Category Archives: Sports

No, the Blackhawks Will Not Win the Cup Because Patrick Kane Won an Earlier Series


Comcast Sports Net Chicago’s website ran an infuriating piece yesterday entitled “Why Kane’s game-winner may foreshadow another Cup for Hawks.”  Consisting of only 115 words of copy, it suggested the Chicago Blackhawks might be primed to repeat as Stanley Cup champions because their most talented player, forward Patrick Kane, scored a series-clinching goal in overtime against the Minnesota Wild the night before to send his team back to the Western Conference Final for the second straight year.

Their evidence was thus:

In 2010 Kane scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime of game six against the Philadelphia Flyers.  In 2013, he completed a hat trick in double overtime against the Los Angeles Kings to send the Hawks back to the Final.  And on Tuesday night, he did this.

CSN stupidly adds, “Notice a trend?”

No.  It’s not a trend.  If it were a trend, there would be more than two pieces of evidence.  Also, Patrick Kane is a top 10 player in the NHL, maybe even top three.  He is not some good luck charm who magically creates a universe in which his team is guaranteed its league’s highest achievement for something he did weeks before.  He is in almost all cases, the best player on the ice, juking, faking, spinning, and able to score seemingly at will when he’s at his best.  If he continues his career in a Blackhawks sweater, it stands to reason he will score several more series clinchers on top of the normal boatload of scoring he provides.

But to suggest that a goal scored in one series means the team will win it all is asinine.  It’s fan baiting.  It creates a delusion to suggest that, because it’s in the media, it must be true and that the CSN staff are experts on the subject when they clearly don’t understand the fundamentals of logic.  It must always be repeated that correlation does not mean causation, but in sports writing, that logical fallacy is everywhere.  “They did it before, so they’ll do it again!”

That’s the same as saying, “I sneezed the day my grandpa died.  Achoo!  Quickly, go check on grandma!”  It’s lazy and people get paid to do it.  They get respected by fans because they have the cloak of legitimacy provided by their position at a network with “Sports” in its name.  But it’s not legitimate to throw false information to people, pat yourself on the back, and call it a day.  It’s misleading, bad journalism.

Now, sports journalists being misleading about the correlation-causation problem isn’t the same as spreading propaganda about real problems like, say, climate change, but it takes the fun out of talking about hockey with other people.  If they don’t have a Woody Allen-style tendency to overthink every aspect of life, they are more likely to ignore the slight cognitive dissonance given them by a writer who didn’t think for a second about what they were writing.  As a journalist, if you mislead people — be it willfully or because you’re stupid — in any milieu, you’re doing a disservice to the job.  You make yourself look like an idiot, or, more likely, you are one.

So please, CSN staff, do your job better.  Or hire someone who can do it better for you.  Either way, stop spewing drivel to the masses that ends up in my Facebook feed without my asking for it.

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Silly Human Nature: Bat Your Best Hitter Second


FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine wrote a great piece on the underutilization of sabermetric data in Major League Baseball lineup construction.

Traditionally, the two-hole was the domain of contact hitters with good bat control, with premiums placed on the ability to hit behind the runner, to sacrifice bunt, and to generally move the leadoff man over (even if it meant making an out). You can see this statistically: During Major League Baseball’s expansion era (1961-present), the No. 2 slot has the highest aggregate contact rate of any batting order position.

But research by Tango and his compatriots suggests teams have been doing it wrong. After examining how important each batting event (single, double, walk, etc.) is to each lineup slot — based on factors such as how many runners are likely to be on base and how many outs they’re likely to hit with — the data says a team ought to bat its three best hitters in the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 slots, with the most balanced hitter occupying the two-hole. That’s a far cry from the conventional wisdom of slotting the best hitter either third or fourth, and putting a weak contact specialist at No. 2.

Essentially, given the likelihood of positive outcomes in a given lineup spot, say, Miguel Cabrera should never move from the second spot in the Detroit Tigers’ order.  But since he’s The Guy in Detroit, that doesn’t happen.

Which leads to the question, why does being The Guy matter?  Couldn’t he be just as important — and the data suggests, more potent a threat — batting second in the lineup?

