In advance of tonight's North Carolina-Duke basketball game, I dug up this video of legendary UNC coach Dean Smith expressing his feelings about the Blue Devils. Enjoy.
Writing in Slate, Tim Marchman attempts to explain why low-strikeout pitchers who allow batters to hit the ball into play are less likely to throw no-hitters than high-strikeout pitchers. He fails miserably, which I’ll explain at length, mostly because it’s a pretty good illustration of how people who have no idea what they’re talking about are inexplicably given space by major news organizations to write absolutely nonsensical articles.
If you don’t care about the details, consider this: Marchman’s piece purports to explain why low-strikeout pitchers are less likely to through no-hitters, but he doesn’t offer a single shred of evidence that they are, in fact, less likely to do so. And, indeed, that has not been the case in recent years. That tells you pretty much all you need to know: Apparently neither Marchman nor his editors at Slate thought it mattered whether the basic assumption Marchman’s piece is based upon is true.
Ok. Now, the details.
Marchman’s first mistake is thinking Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens all belong together in a group of pitchers who walk a lot of batters:
Great pitchers divide, broadly, into two classes. The first includes what you might call the snorting bulls—grimacing maniacs with huge fastballs and merciless attitudes: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan. These pitchers will typically strike out lots of batters and walk lots as well, glowering all the while and occasionally coming close to killing an opponent. For these men, every at-bat is a fight and every hit a failure, and what makes them so good is that they never give in at all. Nolan Ryan, who had years where he gave up as many walks as hits, was almost a caricature of the type, seemingly more interested in overpowering hitters than in winning.Over the course of his career, Nolan Ryan walked 4.7 batters per 9 innings pitched. His lowest annual BB/9 was 3.3 in 1990.
Over the course of his career, Roger Clemens walked 2.9 batters per 9 innings pitched. His lowest annual BB/9 was 2.0 in 1984; he had 15 seasons with a lower BB/9 than Ryan ever had, and he never had a season as bad as Ryan’s career average.
Over the course of his career, Randy Johnson walked 3.3 batters per 9 innings pitched. That’s significantly lower than Ryan’s career average, and it’s badly skewed by Johnson’s first four seasons, in which he was not yet Randy Johnson. After those first four years, he walked 2.7 batters per 9 innings.* His career best was 1.6, and he had 14 seasons better than Ryan’s career-best.
Johnson had four seasons in which he was among his league’s top ten in lowest BB/9, Clemens had 6 such seasons, and Ryan -- obviously -- had none.
More broadly, Marchman’s suggestion that the three pitchers were comparable in greatness, or that Clemens and Johnson were, like Ryan, “more interested in overpowering hitters than in winning,” is ludicrous. Clemens is arguably the greatest pitcher who ever stepped on a mound, and Johnson not far behind. Ryan, on the other hand, was a good pitcher, and a very freakish one, but several rungs behind the others. (Again, let’s just take a quick-and-dirty measure: ERA+ compares a pitcher’s Earned Run Average to the league average, and adjusts for home ballparks. 100 is average. Roger Clemens’ career ERA+ is 143. Nolan Ryan had only one individual season as high as 143, and a career total of only 112.)
So anyway: Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan: Very different. Tim Marchman, a professional sports writer, should know this.
Marchman moves on to what he thinks is the other type of great pitcher:
The other kind of great pitcher takes a more modest approach. For him the point is not to master a given hitter but to master the game—think of Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina or Robin Roberts. These kinds of pitchers frequently lead the league in fewest walks allowed per game, throwing strike after strike, daring the batter to put the ball in play and let the fielders do their work. They accept that outcomes in baseball are random or nearly so, trust percentages and concentrate on what they can control.Oh, boy.
Outcomes in baseball are not random or nearly so. If they were, lists of league leaders in home runs and walks and strikeouts would not be littered with the same names every year, and the Pirates would not stink every year. What Marchman means -- assuming he has any idea what he’s talking about -- is that the outcome of a ball hit into play is random, or nearly random. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but what it basically means is that a hitter’s (or pitcher’s) home run, walk, and strikeout rates are relatively consistent, but the rate at which ground balls, line drives, and (non-home run) fly balls become hits or outs fluctuate more wildly.
