Email Exchange: The Advanced Age of Advanced Metrics

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Today’s article: “Sabermetrics Gets Soft,” Ben Lindbergh, Grantland

Cameron Seib:

Outside of murder, fraud, and possibly assault, no individual act is more disgraceful than that of going soft (aka becoming a pussy, bitch, boner, etc.). Mike, our friend Jim went soft once, and he’s still struggling to live it down. And that was in high school!

“A bitch ni**a, that’s that shit I don’t like!” – Chief Keef

Mr. Keef’s message is one I’ve been trying to spread for some time now, and so it was with great delight that I saw the headline of Ben Lindbergh’s article on Grantland yesterday. Finally, someone was going to give “smart” baseball fans the truth they needed: sabermetrics is a field rife with pussy-bitch-boners, and it’s time we revert to old school (aka RAW) analytics.

Sadly, Lindbergh’s piece was anything but an assault on baseball nerds. That would’ve been pretty silly, really, as the writer’s a well-known numbers guy himself. In fact, this whole opener’s been silly!

What Lindbergh actually discusses is the recent Saber Seminar, and how, in a world where every MLB front office now uses sabermetrics to some extent, general managers and scouts are having to figure out new ways to gain the advantages that advanced baseball metrics once provided them. Nowadays, as Lindbergh says, “having innovative ideas and doing the research to support them isn’t always enough to differentiate one front office from another.”

To remain ahead amidst the increasing equity in analytical knowledge, teams are focusing on how they can better utilize that information than their competition. For the Houston Astros, GM Jeff Luhnow thinks doing so is a matter of rallying organizational-wide support for sabermetrically-backed strategies. Baseball players themselves are, it’s probably safe to say, more traditionalists in their methods. And, as Luhnow has seen, implementing things like the infield shift into everyday play can be met with resistance from the guys on the field. Of course, having the numbers to show that a shift is advantageous in certain situations is useless unless your infielders are actually willing to put on a shift. With every team now able to identify valuable players/strategies via analytics, Houston thinks it has the most to gain by converting any remaining saber-haters within its ranks.

The other team Lindbergh details, the Boston Red Sox, is also starting to think beyond the numbers alone, though it’s hoping to maximize talent in a different way. As an organization that’s more accepting of sabermetrics, Boston doesn’t have the same concerns as Houston, so it’s trying innovate in relation to what Lindbergh terms “soft factors.” Things like sleep, nutrition, and mental health. Red Sox GM Ben Cherington isn’t exactly planning to micromanage his players, but he’s hoping to gain marginal advantages wherever possible, perhaps by preaching a strict diet while other teams let their players go full Golden Corral at all hours.

Mike, my first thought after reading this piece was, ha, no, Jeff Luhnow, you’re not actually trying to succeed by smartening up all the dumb players. Nope, your big innovation is acting like your peers have the intelligence of a PlayStationSure you don’t want Bud Norris for Kevin Gausman, CPU?

Really, though, Lindbergh’s piece was great and got me thinking in a number of different directions. I’ve often wondered what the next inefficiency to be exploited will be, as Billy Beane won’t always be able to see value in a guy considered a backup by the rest of the league — pretty soon (if it hasn’t already happened), every team will know which players are good and which aren’t. Houston’s approach is interesting, though I ultimately don’t think it’ll be that groundbreaking, because there simply aren’t that many sabermetric strategies the players themselves are responsible for putting into action. I think Boston’s route has the potential for higher reward, specifically if they hone in on improving players’ mental well-being. Baseball fans are mystified each year by all-stars turning scrubs, and the reverse happening for others. It’s not as if talent fluctuates so drastically from season to season, and my initial guess is that a lot of streaking and slumping is a product of a player’s mental stability at the time.

Mike, hit me with whatever you’ve got.

Michael Rosen:

I think I’m going to use “going full Golden Corral” as a metaphor for situations in my own life. Like, any time I make a decision in which I’m consciously sabotaging myself for marginal short-term pleasure, I’m “going full Golden Corral.”

Anyway, to baseball and sabermetrics and all that jazz. I think I linked you this piece on Monday afternoon, so we’re breaking our own rules a little bit in talking about this, but whatever, rules are meant to be broken, right? I don’t know why that phrase exists, because the whole point of rules are to maintain order, so that is patently untrue. But, I think that this particular occasion provides a legitimate reason to break said established rules, since you and I are veritable baseball nerds, and the quantity of baseball nerd-fodder in Lindbergh’s piece doesn’t come around all that often.

First, since I don’t think we’ve written on Lindbergh before, I just wanted to pen a quick aside about Lindbergh, the writer. Grantland exposed me to his work last year, I believe, and he’s quickly become one of my favorites. He’s also got a great podcast (Effectively Wild with Baseball Prospectus’s Sam Miller) that publishes every single day, a godsend to a podcast addict like myself. He’s not some great prose stylist like Brian Phillips or Wright Thompson, but the guy is great at finding interesting ways to break down parts of baseball you’ve never even thought about before.

Okay, now, to the piece. The predominant reason I liked the piece (and, by extension, what Luhnow and Cherington had to say) is that it kind of solidified a lot of random thoughts I’d been having about baseball recently into a coherent package. The idea of “soft” sabermetrics — it’s basically a big “fuck you” to the ways people like Dave Cameron and co. wrote maybe three or four years ago, like baseball is some objective scientific pursuit. And I don’t mean to denigrate Dave — I think I’m probably one of his biggest defenders — but there was a presumptuousness in some saber-leaning writing for a really long time, the subtext of which always seemed to be “I could run these teams better than you can.”

I think when I was reading Cameron at age 16, I kind of bought into that mindset, because it’s awesome to think that I am so much smarter than everyone else. But as I’ve grown older, I, personally, have become less narrow-minded, and have come to understand that there’s a reason the people who are running the teams are in the place they are. These are organizations worth hundreds of millions (and sometimes billions) of dollars, and any rational person isn’t going to leave the fate of their billion-dollar investment to a dolt. Instead of assuming everyone in baseball front offices is an idiot that doesn’t know the difference between xFIP and wRC+, I now try to see things from the team’s perspective, and try to rationalize why they may be making any given decision, instead of automatically assuming they’re acting from an uninformed perspective. Admittedly, rooting for a team with Jack Zduriencik in charge has made this difficult.