Historically, the numbers three and four hitters are the ones expected to drive in the majority of a team’s runs, and this leads to enlarged egos for those players who earn that distinction.  They’re important.  They matter as the most valuable players of the team and sometimes the entire league.  The guys who bat second have “always” been more slap hitters, bunters, and grinders willing to sacrifice their own statistics in order to help the team move their leadoff men into scoring position.

But the longer data analysts look at hitting production, they learn things.  Bunting over a runner and sacrificing an out actually diminishes the likelihood of the team scoring a run because the more outs you have to work with, the better your chances of getting more hits, walks, and earning a base by getting hit by a pitch.  That data alone suggests putting a bunter in the two hole is a less than productive idea.

Yet teams still do it.

And in doing so, it keeps them from optimizing their run scoring potential.  With people like Paine writing pieces like this, one would expect teams to take notice, especially with their own proprietary data systems that are likely lightyears ahead of what is publicly available via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs currently.

So, again, why do teams perpetually succumb to history and ego over what has been discovered empirically to help them win?  It could be as simple as human stubbornness.  “This is how it’s always been done,” the managers think, upholding tradition.  And tradition is important in life, because it’s also a form of gained knowledge about what works.

But when new information becomes available, particularly in a competitive business such as professional baseball, shouldn’t everyone do what gives them the greatest chance of winning?  If tradition is shown to be not as effective as what the current data suggests, it would behoove every manager to utilize it to its fullest.

I fully understand the notion that it’s hard to take a guy out of his comfort zone, particularly an MVP like Cabrera.  But if his manager, Brad Ausmus, were to sit down with Cabrera and explain why he should hit second every night, I’d be willing to bet he’d understand.

“See, Miguel, we have evidence that you’d be even better batting second and we’d win more.  You could add another ring to your hand,” Ausmus could say.  Perhaps Cabrera’s personal runs batted in total would diminish slightly, but he would create more runs, which is more valuable to winning, which, again, any professional competitor should strive for at all costs.

Eventually all teams will follow the Los Angeles Angels’ lead — their best player, who also happens to be the best in the game, Mike Trout — by batting their best hitter second.  Right now it’s a silly adherence to the past for adherence to the past’s sake, but sooner or later teams will want to win more than they want to protect ego and tradition.

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Dear Media, We Need to Have a Talk About “Allegedly”


Today’s episode of NPR’s All Things Considered discussed the racism scandal surrounding Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling that erupted after this TMZ report over the weekend.  Repeatedly — seemingly at every turn — All Things Considered hosts and contributors stumbled over themselves in an attempt to appear careful and balanced, and they sound condescending at best and woefully unable to pinpoint blatant racism at worst.  Here are a few examples (emphases mine):

“The NBA is investigating a recording in which the owner of the L.A. Clippers allegedly makes several racist remarks.”  “We hear Donald Sterling allegedly saying, ‘I don’t hate anybody.  I love the black people.  I love everybody.’ … He’s apparently saying to his girlfriend, allegedly, ‘Do whatever you want in private, just don’t put [pictures of her spending time with people of other skin color] on your Instagram.'”

Yes, an NBA investigation into the recording is ongoing to determine whether it is indeed Sterling’s voice.  And, as the NPR report says, California law makes it a dicey issue if Sterling did not know he was being recorded, so it may all be inadmissible in court, if this were to become a legal matter.  NPR wants to cover itself in the astronomically unlikely case the recorded man’s voice is not Donald Sterling’s.  But the way they write their copy is lazy, amateurish, and so fearful of potential lawsuits that they look foolish.

Being careful in methodology, sourcing, and especially word choice are key tenets of journalism, but you don’t have to be stupid about it.  The above quotes, and others in the media — All Things Considered is far from the only culprit here — place the onus of their carefulness on whether these comments were racist, not whether it’s in doubt as to who said them.

And this is a problem.

Of course these comments are racism in its most naked form.  The man saying them is a racist, willfully trying to insulate himself from people with different skin color entirely because of that difference and exclude them from doing something they have every right to do.  Whether it’s Sterling saying these things, we can debate all day until there is confirmation by vocal experts and software — but really, it’s him, and the media is being overly cautious in reporting it — but to play this “maybe, maybe not” game with confirming the comments’ potential immorality is asinine.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  There are simple ways for the people at All Things Considered to properly report on this story, and it only involves moving a couple words around and adding a parenthetical phrase or two.  They need to say, “The NBA is investigating a recording, allegedly of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, making racist remarks,” or, “the man in the recording tells the woman, ‘Do whatever you want in private, just don’t put it on your Instagram,'” and so on.  The moral quality of the comments is not what is in question, but the man saying them is.  It’s such a simple distinction, but it’s immensely important for anyone who cares about calling out the wrongs of society, which is is ostensibly every journalist’s job.  It takes an extra second or two to write these things in a way that both covers them legally and still makes light of how wrong it is to subjugate other human beings in speech or action.  It’s dismaying to see the media perpetually get this wrong when it’s so easy to fix it.

