Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Cornell Big Red 2 at Columbia Lions 1 (OT, NCAA Soccer, Ivy League) - November 10, 2018


I've run out of top-tier venues at which to watch games in NYC, so I've started looking to minor college sports, such as soccer. Unfortunately, the season is ending just as I return from Japan, but there was one game left on the schedule as Columbia hosted Cornell to conclude the Ivy League campaign. The Lions play out of Rocco B. Commisso Soccer Stadium, located in their Baker Athletics Complex on the northern tip of Manhattan. Their football stadium is here as well and I attended a game back in 2014, not realizing at the time that the soccer stadium was right next door.



That is not surprising, however, because the stadium is somewhat hidden to the right as you make your way up the hill. The only sign that there is an actual venue here is the plaque commemorating the dedication that happened just over 5 years ago. Commisso is the owner of the New York Cosmos and played for the Lions many years ago.



Admission is free here, with the seating area taking up the entire sideline. There are 14 rows of benches with fans well spread out from end to end. Despite the frigid conditions (there were snowflakes falling as I arrived), there was a hardy crowd of 633 on hand, with many Cornell alumni coming out to cheer their club on.



Columbia were national champions back in 1909 and 1910 and that fact is noted on the far sideline, along with other more recent accomplishments. Note that then entire field is surrounded by the light blue tarp that keeps the wind to a minimum on the field, but does not extend to the seats. At least the sun was shining for most of the afternoon, making it reasonably comfortable.



At halftime, many fans scooted across the street to the Park Terrace Deli or Twin Donut to warm up and get a snack. There are no concessions here otherwise. My advice is to buy something before the game and avoid the long lines at the intermission.



Columbia came in with a shot at the Ivy League title, needing a win and a Princeton loss or draw to get their spot in the tournament. Cornell was 8-1 on the road and was once ranked #24 in the country, providing a worthy obstacle to Columbia's championship hopes. The first half was rather uneventful, as was the early part of the second. Columbia finally opened the scoring with John Denis freeing up on the right side and blasting one past Ryan Shellow in the 59th minute. After that, Cornell really started applying the pressure, and Columbia keeper Dylan Castanheira was excellent on several stops in close. But Cornell did not relent and in the 73rd minute, a deft Tyler Bagley backwards pass found John Scearce who drilled it home from the top of the box to knot things at 1.



Only more heroics from Castanheira, including a diving save to keep out a shot headed for the upper-right corner, kept the game tied, and that is how regulation finished, sending us to overtime. The NCAA uses two 10-minute periods of extra time with the golden goal rule. If a team scores, they win with that goal, but if no team scores, the game ends in a draw. Columbia needed the win, but they could not get anything going against a strong Cornell attack. With 3:58 remaining, Cornell's Charles Touche slammed a shot that beat Castanheira, hit the bottom of the crossbar, and bounced into the net. Columbia's players dropped to the ground in disbelief as the Big Red celebrated their win, while Princeton clinched the Ivy title without having to play a game (they lost 1-0 to Yale).



I was sitting with the Cornell alumni and Shellow and Harry Fuller ran over to celebrate with them. This was a very entertaining game after the first hour, and I was glad I went. NCAA soccer gets almost no coverage, but it can be fun in the right circumstances.

Notes

Despite giving up two goals, Castanheira finishes his career with the Ivy League record for goals against average at 0.513.

Columbia did not gain an at-large bid in the tournament, which opens on Thursday with matches taking place on campus. Princeton, the Ivy League champ, travels to Michigan for their first match.

Next Up

I'm hanging around New York for the next little while, with a quick trip to Buffalo for the Leafs in early December, and then a trip to Kansas City for some college hoops in the middle of the month. Check back for updates regularly.

Best,

Sean

Monday, November 12, 2018

2018 MLB Award Predictions


The MLB Awards will be announced this week and as I have done on occasion in the past, I look at my proprietary Bases Per Out (BPO) statistic to determine who should win each award. To refresh your memory, the formula is: (TB+BB+SB+HBP+SAC+SF)/(AB-H+CS+SAC+SF+GIDP). That's the total bases achieved by the batter against the number of outs he made, and obviously, the higher the ratio the better. Again, this statistic excludes defensive contributions.

