Week of October 25, 2019

Karma Once Again at Work as the Astros Fall Behind 0-2 in World Series

In 2017, the Houston Astros were the feel good story of the baseball season. Just a few years removed from an absolute tank job, they stormed through the postseason and beat the Dodgers in an epic seven game World Series.

Two years later, they might be one of the most disliked teams in my lifetime. Not the players, mind you. As far as those things go, they are a very likable team: Altuve – awesome. Bregman – beast. Correa – talented as hell. Springer – incredible. Cole and Verlander – studs.

But a team is more than the players on their roster, and the Houston Astros front office over the last 16 months have proven to be incredibly tone deaf and insensitive.

It all started last summer. The Blue Jays’ All-Star closer, Roberto Osuna, was arrested and charged with domestic violence. The charges were later dropped because the victim returned to Mexico and refused to go back to Canada to testify. MLB apparently saw enough evidence to suspend him, though, and he was banned for 75 games.

A few weeks later, the Astros traded for Osuna in exchange for a modest package of players. People were rightly upset. A player being charged and suspended for domestic violence is not a market inefficiency to exploit. What’s worse, the Astros took advantage of a loophole in the suspension rules that allowed Osuna to participate in the 2018 playoffs, despite the fact he had not finished serving his 75-game suspension. It was gross and indefensible. They didn’t need to put him on the postseason roster, even if they were allowed to. But they decided having Osuna, and winning, was worth the PR hit of having a player technically suspended for domestic violence on the roster. Fittingly, Osuna gave up 5 runs in 3.2 innings in the ALCS, a 12.27 ERA, as the Astros lost to the Red Sox in 5 innings. Karma.

Now, a year later, the Astros were hoping people would forget about Osuna’s history, and how the team acquired him. People did not. Osuna is routinely booed when he enters games on the road, and people on Twitter celebrate his failures, including when he almost cost the Astros their eventual ALCS clinching Game 6 win by giving up 2 runs in the top of the 9th (the Astros would go on to win in the bottom of the 9th).

The story would have ended there, but the Astros front office continued to show its true colors. The controversy began Sunday, the day after they clinched the AL pennant, when Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein reported that an hour after the game:

[A]ssistant general manager Brandon Taubman turned to a group of three female reporters, including one wearing a purple domestic-violence awareness bracelet, and yelled, half a dozen times, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f—— glad we got Osuna!”

The outburst was offensive and frightening enough that another Houston staffer apologized. The Astros declined to comment. They also declined to make Taubman available for an interview.

As Apstein pointed out, the outburst was odd because as I mentioned Osuna almost blew the game. Additionally, there have been reports that one of the female reporters Taubman yelled at routinely criticizes the team for its acquisition of Osuna, and often tweets a domestic violence hotline number whenever Osuna enters the game. In that context, Taubman’s motive is clear – an attempt both to intimidate and to gloat on the team’s heavily criticized move.

Within an hour of Apstein’s report, the Astros released a statement. Did they announce Taubman’s firing? No. Did they apologize? No. Here’s the statement, in full:

“The story posted by Sports Illustrated is misleading and completely irresponsible. An Astros player was being asked questions about a difficult outing. Our executive was supporting the player during a difficult time. His comments had everything to do about the game situation that just occurred and nothing else – they were also not directed toward any specific reporters. We are extremely disappointed in Sports Illustrated’s attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist.”

Hoo, boy. If you release a statement like that, you better be right. Unfortunately for the Astros, they were not right. Immediately, multiple reporters who were present tweeted confirmation of Apstein’s story. A Houston Chronicle sportswriter, Hunter Atkins, said: “The Astros called [Stephanie Apsteine’s] report misleading. It is not. I was there. Saw it. And I should’ve said something sooner.” Others present made similar statements. Again – if you’re going to go all Trump and call a reporter a liar, you better be right. The Astros were not. 

This story picked up steam as the World Series began on Tuesday, distracting from what promised to be a great series. The Astros released two more statements before Game 1 on Tuesday. The first was from Taubman, and it was incredibly insufficient. It apologized for “foul language” but Taubman stood by his story that he was “showing exuberance” for a player and only apologized if his actions offended anyone. in effect Taubman stood by the denial that his outburst was related to negative coverage of Osuna. It threw in a “I’m a loving and committed father and husband” as if that has anything to do with it.

The second statement was from team owner Jim Crane who also did not apologize and touted his team’s raising of money for domestic violence prevention, as if throwing money at something makes all other actions excusable.

