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Baseball Statistics

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Screenshot 2017-06-01 23.45.41The Washington Post has an article with some interesting graphics about how home run hitting in baseball is up, perhaps attributable to the introduction of technology in 2015 recording the launch angle and exit velocity of batted balls. In 2016 a number of hitters, such as Daniel Murphy of the Washington Nationals, switched to trying to hit more fly balls than ground balls, with good results. This year the trend toward fly balls and homers seems to be increasing.

The graph above, with launch angle on the vertical scale and how hard the ball is hit on the left to right scale shows that quite a few hits in baseball are flukes, such as all the Texas Leaguer bloops that fall in for singles in front of outfielders, bunts, slow dribblers, and hard Baltimore Chops that take so long to come down that the batter beats out the hit. (Does anybody still use terms like Texas Leaguer and Baltimore Chops? I have all this Branch Rickey era baseball vocabulary, like Merkle’s Boner, from the used baseball books my mom would bring home from the thrift shop where she worked in 1967, but I can’t tell whether anybody knows those terms anymore.)

Due to better data, about a half decade ago, teams started shifting infielders around radically for each batter, whereas back in the 1940s only Ted Williams had been greeted with a personalized shift. So batters are now using launch angle data to respond to the declining chance of hitting a grounder between infielders by hitting more balls in the air.

On the other hand, some hitters have had seasons wrecked by trying to alter their swings to put the ball in the air more, such as Jason Heyward who had an embarrassing year in 2016 with the otherwise sterling Chicago Cubs. This year they told him to just go back to swinging the way he had been and he’s doing somewhat better.

The problem with baseball is that the home run is really so much more valuable than other kinds of hits that baseball has a logical tendency to turn into home run hitting contest.

A problem with that is that not many men much below 200 pounds, and only very strong ones above 200 pounds, can regularly hit balls over major league fences. Yet baseball is a more interesting game when it has a role for interesting non-sluggers like Ichiro Suzuki, Ozzie Smith, Pete Rose, Derek Jeter, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, Mark Belanger, Eddie Collins, Willie Wilson, Maury Wills, Juan Pierre, and David Eckstein.

Baseball hierarchs should be thinking about how to reward line drive hitters. The ability to hit a 90+ mph pitch squarely is pretty interesting even if you can’t consistently hit it over the fence.

I wrote a post in 2014 about how they could greenskeep the outfields so that the ball would roll faster on the grass so that line drives would be more likely to roll between the outfielders to the fence for a triple, the most entertaining kind of hit (other than the rare inside-the-park homer).

For example, today they usually mow the outfield so that the nap of the grass is back and forth, making those attractive geometric designs. But they could mow the grass so the the blades lay down away from home plate, thus cutting resistance.

The most radical change would be to dig up the outfield and resod them, sloping the outfields downward away from home plate, kind of like at the Lord’s Cricket Club in London.

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From The Undefeated, formerly Jason Whitlock’s long-awaited website, on a topic I’ve often discussed:

Mission Impossible: African-Americans & analytics
Why blacks are not feeling the sports metrics movement


May 24, 2016

The mission was to find black folks who spend anytime talking about advanced analytics, whose conversations are framed by — or even casually include references to — win shares or effective shooting percentage, WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) or points per 100 possessions. It’s a failed mission so far. Totally empty. Conclusion: Advanced analytics and black folks hardly ever mix. Set aside the tiny handful of black men who make a living somewhere in the sports industry dealing directly with the numbers and there is absolutely zero mingling.

Log onto any mainstream website or media outlet (certainly any program within the ESPN empire) and 30 seconds cannot pass without extreme statistical analysis, which didn’t exist 20 years ago, hijacking the conversation. But not in “BlackWorld,” where never is heard an advanced analytical word. Not in urban barbershops. Not in text chains during three-hour games. Not around office water coolers. Not even in pressrooms or locker rooms where black folks who make a living in the industry spend all day and half the night talking about the most intimate details of sports.

Draymond Green playing by feel

Let’s take the Golden State Warriors locker room, for example. I thought the complete stiff-arming of the statistical revolution might very well be generational. Old black folks don’t, but younger black folks might.


I asked Draymond Green, the Warriors star whose new-age game is constantly being defined statistically, if he engages in any advanced analytics conversation either professionally or personally. His answer was emphatic.

“No. Neither. Professionally, I play completely off of feel. I hear people discussing my game in terms of all these advanced numbers. I have no part of it,” Green said. “Even paying attention to it, from a playing standpoint, would make me robotic and undermine my game.”

As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

For example, in the first half of the 20th Century, the highly articulate Ty Cobb, the son of a college professor, tended to win the verbal debates over whether ballplayers should strive to hit line drives or, as the less intellectual Babe Ruth contended, swing with an uppercut to hit home runs. The fans sided with Ruth, but the sportswriters tended to side with Cobb, pointing to his even higher batting average, the traditionally most prestigious hitting statistic. But Ruth collected a huge number of walks (which aren’t counted in the batting average) due to pitchers fearing to throw one down the middle that he could hit out of the park, so more sophisticated statistical analysis has subsequently demonstrated what every 12 year old boy in America knew in 1923: Ruth was even better than Cobb.

As I pointed out in my 2011 Taki’s Magazine review of the movie Moneyball:

Smart middle-aged white guys really like baseball statistics. Sabermetrics provides men with a sheltered playpen in which to study nature and nurture with little risk of being called sexist or racist.

The bigger question is whether smart quantitatively-oriented white guys devote too much of their time to thinking hard about sports numbers (for which they are unlikely to become the object of Two Minutes Hates) rather than more important real world issues (at the risk of having their careers destroyed).

I’ve pointed out that blogger / psychiatrist Scott Alexander is a potential Bill James of psychiatric pharmaceuticals, a field of huge importance to human happiness that currently tends to lack sources of high quality independent critical analysis.

Real estate is another field in which moneyball techniques could be applied. As I’ve pointed out, economist Raj Chetty’s current project where he’s wheedled his way into access to an unbelievable trove of IRS 1040 data has revealed a whole series of interesting patterns. For example, states without many trees (e.g., the Dakotas) have done relatively better economically since 2007 than states with a lot of trees (e.g., the Carolinas), a reversal of the 1990s. But neither Chetty nor most of the journalists writing about his work have bothered to look hard at the implications of his numbers.

There’s a definite crimestop problem where almost anything could get you in trouble these days, leading to smart guys tending to go into playpens like sabermetrics where they won’t get Watsoned.

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From USA Today:

As MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson, dearth of black pitchers concern many
Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports 11:07 p.m. EDT April 14, 2016

Major League Baseball celebrates the 69th anniversary Friday of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, and while the number of African-American players on teams remain near historic low levels, there’s an alarming trend that mystifies the industry.

It’s the dearth of African-American pitchers.

While the African-American population in baseball remains flat at just 8%, according to an examination of opening-day rosters conducted by USA TODAY Sports, the scarcity of black pitchers is staggering.

Screenshot 2016-04-15 02.06.22

Here are the top 20 active pitchers in terms of career Wins Above Replacement. Keep in mind that #19 on this list, Johnny Cueto, isn’t considered black (he’s “Latin”), while #1 C.C. Sabathia is considered black.

There have been black superstar pitchers from Latin America, such as Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, and Johan Santana, but they aren’t counted as black for the purposes of writing articles about baseball’s Black Lack.

So the top 20 active pitchers look like they are about 70% non-Hispanic white American, which is some kind of crisis.

Being a Major League pitcher is a really good job, one that I would recommend. You don’t even have to be in shape or young. For example, #5 on the list, Bartolo Colon, is a middle-aged fat guy and he made $11 million pitching (pretty effectively) for the Mets last year (and is off to a good start this year). Of course, the cells in Colon’s pitching arm are probably about four decades younger than the rest of him.

