Cubs Win!

Everyone needs an MLB team, even if you only sporadically follow them. You need a team because you are occasionally asked who it is – like being asked your religion – and you can be judged by your answer. I chose the Cubs years ago, but much like a Catholic who only goes to Mass on Christmas and Easter, I tend to only closely follow them during the playoffs.

I’ve tried to get into the Texas Rangers for years, since they’re my actual local team. It’s just they’re not really locals, if I can remember them moving from Washington (“First in war, First in peace and Last in the American League.”) I’ve (fitfully) cheered on the Yankees, because they’re my wife’s home team – and my in-laws’ home team, as well. However, if I was ever asked who my favorite team was, I would say, ‘The Cubs!”

Now, part of this was because I was born on the north side of Chicago, so they are my birth team, even if I did move to Texas when I was two. Part was that they are one of the teams that everyone knows and has an opinion about, like the Yankees or the Red Sox, but they’re from the Midwest.

Also, with the debut of the web, you can have your local team be anywhere – you just have to follow them online. (I follow Australian baseball because I know one of the players.) With cable and satellite TV, you can watch them just as if they were local, too. It’s not like the olden times, when you had to find box scores in the back of the sports section.

So, I am a Cubs fan.

There was a part of me drawn to the Sisyphus story, struggling to get the rock to the verge of the mountaintop, and then having it roll back down. Again and again and again.

There was a part of me drawn to the tradition – not just the “lovable losers”, but the observation that the fans and most of the organization respected and remembered that the team’s last championship was before the NFL even started. They had retired players who were recognized wherever they went. They had Harry Caray, even if he did start with the White Sox. The current team didn’t think the team started with them – they knew the team started in 1876 and they were a part of a long chain.

Then, there was a part of me that just likes being in pain. For many, I’m pretty sure that was the joy of being a Cubs fan – you knew that something was going to go horribly wrong at the worst possible moment, and it would be an even more original catastrophe than the last time. It would be more catastrophic than whatever happened at the office that day, so you would feel better about your job once in a while.

Seriously, what other team has blamed a goat attending a game (and being ejected) for a championship drought? What other team had a fan that brought a goat to a game?

I have attended one game at Wrigley – which is half of the Cubs games I have seen in person.

I saw one Cubs game in Miami that was technically a Marlins game, but I was with a guy from Chicago and two Brits who were just contrarians, so we cheered the Cubs. Loudly. The Cubs won, so we had the stands pretty much to ourselves by the end of the game. Technically, since it was a Marlins game, we had the stands pretty much to ourselves for most of the game. The two Brits were complaining that baseball games weren’t long enough to build a good buzz like a three-day cricket match. On the taxi ride home, one of the Brits asked the cab driver how the game ended “since we had left early.” The cab driver then bitched about the crappy Marlins all the way to our hotel. It was pretty funny, actually.

When I saw the game at Wrigley, I was in Chicago to teach a technical workshop, and my wife had gone along. We were looking for something to do, and then we realized it was baseball season – and by some miracle, the Cubs were in town.

We were having dinner at Harry Caray’s steakhouse the night before we went to the game and everyone was talking about Sammy Sosa’s corked bat (“It was for batting practice. Really.”) We even got interviewed about it. We had tickets for the game the next night, and it was everything I assumed it would be – and the Cubs lost.

The day before, the day the bat was found, the Cubs had won. So, I remember mentioning in the workshop the next morning that we were going to see the Cubs that night and that I was excited to finally see a game at Wrigley.

One of my students just sighed. I asked him what was wrong (I assumed he was a White Sox fan.) I said that the Cubs had won the night before, they were in first place in the division, everything seemed great – with the small exception of the corked bat, which I assumed would blow over. (Sosa got an eight-game suspension, I think.)

My student said he was a Cubs fan, as well. This confused me. Then, he said, “Don’t get too excited about the Cubs. They will break your heart. They always break your heart.”

I thought that was a bit harsh. I didn’t realize it was a mantra.

The Cubs won their division by one game that year. They lost in the NLCS. Broken heart.

