Category Archives: Oakland Athletics

More Moneyball than Moneyball Itself

As the A’s try to win the AL West today, I thought I’d post a little thing I wrote on a friend’s Facebook feed. My friend was making the old complaint about how Moneyball ignored Hudson, Mulder, Zito; that the real reason for the A’s success is not the Scott Hattebergs and their on-base percentage, but pitching.

* * *

Yes, the A’s have consistently developed good pitching — but really only since Billy Beane took over as GM in 1997. BUT: the A’s had the third best ERA+ (ERA adjusted by ballpark) in the AL this year. The A’s had the third best ERA+ in the AL last year, too. If it was the pitching that gave the A’s their success, they would have won 93 games last year, too.

The point of Moneyball isn’t that Hatteberg was the REASON for winning. It’s that everything adds up: pitching, defense, hitting, baserunning. The big things (Hudson, Mulder, Zito, Tejada, Chavez) — those reasons for winning are easy to see. The point of Moneyball is to find those small little advantages beyond the obvious. Add a run from hitting here, a run on baserunning there, save a run on pitching here, a run on fielding there — it all adds up. That’s the story, that’s what makes the A’s different.

So in the book/movie, the A’s took a catcher from another team (Hatteberg) and turned him into a first baseman, and that helped them _partly_ to overcome the loss of Giambi’s numbers, at a very low cost. They also saved some other runs on the pitching side by acquiring Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon.

This year’s team has THREE Hattebergs: Brandon Moss started the year as an outfielder, and ended up as a first baseman. Josh Donaldson started the year as a catcher, and ended up as a third baseman. And a year ago, Sean Doolittle was a first baseman, now he’s a left-handed relief pitcher.

This year, the A’s have also added up all those little runs by platooning all over the place: at catcher, first base, second base and DH. These sorts of thing won’t always work. But when you’re a poor team, that’s what you have to try sometimes. And sometimes, you get lucky and all those risks actually all work at the same time. That makes this year’s team probably a better example of Moneyball than Moneyball itself.

They Haven’t Run Out Of Miracles Yet

This week I’ve been reading my favorite childhood book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to my 5-year-old daughter. It’s a bit of an odd book in a way, because the real climax of the book comes in the middle, when the Golden Tickets are found. It has a happy ending, too, but it doesn’t quite bring that sense of elation that you get when poor Charlie Bucket finally has his first stroke of good luck. That wide-eyed giggling happiness that you share with your kid when reading a chapter like ‘The Miracle’ together — it’s absolutely one of the best things in life, ever.

* * *

I thought about taking her and my wife to the A’s game on Saturday, but Friday night I tweaked my back a bit playing soccer, so I decided it would be wisest to stay home and rest my back. I missed attending probably one of the top 10 most exciting games in Oakland history. The A’s fell behind 4-0, and were trailing 4-2 in the ninth inning. Their lead in the race for a playoff spot was about to shrink down to one game. Here is what happened next:

Josh Donaldson’s 2-run home run tied the game 4-4 in the ninth inning, and then in the extra 10th frame, Brandon Moss homered to give the A’s the win.

I love A’s radio announcer Ken Korach’s call. “The A’s — they haven’t run out of miracles yet!”

* * *

The rest of the story this season may turn out to be pretty good. Or not–the A’s may not even be Charlie Bucket in this story. Maybe their young enthusiasm leads them to make a quick, sudden exit like Violet Beauregarde, instead. Who knows. But this miracle today, the giggling, bubbly happiness I feel inside — this is undoubtedly the best part of the book.

We We We All The Way Home

Yesterday, I mentioned in passing how I enjoy baseball on two levels: one level in rooting for my team, and another in the aesthetic quality of the game. The day before, I defended the idea of cross-pollinating new scientific ideas with older fields of human endeavor, to see what comes out of the mix. So today, let’s make a new hybrid.

How can we explain the psychological attraction in rooting for a team? Why, when we’re watching two teams that we have no previous attachment to, do we often find ourselves rooting for one team or another anyway? And how is this different or separate from the aesthetic joy of watching a game?

* * *

As I write this, I am watching Ian Kinsler bat against my favorite baseball team, the Oakland A’s. On the rooting level, I want him to fail and flail badly. But on an aesthetic level, I admire Kinsler. His at-bats, the way he takes bad pitches and fouls off good pitches until he can get a good pitch to hit, are probably the most consistently good at-bats I’ve seen from any player since Rickey Henderson. If our enjoyment of sports were only about rooting interest, I should be incapable of appreciating Kinsler at all. If our enjoyment of sports were only aesthetic, I wouldn’t have a reason to want to see him fail.

Can baseball fandom be fully expressed in a mere two-dimensional chart, with rooting on the x-axis, and aesthetics on the y-axis? No, of course not. For instance, suppose the A’s pitcher were Bartolo Colon. Colon was suspended in August for performance enhancing drugs, but let’s say he’s served his suspension and now he’s pitching. Do I still root for him to succeed? Yes, he’s on my favorite team. But now there’s a moral dimension on the z-axis added to the mix, too. We can go on. Fandom is complex.

* * *

But still, we want to talk about it, so we need to model it. Do we need modern science to do so? Not really. For example, Aristotle, addressed such issues over two millenia ago. Here’s a paragraph on Aristotle’s aesthetics, from a 1902 version of Encyclopedia Britannica:

Elsewhere he (Aristotle) distinctly teaches that the Good and the Beautiful are different (heteron), although the Good, under certain conditions, can be called beautiful. He thus looked on the two spheres as co-ordinate species, having a certain area in common. It should be noticed that the habit of the Greek mind, in estimating the value of moral nobleness and elevation of character by their power of gratifying and impressing a spectator, gave rise to a certain ambiguity in the meaning of to kalon, which accounts for the prominence the Greek thinkers gave to the connection between the Beautiful and the Good or morally Worthy.

Not sure if Aristotle meant Good and Morally Worthy were separate things or the same, but I’ll assume they’re separate. So applying Aristotle to my example above, the A’s are Good, Ian Kinsler is Beautiful, but Bartolo Colon is Morally Unworthy.

* * *

Aristotle’s three dimensions are a kind of model of this aspect of human nature. And since this model is still being discussed 2,000 years later, we can certainly say that this model has a certain level of usefulness. But does this model accurately map to the actual structure and organization of the human brain? Can we explain this structure in terms of evolution, that there were some sort of selective pressures which led to this behavior?

Aesthetics and morality are huge subjects, so I’ll pass on those in this blog entry, and just focus on the rooting aspect.

Group behavior has always been a bit of a tricky subject for evolutionist to explain. It’s easy to explain selfish individual behavior: it’s behavior that’s directed towards passing your genes on to the next generation over the genes of your rivals. The prevailing explanation for most of the last 40 years or so has been kin selection: unselfish behavior towards your kin helps pass more of your genes along to the next generation. Any sort of unselfish behavior toward people who are not your kin is just sort of a side effect of unselfish behavior towards your kin.

But that’s an unsatisfying explanation, particularly if you apply it to team sports. Why do I go to the Coliseum, dress up in green and gold with thousands of other A’s fans, 99.999% of who are not my kin, and cheer the team together with them? It’s really hard to make a convincing argument that I’m doing it to pass my genes on.

The alternative explanation is group selection. Group selection is a theory that fell out of favor in the 1960s, but in recent years has been making a comeback. In his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson argues strongly in favor of group selection as an explanation for human social behavior.

Under group selection theory, human evolution happens in two dimensions. There’s a selfish dimension that pushes individuals to promote their genes over others within their group. But there’s also a dimension that pushes us to behave in ways to promote the genes of the group over the genes of rival groups. In times of war or drought or famine, those groups who behave in ways that encourage cooperation instead of selfishness survive to pass their genes on more than the groups whose individuals behave more selfishly.

Under group selection theory, the behavior we see in team sports makes much more sense. We naturally form emotional attachments to our groups, because we were evolved to do just that. As E.O. Wilson points out, every single animal that exhibits social behavior (including the one Wilson is expert in, ants) evolved its social behavior to protect and defend a nest. So we root, root, root for the home team, and find it extremely irritating when invading Yankee fans come into our home nest and chant for their team, instead. The joy we feel when our group wins, the pain we feel when our group loses — those are emotions that evolved in our brains to promote the genetic survival of our groups.