Of the 449 pitchers on major league opening-day rosters and the disabled list this year, just 14 were African American.


Seven starters. Seven relievers.

No team has more than one black pitcher on its major league staff, and four of those starters reside in the American League East: CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees, David Price of the Boston Red Sox, Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays and Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays. …

Considering the increased emphasis on pitching depth in baseball – with every team employing 12 or 13 pitchers on their 25-man roster when 10 or 11 used to suffice – it’s clear that Major League Baseball’s efforts to diversify the makeup of American-born players will hit a ceiling without a resurgence in the number of black pitchers.

Tall white guys are excelling at pitching in this decade. The L.A. Dodgers, for example, last year had two starters — Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw — who were probably better than Koufax and Drysdale at their mid-60s peak. (They’re #3 and #4 in the picture above. Greinke is the guy with the crazy blue eyes who missed the 2006 season with social anxiety disorder and attributes his return to form to Zoloft.)

That’s probably the flip side of white Americans not playing basketball at a high level anymore.

The average height for the top 20 pitchers above is 6’4″.

But there aren’t many articles about that.

African Americans comprise just 1.6% of major league pitchers – well below their 7.9% of the general player population. Forty-two of 69 African American major leaguers – 61% – are outfielders. And when teams opt to carry a 12th or 13th pitcher on their roster, it often comes at the expense of an extra outfielder.

So the cruel reality is that the African-American baseball player – whether prodded to abandon pitching or by their own volition – is being excluded from more than half the jobs in the industry.

Anecdotally, the immediate future doesn’t look much more promising. The top 100 minor league prospects, according to rankings by, include just four African-American pitchers – Dillon Tate, Amir Garrett, Touki Toussaint and Justus Sheffield.

… Oh, where have you gone, Bob Gibson?

Of the top 200 pitchers of all time in Wins Above Replacement, five were non-Hispanic black. I’m using that term rather than “African American” because #1, slightly ahead of Gibson, was Ferguson Jenkins from Canada. The others were C.C. Sabathia, Dwight Gooden, and Vida Blue. (Drug/alcohol problems are not uncommon on that list, but the sample size is small.)

By the way, I’m not exactly sure what Sabathia’s ancestry is, but he’s from Vallejo, CA, a small town in the San Francisco Bay area that’s been leading the country in diversity since the days of Sly & the Family Stone. It also led California cities into bankruptcy as it got taken to the cleaners by its cops and firemen, who had far more espirit de corps than the citizenry.

“When you think about it, the black pitchers have almost become extinct,” says Arizona Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart, one of only 15 black pitchers to win 20 games in a season. “There are a lot of reasons, I don’t know if any of them are valid, but it seems like a lot of teams take black pitchers and convert them to infielders or outfielders.

“I know it happened a lot in the past, so maybe it’s still happening.’’

Certainly, it’s possible ingrained patterns of stereotyping remain. Major league rosters are filled with failed position players turned pitchers – St. Louis’ Trevor Rosenthal, Oakland’s Sean Doolittle, Colorado’s Jason Motte, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Chris Hatcher and Kenley Jansen among the current crop – but rarely are they black.

Kenley Jackson is a Dutch-speaking black giant from the Caribbean island of Curacao who played catcher for the 2009 Netherlands national team. Actually, he grew up speaking:

Papiamentu is the local language of the ABC Islands – Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Papiamentu is a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, and it also has some Arawak Indian and African influences. Papiamentu is one of the few Creole Languages of the Caribbean that has survived to the present day.

Back to the USA Today article:

It’s similar with the catching position, with Canadian-born Russell Martin of the Toronto Blue Jays the lone black catcher. The last African-American everyday catcher was Charles Johnson, and he retired 11 years ago.

“Historically, pitchers and catchers did not transition from the Negro Leagues,’’ Kendrick said. “There were great arms in the Negro Leagues, and we had great catchers from Josh Gibson to Roy Campanella, but that was considered a cerebral position. And the general consensus back then was that these men weren’t smart enough to play in the major leagues.”

Other than the half-black Roy Campanella winning the National League MVP award in 1951, 1953, and 1955. (Josh Gibson drank himself to death in early 1947.) And Elston Howard winning the AL MVP in 1964. If African Americans have stopped playing catcher, it’s not from lack of historical role models.

Anyway, what’s going on with pitchers is a couple of thing:

- Black Americans aren’t very interested in baseball anymore because they are obsessed with basketball and football, both of which also reward height the way pitching does.

- Pitching, like catching, is a skill position. In contrast, African-Americans who choose a career in baseball over football, such as Pittsburgh Pirates MVP Andrew McCutchen, tend to get dropped into centerfield where their natural speed is most useful. Alternatively, the really big guys, like 1990s White Sox slugger Frank Thomas and the (not aptly named) Fielders, father and son, go to first base, the easiest defensive position.

Back in the days of segregation, black baseball teams needed catchers and pitchers, so they trained their own. These days, however, top black athletes (0r mixed race ones like Giancarlo Stanton) who are interested in baseball have little trouble getting scholarships from, say, Catholic high schools, unless they are extremely ghetto. And ghetto blacks have little interest in training hard at the skills of baseball, so if they do wind up in baseball, it’s at the easier positions of outfielder or first base.

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Instead of having Brad Pitt play Billy Beane in Moneyball, I’d have Philip Seymour Hoffman play, uh, Jim Williams in Ballmoney, the tragic story of bearded, pudgy former boilerroom attendant at a canned bean factory who, through immense work, has slowly revolutionized how the smartest fans think about his beloved game. But then, after decades of labor as the ultimate outsider, his statistics start to show that something is going very wrong with the sport. Should he tell the world about the spreading corruption? Or should he keep his mouth shut and not ruin his chances to finally become an insider in the game that has been his life?

Final scene: victory parade for the hulking World Series winners and their acclaimed executive Jim Williams:

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Baseball Statistics 
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I’m sure everybody is sick of the baseball debate over the the American League Most Valuable Player award going to 29-year-old veteran Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers over 20-year-old wunderkind Mike Trout of the California Angels. But, I’ve think I’ve come up with a subtle but useful distinction.

Personally, I would have voted for Trout. But I think I can come up with a better defense of the sportswriters voting for Cabrera than they can.

Ironically, Trout is a classic Five Tool Player that the pre-Moneyball old school scouts would have drooled over because he Looks Good in a Uniform. Cabrera is the kind of pudgy Ken Phelps-lik e power hitter who whom Bill James drooled over.

But, leave that aside because here’s something that I’ve never really grasped before in all the years I’ve been thinking about baseball statistics (since 1965 when I was six).

A pervasive distinction between sabermetric statistics and traditional statistics is that the new statistics (such as Wins Above Replacement [WAR], in which Trout did best) are generally intended to predict the future better by removing as much as possible the impact of luck, while the old statistics (such as Runs Batted In [RBI], which favored Cabrera) are intended to describe the past, which includes the impact of luck. MVP awards are handed out based on performance in the season just past, so a case can be made that the backward-looking statistics make sense in MVP voting.

Think of it as the difference between scientists and historians. The former are obsessed with replicability, the latter with narrative.

To illustrate this, compare Cabrera’s 2012 season not to Mike Trout’s 2012 season, but to Cabrera’s own 2011 season. Cabrera has been highly consistent as a hitter over his ten year career, peaking over the last three years.

2011 28 DET AL 161 688 572 111 197 48 0 30 105 2 1 108 89 .344 .448 .586 1.033 179 335 24 3 0 5 22 *3/D AS,MVP-5
2012 29 DET AL 161 697 622 109 205 40 0 44 139 4 1 66 98 .330 .393 .606 .999 165 377 28 3 0 6 17 *5/D3 AS,MVP-1,SS

Cabrera actually had a higher WAR in 2011 (7.3) than in 2012 (6.9), but he only finished fifth in the MVP voting a year ago. Why? Because his RBI total in 2011 was only 105, compared to 139 in 2012.