I watched the Bartman game on TV because it was a playoff game. Five outs from the World Series. This was the year! Then, some random fan grabs a foul ball, and the team collapses. I remember feeling the doom envelop the stadium – you could feel the air whoosh out of there – and I was watching on TV. It was a new and horrible way to fail.

Broken heart.

I knew they were doing pretty well this year. I knew they had Theo. The next thing I knew, they were in the playoffs. It was time to start paying attention.

So, this year, we watched the playoffs and the World Series with anticipation and a bit of trepidation. My wife had decided she was cheering for the Cubs, as well, which added another layer of stress for me – she is much worse at recovering from a sports broken heart than I am. I’m used to it – I have the Cubs for baseball and Jerry Jones owns the Cowboys. (I’ve pretty much given up football at this point.)

So, while I had a feeling after game 6 that 2016 was finally the year, I was a bit concerned that this could be the most elaborate way to break the fans’ hearts ever conceived. I really wanted to believe after game 5, but I just couldn’t bring myself to that point yet.

I watched game 7 with excitement. No matter what happened, I stayed positive. I’m not quite sure how, because as Cleveland came charging back, I began to hear my student’s voice in my head – “They’ll always break your heart.” I had to tune him out because I was also really concerned my wife was going to start having chest pains, and we would need to call 911. So, I was spending more time tuning her out.

When the rain delay was over, I felt a sudden calm. I’m not sure why – I supposed my psychic self knew there had been a team meeting, and that’s when the team decided to win.

Blown saves. Extra innings. Rain delay. Two runs in the tenth. Give up one run in the bottom of the tenth. The pitcher with the blown save gets the win. Wow.

The final out was sweet – a basic play, executed perfectly. 8-7 Cubs. Final. Cubs win the Series, 4-3. All the way back from death’s doorstep just a few days ago. A team that had to win three in a row, and did.

The Cubs will always break your heart. Until the night they don’t. That’s a very special night.

 

Another season

It has been a long, long time since I posted here. Since I didn’t have anything to say, I didn’t force it – even though that is contrary to most of the bloggers in the universe.

The AirHogs are in the next phase of “let’s destroy the team” – the owners have decided to co-locate the team between Grand Prairie and Amarillo. So, now they are the Texas AirHogs.

This is quite possibly the stupidest move in the history of organized sports, other than just giving up and having a traveling (no-home) team. A team with two home fields that are 354 miles apart. WTF?

Reminder to the owners and league: Texas is not New Jersey. You can’t just drive across it in an hour. If Southwest flies between the cities, only crazy people are going to drive it. 

We gave up our season tickets last year, because we just didn’t have the time any longer. I was back in the office across town, and by the time I got home, I just couldn’t face another half-hour on the highways to get to the game.

Now, I’m back home-officed, and half the time they’re playing away games, and half of the home games are in Amarillo. I thought driving to Grand Prairie was bad. I wonder if this year’s season tickets package includes a hotel room in the other city. Maybe you can just ride on the team bus.

Why not just kill the team and get it over with?

To fill the gap in home games, the Great Southwest Collegiate League was invented. It’s a wooden-bat, college-level league for college players around the State. Their games are played in whatever stadium the AirHogs are not in that day.

I may go to a couple of their games. They seem to have two games per day, since they don’t have access to the stadium for a full season.

The AirHogs have done almost everything they can to kill fan support. I guess having someone show up in Grand Prairie with a sign “Tonight’s Home Game is in Amarillo” is the final step in the plan.

The real cost of being a Minor Leaguer: A look inside Todd Van Steensel’s bank account

the minors….

MiLB.com's PROSPECTive Blog

By Ashley Marshall/MiLB.com

tvs

The 2015 season is quickly becoming the year of the ransom note, but don’t expect to hold Todd Van Steensel hostage.

The Cleveland Indians made headlines earlier this month when its bullpen kept Brandon Moss’ 100th home run ball hostage. Later, the Indians’ starters presented a list of expensive demands to Francisco Lindor to recover the ball from his first big league hit.

Something similar is unlikely to ever happen in the Florida State League, where Australian right-hander Van Steensel is plying his trade.