* * *

Note I said “our groups.” Jason Wojciechowski has an article today (Baseball Prospectus, $ required) on the use of the word ‘we’ in reference to team sports. Is it appropriate for fans to use the word “we”, or should that be limited only to the players on the team? Jason tries to define that line somewhere in along the lower level employees of the team. I don’t think that works (which Jason ultimately acknowledges).

Former Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein used to rail against fans using ‘we’ on Twitter all the time. At one point (which I can’t find now — Twitter search sucks) — he argued that you don’t say ‘we’ to refer to your favorite band, so why should you do so for your favorite team?

I strongly disagree with Kevin here. A band is different from a team. You like the band primarily because of the aesthetic experience it provides you. But as we’ve seen here, the aesthetic experience is only a small part of the experience of watching baseball. Sports are the most popular activity on earth right now not because they provides an aesthetic experience alone — but because they have gone beyond that and tapped into the a primal root of human evolution: the network of emotions that group selection has hardwired into us.

The reason professional sports is a profession at all is because it creates the feeling of ‘we’. That feeling is the main point of team sports. We-ness is the product.

To have a business that sells a product, we, and then to deny those customers the use of the very word that best describes the product–that’s madness.

Wednesday Linkblogging 2012-09-26

Jason Wojciechowski is finding it difficult to watch A’s games in this pennant race, because any failures by his favorite team are too painful. He wonders:

Given my strong suspicion that we only get one shot at life, is it better that I spend my remaining years experiencing as broad a range of emotions as I can reasonably give myself? Do the lows make the highs sweeter such that they’re worth it as a simple matter of arithmetic?

I have been similarly tempted to look away. I’ve found over the years that I’m actually a happier person when the A’s are not competitive. Winning breeds expectations, and the more your team wins, the more you expect them to win. But happiness research seems to suggest that the key to happiness is low expectations. I suspect, therefore, that unless the A’s actually win the World Series, our happiness as A’s fans actually peaked around early August, when we started to realize the A’s were a good team capable of winning, but before that winning had become so commonplace that we began to expect it.

However, I enjoy baseball on more dimensions than just winning. The game the A’s lost on Friday against the Yankees was a beautiful ballgame aesthetically: it was a dramatic game where both teams played crisp, solid baseball with good pitching. I enjoyed it immensely. Saturday’s game, however, was awful: the A’s lost, but both teams played terribly, the pitching was horrible, the defense was shaky and even the umpires got into the act with several mistakes. And that was just in the first inning before I turned it off, and went out to do something else with my Saturday. The game kept on like that, and ended up lasting almost six hours, without me. I’m glad I (mostly) missed that one.

The next three games have been equally dramatic, but somewhat in-between aesthetically. Last night’s game, for example, featured a horrible error by Brandon Moss that cost the A’s two runs, followed later in the game by a fantastic catch by Moss that saved the A’s three. For me, the drama would be much easier to watch if the A’s were not playing so sloppily.

I don’t always watch pennant race baseball, but when I do, I prefer errorlessness. Play crisply, my friends.

* * *

If you want to innoculate yourself from the pain of your favorite team losing, you can consume your sports like Will Leitch recently did, by entering the RedZone. Leitch describes his first experience watching NFL RedZone on the NFL Network:

RedZone is a commercial-free, seven-hour block of every exciting play in every NFL game all day. You see every scoring opportunity, you see every two-minute drill, you see every moment of fantasy relevance. The general consensus: You’ll never watch football the same way again.

On RedZone, events happen and are then forgotten in the chaos. Something that happened three minutes ago is distant history.

That, I suppose, is both the blessing and the curse of living in this information age. You can’t tell a teardrop from a raindrop in a hurricane.

* * *

Felix Salmon has an article about journalism in the midst of such massive amounts of instant information. Being able to find that teardrop in the hurricane in basically the job of the modern journalist.

But if I were hiring, the first thing I’d look at would be the prospective employee’s Twitter feed. What are they linking to? What are they reading? If they’re linking to great stuff from a disparate range of sources, if they’re following smart people on Twitter, if they’re engaged in the conversation — that’s hugely valuable. More valuable, in fact, than being able to put together an artfully-constructed lede.

The tricky balance there is to be able to both swim in the flood of information to gather the data, but to step out of it long enough to gather your thoughts.

* * *

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Jetsons, the Paleofuture has started a series to look at all 24 episodes of The Jetsons one-season run.

Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!? “The Jetsons” and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.

The deluge of information we now experience in the real future thanks to the Internet and television is vastly different from the one we imagined when we grew up watching the Jetsons. The Jetsons’ future seems so much simpler than ours. So when we feel overwhelmed, our fight-or-flight response kicks in and we want to reject it all and run away.

As Jason says in his post above about turning off the A’s in this tense pennant race: “My gut the last few weeks appears to have made the latter choice for me, leaving me a little more time to spend with my cats, my wife, my books, and my thoughts.” Sometimes, you have to connect to the basic human needs that persist no matter what century you live in. And therein lies the dilemma of the real 21st century George Jetson: to know how to both live in the 21st century, and how to step away from it. It’s not easy.

The Arrival

Only when the future arrives does the past become clear.

* * *

One hundred years ago, on April 10, 1912, the RMS Titanic left Southampton, England on a voyage for New York City. It never arrived.

Ten days later, baseball opened its newest ballpark, Fenway Park. At the time, Fenway Park had no history. No Babe Ruth, no Ted Williams, no Yaz, no Fisk, no Buckner, no Dave Roberts, no bloody sock. It was a blank slate of exciting possibilities.

* * *

In 1980, I was living in Sweden with my mom. I was 14. My dad was living in California. For the summer, my mom let me go on a plane voyage, by myself, across the Atlantic Ocean, to spend the summer with my dad. I managed to change planes at JFK Airport in New York, and not get lost. It was exciting. I felt like an adult.

* * *

On April 11, 2001, I attended a baseball game at the Oakland Coliseum between the Oakland A’s and the Seattle Mariners. It was not technically the first game of the season for the A’s, or the Mariners, or the Mariners’ new imported outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki. But in my memory, it may just as well have been. Because that was the game where Ichiro arrived.

One play — one — made us all just stop, gasp, and say, “Whoa. Whoa! This guy is something special.”

I don’t have a photographic memory, but for that one play, Ichiro throwing a laser beam from right field to third base to throw out Terrence Long, my brain has decided to make an exception.

I can still see it quite clearly in my mind. Although now, after Ichiro’s long career, it means something quite different to me than it did back then.

* * *

Yesterday afternoon, April 6, 2012, my teenage daughter decided to go out with some friends. They didn’t have any specific plans.

At some point, she and her friends decided to go see the movie Titanic 3D.

At no point, did it occur to her to contact her parents and let her know of this decision.

At 8pm, we sent her a text message. Where are you? “Oh, at the theater. The movie’s about to start.”

* * *

At no point when I was travelling across the Atlantic Ocean by myself as a 14-year-old did it occur to me to think how my mom must have felt while she was waiting for me to call and let her know I had arrived.

The whole time, she probably feared the worst. She probably feared the Titanic.

* * *

Last night, April 6, 2012, there was yet another ballgame at the Oakland Coliseum between the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners. It was not the first game of the season for M’s and their old imported outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki, or the A’s and their new imported outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes.

But again, it may just as well have been. For there was, again, an arrival.

Gasp. Yoenis Cespedes absolutely destroyed that baseball.

* * *

When my daughter finally arrived home, at nearly midnight, we talked.

We did not talk about Yoenis Cespedes. We did not talk about how my mom felt when I flew across the Atlantic by myself three decades ago.

I said words that will probably not be fully understood for three decades hence, when it is my daughter’s turn to say them, to her own offspring.

* * *

The world will little note, nor long remember, who won the two ballgames which marked the arrivals of Ichiro and Cespedes. But those games will span generations. Fans may not now fully appreciate what Yoenis Cespedes did last night, or what it really means. But 11 years from now, as it did 11 years ago, some new star will burst forth, and we’ll finally realize what this special night was really all about.

