gardner never played for the Yuma varsity team before he graduated in 1993.

Last night, Pfalmer reversed himself and said definitively that Gardner did play high school ball for Yuma. Deadspin issued a retraction and apology today, describing itself as “sorry and embarrassed” for having “fucked up.”

I was half-tempted when I read the original piece yesterday to blog something quick and snarky about Gardner, a generally awful candidate.  Because I got busy with other stuff, I didn’t. Lucky for me. People’s memories are faulty. We all have our investments in versions of reality that affirm our sense of ourselves. I think Deadspin, as a collective, is generally excellent and I’m broadly sympathetic to their viewpoint. So, of course I will be very forgiving about this screw-up and continue to regard them as generally credible. Indeed, I have little doubt that they’ll re-double their efforts now to make sure they get their story straight when they’re doing original reporting. Folks on the other side of the aisle will not, of course, be so forgiving. And in this case, had the reverse been true – had Breitbart falsely claimed that Mark Udall’s father, Mo (himself a long time former member of Congress) didn’t actually play pro basketball – I’d certainly take that as further confirmation of that which I already believe: that Breitbart, in general, is a collection of ideological hacks.

So it goes.

As a quick aside, the top comment underneath today’s apology gave me a really good laugh:

Fortunately internet comment sections are famously forgiving. I think you guys are in the clear.

Jason Whitlock’s brutal misreading of Martin Luther King, Jr.

A week ago, outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis, there was a small protest in support of Mike Brown, the teenager who was shot and killed in August in Ferguson, Missouri. The protest received a lot national media attention because the protesters were confronted by some Cardinals fans, a few of whom shouted garbage like “get a job” and “go back to Africa” and all of that was captured on video.

I didn’t write anything about it at the time, in part because, in the end of the day, those counter-protesters were nothing more than a handful of idiots saying stupid shit. But leave it to Jason Whitlock, all handwringing and tsk-tsking to discover that the *real* affront to all that is good and right outside the stadium were the protesters themselves.

In a particularly outrageous column last Thursday, Whitlock said it was the protesters who were in the wrong. They were responsible for “baiting” those who hurled the epithets at them. They were the ones who represented an affront to the great legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. jr. It was the protesters, in committing the unforgivable offense of chanting things like “let’s go Mike Brown” and “this is what democracy looks like” who were engaging in an equivalent level of “ugliness” as those who told the protesters that they were, by definition, jobless and un-American. In Whitlock’s sometimes bizarre moral universe, being a bigoted moron is no worse than using the word “shit” in a demonstration about police brutality.

And in classic Limbaugh-ian fashion, Whitlock directed much of his fire at the media, allegedly in cahoots with the protesters in lampooning the racists. In other words, it’s not those who spew the bile who are the *real* problem. It’s those who don’t hold their hands and tell them they love them anyway who are really screwing up America.

So that I dot my i’s and cross my t’s, Whitlock did devote a sentence to saying that, yes, what some of the counter-protesters said was ugly. And he did claim – or imply – that the protesters themselves called for Darren Wilson’s murder, which he found particularly disturbing (though having watched the video, I can’t hear any such calls. And in a column on the sensationalist right-wing site Andrew Breitbart.com, in a piece devoted to mocking and belittling the protesters, there is no mention of demands for blood).

But the real purpose of Whitlock’s column is to give us an uninformed lecture on the tactics and legacy of Reverend King. According to Whitlock:

Dr. King was the Michael Jordan of promoting racial equality and advancing the cause of African-Americans. He killed bigots with kindness, intellect and love. His dignified, nonviolent approach to civil disobedience is primarily responsible for the freedoms many African-Americans take for granted today.

Today’s two-bit sloganeers, in purported contrast to everything King believed, scream “no justice, no peace” as part of what Whitlock calls the “uncivil rights” movement. They troll, they bait, they provoke, they scream their own profanities. In this way, they are no better than the bigots whose ignorance it’s so easy to call forth.

The problem with Whitlock’s potted view of King is that it is simply wrong. In his day, King was lambasted constantly for being a provocateur, an impatient man unwilling and unable to appreciate that change only comes slowly, that patience is a virtue, and that deliberately stirring up trouble in places like Birmingham, Alabama made King just as responsible for Bull Connor’s attack dogs and firehoses as was that city’s commissioner of public safety himself. These weren’t the harrumphings of the Klan, by the way. They were the common admonitions of the so-called white moderates, for whom King had famously harsh words, seeing in them perhaps the greater stumbling block to black emancipation than the KKKer. King derided their easily offended sense of decorum, their misplaced aversion to tension and conflict, the latter of which he believed essential if the movement was to achieve its goals:

I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

Indeed, King understood full well that his choice of targets and tactics might well provoke violence and, indeed, believed that, at times, this would be necessary for the realization of true emancipation. This is why many Americans questioned or openly scorned the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to King (the 50th anniversary of which passed last week and which formed the hook for Whitlock’s ill-conceived column). And King himself only became more impatient and disillusioned over time with the pace and possibility of real transformation in American society.