It’s been well documented that Minor Leaguers don’t make too much money, and Van Steensel is a perfect example of just how paycheck-to-paycheck some Minor Leaguers live.

I reached out to Van Steensel, the closer for Class A Advanced Fort Myers, in Spring Training to see if he would be willing to itemize his expenses throughout the 2015 season. With the first half…

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Super Bowl vs World Series

This is an ode to four hours of my life I will never get back.

The Super Bowl is one game, winner-take-all. Sure, it’s at the very end of the season, and the two teams have survived the rest of the playoffs, but it’s still only one game, so it’s sudden-death. So, occasionally, you get one team that appears to be completely unprepared and they get massacred. The 2014 Super Bowl was over about 12 seconds in – if you’re in the championship game, and you can’t get the center and the quarterback on the same page at the beginning of the first play, you’re gonna lose. This means a lot of people just tune out – what’s the point in watching? Once one team has a certain margin with a certain amount of time left, the game is pretty much over.  It isn’t over ’till it’s over, but sometimes it is.

Now, consider the World Series, whether or not you consider the “World” part a valid claim. You start your ace pitcher in Game 1. He strides confidently to the mound, and promptly gets shelled. Nothing works. He’s walking people, he’s giving up hits. Runs are coming in. You pull him in the third inning. Embarrassing. Fatal? Not by a long shot. Either your offense rallies, your relievers stop the bleeding, or you just write off the game, and start planning for the next night, when you have another pitcher to send to the mound. It isn’t over ’till it’s over, and you have to lose four games to really lose. Sure, you can get swept, but at least you don’t lose hope 3/4ths of the way through the game. In baseball, you can always win in the ninth. Or the tenth. Or the sixteenth. No matter how many runs they score, you’re going to get your chance to swing for the fences.

Which do you prefer?

If you’re a sports widow, I’m sure you prefer the Super Bowl, since there is only four hours of screaming and gnashing of teeth. Well, maybe only four hours. Of course, the pre-game was another four hours. 

If you were cheering for the Broncos yesterday, which do you prefer?

Baseball Analytics

These are some notes to myself on a baseball presentation I’m doing in a couple of weeks. Actually, I’ve been doing it pretty much constantly since last summer, just to different groups at work. I’m just trying to capture my thought process and the issues I’ve seen while developing a baseball analytical model that finds the factors most critical in a home team victory. As always, comments are welcome.

I had to relearn some basic statistics for a work assignment on Analytics – which is statistics on steroids, so I thought, what better subject than baseball? There’s tons of data available, there are statistics galore, and there are all sorts of things you can try to predict.

There are two issues that I’ve now come across while building a lab exercise based on game results – the results tend to make baseball people say, “Well, duh!” and more frighteningly, not all people understand baseball. WTF?

The “Well, duh!” part is actually a good thing – it means the statistical results may actually be correct, or at least believable in the baseball universe (this is called domain knowledge when you’re doing analytics.) Domain Knowledge is what allows you to know that if you’re trying to predict the home team’s score, using the home team’s RBI totals is probably cheating – since the numbers are the same.

That’s where the second problem comes in – not everyone knows what an RBI is. WTF? People know Honey Boo-Boo’s waist size and they don’t know how runs batted in are counted or what they mean?

So, now I have a presentation coming up and I expected to have to explain how the basic statistical model works, which is giving me enough heartburn. I’m using IBM SPSS Modeler (a really fun toy if it’s from work or a really sophisticated analytics platform if you’re trying to get your boss to buy it) to build a model based on MLB games from 2000-2012. (That’s a lot of games – I think there are over 24,000 records in the dataset. However, most analytics models would have more records than that.) The model looks at the factors that influence a home victory – which basically means the home team’s score is greater than the visiting team’s. (Well, duh!)

This is a major advantage of baseball – there are no ties, unless you have an idiot commissioner and the managers run out of pitchers. In the real universe, somebody is going to win. So, you can predict (try to predict) victories.

The other advantage is that baseball is a logical game of progression – you’re not going to have an interception, for example, and you can’t run out the clock. You have a specific number of batters receiving a specific number of pitches. The total number of pitches may vary, but three strikes and you’re out (this is the origin of that phrase, in case you really don’t know baseball.)