In the 20th Century, the RBI championship notoriously correlated with winning the MVP award, although that connection has faded in this century as the sabermetricians have increasingly had their say.

Sabermetricians have long argued that RBIs are over-emphasized in discerning excellence because they are so context sensitive (you want guys ahead of you in the batting order getting on base, but not hitting homers that clear the bases) and dependent upon luck.

Moreover, past clutch hitting performance seldom accurately predicts future clutch hitting performance. The whole notion of clutch hitting in baseball seems pretty dubious: trying hard in four at bats per day just isn’t all that physically or mentally debilitating, so it seems likely that major league baseball players try pretty hard most times they come up to bat. Moreover, the typical major leaguer has come up to bat in clutch situations thousands of times since he was a small boy and if he were inclined to choke when the pressure is on, he probably wouldn’t have made it to the majors.

So, maybe Cabrera’s relatively low RBI total in 2011 was just bad luck, and regression toward the mean would suggest it was likely to go up in 2012, which it did. 

And, he’s likely to drive in fewer than 139 runs in 2013 due to regression toward the mean. Heck, if they replayed the 2012 season in a computer a million times, Cabrera probably wouldn’t average 139 RBIs. He had to be lucky in 2012 to drive in that many. Maybe he only “deserved” to drive in, say, 125, and then he wouldn’t have won the RBI race and thus wouldn’t have won the Triple Crown and probably wouldn’t have won the MVP award. You could run a million computer simulations of the season and check this out.

One of Cabrera’s sabermetric critics Keith Law of ESPN raised the question of alternative universes, Twittering:

No. #narrative RT @theknapsackkid: do you think in an alternate universe where Hamilton hits 2 more homers, Cabrera still wins mvp?

Indeed, much of what sabermetricians do is try to estimate what would happen in alternative universes.

But, here’s the thing: Cabrera really did drive in 139 runs in 2012. That is what happened in this universe That doesn’t mean he was the best player of 2012, or that he would have been the most valuable player if you could average across infinite alternative universes, but it does suggest that he was a really valuable player in this universe.

WAR is slanted toward inputs, while RBIs is a measure of outputs. Famously, one of the inputs valued by sabermetricians is walks. Cabrera only walked 66 times in 2012, down sharply from 108 in 2011. All else being equal, across a million alternative universes, that big decline (which was reflected in his On Base Percentage) is a bad thing. 

But, that decline in walks and on-base percentage was actually part of the Tiger management’s grand strategy. In 2011, Cabrera had batted fourth (clean-up), but hadn’t cleaned up as much as they’d hope because other teams had pitched around him because they weren’t all that afraid of the #5 hitter. Cabrera made the best of this situation where he wasn’t getting that many pitches that he could really drive, accepting a lot of walks, hitting 48 doubles (but only 30 homers) and leading the league in On Base Percentage. Sabermetricians love On Base Percentage because in random situations, it’s very valuable on average. But the Tiger management didn’t think Cabrera was as valuable to them in 2011 as he ought to be because he was walking and doubling too much and homering and driving in runs too little.

The Tigers figured that they weren’t really paying Cabrera $21 million to deliver power statistics of 30 homers and 105 RBIs. So, they spent $23 million in 2012 salary to land Prince Fielder so they could move Cabrera up to the #3 spot in the line-up and protect him with a famous home run hitter in the clean-up spot.

Fielder is even fatter than Cabrera, so he would need to play first base. (The Tigers’ designated hitter spot was filled by Delmon Young, who is a complete oaf.) This, by the way, reflects the influence of the sabermetrics revolution of the 20th Century: Cabrera is listed at 240 pounds, Young 240, and Fielder 275. Before Bill James’ time, it was rare for a team to put out a lineup with 3 guys who look more like semipro slow-pitch softball players, but the first generation of sabermetricians proved that baseball was overrating elegant defense, baserunning, and line-drive hitting compared to homers and walks. So, now, baseball is full of guys who look like offensive linemen.

So, Cabrera lost weight over the offseason and worked hard on fielding and throwing so he could move back to third base to open up first for the poor-fielding Fielder.

And this strategy worked well. Free to swing away, Cabrera upped his homers from 30 to 44 and his RBIs from 105 to 139. His On Base Percentage dropped from .448 to .393 and his Runs scored from 111 to 109. But, all told, Cabrera delivered exactly what the Tigers had been hoping for.

Now, you could say that if you used your computer to randomly assign Cabrera to a different team, on average in your alternative universe simulations, his 2011 season would be more valuable than his 2012 season. But we don’t live in infinite alternative universes, we live in this highly continent single universe.

You can see the difference between an MVP Award and a statistically sound analysis of ability more easily when thinking about World Series MVP Awards. Consider the famous 1986 World Series between the Mets and Red Sox. Out of all the good players on those two teams (Roger Clemens, Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Evans, Keith Hernandez, Doc Gooden, Don Baylor, etc.) was World Series MVP Ray Knight really the best one?

Of course not. Indeed, the Mets let their World Series hero go during the offseason. But, he really did have a valuable World Series.

Say a player in the World Series crushes a lot of balls, but most of them right at somebody and winds up batting .231 as his team gets swept (a little bit like Cabrera in 2012 World Series). A statistical system even better than WAR would predict that he would do much better if that World Series were replayed a million times. It might even predict he’d be the MVP more often than anybody else.

But, they don’t play the WS a million times, they just play it once, and in World Series that was actually played, Cabrera wasn’t the WS MVP.

Conversely, it’s not ridiculous to argue that Cabrera was the most valuable player in the AL in the 2012 season, even if Trout was the best.

P.S., Also, there’s the Career Achievement aspect: Cabrera is 29 and has come close to the MVP before, finishing in the top 5 five times. He’s headed toward the decline phase of a highly respectable career, the kind that usually wins an MVP award.

Trout is only 20 and if he’s really as good as he appeared to be in 2012 (i.e, like a mid-career Mickey Mantle), he ought to win several when he’s older and even better.

Career Achievement isn’t supposed to play a role in MVP voting, but it’s reasonable that it does to some extent, especially since the advent of steroids.

In short, 29-year-old Miguel Cabrera has passed more PED tests than 20-year-old Mike Trout has.

That doesn’t mean he’s clean, but Cabrera’s career arc looks reasonable. And that may well be unfair to Trout, but that’s the world we live in.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Baseball Statistics 
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With the World Series on, I’m reminded that baseball has some exciting young players like 20-year-old Mike Trout, who might win the A.L. MVP despite one of the various Cabreras winning the Triple Crown, and 19-year-old Bryce Harper. But are they too exciting? I mean, Harper has looked like he’s 30 years old since he was 16. 

Last year, Ryan Braun won the MVP in the N.L., only to immediately get caught for performance enhancing drugs (although he managed to lawyer his way out of the 50 game suspension). This season, the San Francisco Cabrera was leading the N.L. in batting average when he got caught. 

Judging by the depressed overall offensive totals, the game is cleaner than it was a 10-15 years ago. But does that just mean that whoever is racking up standout statistics this year is probably just one of the smaller number of juicers?

A vast amount of analytical talent is devoted to thinking about baseball (statistical talent that might more usefully be deployed upon more significant statistical issues, such as, say, figuring out the long-run impact of immigration policies, but never mind for now). But, the sabermetricians, led by the sainted Bill James, tended to be unenthusiastic in the 1990s and early 2000s about thinking about why exactly all the most famous slugging records were suddenly being broken. 

Have they caught up? Are there websites that, say, explore how much confidence you can have that if you invest some loyalty in rooting for Player X based upon his impressive numbers, you won’t suddenly find it’s all been a fraud?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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The division-leading Washington Nationals baseball team has gone ahead with their plan and shut their prize young pitcher Stephen Strasburg down for the season. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery and team management had decided early to only let him pitch 160 innings, even if they had a chance to go to the postseason with him.

