Monday, April 28, 2014

The Most Exciting Team in Baseball


Last week I posted on the slow pace of baseball games using my Pitches Per Minute (PPM) statistic. I mentioned my findings to a couple of friends, one of whom has attended a number of Tampa Bay Rays games this season. He said the Rays have to be the slowest team out there because every game he watches seems to take an eternity. So I decided to check the stats for each team and he was almost right. It is not the Yankees or Red Sox who are playing the slowest games this season, but Colorado!  Their 1.502 PPM is just behind the Rays at 1.508. That's horribly slow by the way (think about it: 15 pitches every 10 minutes) and likely an MLB record. The quickest team is the Blue Jays at 1.666, meaning an average Jays' game moves along at a pace about 11% faster than an average Rockies' contest.

Here are the top 5 fastest and slowest teams by PPM so far in 2014, with games through Sunday, April 27:

1. Tor   1.666
2. Min   1.641
3. Bal   1.627
4. Cle   1.605
5. KC    1.603
...
26. NYY  1.530
27. Mil  1.529
28. LAD  1.511
29. TB   1.508
30. Col  1.502

Still very early, but already significant differences between the way teams play the game. Interesting to see five AL teams on top, as you might expect games with the DH to move slower, but they don't. In fact, AL games are moving about 1% faster than NL games so far this season, hardly a meaningful result; last year both leagues had an identical PPM of 1.586.

It is not surprising to see Toronto leading in PPM as they have Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, two quick workers, in their rotation. They also led in 2012 with 1.685 PPM, 3% faster than second-placed KC.

So does that mean Toronto is the most exciting team and Colorado the least? Well, that depends on what you consider to be exciting baseball.

Quantifying Excitement in Baseball

I like a fast-paced game, but that is not all that makes baseball interesting. Runs are key (duh!), and a close game matters as well. Therefore, the formula I came up with uses these three factors for each team, all relative to the league average:

1) Team PPM;
2) Team Total Runs Per Game (RPG, this includes runs for and against);
3) Team Run Differential Per Game (RDPG).

First, I looked at the 2013 season as the full data set allowed me to adjust each component to make each approximately equal in weight. I realized that RPG and RDPG are more variable than PPM, therefore I use the square root of RPG and the cube root of RDPG to mitigate the variance (there are better ways to do this but this is not a serious scientific study here). I then multiplied the factors together to get a number, which I call the team's Excitement Factor (EF). This number will generally average around 1, with teams above that playing more "exciting" baseball, while those below are slower paced and see less runs in their games, and thus can be considered "boring".

For 2013, the Blue Jays had an EF of 1.106, making them the most exciting team in MLB (laughable to us Toronto fans). Their 1.685 PPM was so much quicker than anybody else and their 8.98 RPG was also significantly higher than the average. Their run differential was right around the league average, so in the end, if you wanted to see lots of runs scored, a relatively close game, and a fast pace, the Jays were your team in 2013. If you wanted to see them win, well, you should have watched tapes of the 1992 and 1993 seasons.  The dullest team last year was the Dodgers, who came in well below average in all 3 areas for an EF of 0.94, which just shows that money can't buy excitement.

Now let's look at 2014, up to and including games of April 27. Here are the averages with 375 games played:

PPM: 1.569
RPG: 8.37
RDPG: 3.27

And here are the top five and bottom five clubs in EF:

1. Min 1.132 2nd in PPM (1.641), 1st in RPG (10.83), 24th in RDPG (3.78)
2. Det 1.108
3. SF  1.083
4. Ari 1.076
5. Bal 1.073
...
26. Mil 0.925
27. NYY 0.9095
28. SD  0.9091
29. TB  0.885
30. Stl 0.880 13th in PPM (1.577), 28th in RPG (6.42), 18th in RDPG (3.27)

I could post the entire table of calculations but that would be too many numbers. Using the Twins as an example, their PPM is 4.5% faster than average (1.641/1.569=1.045); RPG is 29.3% better than the average (the square root of 1.293 is 1.137); and their RDPG is 86.3% of the average (the cube root of 0.863 is 0.952). Multiply 1.045 by 1.137 by 0.952 to get 1.132, the Excitement Factor for Minnesota. The number itself is meaningless, but it is used to rank the 30 teams.

So there you have it, the Twins are the most exciting team this season, while St. Louis is the most boring. Again, note that this analysis is for a purely neutral observer who wants to see fast, high-scoring, and close games, not another gem by Adam Wainwright; judging from what I witness at games I attend most fans fall into this first group. These numbers also do not account for a team's win-loss record or rare games such as no-hitters.

As an aside, the Red Sox are wrongly blamed for boring baseball; they are slightly above league average in all three areas, coming in 9th overall in EF.

As we are only about 15% through the season, these numbers will regress towards the mean and the final results will likely be quite different. So far this season though, a Twins vs. Tigers matchup is the best bet for "excitement".

Best.