Giants Invalidate Their Territorial Rights Argument

Yesterday, the San Francisco Giants opened a Giants Dugout Store in the suburb of Walnut Creek. Why is this worthy of note? Well, take a look at where this store is:


View Larger Map

That’s deep in the center of Contra Costa County, one of only two counties that are, by MLB definition, the territory of the Oakland Athletics.

That in itself wouldn’t be such a big deal if the Giants were not also making the argument that letting the Oakland A’s move to San Jose is a violation of their territorial rights to Santa Clara County, and should therefore not be allowed.

This is not the first time the Giants have stepped on the A’s turf. When the Giants won the World Series in 2010, they paraded their trophy all around the Bay Area, including two cities in Contra Costa County: Walnut Creek and Richmond. But their parading did seem to carefully avoid any city in Alameda County.

Meanwhile, though, the Giants are still resisting the A’s move into “their” territory of San Jose:

  • They have created and funded a “grassroots” movement against the A’s stadium in San Jose, which just on Friday filed a lawsuit against the San Jose ballpark.
     
  • For similar reasons, they have enticed their own ballpark sponsor, AT&T, who happens to own a parcel of land needed to complete the San Jose ballpark, to flat out refuse to sell that parcel at any reasonable price, thereby forcing the city to engage in a complicated eminent domain procedure to get the parcel secured.
     
  • They have purchased San Jose’s minor league team, thereby doubling up on the “territorial rights” argument, and ensuring that a negotiation over compensation must be completed before the A’s can build their ballpark.
     

So what gives? Why are the Giants still behaving like territorial rights are sacred in “their” Santa Clara County, but like they don’t matter in the A’s Contra Costa County?

Perhaps the Giants Dugout Stores are a separate corporation from the Giants themselves, and are therefore not covered by the territorial rights, but if so, that’s just a legalese cover story. These two entities are tied at the hip. You know the Giants could have just said the word, and there would not have been a Giants Dugout Store in Walnut Creek.

So what’s really going on here? I can think of two explanations that make some sense. Either:

  1. A swap of Contra Costa County for Santa Clara County between the Giants and the A’s is a fait accomplit. There are t’s to cross and i’s to dot, but that’s eventually going to happen. Any resistance the Giants are showing now towards the A’s moving to San Jose is all about leverage: how much money will the Giants get in compensation for the loss of their territorial rights?

    One argument for this interpretation is that the A’s themselves haven’t complained one peep about this store, and they didn’t complain about the trophy parading, either. If there was no such tacit agreement, and I were the A’s, I’d be raising holy hell about the existence of this store.
     
    Or:

  2. The Giants have launched a full-out war against the A’s. They intend to do everything they can to force the A’s out of the Bay Area while they have the chance.

    In this scenario, the Walnut Creek Dugout Store is a beachhead to push the A’s out of town. They attack the A’s from the west as usual, and from this Dugout Store, they launch a propaganda campaign to weaken the A’s support from the east. And from the south, they employ every possible legal maneuver and manipulate every single sock puppet they can to prevent the A’s from moving to San Jose.

    The argument for this scenario is that this is the scenario that produces the best possible financial outcome for the Giants: the A’s leaving the Bay Area. The A’s would be stuck in the Coliseum with dwindling fan support and nowhere else to go but to some other metro area that can build a stadium for them. For the Giants shareholders to maximize the return on their investment, this is the optimal strategy to take.

In either case, though, the territorial rights argument is now over.

In the first scenario, it’s over because the Giants have given up. The Walnut Creek store is about launching a new marketing campaign to win over the new set of fans that they ‘acquire’ in exchange for the A’s moving to San Jose.

In the second scenario, then the Giants Dugout Store in Walnut Creek invalidates the whole “we just want the A’s to respect our territorial rights” argument as just bullshit. The Giants don’t really believe in, care about, or respect territorial rights at all. Instead, the Giants actually only care about pushing the A’s out of the Bay Area entirely. They want the whole Bay Area market to themselves, so they can make a lot more money when they eventually sell the team.

It was former A’s owner Walter Haas who let the Giants have Santa Clara County in the first place, when the Giants were trying to build a stadium down there themselves. He did that because Haas always had the bigger picture in mind: both sports and businesses do not just exist for profits alone; they are an essential part of the fabric of our communities. Anyone who walks on the UC Berkeley campus and sees the Haas name all over the place knows he believed that deeply. Capitalism works best when capitalists understand that their businesses aren’t islands unto themselves. When corporations live for profits and profits alone, you end up with people occupying Wall Street.

I’m hoping that Scenario #1 is closer to the truth than Scenario #2. It would be extremely disappointing if it wasn’t. Giants CEO Larry Baer was actually once a board member of one of the companies I helped found, and I had always respected him before. I’d like to think he, as a former Cal grad, is capable of a Haas-like vision that extends beyond just the corrosive idea that ‘maximizing shareholder value’ is the sole purpose of a corporation.

Normally, I’d just give the benefit of the doubt to the Giants, assume innocence until proven guilty, and that Scenario #1 is likely the truth. But doing so in this case requires me to believe facts not in evidence. It requires me to interpret the A’s silence as acceptance. The only facts that have been presented publicly involve the Giants aggressively moving against the A’s desires and interest, and the A’s just shutting up and taking it. I have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. So therefore, I don’t know quite how to interpret this.

The arguments are done, and the jury has the case. Is the Giants move into Walnut Creek a benign marketing play, or an act of malign selfish corporate greed? We anxiously await the verdict.

Notes on Thinking, Fast and Slow: Chili Davis

I got a Kindle today, and one of the first books I bought was Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a book more than this one, a summary of how the human mind works by the leading scientist in the field. I plan on making some notes on this book as I read it.

Here’s the first one. Yesterday, I wrote this on Twitter, about the Oakland A’s hiring of Chili Davis as their new hitting coach.

I approve of Chili Davis as A’s hitting coach, since I liked him as a player & I have no other way to know what makes a good hitting coach.

Right in the very first chapter, Kahneman discusses this kind of mental error. He describes an executive who decides to buy Ford stock because he likes Ford cars. He doesn’t take into consideration at all whether the stock is currently priced correctly.

The executive’s decision would today be described as an example of the affect heuristic, where judgments and decisions are guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking, with little deliberation or reasoning.

Kahneman goes on to explain that when we lack the skills to answer a question, what we often do is answer a different question instead. I don’t have the skills or knowledge to know whether Chili Davis would be a good hitting coach. But I know the answers to some other similar questions. Was Chili Davis a good hitter? Yes! Was Chili Davis a likable player? Yes!

So my mind naturally decides to substitute the answers for the questions I can answer for the question I can’t. And the odd thing is, we often don’t notice ourselves that we’ve performed this question substitution, so we often feel very confident in our answers, without just cause.

I feel very happy about the choice of Chili Davis as the A’s hitting coach. I feel quite confident that he will do a great job. Logically, I know that this is just a kind of cognitive illusion. But knowing how the trick works doesn’t seem to make the trick stop working. I still feel happy and confident about Chili Davis as the A’s hitting coach.

Moneybase: Moving the A’s (Rough Draft Version, part 1)

In my previous job, I built a big database of zipcodes and geolocations, and distances between those zip codes. The server that this database lived on is getting shut down sometime in the next 24 hours. A couple days ago, I suddenly realized I could use that database to answer a few questions I’ve had about where the A’s should be moving.

So I’ve been scrambling to try to get some queries done, before the server goes away. I managed to get the work done once, but I didn’t get a chance to double-check anything, so take all this with a gigantic grain of “this is a first draft” kind of salt.

* * *

The raw data I had was from the 2000 census and included:

  • every 5-digit zip code in the United States (about 40,000 of them)
  • the latitude and longitude of each of those zip codes, and
  • population and median household income for about 30,000 of those zip codes

I’m not sure why 10,000 zip codes don’t have population and income data. Probably some of them represent entities (like governments and such) that aren’t geographic locations with residents. But not all of them. For example, the zip code that includes Safeco Field in Seattle was among the zip codes missing data. Baltimore looks like it’s missing a big chunk of data. Plus, there’s no Canadian data either, so the Blue Jays are unrepresented, as are probably some additional Tigers and Mariners fans. So I’m sure the data needs a real good scrubbing, so I’ll repeat my warning about the rough nature of this data.

