Friday, September 16, 2011

Stop the Hype!

It used to be that September was a sporting month to look forward to. The MLB pennant races, the NFL getting started, NHL training camps getting underway, and the US Open all contributed to an exciting and full sports calendar that could be greeted with quiet anticipation.

Alas, those quiet days are a thing of the past. The world of sports has, over the past few years, become a hype machine that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As a fan, you are simply unable to escape the constant overstatement that accompanies every game, play, or even simple news item. It's loud and in your face, much like a typical drunk spectator.

The absolute worst in this regard is ESPN (at least their television crews), who have gone from being a reasonably impartial broadcaster to a bunch of obnoxious, loudmouth announcers, each trying to upstage the other in an ongoing battle of hyperbole. Of course, when you want people to watch, you have to make every event more compelling than the last, and the only way to do that is by exaggeration.

The most egregious example is now college football, a sport that has seen gains in popularity due to brilliant marketing foisted upon a gullible public starved for entertainment, regardless of how corrupt it may be. The 2004-05 USC Trojans recently lost (fine, had vacated) their national championship (a joke in itself without a playoff) because of violations committed by Reggie Bush. This season, several high profile college football programs are undergoing suspensions or other punishments for similar infractions. Does anybody care? Nope, the opening week game between TCU and Baylor was hyped beyond belief despite most fans not even knowing what TCU stands for, never mind being able to name a single player on either team. Helped by a ridiculous 50-48 final score, ESPN and its announcers breathlessly tweeted just how exciting the game was, and why aren't we all watching!? I guess that is the best way to get ratings now, shameless embellishment.

The NFL is the king of hype when it comes to pro sports. By eliminating defense, it has turned the league into a high-scoring free-for-all that attracts more casual fans at the expense of those who enjoy the game the way it should be played. Naturally, it's far easier to extol the excitement of a 42-34 game rather than a 17-14 affair, so don't expect this to change any time soon.

Doubtless, all of this hype is helped along by the explosion of social media. Whether it be on Facebook, Twitter, or foursquare, fans, players, and even leagues are telling us just how wonderful they are. The NFL recently exited the realm of believability by describing a game as a "pre-season thriller". Pre-season games are a joke in any sport, used by top players to get ready for a grueling season and by the lesser lights to fight for a roster spot. The results are meaningless and to call a game a thriller when the second stringers are playing is insulting to most fans. Or it should be. But fans themselves are now part of the act, sharing each part of their game experience like it was the most incredible thing in the world. Watching a live sporting event is secondary to telling all your friends and followers about it, not to mention each home run, goal or touchdown. I'm not immune to this disease; when on a roadtrip I'll post an update from each game I see. I like to think that these are more factual tidbits rather than hype, but I might be mistaken.

America is not the only country that relentlessly hypes sporting events. The Rugby World Cup is being held in New Zealand right now and the early games are being treated by fans and media as if they were actually meaningful. Rugby is a sport with 8 quality squads and 12 "minnows", and blowouts are common in the first round. The All Blacks hammered Japan 83-7 today but the hype before the game suggested it would be worth watching. Don't get me wrong, the playoff rounds in this tournament are some of the best sporting action you will see, but these early games are not deserving of the hype they receive.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to watch sports for the spectacle of the game, to see the best athletes in the world competing. Now the spectacle is in the stands, the broadcast booth, or on the internet. I realize I'm a dinosaur when it comes to sports fandom; for me the game is what matters, everything else is secondary. I hope that the hype machine eventually runs out of batteries and we can start to focus on the games again, but I doubt that will be happening anytime soon. In the meantime, I'M GOING TO SINGAPORE TO WATCH THE F1 NEXT WEEKEND!!!!!! YEAH!!!!!!



Saturday, September 10, 2011

An Old Statistic Revisited

Sabermetrics is the study of baseball statistics. Over the past few years, it has developed into an industry all its own, with increasingly complicated algorithms designed to measure performance on the baseball field. To their credit, the sabermetricians, once ridiculed by big league teams for their "lack of understanding" of the game, have forced clubs to realize that there is more to a player than the typical five tools. Billy Beane's Oakland A's clubs of the early 2000s, immortalized in the book "Moneyball", were the first high-profile users of advanced statistics, and since then many more clubs have adopted sabermetrics as another tool towards winning ballgames. OPS (OBP+SLG) has now entered the vernacular of even the most casual fan, a sign that sabermetrics is no fad.

