Feels like yesterday, doesn’t it?
Sports Research Rabbit Holes
You ever get into an internet rabbit hole? I found myself in one this week, and I found out something pretty interesting. I was reading this Ringer article on Markelle Fultz, who was diagnosed this week with thoracic outlet syndrome (TOC). TOC is a situation where the the gap between the collarbone and the first rib begins to shrink, usually due to repetitive motion (like pitching a baseball), thus pinching nerves and blood vessels specifically nerves and major blood vessels that pass through that gap. This happens to pitchers fairly often, recently to Matt Harvey. It’s pretty rare to happen in basketball, and Fultz hopes this explains his odd shooting mechanics over the last fifteen months.
That’s all pretty interesting, but here’s where I found my rabbit hole. The Ringer article mentioned an Astros pitcher named J.R. Richard. Richard had TOC and it caused him to suffer a stroke in 1980. He nearly died and never pitched again, and was even homeless for a while. He was only 30 when his career ended. Now, I’d like to think I’m a pretty big baseball fan, and I have a good memory when it comes to sports trivia, but I had never heard of J.R. Richard. So I looked him up.
The man was coming off back to back seasons of 300+ strikeouts (in which he finished 3rd and 4th in the Cy Young voting), and before his stroke in 1980, he was on pace to do so again. He also had an ERA+ of 174 and a FIP of 1.94, both of which are extremely excellent. As I gazed in wonder at these numbers I thought, “Wait, wasn’t Nolan Ryan on the Astros by 1980, as well?”
Oh, yes. He was. It was his first year with the team, and within a couple years they’d add Mike Scott. What a rotation that would have been.
So then I started wondering how baseball history might have changed if Richard doesn’t get TOC/have a stroke. In 1980, after he went down, they won 93 games and the NL West, but lost the deciding game of the best-of-five NLCS to the Phillies, 8-7 in extra innings. Nolan pitched Games 2 and 5. What if Richard had been there to pitch Game 4, which the Astros lost 5-3? The difference in that entire series was 1 run – the Phillies outscored the Astros 20-19. The Phillies went on to win that World Series easily, 4-2, over the Royals. Stick with me here, it’s about to get weird.
Then, in 1981, the Astros narrowly lost out on another shot. From Wikpedia:
Due to the players’ strike, which ran from June 12 to August 8, the 1981 season was split into two halves, with the first-place teams from each half in each division (or a wild card team if the same club won both halves) meeting in a best-of-five divisional playoff series. The four survivors would then move on to the two best-of-five League Championship Series. The expanded playoffs led to Game 1 of the World Series being pushed back to October 20, the latest starting date for a Fall Classic up to that time.
In the National League, the Dodgers led the National League West prior to the strike. The Houston Astros, however, won the second-half division title. The Dodgers then defeated the Astros, three games to two, in the National League Division Series before beating the Montreal Expos, three games to two, in the National League Championship Series.
The Yankees, who led the American League East in the season’s first half, took on the Milwaukee Brewers, winners of the second half division title, in the American League Division Series. New York was victorious three games to two, then went on to sweep the Oakland Athletics in the American League Championship Series.
The split-season decision was not a popular one, both among teams and their fans. The arrangement resulted in teams with the best overall record in either their division or league that year, in particular the Cincinnati Reds (the majors’ best team with 66 wins, 42 losses), being left out of the postseason along with the St. Louis Cardinals which lead the NL East with an overall record of 59-43 and a winning percentage of 0.578. Though the teams with the best record in the American League East and West did win their divisions, the Yankees finished 3rd overall in the AL East while the Kansas City Royals finished 4th overall with a losing 50-53 record
WHAT. How did I not know about this? And here’s the kicker: I suffered the same fate!