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Anthony Rizzo: Meatball Destroyer


Through the early part of the 2014 season, Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo seems to be bouncing back from an unlucky (his BABIP was atrocious and unsustainable) 2013.  This is lucky for me, because he’s one of the few bright spots on the 4-10 team, and one of the only healthy players on my fantasy team.

The MLB Fan Cave has a possible reason for Rizzo’s reemergence as a solid hitter: batting practice with meatballs.

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Carlos Villanueva Shows Travis Wood How It’s Done


Yesterday I wrote about my disappointment in Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Travis Wood’s decision to get rid of most of his formerly lush beard.  Today’s Cubs starter, Carlos Villanueva, knows exactly what to do in the facial hair department.

This is a picture from early last season, a time in which Villanueva would pitch well as a swing man between the bullpen and starting rotation.  His performance tailed off as the year continued, as his beard and mustache became less distinct.

And there he was earlier today, taking the mound with his pristine twisted mustache, triangular soul patch, and thick chin strap underpinning it all.

In just about any other life situation, I’d think Villanueva’s fussy sculpting would be silly and unnecessary.  But in baseball, with its longstanding love for unconventional facial hair — Rollie Fingers, “Old Hoss” Radbourn, Jayson Werth — I love it.  Their team-wide beard growing contest made it easier to root for the Boston Red Sox last year’s World Series.  I didn’t need much (anything) to give me reason to root for whoever played the St. Louis Cardinals in that series, but the Red Sox gave me something fun to latch onto.

And in what will be a lost year for the Cubs, stupid things unrelated to the team’s performance are what fans like I need to follow.  I love baseball, even of the bad variety, but that badness still grates the longer I’m exposed to it.  Villanueva’s beard, if such a simplified term is worthy be used to describe its glory, lends that levity necessary to break up the annoyance at constant miscues, lack of hitting with runners in scoring position, bullpen implosions, and eventually, the constant pushing out of valuable players for prospects who could be years away from entertaining me.

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Travis Wood’s Biggest Opening Day Mistake


The Chicago Cubs lost their home opener to the Philadelphia Phillies, 7-2 yesterday.  Travis Wood, the Cubs’ lone All Star in 2013, started the game and took the tough luck loss, due to a Chase Utley home run and later the bullpen’s fragility.

But make no mistakes about where to place your vitriol.  Regardless of his strong start and other factors unrelated to his performance, the loss was all Wood’s fault.  Take, for instance, the last few seconds of this video of his first pitch, and the first at Wrigley Field in its 100th season.  Notice anything?  I sure did.

His beard, perhaps the 2013 Chicago Cubs’ greatest asset, has been cropped into a frazzled goatee.  Take a look at what once was.

Now it’s a shadow, a nothingness devoid of (agreeable) personality.

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 10.45.51 PMWood looked like a prospector in 2013.  He projected an image of gruffness, the visage of a grizzled man who loves lifting heavy objects, big tires, and whiskey.  Now he looks like he should be hanging out on the set of Justified.

Of course, we’ve been down this path before.  Wood surprised everyone last year at the All Star Game by appearing clean shaven to the media.  It was a bad idea then and it’s a bad idea now.  He changed things up to look presentable for the national stage, but he was foolish to choose this path.  He had been extraordinary, but opted instead for plain.

It matters because, for all the importance of mechanics, health, mindset, and preparedness, getting in the head of your opponent can give you the slightest advantage you need.  When a guy who looks like he’s seen some rough times throws a hard object at 90 miles per hour near your body, it makes you focus just a little bit more.  You’re more alert, but also more on edge.  “Will he try to hurt me just for fun?” the batter thinks, worried about the hungry looking caveman 60 feet and six inches away.