Sean

Friday, April 25, 2014

2014 NFL Road Trip - For Old Times' Sake


OK, so why am I posting about the 2014 NFL Road Trip? I already completed my dream trip in 2013, seeing all 32 NFL stadiums over 117 days and then adding 3 playoff games and the Super Bowl to complete the journey. But when the 2014 NFL schedule was released the other day, I had mixed feelings. I wistfully recalled last year's schedule release, when I quickly realized that it would be a perfect season to take the trip. When events in my life came together perfectly and allowed me to make that trek, it was the advanced planning that made it possible to complete it without a problem. So in the interest of helping those who might be considering the same trip in 2014, I have put together a schedule that is quite similar to the one I enjoyed last year, although with about 3,000 extra miles. Also this one gets you to London:

Thu, Sep  4  Green Bay at Seattle 5:30 - Season Opener
Sun, Sep  7  Indianapolis at Denver 6:30 
Thu, Sep 11  Pittsburgh at Baltimore 8:25
Sun, Sep 14  New Orleans at Cleveland 1:00
Mon, Sep 15  Philadelphia at Indianapolis 8:30
Sun, Sep 21  Houston at NY Giants 1:00
Mon, Sep 22  Chicago at NY Jets 8:30
Thu, Sep 25  NY Giants at Washington 8:25
Sun, Sep 28  Atlanta at Minnesota 12:00
Mon, Sep 29  New England at Kansas City 7:30
Thu, Oct  2  Minnesota at Green Bay 7:25
Sun, Oct  5  Buffalo at Detroit 1:00
Mon, Oct 13  San Francisco at St. Louis 7:30
Thu, Oct 16  NY Jets at New England 8:25
Sun, Oct 19  Minnesota at Buffalo 1:00
Mon, Oct 20  Houston at Pittsburgh 8:30
Sun, Oct 26  Minnesota at Tampa Bay 1:00
Sun, Nov  2  Philadelphia at Houston 12:00
Thu, Nov  6  Cleveland at Cincinnati 8:25
Sun, Nov  9  Dallas vs Jacksonville 6:00 (London)
Mon, Nov 10  Carolina at Philadelphia 8:30
Thu, Nov 13  Buffalo at Miami 8:25
Sun, Nov 16  Atlanta at Carolina 1:00
Mon, Nov 17  Pittsburgh at Tennessee 7:30
Sun, Nov 23  Cleveland at Atlanta 1:00
Mon, Nov 24  Baltimore at New Orleans 8:30
Thu, Nov 27  Philadelphia at Dallas 3:30
Sun, Nov 30  NY Giants at Jacksonville 1:00
Thu, Dec  4  Dallas at Chicago 8:25
Sun, Dec  7  Kansas City at Arizona 1:05
Sun, Dec 14  Denver at San Diego 1:05
Sat, Dec 20  San Diego at San Francisco TBD
Sun, Dec 21  Buffalo at Oakland 1:25

It starts in Seattle with the season opener, pretty much a must for this sort of trip, and finishes in the Bay Area in Week 16, including a game on Saturday. This leaves the final week of the season to relax and watch all the critical games on TV. This trip also includes a flight to London for one of the three games there if you are so inclined. There is one killer drive from Chicago to Phoenix over two days near the end, but other than that everything is within reason here. There are 22,200 total highway miles (my trip was 19,000 highway miles and 20,353 miles overall) and you need to make three trips to Florida but in the end, this seems to be the best plan available.

NFL.com put together their own trip which is a bit longer at 27,000 miles. I've also written at Stadium Journey about a possible world record trip that would involve quite a bit of flying as well. If you want to avoid London, you can do a trip in 19,000 miles, about which I am writing a book for Stadium Journey. In any case, if you are thinking of taking the fall to explore the country via its NFL stadiums, you are spoiled for options!

Best,

Sean

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Houston Dynamo 0 at New York Red Bulls 4 - April 23, 2014


The Giants and Jets are not the only New York teams to play out of New Jersey as the Red Bulls of Major League Soccer host games at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison. The sponsorship doesn't end there as Red Bull drinks are prevalent with all concession stands carrying six varieties of the stuff at just $3, cheaper than soda or water. Of course, the logo on the seats is that of the brand as well.



MLS has gained popularity in recent years and now has 19 franchises, with two more joining next season, including a second club in New York that is owned by the Yankees and Manchester City. The majority of the teams are outside the Eastern time zone (12 in all), yet the current divisional alignment has ten squads in the Eastern Conference and only nine in the West. Houston and Sporting Kansas City are the odd ones out and one or both are likely to move when the new teams join next season.

With games held only on a weekly basis, it is tough to add MLS stadiums to my venue count. I'm not going out of my way to see a game unless I'm already in the city for baseball or football. As such, I'd only seen one MLS game before this, three years ago to the day in San Jose. Like the NFL, a full-season trip would be the best way to check all of these off, but I won't be doing that anytime soon. For now, I'll try to visit a couple a year as part of my larger trips.

Red Bull Arena

The stadium is easily accessed from Manhattan by taking the PATH Train to Harrison, which is one stop before Newark. The station is small and after the game you will suffer through a long wait to get back to the platform; sadly there are no bars in the vicinity to pass the time.



The venue is reminiscent of European soccer stadiums, which makes sense as it was designed as a soccer-only facility. The lower bowl seats are right up against the pitch and the upper deck seats along the side offer great sight lines as well.



Because soccer is so quick and the fans more serious, you don't need any bells and whistles to distract you. The concourse is barren, with only a few concession stands to tempt you with little more than your typical overpriced stadium food. At $5, hot dogs are probably the best value.