Which brings me back to the piece. Despite my attempts to view any given decision from the perspective of a team, there was always incongruity in some specific cases between what I saw as the correct, rational decision and what teams generally did. One of the big ones was the implementation of relievers, and the apparent lack of awareness of the concept of leverage. But the Tony LaRussa anecdote spoke to both a particular and general point. Specifically, the story helped me understand the nuances of the manager’s perspective on leverage and relievers. In the general sense, though, it lent a concrete perspective of “the human element,” rather than an abstract one.

That abstract conceptualization of the human element is always present for me when I do try to rationalize decisions of the managers and the front offices. I’m aware of the fact that running a baseball team is more complex than thinking of players as data points to arrange in particular ways, but that’s the extent of it. My perspective is heavily weighted to one side (the sabermetric side) — I read FanGraphs daily and generally think from a sabermetrically-inclined perspective — while my team’s perspective basically only exists as an afterthought — “yeah, but, these players are people too.”

So, yeah, this is just a long-winded way of saying that the LaRussa anecdote and Lindbergh’s piece as a whole lent me a good deal of nuance and concrete perspective from the team’s side of things, which I think I previously lacked. Cam, did any of that make sense?

CS:

“Rules are meant to be broken, right? I don’t know why that phrase exists, because the whole point of rules is to maintain order, so that is patently untrue.”

And that, kids, is Exhibit A in the act of going soft. Yeah, Mike, your words did make sense — they made it plain and clear that you’re due for a course with Professor Keef.

I totally get what you’re saying. As a junior in high school, I too was quite ready to assume my position atop the Mariners’ administrative order. When you look at baseball as nothing but numbers, you assume any potential front office decision would be pretty easy to make. Because data is objective — it lets us determine right from wrong, better from worse. So under this mindset, who to target in free agency isn’t answered by nuanced analysis, but simply seeing who ZiPS projects for a higher WAR.

But, yeah, as I’ve also accepted, I would be a shit GM, because the job requires much more than looking at Fangraphs. I’ll always value numbers-driven analysis over eye-test evaluation, but sabermetrics, at least currently, can’t capture everything important about a player’s value. It reminds me of a discussion we had after the M’s signing of Robinson Cano (god bless it), specifically in regards to a response piece Cameron wrote. He was pretty critical of the move, mostly because he didn’t see any way in which Cano could live up to the value of his $250 million contract, at least when considering the market value of a win. That much, we agreed, was safe to conclude, but Cameron was treating the matter too narrowly. Sure, every team’s goal should be to maximize the value of each dollar spent, which the Cano grab wasn’t doing. But that consideration alone ignored what else Cano might provide, in terms of unquantifiables.

Now, we weren’t talking about things like “leadership” and “clutchness” — buzzword intangibles that Harold Reynolds has tattooed on his forearms. We were thinking in regards to Cano’s ability to ease the free agency process for Seattle. Because the M’s have been so shitty the past decade, Seattle has become a rather undesirable destination for players, and our front office has had to compensate by offering more money to free agents than others will. We saw this with Cano, in fact. Jack Z had to pay him so much money in part because, yeah, he was coming to fucking Seattle. Cameron blasted this, saying the M’s should’ve held out for players that were willing to sign for their true value. That’s all fine and utopic, but it’s not realistic, because Seattle really has been terrible for a long time, and no one’s been inclined to come here when they can get just as much from another team. This problem, of course, isn’t solved by standing pat in free agency and saving money for the “right” moves. What does help solve it, though, is signing a guy like Cano, a superstar who immediately makes your team much better, and has been the biggest reason in the M’s going from terrible to contenders. Next offseason, guys won’t be so hesitant to head northwest, because Cano transformed Seattle into a pretty decent place to play. He’s never going to do good on each of those 250 million dollars, but he revived the organization from its rut, so we won’t have to pay so goddamn much the next time a Cano comes around.

That’s the stuff wRC+ and FIP can’t capture.

Email Exchange: The Definitive Johnny Football Conversation

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Today’s article: “Johnny Manziel Is Number One,” Barry Petchesky, Deadspin

MR:

No long, drawn-out intro today, readers, we’re going to get straight into it. Our topic: the ever-controversial Johnny Manziel. In the span of just a couple of years, Manziel’s skyrocketed from an unknown quarterbacking recruit out of a random Texas high school to one of the most famous athletes in America, partially because of his talent but predominantly because of his antics. And his antics seem to split the line between his supporters and his detractors.

Last night brought the latest transgression, or if you’re keen on not viewing Manziel as the symbol for Everything Wrong With This Generation, last night brought his latest amusing action (you can probably guess which side I fall on). On a Monday night preseason game against the Redskins, Manziel flipped a middle finger to the Washington bench, later admitting their incessant shit-talking had gotten under his skin and he’d lost his composure.

One can probably predict how some reacted to this egregious act of disrespect. Joe Theismann tweeted some bullshit, Skip Bayless gleefully rubbed his hands together in excitement, and Manziel’s own coach gave the whole “disappointed” speech.

Aspects of Deadspin’s piece pretty much sums up my reaction: who the fuck cares? The dude threw up a middle finger, unfortunately on national television. Cool. I do that multiple times a day (not on national television). And yet, Theismann, for example, reacted like Manziel had been caught driving under the influence.

There’s a whole conversation here, about how some sports takes themselves too damn seriously. Baseball is obviously the biggest offender with all of its bullshit unwritten rules, but football can be just as bad. We’ve ragged on Roger Goodell often in this space, and this is another arena where his idea of this sanitized image of the NFL permeates every crevice of the league’s output. When one person DARES to challenge the status quo, they freak the fuck out.

And it’s not like Manziel is harmful in any way. He’s just fun as shit, and doing exactly what he wants. He behaves exactly how I’d imagine I’d behave if I was an extremely talented quarterback with a fucking Heisman Trophy to my name. He’s hilarious to watch, and I don’t understand how anyone can see something like this video, for example, and instead of being amused, use it as another talking point to call Manziel “immature.”

