Saturday, March 31, 2012

How To Beat Kentucky

Is it cynical to suggest that in all the "how do you beat Kentucky" analysis going around ahead of the Final Four, the best answer is the one that's not being spoken: Wait a few years and have the NCAA force  Calipari's former employer to vacate the wins?

13 Things We Will Learn This Baseball Season

  1. Jamie Moyer, penciled in as the Rockies' #2 starter, will be caught during a road trip to Miami sneaking off to the pool from Cocoon, where he will drain strange alien energies to revitalize himself.
  2. Royals prospect Cheslor Cuthbert will be revealed to have escaped from Middle-Earth, because everybody is named Cheslor there and he wanted to stand out for a change.
  3. Regardless of the verdict of arbitrators, Ryan Braun is a pretty damn good baseball players
  4. Yoenis Cespides will hit a ton of home runs and produce a ton of strikeouts. He will also cause at least one announcer to mispronounce his name in a way that produces write-in protests, tons of YouTube hits, and at least one guest appearance on The Soup.
  5. Jim Thome will play first base just fine for the Phillies for about a month. Then, on a ball hit three steps to his right, he will explode. Vertebrae will land as far away as the ninth row of the stands.
  6. "Yu" puns related to Texas Rangers pitcher and Japanese import Yu Darvish will stop being funny around April 15th. Sportswriters will continue making them well into the postseason.
  7. Someone will get accused of taking steroid with absolutely no proof.
  8. Someone who did take steroids will get a free pass from the media because "he's a good guy" and/or "he plays for the Yankees".
  9. Andy Pettite's triumphant comeback tour is going to include at least two 6-inning, 8 earned run shellackings at the hands of the Red Sox and/or Rays
  10. Albert Pujols is going to have a great year, leading stat head baseball fans to completely ignore what's going on on the field and concentrate on what an albatross that contract is going to be eight years from now.
  11. Brandon McCarthy will get traded at the deadline. He will go someplace there aren't dozens of acres of foul territory. The results will be ugly.
  12. A Phillies batboy will actually need to run out to second base with an oil can at some point this season after Chase Utley breaks down like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.
  13. The Giants will completely and utterly screw up Brandon Belt's development, ultimately dumping him in a late-July trade. He will go on to a long and successful career somewhere else. In 2022, Brian Sabean will look at the aging, no longer mobile Belt and decide that he's a perfect fit for the Giants.

Monday, March 26, 2012


I took the kids to see The Hunger Games over the weekend. Excellent movie, and very true to the book. Jennifer Lawrence was excellent and I particularly enjoyed Elizabeth Banks's work as well.

As you no doubt know by now, in the dark future of The Hunger Games, a group of teenagers is forced to fight, suffer, be maimed, and die in a televised competition for the general public's entertainment.

It's a good thing it's fiction. How barbaric it would be if that were real!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fullback Trade News

The New York Jets this week are finalizing a trade with the Denver Broncos to pick up little-known fullback Timothy Tebow.  Tebow, about to enter his second year in the league, has been unable to find a consistent starting slot at fullback with the Broncos.  With Denver, Tebow competed with two-way player Spencer Larsen and undrafted rookie Austin Sylvester.
The deal is not yet finalized; the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars says he's interested in picking Tebow up as well.
Tebow would face stiff competition for the starting job with either club. Jaguars fullback Greg Jones was a first alternate Pro Bowl selection in 2007. Jets coach Rex Ryan is unstinting in his praise of his current fullback, John Conner, as well.
Tebow may have to get comfortable in a backup position.

What's a Freddy Galvis?