I don’t have anything intelligent to say about Strasburg, I just wanted to use this opportunity to post a link to a video I saw on the evening sports news on May 6, 1998. I was sitting on the couch talking to my wife with the TV on but the volume off, so I didn’t get any audio hints about what was coming. I vaguely recognized Kerry Wood, the Chicago Cubs’ 20-year-old phenom pitcher, and was hardly surprised when they started showing clips of his strikeout pitches from that afternoon’s game at Wrigley Field against the hard-hitting Houston Astros (Bagwell & Biggio). 

But I became increasingly distracted from my conversation as the strikeout pitch clips kept going on and on, past all reasonable limits, a dozen, a dozen and a half, and still kept piling up. And the pitches weren’t just Wood’s 98 mph fastball. He was getting bizarre motion on the ball. By the end of the game (the 19th is 3:00 into the video), Wood was throwing what looked like 90+ mph whiffle balls at the befuddled batters. The catcher could barely backhand the 20th and last strikeout pitch, which broke two feet horizontally from right to left. The poor batter would have needed a pool cue to get any wood on the ball.

Was Wood’s 20 strikeout one-hitter in batter-friendly Wrigley Field in 1998, the McGwire-Sosa peak of the steroid slugger era, the greatest game ever pitched? Many people think so.

I saw Sandy Koufax pitch at Dodger Stadium when I was five, and have been a big Koufax fan ever since. But Koufax was pitching with a huge vertical strikezone, bottom of the knees to shoulders. So he threw two main pitches: a curve that dropped sharply (but didn’t swerve much horizontally like Wood’s last pitch) and a rising fastball. A baseball thrown hard enough with enough backspin will tend to sail upward above its natural trajectory and that’s what a lot of legendary 1960s pitchers threw. (By rising fastball, I mean one that falls slower than gravity alone would imply.) Pitching 320 innings per year burned out Koufax, who retired in 1966 after going 27-9. 

But the leagues and the umpires progressively took the rising fastball away from pitchers after 1968. By the 1990s, the strikezone barely extended above the belt, forcing pitchers into odd contortions to avoid rising fastballs. 

After Wood’s 20-strikeout game, it suddenly became hugely important to everybody interested in baseball, for reasons that no longer are clear, for Wood to break the record for most strikeouts in two consecutive starts, which he did. And then he had to break the record in three consecutive starts, which he did. A few months later he had Tommy John surgery.

And Wood was never quite the same. He had three operations on his arm, and 14 trips to the disabled list. He retired earlier this season with a career record of 86-75. It was a fine career with two All Star game appearances, but it wasn’t what everybody had hoped that May afternoon when he was 20.
(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Here’s the opening of a minor sports page article in the L.A. Times about the Dodgers facing 49-year-old Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jamie Moyer:

To prepare to face Jamie Moyer on Friday night, Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. could watch videos of his past at-bats against the Colorado Rockies left-hander. 

Or he could talk to his father, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn Sr., who also faced him.
Rookie Scott Van Slyke could also solicit advice from his father, former All-Star Andy Van Slyke. 

Shortstop Dee Gordon’s father, former pitcher Tom Gordon, was Moyer’s teammate. …

“I think Jamie pitched against my grandfather,” joked Jerry Hairston Jr., a third-generation major leaguer.

So, four of the 25 Dodgers are the sons of former major leaguers. And these aren’t minor major leaguers, either. All four dads spent at least 13 years in The Show.

When I was a kid, it was quite rare for big leaguers to be the sons of big leaguers. It seemed more common for baseball players to be brothers than father-son combos. I first noticed a sizable number of scions in baseball about 20 years ago. Adam Bellow wrote a book early in the last decade, In Praise of Nepotism, that toted up the statistics showing growing dynasticism in many fields, but I haven’t looked at the numbers much since. Is this trend still growing in the baseball?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Speaking of nepotism in India, here’s my 2003 article in The National Interest, “Revolutionary Nepotism,” surveying the global resurgence of dynasticism. It would be interesting to update it to see which way trends have gone over the last decade. 

One of the things that got me interested in the topic was the growth of dynasticism among baseball players: the best National Leaguer and the best American Leaguer of the 1990s were, arguably, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., whose fathers I vividly recalled. (I watched Bobby Bonds’s first major league game in 1968 on TV, and he hit a grand slam homer to beat my Dodgers.) Before the late 20th Century, there just weren’t a lot of examples in baseball history of superstars who were the sons of all-stars or vice-versa. So, one question would be whether this trend has continued in baseball over the last decade.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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From my review of the new Brad Pitt movie in Taki’s Magazine:

When my son was ten, his baseball coach—inspired by Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game—came up with a statistically brilliant team strategy: Don’t swing. Ever. 

Because few ten-year-olds can throw more strikes than balls, his team won the pennant by letting the little boy on the mound walk them around the bases until he dissolved into tears and had to be replaced by another doomed lad. 

The next spring, the parents got together and decided not to let that coach return. 

Moneyball the movie is, easily, the greatest feature film ever made about baseball statistics.

Read the whole thing there.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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When I talk about the bizarrely large impact that Bill James has had on American culture, I’m thinking about, oh, that Brad Pitt is starring in a movie version coming in September of Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball. Pitt plays Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, whom Lewis celebrated for accepting the sabremetric revolution launched by James. Instead of looking for the best athletes, Beane found guys who can hit home runs and get walks.

Jonah Hill plays Beane’s quant, Philip Seymour Hoffman is A’s manager Art Howe, and it looks like Kevin Costner has a role as somebody because it’s a baseball movie. Here’s the trailer (via Jonathan Last), including exciting killer dialogue from Aaron Sorkin like, “Because he gets on base.”

There’s an alternative interpretation of Oakland’s success in the early 2000s, which is that the franchise already had a history of playing Moneyball (i.e., guys who can hit home runs and get walks, such as the Giambi Bros., Michael Tejada, and David Justice) under the previous general manager Sandy Alderson (1983-1997), when Oakland went to three straight World Series (1988-90), which is three more than Billy Beane has accomplished. 
In this subversive view, the man who introduced Moneyball to Oakland wasn’t Beane or Alderson or whomever, it was Jose Canseco, “the Typhoid Mary of steroids.”

I like Bill James and Michael Lewis, but these journalists made a lot of money by not mentioning the elephant in the baseball living room: steroids. 

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Baseball Statistics 
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For a long time, Bill James, the famous baseball statistics analyst, has been promising books on non-baseball subjects. Now, he’s delivered one, Popular Crime, on the history of crime stories. I review it in my new column in Taki’s Magazine.

It’s a read-250-books-and-write-another-one effort. James summarizes scores of notorious killings from Lizzie Borden through JonBenét Ramsey. He has a proven record of pattern recognition ability and solid sense, so anything he writes is of some interest. 

For example, did Bruno Hauptmann really kidnap Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1932? The evidence of his guilt is overwhelming, says James. What about Dr. Sam Sheppard, whose controversial 1954 murder trial inspired The Fugitive? Guilty, although not as charged; James figures he hired a hitman to kill his wife. O.J.? Oh, c’mon … 

Read the whole thing there.

But the real reason to read Bill James is not to watch him recount single events but to watch him draw inferences from masses of data. But there’s a structural problem with the whole project: popular crime stories are popular precisely because they are Man Bites Dog stories. James is perfectly aware of that (pp. 36-37), but it seems to get him down because he’s always coming up with observations about crime in general that aren’t true about popular crime and thus he can’t use the stories about criminals in his book to illustrate his observations.

For example, he went on The Colbert Report and mentioned in passing that murderers don’t tend to be good looking. A reviewer on Amazon was very offended by that: What about Ted Bundy? What about Robert Chambers, the Central Park Preppie Killer? I think this is a pretty common reaction outside of hardcore baseball statistics fans.