In other words: the things pitchers (and hitters) “can control” are strikeouts, walks, and home runs. That’s pretty much the opposite of Marchman’s implication that pitchers like Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens don’t focus on what they can control and don’t try to “master the game.” Of course they do. In his desire to draw value judgments about supposedly-cerebral pitchers who induce contact and dumb brutes who care more about strikeouts than helping their teams, Marchman makes the nonsensical argument that pitchers who rely on random outcomes are the ones seeking to “master the game” by focusing on what they can control. Weird.
Marchman then puts Halladay in that second group of great pitchers, the ones who encourage hitters to “put the ball in play” and who “let the fielders do their work.” This is a good place to point out that Roy Halladay has struck out at least 200 batters for three straight seasons, has been among the league leaders in strikeouts per 9 innings pitched three times, and strikes hitters out at a better-than-average rate. But, Marchman argues:
Halladay has an arm like Ryan's and is capable of throwing like him—never relenting or giving batters anything to touch. Instead, he almost always gives a batter something to hit. In fact he gives up a lot of hits. He's twice led the league in hits allowed, and among pitchers with at least 2,000 innings and a .650 winning percentage, only Lefty Grove gave up more per inning.Marchman doesn’t mention this, but the two seasons in which Halladay led his league in hits allowed were seasons in which he led his league in innings pitched, which is not a coincidence. Halladay has three times been among the top ten in his league in fewest hits allowed per 9 innings pitched. He does not give up a lot of hits.
(Oh, and that bit at the end is just stupid. The .650 winning percentage is an irrelevant screen that narrows the total number of pitchers in question dramatically and unnecessarily. You know how many post-WWII pitchers have thrown at least 2,000 innings with a .650 winning percentage? Six. Halladay also has the lowest rate of hits allowed among active pitchers named Roy who have played for the Blue Jays! Who cares? Whenever you see a sportswriter employ multiple screens in order to rank or group players, beware. It’s one of their favorite tricks, and it’s usually dishonest, dumb, or both. Ask yourself why the screens are there, and whether they’re necessary, and whether they illuminate more than they obscure. The answers are usually “to get the desired outcome,” “no,” and “hell no.”)
Still, Halladay’s K-rates aren’t extraordinary, so let’s stipulate to Marchman’s categorization of him as a low-K, ball-in-play pitcher and see where he’s going with this.
It’s unusual for such pitchers to throw even one no-hitter, for the simple reason that they don't particularly care whether they give up hits. A pitcher trying above all else to avoid contact will generally not throw first-pitch strikes to 25 of 28 hitters or fail to run a single 2-0 count, as Halladay did Wednesday.It’s unusual for all pitchers to throw even one no-hitter, or to throw first-pitch strikes to 25 of 28 hitters. Tim Marchman does know this, doesn’t he? And that brings us to Marchman’s greatest failing. Incredibly, in a column dedicated to explaining why low-K pitchers who allow balls to be put into play are less likely than high-strikeout pitchers to throw no-hitters, Marchman never gets around to establishing that they are less likely to do so.
So, are they? I don’t know. I’d sure like to. I do know that Roger Clemens, one of Marchman’s key examples of high-K pitchers who are supposedly more likely to throw no-nos, never threw one, despite being perhaps the greatest pitcher who ever lived. Interesting. I also know that Mark Buehrle, who couldn’t strike you out, has thrown two in the last four years. And of course, Hallady has thrown two this year.
Let’s take a quick look at the last ten no-hitters in Major League Baseball.
Of the last ten no-hitters, guess how many were thrown by pitchers with higher strikeout rates than Roy Halladay? Two.
Only four of the last ten no-hitters were thrown by pitchers with K-rates that were even league average -- and two of those were thrown by Halladay. Let me say that again: 6 of the past 10 no-hitters were thrown by pitchers who had lower-than-average strikeout rates in the season in question.