That brings me to my other point: I’m not sure how controversial Manziel really is. Cam, do you know anyone our age that doesn’t like Manziel? That finds him irritating and disrespectful? Perhaps the media outrage cycle belies the fact that Manziel actually is a fairly popular character, and ESPN personalities are disproportionally represented in mainstream media. Or maybe it’s just an older generation thing. Either way, I think there’s some sense of unanimity among people our age in our fandom of Manziel. Perhaps it’s just the league that has a vested interest in sanitizing everyone’s image, and journalists like Peter King are eager to blare out the party line to anyone who’s interested.

Cameron Seib:

I know a few people our age who dislike Manziel. Seems like most also dislike things like partying, pot, and rap music. It’s the group of kids who, for whatever reason, look down on popular forms of entertainment — whether that be a football player or drink — and deem it “immature.” Maybe they’re just pretentious. Maybe they’ve always been outcasts of sorts and feel the need to justify their sad lives by hating on everything that brings joy to their more socially affluent peers. Whatever the reason, these guys won’t miss a chance to tell you that Manziel is an attention whore whose behavior is stupid and vulgar, just like your favorite Eminem song.

You’re right, though, almost everyone our age is a Johnny Football fan. I am too, a pretty big one. Not that I ever invested myself in Texas A&M, or will care too much about how Cleveland does this year, but Manziel cracks me up and I like seeing him succeed. The humor in his antics hardly needs explanation. There’s not wit or punchline to floating down a river on an inflatable swan while chugging liquor, but you’re lying if you say you wouldn’t crack the fuck up at the sight of your own friend doing the same. And while sacrificing a day of lessons from Peyton Manning for a night of heavy drinking is admittedly pretty narrow-sighted, it’s hard not to chuckle at the thought of Manziel being so intent on having a good night that he kind of forgot he was supposed to be at football camp the next day. Manziel’s rowdiness is a reminder that life isn’t as serious as all of us non-Johnnys would like to think, and that thought makes me smile.

But I also want Manziel to be more than a source of laughs, I want him to continue dominating football games. For one, it’ll silence clowns like Theismann and Bayless, and hopefully force them to get heated about NFL players whose behavior is actually damaging to the league (like running backs who beat their wives). If Manziel can rise above the “immaturity” that leads to bird-flipping and bottoms-up’ing, and competently lead the Browns, his detractors will have to acknowledge they’ve been focusing on petty shit all along. But more than anything, I just want Manziel throw touchdowns and win games for humanity’s sake. That sounds like an overstatement, and it is, but my point’s merely that seeing him succeed will be at least one break in a stupid notion our culture often advances: that having fun and accomplishing meaningful things are mutually exclusive.

Give me your more detailed take on Manziel. Why do you find him funny, and are you going to be cheering him on this season? What pisses you off most about the people who rag on him?

MR:

I think that narrow-mindedness is why I find Johnny Manziel such a likable character. Sometimes, it feels like these athletes in the brightest of spotlights — Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, etc. — are no more than football automatons, robots built specifically for the purpose of throwing footballs accurately. Russell Wilson’s one of my favorite athletes, but there’s nothing relatable about him. He’s boringly perfect. Manziel, on the other hand, makes the same stupid mistakes I make in my own life, and continues to do so despite intense scrutiny from the national media of a country of 300,000,000 people.

And yes, that’s why I am desperately rooting for Manziel to succeed. I don’t have much to add to your point about how his success is a middle finger (ha) to all of the people who think Manziel’s propensity for fun excludes him from contributing meaningfully to a football team. Yeah, it’s hyperbole to say that he’s winning games for humanity’s sake, but I don’t think it’s too strong to say that his success/failure will change the conversation on how we view athletes who have an outsized personality. And that’s kind of a big deal, in terms of how the league wants to market itself going forward.

What pisses me off the most about the people who rag on him…that’s a question that could make me sound like a jerk, so I’ll refrain from answering too extensively. Let’s just say I don’t think they’re having the most fun.

CS:

A successful season from Manziel would also be a kind of confidence boost to all of us out there who lack the diligence of someone like Wilson. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up from a night of drinking, even if it followed a heavy week of reading and writing, only to think, “Russ wouldn’t have done that.” I’m half-joking, but only half, because, again, our people love pushing the narrative of the laser-focused athlete/academic/businessman/etc. On any post-party morning, it’s hard to think that I compromised my chances at success by treating myself to some fun. And so I think Johnny Football, sill as this may sound, really could become a sort of personal inspiration to younger adults. We’ll see a Manziel touchdown pass and think, you know, even if I do get inflatable-swan drunk sometimes, I’ll be okay.

I guess I’ll answer my own question about why I can’t stand the Bayless-esque takes on Manziel. You put it pretty plainly and true in your first email: obnoxious as Manziel might sometimes be, it’s not as if he’s harming anyone. Yeah, middle fingers are a poor way to deal with your anger, acting like you’re so rich you talk on a phone made of money is douchey, and failing to handle your responsibilities because you’re too hungover is regrettable. But why the fuck does the media care what victimless mistakes Manziel’s making on his own time? If he really does become too consumed by the fast life to handle quarterbacking duties, only he and the Browns organization will be worse for it. I have a really hard time believing that Skip Bayless gives even one fuck about either Manziel’s or his team’s well-being, so why’s he getting red in the face over Manziel making the “right” choices?

And let’s not forget about the Colin Cowherd herd, the ones who see their criticism of raucous behavior as a duty done “for the kids.” We better blast Johnny Football’s every off-field action, lest we want to raise a generation whose preferred method of diplomacy is a double bird! Fuck that. Let me tell you, if your kid sees Manziel flip someone off and immediately thinks “hey, that’s cool,” the bad role model is not the athlete, but you, the parent.

Email Exchange: WE’RE BACK (and Talking about the NFL)

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Today’s article: “Need for Speed,” Bill Barnwell, Grantland

Michael Rosen:

Woah, hey, we’re back! It’s been a bit of a hiatus, Cam — almost two weeks since we last published anything on the veritably hallowed pixels of Why Oh Why? A (Kinda) Mariners Blog. Outside Lands vacuumed the energy right out of both of us, and this last week’s been a recuperation period of sorts, but now, after a full week to recover, I’d say I’m back to full strength, 100%, ready to kill the game. The people have been clamoring, no doubt, and today, we’re here to channel Jalen and Jacoby (and whoever wrote that song) in GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT.