MVP

Here are the top 5 in BPO in the AL:
Player        Bases  Outs  BPO
Mike Trout     456   335  1.361
Mookie Betts   457   356  1.284
J.D. Martinez  444   408  1.089
Jose Ramirez   473   436  1.085
Alex Bregman   437   446  0.980

As usual, Mike Trout was the best player in the league, but with his Angels finishing a distant 4th in the AL West, he will not win the MVP. It will go to Mookie Betts, who led the Red Sox to the East title. As always, the argument revolves around whether "Most Valuable" equates to "Best". Trout was the best player in the league but without him, the Angels are terrible instead of mediocre. Without Betts, Boston might finish behind New York. So he will win the MVP and he deserves it. Winner: Betts

Here are the top 5 in the NL:
Player          Bases  Outs  BPO
Christian Yelich 442   407  1.086
Bryce Harper     431   432  0.998
Paul Goldschmidt 419   432  0.970
Matt Carpenter   411   424  0.969
Brandon Nimmo    320   333  0.961

A no-brainer here as Yelich was obviously the best player in the league and led the Brewers to the best record as well. Javier Baez was a defensive stud, but his BPO of 0.872 should preclude him from this award. Winner: Yelich

Cy Young

For pitchers, the statistic is reversed, giving Outs Per Base (Outs/(TB+BB+HB+WP+BK+SB)), with higher numbers again better. In the AL, there are three contenders: Blake Snell (1.936), Corey Kluber (1.914) and Justin Verlander (1.911). All are worthy candidates, but Snell will take it with his 21 wins. Winner: Snell

In the NL, Jacob DeGrom had an OPB of 2.3, 16% better than Aaron Nola at 1.978. DeGrom finished 10-9 but he was so much better than any other pitcher that he should win this award. None of those with an OPB above 1.9 (Nola, Mikolas, Scherzer) made the playoffs either, so I don't think the voters will get swayed by that, and DeGrom will win, sparking debate about the meaning of pitcher wins. Winner: DeGrom with 29 of 30 first-place votes. No debate after all.

Rookie of the Year 

In the AL, there are three rookies that stood out for their offensive contributions: Yankees Miguel Andujar (0.808) and Gleyber Torres (0.806) along with Shohei Ohtani of the Angels (0.975). Ohtani had the extra benefit of throwing 51.1 innings with a very strong OPB of 1.703, making him the frontrunner.

But there was also a pitcher who performed extraordinarily well, namely Brad Keller of KC, who had an OPB of 1.725. This is where we need to compare BPO and OPB. The best way to do that is to see how much better each player was to the average. In this case, the average BPO in the AL is 0.692 while the average OPB is 1.425. Ohtani is 40% above the average on offense, while Keller is 21% above. Add in Ohtani's pitching stats, though, and he is clearly superior, and his total plate appearances at bat and on the mound  is 578, meaning he played enough to qualify for this award despite his injury. He should win, though the voters may penalize him for the games he missed and give it to Andujar (Keller is not even nominated). Winner: Ohtani

In the NL, there are two candidates on the offensive side: Juan Soto of Washington (0.980) and Ronald Acuna Jr. of Atlanta (0.972), whose overall statistics are remarkably similar. The only pitcher worth considering is Walker Buehler of the Dodgers, whose OPB of 2.081 would rank him second in the majors if he qualified. Again, we compare to the average (in the NL the numbers were 0.681 and 1.482 respectively) and find that Soto and Acuna are 47% and 45% better than average, while Buehler is 40% above the mean. All three players are worthy, but the award will go to Acuna I think, because Atlanta won the division and that still matters in the voters' minds. Winner: Acuna

So I got all 6 right, but that is not saying much as this year had only one tight race.

Best,

Sean

Friday, November 9, 2018

Comparing Horse Racing in Japan and U.S.