Tickets start at $25, but you can find much better deals on StubHub, at least for these midweek games  which attract fewer fans. I have heard that the atmosphere here can be very loud and energetic, but on this day, there were perhaps 10,000 fans in the 25,189-seat stadium and the bitter wind kept most of them huddled up instead of making noise. Even the supporters section was suffering from a relatively poor turnout, but that didn't stop the Red Bulls from putting on a classic performance.

The Game

It's still early in the season, but both teams were out of the playoff picture, with the Red Bulls only managing a single win and four draws from their first seven matches, while Houston was 2-3-1, also good for seven points. The Dynamo are one of the league's more successful franchises, with 2 MLS Cups (2006-07) and two finals appearances (2011-12) in their eight seasons. The Red Bulls boast Thierry Henry (below), a French superstar who is finishing his career here after 16 seasons in Europe, including a long stint with Arsenal in the EPL and three years with Barcelona in which his club won the Champions League. Last year, Henry led the Red Bulls to the Supporters' Shield (for the most points in the regular season) but the team was upset by Sporting KC, the eventual champions, in the playoffs.



It didn't take Henry long to show his class, as he took a pass from Kosuke Kimura into space to the right of the Dynamo net and looked up to see Bradley Wright-Phillips completely unmarked. A quick pass and Wright-Phillips made no mistake tapping it by keeper Tally Hall just 12 minutes in. Exactly 12 minutes after that, Henry found Roy Miller down the left flank. Miller beat Warren Creavalle cleanly and crossed to Wright-Phillips who was again wide open and had an easy back-heel for the brace (that's two goals in a game for soccer neophytes).



The second half saw Henry get into the act, scoring into the empty net on a rebound after Hall made a save on Wright-Phillips. It was incredible to watch Henry, who seemed to anticipate the rebound before the shot was even taken.



Late in the game, the Red Bulls added another that was called back because a penalty had been awarded when Henry was fouled in the box. Wright-Phillips was asked to take the shot and he converted for the hat trick and the 4-0 final score. A comprehensive win for New York, and although Wright-Phillips will get the accolades, it was Henry who was the most impressive player on the pitch and a joy to watch. When comparing him to many of the Americans on both sides, it is obvious that the natural talent in other countries is still far beyond that available here. The continued growth of MLS will narrow the gap over time, but I doubt I will ever see a country from outside of Europe and South America lift the World Cup or even make the finals. Out of 19 World Cups so far, 25 of the 38 finalists have been from UEFA with the other 13 from CONEMBOL and based on what I saw, I doubt that will change this year. Hope I'm wrong though.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Two Games, Two Shutouts (Kind of) - April 22, 2014


With the NCAA baseball season in full swing, I've volunteered to do a few college ballpark reviews for Stadium Journey while I still can. Weekday afternoon games are ideal, as they get me out of the house and to some places that I'd not visit otherwise without angering my wife. Today was such as case, as I took the 1 train all the way to the final stop, 242nd Street, where the Manhattan Jaspers play ball at Van Cortlandt Park.

Game 1 - NYIT Bears 13 at Manhattan Jaspers 0



I didn't expect much as the Jaspers are a team of which few New Yorkers are aware. When the college first opened in 1853, it was located on the island of Manhattan, but it moved to the Bronx in 1922 without changing its name, leading to nearly a century of confusion. The ballpark (and ballpark is a word that is used very loosely) is really a public diamond that the Jaspers (named for Brother Jasper, the school's first athletic director) use on occasion. It is right next to the final stop on the 1 train at 242nd Street. That's it below. Yes, that is an NCAA Division I baseball stadium.



As I approached, I thought I was in the wrong place, until I saw the players warming up and heard music blaring. There are no tickets, just a single set of benches, with the view of the field blocked by a chain link fence. Reminded me of my teenage years when we played pick up games at similar diamonds.



The Jaspers were hosting NYIT, who had the distinction of being the worst team in Division I, coming in at 1-33 (that's .029 in win percentage). There's 296 teams in Division I and Manhattan wasn't much better at 8-26, good for 287th in the land. Not surprisingly, no ESPN coverage for this one.

The visiting Bears scored singletons in the first and third and then exploded for 4 more in the fourth behind three sacrifice bunts and a whole bunch of fielding miscues from Manhattan. That was more than enough for NYIT starter Tommy Cardona, who pitched a 5-hit shutout while his mates tacked on 7 more runs for a 13-0 shellacking. When you lose by that much to the worst team in the country, you are now the worst team in the country! Congratulations Manhattan!



Attendance was announced at 114, but they must include the players and umpires, because I counted only 36 fans. Then again, I left after five innings as it started raining and I had to get to the Mets game, so maybe another 80 people showed up for the final four frames. I doubt it though.

Manhattan may not be famous as a college, but it is the answer to a couple of interesting baseball trivia questions.  The Baseball Hall of Fame credits the college with inventing the seventh-inning stretch, but this appears to be an urban legend. More verifiable is the fact that the first Latin American born player in Major League Baseball, Luis Castro, was a Manhattan College alumnus before joining the Philadelphia Athletics in 1902. He's dead now, thus spared the embarrassment of this game.

