Tag Archives: Baseball

On Elusive Victory: Misapplied Data Models or Overlooked Variables?

 

 

Say not what you think I need to hear,
say not what your investors demand
when they come near the Sunday night lights
swept up in the pomp and circumstance
of TV cameras, confident linemen
and a house filled with brand enthusiasts.

Say not what you think I need to believe,
say not what your supporters soak up
when they wipe the sweat off the brow
of your best quarterback,
so enamored and honored to have been asked.

Say not what everyone has been saying to themselves,
instead, tell us you could bother
to dig and pry loose old fears and older tears.

Find the magic in the snap,
in the complete pass forty yards down the field,
manifested by instinct,
guaranteed with heart —
not algorithms and data charts,
things that might as well
be used for selling luxury cars.

— yiqi 3 may 2016 8:12 pm

The above poem was inspired by the comments on this AJC piece featuring quotes from Arthur Blank and his belief in the success of the Falcons for the 2016 season.

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When I bring up the reason why I haven’t watched any televised football, specifically the Atlanta Falcons, for a few a consecutive years, I am met with a lot of nodding heads and suggestions to watch televised NBA or college football.  And then someone asks, rhetorically or not, why the Falcons can’t make it to and through the playoffs to play in the Super Bowl?  I hadn’t thought about the why of it until recently.  It’s a good question.

How is it that decision-makers, scouts, and other persons responsible for identifying, attracting, and cultivating a winning team haven’t been able to reap the fruit of their recruiting labor?  A businessman who has ostensibly known more success than setbacks shouldn’t have to keep pining for the ultimate fruit of applied data analysis.  Why do some teams get to live a sports inspirational redemption narrative while other teams are stuck in tale of Sisyphus forever rolling a rock up the same hill over and over again?  Why is it that applying data models can effect positive change in pure athletic performance for an individual player but not the whole team or more effectively in baseball than football?

The first question I’d address is if there are overlooked variables that have nothing to do with batting averages, 40 yard dash time, or past performance patterns.  I shan’t pretend to possess a deep knowledge of statistical factors (other than that they exist and inform choices of who is drafted, benched, or cut) or microscopic-level details of the biological machinery that is a well-oiled, well-practiced football team.  I imagine there are aspects that breathe and permeate through the interpersonal dynamics of a competitive sports team that remain unseen and unknown to the outside — even in this day and age of hyper-drive experiential exhibitionism and voyeurism.

Putting together a consistently triumphant team isn’t necessarily the same as a harmonious team.  Just because everyone can play better than all of their college teammates combined, doesn’t mean they will play nice with each other.  I realize that finalizing the roster may result from imperatives beyond the actual game-play (contracts, monetary constraints, leveraging a multitude of components for current and future seasons).  I am also keenly aware that the rules of athletic engagement facilitate and demand their own momentum, energy, and parameters of prospering/failing.

To score points in baseball, a series of actions must take place: the batter must hit the ball such that he and/or his teammates can run the bases back to home plate without the other team getting them out.  In other words, don’t get struck out and successfully run/steal the bases.  Whichever team has the highest number of runs at the end of nine innings is the winner.  To score points in football, a series of actions (outcomes) must happen: the offensive player must carry into or catch the ball in the end zone, kick the ball through the uprights, or both.  Two additional points are awarded if the offense can get the ball into the end zone after a touchdown (rather than kicking for an extra point).  Again, whichever team has the highest number of TDs or field goals at the end of the fourth quarter is the winner.

Taking into account the ways in which each team attempts to prevent the other team from scoring, victory is not as simple as going through the offensive motions, executed brilliantly or not.  In baseball, the pitcher can strike out one or more batters before any of them have a chance to jog to first base.  He can also get a base-stealer out who is one or two steps too slow.  In football, the other team’s defense can intercept the quarterback’s pass, sack him before he has a chance to look up, tackle the running backs, wide receivers, or block a field goal.

Of course, there’s game-play strategy, encompassing the strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies of one’s own team and those of the opponent.  Once you’ve controlled for performance stats, franchise mythology, self-esteem/motivation issues of individual players or teams as a whole, the game-play itself is left.*  The primary text holds epistemological insights.

Visualize the various baseball players and what they may or may not do over twenty minutes.  It’s reasonable to assert that the pitcher’s attention must be on one to three places at a time: the catcher, the batter/home plate and any other runner trying to steal a base.  Other than the base-stealer(s), his targets are pretty stationary.  The pitcher may have to keep second or third base within instinctual sights, but those runners from the other team are not running at him.  Neither the infielders nor the outfielders have to worry about the other team running at them either.  The batter and any of his teammates who may be waiting to run home just have to hit the ball and run respectively.  Again, nobody must watch out for opposing players going at them (though, some players do collide).  Each player, when on the field of play, has specific parameters in which to excel and to promote the athlete as an individual and part of a whole.  It’s a cumulative team effort via individual success.