(With an Email Exchange.)

That intro paragraph up there sounds pretty caffeinated, but I promise you I am still really tired, so I’m going to go make some tea really quick…

Okay, back. So into the exchange. Over these past two weeks, the sports content schedule has shifted from the absolute dog days of summer — i.e, only baseball to write about — to the slow approach of fall, which means…football!!!!!!

Today kicks off our coverage of the football season, which I think we can all agree to be pretty happy about. Baseball is certainly my favorite sport, but it’s nice to have some diversity in the articles up there on the interwebs to “exchange” about, and so this has been a lot of text that hasn’t once mentioned the article we’re going to talk about today, which is Barnwell’s piece on speed in the NFL.

So there are two main sections to this piece, and each respective section poses a different question. The first half of the piece is Barnwell attempting to measure the respective cumulative speeds of each NFL team, albeit with a hilariously flawed method (which he acknowledges). The second half highlights a way that this may be more accurately measurable, via a system reminiscent of the SportVU cameras recently receiving a revolution of their own in the NBA.

Barnwell nods his head to these metrics in the conclusion of the piece, when he quotes Doc Rivers upon hearing that Rajon Rondo runs 10 MPH on the court: “I don’t know the fuck that does.”

So what Barnwell seems to be getting at here is that speed may not be too meaningful, even if it was measurable to an extent. The teams listed at the top of his (somewhat arbitrary) chart aren’t really that great of teams, and the Rivers quote points at the idea that even if we could measure it to an extent, what value would that have analytically?

Personally, I value speed, likely because 1) I’m a pretty amateur NFL fan and 2) I played a lot of Madden growing up. The fastest players on Madden doubled as the most effective, at least from my perspective. Who can forget Michael Vick on Madden 2004, scrambling for 10 yards on every single drop back? Those formative moments of playing Madden likely skewed my perspective of speed — for example, when the Eagles signed (I think) Jeremy Bloom, an Olympic athlete, as a kick returner a few years back, I was sure his speed would make him the best in the game.

Now, I understand better that vision, patience, etc. play a larger role than how fast someone goes when mashing the right trigger button on a controller, but intuitively, it doesn’t make sense that speed makes zero difference in the NFL. And maybe it doesn’t, but the extent to which it does matter is probably greatly overestimated by the common fan.

My question to you: does that even matter? What are the implications of the casual fan overestimating the importance of speed?

Cameron Seib:

Feels good to be back, Mike. Between driving to and from San Francisco, all the hype and delirium that surrounds a Kanye set, and getting sufficiently drunk for a Tom Petty concert (hint: you’re never sufficiently drunk), my mind’s been in recovery mode lately. But after a week of mental hibernation, I, too, am ready to GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT.

Watch out, world, because Why Oh Why? is about to go on a run of production the likes of which the amateur blogosphere has never seen.

Barnwell’s article is pretty silly. Speed in the NFL is a fun topic that has, can, and will be discussed forever, but this piece doesn’t ever amount to saying much. Its conclusion is, like, hey, there’s no correlation between a team’s six fastest offensive players and its overall offensive production. Craaaaazy.

But, yeah, Barnwell acknowledges it’s nothing of much weight, so no use in treating it as such. Let’s just thank Bill for launching today’s discussion and leave it at that.

When Barnwell ranks teams by offense, he uses Football Outsiders’s “offensive DVOA” stat (defensive-adjusted value over average). More interesting to me than the teams that don’t necessarily rate well by this metric (the fast ones), were the ones that do. I headed over to Football Outsiders myself and checked the offensive DVOA numbers for 2013. The top five teams in the NFL last season were the Broncos, Chargers, Eagles, Patriots, and Saints.

After I saw that, I looked at quarterback numbers. The website uses DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) to assess QB performance. In 2013, each of the top-five overall offensive teams by DVOA had a top-six QB by DYAR (Atlanta’s Matt Ryan snuck in at number four). Maybe the NFL’s best offenses aren’t made via speed, but via great QB play. Craaaaazy.

I did like what Barnwell got to in the second part of his post, at least how he used Doc Rivers’s philosophizing to illuminate his point. Football purists will buzzword you into oblivion about how “intangibles” are the really important measures of a player, not quantifiable things like speed, strength, etc. And while that’s complete bullshit, there is, quite obviously, more to a good football player than raw physical ability. Richard Sherman looks slow as shit compared to some corners, yet he’s better than any in the game. Which brings me back to the Rivers quote. Even if we had perfect speed-capturing statistics, I don’t think they’d be of much use to NFL teams, because a player’s fleetness seems to be such a minor factor in their overall success in the league.

Why some organizations continue to covet speed, then, is a bit of a mystery. Obviously, some of it has to do with owners and general managers who think they’re smarter than the numbers and fuck nerds they don’t know football and speed kills. But I think another possible answer is in what you brought up, about casual fans overvaluing speed. A fast player is fucking fun to watch. When Devin Hester was in his prime, I would tune into Chicago games specifically for his kick returns, to watch him torch other special teams players. A wildly fast player can put the proverbial butts in proverbial seats, and I’m sure NFL front offices are aware of this. So maybe fans’ love of speed is in someway responsible for the employment of guys like Bethel Johnson.

I don’t really know what other questions I have on this matter, so I guess just spit what you please, Mike. As far as other topics are concerned, though, why is tea your caffeinated beverage of choice?

MR:

Yeah, three days of a music festival and the requisite partying are enough to make you swear off drinking for a while. Of course, that doesn’t last more than a couple of days, but oh well. Luckily, we have enough #throwbackthursday material for the next month or so. That’s no Watershed, but it’s pretty significant.

I’ve liked what you’ve teased out of this Barnwell piece, though. That’s something I hadn’t though of: that the employment of these super-fast players may simply be for the enjoyment of their fanbase. It’s a little bit “out there” of a theory, since it seems like every single roster spot on an NFL team (at least according to the kind of insane Seahawks blogosphere) is of the greatest importance of all-time, so it’s hard to see an NFL GM sacrificing one of his precious spots to appease the ownership. Then again, the ownership is the only ultimately calling the shots.