Game 2 - St. Louis Cardinals 3 at New York Mets 0

With the rain falling, I made my way back to the subway and took the 1 train to Times Square where I switched to the 7 express to get out to Citi Field. The whole trip took just over an hour, and by the time I arrived, the rain had stopped. Don't be fooled by the picture below though, that was taken on Sunday afternoon; it was still cloudy last night and it continued to rain off and on throughout the game. The Mets were hosting Adam Wainwright and the NL champion Cardinals in what I expected to be a fast-paced affair.



When I first visited Citi Field back in 2009, I was not impressed. But things have changed since then and the park is much brighter now and has more attractions, most notably the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum which includes the World Series Trophies (1969 below).



Another change is that the Mets, along with 26 other MLB teams, have an arrangement with StubHub. There are a couple of disadvantages of this partnership: tickets can be no cheaper than $6 and listings disappear from the site 2 hours before the scheduled start of the game. Yet, there are some advantages too. While attending the college game, I was still able to find a lower level seat for $8 (view from my seat below). This is a bargain to see one of the best pitchers in the game. However, I did not have a printer with me, so I tried to get in using the barcode on my phone. This didn't work, so I was told to get my ticket printed at the ticket office, where a friendly lady took my phone and ID, confirmed all was on the up-and-up, and printed a normal stub for me. This is great, as real stubs are so much better than paper tickets as souvenirs.



I took some time to tour the park and as mentioned, found it to be a significant improvement over my first visit. The game was excellent as well, played at a fast pace from start to finish, with the PPM coming in at 1.65. Wainwright was as good as advertised, needing just 79 pitches through 7 innings while keeping the Mets off the scoreboard. Unfortunately, he suffered a hyper-extended knee trying to field a chopper in the bottom of the 7th and was removed from the game. Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal each pitched a single inning to maintain that shutout that otherwise would have belonged to Wainwright as the Cardinals won 3-0, with John Jay's 4th inning two-run single the big play. Dillon Gee took the hard-luck loss. That's Allen Craig swinging and missing below.



In the self-indulgent fact section, there have been six 3-0 contests in MLB in 2014 and I have attended three of them.

Best,

Sean

Monday, April 21, 2014

Quantifying the Slower Pace of Baseball


If you're a baseball fan, you've probably noticed that games are longer these days. Certainly the media has figured it out, as any relevant Google search will prove. Just a couple of days ago, new ESPN outlet FiveThirtyEight.com, devoted to the statistical analysis of all things sports, political, and even cultural, produced an in-depth article that showed the Yankees and Red Sox play the longest games.

More notably, the issue popped up when an unnamed MLB executive mooted the idea of shortening the game to 7 innings. That's obviously not going to happen, but the fact that such a silly idea has even made the news is telling. The problem though is not that games are getting longer, it is that they are getting slower.

Pace

If you've read this blog regularly, you'll know I use a statistic called Pitches Per Minute (PPM) to measure the pace of a baseball game. I originally developed this to compare MLB to the Japanese league, notorious for exceedingly slow games. Now, though, I am using it to look at games in MLB exclusively. This post will show that not only are major league games getting longer, they are being played at a slower and less exciting pace.

FanGraphs created a stat, also called Pace, which measures the average time between pitches. I prefer my PPM stat as it is more meaningful in the bigger picture and encompasses the entire game, including pitching changes, inning breaks, replay challenges, injuries, etc; all time we have to sit there while nothing happens. PPM can be used to represent the pace of a single game or an entire season.

Data Inconsistency

Before I get into the details, I have to note that the data I used is from three sources. First, I scraped  all box scores from ESPN.com for every season from 2009 to 2014. I quickly found that ESPN needs a data quality engineer because there is the occasional inaccuracy (check out Jim Johnson's pitch count in this box score, or the fact that every pitch was a ball in this boxscore for a couple of examples). I used Baseball Reference to correct these errors. So I have all game data for five full seasons and so far this year.

For seasons between 1998 and 2008, the game-by-game data was just not accurate enough, so I used season totals from both Baseball Reference and MLB.com. Again, there are some minor discrepancies, in other words, the total number of pitches for certain teams differs slightly between the two sites, but these are insignificant when dealing with such a large sample size. There is no reliable pitch count data before 1998.

Longer Games

Lets start with the basics - the time a game takes to be played. The chart below shows the average game time from 1998 through to 2014 (games until April 20th). This is using actual data from Baseball Reference and the numbers are different from what I have seen quoted elsewhere.


As you can see, there was a concerted effort to shorten games after the average time exceeded 3 hours in 2000, and this cut ten minutes off the average game by 2003. Since then, the pace has slowly crept up until it again reached the 3-hour mark in 2012. Now with seemingly every game enduring a replay challenge, that is up to 3:08 so far this season, 19 minutes longer than in 2005.

So yes, games are getting longer. But longer games are not necessarily a problem, if more is happening between the lines. For example, it seems like there are more extra inning games, and it is generally considered a fact that players are seeing more pitches and working longer counts. If these are true, we should see changes in the number of pitches per game.


Between 2001 and 2009, there was an upward trend (with the exception of an outlier in 2005), but since then the number has bounced around a bit. It's still too early to say this year's number (296) is meaningful as there are usually more pitches in the first month with pitchers still getting settled and colder weather. Last year, there were 294 PPG at the same point in the season but this dropped to 292 over the summer. The question then is whether these extra pitches are enough to account for the longer games. Let's take the total pitches per game and divide by the average time to get the PPM for each season from 1998.