In sum, Whitlock’s rendering of King has little to do with the reality and context in which King himself lived and died.

In an appearance on Dan LeBatard’s show last Friday, Whitlock made the baffling argument that the protest and its coverage were nothing more than capitalism at work, presumably because the demonstrators were just trying to draw attention to themselves and the media saw an opportunity to post some clickable content. But Does Whitlock think the protesters are now going to ink book deals to tell their stories to cash in on their “fame?”

Whereas there’s no real money in staging small protests, you know what is a lucrative business? Whitlock deputizing himself as the moral scold of black people who dare to be impolite. Whitlock accuses the protesters of “trolling.” That’s rich. Which is exactly what Whitlock’s become by trolling African Americans to salve the conscience of his mainly white audiences.

Pity the Billionaire (with apologies to Tom Frank)

I haven’t yet commented on the mega television deal the NBA has signed with its cable television partners. Beginning in 2016-17, the league will pull in about $2.7 billion a year for nine years, triple what it is currently making. With franchise values soaring – they increased on average by 25%, according to Forbes magazine – NBA owners must be feeling pretty flush right about now. And those valuations came before Steve Ballmer purchased the LA Clippers for two billion dollars, roughly three times the team’s estimated value.

In the wake of the new television deals, it was unsurprising that some players would start to suggest that they deserved a bigger piece of this now very large pie. It is well understood – now – that the owners fleeced the players during the 2011 lockout. Though the Mike Wilbons of the world actually took the owners’ ridiculous cries of poverty at face value, it ought to be universally understood by now that the owners *always* cry poverty and, in doing so, misrepresent both the nature of their profits and losses and, more fundamentally, the unusual benefits of owning a professional sports franchise in the United States.

Regardless, the increase television revenue will result in a significant increase in the per-team salary caps, once the new deal kicks in. This will, of course, mean more money for the players. How that money will be distributed has been one subject of discussion this week. Kevin Durant said this week that the max contracts imposed on elite players meant that guys like him were being undervalued. In market teams, this is unquestionably true. But lifting the cap on maximum individual contracts won’t affect the players’ aggregate haul, since the team caps are going to remain. For that reason, junking the max contracts would benefit a handful of superstars, while doing little or nothing for the rank and file.

Despite this reality, Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban jumped on Durant’s statement this week to suggest that yes, perhaps the owners should consider getting rid of the limit on individual contracts, in exchange for a significant concession from the players. Cuban suggested putting guaranteed contracts on the table. Because it’s Cuban, this was treated as a clever and serious trial balloon. In fact, it’s a sick joke. What Durant proposed would not, were it to happen, be a significant concession by the owners. True, it might cause some of them to hand out really stupid contracts. But it won’t affect meaningfully their bottom lines. Players giving up guaranteed money, on the other hand, would be a major concession.

And it raises a question – does Mark Cuban think it reasonable that the league’s own contracts not be guaranteed?

The depth of entitlement of sports owners is hard to overstate. They talk about market competition, when in fact they are largely protected from it. They wring their hands about how much money the players make, while sitting on fortunes that most people can only dream of. They regularly fleece taxpayers while spouting garbage about community responsibility.

Cuban had the nerve this week to say that, when all is said and done, yada, yada, that nearly $100 million a year each team will make from television alone is really no big deal. That’s because Cuban is already so ridiculously wealthy that an extra few tens of millions of dollars means little to him. But when it comes to what teams spend, every owner turns into Silas Marner, hording their lucre as if their lives depend on it. It’s this mindset that allowed Wal-Mart, by the way, to announce it was eliminating health insurance for up to 30,000 workers this week, because of extra unanticipated costs of roughly $170 million dollars. That represents roughly one eight of one percent of the company’s gross profit. But Wal-Mart officials still had the gall to talk about how concerned they needed to be about their expenses. When you’re  a billionaire in America – and, I know, they don’t all think this way – it’s seems to be the default understanding that, no matter how much you make, you deserve it. And everyone else is just pushing their grubby paws in your face asking for handouts.

So please, for heaven’s sake, the next time there is a labor dispute in pro sports, is it too much to ask that sports media have memories more than five minutes old, that team and league analyses of their finances perhaps should not be taken at face value and that it is a not uncommon habit among a good number of the wealthiest Americans to regard themselves as unfairly put upon no matter how good they have it?

Pretty please.