What James needed was to start Popular Crime with a chapter describing Unpopular Crime. He needed to synthesize typical examples of run-of-the-mill crimes that don’t get books written about them. For example, the typical acquaintance killing might be a few people are drinking, one guy says something insulting to another guy, the girls laugh at him, so the humiliated guy gets so mad he goes home and gets his gun. What’s his plan for getting away with premeditated murder? He kinda hopes the cops don’t notice the dead body.

James needs that kind of frame for his book.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar got voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today. Nate Silver wonders if too few players are getting in these days, what with there now being 30 teams and larger populations to draw from. In his first year of eligibility, Houston Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell didn’t get in. Silver says:
Steroid use — actual or suspected — is another issue. Rafael Palmeiro, whose case was debatable on the statistical merits anyway, and who was actually suspended by Major League Baseball for steroid use, would not have made my ballot. Like Tyler Kepner, however, I cannot understand docking Bagwell for mere suspicion of steroid use when there is no evidence of it. 
I can. For one thing, players have 15 years of eligibility to get voted into the Hall (and if they fail there, can get picked by a Veterans Committee later). But they can’t get kicked once they’re in. So, what’s the rush? Blyleven had to wait 15 years to get voted in. Why not wait awhile to see what shakes out? Let’s see what turns up. This would only be a major injustice to Bagwell if he suddenly drops dead before he gets in. And if he suddenly drops dead …
One advantage that working sportswriters have over statistical analysts like Silver in voting on whether players who hit a lot of homers during the steroid years should be entrusted with permanent Hall of Fame membership is that many of the sportswriters, unlike the stats analysts, saw these players naked in the locker room. For example, when Jeff Bagwell went from a .516 slugging average at age 25 to a .750 slugging average at age 26, how much different did he look with his jersey off? Statistical analysts like Nate don’t know. I don’t know either. Some of the sportswriters who get to vote for Hall of Famers do know, and have, I would guess, talked to other voting sportswriters about it.
Personally, I don’t know, I’ve never heard any rumors about Bagwell. 
Tyler Kepner in the NYT says he’s voting for Bagwell and all the other sluggers who haven’t gotten official caught:

Circumstantial evidence can be used against anybody. Mike Piazza might have been the most productive offensive catcher in baseball history. But suspicion of steroid use has dogged him, even though, like Bagwell, there has never been a tangible link.

Did Piazza use steroids? I don’t know. He denied it in 2002 by explaining, “I hit the ball as far in high school as I do now.” [Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round out of high school by the LA Dodgers, and he was the brother of Tommy Lasorda's godson, so he wasn't all that awesome in high school.]

All I know for sure is that Piazza played like a Hall of Famer and should be enshrined for that. The New York Times does not allow its writers to vote for the Hall of Fame, but to me, the playing record is the only fair way to measure those who were never suspended for using steroids. 

The rumor I heard in the 1990s was that sponsors often wanted to feature Piazza shirtless in ads, but his back acne was so bad this made for a major issue. (Acne on the back is one possible symptom of juicing.) I recall finally seeing a commercial of Piazza shirtless, but with so much backlighting he was more or less in silhouette.

To me, the tough question is Barry Bonds, who was a first round Hall of Famer before, evidently, he started juicing in 1999. A lot of these other guys might not have gotten close to the Hall without the juice. Rafael Palmeiro, for example, was traded away by the Cubs because they had Mark Grace to play first base instead of him. Grace is the model of the pretty good player, the slick-fielding firstbaseman who never hit more than 17 homers in 15 seasons in little Wrigley Field, who doesn’t belong in the Hall. He got only 4% vote for the Hall in 2009 and was dropped from consideration.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Baseball Statistics 
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For a few years, I’ve been pointing out that baseball’s most sainted statistical analyst, Bill James, was completely AWOL while obvious steroid-users were piling up statistically ridiculous numbers. He’d immediately change the subject from steroids to, say, Barry Bonds using a maple bat instead of an ash one.
Now that the evidence of steroid use by most of the setters of anomalous statistics is overwhelming, he’s changed tunes and is praising the cheaters in a Slate article:

Life, Liberty, and Breaking the Rules
In defense of Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, jaywalkers, and all the other scofflaws that make America great.

First of all, I have absolutely no doubt that, had steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs existed during Babe Ruth’s career, Babe Ruth would not only have used them, he would have used more of them than Barry Bonds.
Let me propose a more relevant counterfactual. If Mr. James had been intellectually honest and had spoken out about steroids, as, say, Tom Boswell of the Washington Post did as early as 1988, then Mr. James would not have been hired as a senior executive of the Boston Red Sox in 2003 and capped his career by helping them win their first World Series since Babe Ruth’s time in 2004. Why not? Because the Red Sox’s two biggest hitters, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, were juicers.
Should intellectuals who are dishonest about the biggest issue of their time in their field because of obvious conflicts of interest be subjected to penalty of law? 
But they should be publicly shamed.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Unlike Austan Goolsbee (see next post), who has gone from being an NYT columnist to being Chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, Peter Orszag has gone from being Chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers to being an NYT columnist. Orszag writes in the NYT:

The most important book I’ve read over the past six months is Matthew Syed’s “Bounce.” Teddy Roosevelt once said that “in this life we get nothing save by effort.” Syed shows how trenchant Roosevelt was.

Syed is a two-time Olympian in table tennis. His book is impressive for two reasons. First, he takes empirical evidence on the science of success seriously (and in the areas where I know the literature to some degree, his depiction is quite accurate). Second, he shows how that evidence shatters widespread myths about what leads to better performance in any complex undertaking (including, for example, chess, tennis and math).

Basically, we’ve bought into several misconceptions about excellence, which are not only wrong but affirmatively counterproductive.

Let me focus today on the core one. Too many of us believe in the “talent” myth — that top performers are born, rather than built. But Syed shows that in almost every arena in which tasks are complex, top performers excel not because of innate ability but because of dedicated practice. …

Success in most arenas of life is thus not a reflection of innate skill but rather devoted effort. And Syed demonstrates why it is not just effort, but purposeful effort that is key — if you’re going to get better at chunking, you can’t just go through the motions and punch time on the clock. You need to put your heart into it. 

Is it really too much to ask that people at the top of the pyramid in the U.S. talk to the rest of us like we are adults? Isn’t it obvious that the answer to the question of what does it take to get to the top, nature or nurture, is: both?

P.S. Orszag is back in the NYT with more Gladwellian conventional wisdom, having been roughed up pretty badly by commenters the first time:

“Or to phrase it differently, it seems plausible that many more people than commonly believed (but perhaps not all people!) have sufficient innate skill to perform at world-class levels in complex fields with sufficient practice; the problem is that they do not undertake the necessary practice. Indeed, the examples we have of individuals who put in 10,000 or more hours of dedicated practice and fail to achieve stunning levels of performance is quite limited — because most people are not willing to put in that time and effort.”

I guess Orszag has never heard the term “career minor leaguer.” Think of Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham.

Or how about future Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda’s failure to make it as major leaguer despite an excellent minor league record? Lasorda pitched only 58 innings with a terrible 6.48 ERA in the Show during a playing career lasting from 1945-1960. I guess he just didn’t bleed Dodger Blue enough or he would have made it in the big leagues. His failure to make it in the big leagues couldn’t have had anything to do with his lack of innate physical talent.

The trick these people play is in their term of art “dedicated practice,” which is used to make their argument unfalsifiable. Sure, from age 5 to 33, Tommy Lasorda spent tens of thousands of hours practicing baseball, but, by definition, he wasn’t practicing baseball the right way or he wouldn’t have failed.