So there you have it, a straight drop from 2009 and its 1.69 PPM to 1.585 last year, a 6.3% reduction in pace over those five seasons. So far this season, the number is even slower at 1.57 as replay challenges (and non-challenges where the manger comes out while his bench coach watches the replay) have entered the game. I should note that there is no appropriate value of PPM; I use 1.67 as a benchmark which represents 300 pitches over a three hour game. Faster than that and you shouldn't get bored, but when it drops below 1.6, the yawns start to set in.

For those interested, the quickest game so far was the opener in the day-night DH between Toronto and Minnesota on April 17th. There were only 4 pitchers, including R.A. Dickey who works quite fast, and they combined to throw 295 pitches in just 2:38, for a PPM of 1.87. The slowest was the 12-inning game on April 20th between the Yankees and Tampa Bay that saw 349 pitches over 4:23 for a PPM of 1.33. I'll update these when new records are set.

Postseason Results

Of course, as we all know, playoff baseball is when the games get even slower. Just looking at the 38 games from the 2013 postseason, the average time was 3:23 and the PPM just under 1.4, with the worst offender the deciding game of the ALCS, where a game with just 275 pitches took nearly 4 hours (3:52) to complete for a ridiculously slow PPM of 1.18. I realize it was a decisive game, but the Game 7 of the 1960 World Series (when the Pirates shocked the Yankees on Bill Mazeroski's 9th-inning homer) took only 2:36 for 253 pitches for a PPM of 1.62. There's just no excuse for such sloth.

Games Under 3 Hours

Another way to look at the increasing length of games is the percentage of games finishing in three hours or less. With my data, I can only do this going back to the 2009 season, although you can take it back farther by scraping game time data from ESPN.com or Baseball Reference. I'm also including games that finished in less than 2.5 hours for comparison.

Year    < 3H   < 2.5H  
2009    63.5%   15.2%
2010    64.0%   15.8%
2011    61.9%   14.0%
2012    55.6%    9.3%
2013    50.3%    7.8%
2014    45.8%    6.1%

In just six short seasons, the number of games under 3 hours has dropped nearly 18% and the number of games taking longer than 3 hours is over half for the first time this season. Only about 1 out of every 16 games finishes in less than 150 minutes. No wonder people are leaving early.

During the 2013 playoffs, only 8 of 30 games were under three hours, with the shortest coming in at 2:36. Not coincidentally that game, a 2-1 Cardinal victory over the Pirates in Game 4 of their NLDS, had the fastest PPM at 1.65.

So what have I shown here? Nothing new, I am sure. Baseball games are long, slow, and they get longer and slower in the playoffs. But hey, attendance is steady, so maybe games are more exciting.

Runs Per Hour

There are many ways of measuring excitement in baseball, including runs, homers, hits, and even strikeouts. Of all these, runs are the most important, so I decided to look at runs per hour, the average number of runs scored per hour of baseball. Personally, I love a 2-1 game but most fans seem to prefer an 8-7 slugfest, so I'll defer to them with this statistic. I used Baseball Reference data to get the average game time per team, total games played, and total runs for each season from 1955.

First, let's look at runs per game for reference purposes.


Most fans will recognize the pitching dominated 1960s, following by the lowering of the mound in 1969, after which runs mostly fluctuated between 8 and 9 except for the juiced ball year of 1987. Steroids appeared in the mid 1990s and runs per game were above 10 for a few seasons before measures were taken to eliminate the cheaters, and runs per game again dropped to between 8 and 9. In other words, pretty much the same as they were between 1975 and 1995.

Now when we factor in the increasing length of games, we really see an effect.



This year, runs per hour are coming in at 2.671, essentially the same as during the famed 1968 season, when they were 2.672. It is still early, with just over 10% of the season completed, but last year this number dropped as the summer progressed. In other words, the average fan is going to see less runs for every hour at the ballpark than any time in history. The media will never tell you this though, as their job is to get you to watch the games. But if value your time and enjoy an exciting, fast-paced ballgame with more than a few runs, you'll probably be better off spending your evenings at the minor league parks across the nation.

Conclusion

Does any of this even matter? Based on my observations, not really. Baseball attendance has been steady over the past few seasons, although it is still off the record number of 2007. I think attendance numbers are inflated and easy to manipulate, but it would be hard to claim that fans are staying away from the game. Case in point: me; I've already seen seven MLB games this season despite all my whining about the pace.

Where I differ is that I pay attention to the action on the field, while most fans don't really care much about the game that they paid to see. I attended the 14-inning game between the Braves and Mets at Citi Field on Sunday (good game but a PPM of 1.498 had me snoozing at times) and few of those around me paid more than scant attention to the goings on, other than to boo Curtis Granderson after every out. Many left before the 9th inning with the game tied at 3. Simply put, most sports fans are casual followers who see the game as nothing more than a distraction, not something to be taken seriously. When three hours are up, off they go to their next destination; sports doesn't dominate their lives. Only if the casual fan stops going because the games take too long and too few runs are scored will the powers that be institute changes. Until then, look for these trends to continue.

