Solutions for NBA tanking and Jim Thome wants to play: While We’re Waiting

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By now, you’ve seen the first two renditions of our new version of While We’re Waiting. Andrew got us started on Tuesday. Rick followed up on Wednesday. Now, with my usual bent toward sports analytics and media topics, here’s my first stab at this new format. Hope you enjoy and chime in with your thoughts in the comments.

The 76ers are awful. Like, really, really awful. Is it an “embarrassment”? What needs fixed? Last week, it seemed like the ESPN properties all seemed to gang up on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving’s free agency status. Yesterday, they all appeared to team up to discuss “tanking” and the currently horrendous Philadelphia 76ers. Last weekend, former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy called the 76ers’ current scheme an “embarrassment” to the league.

In a one-question, 4,000-word mailbag (i.e. a column), Grantland czar Bill Simmons tore into new Commissioner Adam Silver for enabling a culture where incentives are high to be non-competitive. ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton looked into whether the 76ers might lose out the rest of the season and whether they just had the worst month ever. As of now, Pelton estimates their talent as an eight-win team over the course of 82 games.

All I could think about from either article: Rebuilding is really hard and tanking is no guarantee. Cleveland fans are seeing that right now with the Cavaliers. Liberty Ballers’ Derek Bodner had a very comprehensive look at the lottery and the advantages of having a top-5 pick. But it’s still not easy. Any possible draft solution will have long-term implications that actually could harm competitive balance.

Jim Thome doesn’t want to be finished. Last July, Indians legend and no-doubt Hall of Famer Jim Thome formally took a job as the special assistant to the Chicago White Sox general manager. He did not play during the 2013 season, But, as CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported, would he take a call from an MLB team if they still wanted him to play? I think you’d have to take that call,” the 43-year-old Thome said. It’s possible he might be better than Jason Giambi. But his playing days are likely well over.

How much math is too much math? This is a question I’ve been getting for much of the past week in the aftermath of the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaugnessy gave his #hotsportstake on the matter, arguing that since some stats are irrelevant, all of them are relatively meaningless. Yeah, good luck with that take Shaugnessy. Then why are teams like the Rockets and others investing oodles of millions on analytic innovations? Because it has worth in society. Efficient markets exploit opportunities for marginal advantages.

Hardwood Paroxysm’s Steve McPherson wrote about Yale scholar’s Edward Tufte’s theories on how analytics elevate fan understanding of the game. This was a topic at Sloan too. Are we becoming numb to the game because of all of these new numbers attempting to explain every last action on the court or field? Tufte argues no. McPherson backs it up. I’d agree, saying that these early answers only lead to more questions which only leads to a more complete understanding of the game works.

Speaking of math that aims to serve in practicality, ESPN Insider’s Amin Elhassan wrote about proprietary screen-setting data and mentioned Spencer Hawes as an effective screener. NBA.com’s John Schuhmann used SportVU data to again look at the Indiana Pacers’ impressive defense as it comes to the pick-and-roll. This information backs up what fans and scouts can both see out on the court.

Cavs playoff odds update. Entering Wednesday, the Cavs’ playoff odds were 2.9%, per SportsClubStats.com, with just 20 games left in the regular season. The website CrabDribbles ran a roundtable looking at the two last playoff sports in the Eastern Conference, a crawl-to-the-finish race between Charlotte, Atlanta, Detroit and Cleveland. Only one writer had faith in the Cavs to narrowly edge over the Hawks, who were 1-11 in the last month entering a late-night game at Portland.

#TeamDannySalazar. For the third time this spring, Grantland’s Jonah Keri middle-school-girl crushed all over Indians youngster Danny Salazar in a column. This time, Keri’s really interesting look into fantasy baseball began with the overvaluation of young players. Of course, the writer is an admitted huge fan of Salazar’s potential, his prospects for 2014 and his impact on the Indians’ playoff odds. But he still shouldn’t be going among the top 30 starting pitchers in baseball.

The Orange Bowl is dead and buried. Or at least that’s what it appears to be on Clemson’s campus, via Marc Dopher on Twitter. I’m sure that no Ohio State fans will overreact to this, right?

TrueHoop founder on blogging and more. “[Blogging] definitely shook up the snow globe big time, right? It used to be a very small channel of entry to be able to write about basketball all day every day. Basically, you had to know your local newspaper editor and get entrusted with a beat job or covering high school sports. That was just one subset of the population who got to have an audience on basketball. Blogging just let everybody who wanted to try it try it.” Go check out the entire interview with the new ESPN.com basketball editor Henry Abbott over at Nieman Journalism Labs.