From the geodata, I calculated the distance between any two zipcodes that were less than 150 miles apart.

* * *

If you’re going to build a ballpark somewhere, you’d want to put it somewhere:

  • with as many people as possible
  • who have as much money as possible
  • who live as near to the ballpark as possible

So I came up with a formula to reflect this. For this exercise, I don’t really need to know the exact amount of money a ballpark can generate, I just need a number I can use to compare with. So median household income will do just fine, even though it’s not at all an accurate representation of how much money is available to spend on baseball.

So here’s what I did: For each zip code within 75 miles of a MLB ballpark, I took the population and multiplied it with the median household income of that zipcode, to give that zipcode a total amount of money for that zipcode. (I should probably have divided by average household size, but we’re after relative comparisons here, so it doesn’t matter too much.) Then for each mile that zipcode was from the ballpark, I subtracted 1/75th of that total from the score for that zipcode.

So the closer the zipcode is to the ballpark, the more money from that zipcode is assigned to the team.

Then I repeated the exercise for five potential A’s homes: the Coliseum, Victory Court, Fremont, San Jose, and Sacramento.

Once I had done that, I did it for every minor league park that was more than 75 miles from any existing MLB park, plus Portland, Honolulu, and Anchorage.

* * *

The (rough) results, for your viewing pleasure:

zip team city state relative market size
10451 Yankees Bronx NY $ 752,743,595,112
11368 Mets Corona NY $ 748,642,916,914
90012 Dodgers Los Angeles CA $ 510,586,706,490
92806 Angels Anaheim CA $ 429,295,980,560
60616 White Sox Chicago IL $ 353,523,094,940
60613 Cubs Chicago IL $ 351,956,542,055
19148 Phillies Philadelphia PA $ 313,899,514,792
20003 Nationals Washington DC $ 313,043,794,378
94107 Giants San Francisco CA $ 276,531,798,517
02215 Red Sox Boston MA $ 258,052,953,191
48201 Tigers Detroit MI $ 194,991,345,880
76011 Rangers Arlington TX $ 184,979,524,329
77002 Astros Houston TX $ 184,030,914,939
30315 Braves Atlanta GA $ 166,992,030,231
55403 Twins Minneapolis MN $ 138,398,423,288
33125 Marlins Miami FL $ 134,237,186,849
85004 Diamondbacks Phoenix AZ $ 126,863,473,073
98134 Mariners Seattle WA $ 123,032,784,722
80205 Rockies Denver CO $ 120,203,857,817
92101 Padres San Diego CA $ 119,511,331,778
44115 Indians Cleveland OH $ 114,814,235,603
53214 Brewers Milwaukee WI $ 114,411,126,303
63102 Cardinals St. Louis MO $ 95,088,871,967
45202 Reds Cincinnati OH $ 93,961,385,672
15212 Pirates Pittsburgh PA $ 91,812,365,763
33705 Rays St. Petersburg FL $ 86,162,065,166
64129 Royals Kansas City MO $ 75,617,221,577
21201 Orioles Baltimore MD $ 51,550,959,511
 
94621 Coliseum Oakland CA $ 302,835,904,135
94538 Fremont Fremont CA $ 301,356,267,461
94607 Victory Ct Oakland CA $ 288,464,089,740
95110 San Jose San Jose CA $ 244,281,690,385
95691 Sacramento West Sacramento CA $ 122,189,968,456
 
97205 Portland Portland OR $ 86,934,977,194
43223 Columbus Columbus OH $ 82,466,829,644
48912 Lansing Lansing MI $ 80,674,718,903
46225 Indianapolis Indianapolis IN $ 76,724,547,759
29715 Charlotte Fort Mill SC $ 66,474,729,100
27401 Greensboro Greensboro NC $ 61,196,329,994
23510 Norfolk Norfolk VA $ 58,754,813,183
14020 Batavia Batavia NY $ 58,698,864,009
78664 Round Rock Round Rock TX $ 57,730,378,193
78227 San Antonio San Antonio TX $ 57,705,434,009
27597 Carolina Zebulon NC $ 56,677,487,954
49017 Southwest MI Battle Creek MI $ 54,991,532,182
27105 Winston-Salem Winston Salem NC $ 54,919,270,523
14608 Rochester Rochester NY $ 54,337,641,491
89101 Las Vegas Las Vegas NV $ 53,809,399,974
37203 Nashville Nashville TN $ 53,707,382,854
49321 West Michigan Comstock Park MI $ 53,532,262,868
84058 Orem Orem UT $ 52,659,523,005
70003 New Orleans Metairie LA $ 51,061,101,559
40202 Louisville Louisville KY $ 50,940,204,646
14203 Buffalo Buffalo NY $ 50,893,985,379
32114 Daytona Daytona Beach FL $ 48,253,823,630
18505 Scranton-Wilkes Scranton PA $ 47,728,598,665
23230 Richmond Richmond VA $ 47,551,291,211
32940 Brevard County Melbourne FL $ 47,518,011,693
84401 Ogden Ogden UT $ 46,138,307,179
38103 Memphis Memphis TN $ 44,483,924,752
13021 Auburn Auburn NY $ 43,555,185,837
29607 Greenville Greenville SC $ 43,508,445,289
91730 Rancho Cucamonga Rancho Cucamonga CA $ 39,638,600,052

* * *

These results, outside of Baltimore, smell more or less right to me.

Next, though, I tried to put some measure on what happens to a market when it is shared between teams. This is where the results surprised me, enough so, that I think I probably screwed up somewhere.

I’ll address that in an upcoming blog post.

The American Economy, in Half a Sentence

Sam Miller gets my nomination for Sentence Fragment of the Year, for this line in a hilarious piece of baseball satire:

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts: … and that’s how I diced up Alfonso Soriano’s contract, bundled it with other toxic assets, and sold it to public employee pension funds.

I love how that line so concisely skewers both the left and right side of the political aisles for their roles in the current screwed up state of our economy.

…and it’s not even a full sentence!

* * *

I’m beginning to think that the future of politics will be like the future of warfare where people won’t fight people anymore; one side’s robots fights the other side’s robots, and whoever’s robot wins, wins.

In politics, each side hires sabermetricians, and the sabermetricians argue each other to the death before they proceed further. People in politics will have to know how to defeat a sabermetrician in an argument, otherwise they’ll suffer the fate of (oxymoron alert) poor Warren Buffett, running into a uppercut from Phil Birnbaum.

* * *

And speaking of baseball and pension funds, Moneyball author Michael Lewis has a new piece in Vanity Fair called “California and Bust.” In it, he interviews San Jose mayor Chuck Reed. I assume when Lewis met Reed they discussed San Jose’s attempt to woo the A’s, but nothing on that topic appeared in the article. The whole article made me pessimistic that any city anywhere in the country could afford to actually get a stadium built for the A’s, but heck, what do I know? Maybe that’s what’s taking Bud Selig so long to decide the A’s fate; it takes time to find a city that can dice up the stadium costs, bundle them with some toxic assets, and sell them back to Wall Street to complete the circle.

A Timeline of Holes

  • Image from NASA
    13,700,000,000 years ago

    The universe explodes into existence out of one small, dense dot.

    Why isn't the universe perfectly symmetrical? Why can't we look out onto the other side of the big bang, and see our mirror image?

    The universe is uneven. Unbalanced. Unsmooth. It is full of clumps and lumps.

    We are like particles of dust, swirling through an unstoppable, expanding sinkhole, as it carves itself out of some other earth.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright
  • Solar nebula
    4,568,000,000 years ago

    A white dwarf star in the Milky Way Galaxy explodes as a supernova. The shock wave hits a nearby nebula of gas, causing a clustering of material which condenses into our Solar System.

    Nothing happens in smoothness. In an undisturbed cloud, there is no conflict, no creativity.

    Action requires a hole. A hole creates an edge, and the edge is where things meet to become other things.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright
  • moon formation
    4,480,000,000 years ago

    A small planet collides with a young Earth, destroying the small planet and gouging a giant hole in the earth. The leftover debris coalesces and becomes the moon.

    Every hole has a past, a life lived as something else.