Wow, Bethel Johnson, that is a throwback. That’s probably (hopefully?) the last time I hear that name for the rest of my life.

Yeah, I don’t have much more to say here, so I’ll get to the most important thing to address here today: the tea vs. coffee (vs. caffeine powder?) debate. Part of this is just a personal preference issue. I find myself being pretty sensitive to caffeine, so if I drink even a cup of coffee, I feel like I’m on hard drugs for about an hour and then crash like a popped balloon. It’s certainly interesting, but not sustainable on the day-to-day level. Tea has a low enough caffeine content to not make me trip caffeine balls, but it’s enough to wake me up and get me focused. Objectively, though, the taste of nice earl grey tea is so much better than coffee. I can’t drink coffee without filling half the cup up with milk, and I don’t put a drop of sweetener in my tea. Fuck the people who say coffee is an “acquired taste,” that just means it tastes like shit and people tolerate it because they’re addicts.

CS:

Wait, you drank at Outside Lands? I was sure you’d sworn off alcohol before the festival started.

NFL time was fun, but the matter of caffeine really is today’s most pressing. This will be a two-part rant, which I will begin by arguing for caffeine’s sublime effects, and then finish by selling coffee’s superiority the best I can.

It almost seems like arguing for the benefits of caffeine is an unnecessary endeavor. Americans love coffee, for one. Have you ever played the game “How long will it take me to get from one Starbucks to the next?” If it’s more than five seconds, you live in North Dakota.

That said, I’ve always felt that our society subtly pushes the notion that caffeine is bad for you. When we were growing up, companies had to put the caffeine content on their soda cans. But not anymore, and why would a company try to conceal that information, unless they thought high caffeine content would scare away consumers? That’s just one silly example, but I think it’s representative of a population in which nearly everyone who depends on caffeine laments it as a necessary evil.

Fuck all that. Caffeine is a wonder drug. Proof: this New York Times article. It references on a study in which coffee-drinkers lived longer, and others which reported a link between drinking coffee and lowered risk of Type 2 diabetes, numerous types of cancer, and Alzheimer’s. People contribute millions of dollars each year to cancer research, and it’s like, dudes, just open a few Starbucks in areas that are without.

And don’t listen to those dissenters who warn of caffeine’s hidden horrors. Anything they tell you is bullshit. Let’s go item by item through Wikipedia’s list of caffeine’s “negative effects.” None of them stand up to scrutiny.

 

Caffeine can increase blood pressure in non-habitual consumers.

Solution: become a habitual consumer.

Caffeine may reduce control of fine motor movements (e.g. producing shaky hands).

Again, become a habitual user and develop some fucking tolerance, and this won’t happen.

Caffeine can increase cortisol secretion.

Oh no!!!

Caffeine can contribute to increased insomnia and sleep latency.

Uh oh! Looks like one of the benefits slipped into the negatives list. Stupid Wikipedia, so many errors.

Caffeine is addictive. Caffeine withdrawal can produce headache, fatigue and decreased alertness.

Solution: continue fighting diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. and don’t let withdrawal happen.

High doses of caffeine (300 mg or higher) can cause anxiety.

Solution: don’t drink coffee like water.

High caffeine consumption accelerates bone loss at the spine in elderly postmenopausal women.

Solution: worry about it when you get to that stage in life.

 

So right there I’ve given a fairly exhaustive argument for why caffeine is a natural wonder and all that’s left now is showing why coffee is the best way to consume said miracle. In the end, it just isn’t burdened by drawbacks like other caffeinated substances are. It’s funny that you make fun of coffee’s taste, Mike, because as much as it is an acquired taste, it still beats tea, which has no taste. It’s essentially just hot water. As far as energy drinks go, you can’t bring a Monster into the office every morning unless you organize monster truck rallies. And as for caffeine pills, good luck telling people you take them without those people assuming you also deal crack.

 

Chris Denorfia: Secretly Kind of Good?

Chris-Denorfia

It was just one game, but it summed up a half-season’s worth of frustration in a tidy, infuriating little package. Eighty-five pitches were thrown against the Mariners in their game against the Indians on July 30 — 69 strikes, 16 balls — and Seattle tallied exactly zero runs and just three hits, bending over to Cleveland in a game that lasted two hours but felt like a lifetime.

It felt like the nadir of an all-too-familiar streak of offensive ineptitude; it made me feel like something, ANYTHING, needed to be done to fix this goddamn offense. Something splashy, something that felt like a move of significance. And, as if the stars had aligned to satiate my impatience, the performance came the night before the trading deadline. Trading Nick Franklin for Austin Jackson was that splashy move. Trading Abraham Almonte for Chris Denorfia was not.

As I noted in the July 31 Email Exchange, the very name “Chris Denorfia” seems to be a signifier for “scrub.” It’s an unassuming name, and Denorfia, at first glance, is a very unassuming player. He was racking up significant playing time in AAA as late as 2009, at age 28. When you’re spending years that should, in theory, be your prime as an average player for the Sacramento River Cats, it’s likely a sign your major league career isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But a trade from Oakland to San Diego, rather than killing his offense, actually revived Denorfia’s career; in 2010, his first true year in the majors (his previous high in plate appearances was 120), Denorfia posted a 113 wRC+ with average defense as a corner outfielder. A quad-A player was suddenly a valuable commodity. He’s hit every year since then, until this year — and that’s why I’d like to posit this move is, quite sneakily, one of the better moves made over this trade deadline, and one that could significantly improve the Mariners’ chances going forward.

An important thing to realize, as I noted in that July 31 Email Exchange and alluded to earlier in this post, is the context within which this move was made. I won’t spend too much time addressing it, but the Mariners outfield has been a nuclear wasteland this season. Cumulatively, Seattle outfielders carry the league’s worst wRC+, checking in at a 78, 22% below league average. Michael Saunders’s injury hasn’t helped matters, but the lack of depth stuck out like a cold sore from Opening Day. Contenders rarely grant roster spots to sub-replacement-level players, let alone start three of them at the same time, but that’s pretty much what the Mariners were doing for not-insignificant stretches of the year.