A Mr. Freddy Galvis is your new starting second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, and that's problematic.
Oh, it's not that Galvis can't play the position. Going into last year in the minors, his defense was major league caliber at shortstop; there'll be no problem with him sliding a little bit down the defensive spectrum. And he's certainly the best defensive option the Phils have at second base, now that Chase Utley's timetable looks more and more like "Waiting for Godot". Michael Martinez is injured, just like most of the rest of the Phils' infield. Ty Wiggington knows where second base is, but that's about it, and besides, he's probably going to be needed at 3rd to spell the increasingly fragile Placido Polanco.
No, there are two problems with Galvis playing second base for a team with World Series aspirations and an aging roster. One is that he can't hit. Until last year, he might as well have been carrying an inflatable lawn gnone to the dish with him; even last year's offensive "surge" only brought him up to "decent for the minors". Asking him to replace the production of an Utley, even an injured Utley, even an injured and declining Utley, is like asking a line cook from Jim's to step in at Bec Le Fin. (I'm old. Work with my references here, people.)
And the other problem is that, as feeble as Galvis may be at the plate, there's not a lot they can do to replace him. The Phils are built to win now. They've gone all in, emptying the farm system to get Lee and Halladay and Lee again and Blanton and Pence and, well, sooner or later that well runs dry. There's nobody in the Phillies' system who makes other teams drool. There's nothing left to swap for a  middle infielder worthy of a spot on a championship-quality team. Maybe they'll move damaged uber-prospect Domonic Brown; maybe they'll try to get something for hulking excess starter Joe Blanton. But the drive to win now has left them perilously thin, perhaps too thin to achieve that stated goal. That's the problem with going all in - sometimes you need to go a little further, and you're tapped when you do.
Of course, all hope is not lost. The Phillies still run Halladay and Lee and Hamels at you, which is enough to win three games out of five without breaking a sweat. They still have above-average production from behind the plate and in 2/3 of their outfield, and the relentless Jimmy Rollins at short. They have monsters at the back end of the bullpen, and they have more interesting pieces on the bench than they've had in years.
But that's all they've got, and it only gets harder from here.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Oh God He's Talking Soccer Again

Let's imagine that your kid just started playing soccer for the first time, and while watching the adorable little rugrats chase the ball across the field, you think to yourself, "Well, I'd better figure out what this sport is about, since Billy loves it so much*"

So you turn on the NBC Sports Network or ESPN2 or the Fox Soccer Channel or some damned thing and find a soccer game. If you're lucky you find a European soccer game**, and you're astonished at its style, precision and beauty.***

If you're slightly less lucky you find an American soccer game, played by one or more teams from the MLS.  I'll offend... somebody... by suggesting that MLS soccer is about on a par with a third-division European league.  The MLS All-Stars regularly lose to Manchester United, but the games are sometimes competitive. I'm sure the All-Stars could beat a second-tier English team, and that suggests to me that the Colorado Rapids might be able keep up with Scunthorpe United**** or Exeter City.

Perhaps FC Dallas is playing Sporting Kansas City, or you may see the LA Galaxy play Tigres UANL of San Nicolas, Mexico.  You might even see DC United against the Rochester Rhinos (Really! The Rochester (NY) Raging Rhinos are a minor-league soccer club).

You might be confused.  Although there are three Canadian teams in MLS, there aren't any Mexican teams.  What's the Galaxy doing playing Tigres?  And the Rochester Rhinos are an NASL team -- the US's semipro minor leagues -- not MLS.

Several major competitions go on in parallel in North America every year.  (For simplicity's sake I will focus on MLS games and ignore things like Mexico's Primera Division regular season.)

The first is the MLS regular season.  This runs from March through December; each of the 19 teams in the MLS plays 34 games exclusively against other MLS teams.  The top 10 teams in the league go to the MLS Cup playoffs, culminating in a single champion.

You may see teams play in the CONCACAF***** Champions League.  The top 4 US MLS teams in any given year participate in the CCL the following year, and play against the top teams from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Canada.  This would be why you'd see Galaxy play Tigres.

Finally, you might be seeing part of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.  This is a knockout tournament open to the top teams from all 5 layers of US Men's Soccer, from amateur adult clubs up through MLS teams.  This would be why you'd see DC play Rochester.  (And Rochester did beat Colorado to win the cup back in '99).