    Every hole also creates a future. But that future is not for itself. A hole is nothing, but it is also an opportunity for something other than itself.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright
  • 714,000,000 years ago

    In the marshlands of the planet Unbraikea in the Pinwheel Galaxy, a mantisoid species called "Allien" becomes the first sentient life form in the universe.

    An Allien named Jaramu Briwn trips into a bed of hexreeds. His oversized snout gets caught in one of the reed flowers. His embarrassment turns to joy when he discovers a beautiful symbiosis between the two species. 600 million years of co-evolved stability and peace follow.

    image credit: Arjen Stilklik and Gustavo Durán via creative commons license
  • 100,000,000 years ago

    An Allien named Bell Jymas begins to question the behavior of his society. "We've done things this way for 600 million years. Why? If nothing ever changes, what's the point?" he asks. Jymas is mostly ignored by his fellow Alliens.

    When we feel crowded, we seek to create holes. When we feel empty, we seek fulfillment. We yearn for an easy, soothing uniformity in our lives.

    It's a rare and remarkable event when an intelligent being wants to pokes holes in a fulfilling existence.

  • 65,000,000 years ago

    Back on Earth, a 6-mile wide asteroid crashes into the Yucatan Peninsula. The resulting impact hole sends so much debris into the atmosphere that all the dinosaurs died.

    The large hole in the ecosystem left by the death of the dinosaurs creates an opportunity for some small, mammalian survivors to move in and fill it.

  • 44,000,000 years ago

    An Allien named Bellu Bayna decides to test out Jymas' theories. He leaves the safety and comfort of his grassy reed nest, and ascends Mount Nervyny. For 40 days and 40 nights, he meditates, resisting the temptation to return to his old, easy life. Following his example, Alliens enter the most dynamic and creative era in their history.

    The leader of a movement usually accomplishes little but to point out the center of a hole. It's the first follower who is key, for this is the one who brings the shovel and starts digging.

    image credit: Giorgio via creative commons license
  • 25,000,000 years ago

    Nearly every ecosystem on Earth is colonized by mammals. But one group of mammalian monkeys discovers a remaining unexploited hole in their ecosystem. They leave the safety of the trees, and begin to regularly forage for food on the ground.

    This group of monkeys, called "Hominoids" or "Apes", lose their tails, and eventually evolve into several distinct genera: gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans.

  • 22,000,000 years ago

    Kan Yrnasin, a follower of Bellu Bayna's movement, composes an artwork expanding on Bayna's ideas, entitled "On Sockets". Of the work, fellow follower Mahmyttske says, "Well, the reednet is over, this work won. Thanks for playing everybody."

    "On Sockets" becomes generally regarded as the pinnacle of Allien civilization. Allien society soon thereafter begins a long descent into disunity, selfishness and ignorance, the combination of which makes them fail to understand the gravity of their impending disaster until it was too late to stop it.

  • 21,000,000 years ago

    A white dwarf star 20 light years from Unbraikea goes supernova. The resulting shock wave blows a hole in the atmosphere of Unbraikea, and all the Alliens perish.

    When Alliens realize they are doomed, their culture descends into a violent, nihilistic, destructive rage.

    A brave few try to overcome the desperately long and unfair odds. They broadcast their consciousness out into the expanse of the universe, hoping that someday, somewhere, it will find a recipient who can make their their existence matter.

  • 17,000,000 years ago

    The Colorado River begins carving out the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona, creating the Grand Canyon.

    Is a hole an act of construction, or destruction? Does it matter whether a hole is intentional or not?

    Does it change our judgment of a thing if we know there's an artist behind it, skillfully and willfully causing it to happen?

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • 50,000 years ago

    A rock about 50m wide slams into Arizona, forming Meteor Crater.

    Two large scars in the face of an otherwise flat, dry Arizona desert. One is considered among the most beautiful, defining features of the planet Earth; the other is thought of more as an unsightly blemish.

    What is the difference between a hole that is beautiful and one that is ugly?

  • 1,978 years ago

    Roman authorities kill Jesus Christ by nailing holes into a wooden cross through his hands and feet.

    Some holes go beyond mere ugliness. Some holes make us recoil in horror or disgust.

    The idea that God, from whose breath this holey universe originated, would Himself come and willingly participate in both the joys and the suffering of human life, is a great comfort to many.

    image credit: Mattias Grünewald
  • 1,000 years ago

    In order to avoid religious persecution for his scientific work, Ibn al-Haytham, a/k/a Alhazen, a Persian scientist working in Egypt, feigns madness. He is placed under house arrest for 10 years. During this time he begins writing his influential Book of Optics.

    Many, if not most, of the technologies which involve manipulating light passing through a hole were built atop the principles spelled out in Alhazen's work. A madman may not seem to be of any consequence. But telescopes, cameras, and eyeglasses certainly do.

    image credit: Wikipedia
  • 804 years ago

    The poet Rumi is born.

    "A craftsman pulled a reed from the reedbed,
    cut holes in it, and called it a human being.

    Since then, it's been wailing a tender agony
    of parting, never mentioning the skill
    that gave it life as a flute."

  • 1911

    One century ago, H. T. Hallowell, Sr., founder of Standard Pressed Steel Company, invents the hex key.

    Hallowell suffers the usual fate of pioneers, seeing someone else get famous for his work. During World War II, the hex key becomes more commonly known as the "Allen Wrench", a trademark of the Allen Manufacturing Company, a competitor of Standard Pressed Steel.

  • 1966

    Ken Arneson is born just a short distance from where the Beatles hold their final concert.

    Meanwhile, 4,000 holes mysteriously appear in Blackburn, Lancashire.

    From this data, scientists are finally able to calculate the hole unit volume of the Albert Hall.

  • September 1, 1991

    Ken Arneson exchanges wedding rings with his wife.

    A wedding ring is a round piece of metal with a hole in it. The circular shape, without beginning or end, is meant to symbolize the eternal nature of love.

  • April 8, 1994

    Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, blows a hole in his own head. His wife, Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole, is left widowed.

    "And if you save yourself
    You will make him happy
    He'll keep you in a jar
    And you'll think you're happy

    He'll give you breathing holes
    And you'll think you're happy
    He'll cover you with grass
    And you'll think you're happy now"

    --Sappy

  • August 20, 1998

    Louis Sachar publishes a book named "Holes." It includes a poem about one animal who wants to create a hole, and another who wants to fill one.

    "If only, if only," the woodpecker sighs,
    "The bark on the tree was as soft as the skies."
    While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
    Crying to the moo-oo-oon,
    "If only, If only."

  • My house on September 11, 2001
    September 11, 2001

    Ten years and ten days after Ken Arneson wed, he wakes up to a giant hole in his living room wall. Contractors had removed a chimney as part of a small remodeling project.

    Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, terrorists use airplanes to make holes in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

    Ken Arneson's hole is trivial, easily and quickly repaired.

    The friends and loved ones of 3,000 people who died that day suffered a hole in their lives that cannot be refilled.

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • May 10, 2003

    Oily sebum clogs a hair follicle on Ken Arneson's head. A hole exposes the sebum to the air, oxidizing the oil and turning it into an unsightly blackhead.

    Meanwhile, Michael Lewis publishes "Moneyball", a book about Billy Beane, who discovers an unexploited hole in the Major League Baseball ecosystem.

    "Billy, in a single motion, erupted from his chair, grabbed it, and hurled it right through the wall. When the chair hit the wall it didn't bang and clang, it exploded. Until they saw the hole Billy had made in it, the scouts had assumed that the wall was, like their futures, solid."

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • August 27, 2007

    Ken Arneson publishes a blog entry entitled "Of Holes." Commenter Mehmattski says, "Well, the Internet is over, this post won. Thanks for playing everybody."

    "I despair: I don't want to be a robot, programmed to do what I do, oblivious to the world burning beneath my feet. I want to know what my feet are doing. I want to know where the holes in my life are, and why I keep trying to fill them, over and over. I want to accomplish great feats. I want to see and create beautiful things. I want to have amazing experiences."

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • June 1, 2010

    A giant sinkhole appears in Guatemala City.

    Here is an event on a timeline.

    We usually think of a timeline as a series of events. But look again. Is a timeline not also a series of holes between events?

    Look at the holes. What is missing? What can't we see? What is being forgotten, being left unsaid?