It’s too much to say the Mariners needed to trade for an outfielder — because the goal of trades are to make a team better, not necessarily improve a specific facet of it — but it was by far the easiest place to upgrade. Stefen Romero, James Jones, and Endy Chavez have all been among the worst players in the MLB this season. By simply acquiring a +1- to +1.5-win player, they’re be making substantial upgrades. Compare that to, say, the catcher position, where you’d need a +3-win player to make the same degree of upgrade. One-win players, obviously, come much cheaper than 3-win players, and Denorfia fits that first mold pretty closely. At least, this year, he does.

There’s an argument for Denorfia being pretty damn underrated, and not at all someone who ought to be perceived as a 1-win player. His 107 wRC+ since the 2010 season equals the marks of Nick Markakis, Carl Crawford, and Alfonso Soriano over the same time span, and his defense eclipses all three of these players, who’ve achieved widespread public regard in the recent past.

It’s kind of obvious why no one knows who Denorfia is (let alone considers him any good): the letters on his old uniform. Nobody gives a shit about the Padres. They’re the Mariners’ soul mates (and bitter rivals), playing in a giant park with boring players and fading out of playoff conversations by Memorial Day. I consider myself something beyond a diehard baseball fan, but I can’t name four players in the Padres’ starting lineup.

The Mariners and Padres share another obvious similarity: their enormous ballparks. Petco suppresses counting stats like crazy, fooling a casual fan into thinking some players are just terrible hitters. Thankfully, wRC+ does the dirty work for us, but one can understand why Denorfia’s .275/.332./.399 since the start of the 2010 doesn’t exactly get people all hot and heavy.

Truth is, though, Denorfia’s earned the benefit of the doubt to this point in his career. Many will view this year as the norm, but I think it ought to be viewed as the aberration.

When assessing the flukiness of a player’s year-to-date performance, there’s two primary places we usually look. The first, and most common, is simply looking at the player’s BABIP. Denorfia’s 2014 BABIP — .295 — is a good 21 points below his career average of .316. It’s not some catastrophic difference, but it’s enough of one to make a difference of some significance. According to DIPS theory, Denorfia’s been some degree of unlucky, in terms of how many of the balls he’s made contact with have dropped for hits, torpedoing his batting average and OBP. We can expect both to rise going forward.

There’s a more glaring indicator here, though, that Denorfia’s performance this year is a fluky one, and that’s his HR/FB rate. This is the other measure of flukiness; generally, a HR/FB rate well below or well above career norms indicates the hitter has been either unlucky or lucky in the amount of fly balls flying over the fence. This year, Denorfia’s HR/FB rate is nearly five times lower than his career average, at 2.3% against a career average of 10.1%. Unless turning 34 suddenly sapped all of his strength, it stands to say that Denorfia’s slugging percentage has been destroyed by a few more fly balls falling just short of the fence than usual.

Yeah, there’s a chance that age has hit Denorfia like Solange hit Jay-Z (ugh). But that would be a REALLY sharp decline. Chances are, Denorfia’s been a good deal of unlucky this year. It’s not like he’s been declining every year; he’s one year removed from a career-season that approached all-star levels of productivity. If he can find even 90% of his career productivity from the plate, the Mariners might have just stumbled upon a surprisingly valuable contributor for virtually nothing. My bet’s on the fact that they just did.

Email Exchange: Josh Gordon’s NFL Problem

Cleveland Browns v Jacksonville Jaguars 12-1-2013

Today’s article: “Josh Gordon and the NFL’s Drug Problem,” Andrew Sharp, Grantland

Michael Rosen:

Usually you and I will read a piece and then gather questions that speak to the larger issues the story addresses. Thankfully (or unthankfully), Andrew Sharp’s already done the dirty work for us, sticking a giant pile of rhetorical questions midway through his piece about Josh Gordon’s drug suspension:

“But once you look at the details of the case, the questions get bigger than whether a wide receiver smoked weed. For instance: Why does this sport need to test people using a standard along the same lines as the U.S. military’s? Why is Josh Gordon treated like a paroled criminal for his entire career after testing positive twice? Do they really test him 10 times a month? Does it make sense to treat marijuana users the same way we treat PED users? Is there anyone at the NFL who saw the positive test and thought it might be too inconclusive to publicly ban a star player for an entire year? Does it make sense for the NFL to be testing players for marijuana at all? What does the league gain from prosecuting people like this?”

Woah! That’s a lot to unpack, and I think we can probably spend the rest of the exchange answering these questions. Thanks, Andrew!

The meat of the issue is probably in that last question, or at least that last question feels the most complex of all of the question Sharp proposes. He takes it on himself, positing essentially that it’s the owners’ desire to exercise some degree of control over their employees. I’ve been thinking about this for a few minutes, and I honestly can’t think of a better answer than that. There are innumerable negative economic effects of suspending star players like Gordon for such extensive spans of time. It sullies the NFL’s image. And if that is the case — that the owners want to effective have their employees, the players, scared and on a leash at all times — then the implications of that are, uh, a little scary and a lot backwards.

The question in there that initially came to my attention was the fact that the NFL’s policies for suspending their players for marijuana aren’t just stricter than the military’s, but significantly so. That is insane. There is absolutely no reason for that to be the case. I have no more complex thoughts than that.

One last thing before I hand it off to you: the NFL is a really evil institution. Sharp reminds us of all the times they’ve “insulted our intelligence” in the recent past: “the Ray Rice suspension last week, the psychotic uniform fines we see every year, the refusal to change the Redskins’ name, the annual crackdown on touchdown celebrations, the grandstanding with the Saints bounty scandal, downplaying concussions for the better part of the last 50 years.” My Big Question: will there ever come a point for you when the NFL’s ethical issues force you from watching the NFL?

Cameron Seib:

Just to clear up any confusion over all the military talk (no, Gordon isn’t thinking about enlisting): Sharp was using the U.S. military’s drug policy to show just how ludicrous the NFL’s is. To explain, the NFL’s threshold for a positive marijuana test is a THC concentration of 15 nanograms per millimeter. Meanwhile, the military’s is 50 ng/ml. Gordon, in the test that is now threatening to take away his season, recorded 16 ng/ml. In other words, he could’ve smoked three times as much as he purportedly did, and still would’ve had the full blessing of federal law to do a tour in Iraq. Instead, he’ll head to a court room to argue that, despite the weed, he’s qualified to step onto a football field in front of thousands of blacked out fans.