Best,

Sean

Monday, April 14, 2014

Atlanta Silverbacks 0 at New York Cosmos 4 (NASL) - April 13, 2014


When I was much, much younger, soccer was on the ascent in North America, due to the North American Soccer League (NASL). Helped by Pele (still popular here as you can see below) and the New York Cosmos, who enjoyed average crowds over 40,000 for three straight seasons, it looked like soccer might become a major sport, but overspending on player salaries soon ended that dream and the NASL folded after the 1984 season. Still, the league had given the sport a foothold in North America, enough that the 1994 World Cup was awarded to the U.S. just a few years later.



As a requirement for the World Cup, a Division 1 league needed to be formed. A year before the World Cup was held, the U.S. Soccer Federation selected Major League Professional Soccer to be this league; two years later the name was changed to Major League Soccer with ten teams beginning play in 1996. After a rough start, the league flourished over the next decade and the American soccer pyramid became a legitimate development tool. The United Soccer League had two divisions below the MLS that essentially operated as the second tier in the pyramid, although without the promotion and relegation that characterizes European leagues. The organization was sold by Nike in 2009 and some teams decided to breakaway to form another, more professional league to fill the void between the MLS and the USL, which was not strong enough to be considered a true Division 2 league. These teams chose to name their new circuit after the old NASL, to honour the pioneering spirit shown by that league.

The new NASL began play with eight clubs in 2011 and although one team in Puerto Rico was suspended and the Montreal Impact moved to MLS, the league has acquired new franchises, including a reboot of the Cosmos, who joined midway through last season. With the league playing a split campaign, the Cosmos skipped the spring session, beginning play in August and using the James M. Shuart Stadium on the campus of Hofstra University as their home ground. The stadium was used by the original Cosmos who won their first championship there in 1972 and the mojo must have remained as the new club promptly won the fall season and then defeated the spring champion Atlanta Silverbacks in the Soccer Bowl in Atlanta.

The team had the winter to further establish themselves as a sporting alternative on Long Island, and as one of the local Stadium Journey correspondents, I decided to visit their home opener to judge their progress.

James M. Shuart Stadium



Hofstra is located right next to the Nassau Coliseum, which is painfully far on public transit for those of us in New York City. Fortunately, the Cosmos run a free shuttle from Mineola LIRR station which makes getting there a whole lot quicker, although slightly more expensive with one-way, off-peak tickets from the city running $8. If you do drive, parking is $5 across the street and $10 nearer to the stadium.



Game tickets range from $15 to $35 (well, there are $95 club seats but I can't imagine anyone paying that as there isn't a bad seat in the place). With a capacity of nearly 12,000 and average crowds just over half that, there is always plenty of room along the sideline, especially high up which is the best place to sit for soccer. In other words, pay $15 for a ticket and sit where you want as there are no ushers anyway.





The supporters sit behind the north goal and make noise throughout the game, but the highlight to me was when they set off a fire extinguisher just before kickoff.



There are also Cosmos Girls who run around after a goal and perform at halftime. As was pointed out to me by a fellow Stadium Journeyer, you know when you are in the northeast when all the dancers are brunette!



Overall, this is a decent place for a game, but the marketing effort put in by the club shows. Nearly 8,000 were on hand for the opener with plenty of families showing that soccer has a bright future here. The way the Cosmos played, I'd guess they have a pretty bright future as well.

The Game



The game was a rematch of the championship with the Silverbacks in town. The Cosmos kicked off (above) to start the proceedings and after a slow start, began to dominate play, attacking the goal with some regularity. Their persistence was rewarded in the 23rd minute when captain Carlos Mendes, a Mineola native who spent seven seasons with the New York Red Bulls was able to direct home a rebound with Silverbacks keeper and Salvadoran international Derby Carillo on his back after he made a great save off a free kick from Marcos Senna (below).



Nine minutes later the Cosmos again attacked an Ayoze banged home another rebound. Just six minutes after that, Mendes was left unmarked off a corner kick and slotted home to make it 3-0, with all three goals coming from defenders. For Mendes, the brace marked his first professional goals in over ten years and the local fans were quite happy for their hometown hero.



With the game pretty much decided in the second half, the Cosmos played more defensively and Atlanta had some chances but could not manage a goal, although they looked good in their attempts as Deon McCaulay, who led CONCACAF with 11 goals for Belize during World Cup Qualifying, demonstrated with a bicycle kick (above). Against the run of play, New York managed a fourth goal when Norwegian Mads Stokkelien headed home a cross from Sebastian Guenzatti in the 72nd minute to close out the scoring. If you care, you can watch the highlights on YouTube.



Overall, this was a fun game to attend and for me, a bit of an eye-opener. There is a lot of talent here, some of it young and unproven while others are on the downside of their career, much like AAA baseball or the AHL. I should have studied the lineups beforehand. Unfortunately, the location of Shuart Stadium precludes regular visits for me but the NASL is a league worth following if you enjoy soccer.

Notes

Mendes was named the NASL player of the week for his efforts.

The Ottawa Fury began playing in the NASL this season and will be using the 24,000 seat TD Place as their home ground. I hope to get up there for a game this summer too, but if you happen to live in the area, get out there and support your team!

Pele was in attendance as a new plaque was unveiled in his honour and Pele t-shirts were handed out to all fans, you can see one below.