So, would karma get the Astros? Oh yeah, baby. They lost a tight Game 1, as Gerrit Cole, the latest Not Bumgarner, got knocked around. They then got smoked late in Game 2, wasting a good start from Justin Verlander, a former Not Bumgarner, falling 12-3. The Nationals head home with a commanding 2-0 lead. Karma. Do bad things, deserve bad things back.

It should be noted that on Thursday the Astros announced they had fired Taubman. But it was too little, too late. To make matters worse, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow appeared at a press conference Thursday. The following occurred:

Terrible. Get swept, Houston! -TOB

PAL: A bit of free advice to businesses of all types: don’t protect the dickheads. They ain’t worth it.

Relevant NFL Experience: High School Coach

Turns out, coaching high school football might be the best preparation for today’s NFL Coach. That’s Kevin Clark’s thesis from his piece on The this week.

The Bears’ head coach Matt Nagy and Eagles heach coach Doug Pederson are considered master schemers in today’s NFL. Not so long ago, both of them were high school head coaches. Add to them Jon Kitna (Dallas QB Coach) and Jess Simpson (D-Line coach, Falcons), and you have four NFL coaches who were coaching in high school within the last 12 years. 

Let’s set aside the obvious point: Kitna and Pederson are former NFL players. So they aren’t the same as a guy like Simpson (22 very successful high school seasons in Georgia). That said, what’s most interesting about this story is how some mandatory skills for a good high school coach – flexibility and teaching – are becoming incredibly valuable skills in the NFL. 

From a creativity standpoint,” Simpson says, “high school coaches start with: If you aren’t willing to do it all, you probably won’t be very good.” High school coaches, Simpson means, must have a command of every possible scheme: wide-open spread offense, pure option football, the jet motion, or the run-pass option. The talent disparity can be so great, and personnel turns over so quickly from year to year that high school coaches need to be able to change everything about their team based on their talent—or lack thereof.

And from later in the story: 

The emphasis on adaptability is important for a few reasons. Trends now appear seemingly out of nowhere (more on that in a second). Players are much less experienced than they were in years past, both because the league has gotten younger, and there is dramatically less practice time since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. These factors create favorable conditions for flexible schemes that can be run very simply and require an emphasis on instruction and teaching. High school coaches can do that.

Less practice, younger players, and a thing called YouTube makes every wild idea and offense variation accessible to every coach at every level. Good ideas can truly come from anywhere – high school, college, or the pros. The increased value on teaching also makes sense, which highlights another really interesting point: high school coaches are teachers. Kitna taught math while coaching, and said it helped him as a coach. 

The better teacher you are, the better coach you’re going to be. You’ve got to be able to communicate. It’s one thing to have knowledge. It’s another thing to convey knowledge. That’s what I learned from high school.

This story presented a fresh idea about coaching in the NFL that made me think about the game and strategy differently. Excellent read. – PAL 

Source: “The Trailblazing Coaches Who Went From Friday Night Lights to the NFL”, Kevin Clark, The Ringer (10/23/2019)

TOB: Really good read. Here’s my favorite point:

There are about 20 times more high school athletic programs in the state of Florida than there are teams in the NFL, so it stands to reason, due to sheer probability, that there are many high school coaches who might be better equipped than those currently coaching in the NFL. Essentially, the NFL has been closed off from the lower levels of football. There’s no law that says NFL coaches must have the smartest schemes—far from it—and opening the sport up to minds from lower levels can help foster innovation in the professional ranks.

Especially when you are talking coordinators whose main job is to strategize (as opposed to position coaches you need helping with technique), limiting your pool of coaches to former NFL players is crazy. There are thousands of football coaches across the country, and any smart coach would expand his search to include them, in order to find the best.

Umpires Favor American-Born Players; Bring on RoboUmps!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I am ready for RoboUmps. In Wednesday night’s Game 2, I saw the game affected by some bad calls at the plate. The ump, who was being picked up on a mic all game, was not picking up pitches at the bottom of the strike zone. Pitchers for both teams were painting the lower edge, and the ump was missing them. The game turned into a 12-3 laugher late, but it was 2-2 after 6, and every pitch was important. Why are we still doing this, I thought?

And then after the game I saw this tweet.


If true, this is bad. Umpires are, likely subconsciously, biased against players not born in the U.S. and adjusting the strike zone accordingly, with an effect about half that as exists for home teams vs. away teams. I found this article, from way back in 2013, suggesting that the home team advantage is 2.5% but that it increases in high leverage situations (late and close games). So, figure it’s about a 1.5% bias in favor of American-born players and against foreign-born players. That’s not huge, but it’s too much, and I’d love to see the data by umpire; I am guessing there are a few bad apples. But again I thought: why are we still doing this?