Why Gordon’s league insists on these standards is, as Sharp says, genuinely confusing. Generally speaking, we’re apt to think that big, omnipresent corporations like the NFL have two goals: making money and maintaining a positive public image. (And, often, these are one in the same — look good to the fans, and they’ll be more willing to put down dollars on your product.) But potentially suspending Gordon for an entire season because he had a little weed in his system is itself neither profitable nor commendable. Remove the league’s leading receiver from play and some fans are going to tune out, even if it is a relatively small number of them. This might be worthwhile were said suspension to earn the NFL a bunch of media attention for doing the moral thing, but taking away Gordon’s year for such a small infraction won’t achieve anything of the sorts. Never mind that the majority of the public is now in favor of marijuana legalization, because even those who don’t support the drug to that extent know it’s quite harmless. So everyone, pro-weed or not, is kind of left looking at this impending punishment at thinking, why the fuck doesn’t the NFL focus on its more pressing problems? You know, like the racist brand name and wife-beaters. When someone makes an “Arrests Database” for your company, most would agree it’s time to stop worrying about the employees who enjoy their free time with a side of munchies and South Park.

I really fail to see how the NFL’s policy on marijuana can, by itself, earn the league money or respect. So I’m left thinking that the owners must see strict punishment of pot use as serving some overall net benefit in those realms, which brings me back to Sharp’s point about controlling player behavior. A player caught burning trees doesn’t sully the NFL’s image (and thus bottom line), but a wide receiver caught messing around with heroin probably would. And maybe the league’s administrators think that by being strict about marijuana use, they’ll prevent more damaging incidents from every occurring. It gets back to the classic marijuana-as-gateway-drug argument. The owners probably believe that by scaring their players away from marijuana, they’re removing those players from situations in which more serious shit could go down. I guess I agree with Sharp in the sense that the NFL’s pot policy allows owners to control their employees’ behavior, at least to an extent. But I don’t think owners seek this power simply because “that kind of authority matters to [them]”; I just think they subscribe to outdated notions about joints begetting needles begetting AK-47s.

To your last question, no. Because, as a fan, I’m never supporting the league or its executives, I’m there for my team and its players. If all the NFL’s players and coaches decided to quit on their current franchises, and then created their own league, that league would be exactly the same to me. Which, I guess, is all to say, I don’t associate Roger Goodell and Daniel Snyder with the Richard Sherman picks and Pete Carroll fist-pumps I see during a Seahawks game. It’s an unfortunate fact that by purchasing a Sherm jersey, I’m also supporting the livelihoods and evil practices of Goodell and crew, but it’s also a guilt that pales in comparison to my love of professional football.

MR:

Yeah, sorry for my lack of clarity on the whole military business in my initial dispatch, I was a bit tired while writing.

To your theory that the owners might subscribe to the “marijuana-as-gateway-drug argument”: I’ll admit that the idea plays into my assumptions about who the owners are and how they think. I don’t care enough to look this up for sure, but I’m fairly certain that the overwhelming majority of NFL owners (and sports team owners writ large) are rich white men above the age of 50. My thought is that extremely rich, white men of that age often share similar political views and worldviews, and I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch that many of them likely don’t view their players in the most favorable of ways.

I think I’m becoming increasingly conflicted in my ability to ignore the league’s obvious moral iffiness. The drug stuff is whatever, for the most part, and I chalk most of it up to rules just generally being inflexible. But the way that the league handled the PR of the Ray Rice case really disgusted me. You can’t chalk that up to bureaucracy. And the whole concussion business…this could be its own separate discussion, but I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that football REALLY, invariably, fucks people up in terrible terrible ways, and it’s becoming slowly more difficult to compartmentalize. You’re totally right that you don’t associate Goodell/Snyder with, say, a massive Kam Chancellor hit, but you sure as hell associate concussions with it.

CS:

The thing is, I don’t think the NFL could ever collapse from the outside in. That is, it will remain alive and profitable so long as the people who keep it running — the players — continue to suit up. Because if games continue to be played, I can’t imagine fans ever giving up interest. No matter how permissive of domestic violence the league might seem to be, how medieval its drug policies are, or how much money it brings in from discriminatory brand names, individuals will look past an organization of moral transgressions to remain part of a community they savor. Like, sure, it’s not all that honorable of me to prop up an NFL run by oligarchs who treat the rest of the country as their profit-earning pawns. But fuck if I’m thinking about that when a couple buddies invite me over to watch a game, when there’s fantasy football to be played, when a Super Bowl has been won and there are couches to be burned.

Concussions, I think, stand as the single biggest threat to the NFL’s longevity. But again, not for reasons regarding fan apprehension. Yeah, it sucks to think that I get all loud and chest-pumpy over a couple guys who’ve mutually agreed to damage each other’s brains. Still, though, I’ll be able to justify it, because I can always tell myself, “Well, these guys know what they’re getting in to.” And I’ll want to justify it, because, well, watching Chancellor annihilate Vernon Davis and high-fiving my friends is a lot more fun that watching it and pointing out, “Hey, don’t you guys think it’s bad to encourage this savagery?”

Relief Is a Center Fielder Named Austin Jackson

Austin

It’s been a rather remarkable season by Seattle standards, but yesterday morning felt like a throwback to years past.

Here’s how I’d sum up my past half-decade rooting for the Mariners. Each April, the baseball fan and Seattleite inside me gets all giddy about what this season could be for the M’s. Then, usually by early-June, everyone but Felix has shit the bed, management tries solving the problem with Endy Chavez, and I’m left sending angry texts to friends about another year wasted. Come August, I’m checked out, watching games from my den of indifference. It’s a cruel cycle, the reason I term the M’s “the team [I’ve] always lamented loving.

The 2014 trade deadline compressed this months-long process into a few short hours. I woke up, like any fan does on July 31, imagining all the new players the day might bring. At about noon came the bitterness; did the front office really think Chris fucking Denorfia was going to secure the first playoff spot we’ve had a chance at in years? And then, with 1:00 PDT mere minutes away, the resignation — yep, they did. Slanty face.