Next Up

Lots of baseball. I keep saying I'm going to cut down on my games, but I'm an addict and when there is cheap pro baseball, I have to go. Tomorrow Wednesday afternoon, the Cubs are visiting the Yankees with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound in the first games of a day-nighter, which necessitates my third trip to Yankee Stadium this season. Then the Mets are hosting the Braves on the weekend, so I'll make my first visit to Citi Field in 2014. I won't be updating my blog for these repeat visits, but after that, there's 4 NCAA baseball fields I need to cover for Stadium Journey so keep checking back to see how things are going during my first summer in New York City.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, April 13, 2014

NHL Playoff Predictions


The NHL playoffs are set with a true bracket. Only one wild card switches to the other conference, the Dallas Stars, who move to the Pacific and take on Anaheim in the first round.

I like to play out the whole playoffs using season series results to see who would win the Stanley Cup. Of course, the regular season results won't hold up through 15 playoff series; when I did this in 2011 and 2012, the Finals had Philadelphia and Nashville. I'm using a variation on NHL tiebreakers when teams have the same number of points against each other:

1) Regulation, then overtime wins (not regulation and overtime wins).
2) If an odd number of games was played, ignore the first game played in the city with the extra home game.
3) Better team - I ignore goal differential here.

So what happens this year. Let's do this by division.

Atlantic
Detroit over Boston 3-1 - Wrong!
Tampa Bay over Montreal 3-0-1 - Wrong!

Tampa Bay over Detroit 4-1

Metropolitan
Pittsburgh over Columbus 4-0 - Right!
NY Rangers and Philadelphia split their series with each team winning both home games. The Rangers finished with the better record, so they advance. - Right!

Pittsburgh and the Rangers also split their four games, with each team taking a 4-3 shootout win on the road. Pittsburgh had the better record, so they move on.

Central
Colorado over Minnesota 3-0-1 - Wrong!
St. Louis beat Chicago 3-2 in games, but 2 of their wins were in the shootout, meaning the teams tied in points at 6, and Chicago moves on here due to 2 regulation victories. - Right!

Colorado over Chicago 4-1 (interestingly, St. Louis won the season series over Colorado, so the regulation wins means something here)

Pacific
Dallas over Anaheim 2-1 - Wrong!
Los Angeles over San Jose 3-1-1 Right!

Dallas over Los Angeles 3-2

Conference Championships
Pittsburgh over Tampa Bay 3-0
Colorado over Dallas 4-1-1

Stanley Cup
Colorado over Pittsburgh 1-0-1

So look for Patrick Roy's surprising Avalanche to raise the Cup in two months time. - Wrong!

Personally, I expect Pittsburgh to beat LA in the final, so let's see if either of these ends up correct. Update: my two picks are still alive after round 1. Update 2: Pittsburgh lost to the Rangers in round 2, but the Kings made it to the finals, amazing to win 3 game 7s on the road.

------

Further update: The first round saw the season series winners take 4 of 8. Here are the remaining playoff rounds by season series, which has been a pretty meaningless predictor so far:

Boston-Montreal - Habs 3-1 - Right
Pittsburgh-Rangers - Pittsburgh as above - Wrong!

Pittsburgh-Montreal - Habs 2-1

Chicago-Minnesota - Wild 3-1-1 - Wrong!
Anaheim-LA - Ducks 4-0-1 - Wrong!

Anaheim-Minnesota - Ducks 2-1

Anaheim - Montreal - Habs 2-0

Further update:

After two rounds, season series are 5-7.

Montreal-NY Rangers - Montreal 2-1 - Wrong!
Chicago-LA - Chicago 3-0 - Wrong!

So season series are 5-9.

The finals are LA vs NYR, they split their two games with each winning on the road. The Rangers took won 3-1, LA won 1-0, therefore the Kings will win the Cup since season series are wrong this year.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Baltimore Orioles 14 at New York Yankees 5 - April 8, 2014


When I was much younger and still in school, I remember wishing for the day that I was old enough to be able to go to weekday afternoon baseball games. Next thing I knew, I was living in Japan, where there were no weekday afternoon baseball games, at least at the top level. Then I moved in Singapore, where there is no baseball at all. Now I am in New York and not working, so for the time being, my wish has finally been granted. The Yankees opened at home against Baltimore yesterday and I skipped that one as I had other commitments, but today, game 2 of the series was also a 1:05 start. With nothing on my schedule, I took the subway from Queens to the Bronx via Manhattan and settled back for a wonderful afternoon.



This picture above was taken from my seat in section 420B, row 8, directly behind home plate. A $28 face value, it went for just $6.50 on StubHub an hour before the game. Have you seen anything more beautiful than a ballpark from the upper deck? Perhaps just the line score below, as the Yankees got hammered by Baltimore. The game took 3:28, but it was due to lots of action as the pitches per minute (PPM) was 1.649, better than the average this season.




In fact, the game would have even been shorter, except for a couple of idiot fans. In the bottom of the 8th, with the game well in hand, two drunken morons jumped on the field, running from the left field foul line towards the infield. Security was a bit slow off the mark but caught up to them soon enough, taking them down near second base while the Orioles looked on bemusedly.