Poor, poor Youngstown State. This right here, via The Dagger’s Jeff Eisenberg, might be the most depressing way to lose a basketball game ever. Let alone a Horizon League tournament game. That sucks.

  • RGB

    Come on over to the football threads.
    Let the stat geeks turn this into Strat-O-Matic.

  • Garry_Owen

    In all seriousness, I do think that I’ll try to confine my presence to Browns discussions as much as possible. They can get crazy on really off-the-wall stuff, but my experience lately has been that the Indians discussions just seem to be more combative and brow-beating. Which is strange, because baseball is a much more peaceful sport.

  • WFNYJacob

    That’s what Shaugnessy seemed to imply. My point was to call out his circa 1995 B.S.

    I never made a comment against human interactions, scouting or “traditional” forms of evaluation. Every organization that gives a damn finds ways to merge both truths.

  • mgbode

    you don’t get to use a weapon in football.

  • Garry_Owen

    In football, you are the weapon.

  • mgbode

    Nolan Ryan says that isn’t much different in baseball

    http://media.giphy.com/media/Es1K4bm1ECiY0/giphy.gif

  • Garry_Owen

    There is no advanced stat that captures the awesomeness that was Nolan Ryan.

  • http://www.wahoosonfirst.com Ed Carroll

    Research and statistics could help you with that wave-proof sandcastle

  • Garry_Owen

    But nerds at the beach sunburn too easily.

  • http://www.wahoosonfirst.com Ed Carroll

    The sandcastle we can build will help with that.

    It’s kind of sad you keep resorting to using the term “nerd” as an insult.

  • Garry_Owen

    It was a joke! If you’ve read more than 5 of my comments, you know that I consider myself a charter member of Nerdclub.
    Gosh, but people are unusually touchy today.

  • http://www.wahoosonfirst.com Ed Carroll

    Ok, so if you aren’t anti-nerd, why are you so vehemently against new information? Is there a particular statistic (baseball only here, I know little about football) you are confused about or that I or someone else could try to help explain to you? This isn’t condecending, or at least isn’t my intent. I just feel so much of the negativity comes when people don’t understand, and that’s partially an error on the part of people like me who love analytics.

    So, is there anything I could answer that might help soften your stance?

  • Garry_Owen

    Honestly, I’m not “vehemently against new information.” I don’t even know what that means. I think I summed it up pretty well in my initial comment – which seems to have sparked a whole world of hurt. Analytics just don’t give me (ME – I’m not saying this is universally true) any excitement, enjoyment, or interest.

    When I watch or think about baseball, I remember what it’s like to stand at shortstop, heart racing, the grit and taste of dirt in your mouth, waiting for the pitch and the line drive that might be coming your way. Or the thrill of getting a great break in the outfield on a fly ball that would otherwise be just out of reach. Or rounding third – probably ignoring the base coach – on a bloop single, hoping to score before the throw gets to home. (I don’t think much about hitting, because I was terrible at it.)

    Analytics are about prediction, and while it’s nice to have some notion of whether the guy at the plate “might be likely” to get a hit in this circumstance, I just don’t care to try to predict what is, to me, wholly and impossibly unpredictable. Nobody ever performs in a given instance precisely what a statistic says he will do – because it’s impossible. So for me (ME), a guy’s batting average is sufficient, in all of it’s imperfection. Yes, because I understand it (it’s what we grew up with), but also because there’s no more excitement that is available to me. I just don’t care. When Miguel Cabrera steps up to the plate at the Jake, I’m scared enough.

    As for specific anayltics, if someone – anyone – could ever explain to me pricely what “wins” or who the “replacement players” are in the WAR, then I might be interested. See, that would be genuine information of interest to me. If we say that Nick Swisher is 2.4 wins better than his replacement, I want to know WHICH wins he actually earned and WHICH player he out-performed.

    There was an earlier discussion above about Jason Giambi. I don’t know what his WAR was last year, but I distinctly remember a game in September that he won, and that no other player on the bench was likely to win (after Chris Perez “lost” it). That’s good enough for me, and it doesn’t have to be equated or quantified for me to enjoy it and to dance in my livingroom and to hug my wife because our playoff dreams were still alive. And those are the stories I love to read.

    I’m exceedingly glad that Shapiro and Antonetti and Francona (presumably, though it doesn’t explain the Giambi thing) understand and love analytics. I just don’t need to.