When I was in majors in Little League, for some reason our league did this exact set up each season. There was a first half winner and a second half winner and they met in a one-game league championship. I was on the Giants. My 11-year old season we had a really good team. We started the season hot, but lost a game we shouldn’t have and then lost to (I believe) the Cubs on the last day of the first half, and I believe we finished 7-2. The Cubs won the first half in a tiebreaker, as they were also 7-2. Then, in the second half, we lost to (I believe) the Rangers, finishing at 8-1, but the Rangers went undefeated in the second half at 9-0. So we were out of the playoffs even though we had the best (or maybe tied for the best?) record.
Yes, I still remember these ridiculous details 25-years later, and yes I am still bitter about it. Heck, we were outraged! I always wondered who the heck came up with that damn format, and now I know: It was MLB! I blame you, Bowie Kuhn!
And that, kids, is how an article about Markelle Fultz explained one of my biggest personal sports disappointments. -TOB
Source: “What Baseball Can Tell Us About Markelle Fultz’s Latest Diagnosis”, Michael Baumann, The Ringer (12/4/2018); “From MLB To Homeless: J.R. Richard Tells His Story In ‘Still Throwing Heat’”, Bill Littlefield, WBUR.org (08/22/2015), J.R. Richard”, “1980 Astros”, “Nolan Ryan”, “Mike Scott” Baseball-Reference.com; “1980 NLCS”, “1980 World Series”, “1981 World Series”, “1981 Major League Baseball Strike”, “Bowie Kuhn”, Wikpedia.com
PAL: That’s just damn fun stuff, TOB. The rabbit hole is real. A part of me likes the season being broken up into halves like that. More teams with games that matter a bit more throughout the season.
TOB: Sure, but – the first half winners gets to take the second half easy and rest up for the playoffs. Apparently the adopted format for the 1981 season was not popular among teams and fans.
Good Traditions: Stealing Mascots
Last week I shared a story from former goalie Curtis ‘Cujo’ Joseph that felt like it was from the pages of a John Irving novel. This week, with the Army-Navy football game set for Saturday, I have mascot-stealing vignettes that could be from a Pat Conroy book.
There are college traditions that should stay in the past, but I hope the military academies over-the-top attempts to steal one another’s live mascots goes on forever. Dave Phillips runs through the history of the tradition, highlighting some of the more creative, bold, and downright insane attempts and successes.
Military historian Tom Carhart sums it up best, with a little latin in there for good measure.
“Motivated young men and women on the cusp of adulthood want a challenge. Stealing the mascot is the summum bonum. If you can capture that, there are no boundaries in life.”
Quick refresher of the mascots:
- Air Force Academy: Falcon
- West Point: Mule
- Naval Academy: Goat
Here’s my favorite heist story from the article, featuring Carhart on the mission of 1965:
Dressed in black with faces darkened by burned cork, he and five other Army cadets made it through two fences topped with barbed wire. Then, with the goat in sight, they froze as a Ford station wagon pulled up near the Marines guarding its pen. Two college-age women got out of the car.
“We had planned it all with our girlfriends,” Mr. Carhart said. “They told the Marines a story about how they were lost, and they’d been stood up on a blind date. I think one of them cried. We sneaked in to the goat pen, only 25 feet behind them all, but the guards never turned around. They were looking at the girls.”
That’s the good stuff. College was fun. – PAL
Source: “A Covert Coup for Cadets: Steal the Mascot”, Dave Phillips, The New York Times (12/06/2018)
TOB: But as the article notes, you better do your research before stealing a live animal:
Just last month, Aurora, a glacier-white gyrfalcon and mascot of the Air Force Academy, was abducted in the middle of the night, and nearly met a tragic end. The Army cadets who stole Aurora seem not to have known that the regal falcon is almost never caged. Even on commercial airline flights, she travels perched on a handler’s glove in the coach cabin. When the kidnappers stuffed her into a dog crate, Aurora panicked, and beat her wings frantically until they were bloody.
Lookout, Matt; Data’s Coming for the NHL
As anyone who watched the baseball playoffs this past year can attest, baseball is, now more than ever, a data-driven sport. Hell, they made a movie about baseball statistics, starring Brad Pitt. Technology and new data have already changed the game. New data is changing the way we monitor all sorts of athletic endeavors, but different sports create different challenges in gathering advantageous information about players, systems, and strategies. Whereas baseball is largely series isolated events separated by breaks in the game, basketball, soccer, and hockey are in continuous motion.