Observe:

Now, imagine one possession in a football game.  Moments before the snap, the quarterback looks around to see that his team is in place and the other team is in place.  He knows what play to run and unless he calls an audible, it’s as straight-forward as executing that play.  Except that it isn’t so simple.  He may connect with his wide receiver or running back, but there’s no guarantee the ball-carrier will move the ball ten or more yards no less make it to the end zone.  And why ever not?  Because defensive players from the other team are chasing after and acting as obstacles to the offensive players.  Compared even to a bases loaded scenario in baseball, a single offensive play in football involves many more players in motion simultaneously, converging onto the same space and specific areas of the playing field.

Observe:

Let that juxtaposition sink in for a spell.  In one sport, the sources of “threat” are encapsulated by each player’s function spread out across an expansive field.  The gathering of players doesn’t happen unless the inning is over and the teams switch places (or two players get into each other’s faces and there’s a melee whereupon the dugout may empty onto the field).  In the other sport, the sources of “threat” are flying by you, aiming for you, on your heels, three steps ahead and to the side.  Undoubtedly, it is your job as the wide receiver or running back to anticipate that chaos and run through it just as it is the job of your teammates to block for and protect you.

Yes, NFL players are trained and live for creating order out of that sensory load.   Yes, they have to be able to filter out the visual “white noise” so they can focus on not horse-collaring, false-starting, or holding, all the while putting points on the board or helping their team do it by clearing a path or protecting the QB.  It is precisely because of these intricacies that NFL Films so gorgeously demonstrates what I believe there are other factors that affect how reliably well the players do across a game and across a season: chemistry, physical and cognitive agility, nurturing the capabilities to score well period and to play smarter than the other team can against you.

Observe (I’m not a New England Patriots fan per se, but this video is topically relevant):
Certainly, there are repeatable behaviors and evidence-based information that contributes to how a team and its players evolve and grow to be dependably good and great.  I can’t help but wonder if it’s ultimately more art and serendipity than science and math.  Perhaps applying a winning strategy with a high return on financial, psychological, and emotional investment is more like an organ transplant — the donor and the recipient have to be a match and there’s still a chance of rejection.  What appears to be applicable systemically for great results is an illusion.  A team wins because of specific players in that specific time and place, defying expectations and breaking patterns.

Taking a step back from high-level contemplation and dipping into more grounded concerns, the Falcons have to play better against the other teams in the NFC South.  It’s not a foreign concept nor an unattainable feat for them.  They’ve done it before and in this century.  When Arthur Blank or anyone else in the Falcons organization expresses full faith and determination in a kick-arse season, the reluctance still remains.  How do you know? Doing everything right and smart that a team can do couldn’t equate to a victory on the field because they aren’t the other team.  They may know their opponents like  the back of their hand, but they can’t control what their opponents do or how they react.

Therein lies the beauty and escapist elements of watching a team play their hearts out and take in a good harvest.  That’s zen right there — a win today, maybe, maybe not a win next week.  Zen has its place in helping a player keep cool under times of extreme duress while the weight of a divisional title and playoff chance is pounding him on the shoulders, but try telling that to people who pay for a chance to live vicariously through his endeavors.  They want to see the professional baller outscore the other team, not have a spiritual awakening in the red zone.  Although, that would make for an awesome viral video.

* But can you really control for the strengths and weaknesses of other teams?  Football teams operate like colonies of ants — each ant has a duty and they all work as one fluid unit to ensure the survival of their queen and their home.  At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if sheer luck and recognizing kindred spirits in each teammate isn’t the actual reason one franchise has an enviable biographical legend and another is a sad, soggy bowl of cereal.  No matter what the bowl looks like, what milk is used, or what combination or permutation of cereal used, it’s forever sad and soggy.

Bonus Round: NFL as Theatre — something sounds like rice krispies.

The Lost Tapes from Little League

Maxine didn’t like to gloat or tell jokes or stuff marshmallows into her mouth until she couldn’t talk.  She wasn’t like the rest of us.  She liked to sit by herself during meals and whenever we had to wait for the bus to take us to away games, she sat always behind the bus driver and in such a way that she couldn’t see herself in the rear-view mirror.

I was only on the team for three years and wasn’t around before she joined the team, so I don’t know what it was like, what was different.  I mean, she got her own hotel room and the coach’s wife always stayed with her, but I don’t get what the big deal was about a girl playing little league.  She didn’t want to play softball — she wanted to pitch like the boys.

What I miss most about Maxine was her laughter.  Her favorite movie was Horse Feathers and kept telling me to watch it.  I used to think it was because she wanted to be right about something other than the best way to strike out a batter when the sun is starting to shine in his eyes.  Now, I know it was more than being right.  She wanted to have something to share with someone, something other than baseball she could talk about with someone.  She picked me to be that someone.  I wish I hadn’t waited all these years to get around to watching Horse Feathers.  I would’ve liked it as a thirteen year-old.  And now, I’ll never know what kinds of conversations we could’ve had about the movie or anything else.