So, I will have to go over the basics of linear regression – trying to predict one value based on one or more other values, and then go over the baseball terms to explain why they are important. Oh, and explain SPSS Modeler to an audience that has never seen it.

I really didn’t think I would have to cover all that.

It’s interesting – in the three or four years I’ve had AirHogs tickets, I’ve learned a lot about baseball, but I always knew the basics, so I assumed everyone did. My dad took me to one Rangers game that I can remember (David Clyde was pitching), and I actually never played – I played softball in a corporate league in my thirties (I was a pitcher), but I still knew the basics. Now, we have a generation that doesn’t necessarily know. Oops.

For the record, given the games from 2000-2012 (thank you, www.retrosheet.org), the most important factors in predicting a home victory are:

  • The number of hits by the visiting team
  • The number of hits by the home team
  • The number of visitors’ walks
  • The number of home walks
  • and some other factors (errors, home runs) which have much less impact

The interesting part about this exercise to me has been realizing how important domain knowledge really is. If you don’t know much about baseball, you won’t look at the factors and think, “Wow, pitching is pretty important.” Now,  to baseball people, that’s obvious, but to a fan who is used to someone swinging for the fences, it may not be obvious that the visitors are swinging for the fences, as well – and stopping them is an important part of the game.

If you watch the movie Moneyball,  it begins with the “epic struggle” between the statistics nerd and the old school “just have a feelin’ about him” scouts. However, I think they are basically very similar – the statistics tend to prove what old school baseball people take as gospel (except for the dating the hot chick theory)  – they just don’t know why they know it. Also, the statistics and analytics may prove that some of the gospel is wrong – which is the premise of Moneyball in the first place.

Now, if you don’t care about baseball, then none of this is very meaningful, because the results are just gibberish. However, these lessons apply to business as well – if you are running a business and making decisions based on hunches – analytics can show whether the hunches are correct or not.  Maybe you’re right – in which case, you know your business well. If you’re not, either you’re in the wrong business, or you need to do research before making decisions, and not just guess.

In fact, from a modeling standpoint, building a model to look at baseball is not much different from building a model to check credit scores to approve credit card applications. The only issue that changes is the domain knowledge and the actual data.

The reason I picked baseball in the first place was because almost all of the analytical models I had seen built were for mobile phone churn (customers leaving for other carriers) or banking – what happens if you’re not in either of those industries? So, I assumed baseball was a universal industry that people would have some idea about. That may have been an incorrect assumption – but I’d rather explain baseball to a crowd of people than the mobile phone industry.

Reverse Auction

Maybe ticket prices should be based on a sliding scale, based on the number of pitches thrown. If you have a good pitcher on a good night, you pay less, since you spend less time at the ballpark. If he gets shelled, it costs you more. Attendance would eventually be based on the starting pitcher, and there would be more incentive to have a quality pitching staff.

Lead-Off Hitters

Looking at Retrosheet data for the 2000s, the lead-off hitter on the visitor’s team was the center fielder 32% of the time. For the home team, the center fielder led off 31.9% of the time.  Yes, I will check my numbers and data, but that seemed very interesting to me. (Second place for lead-off was the short-stop.) 

For the statistics-minded, I looked at the position field for the first batter of the visitor’s team and the home team, and took the mode. I think that’s how it’s done, but I haven’t done real statistics since I had a slide rule. 

Moral Victories

Moral victories don’t count in the statistics, which is unfortunate, but they are a beautiful moment in time when they happen. 

Last night, the AirHogs lost to the Larado Lemurs 12-11 in twelve innings. However, they were left for dead by the end of the seventh – mainly due to the constantly moving strike zone of an incompetent home plate umpire. (Both managers complained – ours got ejected, which means his complaints were better.) 

So, in the bottom of the ninth, with an eight-run lead, Laredo sent their third baseman to the mound to pitch. 

Yes, the third baseman.