On my last day in Japan, I was happy to discover that Funabashi Race Track would be holding a series of horse races that day. Even better, the track was just a few stops from where I was staying, so I took my wife and child along with me. It was quite enjoyable, so upon our return to the States, we decided to visit Aqueduct, a track in Queens, as a way to get over jet lag. This post compares the two experiences.

Funabashi Race Track

As mentioned in the previous post, Funabashi is a large city in Chiba prefecture. Unlike Funabashi Arena, however, Funabashi Race Track (Funabashi Keibajo in Japanese) is relatively close to Funabashi station, taking just 7 minutes by train or about a half-hour to walk. From the train station on the Keisei Line, it is just 5 minutes to the main entrance.



Funabashi must dub itself the Bay City, as that is the sign that welcomes you. Keiba means horse racing in Japanese.



It costs 100 yen to get in, and you have to buy a ticket in the automated machines to the right of the gate. Heart Beat Nighter is the brand name of the night races.



Hand your ticket to the ladies at the gates. So there is no hard stub, you either need to buy two tickets and retain one, or keep one of your losing bets if you want a souvenir. Note that some gamblers don't even bother entering as you can make bets in the machines outside the gates.



The track used to hold motorcycle races and there is a small display commemorating that fact.



Walk through the narrow building to get to the track. There are upper levels with seats, but most fans just remain standing close to the track.



The paddock is actually before the main building and is where the horses are shown before the next race. This is where you get a chance to see which horses are maybe a bit skittish, or whatever other signs that help you bet.



This is a view of the paddock from the upper level. All horses are led around the small track for at least 10 minutes and most bettors will watch for a portion of that time before making their decision.



Once the horses are taken to the track, you make your bet at the machines and then head to the track. You can get some good pictures as the horses come down the stretch.



If you have a good camera, you can get pics at the finish line too. I was lucky that my phone was properly focused for the shot below. That is a covered highway in the background.



Betting is straightforward if you speak and read Japanese, but a bit too complicated to explain in much detail here. All betting can be done via filling out a card and inserting it into a machine after putting in your cash first. You have to fill out the track name, race number, type of bet, and horse numbers. This link contains a PDF that explains the various types of bet. If you do go without a Japanese-speaking friend, you might be able to find someone to help you, but don't count on it.



Note the colours of the numbers above and how 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 11-12 are the same colour. These are used in a type of bet called Waku. If you bet Waku 5, you win if either horse 5 or 6 finishes as you predicted. Similarly Waku 6 (7-8), 7 (9-10), and 8 (11-12). In the first race, my wife liked horses 6 and 9, but I hedged and bet Waku 5-7 to finish in either order. The final was 9-6, so I won 230 yen on a 200 yen bet. Big money!



There is security here, but from what I can tell, it is mostly for show, as you can see above. I mean, how can he stop what he cannot see?



As there is no Thanksgiving in Japan, Christmas season starts in November and the track already had their lighted fake Christmas trees on display. A more pleasing touch is the pretty lady who guides the horses to the gate and poses for photos beforehand.



The crowd here was quite mixed, with families and young people interspersed with the old guys who make a living on the horses. The venue is very clean, as you would expect in Japan, and very well organized. From the paddock to the betting to the race to collecting on your bets, each race takes about 30 minutes with no waiting in between, so the afternoon goes quite quickly. There are a number of tracks all around Japan, including one in Ooi in Tokyo. Note that Funabashi and Ooi are not Japan Racing Association (JRA) racecourses; rather they are labeled as "local". There is an official JRA course in Nakayama, which is close by, making Funabashi the only city in Japan with two horse tracks within its city limits. So if you are visiting Tokyo and want to try your hand at betting on the horses, you have several choices at which to enjoy yourself.

Aqueduct

We went to Funabashi on Monday afternoon, flew back to NYC on Tuesday, and after a day relaxing, we headed out to Aqueduct to spend a few hours outside in an attempt to get over jet lag. The track is about 30 minutes by taxi from where we live, and is located right next to Resorts World, the only casino in NYC. It is also accessible by bus and has a dedicated subway stop on the A line.



From the outside, the track looks quite nice, with a very cool painting on one side.