These do all go on in parallel.  LA Galaxy might play a CCL game on Tuesday, an Open Cup game on Thursday, and an MLS game on Saturday, all in one week. That can lead to some of the more successful clubs complaining of exhaustion near the end of the season, while they are playing more games than competitors who didn't do well enough to get into the CCL, for instance.  Many clubs use the CCL and Open Cup as a way to get their prospects more touches and rest their premiere players; LA Galaxy may not put Landon Donovan and David Beckham on the field against Addison United of Vermont.

* At this point, Billy actually just loves the juice box and bag of pretzels he gets after the game, but that may change.
**  It irritates me that American soccer correspondents insist on calling a game a "match" and a field a "pitch" because that's what they're called in England.
*** You're also astonished at the audacity of players diving to draw foul calls when they haven't been touched. Doubly so if they're Italian.
**** Take that, obscenity filters
***** The North American continental soccer confederation, which includes the US, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Notes From Spring Training

  • Rockies scratch Jamie Moyer from his start Friday due to leg issue - apparently no one's had to go to the DL for "acute fossilization of the hamstring" before
  • Luke Scott not expected to use a glove during spring training - and not to know what to do with one once the season starts
  • Ryan Madson's elbow reportedly near "100%" - Scott Boras immediately working on hardbound coffee table book of "elbows worse than Ryan Madson's", with foreword by Neil Gaiman
  • Kansas City Royals sign SS Alcides Escobar to long-term contract - Joe Posnanski nearly leaps from a hotel room window before being reassured it's not Yuniesky Betancourt
  • Several teams watch Joe Blanton pitch for the Phillies - Because really, there ain't a hell of a lot else to do in Clearwater
  • Roy Halladay says he's fine, despite bad spring training stats - Because he's Roy Goddamn Halladay, and I'm not going to argue with him. Not even a little bit
  • Michael Pineda says he's fine, too - Him, you can argue with. For now.

Sometimes, It Is the Coach

Mike D'Antoni stepped down as coach of the New York Knicks today, and it had the feel of a mercy killing. D'Antoni, as anyone who follows the NBA knows, ran an up-tempo mile-a-minute offense. At it's best, it's Westphalian, literally running other teams out of the gym and providing entertaining basketball. It's a system made, not for stars or guys who demand isolation plays, but rather for gym rats and guys who do one thing well, who can find a niche in the system and own it. When he has the players who fit his style, D'Antoni wins games. When he doesn't, the whole thing breaks down like a multiple-car pileup in a school zone.
New York is not a market for plucky role players and system basketball. It's a city that demands stars, wins be damned. And so when a spare part named Jeremy Lin took advantage of a temporarily star-less Knick team, filling the stat line and leading it to victories, he instantly became A Star, because, hey, that's the narrative the Big Apple pressure cooker demands. And when the team's real star, Carmelo Anthony, returned, the wheels fell off D'Antoni's scoring calliope as Anthony sucked the air out of the room.
But New York demanded Carmelo. It demanded a star, regardless of whether he fit in the coach's system, and so the Knicks mortgaged their future and ditched players who fit D'Antoni's system and just maybe listened to Isaiah Thomas' evil whisperings in owner James Dolan's ear to bring "star" Anthony to the big stage. It sank the team, but hey, the Knicks, who for years and years had wallowed in anonymous mediocrity, could at least reclaim the back pages.
But while they may have been more famous, they stopped being good. And the coach pays the price for that, regardless. D'Antoni was set up to fail. As a coach, he simply couldn't win with his system and these players. And so, unfair as it might be, that's why he had to go.