In summary, the point is not that Orszag shows a Malcolm Gladwell-level ability to perform reality checks on his favorite ideas. Orszag isn’t particularly important in and of himself, other than that he represents roughly the political median of elite opinion in 21st Century America. He shows that there exist such systematic impediments to clear thought among elites today that somebody as smart and well connected as Orszag can make a fool of himself in his first week as a NYT columnist because he doesn’t know any better.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa was a huge deal in American culture a decade ago, but for years now, you only hear of him when he lightens his skins. Here’s a long article by Shane Tritsch in Chicago Magazine on the deep riff between the slugger, now retired in Miami, and the Cubs.
Sosa started out dirt poor in the Dominican Republic as a child laborer. He only got to start playing a lot of baseball at 14, and 5 years later his physical skills had him in the majors. But his slowness of learning and his evident lack of learning ability kept him and his fans frustrated. But then he started to bulk up in his mid-20s. After a weak season in 1997, he returned at age 29 a new man. He hit 66 homers to challenge Mark McGwire for the all time single season homers record. It was one of the biggest baseball stories of the last century.
He had two more seasons with over 60 homers, including 2001′s .328, 64 homers, 160 rbis, 146 runs, 116 walks, and 425 total bases. Will we ever see those kind of numbers again?
The Cubs let him do whatever he wanted, including letting him choose all the music in the locker room all the time. He had some Aspergery traits that meant he might boom out his new favorite song 35 times in a row. Eventually, better drug testing meant he had to ease off on the juice and his performance skidded. The Cubs ingloriously greased the skids under him and he was gone, and they haven’t asked him to return either.
A sad story. With the right kind of leadership, he could stayed off the juice and, with his work ethic, could have been a solid all-around ballplayer. But the Cubs, who obviously knew he was on steroids, did everything they could to facilitate the Sammy Show. And the fans loved it.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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You aren’t supposed to say bad things about the beloved Bill James, the ex-boiler-room attendant who revolutionized the interpretation of baseball statistics, but now that he has finally spoken up on the issue of steroids in baseball, I have to say that his head-in-the-sand, don’t-rock-the-boat act over the last 21 years has been disgraceful.

For example, his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract of 2001 mentions steroids maybe twice, in passing, in 1012 pages.

By largely staying mum on the impact of steroids on baseball statistics since the topic first became widely discussed when Jose Canseco enjoyed the first 40-homer 40-steal season in 1988, James got himself a nice front-office job with the Boston Red Sox, and got to be part of World Champions in 2004 and 2007, teams whose biggest stars, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, were found to be on the juice in the 2003 test.

So, what does James have to say for himself now about his silence? Well, not much. Instead, he’s written complacently, in “Cooperstown and the ‘Roids,” about how all the notorious drug cheats of the last two decades will eventually be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

But it wasn’t really an issue of some players gaining an advantage by the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs; it is an issue of many players using Performance Enhancing drugs in competition with one another. Nobody knows how many. It would be my estimate that it was somewhere between 40 and 80%. The discrimination against PED users in Hall of Fame voting rests upon the perception that this was cheating. But is it cheating if one violates a rule that nobody is enforcing, and which one may legitimately see as being widely ignored by those within the competition?

Hey, thanks for giving us that 40% to 80% estimate in 2009, Mr. Baseball Statistics Guru!

Moreover, that’s a misleading way to phrase it. Perhaps 40% to 80% tried drugs at one point or another, but it’s clear that 40% to 80% of the man-years weren’t enhanced. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see so many silly anomalies when players went on the juice, like Brady Anderson’s 50 homers, or Ken Caminiti’s second half of 1996.

Consider Barry Bonds. We have the full inside story on Bonds, and he comes out looking a little better than his public image would suggest. We now know he didn’t touch performance enhancing drugs during his first 13 seasons, 1986-1998. From 1990-1993 he was the best player in the National League each year, and from 1994 to 1998, he was the second to fourth best player each year. If, say, 60% of his competition was on the juice, how could he compete with them?

During the 1998 season, obvious juicers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa got all that publicity for “restoring the innocence to the game,” and nobody paid attention to Barry’s usual monster season (.303 BA, 37 HR, 122 RBI, 120 runs, 130 walks, 44 doubles, 7 triples, 28 stolen bases, .438 on-base average, .609 slugging average, 1.047 OPS, 178 OPS+). If Barry had retired right then, he would have been a first ballot Hall-of-Famer.

Instead, resentful of the lack of press appreciation he got compared to what the cheaters got, he started dabbling with drugs in 1999, got good with them in 2000, and great with them in 2001 through 2004. When Bonds hit 73 homers in 2001 (previous career high 46 when he was eight years younger), it was perfectly obvious that he was cheating, but Bill James preferred to talk about Bonds’ new maplewood bat, telling the WSJ in 2007:

I strongly suspect that the influence of steroids on hitting numbers is greatly overstated by the public. …I’ve never understood why nobody writes about it, but the bats are very different now than they were 20 years ago. [Barry] Bonds’s bats are still different from everybody else’s.

Yeah, sure, if only I’d gotten me one of those special bats when I was 39, major league pitchers would have issued me 232 walks, too.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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I was going to comment on a recent lecture New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell gave to a conference of math teachers on how some students are like Picasso and everything comes quickly to them, while others are like Cezanne, where it takes them a long time before they become geniuses.

I came up with a theory about why he chose those particular analogies for math students, but then Google showed that in reality he’s been wedging Picasso v. Cezanne into just about any of his recent speeches, no matter what the subject: oldies Classic Rock (see, the Eagles were like Picasso, while Fleetwood Mac was like Cezanne); American health care policy (“Gladwell: Health-care system needs Cezanne, not Picasso or Michael Moore“); and how to run your corporate R&D department (“Is Your Company a Cezanne or a Picasso?”)

Nice work if you can get it!

The back story is that Malcolm developed his latest crush on a professor, U. of Chicago economist David W. Galenson, and wrote an article about Galenson’s theory that there are two types of artists: quick-blooming conceptualists and slow-blooming experimentalists. Gladwell’s article was evidently so silly that, despite Gladwell’s huge popularity, the New Yorker rejected it, so Gladwell has been recycling it in speeches.

Enough about Gladwell. Let’s take a look at Galenson’s website:

“When in their lives do great artists produce their greatest art? Do they strive for creative perfection throughout decades of painstaking and frustrating experimentation, or do they achieve it confidently and decisively, through meticulous planning that yields masterpieces early in their lives?

By examining the careers not only of great painters but also of important sculptors, poets, novelists, and movie directors, Old Masters and Young Geniuses offers a profound new understanding of artistic creativity. Using a wide range of evidence, David Galenson demonstrates that there are two fundamentally different approaches to innovation, and that each is associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over a lifetime.

Experimental innovators work by trial and error, and arrive at their major contributions gradually, late in life. In contrast, conceptual innovators make sudden breakthroughs by formulating new ideas, usually at an early age. Galenson shows why such artists as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost, and Alfred Hitchcock were experimental old masters, and why Vermeer, van Gogh, Picasso, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, and Orson Welles were conceptual young geniuses. He also explains how this changes our understanding of art and its past.

Experimental innovators seek, and conceptual innovators find.”

Galenson has supposedly collected a lot of quantitative information on sales prices and the like to determine when various artists peaked That kind of thing is always fun. (Although, I haven’t actually seen his data. Commenters pointed me toward graph guru Edward Tufte’s site — he has read Galenson’s book but didn’t see any sales price data in it. Auction price data sounds like the kind of thing you’d have to massage a lot to make usable, adjusting for size of paintings and market levels, which means you could also massage it into giving the results you wanted if you weren’t careful with yourself.).

That’s not a bad little dichotomy, but it’s more useful in comparing disciplines — theoretical physicists tend to be young when they make their breakthroughs and historians tend to be old when they write their big books summing it all up, such as Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, published when he was 94.