But right as I was prepping myself for an afternoon of sighing and shoulder shrugging and #smh’ing, the blessed news broke. David Price was being moved as part of a three-team trade. The Tigers and Mariners were involved. Seattle would receive center fielder Austin Jackson from Detroit.

Just like that, the deadline became a different type of microcosm: another day that exceeded expectations, in a season that’s done nothing but.

The news shocked me, in part, merely because it came so late; it was, like, six minutes before the deadline when I first saw the tweets. Also because Jackson’s was reportedly part of the deal, and by my count, he’d been mentioned in exactly zero trade rumors to that point. But in all that craziness, the thing that surprised me most was that Jack Zduriencik had pulled off a pretty damn good trade.

Despite having a down year in 2014, Jackson’s a legitimate asset. He’s been an above-average hitter for his career, can field the outfield’s toughest position competently (though the defense has been trending downwards recently), and has been among the MLB’s most valuable baserunners since his career began. Just two years ago, he was the league’s fourth-best CF by WAR, and a top-20 position player overall by the same metric. Again, he hasn’t been producing at quite that level since, but those are the numbers of an all-star.

Let’s break down Jackson’s current season. ZiPS has him slated to collect 2.2 WAR by year’s end, which would be his worst campaign to date. What gives? Well, the hitting’s been down a bit. He posted a 134wRC+ during that all-star season in 2012, and has run a 106  for his career, but that number has dropped a bit to 101 this year. I think most of that’s explained by his power numbers, as his BB%, K%, and OBP are right around his career averages. Meanwhile, he’s only projected to hit eight home runs this season, down from 12 last year and 16 the year before. Looking closer at those totals, though, is actually kind of encouraging. In 2014, Jackson’s been hitting more fly balls than ever before, but for some reason, those balls are leaving the park at half the rate they have over his five years in the league. It’d be convenient to mark that up to diminishing strength, but keep in mind Jackson’s only 27. That’s the age when you expect players to fill out their bodies and start peaking offensively. So rather than see Jackson’s recent power outage as physical decline, I think it’s safe to say a lot of it’s due to poor luck — I’m guessing he’s hit a lot of warning track flies this season. And that means we can reasonably expect an offensive rebound both down the stretch and in 2015.

One thing that’s probably not coming back is the defensive prowess Jackson showed when he first emerged in the bigs. The center field expanse is best covered with speed, and players only get slower as they age. Evidence of this, his UZR and DRS have been in decline since 2011. (The declining speed also means Jackson’s been legging out fewer infield hits, which is perhaps another contributor to the fall in offensive output.)

Another quick note on Jackson’s wheels. Though he’s almost certainly getting slower, he’s continued to add value on the basepaths, and is on pace to steal the most bags he has since 2011. His legs don’t have the spring they once did, but he’s become smarter about utilizing them, I’m guessing.

Ultimately, what the M’s got in Jackson is an everyday CF, and a good one at that. He’s not going to return to his elite 2012 form, but, overall, he’s also probably due to improve on this year’s production. Oliver projects him as a +3.1-win player in 2015, and that feels just about right, hitting, defense, baserunning, and age considered.

So, great, Seattle acquired a talented player. Nice! That in itself would be reason for excitement, but, of course, transactions aren’t quite so simple. There are a lot of things to look at when evaluating a trade, like how much was given up to get the new talent, how long the team will control the acquired player(s), whether or not the trade fills an area of need on the roster, where the team finds itself in the standings, and so on. Fortunately for the M’s, on Thursday, all these considerations added up to a move that fans could look at approvingly.

To secure Jackson, Seattle sent Nick Franklin Tampa Bay’s way. After doing absolutely nothing in a short stint with the big league club this season, and then subsequently struggling in Tacoma too, Franklin’s trade value had dropped from where it was in late 2013. Still, he was a consensus top-100 prospect entering last season, and was a top-50 guy prior to that. And a young, power-hitting middle infielder is a very desirable piece for any team. The M’s certainly didn’t school the competition on this deal. But considering Jackson’s contract and where Seattle is right now, as well as all the above talk about how good of a CF he is, paying the price of Franklin wasn’t all the difficult to stomach.

Probably most importantly, Jackson will be controlled through the 2015 season. He’s not merely a rental, and should the M’s fail to grab the second Wild Card spot this year, Jackson will still be here to help come next April. Incoming talent is a lot more valuable when it can contribute to two separate shots at the postseason.

Swapping Franklin for Jackson was also the exact magnitude of move I think most fans were hoping to see. Mike and I discussed this in more length during yesterday’s Email Exchange, but Seattle found itself in a bit of a predicament at this year’s deadline. The team’s facing its first realistic shot at the playoffs in forever, which I’m sure had the front office’s “buy now” senses tingling. At the same time, though, the most the M’s can hope for is a one-game playoff against the A’s or Angels, with the chance to then advance to the ALDS, and a mere chance at a chance opportunity isn’t worth selling the farm. Which Seattle didn’t do! Franklin’s a young stud, but he’s not untouchable, and on top of that, he didn’t have a future with this team after Cano came along. In acquiring Jackson, Z found a nice middle ground between going for it in 2014 and saving the in-house prospects for future postseason runs with better odds.

Lastly, it was oh so cool that the team got all of the above in a CF. The M’s outfield has been atrocious this year, ranking 28th in the league in WAR. It’d been especially bad recently, with Michael Saunders’s injury meaning frequent appearances by the Endy Chavez-James Jones circus. The mere addition of Jackson would help most teams. But for Seattle, where getting him means switching a sub-win player with a one-win player from here on out, he helps especially.

Getting a year and change of a good player, who plays a position the team desperately needed to improve, during a time when the organization finally had an chance to give its fans October ball, is a great move. Doing so at the price of Nick Franklin is, to me, a really great one. I’m not ready to give Z my full endorsement, and you can bet I still have my #FireJackZ tweets at the ready, but good on him for his dealings yesterday. What a relief it was to watch Thursday afternoon’s game with that trade fresh on the mind. For once, hope wasn’t followed by anger and apathy, but simply more hope. The cycle was broken, at least for a day.

And hey, who knows. If that cycle can be broken, who’s to say the postseason drought can’t?