Then there's Western Kentucky, best known for being the only team in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament (because as hard as it is to believe, the NCAA runs a LOT of tournaments - they just don't televise women's fencing) with a losing record. Not long ago, WKU was something of a mid-major terror, largely because it had a 7'2" center and a mascot who looked like a roided-out Grimace, but those days are gone. This year, they snuck into the Big Dance(TM) with a 15-18 record, even after winning the conference tournament.
Except, of course, that's not the whole story. They were 5-11 when they fired coach Ken McDonald. Do the math, and under new guy Ray Harper - a longtime success at lower levels - they went 10-7. Not great, no, but a winning record. And if you throw in the few games it took for Harper to get the team turned around, it looks like this ain't a bad team at all. Not great, maybe, but the same players who were cratering under McDonald are good enough to win a tournament play-in game over 20+ win Mississippi Valley State.
Sometimes, it really is the coach.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Manning Up

The Peyton Manning Free Agency Victory Tour is only superficially like the Brett Favre Dance With Me Free Agent Victory Tour in that Manning is a proud Super Bowl-winning Hall of Fame quarterback coming off a devastating neck injury looking for a job, while Favre was a proud Super Bowl-winning Hall of Fame quarterback coming off a devastating interception looking for a job.That being said, the question of whom Peyton's going to go steady with has turned this NFL offseason into a Jane Austen, as various unsuitably ruffianish but wealthy callers have pressed their suits, whilst the ethereal Peyton has dithered over commitment whilst actually orchestrating the whole grand dance to his benefit1.
Now, there were some places Peyton would never go. New York, for one - never mind the Jets' "commitment" to Mark Sanchez, there was no way Manning would share the limelight with or invite comparison to his brother. With that in mind, here's a rough breakdown of Manning's likely landing spots, from Most Likely to Least Likely:
Denver - Denver needs a quarterback. No, seriously, they need a quarterback, because they don't have one. Even if the reports of Manning's recovery are false and he can't throw the ball better than Garo Yepremian, that's still a step up from Tebow. And the arrival of a genuine certified bona fide midasized Hall of Famer like Manning would provide enough cover for John Elway to have Tebow quietly bundled up and shipped off to Jacksonville in the truck of a 96 Coupe de Ville.
Arizona - Arizona's best quarterback last year attended Fordham. Think about it.
Miami - Dan Marino is still Miami's best option at quarterback, and at this point his entire body has been transformed into an Isotoner glove. They have a talented receiver, which aging quarterbacks tend to like, and, err, their owner has a lot of money. A whole lot of money.
Cleveland - Hahahah. Just kidding.
Baltimore - Because it's totally the quarterback's fault that the kicker missed, and thus Joe Flacco must be replaced. Also, that defense would put Peyton back on the field a lot, and if there's one thing aging quarterbacks like more than having one talented wide receiver, it's the chance to pad their stats extensively.
Creighton - With National Player of the Year contender Doug McDermott, the Blue Jays are a serious Sweet 16 Contender, and adding a long-range gunner like Manning could help them out. Also, adding a NCAA Championship Ring to the trophy collection would keep him one step ahead of Eli.
Kansas City - Rumor suggests that Manning is interested in following in the steps of the legendary Joe Montana by finishing his career out in Kansas City, mostly horizontally.
New England - Manning is said to be intrigued by Bill Belichick's plan to move him to strong safety on passing downs.

1There is nothing wrong with Manning orchestrating things to his benefit. You get leverage, you use it. What is ridiculous, however, is the willful blindness of the sports media to the fact that Peyton is in fact orchestrating things to his benefit, as opposed to fluttering from city to city on waves of ethereal football goodness. This is a guy who locked another QB out of the film study room while in college, for God's sake. He's not Mother Theresa in cleats, and he never has been.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Sportsthodoxy Interview: Craig Calcaterra

By any reasonable sports blogger standard (if such a thing exists), Craig Calcaterra is living the dream. From starting his highly regarded Shysterball blog while working full time as a lawyer to taking the reins at NBC's Hardball Talk, Craig is one of the most-read - and most readable - folks writing on baseball out there. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us, covering everything from the narratives of baseball to the identity of the greatest Atlanta Brave of all time....


We’re almost at the start of a new season, thank God. How difficult is it keeping up a flow of content through the offseason?
It's definitely way more difficult than during the regular season. November and December are not too bad due to all of the hot stove stuff, but January and early February is like death for a volume blogger. And I suppose one answer is to back off on the volume of posts some. Which we do a little bit. But HBT readers have come to expect frequent updates. And frankly, if I'm not writing a post at almost all times of the working day, I get a little bored.