In other professions, it’s mostly cost that drives peak ages: architects tend to be old when their most famous buildings are built because buildings are too expensive to be entrusted to whippersnappers. In contrast, great three chord rock songs are written by young men because it barely costs anything besides time, when they have all the time in the world.

But back to Galenson’s central interest: art. There are of course, obvious limitations on his quantitative approach: there’s not exactly an active market in Michelangelo’s masterpieces. (“Sheldon Adelson bought the Sistine Chapel today for $18.1 billion from Larry Ellison, who paid only $15.3 billion for it in 2006. Adelson says the Sistine Chapel will serve as the lobby of his new Vatican Vegas Hotel & Casino, which he’s opening on the Strip in 2010.”)

I haven’t read Galenson’s book, but his own blurb for it isn’t confidence-inducing. Why is Michelangelo an “old master” rather than a young innovator? He carved his Pieta before he was 25 and his David, the most famous sculpture of all time, the most stunning single objet d’art I’ve ever seen, before he was 30. On the other hand, he painted the Last Judgment in the Sistine chapel when in his sixties and redid the architecture of St. Peter’s when in his seventies.

How can we account for this incredibly long and productive career?

Because he was Michelangelo.

This is a little like asking how Ted Williams could hit .388 with power and walks when he was 38 years old. It’s because he could hit .406 with power and walks when he was 22. And vice-versa. He was Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of his generation.

Bill James had a nice little graph about the basic reason why some baseball players had long careers and others had short careers. Here’s my version of it:

The horizontal axis is age, the vertical axis is a made-up measure of player value to a major league team. The purple line at value 10 is how good you have to be to be a starter in the big leagues.

So, Lance Long, the red line, is such a hot-shot prospect that he gets a few major league at-bats in September when’s 18. He cracks the starting lineup at 21. He peaks at 27 like the average ballplayer, and he stays a starter through 39. He spends 40 as pinch-hitter and tries one more season at 41, but retires in May.

The career of Sid Short, the green line, follows almost exactly the same arc but most of it is spent in the minors or on the bench simply because he’s not as good as Lance Long. He has a nice big league career, starting in the majors from 24 through 31, but as his body deteriorates, he’s on the bench, then back to Triple A, then maybe bouncing around a Mexican league before he faces the inevitable and calls it quits.

Now, there are other factors that affect a player’s career arc. For example, all else being equal, a smart player like Pedro Martinez is more likely to outlast a dumb player like Pedro Guerrero. A fast player at age 20 is more likely to find some place in the lineup at age 35 than a moderate-speed player who may be too slow by 35 for the big leagues. With alcoholics, not surprisingly, the second half of the career tends to be disappointing compared to the first half (e.g., Eddie Matthews, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx)

Injuries obviously play a role, but once again they interact with talent. If you are Ernie Banks, two-time MVP power-hitting shortstop, and you permanently hobble yourself mid-career, they switch you to first base. If you are a journeyman with the same injury, though, they might find you an assistant coach job in the minor leagues if they’re feeling benevolent.

With artists, the single biggest variable is age of death. For example, two of Galenson’s young bucks are Vermeer, who died at 43, and and Van Gogh, who died at 37.

In one of his papers, he writes:

“There have been two very different life cycles for great artists: some have made their greatest contributions very early in their careers, whereas others have produced their best work late in their lives. These two patterns have been associated with different working methods, as art’s young geniuses have worked deductively to make conceptual innovations, while its old masters have worked inductively, to innovate experimentally. We demonstrate the value of this typology by considering the careers of four great conceptual innovators – Masaccio, Raphael, Picasso, and Johns – and five great experimental innovators – Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Pollock.”

Okay, but Masaccio, who introduced perspective to painting in Florence in 1425 died at 27 and Raphael died at 37. Maybe Masaccio just was in the right place at the right time, although people who know far more about art than I do assume he would have had a long, tremendous career if he’d lived. If Masaccio had lived, a decade or two later, he might have been the first great Italian to use oil paint, and then he’d be so famous today as the most revolutionary painter of all time that he’d be one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And there’s nothing in Raphael’s character that suggests he was a one-trick pony. If he’d lived a long time, he’d probably have had a career like Titian’s, only even better.

Finally, there’s the historic shift at the beginning of the 20th Century from fine art to what Paul Johnson calls “fashion art.” Raphael was the epitome of the fine artist, whose skills were objectively superior. Jasper Johns is the epitome of the fashion artist who figures out the next wave of fashion and cashes in big time.

Johns had the first show of Pop Art in 1958. See, he’d figured out that collectors were bored with Abstract Expressionist paintings. They wanted to buy paintings that were, at least, pictures of something. But the reigning dogma of the 20th Century was that paintings that used perspective, that created an illusion of 3-d space, a window into a made-up universe, were a fraud. A painting was just a flat surface with paint on it. You shouldn’t make up a little story about what was happening in it: “Maybe Mona Lisa looks both happy and sad because …” No! It’s just a flat thing with paint on it.

But, still, pure abstraction was kind of boring …

In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe summarizes critic Leo Steinberg’s epochal explication of what Johns had “accomplished.”

“The new theory went as follows. Johns had chosen real subjects such as flags and numbers and letters and targets that were flat by their very nature. They were born to be flat, you might say. Thereby Johns was achieving an amazing thing. He was bringing real subjects into Modern painting but in a way that neither violated the law of Flatness nor introduced “literary” content.”

Trust me, if Raphael had felt like painting a flag, it would be a better flag painting than any by Jasper Johns.

Finally, back to Picasso and Cezanne. How is it that Cezanne’s paintings from the last decade of his career are his most expensive today, and Picasso’s paintings from the first decade of his career are the most expensive? Well, it was basically the same decade — the first of the 20th Century. That’s when the Big Switch happened, so the most historically important paintings from both Cezanne and Picasso come from almost the same time.

What happened in the first decade of the 20th Century was that after 475 years, people were getting bored with perspective; and painters were increasingly worried about photography. Pretty soon, those bastards would have color film and then you could take pictures that looked like what Jan van Eyck was doing in the 1430s in the Low Countries when he got perspective from Italy and oil paint from Norway. And then who is going to hire a painter?

This led to the happy ending of Cezanne’s life. Cezanne could never quite get the hang of perspective, which had been the basic barrier to entry for professional painters since the 15th Century. All of his pictures just kind of looked “off.” Normally, people who tried their hand at painting but couldn’t master perspective gave up and did something else with their lives. It’s like a professional baseball player who can’t hit a 90 mph fastball or a singer who can’t stay on key — they’re best advised to go get a real job and most of them eventually do.

But Cezanne was a dogged sort, who really loved painting, even if he wasn’t very good at it. So, he kept at it and at it, and he actually got better at the other stuff, like color.

Eventually, though, people in the art business, like young Picasso, decided “Who cares about perspective anymore? It’s been done.” And they looked around for a role model to give some credence, some sense of historical development to this new fashion, and, there was poor old Cezanne, still hard at it. And, you know, if you kind of squinted and ignored the fact that his paintings looked out-of-kilter, they were pretty good! And, in fact, since paintings had been in-kilter since Masaccio, but now the damn photographers were just pressing a button and making in-kilter pictures, you could argue that Cezanne’s out-of-kilterness made his poor old paintings not just good, but great! (That was the point, of course — the art world wanted paintings that you wouldn’t get unless you’d heard the theory already. Everything else could be left to photography.)

So, what does Cezanne have to do with math students? Maybe if some kid just doesn’t have the knack for the Quadratic Formula, he should just keep plugging away until the Quadratic Formula goes out of fashion!

P.S. — This issue of measuring quality by sales price, box office revenue, or other volume per unit has some subtle problems, even beyond the issue of crassness.

Just assume for the moment that money really does equal artistry. The problem is that artists frequently change the scale of the unit they work on and their rate of production over their careers.