There are also some jockey statues commemorating past stakes races. In the background you can see the bridge that connects the subway station to the casino.



Admission is free, but once inside, things quickly deteriorate. We had brought a stroller, but the only elevator was not working, so we used the rickety escalator. On the main floor you will find dozens of TV screens, most of which are tuned to different racetracks around the country. You can bet on any race here, and many bettors are actually following the races at different tracks. The racing forms are on sale near the top of the escalator, and a guide on how to interpret them is on a wall.



There are machines for betting but you seem to need an account to use them. For those without such membership, there are plenty of windows accepting bets as well. There are some nice displays above the betting windows featuring jockey silks and the like, but the overall condition of the room is rather rundown. Most of the money goes to keeping up the casino, which makes sense.



The paddock is visible from inside, but it is below ground level and in the shade, so you don't get the best look at the horses. As well, there are two small tracks inside the paddock; one is used for horses 1-6, the other for horses 7-12. If you want a close look at all the racers, you need to move from one side to the other. Most bettors were focused on races at other tracks, so the paddock area was usually empty.



Outside, there are some benches but most are taken up by smokers, so this is not a pleasant place to sit or stand. There are box seats upstairs, but few patrons seem to make use of them. There is also a club up here, but I did not bother to check it out.



On the far side of the paddock is a lot of open space behind the casino, and we spent most of the time here. There were no smokers around and you had your run of the place.



This is also the best place to take pictures, though you are a bit far away. The spot right in front of the finish line is not open to the public, so this is the best you can get.



There are three primary differences that made the Japanese experience more enjoyable. First, the crowd is much more diverse there; at Aqueduct it was all older men who do this for a living and not really a good place for kids. We certainly got our share of stares here. Second, it was much easier to bet in Japan using the forms; at Aqueduct you really needed to know what you were doing as soon as you went to the window. Third, the overall facility is better maintained in Japan; most bettors threw their losing tickets into the garbage bin while at Aqueduct, they just tossed them on the floor.

With that said, I enjoyed both visits, but found the experience in Japan more suited to bringing my family, while in America, it is geared toward hard-core enthusiasts. Of course, visiting just a single track one time is not nearly enough to form a meaningful opinion about the merits of attending horse racing in the entire country; I am sure other tracks are a different experience.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Sun Rockers Shibuya 83 at Chiba Jets 85 (OT, B.League) - November 3, 2018


On my last weekend in Japan, I wanted to add one more B.League venue to my list. I had three choices, with the best option in Tachikawa where the defending champion Tokyo Alvark were hosting Ryukyu in a battle of 8-2 teams, but Saturday's game was sold out. Unlike in America where tickets are always available on the secondary market, that is often not the case in Japan, particularly for these smaller sports. It wasn't worth the hour train ride to get shut out, so I looked in the opposite direction, choosing to visit the Funabashi Arena for the defending runner-up Chiba Jets rather than Yokohama for the B-Corsairs.



Funabashi is a large town in Chiba Prefecture that serves as host of the Jets. The team used to be in the bj League and I saw a game in Yachiyo back in 2012, but they seemed to have settled in Funabashi Arena since then, and the fans have responded with strong attendance. Note that the arena is nowhere near Funabashi station; instead it lies close to the Kita-Narashino station on the Toyo Rapid Railway, which joins with the Tozai Line, making it easy to reach from central Tokyo. Take Exit 5 and look behind you to see a statue of two youths playing basketball, a sign that you are in the right place. Note the Jets banner just behind as well; there are plenty of them all around Funabashi.



The arena is about a 15-minute walk from here through residential areas. As you get closer, you will notice fellow fans and you can follow them the rest of the way. The arena is quite large from the outside, and seems to contain more than just the basketball court. Like many B.League venues, it is used mostly as a public gym, with the basketball team an occasional tenant.



There are banners of the players along the bridge to the main entrance. As you can see, red is the dominant colour here, and in the B.League, home teams wear dark, so it adds to the theme. That's Gavin Edwards in the foreground below.



Inside, more pictures of the players...



...as well as the logo with that pink elephant and another mascot, Ora, which has something in its eye.



