Week of May 3, 2019

Cheers to Five More Years

We hatched the plan almost on a whim, sitting at a bar near Phil’s house in San Francisco, and sent the first post just a couple days later. We set a goal to do it every week for six months, which seemed impossible. Five years later, I can count the weeks we’ve missed on one hand.

A lot has changed for us in those five years. Phil started a new job, moved to Oakland, met a girl, and is getting married this July. I couldn’t be happier for him. I insanely took on this project about six weeks before my oldest son was born (special shoutout to my wife, who has allowed me to devote so much time to this vanity project) – and I’ve since had two kids, bought a house, changed jobs, and even started my own law practice. Somehow, 1-2-3 Sports is older than all of those things.

At times it is exhausting and frustrating to do this every week. We put a lot of energy into it. But it’s worth it. In the past five years, Phil has gone from a good but relatively new friend to my best friend, and 1-2-3 Sports is a big part of that.

We’re proud of what we’ve made, and we hope you enjoy it, too. We’re planning a 5 year anniversary whiffle ball game followed by McCovey Cove float day. Stay tuned for details, and thanks for reading. -TOB


An Explanation of Testosterone in Elite Athletes

For years, Olympic champion Caster Semenya has been the face of a heated debate about gender and sports. It’s likely you’ve heard her story.  Semenya has naturally high levels of testosterone for a woman. She represents 1 in 20,000 women whose testosterone levels are similar to that of the male range. This week a court in Switzerland ruled that she and others like her would have to reduce their naturally high testosterone in order to compete in certain races at major competitions.

I don’t need to tell you that this is an emotional debate, but I do need to tell you to read Gina Kolata’s accessible explanation as to the science behind the debate.

Amongst other purposes, testosterone builds muscle. It’s not just another physical advantage like, say, height in a basketball player. It’s directly linked to improved performance.  

In one study, Dr. Levine put sedentary young men and young women through a year of athletic training. At the start, the men and women had similarly sized hearts. A year later, the men’s hearts were much larger, the result of muscle-building directed by the hormone.

The hormone’s effects are amplified among elite athletes, altering the body in ways that can make a huge difference in performance. Male champions in every sport are always much faster and stronger than women who set world records.

The gap can be quite wide. Elite female runners would never win races if they competed against elite men, according to Doriane Coleman, a former middle-distance runner who is now a law professor at Duke University.

Ms. Coleman has reviewed the best performances of three female athletes who were the fastest 400-meter runners in history (and were not injecting testosterone).

In 2017 alone, she found, more than 10,000 men and boys running 400-meter races beat the best times these women ever ran.

This is the science behind the ruling, but it’s also worth noting that the ruling is only for races between 400 meters and one mile, which is based on evidence. As I noted earlier, naturally abnormal testosterone levels can be found in 1 out of every 20,000 women; however:

The rule is consistent with a requirement that it be narrowly tailored to the evidence. Athletes who identify as women but who have testosterone levels in the male range are overrepresented in women’s middle-distance running events, a recent study found…

These athletes won 30 medals in Olympic and world championship races at distances ranging from 400 to 1,500 meters. Their incidence in the general population is just 1 in 20,000, meaning they were overrepresented by about 1,700-fold on the podium, the study concluded.

How gender is defined and gender fluidity is a very real issue of this generation. I believe gender is an extremely complex issue. Of course it’s about more than testosterone levels, but oftentimes the facts can get overlooked on an emotional topic. And, so, when we’re talking about athletes and gender, it’s helpful to start with the science before we shout at one another. – PAL

Source: Does Testosterone Really Give Caster Semenya an Edge on the Track?”, Gina Kolata, The New York Times (05/01/19)

TOB: You’re telling me that a naturally occurring physical trait makes a person more successful as an athlete and so we’re going to not let them compete unless they reduce the effects of that physical trait? I love it. As a 5’10 basketball player, I think anyone over 6 feet should have to have a portion of their shins removed to reduce their height to 6’0 or lower. I’d have made the NBA, for sure!


Somehow, Steph Curry Is Still Underrated

Kevin Durant has been on fire this postseason – averaging 38 points per game over his last 6. His offense is predicated on the fact that he can shoot over the top of just about anyone, and so he’s extremely difficult to defend, especially when he’s on. You can stay in front of him, get a hand in his face, and he just shoots it right over you. Swish. But as I’ve said before, I find his game boring. It’s not graceful, it’s not fun to watch. He’s talented as hell and does things no one else can do, but he’s a ball stopper and seems to be getting as many isos this year as he did when he was in OKC.

By contrast, KD’s teammate Steph Curry has been a little quiet so far this postseason. Over his last 6 games, as KD has heated up, Curry has scored just 19.8 points per game, on 44% FG and 35% 3PT. In many corners of the internet, this has lead to questions about – what’s wrong with Steph? Is Steph hurt? Is Steph on the backside of his career? Is this KD’s team now?