Please, give me RoboUmps. -TOB

PAL: What’s the goal here? I’m assuming TOB’s is to achieve 100% accuracy in the calling balls and strikes and to remove any type of bias (subconscious or otherwise) from the calling of balls and strikes. Does this then extend to all calls related to the game? 

The human umpire adds a dimension to a hobby that makes it more compelling in my view. However, we still ought to seek improvement, and to do so we should examine all variables in this equation. Chris Long mentions the variable of country of birth of the batter, of the pitcher (no impact on calls), and I think you call out an important component – examining umpire variables to see any patterns or trends in the guys actually calling the balls and strikes.  

TOB: The issue is the perception of bias is there, and that’s a problem. Your comment that this is a “hobby” is wrong. It’s not a hobby. It’s a multi-billion dollar per year business and they should ensure they get things right. The entire business rests on the perception that the game is fair – that’s why they take player gambling so seriously. If fans lose faith in the integrity of the game, they stop paying to watch.

So, yes – I want to get things 100% correct, if possible. And if we can’t, I want to improve where we can. The umpire will still be there, making the calls. He’ll just have a signal of what to call on balls and strikes alone. Frankly, I don’t get the resistance. Doing something one way because that’s the way we’ve always done it is not a good enough reason. The game was invented nearly 200 years ago and the roots are deeper than that. It was invented before airplanes. And automobiles. Phones, even. The world has changed a lot. If they had the technology back then, they’d have used it. We do now, and we should. 

PAL: Don’t know what to tell you, other than baseball is a hobby of mine. I don’t know how one can argue the contrary. And the multi-billion dollar per year business is dependent upon its entertainment value to me and millions of other people who like to watch baseball as a hobby.  To watch a game with umpires relaying automated calls would sterilize the experience. Room for interpretation is great for entertainment and lore. Mistakes make for better stories. Sure, sometimes those stories might make for painful memories, but the stories are no doubt more compelling and better long-term for the game. 

TOB: I can’t say you’re wrong – but I can say I suspect it would not take you and others long to get used to it. We use instant replay in all major sports now, and that’s much more of a disruption to the game than this would be. For the most part, people like instant replay – they want to get the calls right, and they accept that disruption, and the removal of human error. I think the same would quickly happen with balls and strikes.

PAL: To borrow a phrase from Dan Patrick, it’s not called instant replay any more – just replay. Most people like instant replay? For real? Seems like a complete c.f. in football, and they still don’t get it right. I can’t stand it in baseball.

TOB: Take away instant replay and see what fans think. People would freak out.

Once, Twice, Three Times a Moron

Seriously, what bizarro world are we living in? The World Series (you may have heard that baseball is a hobby of mine) is in full swing and I’m posting two – two – NFL articles. This one simply had to be shared.

The Patriots embarrassed the Jets on Monday night, 330-0. I mean, 33-0. There was one moment in the snoozefest that rewarded the five people still in the stands and the 9 people still watching on TV. 

The Pats lined up to punt from the Jets 33 yard-line on a fourth & two with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. In order to give his punter a bit more space to work with, Belichick took a delay of game, which also ran down the game clock down. Jets psychopath coach Adam Gase, not knowing when to just curl up in a ball, cover the head, and take the beating, declined the delay of game penalty. 

The play clock – and the game clock – started again. Again the Pats let the clock run down, and with two seconds left on the play clock, they intentionally jumped for a false start penalty. Gase declines again. Play clock resets. Game clock counts down. In all, the Pats killed about 70 seconds, helped preserve a shutout, and reminded everyone that Belichik has inspected every particle of football dust. – PAL 

Source: Bill Belichick Delights In Tormenting The Hapless Jets”, Chris Thompson, Deadspin (10/22/19)

One of the Funniest Things I’ve Read in a While

I can’t stop reading this, and I can’t stop laughing.

Yes, that is Cy Young, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, attempting a bit of a comeback, at age 67, playing with and against a bunch of teenagers. And that is Cy Young getting run off the mound because they realized the old man could no longer bend over to field a bunt. So those god damn kids bunted right at him, over and over, until Cy Friggin Young had to be yanked from the game. Perfection. *muah* -TOB

PAL: Is this real?  You missed the best part: Cy Young was sent to the showers by “[t]he freckle-faced 14-year-old manager”. Hilarious.

Video of the Week

Three videos from the Wide World of Sports:

Tweets of the Week

Song of the Week: J.S. Ondara – “Lebanon”, C/O Jamie Morganstern

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Mr. Scott, who is this other woman, Ryan, who you refer to as “just as hot as Jan, but in a different way”?

-Diane Kelly, Esq.

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