    We cannot assign significance to the memorable events in our lives without assigning insignificance to the events in between them.

  • May 2, 2011

    US Special Forces shoot one hole in the chest and another in the head of Osama bin Laden, killing him.

    Sometimes, it is necessary to fight holes with holes.

  • August 24, 2011

    After 21 million years of travel, light from the Pinwheel Galaxy supernova reaches Earth.

    The stars come up spinning every night, bewildered in love.
    They'd grow tired with that revolving, if they weren't.
    They'd say, "How long do we have to do this!"

    God picks up the reed flute world and blows.
    Each note is a need coming through one of us,
    a passion, a longing-pain.

    Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated,
    and let your note be clear.
    Don't try to end it.
    Be your note.
    I'll show you how it's enough.

    Go up on the roof at night
    in this city of the soul.
    Let everyone climb on their roofs
    and sing their notes!

  • September 10, 2011

    Ken Arneson visits the Chabot Observatory on the roof of the Oakland Hills. He waits in line for over two hours to get a glance at the supernova in a large telescope.

    Peering in the viewhole, Ken sees a single white dot. In this context, a galactic-scale catastrophe looks to be roughly the size of a pimple on a man's face.

    Driving home in a somewhat disappointed mood, Ken hears a faint sound coming from somewhere in his car. "Flub flub flub," it whispers. "Flub flub flub."

  • September 11, 2011

    Ten years to the day after Ken Arneson woke up to a hole in his wall, he wakes up to a hole in the left rear tire of his car.

    Ken jacks up the car and removes the flat tire. Embedded into the tire, he finds an allen wrench.

    "Hissssssssssssss," the tire boos, as Ken removes the allen wrench. "Hissssssssssssss."

    Ken stops and ponders for a moment how an allen wrench, of all things, could maneuver itself into exactly the proper angle to puncture his tire. The odds against it seem desperately long.

    Ken walks over to the garbage can, lifts the lid, and tosses the allen wrench into the hole.

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • September 25, 2011

    Ken Arneson goes to see the film version of Moneyball. While watching the film, his blackhead begins to swell up, painfully infected. Later that night, it bursts open, and the pus flushes the blackhead away.

    "That's a metaphor."

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • September 28, 2011

    Billy Beane's team plays its final game in a forgettable season. Meanwhile, two teams that copied the philosophy he pioneered, battle each other for a playoff spot on one of the most unforgettable nights on the timeline of baseball history.

    As Beane asks in the Moneyball movie, what does it matter?

    It matters, because sometimes, a supernova explodes, and briefly shines 5,000,000,000 times brighter than the sun, giving off more light than every star in an entire galaxy combined.

    And it matters, because sometimes, a single drop of water dislodges a single pebble from a riverbank.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright

 

Brainyball: The Sequel to Statistics

Our old friend Moneyball will be making a comeback this year, when the film starring Brad Pitt gets released this September. Let me declare seven months ahead of time that I am sick of hearing about how the movie hype is distracting the 2011 A’s during their pennant run. I am also preemptively tired of the rehashing of old arguments, such as how the A’s philosophy failed because the Moneyball generation never won a ring. Finally, I am, in advance, savoring the irony of the A’s winning the 2011 World Series, in the very year that this antique anti-Moneyball argument reaches its crescendo.

I love me a good irony. I took my daughters Monday to see Sally Ride give a speech for the UC Berkeley Physics Department. I looked around the auditorium and noticed that darn near everyone in the room was skinny. Maybe these people burn all their fat off just by thinking so hard about the universe. Whatever the cause, I found myself tickled by this ironic idea: Physicists have very little gravitational pull.

The irony that lies at the core of the Moneyball book is that A’s GM Billy Beane was trying to find a way to weed out players who were essentially just like himself. Beane is a very intelligent guy with an chiseled athletic body whose intelligence got in the way of his performance. You look at him, and you think he was born to be a star athlete. But he never became one. He’d get so worked up about every little failure that his swing and approach got all screwed up. He couldn’t handle the mental part of the game.

So Beane became a scout, then a GM, and tried to come up with a reliable way to weed out players like himself who can’t handle the mental part of the game, and discover the players who can. They tried to accomplish this by using a deeper understanding of statistics.

Which is odd, if you think about it. It isn’t the players’ statistics that are causing players like Beane to fail. It’s their brains. If you really want to be able to recognize players like Beane in advance, shouldn’t you try to do this with a deeper understanding of brains?

* * *

We are living at the very dawn of neuroscience. In the last ten years or so, our understanding of our own brains has exploded, and we’ve still only scratched the surface. Consider this TED talk by Charles Limb:

Limb explains what happens in the brain when jazz musicians improvise. When improvising, jazz musicians shut off a part of the brain called the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-monitoring. They literally turn off the inhibitions in their brains, so they aren’t afraid to make mistakes, and are free to be creative.

Now it would be a big leap to say that Billy Beane’s mental failures were caused by an inability to turn off his lateral prefrontal cortex while batting. But it’s not a big leap to think that this sort of understanding of the brain isn’t just possible for musicians, but for athletes, as well.

Someday, perhaps, draft preparations will include brain scans, so teams can see that a Billy Beane’s brain isn’t focusing properly when batting. They’ll know how often you can take a player with Beane’s brain profile, and train him to overcome those brain issues. They’ll discount or increase his value because of this information.

* * *

In Sports Illustrated this past weekend, Joe Posnanski looked into the question of how drafting teams can predict which quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL, and which will fail. In particular, he wonders what set Aaron Rodgers apart from other first round QBs who flopped. He makes a guess:

What you get from these quotes and just about everything Rodgers says — in addition to steady and pleasant boredom — is a sense of someone who thinks about things constantly, even little things that few others think about. He seems to be someone who simply cannot imagine staying the same, simply cannot imagine that he’s already good enough. There are so many potential distractions at the NFL level, some of them off the field (money, fame, fan fickleness …), some on the field (dealing with pain — Rodgers has a history of concussions — standing up to a heavy rush, the inner workings of a team …). And the most successful quarterbacks, bar none, are the ones who deal with those distractions and never believe the hype and continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement.

To which I ask: how does this separate him from Billy Beane the baseball player? Beane thought about things constantly. He obsessed over every failure, trying to fix every mistake. And this sent him into a downward spiral that made him worse and worse, not better.

* * *

Another player who Posnanski’s paragraph applies to is Barry Zito. I’ve written a lot of words defending Barry Zito from his detractors over the years.

I like Zito. If not for the early Cy Young Award and that ridiculous contract, he’d be the kind of underdog people like to root for. Posnanski’s phrase “continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement”: that’s Zito. He’s a smart guy. Curious. He likes to tinker. To experiment. To find a new way to get better. He tries new pitches. He tries new pitch sequences. He tries new release points. And maybe that constant search for improvement has kept him healthy and pitching in the major leagues for a decade with the mediocre-est of fastballs.

But I’d argue that perhaps as often as it’s helped him, that personality trait has gotten him into trouble. Zito has had three pitching coaches in the majors: Rick Peterson, Curt Young, and Dave Righetti. Pitching coaches tend to live by a sort of Hippocratic Oath: if it ain’t broke, dont’ fix it. Zito doesn’t seem to believe in that. Each time there was a transition between coaches, Zito decided to take advantage of his temporary lack of parental supervision to completely change his pitching motion.

In 2004, Zito decided to try a new motion out of the stretch. He’d always wanted to do this, but Rick Peterson wouldn’t let him. When Curt Young came in as the new pitching coach, he didn’t have the relationship with Zito to say no. Zito had a 4.48 ERA for the year, his worst in an Oakland uniform. The next year, he was back to his old delivery, and his usual sub-4.00 ERAs.

In 2007, he signed a huge contract with the Giants, and showed up at spring training with a radically new delivery. Pitching coach Dave Righetti was horrified, and they settled on a compromise semi-radical new delivery. The results were just as bad as the other time he tried to overhaul his delivery: Zito’s worst year in the majors, a 4.53 ERA. (Followed the next year by an even worse 5.15 ERA.) Two years into his Giants tenure, Zito finally tinkered himself back into some decent success, with two consecutive years now of ERAs around 4.10.