The same thing happened last year at the All-Star Game at Citi Field, although in that case the lunkhead was drunk on Twitter fame rather than booze. At the time, headlines raged about a year in jail, but the guy is out and still tweeting away like the twit he is. It seems like there is no real punishment meted out for these fools, which I find extremely frustrating. You might consider them harmless pranksters, but they are wasting my time, and that of everyone else in the ballpark. So rather than threaten them with legal penalties that will never be enforced, let's create a more meaningful rule. For every minute of time wasted by a fan running on the field, they spend that time in jail. Simply take the paid attendance, multiply it by the number of minutes their incursion took, and send them off to prison for that time. For example, today's game had 35,864 fans (although most had left by then) and the little pinhead adventure lasted about 3 minutes. That turns out to be nearly 75 days (107,592 minutes). So simply have these two sent to Rikers Island for 2 1/2 months and I'll be satisfied. Or even better, create a jail in the bowels of the stadium and have them stay there, unable to follow their team other than to hear occasional cheering from the crowd. A steady diet of cold hot dogs and warm soda would certainly have them thinking twice about doing the same thing again.

Will this ever happen? Not in today's world. There is no room in real jails for minor offenders like this; instead the punishment likely will be a slap on the wrist and a stadium ban. Even though these two may never see the inside of Yankee Stadium again, you can bet more drunken dopes are already planning the same thing for later this season. So expect to see more instances of buffoons claiming their 15 minutes of fame at a baseball diamond near you.

Best,

Sean

Friday, April 4, 2014

Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays - April 1-3, 2014




After entering Club 122, I took a day off to relax and bask in my accomplishment. The Blue Jays were opening the season in Tampa Bay that day, but they faced David Price and it wasn't worth the drive from Orlando to see them get smoked, which they did 9-2. Instead, I arrived in St. Petersburg, home of Tropicana Field, on Tuesday and attended the final three games in the series.



The Trop is the worst ballpark to visit in early April, when the Florida weather is still free of humidity and perfect for outdoor baseball. I am not the only one who feels this way, as the average attendance for the 3 games was 10,497. The Rays made the playoffs last year, if you recall. Can you tell the top rows in the upper deck are covered in tarp? That reduces capacity, but doesn't help matters.



Look at this picture of the upper concourse, taken during an inning break. Not a soul in sight, and this was for the second game of the season.



The main atrium is where you'd get your food options, and you don't have to worry about lines. The shot below was taken near the end of the game though, when most of the concessions were closing up.



The Trop does have a lot of attractions though, including the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame and a touch tank where fans can touch live rays (below).



But those will only delay you for about 15 minutes before you enter the seating bowl. Sit where you want as long as you are not down low between the bases, where ushers will check your tickets.



Despite the horrible atmosphere, Tropicana Field might be the best value in the majors. You can park for free along 2nd Avenue between 6th and 7th, where there is 2-hour parking until 6 pm. Get there at 4, stop in at the Brass Tap (now closed) and then walk over, where you can find tickets starting at $15 for one of the best young teams in baseball. If they could rip the roof off this place, it would finally match the product on the field.

Game 1 - Blue Jays 4, Rays 2

No point in paying more than $15 to get in, the view from section 308:



The Jays won 4-2 in a game that took 3:22, for a ridiculously low 1.458 pitches per minute (PPM). More on that later.



Game 2 - Blue Jays 3, Rays 0



Mark Buehrle (above), who is well known for working quickly, started for Toronto and went 8 2/3 shutout innings before giving up a liner that Brett Lawrie should have caught. It was generously ruled a hit and John Gibbons decided that Buehrle had reached his limit at 108 pitches. Arrrrgggh. The Jays were up 3, give him another hitter! Anyway, Sergio Santos came in and walked a batter to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of pinch-hitter Matt Joyce. Brett Cecil came on and struck out Joyce to get the save, leading to a big sigh of relief from myself.



Jose Bautista hit two solo shots (the second above) to lead the offense. The game took 2:55 for a 1.629 PPM. Not bad, but still slow considering Buehrle pitched nearly the whole game.



Game 3 - Rays 7, Blue Jays 2

I covered this game for Stadium Journey, so received a credential and sat in the press box level (200s). There are TVs here that let you see replays, but it is pretty dark as the third deck covers much of the seating here.



The Blue Jays lost 7-2, splitting the series. The game took 3:21 for a PPM of 1.527. Over the three games I saw, the PPM was 1.532. This is terribly slow and I'll be writing more about the pace of baseball in a couple of days.

For the Jays, their defense was excellent over these four games, their pitching acceptable, while the offense was worrisome, going just 4-29 with runners in scoring position and totalling 11 runs over the series. The caveat is that the Jays have struggled in Tampa historically and gaining a series split is a good sign. I have hope!

Notes

The mascot race here involves three bottles of Pepsi products, including Lipton Ice Tea. Every game they had a different trick, on Thursday there was an usher on the field checking tickets. Oh no, Lipton Ice Tea didn't have a ticket and the race was won by Diet Pepsi in a photo finish (below). For me, this was the highlight of the final game and the lasting memory I will have from Tropicana Field.



Next Up

Time off. Other than a New York Cosmos game next weekend, I am going to spend April looking for a job and avoiding baseball for the most part. This MLB season has seen a PPM of 1.56, about 2.8% slower than last season's 1.6 at the same point. This is simply not fast enough to keep my attention. I stopped going to Japanese baseball because the games took too long, and I'm on the verge of doing the same for the majors. I'll post a detailed analysis in a few days, so check back for that next week.

Best,

Sean