Friday notes

(Divorce: A Love Story, is now available. Did I mention it’s only $2.99 and that you can’t afford *not* to buy it?!)

1)Ekow Yankah, a professor of law at Benjamin Cardozo law school, takes a run in the New Yorker at defending the NCAA’s version of “amateurism.” Yankah tries to argue that it’s the opponents of that absurdity who struggle with the complexities of what changing the current system would mean. But anyone who has followed this debate at all knows that it is the defenders of the current model – beginning with NCAA President Mark Emmert and all down the line – who have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to scare everyone into believe that a change involving fairer compensation for players would be a catastrophe.

Yankah plays the profundity card when he says, in his final paragraph, that opposition to amateurism is just another “manifestation of that corrosive American belief that anything that has value must also have a price.”The premise, of course, is that NCAA amateurism is a bulwark against that malady. This is, to put it plainly, a sick joke. As a reminder, former NCAA President Myles Brand said that “amateurism defines the participant, not the enterprise.” Indeed, there is no aspect of that multi-billion dollar enterprise Brand was so keen to defend that *doesn’t* have a price. The debate here, to put it simply, is not whether we can or should maintain collegiate athletics as a preserve of non-pecuniary ideals. That horse left the barn long ago. The only question is how the spoils of this thoroughgoing money-drenched enterprise should be shared.

Yankah has whiffed badly here.

2) speaking of whiffs, this year’s baseball playoffs have been really entertaining, in part because there is so much exciting young talent in the game today. To take only one of many examples, in last night’s series-clinching win against the Dodgers, the Mets trotted in from their bullpen 23-year old flame thrower Noah Syndergaard to pitch the seventh inning in relief of another young flame thrower, Jacob DeGrom. Syndergaard, is normally a starter and his idea of a change-up is anything that doesn’t hit triple digits on the radar gun. Syndergaard manhandled the Dodgers. Major League Baseball is awash in great young arms, but it’s more than that, as the upcoming National League Championship Series between the Mets and Cubs will put on full display. The Cubs’ lineup is replete with mashers 26 and younger.

There’s just great athleticism on both sides of the ball.

3) One of the key moments in last night’s game took place in the fourth inning. The Mets were trailing 2-1 at the time and had runners on first and third with one out. Travis D’Arnaud lifted a fly ball to foul territory in right field on an 0-2 pitch. Dodgers’ rightfielder Andre Ethier caught the foul fly and Daniel Murphy, tagged up on third base easily scored to tie the game. At the time, I was watching with friends and we did wonder out loud whether Ethier should let that ball drop, in order to forestall the Mets from scoring the tying run. Given how early it was in the game, the move would have been highly unconventional. And of course, starter Zach Greinke wasn’t assured of retiring D’Arnaud if he had another chance at the plate.

Mike and Mike pondered the question this morning and acknowledged that, though under normal circumstances one would never consider *not* catching the ball in that situation, maybe last night was different. This is all fine and good and interesting. My moderate size beef with their discussion was this: we live in an era in which every kind of datum imaginable exists for judging baseball games. For crying out loud, you can look up average revolutions per minute on curveballs. You can also look up win probabilities added (WPA). That is, for virtually any game situation, you can ascertain how much a team’s likelihood of winning or losing is affected by a subsequent outcome. These are only average probabilities, of course. And game situations are stressful. The question here isn’t whether Ethier could have or should have had the awareness to let the ball drop.

Instead, the question is whether, the next day, analysts and pundits have the tools available to weigh the possible outcomes. The answer to this second question is “yes.” You wouldn’t know that listening to Greenie and Golic, though who, despite working the premium morning show on the world’s most well-resourced sports enterprise, were left reading the equivalent of tea leaves to try to make sense of what might have happened.

Here’s a post from cptcliche on Reddit, using WPA to parse what probabilities were at stake in that play:

“Dan Szymborski apparently crunched the numbers. It’s spread out over a bunch of tweets so I’ll try to condense it to an easier to read format.

Some fun I did on the D’Arnaud foul. First, looking at league-average situations with 0-2 count, I looked at WPA for Ethier catching versus WPA for Ethier dropping foul with the distribution of outcomes from a typical 0-2 count situation. Got the Mets WPA with Ethier catching the foul as 0.471, without dropping the foul to make 0-2, Mets WPA of 0.408. So, for average players, Ethier’s catch increased the chances the Mets win the game by an estimate 6.3 percentage points.

Then, because Greinke is farther from league average than D’Arnaud is from league average, I used odds ratio to get D vs. G 0-2 distro. For actual d’Arnaud vs. Greinke expected outcomes on 0-2, Mets win probability is 0.398, so it gave the Mets about 7 percentage points.

That is, of course, assuming that the ball was foul. Remember, dropping the ball doesn’t results in an average count, it results in an 0-2. And of course it’s not crazy – teams choose not to trade outs for runs all the time. The count is the key. The average hitter is only like 60 points of OPS better than a pitcher after an 0-2 count. And d’arnaud’s a good hitter but Greinke is a terrific pitcher, so it’s essentially like facing a pitcher. 75% of the time, d’arnaud makes a non-advancing out. It’s not trading an out for a run, it’s a trading a quarter of an out for a run.

I’m expecting to see a Fangraphs article on it sometime tomorrow.”

Again, the point here isn’t to show that the decision was obvious one way or another. But I felt a little bit like I was listening to John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman, the much-maligned Yankees’ radio broadcasting team, during one of their many musings about how nice it would be if we could actually know some stat about a player, the data for which have been, in fact, readily available for many years.



  1. These big-name sports media personalities seem to be averse to actually looking at data and would just rather spit out whatever opinion comes into their gut. It’s frustrating as they turn what could be an intelligent discussion into something that makes me change the channel.

    1. Doubly frustrating is that when they do throw stats around, they don’t often seem especially interested in trying to out the stats in a context that makes them useful.

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