Now, this may seem like cockiness, but I don’t think so. You have two teams that had played a double-header the night before, they had used three pitchers already, there was another game the next day and the home plate umpire wouldn’t know a strike or a ball, so you’re going to have to rely on your defense. You’ve got an eight-run lead, what could possibly go wrong? 

You might come up against a team that finally decided it was time to play baseball. 

Ryan Pineda hits a single on a 2-1 pitch. Let’s not get excited, but at least somebody is on base. 

Angel Flores hits a 1-2 pitch and gets on. Men at first and second. 

Fraizer Hall walks on four straight pitches. Bases loaded. At this point, I began wondering how many runs Laredo would give up before a real pitcher came in. My guess was five. 

Kenny Held hits a sac-fly to score Pineda. One run in, long way to go. One out. The “play defense” strategy may be working. One grounder and it’s probably over. 

Keanon Simon singles on an 0-1 pitch. Flores scores. Two runs. One out. Hmm. 

Brandon Pickney doubles on an 0-2 pitch. So much for the pitcher getting ahead in the count. Another run scores. Interesting. 

Brian Myrow walks on six pitches. Bases loaded. Why look! Laredo has found a pitcher just sitting around. So, my five-run estimate was low, although there are four runs potentially on base. 

Andres Rodriguez gets hit by a pitch. Ouch. Another run crosses the plate. Not a good start for a reliever. Still, we need four to tie, five to win and there is one away.

Juan Richardson strikes out on seven pitches. Damn. Double damn. Two outs. 

Ryan Pineda (Hey! Didn’t we see him earlier in the inning?) looks at ball one and puts the next pitch over the left-field wall. Grand Freakin’ Slam. Tie Freakin’ game. This was the first curse of joy of the evening. This one hit may be why Laredo doesn’t have the manager of the year. 

Flores struck out to end the inning, but a message had been sent. We can beat you, in spite of the umpires. We can torch your pitchers, given a chance.

So, we lost the game in the twelfth, 12-11. We lost the game, but I think we won the battle. If you can get eight runs in the bottom of the ninth on the team leading your division, you can beat them. A message has been sent. I don’t think we’ll see any more fielders pitching unless the bullpen is dry. 

Tonight should be interesting. 

 

 

Time to think

Attendance seems lower at the AirHogs games this year – not a lot, but noticeable. Part of the issue is their schedule sucks – the season started with a three-game home stand and then they left town for ten days. Not exactly a momentum builder. 

Perhaps the reason baseball is being touted as “going away” or “fading” is that in order to enjoy a game, you have to think. This is contrary to football (big guys hitting each other), basketball (tall guys in shorts running around) and hockey (figure skaters with sticks.) 

Baseball does not have a time limit. You play nine innings, no matter how long it takes, unless it rains. You can’t run out the clock. 

There actually is strategy in baseball, even though at first glance, it’s just a guy swinging a bat at a ball. You can change pitchers. You can change hitters. You can change runners. You can try to steal. You can bunt or swing away. You have to think about it. If you can’t think, the manager or coach will tell you what to do. 

Baseball is a statistician’s dream because everything is a number. How many pitches have been thrown? What’s the pitcher’s ERA? What’s the batter’s batting average? slugging average? 

I’m surprised baseball isn’t more popular just because there are so many items you can wager on. 

The AirHogs played two seven-inning games in less than five hours last night. The Super Bowl can take longer than that. 

I’ve never seen the point of basketball – it was invented to have something to do on a rainy day, and it shows. The winner is the team that shoots the best because you basically just tramp up and down the court, trading shots. 

Hockey would probably be more enticing if we had ice around here. Since I never skated, I never saw the point. 

I was rattling off statistics to a guy next to me last night, and he asked if I had played baseball growing up. I think he was surprised I didn’t (I played soccer – which is great exercise, but is also tramping up and down the field, shooting and missing. I played soccer for eight years, but I don’t really like watching it.) 

You can get into baseball without having played it. You can progress from watching to scoring to keeping statistics and doing predictive modeling in less than a 100-game season. 

There’s just one problem with baseball – you have to think. Strategy, statistics and math require the use of your brain. 

That may be baseball’s problem. Perhaps it’s really our problem.