As this is a public facility, there are no fixed concession stands, instead a number of pop-up shops are set up for the weekend's games and called the Food Lounge. Typical Japanese fare can be found here, along with western foods like pizza and French fries. Drinks can be purchased from vending machines, and all prices are the same as outside.



The arena itself is quite large and seats 4,368 along 4 sides. Standing room tickets are also sold and on this day, attendance was 4,831 indicating almost 500 had purchased that option. The visiting fans sit behind their team's bench; today's visitors were the Sun Rockers of Shibuya, whose yellow-clad fans can be seen on the left below. There are also banners celebrating past championships as well as a retired number 0 for Hiroki Sato, who is now the team's general manager.



There is a walkway above the seating area along both sidelines, and you can stand there without issue. This is certainly better than the assigned standing room area, which is behind the nets at both ends. With the separation between the court and the end zone seats, there is no reason to stay here if you choose to stand. As I was attending with a friend and his family, we purchased seats for 2,500 yen each that were in the corner, from where the above picture was taken.



When I arrived, there was a family occupying those seats, so I moved to the center to stand while waiting for my friend. At this time, the pregame show took place, and it was extremely impressive for this league. With the stadium completely dark except for some fans holding shining tubes, the floor was lit up with a countdown starting from 10 (below). This was followed by at least two minutes of video and laser to get fans pumped, and finished with the introduction of the Jets. Very exciting, but they left the introduction of the visitors to after, which is a bit unusual.



Overall, I really enjoyed this visit to Funabashi Arena, which was loud from start to finish, so much so that it was difficult to talk to my friend. I have to say that the B.League is well on its way to becoming Japan's third most popular circuit behind NPB and J.League. The merger is exactly what they needed to establish the sport across the country, and as the league enters its third season, it seems stronger than ever. Their next step will be an English language website to try to attract more foreigners to the games. If you are visiting Japan during the season and don't speak the language, have a friend help you out and try to attend a game near you. It will be an experience you won't forget.

The Game

With Shibuya coming in at 2-8 to Chiba's 8-2, a blowout was expected, but the teams played a close first half, with the Sun Rockers taking a 43-39 advantage into the break. Midway through the third quarter, Shibuya went on a 12-3 run to make it 60-48, leading my friend to believe that Chiba was the worse team. I told him not to worry, and on cue, the Jets responded with a 17-2 streak that lasted into the final frame to make it 65-62 with 7 minutes to go. The rest of the quarter saw the teams trade the lead, with neither able to establish dominance. Shibuya had a 5-point advantage with a minute to go, but a trey from Aki Chambers (a Japanese national, #10 shooting below) was followed by a pair of free throws from Josh Duncan and the game was tied. Shibuya held for the final shot, but Ryan Kelly was stripped by Michael Parker (a 36-year old who took Japanese nationality so he does not count as a foreign player) who looked to take it in for the win, but he was fouled by Robert Sacre. Still, Parker just needed to make one of two foul shots to clinch the game, but amazingly he missed both, and we had overtime.



Both teams had the lead in the extra period, but again neither could put the game away. Tied at 83 late, Chiba had the ball with no time on the shot clock. With half a second to go, Duncan was fouled by a disbelieving Kelly and this time, both shots were made. Shibuya had one play to tie and it was an interesting one as the ball was lobbed over the defense to bounce in front of the basket, where a running Morihisa Yamauchi picked it up for a layup. Sadly for Shibuya, he missed and the game was over with Chiba prevailing 85-83.



A very exciting game that was ultimately decided by fouls, with Chiba only being whistled 13 times compared to 23 from Shibuya. The Sun Rockers made all 15 of their shots from the charity stripe, while the Jets were only 17 of 26, but those extra two makes were the difference.

Notes

Chiba completed the sweep on Sunday afternoon with a 78-70 win that had similar foul numbers suggesting that the Jets are a bit better on defense.

Last year's title game saw Alvark Tokyo beat Chiba 85-60 in front of 12,005 in Yokohama. Those aren't NPB numbers, but I think within a few years, the league could hold the title game in a much bigger venue. Definitely worth following for Japanese sports fans.