* * *

Recently on Fangraphs, Jonah Keri suggested that the Yankees try to trade for Zito.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong the arguments he gives, but it is, like the Moneyball story, missing the psychological element.

Psychology clearly matters in the outcome of sports careers. The question is, understand enough about sports psychology that such data points are useful in evaluating players, or is the information we have so primitive that we should discount such information altogether?

The Yankees are unique in that they also deal with the theory that there are some types of personalities who “can’t handle New York“. This theory may or may not be valid, but I’m willing to consider that it is possible.

I’m not going to come out and say that Barry Zito is another Ed Whitson. But New York media pressure or not, we do have these data points: each time Barry Zito has had a change of scenery, he used the opportunity to make a royal mess of his delivery.

I think if you’re Brian Cashman, and you’re thinking of trading for Barry Zito, you should know these data points. There is a non-zero risk that Barry Zito’s brain is going to get in the way of his performance, because it seems to have happened to him before. And there’s a non-zero risk that the New York media pressure will trigger this effect, because it seems to have happened to other players before. And to the extent you’re willing to believe those risks exist, you have to discount Barry Zito’s value.

* * *

In Billy Beane’s case, the constant striving for improvement was nothing but counterproductive. In Zito’s case, we see some mixed results. So even though it’s a different sport and a different position, I have a hard time believing that the key to Aaron Rodgers’ success is simply a matter of willpower, that same constant striving for improvement.

If I had to guess, a quarterback’s success involves spacial pattern recognition, the ability to quickly recognize types of player movement, to filter out inessential patterns and recognize significant ones, and act on them. Maybe some players filter out too much information, and others not enough. Maybe there are places in the brain that Aaron Rodgers turns on or off in better ways than the quarterbacks who failed. Those places are mostly a mystery to us now.

But they won’t be a mystery forever. A new era is dawning.

Birth of a new age.

Ben Grieve in the Year 2000!

Rany Jazayerli tweeted that Billy Butler is close to a record pace for grounding into double plays this year. Dave Studeman responded by looking at the rising trend of double plays, which brought back to my mind the worst non-Jim Rice season of GIDPs ever: Ben Grieve In the Year 2000.

I always thought growing up that at the Turn of the Millenium I’d be rocketing to Mars and driving a flying car. Wow, were my expectations off. Actually, I spent the year 2000 watching Ben Grieve ground into 4-6-3 double play after 4-6-3 double play. Well, that’s not exactly true. Occasionally, it would be 6-4-3. But mostly 4-6-3. Man, that dude rolled over and hit weak grounders to second base a lot.

At the time, watching all those double plays made me wonder this: when would you want to bat a player like that leadoff?

If a slow guy like Grieve makes X% of his outs by grounding weakly to 2B, but still has a decent OBP, you could remove 20% or so of his double plays by simply batting him first. And with the worst hitters on the team ahead of him the next time through the lineup, he’ll hit with men on base a minimum amount of time.

Of course, that may mean removing a better OBP from the leadoff spot. And it may also mean scoring fewer runs if he hits a home run. And usually, the slow guys are powerful, so tradeoff probably isn’t worth it. But if you morphed the 2000 Ben Grieve (32 GIDP) with the 2001 Ben Grieve (.264/.372/.387), you might have such a strange high OBP/low SLG slothlike mutant where you’re better off batting him leadoff just to avoid the negative consequences of the double play.

BTW, I wonder if Grieve didn’t blow his whole career changing his approach to avoid those double plays. He never got anywhere near 32 GIDPs again, hitting into only 13 the following season after being traded to Tampa Bay, but he also immediately lost about 100 points in slugging percentage, and never really ever got them back again.

The Least Important Batting Order Ever?

MLB.com’s new A’s beat writer Jane Lee tweeted her suggested A’s lineup today. I found it hard to argue for or against her suggested order. It seems like every player in the lineup is roughly a .280/.335/.410 player, so it didn’t seem to matter much to me what order you put them in.

To test my hypothesis, I ran the 2010 Marcel Projections through David Pinto’s Lineup Analysis Tool. I don’t think the tool produces particularly realistic or accurate results, even though I had a little hand in developing it. But if it’s useful for something, it’s getting an estimate on the theoretical size difference between the best and worst possible lineups.

When I’ve run this before on potential A’s lineups, the difference between the best and worst lineups has been about 45 runs per year. For the projected 2010 lineup, the difference is 29 runs. And since no one is going to bat Coco Crisp cleanup with Jack Cust and Kevin Kouzmanoff eighth and ninth, you can probably say that any reasonable batting order Bob Geren decides to run out there this year will be about as good as any other.

I’m too lazy/busy to run the numbers, but it makes you wonder, how many teams in baseball history have had a lineup where the batting order mattered less than the 2010 A’s?

Slight Preference, Extreme Results

You have to look at philosophy from two levels: the individual, and the group. A slight preference at the individual level can result in extreme results when those slight preferences add up at the group level. Here’s an example of that mechanism in action:

In sports, you see this effect in amateur drafts all the time, particularly in baseball where draft picks can’t be traded. Let’s say a baseball team like the Oakland A’s values college players a mere 1% more than other teams do. The A’s may say and believe that they don’t reject high school players, but the effect of their slight preference is that they end up taking almost exclusively college players, simply because the high school players they prefer are all chosen ahead of them, and invariably when their turn to choose comes up, their highest ranked player just happens to be a college player.

In the NFL, where draft picks can be traded, you could create extra value for yourself if you know that you value players differently than others. The Oakland Raiders have a unique valuation on amateur talent, and nearly every year their selections are a complete surprise to those following conventional wisdom. Because their valuation system is so unique, they could probably create extra value for themselves by always trading down. The player they want will often still be available lower in the draft. Sadly for Raiders fans, the Raiders almost never do this.

In crafting a philosophy, we should be aware of this feature of group dynamics. Groups, moreso than individuals, tend to move either towards the middle, or to the extremes. In America, we see this in our politics. Most Americans are rather centrist, but the system of primaries to choose nominees attracts the more loyal partisans at either end of the political spectrum. So instead of a runoff between Candidate 40th-percentile vs Candidate 60th-percentile, our choices in the general election often ends up as Candidate 10th vs. Candidate 90th. The result is a legislature that is far more partisan than the general population, and is far more despised than it would seem necessary.

How do we keep a set of 60/40 preferences from unintentionally turning into 100/0 behavior, or for that matter, turning 80/20 preferences 50/50 behavior? It’s easy to blame the people involved for behaving badly (see my last article on Willpower Bias) and to argue “don’t do that, you bad people”. But it’s hard to change individual preferences, and especially hard when individual preferences are being affected by group dynamics. More often, the solution is to structurally reduce the amplification. In sports, enabling trades of draft picks at least makes it possible for teams to find more accurate values for their picks. In politics, open primaries or ranked voting systems would probably make the distribution of elected officials look more like the general population than the extremes.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t possible benefits to 0-50-100 group behavior over the messier alternatives. But it’s hard to believe that this tendency will always yield optimal result. If the optimal solution lies at 33 or 67, we want the quickest, most effective way to hit that optimal result. Ping-ponging between the extremes may get us there in the end, but you have to think it would be better to move their directly if we can. Being fully aware of the differences between individual and group dynamics can help us find optimal solutions in an optimal manner.

Happy Bat Day

We have guests arriving at our house tomorrow for Christmas, plus we’re going to start a big remodeling project right after New Year’s Day.  So I’ve been clearing out a lot closets lately.  Here’s something I dug out this afternoon:

The bats were acquired at various Bat Days at the Oakland Coliseum over the years.  The top one is from 1999 or 2000 and “autographed” by John Jaha.  The middle one is from 1976 and has Don Baylor‘s signature.  Not sure when I got the third one without a signature, but it was either late 70s or early 80s.

Missing is my childhood favorite bat, which was from 1975 and autographed by Bert Campaneris.  I played with that bat out on the asphalt of the cul-de-sac I grew up on every day, to the point where nearly all the green paint had been chipped off.  Somehow that bat got lost in dozen or so times I’ve moved since then.  I don’t have much sentimental attachment to these three bats, but I miss my Campy bat.