This is only partly in jest.  Of course, Wood’s natural gifts combined with some good luck (if his 4.50 xFIP is to be believed) last year and he broke out as a legitimate middle of the rotation threat for the Cubs going forward into their expected window of contention.  It’s mostly due to gained experience, confidence, and working with a catcher, Welington Castillo, who seems to have a good sense of sequencing.

But the beard’s cool, too.  Grow it back, Travis.  The Cubs — and my fantasy baseball team — depend on you.

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Chicago Cubs Coping Mechanisms, 2014 Edition


Every significant indicator — the number two farm system in baseball, a lucrative new television contract on the way after this season, expected positive regression for team cornerstones Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, the financial health of the organization will dovetail with the emerging competitive window — points to excitement on the horizon for the Chicago Cubs.  Unfortunately, that excitement does not matter for the 2014 squad.  They’re a ramshackle team, with middling starting pitching headlined by the beautifully locked — and overwhelmingly likely soon-to-be former Cub — Jeff Samardzija, a possibly emergent bullpen, and a mix-and-match offense populated with players who would be bench guys or minor league depth on 26 or 27 other teams.  Things don’t look good.  Some luck could go their way, but it would be foolish to expect the team to wildly improve on their projected 73-89 record. Instead, expect another midsummer “Everything must go!” sale.

Where does this leave Cubs fans?  The season starts tomorrow, and pessimism is never fun with half a calendar year of losing ahead.  We have little of substance on the field to root for, so we often have to look around the edges for those tangential things that make the Cubs and their surroundings unique.  Here are some interesting storylines to help cope with the 2014 Cubs season.

1.  Political intrigue!

Palms love to be greased everywhere, but in Chicago, there’s a brighter spotlight on the back room dealings.  The tradition of “What’s in it for me?” in the Windy City goes back a century or more, with charges of voting early and often, laissez-faire approaches to organized crime, sped-up building permit processes for buddies (always buddies, never friends, pals, mates), nepotistic political dynasties, and plenty of other things I never overheard my grouchy city employee father rail against after bad days (every day) at work.  It’s all quite fascinating from a sociological, storytelling standpoint, if difficult to stomach if you care about things like “doing what’s right” and “efficient government” — who needs ’em when there’s money to be made? The West Wing, it is not.  And so, in keeping with convention, making significant and necessary changes to one of the city’s oldest institutions, Wrigley Field, has been a torturous process of trying to cut laughably thick red tape armed only with nail clippers.

What would normally be a simple, straightforward story of a business improving its facilities with its own money — after, of course, trying to secure public tax dollars for the job — has become a political epic of grandstanding, delayed promises, and histrionic City Hall meetings, all because the Cubs want to maximize their profits through renovating their literally crumbling private business and erect revenue-generating advertising around the ballpark, like a jumbotron in left field.

In the way stand the rooftop owners across Waveland and Sheffield Avenues who have profited from the Cubs’ product for half a century or more.  Yes, they are currently operating under a shared-revenue deal inked a decade ago before a Cubs ownership change, but the arguments they’re making are silly and fun to watch.  Essentially, the rooftops have parroted themselves as everyday denizens of Lakeview (the neighborhood surround Wrigley) with only a cultural interest in preserving tradition and not upsetting the way of things, rather than a financial interest gained from unobstructed views of something they don’t own.  In their corner is 44th ward alderman, Tom Tunney, whose “up your butts” outrage in the name of “the people” (a few rooftop business owners) is simply delicious.

It’s pretty obvious which side of the argument I fall on, but this is interesting for everyone for the spectacle of bickering.  Like I wrote above, you have to take a sociological, storytelling view of things to appreciate their absurdity in full.  And 2014 looks to be the year when everything finally gets sorted, with the renovation tentatively, finally, scheduled to begin once the season ends.

2. Wrigley Field’s 100th Anniversary Throwback Jerseys

Wrigley turns 100 years old in 2014, and the Cubs have some fun stuff in store.  I’m most excited for the 10 different throwback uniforms, each representing a decade of the ballpark’s history, the team will wear throughout the year.  Visual variety is something the team has lacked in recent years, particularly since they reduced the number of times they don their blue alternates once preferred by pitcher Carlos Zambrano.  The day’s uniforms are generally chosen by the day’s starter, and given ballplayers’ typical insistence on keeping things simple and overly superstitious thinking, it makes sense that they wouldn’t switch things up with any regularity.  Still, from a fan’s perspective, that gets dull.