You’ve got a particularly...expressive community of commenters that’s grown up on your posts on the NBC site. How do you cultivate a community that holds both the Old Gators and the Jonny5s of the world? 
I wish I had the answer to that, but really, it just happened. I think we're pretty lucky to have a fairly disparate cast of commenters without the proceedings getting too crazy. Part of it is that, especially as the site was getting off the ground, I made a point to show up in the comments myself and engage with readers. I think one of the reasons comments sections get out of hand so frequently is that people assume no one is watching. Readers know I see every comment that comes in. That tends to make newer readers act a bit better and empowers regulars to help police the site for knuckleheads and apply some pretty effective peer pressure.

Narrative is a strong thread through the material you post, whether it’s childhood memories of the Tigers, growing up watching Braves games on TBS, or the “Best Shape Of His Life” spring training narrative that pops up every year. What part do you think that narrative attachment plays in becoming a baseball fan? 
I think it plays a pretty huge part. There are so many games. Single events, single games mean so very little. As such, the way in which a lot of other sports are discussed -- "what does Team X need to do to win today," etc. -- is pretty meaningless in baseball. People still write and talk about that stuff, but it tells us nothing.  A narrative overlay gives us something to grab on to and to put what are seemingly random and insignificant happenings into a human context.  It can also lead to horrible baseball writing -- most of the bad sportswriting you see is really bad narrative-creation and perpetuation -- but if you treat baseball games as small parts of a larger story, they're way easier to get your mind around.

If narratives are important, is the rise of advanced analytics in conflict with that? What effect do you think it might have on baseball fandom going forward?
I don't think it's in conflict. Indeed, statistical analysis is itself about making sense of randomness, so in some ways it's also about narrative-creation in some weird way. Now, I don't think most analysts would think of it that way, but there are narratives that pop up as the result of such analysis. Stuff about player aging patterns. Reactions we have to less-than-optimal player deployment ("Free [underused Player X]!") The sheer mass of humor we get when a guy like, say, Miguel Cabrera, is being moved in the wrong direction on the defensive spectrum. That sort of thing.
As for the effect on baseball fandom: Maybe less direct impact than we think. Go to a ballpark and listen to conversations about the game and it may as well be 1950 as far as the analytical savvy on display. But I do think that there has been a pretty big effect on announcers and mainstream sportswriters, especially in recent years, and that over time, common fans will begin to internalize light sabermetric thinking, even as they continue to talk about so-and-so being "a competitor."

On a related note, the Hall of Fame debate appears to be the new ground zero between analytics-driven fans and “you had to be there” types, and the intensity seems to be ratcheting up every year. Are we approaching some sort of armageddon where Jay Jaffe and Dan Shaughnessy go Thunderdome on the streets of Cooperstown?
I would use my childrens' college funds to pay to see that.
Seriously, though, it has gotten more polarized. And I think it's going to get way worse in the next few years as the steroids guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens appear on the ballot and get rejected over and over.  Unfortunately, the way the Hall of Fame voting is set up -- you have to be a ten-year member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and you don't lose your vote even if you lose you daily writing gig -- all but ensures that the Hall electorate is an older, reactionary lot of curmudgeons. Many of them don't understand advanced analysis and even if they do, many of them blame its rise and the rise of the Internet in general as the reason they lost their job or their newspaper went out of business.  It's going to be years -- decades -- before the more intelligent discourse that has risen up around baseball truly impacts the Hall of Fame vote.

Switching to actual, you know, baseball and stuff, is this the year the Braves dethrone the Phillies in the NL East?
As I write this, I am a couple hours removed from listening to the first Braves exhibition game of spring training. They were on-hit by the Tigers. As such, I am in no position at the moment to let go of my innate, ridiculously overblown pessimism about my rooting interest and make any such declarations.