People ask these questions because they still don’t understand how Steph Curry completely changes the game of basketball. Here’s a series of videos from Game 1 against the Rockets, where the threat of Curry’s shooting leads to a dunk for the Warriors (click through to see the videos):

That is six plays in one game where Curry does not look to shoot and doesn’t even get the assist, but the threat of his abilities to pull from anywhere means the defense is stretched and morphed so badly that Curry’s teammates get easy dunks (and assists). Here’s a similar thread from last year’s Finals, created by the same guy (again, click through to see the videos):

Try to find a play where the defense treats KD like that as he backs his way into the mid-post. When defenses stop respecting Curry like that, you can tell me it’s KD’s team. For now? Nah. -TOB – special thanks to Twitter user Bobby Flaiben for the videos


A Banner Year Year’s In WHL Bantam Draft Names

One of my favorite times of the year – the WHL Bantam Draft, where we get to see what dumbass names white parents were giving their kids 14-15 years ago. This year’s highlights:

My thoughts:

  • Carter is fine, but there are NINE of them.
  • What’s with J and K names that make white people go bananas?
    • Jace, Jaeger (yes, like the booze), Jagger, Jakin, Jhett, Joah (like Noah but with a J!), Kalem, Karson, Kassius, Koehn, Kylynn (good lord), Kyren (NO).
  • Merik. Like…’Merica?
  • Mesele. I’m not even sure how that’s pronounced.
  • Ridge.
  • Rieger, Rilen, Rylen.
  • And, my personal favorite…OASIZ. Don’t look back in anger at your parents for naming you that, kid.

I hope even one person enjoys this as much as I do. -TOB

Source: The Best Names Of The WHL Draft”, Barry Petchesky, Deadspin (05/02/2019)

PAL: People are so bored. Not a lot of Catholics up in Canada, eh?


The Twins Show How to Make a Killing in Free Agency

The last two baseball offseasons have been interesting. As many teams tank, an opportunity has emerged for teams to get better quickly. Last year, the Brewers traded for Christian Yelich, who would go on to win the 2018 NL MVP. And a few weeks after getting Yelich, Milwaukee signed Lorenzo Cain for a relatively low amount of money. In a year in which many teams elected to begin a rebuild, the Brewers took advantage and got some good players for cheap, and went on to win the division title.

This year, news during baseball’s offseason was dominated by three themes: Bryce, Manny, and the Slow Free Agent Market. That’s all anyone could talk about. But like the Brewers last year, there was one team that kept popping up on the transaction ticker that made me keep saying, “Oh, solid pick up,” – the Minnesota Twins. The Twins had an even less splashy offseason than the Brewers last year, signing guys like CJ Cron, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, and Marwin Gonzalez – solid players, all flawed, some perceived as over the hill. But as Jonah Keri points out, these were really good pickups:

Coming off a 30-homer season in the power-squashing environment of Tropicana Field, C.J. Cron could only manage a one-year, $4.8 million deal, landing in Minnesota. After hitting 53 homers over the previous two seasons — while playing a premium defensive position —  Jonathan Schoop cost the Twins a scant $7.5 million on a one-year contract. No hitter in all of baseball cranked more dingers from 2014 through 2018 than Nelson Cruz … and he too could manage only one year guaranteed, a $14.3 million pact with the Twins.

A funny thing happens when you sign a bunch of guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark — your team hits more home runs. The Twins ranked 23rd in the majors last season in taters. This year, despite playing in one of the least homer-friendly parks in the league, they rank fourth.

But more importantly, the homegrown guys have grown up – with players like Eddie Rosario (11 dingers), Max Kepler (.277, 7 dingers), Jorge Polanco (.327/.393/.606), Mitch Garver (.333/.396/.729 – whoa), and Willins Astudillo (.327/.340/.531) all destroying opposing pitching staffs.

I didn’t realize until last week that things had been going so well for the Twins, when Phil and fellow-St. Paul native/Twins fan/friend of the blog Al both independently remarked to me about how well the team was playing. But until I read this article, I figured it was like the 2017 Twins run to the Wild Card game – a bit of smoke and mirrors, with a lot of luck hiding bad peripheral stats. Not so! The Twins are fourth in the AL in run differential, leading to the second best record in the majors.

The Twins have followed a blueprint that I hope the Giants can take advantage of soon – scout/draft well, build around cheaper, homegrown talent, and look for good value in free agency. -TOB

Source: The Twins Are For Real: How Are They Doing This?”, Jonah Keri, The Athletic (05/02/2019)

PAL: Of course I enjoyed the hell out of this article. The idea that the Twins got power for a bargain is both exciting and nearly foreign to this franchise. Three players in the history of the Minnesota Twins have hit 40 or more home runs in a season. In the last twenty years, their best team (2006) had a middle of the lineup that at least presented a long ball threat: MVP Justin Morneau (34HR), Torii Hunter (31HR), Cuddyer (24HR), and Mauer (13HR).