The last ten no-hitters is obviously a small sample-size, but it’s considerably better evidence against the premise that low-K pitchers are less likely to throw no-hitters than the evidence Marchman provided in support of that premise. Which was, remember, absolutely no evidence at all.
* Ryan’s first few years don’t skew his totals nearly as much; he’s still at 4.5 walks per 9 if you exclude his first six seasons.
First, Michael Jordan said that unlike LeBron James, he never would have teamed up with another elite player, conveniently overlooking the fact that he won all those championships playing with Scottie Pippen, who was named one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time during the 1990s Bulls dynasty.
Now, Yahoo reports that Magic Johnson "says he could never imagine joining forces with other huge stars during his career."
Magic Johnson won NBA championships playing with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six-time NBA MVP, scored more points than anyone else in NBA history, 19-time all-star, probably one of the ten best players ever) and James Worthy (seven-time All Star, also named one of the 50 greatest NBA players ever.)
LeBron James, by contrast, spent his career in Cleveland playing with the likes of Delonte West. So it seems a little hollow for players like Jordan and Johnson to suggest that LeBron lacks their competitive fire. Players who, through nothing more than their own good luck, played for teams that surrounded them with superstars probably shouldn't criticize a player for doing on his own what his front office was incapable of. In any case, their comments would be a bit more believable had Johnson or Jordan left his star-studded team as a free agent in order to prove he could win on his own. (Not to mention the fact that Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan never had the opportunity James had, so they really can't be certain what they would have done.)
Oh, and Michael Jordan won his championships with Phil Jackson as his coach; Magic Johnson had benefit of Pat Riley. Mike Brown may end up in their league, but I wouldn't count on it.
Finally, just in case Larry Bird joins the chorus: Bird played with all-time greats Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish and Dennis Johnson. Those mid-80s Celtics teams featured four Hall of Famers in addition to Bird.
UPDATE: Via ESPN's Henry Abbott, here's what Magic Johnson said in 1991 about the possibility of being drafted by the Chicago Bulls: "I wouldn't have played here. ... The only reason I came out was to play with Kareem and the Lakers." So ... yeah.
I often enjoy Bill Simmons -- though I rarely agree with his analytical approach, particularly when it comes to baseball -- but today’s column is an absolute train-wreck in which many of his worst habits are on display. It’s contradictory with out working through or even acknowledging the contradictions. It’s irrational and illogical. It’s chock-full of mind-reading presented as objective fact, armchair psychoanalysis, absurd melodrama, and tedious efforts to turn everything into morality plays and character studies.
Basically, it’s just like the media’s coverage of politics.
Most striking is how frequently Simmons contradicts himself, without seeming to realize he has done so. Points 10 and 11 in his list of 24-random-thoughts-about-LeBron are that the Miami Heat wouldn’t be very good with James/Wade/Bosh. “No way they win more than 50,” Simmons insists. Point 13 is that James going to Miami would be a “cop-out” because “Any super-competitive person would rather beat Dwyane Wade than play with him. Don't you want to find the Ali to your Frazier and have that rival pull the greatness out of you?” Well, which is it? Would the Heat be mediocre with James/Wade/Bosh, or would going to the Heat show that James doesn’t have any competitive drive because playing with Wade would make things too easy?
In point 15, Simmons says James should go to Chicago: “That's where the rings are. The fact that he didn't say to Bosh, ‘Come to Chicago with me, we'll play with Rose and Noah and win six titles together’ was the single most disappointing outcome of the summer. That team would have been a true juggernaut…”
But Simmons had just ridiculed James for even considering joining Wade and Bosh in Miami, which he portrayed as crying for “HELP” -- something Jordan or Kobe never would have done. He said it would be “The move of someone who, deep down, doesn't totally trust his own talents any more.” Then -- in literally the next paragraph -- Simmons said James should go to Chicago to play with Rose and Noah, and should have brought Bosh along with him. And that Magic and Bird and Kobe would have done the same thing!