 

Daisha Simmons

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Last week I sketched a template for how various major sporting entities have been dealing with a series of embarrassing and shameful episodes. In the matter of the handling of the transfer of Women’s basketball star Daisha Simmons, the University of Alabama initially acted disgracefully in blocking Simmons’ requested waiver. Then, when confronted with withering criticism for its actions, ‘Bama backtracked, all while managing to sound unrepentant, clueless and obnoxious. Simmons graduated from Alabama in December of 2013, but still had remaining eligibility to play basketball. She’d wanted to enroll in an MBA program at Tuscaloosa, but was denied admission. In the spring of 2014, she took four non-degree relevant classes to maintain her eligibility to play. But at the conclusion of the spring semester, she informed the coaching staff that she wanted to transfer to Seton Hall, in New Jersey, where she’s from and where her family still lives. It’s worth pausing here to note that we are already in weird territory. Why, after all, should someone who has already graduated need a waiver to transfer to another school? We’ll come back to that in a moment. Simmons’ mother suffers from arthritis. Her mobility is compromised and she has difficulty, according to Simmons, in getting up and down stairs. Simmons’ brother is also on dialysis, which requires three trips a week to the facility that administers his treatments. Further, Seton Hall has an MBA program that was prepared to accept Simmons. For these reasons, she wanted to move back home. But because she had a year of eligibility remaining, if she wanted to continue to play college basketball, which she did, ‘Bama would need to give her permission.

Normally, it should be pointed out, this is a pro forma exercise for a college graduate who seeks enrollment in a program that her existing institution doesn’t offer. It was under these circumstances that power forward Justin Knox transferred from ‘Bama to UNC’s basketball program for his final year of eligibility in 2010. But because Simmons had previously transferred (from Rutgers to Alabama), NCAA rules required a more rigorous appeals process to receive the waiver. Without it, Simmons could still go to Seton Hall, but she would have to sit out a year, ineligible to play. So, naturally, Alabama rejected Simmons’ request. Because of the aforementioned firestorm that ensued, the university backed down. Athletic Director Bill Battle announced yesterday that it would be granting the waiver after all. In justifying the original decision, Battle wrote, in part: “Much of the University’s original decision not to endorse a waiver was based on the fact that Miss Simmons declined to provide any information supporting her reasoning for seeking a waiver. This was despite requests to obtain documentation verifying hardship to support a waiver request. Miss Simmons was told repeatedly of the requirements needed to obtain the waiver, as well as how such requirements were needed to justify the institution’s endorsement of such a waiver. She refused to provide this, despite several opportunities and requests to do so.

To put it politely, this appears to be complete and utter bullshit. Simmons herself has said this claim is “100% false.” And she’s provided evidence to back up that claim. University officials acknowledge, in the linked email thread, having received “documentation” from Simmons in support of her appeal. For Battle’s statement to be true – that Simmons “declined to provide any information” – we would have to believe that the documentation the university admits Simmons did submit, said something like, “because I feel like it.” In addition to apparently lying about what Simmons did and didn’t tell the university, Battle wrote: The University’s decision not to support the waiver was a small part of the facts the NCAA reviewed but, ultimately, the NCAA looks at the entire narrative supplied by the student and the applicant institution in determining whether or not to grant a waiver. But the NCAA says that the home university’s endorsement of the waiver is the key determining factor in the approval process, and this is certainly consistent with what is commonly reported in other transfer cases. So, that’s strike two for Battle. Finally, Battle insisted that: “The University of Alabama emphatically supports head coach Kristy Curry and her staff. Throughout this process they have maintained a high level of integrity and ethical behavior.” See guideline No. 6 from the Crisis Management tool kit for this one. Battle didn’t follow every step in the process, since he never felt compelled to apologize in any way for the evident distress he was causing Simmons and her family. But why did the university reject her claim? Battle’s nonsense aside, the coaching staff, including head coach Kristy Curry, were mad that Simmons waited so long to tell them of her intentions, leaving them unable to plan to fill her spot on the roster (though the team did dismiss four scholarship players in the spring, including one to whom it had originally committed to for four years.

The university only grudgingly agreed to honor that scholarship commitment). According to independent reports, Coach Curry was so mad at Simmons that she vowed to stop her from playing professionally if Simmons transferred and also questioned why Simmons needed an MBA in the first place. Let’s pause here to applaud yet again the NCAA’s commitment to the education of its “student-athletes” and their overall well-being, not just their ability to help a coach win games. Curry, by the way, makes $400,000 a year. It appears, in sum, that Curry and the university acted as they did mainly out of spite, petulance and arrogance. What exactly was the high level of integrity and ethical behavior to which Battle referred? I have no idea. And I’m guessing he doesn’t either. They’re just words – inane blather from a man incapable of being “accountable,” to use athletics’ favorite term, for his own actions. There’s a bigger picture issue here, of course. NCAA athletes, in essence, have no rights. They serve at the whim of their coaches and athletic departments. And spare me the garbage that that’s because the Daisha Simmons’ of the world are already getting such a great deal from their university. You know what? So do the Kristy Currys. But she’s still going to be free to jump at a better opportunity, whenever she’s offered one. That college athletes deserve at least minimal protections from arbitrary decisions by their employers (and please don’t tell me the university sees Simmons as anything but) ought not to be a matter of serious debate anymore.

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The Wages of Wins Journal

Taking aim at the lies and damned lies in sports with stories written by the numbers.

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