Therefore, these corporately mandated jersey changes for each homestand will be great fun to watch.  As you can expect, they aren’t all winners.  The 1953 outfit is bland and too white, and the 1994 blues look like a high school team’s practice uniforms.  The 1914 Chicago Federals jerseys, to be worn against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 23, are standouts.  They look like they’ve jumped from John Sayles’s Eight Men Out to the modern day.

My favorites, though, are the 1978 road uniforms.  The Cubs will wear them against the Cardinals on July 27, at which point the baby bears will likely already be playing spoiler.  I’ll do my best to get to this game to see my team try to block their biggest rivals from steamrolling their way to the top of the National League, while wearing their glorious powder blue duds.

3. The Gingerman Tavern

Located a couple blocks north of Wrigley on Clark St., the Gingerman Tavern might be my favorite bar for several reasons.  The last few times I went been there, they played The Clash’s debut album as they showed Animal Planet’s Too Cute on every TV in the bar, and they serve Jeppson’s Malort, Chicago’s grossest liquor and greatest thing to serve to out-of-towner friends.  Plus, personal hero, Lawrence Arms bassist/vocalist, and Bad Sandwich Chronicles blogger Brendan Kelly is known to haunt (and tend) the bar from time to time.  It’s a good place to catch a table with friends, and buy them stomach-turning shots.

4. Glimpses of “The Future”

The Cubs’ number two-ranked farm system will likely graduate a few of its top prospects this year, including 21-year-old shortstop Javier Baez, whom Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks says may have “the best bat speed [he’s] ever seen,” and certainly the best he’s seen at the minor league level.  Baez’s legend has grown to Greek myth levels this spring training, with his hyperventilation-inducing power and banning from certain backfields because he broke car windows with home run balls.  He will start the year at AAA Iowa in order to work on his defense — he could need to switch to second or third base because of Starlin Castro’s place as the projected-to-rebound incumbent shortstop — and plate approach.  Besides, if he were to open the season with the big team, procedural rules would cost the Cubs an entire year of contract cost control over him.  It’s best to keep the prospect with the “best ceiling in the minors” for a year of his assumed prime than bring him up two months early in a lost season in which he will struggle against big league pitchers before making adjustments.  Barring injury or ineffectiveness, he’ll be at Wrigley sometime in the summer.

2013 first round pick, third baseman Kris Bryant, also looks primed to make a case for a big league call-up by the end of the year.  He tore up the notoriously pitching rich Florida State League after signing last summer, and will be in AA Tennessee, where most expect him to continue developing his tremendous power.  Most expect him to be a right fielder when all is said and done, and circumstances at the big league level could force that move as soon as late summer.

Those circumstances come in the shape of Mike Olt, who just made the team out of spring training after a 2013 season that saw him lose his big time prospect labeling because of a tear duct issue that caused him to not be able to see the ball.  His doctors found a way to treat the issue, and he has looked like the player who was the Texas Rangers’ top prospect two years ago.  He probably will not hit for much average, but his patience, plus-defense at third base, and 25-30 homer power make him a huge asset to an offensively challenged team if he can make the necessary adjustments.  After his eye issues last year that cast into doubt his ability to ever play the game again, it’s nice to see him make the team with a chance to stick around as an important piece of the contending Cubs teams most expect in the next few years.

5. #Hugwatch

The Cubs will again be sellers at the 2014 trade deadline.  This means that anyone on the wrong side of 30, anyone playing well, and anyone unwilling to sign a longterm deal in order to stick around during the upcoming contention will be shipped out for prospects.  Candidates include ostensible ace Samardzija, Gold Glove (and miserably hitting) second baseman Darwin Barney, and recently signed starter Jason Hammel.

These guys are not inanimate objects.  They have feelings.  They build relationships.  Sometimes, relationships have to end via trade.  Therefore, hugs happen.  It’s something of a baseball tradition whenever someone gets traded in the middle of a game that the camera operators scan the dugout to catch every goodbye hug between now former teammates and coaches.  In recent seasons on Twitter, #Hugwatch has popped up whenever such moments occur.  It’s a nice, communal way to say so long to favorite players, laugh at their weird personal handshakes with their friends, and celebrate a guy’s impending move to a chance at a World Series ring.

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