I remember when I got the bat.  Back in those days, the A’s didn’t just hand the same bat to everybody.  There were bats from nearly every starting player in the lineup, and every kid was randomly handed one when you went through the turnstiles.  I went with two of my best friends.

“I got Reggie Jackson!” said my first friend.

“Oh, you lucky dog!  I got Campy Campaneris.  That’s cool.” I said.  Then I turned to my other friend. “Who’d you get, Wayne?”

Wayne frowned.  He looked at his bat again, to make sure he hadn’t seen incorrectly. Quietly, he read the words to us.  “I got…Ray Fosse.”

“Oh.”  Pause.   “Sorry, man.”

Why San Jose is Better for the A’s than Oakland

I’ve found that culture has generally been missing in the discussion about Oakland vs. San Jose for the A’s.  In a conversation on BaseballThinkFactory on this topic, I commented as follows:

Look, here’s the thing: San Jose is the world capital of the computer industry. San Jose and its suburbs are the home to nearly every major company on the whole friggin’ Internet. It’s the engine that is driving the entire economy of the planet, the whole thrust of globalization. OK? I’ve worked there, met with these people, I can tell you: every President, every Vice President, every Director, every Manager, every CEO, CTO, CFO and VC knows that they are all the most important people doing the most important work in the history of the planet Earth.

These people will all buy tickets to this stadium in San Jose. They will not care what it costs, because they are too important to have such concerns. It will not matter to them if they ever use the tickets themselves. What matters is that they deserve these tickets, because they are such important people. And when they can’t use these tickets (which is most of the time, because they are so very very busy doing very very important things), they will give these tickets to their little people, partly as thanks for helping them do such important things, but also to display what kind and generous people they truly are.

This is how Silicon Valley works. And this is why the San Francisco Giants would much rather have the A’s five miles away in Oakland than 45 miles away in San Jose.

And So To Fade Away

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

— Herman Melville

This blog entry is my white whale. It has been my nemesis since the genesis of this blog. I have never been able to tame it or capture it. My goal in starting the Catfish Stew blog was not, like so many other baseball blogs, to second-guess The Management, but to express what it feels like to be an Oakland A’s fan. If I have failed as a blogger, it is because I lacked the willpower to bring myself to tell this story, to confront the core pain of my mission. Would Herman Melville have succeeded if he had tried to write his masterpiece without ever once mentioning Ahab’s peg leg, the scar that drives his obsession? If you face the Truth, it hurts you; but if you look away, it punishes you.

Load the harpoons, gentlemen, it is showdown time. Today, my adventure as a baseball blogger ends. I’m going down, and I’m taking Moby Dick with me.

Continue reading

2007 Photo Outtakes: He’s No Angel

With Barry Bonds bearing on a bout behind bars, and Alex Rodriguez resurrecting his Bronx-based business cards, the Anaheim Angels are once again going to struggle to supplement their Guerrero-only offense.

With those two players now likely to remain out of the AL West next year, there are basically no acquisitions the Angels could make that would make me feel like they were locks to win the division next year. The rumor mill has Miguel Cabrera and Dan Uggla possibly heading to Anaheim in exchange for Howie Kendrick and Nick Adenhart, but that idea does not scare me. Cabrera and Uggla would give the Angels some sorely missing power, but they would also turn a good infield defense into a bad one.

All of which is to say, the price of Dan Haren and Joe Blanton just went up a little higher. There’s more incentive now to stay the course, to see if the A’s can stay healthy for once, and if they can, to find out if what they have is good enough to beat the Angels.  Unless we hear some bad news about the rehabs of Eric Chavez or Travis Buck or Justin Duchscherer, I think Billy Beane is now more likely to tinker with the team than to blow it up.

Ah, That Day

The Angel of Death flew into Oakland Wednesday, disguised as Michael Cuddyer.

Block: No man can live with Death and know that everything is nothing.

Death: Most people think neither of Death nor nothingness.

Block: Until they stand on the edge of life and see the Darkness.

Death: Ah, that day.

quoted from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal

* * * * * *

Death takes possession of the agenda. It is time to discuss business.

Agenda Item #1: Death hits a home run.

Behold, I take away from thee the desire of thine eyes with a stroke.

Ezekiel 24:16

* * * * * *

You can tell you don’t have your best stuff today. But you deny there is a problem. It is only one run. There is plenty of time.

You grind. You fight. You battle.

You give Death a wound, a foul ball off the shin.

* * * * * *

You have an opening now, a good position to negotiate. Your odds are better now, right? Surely, Death cannot harm us, with only one leg to stand on?

Death gets up. He does not answer your question. He states only, in a matter-of-fact voice, “Your time is growing short.”

And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the LORD when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

–Samuel L. Jackson
  in Pulp Fiction

* * * * * *

Agenda Item #2: Death doubles.

Some good-for-nothing–who knows why–
made up the tale that love exists on earth.

People believe it, maybe from laziness
or boredom, and live accordingly:
they wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
and when they sing, they sing of love.

–Anna Akhmatova
  via Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

* * * * * *

Life is a pleasant illusion, a hidden gift decorated in agreeable geometries. Love. Joy. Hope. You only see the surface. You notice only what you want to notice.

Piece by piece, Death unwraps the package. Death does not tolerate delusion. Death demands the truth.

The truth makes you queasy. The truth is unsettling. The truth is sickening.

The truth is this: you cannot stop the truth. You cannot disguise the truth with shiny distractions. Any victory is temporary. The truth will out.

Whack its shin, and Death will put on a shin guard. Death will have its day.

Behold, therefore I will deliver thee to the men of the east for a possession, and they shall set their palaces in thee, and make their dwellings in thee: they shall eat thy fruit, and they shall drink thy milk.

Ezekiel 25:4

* * * * * *

Michael Cuddyer:
Without thy fruit (vs. rest of baseball): .252/.282/.387.
Drinking thy milk: (vs. Oakland) .367/.424/.967.

Agenda Item #3: Death slides ahead of the throw. Another double.

There are blows in life so violent–Don’t ask me!
Blows as if from the hatred of God; as if before them,
the deep waters of everything lived through
were backed up in the soul…Don’t ask me!

Not many; but they exist…They open dark ravines
in the most ferocious face and in the most bull-like back.
Perhaps they are the horses of that heathen Attila,
or the black riders sent to us by Death.

–Cesar Vallejo
  via Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

* * * * * *

And you scream, “No f@#%ing way! Get a new f@#%ing scouting report on this guy! Nobody else has a problem getting him out! This ain’t f@#%ing happening!”

But the truth is this: Death means business.

Behold, therefore I will stretch out mine hand upon thee, and will deliver thee for a spoil to the heathen; and I will cut thee off from the people, and I will cause thee to perish out of the countries: I will destroy thee; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel 25:7

* * * * * *

The truth is this: Your time is running out.

You turn to the past, asking questions, looking for an answer that maybe, maybe can get you out of this mess.

What went wrong?

Each question opens up a wound.

Whose fault is this?

To ask the question, you must relive the pain, over and over again.

What should have been done differently? What should we do now?

The questions are fruitless, and the answers don’t satisfy.

Why? Why now? Why us?

Death provides no answers, only the next bullet point.

Agenda Item #4: Death beats the throw home. Scores standing up.

I ache now without any explanation. My pain is so deep, that it never had a cause nor does it lack a cause now. What could have been its cause? Where is that thing so important, that it might stop being its cause? Its cause is nothing; nothing could have stopped being its cause. For what has this pain been born, for itself? My pain comes from the north wind and from the south wind, like those neuter eggs certain rare birds lay in the wind. If my bride were dead, my pain would be the same. If they had slashed my throat all the way through, my pain would be the same. If life were, in short, different, my pain would be the same. Today I suffer from further above. Today I am simply in pain.

–Cesar Vallejo
  via Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

* * * * * *

You’re on the edge of life now. The Light is fading, the Darkness getting stronger. This game, this season…the odds of staying alive are dwindling each second.

The only tool left in your kit is a prayer. Your only hope now is a miracle. You don’t really believe in miracles.

You begin to accept that there is little left to do now but to pour salt on your wounds. It’s OK. This is Life. A six-run deficit. A three-game deficit. Let’s play the last plays. Let’s get it done.

Agenda Item #5: Another standup double, another RBI.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

–Rainer Maria Rilke
  via Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart