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Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Intellectual Cowardice Of Rob Neyer And The New Hall Of Fame Voting Rules

Rob Neyer has long been one of the sabermetricists' darlings, being as he was a Bill James protegé. The essence of sabermetrics is supposed to be the rationality it brings to the discussion, attempting to actually find how things are (and preferably, quantifying them) rather than merely parroting received wisdom. For that reason, it was not a little incoherent to see his oddly crabbed response to the new BBWAA voting rules for induction to Cooperstown. The main thing changing is that the eligibility period goes down from 15 years to 10 years, with those presently on the ballot who would be in years 11-15 grandfathered in — but none others. This, of itself, may make little difference; as Joe Posnanski recently pointed out, the entirety of the players chosen in years 11-15 since the beginning of the Hall are
  1. Bert Blyleven (2011, 14th year)
  2. Jim Rice (2009, 15th year)
  3. Bruce Sutter (2006, 13th year)
  4. Duke Snider (1980, 11th year)
  5. Bob Lemon (1976, 12th year)
  6. Ralph Kiner (1975, 13th year)
  7. Dazzy Vance (1955, 16th year)
  8. Gabby Hartnett (1955, 12th year)
  9. Rabbit Maranville (1954, 14th year)
  10. Bill Terry (1954, 14th year)
  11. Harry Heilmann (1952, 12th year)
That's it. You could certainly make a case for Blyleven getting in as the exception that largely proves the rule; Bert's inclusion was mainly due to sabermetric agitation, i.e. the slow and steady erosion of dogma with simple, straightforward, and unimpeachable arguments. Heck, even Rob Neyer himself was obliged to come out and decry Blyleven's omission as "a testament to the stubbornness of the voters who can't see past their own prejudices."

I fear Neyer has succumbed to something very similar with his rant, because his response to the idea that the truncation of eligibility is an attempt to send all the steroid-tainted players into the memory hole is to say, Good:

4. It’s been said this is largely a ploy to get the steroids guys off the ballot sooner. Well, good! Has there been some public good served by having them on the ballot? They get the same support (i.e. not much) from the voters every year, and every year the same voters write the same columns explaining why they did or (mostly) didn’t vote for Bonds, Clemens, and the rest. It’s one thing to have a healthy and spirited debate, but all we’ve been getting is the spirit. It’s not healthy if nobody’s willing to change their minds, and it seems like 98 percent of the minds are made up, if not cast in steel-reinforced concrete.
But weren't you saying exactly the same thing about Blyleven? How can you omit Bonds, the man who owns the single-season and career home run marks (while playing in exceptional pitcher's parks, too)? What of Clemens, with 354 career wins and multiple 20-win seasons, third all time in career WAR, 31st all time in single-season WAR (but the leaderboards are littered with 19th century pitchers), third all time for career strikeouts... the mind boggles.

Strictly as a retreat from a perceived unwinnable war (so to speak), I understand the point, but it also elides the possibility of changing people's minds. Read another way, it amounts to a form of intellectual cowardice: here, let's punt the hard work of changing minds and making the kinds of simple, coherent arguments that will move the tallies, and leave it to...

7. Will the steroid guys ever get in? I believe they will. At some point, the Hall of Fame might come to seem irrelevant, terribly out of touch, if the best players from an entire era aren’t honored in the Hall. I believe that the crimes of that era will eventually be seen contextually, today’s overheated emotions largely drained from the conversation. At which point the Hall of Fame’s various committees will reverse the BBWAA’s collective decisions.
At which point, we have created a "separate but equal" door to the Hall, a sort of Jim Crow imposed by drug prohibitionists, whose cause even now runs out of steam. It represents the triumph of superstition over rationality, and once upon a time, everything that Rob Neyer supposedly stood for.

I close quoting Christina Kahrl's vastly more sensible review of the consequences of this rules change:

All of which makes me ask again the question I always put to myself every time we get on this subject: Whose Hall of Fame is it? Who does it serve?

If you say “the players,” which ones? Those already elected, as often seems the case when you have guys on the various recent iterations of the Veterans Committee keeping players out? Or should it serve those who belong?

If you say “the fans,” here again, who? Today’s fans, or those who enjoyed the players in their heyday? That would seem to ill-serve someone such as Raines, a marquee player for a franchise that no longer plays in Montreal. Or are the fans a proxy for something amorphous, like the history of the game? If so, how do you tell the story of the game’s history by excluding many of the guys who made the biggest impact on the field?

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

OT: Response To The Dog Snobs "That's Not How That Actually Works..."

Recently, The Dog Snobs ran a story entitled "That's not how that actually works you know a.k.a. The AKC is not the enemy and why you sound stupid when you say so.". I normally love the Snobs, but it is exactly when they start talking about the AKC that they end up making really dumb comments. Having been a sometime observer of the AKC and its defenders, I now understand why they write this sort of apologetic -- but refuse in the strongest possible terms to excuse it. And if you presume to lead with the provocative headline that "you sound stupid" when decrying the AKC as an enemy of dogs, you either clearly haven't done your homework, you cling to prejudice about an organization whose real flaws you do not wish to address, or both. Neither prospect reflects well on the Snobs.

The myriad institutionalized flaws of the AKC should come as no surprise to anyone who has befriended me on Facebook for any substantial period of time. I have had the great good fortune to acquire a number of knowledgeable friends with longer history with dogs and vastly more detailed understanding of genetics. My friend Heather Houlahan back in 2010 penned a fantastic analysis of the AKC's dysfunction and decline, "The Emperor's Striptease". While there is a great deal there worthy of discussion, I want to focus first on her synopsis of Donald McCaig's excellent book, The Dog Wars. The short version is that the AKC mounted a hostile takeover of the Australian Shepherd Club of America, except

... the Aussie owners' club had no interest in being so honored. It was doing just fine by itself, with a registry, pageant shows (there was their mistake -- a topic for another day), and open-to-all obedience and working trials.

But AKC was in an acquisitive mood. It cobbled together a little group of Aussie owners who wanted to enter the big pageants, declared them the official club, and to Hell with the studbook -- they'd just take your word for it on the pedigree.

Most of the Aussie people I knew at the time took a fatalistic view -- they didn't like it, but basically rolled over and peed themselves. "I guess I have to double-register, or else lose puppy sales. They're going to close the studbook." (Edit: I do not mean to imply that all Aussie owners went this way; I was just shocked and disappointed about the ones I knew at the time, who all did.)
The AKC next tried to absorb the Border Collie, which effort was marginally successful, in that there are now BC's registered with the AKC, but as Heather notes,
The ABCA continues to register over 20,000 border collies a year -- more than ten times as many as the AKC. Most of those latter are "captured" agility and obedience dogs, and many of those are dual-registered.
So when the Snobs tell us that "The AKC is first and foremost a registry business", what they omit is that it has done so against the wishes of Aussie owners and breeders, and as well of the Coton de Tulear, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Leonberger, in varying degrees.

But this transgression amounts to petty larceny compared to the felony assault that the AKC commits on the canine genome. And it is here, at the Snobs' item (3) -- "The Breed Clubs are not the AKC" -- that the bulk of their argument collapses in a heap. It takes either willful blindness or a refusal to comprehend how the AKC being a mere "registry" (their item 1) drives the operation of their constituent breed clubs.

The AKC is a closed registry. This, really, is in two dimensions:

  1. It is closed to outside review, that is, outside of the AKC. Breeders and buyers alike have but limited visibility at the contents.
  2. It is closed to new dogs, i.e. there is no such thing, as in the Border Collie registries, as a "Registered on Merit".
So when the Snobs say that "the breed clubs are not the AKC", what they're really trying to imply is that the AKC has no responsibility for the actions of the breed clubs. This is disingenuous in the extreme. And the reason why is that breed clubs must use the closed registry, without exception.

The AKC promotes breeds with terrible health. The most visible example I can think of here is the blog entry Patrick Burns wrote in 2010, in the case of Ch. Roundtown Mercedes of Maryscot, the Scottish Terrier that won Westminster that year. Not only was it the Westminster winner, it was a triple crown winner, also winning the 2009 National Dog Show and the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship that same year. And yet, as Burns points out,

  • This is a breed in which 45 percent of all dogs die of cancer.
  • This is a small breed dog where the average lifespan of the dog is just 10.15 years -- not the 15 years it should be.
  • This is a breed where a person buying a professionally-bred Scottish Terrier is twice as likely to have that well-bred dog die at two years of age as they are to have that Scottie live to age 16.
  • This is a breed where AKC show breeders have demonstrably less healthy dogs. As Joesph Harvill, editor of Great Scots Magazine notes, professionally bred Scotties are more expensive than casually-bred dogs, but they are not healthier. He concludes that "The empirical evidence indicates that the best shot -- even if a long shot -- at a long-lived Scottie is from a non-professional breeder."
  • This is a breed in which the health of the dog is in rapid decline. When Joseph Harvill, the editor of Great Scots Magazine compared health survey results between 1995 and 2005, he found "an alarming trend" that "may signal the rapid declension in a gene pool which can happen when inbreeding depression reaches critical mass in a small, closed population."
  • This is a breed where owners spent an average of $492 per dog per year on medical bills -- and 12.9% spent between $1,000-$5,000 per dog per year.
This is the result of the AKC's idea of "improving" dogs. It is a direct consequence of the closed studbook. While it is true that closed studbooks are a consequence of the actions of the breed clubs themselves, how many exceptions can you name? I personally am aware of only one, the low-uric acid Dalmatian project, which backcrossed Pointers to reintroduce the normal uric acid gene into the Dalmatian gene pool. (AKC Dalmatians often cannot convert uric acid to purines, which frequently results in kidney stones.) And even still, the Dalmatian Club of America (the AKC's subsidiary breed club) voted against inclusion. In the face of a known and serious health problem, the DCA clung to its closed stud book rather than attempt a fix.

This brings me to my next issue: their proposed solution, one pillar of which includes

Some tighter reins on the breed clubs who are being deliberately ridiculous (I know, dog people being insane? Say it ain't so!) would be nice. We're not saying they have to shove modifications of the standard to reduce extremity and mandatory health testing down the breed clubs' throats, but holding them down and making them chew on it a little isn't the worst idea.
If mere "education" and "modifications of the standard" were all it took to repair the damage wrought by supposed renegade or ignorant breed clubs, why did it take so long to garner any measure of acceptance for the LUA Dalmatian? And why is the LUA Dalmatian an apparent anomaly?

To answer that question, you'd have to have an understanding of the social aspects of the AKC and its breed clubs. As the estimable Ms. Houlahan put it,

The AKC cannot make up its mind whether it is a Most Anciente and Exclusive Order that has charged itself with governing a small, fanatical, and timorously obedient cadre of social-climbing dog-pageant addicts, or the divinely-ordained Government of Dogs in all of America.

One identity is primarily insular and snobbish. The other is primarily totalitarian and expansionist. They commingle gracelessly into something resembling a Stalinist Switzerland.

The AKC is fundamentally at war with itself, as can be seen by its imperious treatment of its own internal delegates. And here, the point that the breed clubs are not the same thing as the AKC proper is largely a copout, and ultimately meaningless. The problem isn't simply the many breeds ruined by extreme standards -- think, for example, of Pugs and Bulldogs, brachycephalic breeds that have overheating problems, as well as the many breeds that can no longer deliver puppies vaginally, such as the Scottish Terrier. Such degradation is widespread across multiple breeds, and exists in the European fancy as well; see, for instance, this pictorial history of European German Shepherd Dog champions, which feature the increasingly misshapen hindquarters common in the US. It also ignores the consequences of closed gene pools, which stem from the itch to "breed the best to the best". The "popular sire syndrome" is both nearly irresistible and all too common, as is the urge to deliver "typy" looks.

The problem, really, is this pre-Mendel ideal that ignores genetic diversity, that pretends nothing aside from immediate, known traits will be transmitted to the descendants of the proposed parents. As John W. Campbell observed, you can't do just one thing. Genetics are nothing if not tricky, and the AKC and its constituent clubs routinely ignore the real-world complications that inevitably follow from those flawed assumptions. If you are going to lecture others about "sound[ing] stupid", if you are going to claim you "don't just know better; we are better", you had damned well better have a rudimentary understanding of the subject of which you discuss. And it is crystal clear the Snobs, for reasons political and emotional, do not, and are not even slightly interested.

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Sunday, June 08, 2014

TJ Simers Retires

Everything but baseball these days seems interesting. T.J. Simers is retiring from the Register/, which should make sense if you were thinking about how likely it was the Register's plan was likely to work out. Of the two sports pages columnists in the LAT, he was the less objectionable, but only just; I think someone needs to write a retrospective of his material from that time. It's been almost a decade since Matt Welch tore him and Bill Plaschke a new one over their terrible coverage, but if we no longer have Simers to kick around, it may soon be the case that we have no one covering the Angels and Dodgers, save for house organs at mlb.com.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Verizon: Here, Dodger Fans, Have Some Free Showtime To Drown The Misery Of Your Baseball-Free Existance

A real letter I got today from Verizon:
Dear Valued Verizon Customer,

You may have heard that Time Warner Cable and the Dodgers have created a new channel — Time Warner Cable SportsNet LA — that will carry many of the Dodgers' games this season.

We realize that for avid baseball fans, catching every game is important. While we have attempted to negotiate an agreement with time Warner Cable to carry SportsNet LA, significant differences still remain. Several TV providers, including Verizon, do not believe the fees sought by Time Warner Cable are fair or reasonable.

We will continue to pursue an equitable agreement because we understand the importance of providing great service at a fair price.

In the meantime, rest assured that you will be able to view the Dodgers' games in the following ways:

  1. Watch nationally broadcast games on ESPN, Fox Sports 1 or FOX (KTTV-11).
  2. With your MLB Extra Innings* package, you have free access to MLB.TV, which allows you to watch up to 80 or more live out of market games each week — all in incredible HD
Grab your peanuts and popcorn and enter for a chance to win Dodgers tickets! Go to fiossocal.com/fioscustomerlovesweeps and use the password that everyone loves to hear — PLAYBALL — to enter.

Thank you for being a valued customer. Showtime® programming has been added to your account FREE for 3 months. When the time period ends, we'll remove it automatically from your account and you will not be charged. No action is required on your part.

Please know that we will update you on any changes to the availability of SportsNet LA.


Your Verizon Team

Blackout restrictions apply. SHOWTIME and related marks are trademarks of Showtime Networks, Inc., a CBS company. Visit fiossocal.com/fioscustomerlovesweeps for sweepstakes details.
May not be available in all areas. Programming subject to change. Availability of HD games and dual-feeds varies by market. Major League Baseball trademarks and copyrights are used with permission of Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. Equipment & other charges, taxes & terms apply. FiOS available in select areas only.
©2014 Verizon. All Rights Reserved.
Not exactly honest about the Extra Innings package, are they? I mean, I can't watch the Giants feed of Dodgers games at AT&T Park, now, can I?

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Racing To Despair: Mariners 8, Angels 2

Is it really possible that the 2014 Angels have a worse record than the 2013 club, three games in? Apparently so, given last year's club managed to at least beat Cincinnati opening day. Some general thoughts: Time to clean house, I reckon. Mike Scioscia is Concerned:
He should be.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Stan Kasten Wants You To Annoy Your Neighbors To Pay Off His Spending Habit

A couple days ago, I received an e-mail from someone named Amy Millstone at Time-Warner Cable, containing the following missive from Stan Kasten:

This afternoon, Stan Kasten spoke to the media about various things and gave an update about SportsNet LA. Quotes below if you’d like to use them.

It’s incredibly important, as Stan said, for fans to speak up now and let their providers know that they want to watch SportsNet LA. Fan demand is really what makes the difference. Fans can do that by calling their providers at 844-I-NEED-MY, visiting www.ineedmydodgers.com, using the hashtag #ineedmydodgers or by contacting them directly.

All quotes from Stan Kasten, President and CEO, Los Angeles Dodgers

"I've been in the cable TV business my entire professional life, including 27 years at TBS, and I have never seen a better quality baseball broadcast than the one SportsNet LA now puts on."

"I am disappointed that deals haven't been closed yet...With the first regular season game coming on Tuesday, I am now concerned that some fans are going to start to not be able to see the games. And that's disappointing and shouldn't be happening.

"I do occasionally see rhetoric that is disappointing because it's disingenuous. For instance, when some cable providers say, 'Gee, we think the Dodgers should be a la carte.' All these providers know that there is not another team in all of baseball whose games are a la carte anywhere. Including, interestingly enough, on the cable systems owned by these same providers with their own RSNs. They don't do it for themselves and by the way those same providers have their deals at higher prices for bigger packages than have been offered to them right now.