What storylines - besides the ones about “best shape of their life” - are you most interested in seeing play out this year?
I'm certainly excited about what, on paper anyway, looks like a major shift of power in the American League to the AL West and, to a lesser degree, the central. The Angels and all of their acquisitions and the Rangers and theirs. The Prince Fielder Tigers and the young, frisky Royals. I'm also curious to see if the new wild card setup -- the one-game play-in, essentially -- really causes teams to go crazy to win their division. I'm still a little skeptical of the idea that a sure wild card team is going to go full-throttle to make up a three or four game deficit in the division race in the final two weeks of the season simply to avoid the wild card. Maybe I'm wrong.

Last question - Biff Pocoroba. Great Atlanta Brave, or greatest Atlanta Brave ever?
He's not the Greatest Atlanta Brave Ever -- we all know that title belongs to Rick Mahler -- but Pocoroba may be the most Atlanta Brave Ever.

Many thanks to Craig for taking the time to answer these! You can find his baseball writing at Hardball Talk.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Sportsthodoxy Fantasy Baseball Tips: Buy Low Targets

As Opening Day approaches, many baseball fans' thoughts turn to their upcoming fantasy drafts, because, well I have no idea, and I say that having participated in one straight 4x4 roto league for over two decades. With that in mind, Sportsthodoxy is pleased to offer free, utterly worthless fantasy baseball advice to any and all of our readers. Today's topic, the first in an occasional series, is bounceback players you should target in your draft:

A.J. Burnett, Fungo Bat, Pittsburgh Pirates - Burnett is now out 8-10 weeks after bunting a ball off his face and breaking an orbital bone. Yankees fans will say that this guarantees he will have, at least for the next 8-10 weeks, more value than he did last year as a member of the New York Yankees. Bargain hunters will note that Burnett is moving from the AL East to the functional-first-baseman-less NL Central, from a hitters park to a pitcher's park, and from the seething media crucible of New York to Pittsburgh. Plus, Burnett's got the reputation of being damaged goods, all of which should make him available for bottom-feeders on draft day.

Adam Dunn, Continental Massif, Chicago White Sox - Dunn was considered one of the best free-agent signings of the off-season, going into 2011. Averaging 40 HR per year over roughly most of your career and moving to a ballpark that could double as a slingshot for orbital payloads will do that. Instead, he hit .159 and produced less offensive value that Neifi Perez1. So this year, he's a perfect buy-low target. Why? Because one of two things is going to happen. Either he's going to figure out what the heck happened and go back to being the homer-mashing Doc Samson clone we all know and love, or he's going to continue playing like he has been, and a couple of drunken fans are going to leap out of the stands and break his legs before he does too much damage to your hitting rate stats. (What? The dude does play in Chicago, after all.) Either, as they say, works.

Joe Blanton, Fifth Beatle, Philadelphia Phillies - Remember Joe Blanton? The merely solid (OK, really, really solid, but that's the cheesesteaks talking) guy who was going to hold down the fifth spot for the Phillies' quartet of starters for the ages last year? The guy who got hurt roughly fifteen minutes into the season and got bypassed by "Cousin" Vance Worley? The guy everyone kind of forgot was on the Phillies, who still figure to have at least a league-average offense? Yeah, him.

Bobby Abreu, Ronin, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Which Happens To Be In California On The West Coast Of North America And Oh God Can We Please Let This Joke Die Already - On the surface, Abreu looks fork-ready. His stats last year were down, he plays the outfield like a Roomba, and the Angels have loaded up on 1B/DH types. That being said, you look at some of the warm bodies that were wheeled out there to serve as DHs last year and Abreu can outhit at least half of them with his eyes closed. (Which, to be fair, is the way the Mariners' DHs played all year). He may not be getting younger or faster, and he may not have guaranteed PT in Anaheimangelsifornia, but sooner or later somebody's going to need a bat, and Abreu will be waiting.