I remember that last game like it was last week, even though it happened more than a decade ago.  We’d just lost by one point to a team in Arkansas, you should have seen the coach’s face.  Maxine thought it was her fault.  She could’ve struck out that last kid.  Like she does at the end of every away game, she went onto the bus before the rest of us.  We liked to mess around the vending machines and dare each other to stick our hands up the release door.  We were about to get on the bus when a tractor trailer slammed into it.

Maxine didn’t like to gloat or tell jokes or stuff marshmallows into her mouth until she couldn’t talk.  She wasn’t like the rest of us.  We had to grow older and become tax-payers, general contributing members of society.  She had to die thinking that she could’ve struck out that last kid and helped us win the game.  To this day I don’t know who is the luckier one.

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Nothing specific inspired this post.  The name “Maxine” came to me and the rest slid out; on the subject of Little League, here’s a neat read about eighteen girls who have played Little League Baseball.

42’s Legacy

By the time Audrey Hepburn had made her Hollywood debut and won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953), Jackie Robinson had played major league baseball for six years with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  When he was inducted into the Baseball of Fame on July 23, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was still alive, James Bond was a few months shy of being introduced to the public as a cinematic icon, and by the end of the year prisoners from the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba went back home to the US.

In case you haven’t guessed, I watched the sports biopic 42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013).  It depicts key moments in Jackie Robinson’s life between 1945 and 1947, though the extent of historical accuracy in the sense of X actually happened in the manner presented is up for disclaimers.  Please see SBNation, History News Network, and ESPN.

quarantedeux

The film opens with a historical context reel narrated by Wendell Smith (Andre Holland).  America might have saved the (modern) world from the horrible agendas of the Axis Powers but back home, a hero’s welcome is hard to come by…even harder if you aren’t white.  It is in this existentially fraught environment that Jackie Robinson (a terrific Chadwick Boseman) goes about doing what he was born to do: play baseball.

42 is a beautiful film; it’s wonderful to behold for its subtle humor and cinematography. The acting is excellent all around too (Nicole Beharie is especially impressive as Robinson’s fiancee, and it’s always good to see Christopher Meloni playing someone who isn’t doing detective work in a special victim’s unit).  The wardrobe department and set designers and decorators must have gone to great lengths to imbue the film with a historically authentic mise-en-scene.

Despite its visual splendor, it isn’t the tightest film.  When it ended, I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more effective as a series of vignettes juxtaposed against conversations from scholars, journalists, historians, and any surviving friend or relative of Robinson’s.  (Shameless, unaffiliated plug for the documentary about Jackie Robinson by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon that airs April 11 and 12 9pm and 11pm EST on your local PBS station — check your local listings!).  

As a sports biopic, 42 is formulaic, psychologically powerful without being excessively tense, and eager to fill you with hope.  The contrast between two specific sequences produces an effect that both clobbers and heals the heart.  The first, ugly scene occurs when the Philadelphia Phillies are playing the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Phillies’ coach, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), hurls so many racist remarks at Robinson that one wonders if there will be any reprieve from or retribution for having witnessed it…as a film-goer.**

If you don’t come away from that scene feeling as though you’re ashamed to be in the same “room” as the Phillies coach and want to travel back in time to apologize to Jackie Robinson on behalf of a less bigoted future, then you have achieved satori and there’s nothin’ left to see here.  If, though, you do find it uncomfortable hearing those words and remembering that, “hey, are we any kinder to each other in 2016 than the people of 1947 were to one another?”  (Peut-etre un peu? Pas du tout?), then, you’re going to demand for some kind of pay-back.

As a much needed and pleasantly surprising challenge to that scene is the second, marvelous sequence when the Dodgers play in Cincinnati.  Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) puts his arm around Robinson.  The camera films in a high-angle medium shot as he smiles and you can hear the crowd gasp.***  That unassuming but profound gesture of Pee Wee walking up to Jackie and sharing in the human experience is what the 21st century needs to remember.  You see, isn’t your heart mending already?

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And yet… what 42 and the Jesse Owens biopic Race have pushed me to consider is whether or not a person is worth a chance to be welcomed and accepted if a person doesn’t demonstrate a capacity for excellence in the performative, physiological, or intellectual achievements of being human.  Do the best and brightest have to take on the mantle of pathfinder before the lukewarm and decent can even have a place to get a better view?

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*Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962), starring Sean Connery, was the first Bond film to be released.

**SB Nation has a good summary of this moment.  And, every time I see Alan Tudyk I think of Steven Weber.

*** Note: According to the Jackie Robinson documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, that gesture was a thing of myth-making; it probably never really happened.  If it did, the press would’ve reported it and surely there’d have been witnesses…still living witnesses.

Peaking at Any Age

Some of us know people who peaked in high school or college, people who were never more radiant than at their prom or a fraternity ceremony or working at their college newspaper.  Some of us know people whose lives couldn’t have gotten any better the moment they were no longer single in the eyes of the law or the moment they finally realized what would truly give them happiness in a capitalist system.

And then there are people like Mike Fiers (fear-s?  fires?  fyeers?), who did something he will not soon be forgetting in the area of pitching in a baseball game.

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Have you peaked yet?