"The other thing that's particularly irritating in terms of disingenuous rhetoric is when some of them say, 'We're not really seeing the demand for the Dodgers.' That doesn't pass the laugh test because you know about the attendance not just here, but we also led baseball in road attendance. We have the highest number of season tickets we've ever had; it is the highest in all of Major League Baseball. Last year our TV ratings didn't go up by 2% or 4%, they went up by 40% and look to be higher this year. So come up with some other excuse because the reality is, in the history of this franchise, it is likely that right now is the time with the greatest interest that our team has ever had."

"My suggestions to the fans that still do not have Dodger games is to tell your provider that you want the games. If you do that, you will get the games. They have to be told as many times as necessary that you want the games, that's what they're in business for. If you tell them that, they will provide it. And if it's not happening quickly enough for you, my other suggestion is to go to a provider that is providing it....Letting your provider know is at the end of the day what's going to get all of the games on TV."

On price: "Let me assure you that we're talking about market rates and very consistently what's out there now, and that's what's disappointing...This is not about price, the price is consistent with the market place. In fact, to be blunt, some of these people, and they know who they are, are already on their own systems paying more than the price that's out there to teams in smaller markets. That's the truth. This is not about price, it's about the negotiating game."

If you have any questions, let me know!


My point-by-point response:
  1. On the disingenuousness of "the Dodgers should be a la carte": Insofar as I know, this is essentially correct; not even YES Network is sold thus.
  2. On the increase in ratings signaling large interest in the Dodgers: Probably true for last year, but the variability merely speaks to a winning team versus a mediocrity. Indeed, how much a team's games gets watched on TV is a direct function of how good they are; for instance, Phillies' games ratings dropped 36% versus 2012 as it became clear the 2013 club would be no better than the prior year's (and indeed finished eight games worse). If you're a buyer — albeit indirect — of such a risky product, you're just as concerned about the possible downside (what you risk if they stink) as about rewards when the team wins.
  3. "Tell your provider that you want the games." I believe the nearly two years the Padres were blacked out for most cable customers in their own market should show the results such pressure exerts, i.e. almost none. I am unfortunately prepared to forego Dodgers games in 2014, and possibly beyond, thanks to the stubbornness of both my cable provider (Verizon) and Time Warner.
  4. Regarding the current price as reflecting the marketplace: Apparently Mr. Kasten thinks that cable providers will just hop to and pass on additional costs to their subscribers (or will negotiate other fees down). I find this at best farfetched, and perhaps delusional.
Wendy Thurm — who wrote the Dodgers preview in this year's Baseball Prospectus — published a fantastic piece in Fangraphs about how the Dodgers' TV deal may be the last such to go through. The Astros may actually have been saved from making a stupid and similar decision by a fluke of timing.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The White Flag Spring Training: Padres 7, Cubs 1

On July 31, 1997, the White Sox executed their infamous White Flag Trade, which signaled their surrender of that season. Sending Wilson Alvarez, Danny Darwin, and Roberto Hernández to the Giants, the Sox got a number of quality players that, three years later, helped them to a division pennant. But at the time it was viewed by Chisox fans as throwing in the towel at a time when the club was a scant 3.5 games back of Cleveland in the standings. That's pretty depressing, but there are times when you must recognize that "win now" is futile.

The Cubs are well past that. And as my friend Al Yellon has repeatedly observed, the Cubs persist in running minor leaguers out in spring training well past the point when other teams normally would have reassigned them to minor league camp. All true, yet I see a certain, limited, possibly delusional amount of method to Theo Epstein's madness: it strikes me that a couple of things are possible, and maybe both simultaneously:

It seems to me the second is much less likely than the first, given the Cubs are widely known to be in rebuilding mode, but if you are going to post a throw-in, why not give him some exposure? A risk worth taking, in other words.

If that was the point of today's outing for Hunter Cervenka or Neil Ramirez, it did both a brief glimmer of good, and therefore the team; but the frustrations of the 2014 Cubs are quite obvious. It strikes me likely they will lose 100 games, which will set a postwar record for that franchise of losing 90 games or more three years running for the first time. (The last time they had done that was 1928-1930.) It is genuinely disturbing that one of the game's marquee clubs should get beaten down so; but the world is different since Theo took over the club, as this Grantland piece ably demonstrates. While I remain a Dodger partisan in the National League, I am here with my wife to watch the Cubs, and root for them. We count the days until they return to competence.

MLB.com box

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