So, which is it? Is wanting excellent teammates (Wade, Bosh) a character flaw Kobe Bryant would never demonstrate? Or is wanting excellent teammates (Bosh, Rose, Noah) the kind of no-brainer move anyone -- including Kobe Bryant -- who cares about winning has to do?
Simmons rants for a few paragraphs about how evil James will be if he picks any team other than Cleveland. Ok, he doesn’t say “evil” -- he says it will be cruel, and unforgivable “Repeat: unforgivable,” and “the meanest thing any athlete has ever done to a city.” Oh, and in a sentence in which Simmons blasts James for having “lost all perspective,” Simmons says James leaving Cleveland would make him like Tiger Woods. Read that again: While blasting James for a lack of “perspective,” Bill Simmons compares signing with the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat to Tiger Woods cheating on his wife with … well, with just about everyone.
Then, two paragraphs later, Simmons says James should pick Chicago or New York.
This inconsistency and incoherence is the inevitable result of Simmons obsession with turning everything an athlete does into some sort of character study. The thing is, though, missing a shot, losing a game, signing with Miami (or New York or Cleveland) … these things aren’t like, say, committing a double homicide in Brentwood. They generally don’t have anything to do with character. You have to strain to try to force them into such a framework.
The giveaway is that you can easily take any given James decision that people are portraying as indictments of his character and spin it as an indication of outstanding character.
Say he chooses Miami. Critics have accused James of having an unhealthy ego; of focusing too much on money; Simmons argues that going to Miami would show he isn’t mentally strong enough to win on his own. But going to Miami means taking less money than staying in Cleveland and leaving a situation in which he is unambiguously the only thing that matters about the entire franchise for a situation in which he is one of three stars. It’s a selfless act that (arguably) demonstrates that all he cares about is winning, which is what the Simmons types are constantly telling us should be an athlete’s highest priority.
See how easy that is? Things that are actually character studies -- like, say, committing a double homicide in Brentwood -- can’t be easily spun as both positives and negatives. There’s a fundamental truth that’s pretty hard to get around: Two dead bodies. But LeBron James signing with the Heat? That’s easy -- because there’s no fundamental truth to get around; it’s all just spin. (Actually, I think it’s much easier to argue that doing so would reflect well on James by the standards people like Simmons typically use* than it is to argue that it reflects poorly on James by those standards.)
Anyway: I don’t really care where James decides to play, though I’d probably prefer it to be anyplace other than Cleveland, if only because they seem likely to have the least interesting roster and team around him. Regardless of his decision, I doubt very much that it will reveal anything about his character, just as Bill Simmons (“The Boston Sports Guy”) moving to L.A. to write for a television show wasn’t a disloyal sell-out. It was just a guy making a decision about where to live and work.
And the other thing people have been complaining about -- James decision to announce his decision via an hour-long ESPN special -- doesn’t bother me at all precisely because of all the foolish psychoanalysis from people like Simmons. The media has spent years speculating about where James would go -- speculation that in recent weeks has increasingly involved judgmental attempts to infer reasons for various potential decisions. Who can blame him for wanting to tell his story his way?
* I say “by the standards people like Simmons typically use” for two reasons: To emphasize how incoherent the Simmons-esque position is, and to make clear that I do not stipulate to the validity of those standards. I don’t think it is inherently “good” or “bad” for an athlete to stay with the team s/he has been playing for, to take less money, to try to maximize earnings, to prioritize winning, to want to play for a team with a rich tradition of excellence, etc, etc. Basically, I don’t expect everyone to have the same priorities in deciding where to work and play, and see no reason why my priorities or Bill Simmons’s are morally superior to someone else’s.
Over on The Twitter this morning, I took issue with some of the rationalizations people offer for their dislike of Duke's basketball team. To be clear, though I am a longtime fan of the team, I don't really care whether people like Duke -- I (quite obviously) don't play for the team, didn't go to the school, and have spent about 27 hours of my life in North Carolina. I do, however, take issue with obviously bogus rationalizations for that dislike, mostly because I am not a fan of obviously bogus rationalizations in general.