I'm not going to go into the different statistics such as BABIP or WAR, or discuss their advantages and disadvantages. I will say that any statistic that relies on a multiplier (i.e. a number that is not derived from on-field performance) is not something I like as it introduces an arbitrary element. I will also state I am not a fan of OPS because it double-counts certain things (a single is worth twice as much as a walk for example).

What I want to do here is revisit a statistic that has been published previously but doesn't get a lot of recognition, namely Bases/Outs or BOP. The point of baseball is to score runs, which you do by getting bases and avoiding outs. So a truly effective player is one who acquires bases while making less outs.

The formula I came up with is the same as was used by Barry Codell back in 1979 and described in this article from The Hardball Times:

BOP = (Total Bases + BB + HBP + SB + SH + SF)/(AB – H + SH + SF + CS + GDP)

Simply put, the total number of bases you for which you are individually responsible are divided by the total number of outs you made. It's not an immediately obvious stat as there are a number of variables, but it is easy enough to calculate with a spreadsheet. Which is what I did.

In the majors this year, there are 151 players who qualify for the batting title. I took their statistics and calculated the BOP for each one. No surprise who the MLB leader is: Jose Bautista with a remarkable 1.246 BOP. That means for every out Bautista makes, he gets nearly a base and a quarter. Wow. To put this in perspective, Ryan Braun of the Brewers is second at 1.090 - Bautista is performing 14% better than the second best player in BOP. Within the AL, the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera is BOPing 1.040, giving JoeyBats a nearly 20% advantage. Truly a dominant season, but the MVP will likely go elsewhere.

Bautista also leads the majors in OPS, so I thought I'd compare how the other players rank in comparing their OPS and BOP. Interestingly, the rankings are very similar. The biggest movers were Brett Gardner (NYY) who jumped from 99th in OPS to 55th in BOP, and Emilio Bonafacio (FLA) moving from 86th to 53rd. Both of these players have high stolen base totals, which are ignored in OPS, so this makes perfect sense.

The biggest drop was seen by Vladimir Guerrero, going from 96th in OPS to 129th in BOP, mostly because faster players hopped over him, but he was also hurt by his 17 GIDP.

Coming in last in both categories: Orlando Cabrera of the Giants, whose BOP of 0.467 is atrocious. An interesting stat for Blue Jay fans: Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, and Alex Gonzalez are all in the bottom 12 of BOP, with the latter two also below 0.500.

Here are the top 20 batters by BOP:
Player        Tm   Bases  Outs   BOP
Bautista, J   TOR   421   338   1.246
Braun, R      MIL   388   356   1.090
Kemp, M       LAD   416   390   1.067
Votto, J      CIN   408   385   1.060
Cabrera, M    DET   391   376   1.040
Berkman, L    STL   326   318   1.025
Granderson, C NYY   422   415   1.017
Ortiz, D      BOS   345   344   1.003
Fielder, P    MIL   389   391   0.995
Upton, J      ARI   394   397   0.992
Konerko, P    CWS   357   365   0.978
Ellsbury, J   BOS   412   425   0.969
Gonzalez, A   BOS   392   408   0.961
Avila, A      DET   298   311   0.958
Tulowitzki, T COL   369   391   0.944
Victorino, S  PHI   309   328   0.942
Gonzalez, C   COL   327   350   0.934
Morse, M      WSH   308   330   0.933
Holliday, M   STL   297   319   0.931
Reyes, J      NYM   310   336   0.923
Shane Victorino is the only player who is not in the top 20 in OPS that makes it here, knocking out Mike Stanton of the Marlins.

So what have we learned? Not much that we didn't already know. I prefer BOP to OPS as there is no double counting and stolen bases are included. But at the top of the league, power and walks are more important than steals. Hence OPS and BOP are similar for the best players.

However, like all offensive-only stats, BOP only tells half the story. Defensive stats are gaining prominence and are now used by most teams to evaluate players. I wonder if we will soon have a single standardized number that will summarize a players contribution through all facets of the game. 

As a final aside, I'd like to look into BOP for pitchers as well, but MLB doesn't provide all the stats I need right now. Something to look for in the future.