It’s great to have them off to a good start; but I’m holding my excitement for when they win one postseason game, which hasn’t happened in the team’s last four trips:


A Brief Lesson in Baseball’s Newest Stats

Experiencing Twitter is largely an exercise in a self-selected echo chamber. As such, it is easy for me at times to forget that not all baseball fans like “advanced stats” or even understand what they mean.

For example. ESPN’s Tim Keown, who has been a favorite of mine since his headshot contained a lot less grey, relays this story of the new Giants’ President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi’s first meeting with Giants season ticket holders:

FARHAN ZAIDI’S FIRST face-to-face confrontation as the baseball boss of the San Francisco Giants came from a stranger. Zaidi stood in front of a group of season-ticket holders at a January event and listened to one of his customers ask if he was serious about occasionally using a one-inning opener instead of a conventional starting pitcher. The slightly accusatory tone exposed the questioner’s view on the matter, but Zaidi knew the topic was bound to arise after he had suggested to local reporters during the winter meetings that using an opener was a possibility. 

And so he decided to answer the season-ticket holder’s question with a question of his own:

“If I told you using an opener would definitely improve your chances of winning on a certain day, how many of you would still not want to use it?”

His premise was inarguable, genius: Whatever you think of me, and regardless of who pitches and for how long, who says no to winning? Who among you, men and women who have shelled out thousands and thousands of dollars for ballgames, cannot unite behind the shared joy of victory?

The group was too big to canvass individually, so Zaidi said: “Let me hear you boo.”

And these men and women, the corporate networkers and the lifelong fans alike, cupped their hands around their mouths, aimed them at the smiling man at the front of the room, and booed.

First of all, great writing. Keown set it up perfectly, and it made me LOL. But more importantly it shocked me – there are fans who would rather their teams lose by playing the way they always played over winning by using new tactics? What I forget when I’m in my Twitter bubble is that there are fans who do not care about analytics and in fact resent their existence.

Which is why I really loved Grant Brisbee’s article this week, on how the last three months of the Giants’ offense (August and September 2018, April 2019), were among the seven worst offensive seasons in Giants history, dating back to 1905. WHICH IS INSANE, but can be addressed another day. For the moment I’d like to highlight how Brisbee, understanding he’s speaking in large part to fans like the ones who booed Zaidi, breaks down a couple of advanced stats in a way that is easy to understand. I wanted to share this with those of you who don’t get them or don’t want to get them:

The first stat you’ll need to understand is OPS, which is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. It’s an imperfect stat, and you really shouldn’t add decimal points like that … but danged if it doesn’t give you an idea of how a team is performing offensively. It takes into account how good a team is at avoiding outs, and it also takes into account how many extra-base hits they’re getting. It’s safe to assume that a team with an .800 OPS is probably hitting the snot out of the ball.

The next stat to understand is OPS+. In 2006, the Giants had an OPS of .746. In 2012, the Giants had an OPS of .724. So that means the 2006 Giants were better, right?

It does not. The National League scored a lot more runs back in 2006, so we need to adjust for that. OPS+ takes this into account, and it also takes the team’s home ballpark into account. Then it crams everything into one number and sets 100 as the league average. So if a team has a 90 OPS+, like the 2006 Giants, that means they were worse than the league average. If a team has a 106 OPS+, like the 2012 Giants, that means they have an above-average offense. The kind that can win the World Series with some strong pitching.

I love OPS+, and I’ll use it a lot. It’s not perfect, but it’s still good, very useful and searchable on Baseball-Reference.com. Which brings us to the last stat you’ll need to know: sOPS+.

What sOPS+ does is look for OPS+ within a particular split. Let’s say that you wanted to find out which team in baseball history was the best at hitting at their home park. Seems like a mess. That would mean comparing the Astrodome to Coors Field and the steroid era to a pitcher-dominated season like 1968. But sOPS+ does all that work for you, and gives us an answer. (It was the Rockies in 2014, even after accounting for park. The Coors effect is real, and it’s scary as heck.)

So when looking for the best or worst offensive months in a team’s history, use sOPS+. That way April isn’t unfairly docked because it’s colder than July, when the ball is likely to travel farther. It also compares Septembers with other Septembers, which are months besotted with rookie call-ups. And most important, sOPS+ takes into account what the rest of the league was doing that month.

Makes sense, right? OPS+ and ERA+ are really good stats to help you put numbers in context, and they’re simple to understand. I wish they were more widely understood and used. -TOB

Source: From a Ph.D. to RBIs: How Farhan Zaidi Left Berkeley and Became a Baseball Pioneer“, Tim Keown, ESPN (05/02/2019); “Here’s a Stat About the Giants Offensive Struggles That Will Melt Your Brain“, Grant Brisbee, The Athletic (05/01/2019)


Video(s) of the Week

SVP with all you need to know on the Rockets’ close out “controversy”

I’M NOT CRYING. I WAS CHOPPING ONIONS.


Tweet(s) of the Week


PAL Song of the Week: Richard Swift – ‘Lady Luck’


Like what you’ve read? Let us know by following this blog (on the right side, up near the top), or:

Email: 123sportslist@gmail.com

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