For example, I've seen people say they don't like Duke's basketball team because Duke is an elite, extremely expensive school. I'm not really sure what that has to do with basketball, but in any case: I never hear that complaint about Georgetown or Stanford or Villanova or Wake Forest, none of which are exactly easy to get into, and all of which are extremely expensive. And certainly not about an Ivy League upstart that threatens to win a few games. So I tend to doubt that's the real reason people dislike Duke. It's OK to dislike Duke just for the sake of disliking them. Really, it is. You don't need to make up a cover story.
Anyway, in response to my Tweet, a couple of people told me Duke is hated because they benefit from favorable officiating. Well, It just so happens that I've long considered the "Duke gets all the calls" meme a classic case of observer bias and of the distorting effects of conventional wisdom, so I figured I'd finally spend a few minutes spelling some of that out.
A couple of disclaimers up front: First, I'm not saying Duke doesn't benefit from favorable officiating -- I'm saying none of us really knows whether they do. Second: I'm not trying to convince you to like Duke. I don't care whether you do. I don't really get why people enjoy hating sports teams (unless they're coached by John Calipari) but I recognize that many people do -- so have at it!
OK. Here goes:
1. College basketball officiating isn't particularly consistent. Referees often seem to call interior play more tightly than perimeter play, or vice-versa. Different officials call games differently -- and even individual officials will show variance in foul-calling from game to game, and even within games. Finally, most basketball viewers aren't particularly good at correctly assessing what is and is not a foul -- they aren't experts, they don't always have good angles, etc. I can't prove any of that, but I don't expect anyone, save perhaps an NCAA referee, would seriously contest it.
2. Given all of that, if you're watching a college basketball game in which you have a rooting interest, it is incredibly easy to find yourself thinking "your" team is getting hosed by the zebras. Most people are more likely to notice questionable calls that go against their team than those that benefit their team -- and to react more strongly to them. This skews their assessment of the officiating.
3. I believe, as many people do, that referees tend to slightly favor players who have an established level of success. Michael Jordan got a ton of favorable calls; one of the iconic moments of his career -- his game-winning shot against Utah in the Finals -- probably should have been an offensive foul. Dwyane Wade, Larry Bird and countless other players have likely gotten a bit more leeway and "protection" from referees due to their established abilities.
Those first three points are, I would imagine, pretty uncontroversial. Moving on:
4. A lot of people don't like Duke. So a lot of people watching Duke games perceive them to benefit from favorable officiating even when it is not happening (per 1 & 2 above.) And Duke just might get more questionable calls that go their way than, say, Arkansas Pine-Bluff (per 3 above.)
5. That leads to a lot of people saying "Duke gets all the calls" -- which leads to a lot of people hearing "Duke gets all the calls."
6. Constantly hearing "Duke gets all the calls" leads people to expect Duke to get all the calls -- so, when they're watching a Duke game, they're more likely to notice a close call that goes Duke's way. People see what they expect to see. They then start saying "Duke gets all the calls," and the whole thing snowballs.
7. Finally, even if a viewer correctly and impartially assesses every call and non-call in every Duke game for several years -- enough to build up a significant sample size -- s/he is unlikely to have an accurate mental picture of the pattern that emerges. Think of it this way: When a player shoots a jump-shot, there's no subjectivity involved in determining whether it goes through the basket. Now, say you watched Hollis Thompson shoot 500 jumpers in games over the course of 4 years, but didn't keep written record of how many he attempted or made. Now: If you had to guess what Thompson's shooting percentage was, based solely on your observations of him over the years, how close do you think you'd come? I think you'd be lucky to come within ten percent of his actual shooting percentage. And that's a much, much easier task than keeping reliable-but-informal tally of highly subjective things like incorrect foul calls for and against a given team.
Now, none of that should really be controversial, either. Argue with it if you like, but you'll be arguing with human nature more than with me. It is important to note, however, that nothing above "proves" that Duke does not benefit from a disproportionate share of questionable calls. It is simply a reminder that the notion that Duke gets favorable treatment is nothing more than an impression created by unreliable observations -- much like the near-universal (but no longer operative) image of Tiger Woods a clean-cut good guy.