Best,

Sean

Monday, October 29, 2018

Yokohama B-Corsairs 73 at Sun Rockers Shibuya 77 (B.League) - October 28, 2018


Being out of Japan, I don't follow Japanese sports much, so I missed the news that the bj League had merged with the JBL (which had become the NBL during my absence) and NBDL to form the B.League. They had an opportunity to go with JNBA and blew it, but what do you expect when one of the contributors was the bj League.

Anyway, the new circuit has three divisions totaling 46 teams, which makes for a plethora of road trip possibilities. But why bother spending money on train fare when there is a game within walking distance? One of the teams is the Sun Rockers Shibuya, who play their home games at Aoyama Gakuin Memorial Hall, just a short stroll from where I am staying.



When I lived here, I walked by this non-descript building dozens of times, without ever realizing that it could be a sports venue. Today, it was decorated in yellow banners to signify that a Sun Rockers game was taking place. The cheapest ticket was a surprising 2,900 yen ($26) but such is life in Japan, where these minor sports are often overpriced.



Inside, the yellow theme is even more pronounced. The team store is known as the Yellow Shop, and  they shout "Let's Yellow Up the Arena!" to get fans to stand up for tip-off.



The cheap seats are limited to those in the end zone and corners. I arrived about 30 minutes before scheduled tip and the seats in the corner closer to the court were mostly full, so I was relegated to the end zone (left of the photo below). The concession stands, team store, and various other sponsor tables are on the first floor beneath here, so you are a little bit farther away than need be.



Still, the view isn't terrible, equivalent to a lower level seat in an NBA arena.



There is a walkway above the seating area that allows you to move around and take pictures from different angles. You can even stand here during the game, and probably even sneak into the reserved seats in the upper level at halftime. The gameday experience is similar to that in America with over-the-top intros done in darkness, seat upgrades, cheerleaders, and t-shirt tosses. Fans really get into it and have a lot of fun.



As I've mentioned several times, Japanese sports venues are purely functional, and often the building has a primary purpose other than hosting games. This is a hall that belongs to Aoyama Gakuin, a university whose campus is just behind it. It is probably used for graduation and other ceremonies, with the basketball team a secondary tenant. Still, it is one of the better spots I have seen hoops here and well worth visiting for any fan in Tokyo during the season.



The Game

The visitors were the Yokohama B-Corsairs and the two clubs had played the night before with Yokohama winning. The Sun Rockers boasted two former Lakers: Robert Sacre (shooting a free throw below) and Ryan Kelly (#34) but were still only 1-8, two games behind their opponents.



Yokohama dominated the first half behind some good shooting and tough defense, heading to the break up 51-36. But as is often the case in basketball, the losing team mounts a comeback, and that is what happened here as Yokohama could only manage 6 points in the third quarter as their shooting went ice cold. Shibuya wasn't much better with just 16 points, but that got them within five as the final frame began. A 10-0 run by the home team early on gave them a lead and Yokohama never got closer than a point after that. They were forced to foul and Sacre made several free throws to clinch the game, with the final 77-73.



Sacre led all scorers with 26 points including 13 in the fourth quarter while Kelly added 18, so the two combined for 44 out of Shibuya's 77 points. Yokohama had a more balanced attack but shooting 9 for 31 in the second half doomed them. The game took only 1:40, even with 41 fouls. The lack of TV timeouts really helps speed things along.

I was impressed by the overall quality of play. With the merged league, all of the talent is in the same place and it was noticeably superior to the old bj League games I watched. It was fast paced and there were some excellent plays from both sides. The foreign players dominate the stat sheet, but the Japanese guys are fun to watch and are creative offensively. I was surprised to find out that these teams are two of the worst in the league and would like to see two of the best next time.

Notes

It was a special Halloween game and the Sun Rocker Girls were dressed in costume before the game, and walked through the stands greeting fans.



Next Up

I'll be heading to Funabashi next weekend to see the Sun Rockers on the road as they visit the Chiba Jets. Check back next week for a recap.

Best,

Sean