  • Steve

    “Nobody ever performs in a given instance precisely what a statistic says he will do”

    And nobody understands this better than the stat “nerds”. Small sample sizes are inherently fluky. Nobody is saying they can predict exactly what will happen next time player X steps to the plate. Sabermetrics has given us an incredible leap forward in big picture knowledge, we’re still working on the small sample size stuff.

    A replacement player is someone that should be freely available, or close enough to that. Obviously that can change depending on a team’s circumstances but the smart dudes who have put in countless hours on this topic have come to the conclusion that if you started over and built a team from all those free, or nearly-free players, you’d win just under 30% of the time, 48 out of 162, and we prefer the more context-neutral numbers to better compare players across the board.

    Nick Swisher outperformed the theoretical replacement player by a couple wins, but he would never get credit for a specific win, as the season progresses, we count all the bits and pieces he does that add up to winning games. Again, those smart dudes have collected data from thousands upon thousands of games to see how much each bit and piece is worth to winning games.

    You might be interested in some win probability metrics :

    http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=y&type=3&season=2013&month=0&season1=2013&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0

    Basically, we’re able to check the probability of a team winning a game at each specific point, based upon comparing how teams did in thousands upon thousands of previous specific instances in games. This isn’t WAR, as the measure of probability is highly dependent on the circumstances you face, like RBI. If Swisher comes up with a guy in scoring position more often than, say, Brantley, Swisher is going to get more chances to add big numbers to his team’s win probability. WAR tries to apply more context-neutral values to each bit and piece a player adds.

    As far as Giambi, the Indians are meshing that intangible stuff with the metrics. They love what he brings in the clubhouse. I seriously question why they don’t just pay him to hang around and coach, and not take away at bats from better hitters, but they think him having a spot on the 25 is necessary.

  • Steve

    This is what I’m talking about, the insults and mischaracterizations go in one direction a lot more than the other.

  • http://www.wahoosonfirst.com Ed Carroll

    So, sorry. My offer was sincere, but I went out and got drunk last night and today just wrote 2,000 words on Masterson. Sorry to keep you waiting.

    Steve has covered a lot of what WAR is about in his reply comment, here’s a link to a Beyond the Box Score post where it describes WAR and other advanced metrics in laymans terms. http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/6/20/919779/great-explanations-of-wins-above

    Basically, a replacement player isn’t an existing person. It’s admittedly more of a theoretical concept. When Miguel Cabrera steps to the plate, I’m scared too. But Miguel Cabrera will likely make the Detroit Tigers even better this season than he did his previous seasons, even if he doesn’t hit as well, simply due to moving away from third base (where he was awful) to first base and then later, hopefully DH. How do we know this? Advanced metrics, such as WAR.

    I’m glad you mentioned Giambi. He’s an example of a player I was incorrect about, and hence, has helped shape my future views and soften my formerly-hardened stance towards intangibles (I’m still not a huge fan of them as I still have no idea how to value them, but I do acknowledge they exist). Here’s what I wrote last month on Giambi: http://wahoosonfirst.com/2014/02/19/jason-giambi-2014-cleveland-indians-player-profile/

    I would be happy to help with any other questions I can. Just ask.

  • Garry_Owen

    Hey, thanks. Really. Appreciate the response and info; however, I know what WAR is and how it’s calculated. It’s just that what it is is of no interest to me. It just doesn’t tell me anything that I care about, theoretically or otherwise. That’s the problem, and sorry if my point was cloudy. All of that information is extremely valuable to GMs and front offices and many fans like you. It just has no value to me. That’s all. All of the advanced metrics of Miquel Cabrera’s hitting prowess provide nothing for MY enjoyment of the game or understanding that Cabrera can mash the cover off the ball – which I already know from the eyeball test and the AVG, RBI, and HR figures.

    So, my point is that when baseball becomes a discussion of things that matter – on a practical level – only to GMs and front offices (and on a theoretical level to a (growing) segment of fans), then the conversation is esoterically exclusional. That’s fine, and I understand it, but it is disappointing to me. I just won’t take part in it, and I find my interest level in baseball fading as a result of what the game has become.

    I guess that’s just the difference between people – and why this is ultimately a matter of taste and preference. Guys like you are frustrated by intangibles because they cannot be valued; guys like me love intangibles for precisely the same reason. There is certainly room for all preferences, but I find lately that I can make a statement such as: “George Brett is the greatest clutch hitter that I have ever seen and the guy that I would want at the plate in a critical moment” (for the record, I don’t really believe this), and someone will invariably explain to me, using analytics, why I’m wrong, even though I’m not. I hate that. It takes a lot of the joy out of baseball for me. Me. Not you. Not anyone else. Just me, in all of my other aspects of nerdness.