Frank Francisco, Vulture, New York Mets - Frank Francisco is not a particularly good closer. That's all right, because the Mets aren't a particularly good team. As a matter of fact, they're probably going to be a terrible team, and one that struggles to score more runs than, say, the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. That's terrible news for Mets fans, but good news for whoever falls into the closer role for the team (most likely Francisco) because low-scoring teams generate a disproportionate number of save chances, and none of the Mets' starters are the sorts of guys who are likely to throw a ton of complete games, even the six-innings-shortened-by-rain sort. So the Mets may not win a lot, but those games they do win will more likely generate save chances. And when they do, Francisco will be there. Waiting.

1I know Neifi didn't play last year. That's kind of the joke.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Not to Go All FJM On You...

I'm not a huge fan of ESPN: The Magazine. OK, I've subscribed for several years. This is largely because A)I get it dirt-cheap and B)it makes decent throne reading, but there's a certain formula there that's never grabbed me. On average, a given issue is going to feature one story about a perceived-bad-guy-who's-shown-to-not-be-so-bad, a big glossy spread on one of the minor sports ESPN is trying to push in its programming, a reprinted Bill Simmons ramble, and a whole lot of infographics. Nitty-gritty sports content of the sort I used to get from The Sporting News, not so much. Then again, TSN's gone all strange and occasional, and ESPN took that opportunity to transform its print edition into a dead ringer for TSN's old format, so what the hell do I know.
The latest issue, the slightly hyped "Analytics Issue" (as opposed to the heavily hyped "Let's Get Professional Athletes To Take Their Clothes Off Issue") does have some good reading in it. The piece on the efforts Stan Conte is making to quantify injury data? Very cool. The piece on A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy? Great stuff. And then, at the back, there's a thoughtful column from Chris Jones about a time he sat down with former NFL running back and widely mocked iconoclast Ricky Williams.
Jones makes some good points in the piece, most notably talking about how there are very real people who aren't emotionless robots playing the game, and that Williams overcame a lot more than Miami's lack of a decent pulling guard to play in the league.
But before you get to any of the good stuff, you get this:
When I first met Ricky Williams, he was in the kitchen hut in a commune-turned-campground outside Byron Bay, Australia, squeezing the juice out of a giant stalk of celery before he headed back to his tent to finish reading a book called Gardeners, Gurus & Grubs.
Great lead, right? And then it's followed by this:
That sentence could not be written about any other athlete in the history of the world.
Or at least, any other athlete not named Ricky Williams.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Gamification For Dummies And Left Tackles

In my day job, one of the hot topics currently bubbling merrily away is "gamification" (and so help me God, if autocorrect switches that back to "ramification" one more time I'm putting a boot through my Macintosh). This notion can be briefly summed up as "turn everything into a game and it becomes more interesting to do". Now, I'm not here to debate its merits one way or the other. What I can say, however, is that the concept has generated innumerable conference talks and blog posts, not to mention all sorts of Facebook content, wildly convoluted consumer loyalty programs generated by people who don't actually understand games, and rants saying mean things about Reality is Broken author Jane McGonigal.

But if you really want to see gamification in action, you just need to look at the NFL combine. What is basically a glorified weight room session has been thoroughly, magnificently gamified.

Let's face it: there's damn little more boring than watching other dudes work out. But turn it into the Combine, start racking up the scores on how many presses at what weight a guy did, comparing that to other prospects, and invent a leveling system out of Mel Kiper's Big Board - hey, you did twenty reps at 325, you're now a potential FOURTH rounder, up from fifth - and suddenly it's a whopping, sweaty ball of gamified excitement. The rewards, like game rewards, are ephemeral - there's nothing concrete to Mel Kiper suddenly declaring you a third rounder instead of a sixth rounder rounder, but it feels like something, just like getting a virtual badge that serves as bragging rights with folks you've never met1. And the guys doing it buy it, and ESPN buys it, and most of all, we buy it.

Because otherwise, it's just a bunch of guys working out in a really big building in Indiana, and who wants to watch that.

1And I say this as someone who's now rolled over his badge collection twice on Jetpack Joyride.