So what do I think? I think that nobody really has a clue whether any team gets a disproportionate number of bad calls over a statistically-significant sample, and that anybody who expresses much certainty on that front should examine the reliability of their conclusions, in part by considering the factors presented above. I don't find it hard be believe that elite programs get a few more calls than middling programs (see 3 above) though I doubt the disparity is particularly large, and even within programs, there is a disparity among players.
Duke is on television roughly 30 times a year in the District of Columbia, where I live. I've been a fan of Duke basketball since the late '80s (though, for reasons not relevant here, I am not particularly fond of Duke's coach) so I probably watch 20-25 of those games. I am obviously not an impartial observer of those games -- though I think my mild obsession with observer bias makes me less to jump to conclusions than many if not most basketball-watchers. I should also note that my biases extend well beyond being a Duke fan. I -- like most observers -- have biases about the style of play that I prefer and other factors, all of which go into my reactions to foul calls and non-calls. I like to see a relatively open style of play, without a lot of pushing and grabbing on the perimeter, for example -- and that, no doubt, affects my assessment of officiating. You really can't overstate the biases most of us bring to our assessments of how a game is officiated.
Speaking of pushing and grabbing on the perimeter: The one consistent pattern I have perceived in college basketball officiating over the years was a small one: I believe that in J.J. Redick's senior year at Duke, he was routinely fouled while working off the ball on offense, without a foul being called. He was constantly pushed and grabbed on the perimeter as he was trying to get open, well above and beyond what is typically allowed.* Of course, all of the caveats about observer bias I have spelled out apply here, perhaps most significantly including my distaste for that style of play -- and even if I'm right, the referees' approach to one player over the course of a couple dozen games says very little about their approach to an entire team over the course of many years.
I can't remember a college player who was more consistently said to benefit from favorable calls than North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough. His offensive game often seemed to consist of slamming himself into a defender, either knocking him over and scoring, or drawing a foul, which led to him making approximately 19 trillion free throws. During his four years at UNC, I certainly indulged in my share of complaints about referees sending him to the line after he initiated contact and his defender did little more than fall over after being clobbered. But did he, over the course of the ten thousand or so possessions he was involved in, benefit from a disproportionate number of bad calls? I can't say with any confidence that he did. How could I? In fact, I kind of doubt he did in any significant way.
Finally, Len Elmore probably broadcasts a quarter to a third of the Duke games I see each year -- and in doing so provides the one of the best illustrations of the concept of "observer bias" I've ever seen. When a close or questionable call goes Duke's way, Elmore can be counted on to say something like "That kind of thing is why people think Duke gets all the calls." He'll sometimes say that even when he says he thinks it was the right call. But when a close/questionable call goes against Duke, Elmore either ignores it or simply says it was a close/questionable/wrong call. He does not -- not once, in all the games I've seen -- say anything like "That undermines the theory that Duke gets all the calls." The effect this has on viewers and on perceptions about Duke getting favorable calls should be obvious. (Anyone looking for an example of Elmore's conduct in this regard should seek out a copy of the Duke-Temple game from Redick's senior year.)
* Two notes on this: First, note the specificity of my wording. It's possible Redick benefited from favorable calls once he had the ball, or on defense. I never noticed much of a pattern either way on that front; I'm speaking solely of his off-ball movement on offense. Second, I thought at the time that Coach K should compile a video showing the most egregious non-calls to combat the perception that Duke gets all the calls. Referees are, no doubt, aware of that perception, and if I were Duke's coach, I would be worry that they bend over backwards to avoid such perceptions.
UPDATE: One final thing, going back to the idea that people hate Duke because they get all the calls. Even aside from the question of whether that's an accurate perception of officiating, I think it's a bogus explanation. I remember widespread belief that Michael Jordan benefited from favorable calls. But I don't remember him being reviled for it. One more time: Go ahead and hate Duke if it makes you happy. But don't bother with the flawed rationalizations.
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