For example, movie director David Lean’s career very neatly segments into two periods. He made 11 films between 1942 and 1955, most of them modestly scaled, such as Brief Encounter. He then switched to directing ambitious epics filmed on location: Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India. Thus, he completed only five more films over the next 30 years.

You can see the methodological problem in determining what was the peak period of his career, right? On any per unit measure these latter films average higher, whether box office or Academy Award nominations or critics’ Top 10 lists. But they only came out once per six years, while the earlier films came out five times as often. Waiting five years for Lawrence of Arabia was probably worth it, but how about waiting 14 years for Passage to India?

So, a better solution than Galenson’s attempt to measure prices or box office per individual painting or film is to aggregate over a period of time, such as per year.

Another issue is how high or low do you set the bar. For example, with Lean, if the measure is set very lofty, such as asking 100 leading film experts to name the Single Greatest Film Ever, then he’d probably only get votes for Lawrence. If you set the bar pretty low, such as, “Was it worth releasing the film in the theatres?” then his per year productivity was higher in the first part of his career. So, some mixture of measures would be best.

By the way, there are a few kinds of artists whose unit of scale doesn’t change over time, such as Norman Rockwell, who painted 321 Saturday Evening Post covers over 47 years. But, I suspect that even Rockwell’s rate of output change over the years.

Syndicated cartoonists are among the few artists whose scale and rate stay constant. For example, around 1972, I read all the annual Charles Schulz’ Peanuts collections in order. By my juvenile judgment, he consistently improved up through 1968, his peak, but fell off in the three following years. I don’t know if other people would agree with my impressions, but the point is that you could run a fair experiment.

Syndicated daily cartooning is a tough job. Thus, you see odd careers arcs like Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes, who was probably the best cartoonist in America from 1985-1995, but virtually disappeared into retirement a dozen years ago at 37 rather than try to maintain his sterling quality at the same killer pace.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Long before he started juicing in 1999, Bonds was widely despised for never sharing any of his baseball secrets with his teammate. His not unreasonable explanation was that many would soon stop being his teammates and start being his competitors. And Barry certainly had less to gain from exchanging tips with lesser baseball minds — here’s an article on how his pioneering armor-plating of his elbow against being hit by the pitch game him a big mechanical advantage. In the long run, Bonds will be understood as one of the games’ most focused technical innovators. His father, Bobby Bonds, was a great physical talent but never quite fulfilled his potential. Barry carefully overcame all his father’s flaws.

Strikingly, the one character flaw that Bonds is seldom denounced in the press for is for his racism. As I pointed out in 2006, the carefully documented book Game of Shadows explains the origin of his juicing: the adulation for the cheating McGwire who is white, was driving him crazy.

On that trip [to McGwire's St. Louis in May 1998] Bonds began making racial remarks about McGwire to Kimberly Bell [his girlfriend]. According to Bell he would repeat them throughout the summer, as McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the buff, fan-friendly Chicago Cubs slugger who also was hitting home runs at an amazing rate, became the talk of the nation.

“They’re just letting him do it because he’s a white boy,” Bonds said of McGwire and his chase of Maris’s record. The pursuit by Sosa, a Latin player from the Dominican Republic, was entertaining but doomed, Bonds declared. As a matter of policy, “they’ll never let him win,” he said.

As he sometimes did when he was in a particularly bleak mood, Bonds was channeling racial attitudes picked up from his father, the former Giants star Bobby Bonds, and his godfather, the great Willie Mays, both African-American ballplayers who had experienced virulent racism while starting their professional careers in the Jim Crow South. Barry Bonds himself had never seen anything remotely like that: He had grown up in an affluent white suburb of San Francisco, and his best boyhood friend, his first wife and his present girlfriend all were white. When Bonds railed about McGwire, he didn’t articulate who “they” were, or how the supposed conspiracy to rig the home run record was being carried out. But his brooding anger was real enough, and it continued throughout a year in which he batted .303, hit 37 home runs, made the All-Star team for the eighth time and was otherwise almost completely ignored.

Compare the silence on Bonds’ racism (despite how much the media hate him overall) to how, in the grand tradition of the Brezhnev Regime, Major League Baseball, to press adulation, bundled relief pitcher John Rocker off to a mental hospital for saying in 2000 about New York:

“It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the [Number] 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.”

Saturday Night Live‘s Colin Quinn commented, “I hate Rocker, but I have to admit the guy has ridden the 7 train.”

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Baseball Statistics 
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With the San Francisco Giants slugger now only two homers away from Hank Aaron’s career record of 755, much to the embarrassment of Major League Baseball, it’s worth reviewing a few points:

- Bonds didn’t start baseball’s steroid problem. We now know from inside sources that Bonds did not use steroids for his first 13 years in the league, 1986 through 1998.

- Bonds was clearly the greatest player of the 1990s, despite being clean for all but 1999. From 1990 through 1998, he led the National League in park-adjusted OPS+ four times, was second three times, and third twice. That’s slightly better than his godfather Willie Mays’ best nine year stretch.

- Bonds started taking steroids in 1999 because he was jealous of the credulous admiration paid to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for hitting all those homers in 1998. You kept hearing silly stuff like “McGwire and Sosa have returned the innocence to the game!” McGwire was caught with a steroid precursor in his locker in late 1998 and it still didn’t instill many doubts. This drove Bonds crazy.

- Once Bonds got good at cheating with drugs in 2001, hitting a record 73 homers in 2001, he put up three seasons better than Babe Ruth’s best (as measured by park-adjusted OPS+) at the ridiculously old ages of 36, 37, and 39.

- The reason Bonds was so much better than the other cheaters was because he’d been the best player in the game when he was clean. Bonds’ normal talent + steroids = ludicrous ability.

- It was obvious that Bonds was cheating from 2001-2004. Nobody puts up those kinds of numbers at those ages. From 1986-1998, his career followed a normal arc (just at a much higher level than normal), with a peak at 27-28.

- Baseball stat guru Bill James was shamefully quiet during the many years while the steroid scourge distorted individual statistics, and he’s not doing his reputation any favors by digging himself a deeper hole by still talking about Bonds’ new wonder bat and other rationalizations.

- Bonds’ late father Bobby was an extraordinary athlete who put up numbers that deserve Hall of Fame consideration, but teams had a hard time figuring out what to with him. And he smoked and drank heavily, which shortened his career to 15 years. Barry carefully avoided every mistake his father made.

- Barry was a nasty piece of work before he started on steroids, and they didn’t improve his disposition.

- One reason steroid users tend to self-righteously deny accusations of steroid use is because they feel justified in their advantages because of all the weightlifting work they did. Steroids help your body recover from weightlifting faster, so users can work out a lot more.

- Steroid use in football appears to go back to the 1960s (quarterback John Hadl says his San Diego Charger teammates were popping steroids in 1966), but we don’t have much evidence of it in baseball (a more lackadaisical game) before Jose Canseco arrived in 1986. (Here’s my AmCon article on the history of steroids in baseball.)

- President Bush says he signed off on all Texas Rangers trades, which means he approved the 1992 trade that brought from the Oakland As to the Rangers Canseco, who had been accused of steroid use by Tom Boswell in the Washington Post back in 1988. Canseco’s major accomplishment as a Ranger was having a fly ball bounce off his increasingly block-like head and over the fence for a homer.

- In general, I believe, California, perhaps because of the local Muscle Beach weightlifting culture, tended to be where steroids first had an impact on the various big-time sports.

- The popular governor of Bonds’ state of California is muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger, who began using steroids in Austria at around age 17 in 1964. I would imagine that Schwarzenegger used muscle-building drugs to get in shape for his comeback role in Terminator 3 in 2003, which helped launch his gubernatorial campaign.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Steve Sailer
About Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer is a journalist, movie critic for Taki's Magazine, columnist, and founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

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