Tyler Dellow’s article is a good read because he explains how hockey, although well behind baseball in terms of data collection, is on the precipice of a new era in data, how that data will change the way teams play, the valuation of a player’s worth, and ultimately team success. The hockey version of Moneyball, or, Dellow’s would prefer the 2013-2014 Pittsburgh Pirates, hasn’t happened yet.
Here are a couple sections of his article that stuck out:
Historically, hockey leagues have tracked goals and assists. While that’s useful information, it’s not unlike runs and RBI in baseball: an attempt to hand out credit after the fact rather than tracking the building blocks of goals. Shot attempt data and expected goals models are helpful but there’s a huge issue with a lack of information about how the puck moved and where the non-shooting players were when the puck was shot. That’s the information that’s analogous to on-base percentage and slugging percentage in baseball.
Away from the ice, one of the real challenges of hockey is allocating credit or blame between players. This is particularly true when dealing with players who play with superstars – every partner Nicklas Lidstrom ever had posted great numbers – or players who are playing on particularly good or bad teams. The ability to better isolate what players are contributing away from their linemates will result in much better evaluations of players who are in unusual circumstances. This has the potential to be transformative, both in terms of player evaluation but particularly in terms of how players get paid.
This story is on The Athletic, so you have to have the service to read. I enjoyed it, but I also think you get the picture here. My main point is this: my brother, Matt, is a big hockey fan who bemoaned the state of baseball after watching the playoffs this year and the Twins firing of Paul Molitor, which was in part due to him not completely buying into data-driven approach to the game. I understand is displeasure, but make no mistake, Matt – the data wave is coming for hockey next. – PAL
Source: “The Next Generation of Data Will Drastically Change Our Perception of Players and How Organizations Operate”, Tyler Dellow, The Athletic (12/05/2018)
TOB: I am curious why the NHL has elected to go with radio chips instead
What’s the Matter With Kids These Days?
What is going on in college basketball? Why, back in my day Duke was the school for annoying, obnoxious dorks who fit the personality of their coach, Mike Krzyzewski – players like Christian Laettner, Steve Wojciechowski, JJ Reddick, Cherokee Parks, Jay Williams. Austin Rivers. Grayson Allen. The Plumlees. Ugh, even thinking of those guys is annoying. Duke was made for guys like that, and guys like that were made for Duke. It was a nice system – seasons pass and times change, but you could always count on a reliable sports-hate for Duke.
So what the heck is going on lately? This week, the #2 high school player in the country, Vernon Carey, committed to Duke. He seems cool and very good. The team is currently led by three freshman projected to go first, second, and fourth in next June’s NBA Draft – Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish. They are awesome. This comes off the heels of recent Duke players like Jayson Tatum, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram, Harry Giles, and Marvin Bagley.
Those guys are all cool and good and they had no business playing for Duke. They should have gone to Kansas, or Michigan, or Kentucky, or UCLA. When did the system break down? Has my generation failed to explain to the next one just how much Duke sucks? Apparently so.
As Vernon Carey said this week, the reason he chose Duke was Coach K. When did this flip? I pondered this for a bit, and I now blame Jerry Colangelo, who selected Coach K to coach Team USA since 2005. Coach K won three Olympic gold medals, led by guys like LeBron, Carmelo, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant. Suddenly, playing for Coach K is cool and that is terrible.Thanks a lot, Jerry. -TOB
Source: “Duke Lands a Recruiting Coup and a Critical Need for 2019 in Five-Star Vernon Carey Jr.”, Jeremy Woo, Sports Illustrated (12/06/2018)
PAL: I still remember standing in my parents basement watching Laettner hit that shot over Kentucky. My future brother-in-law and his college buddies were in town for a U2 concert at the Metrodome (how early 90s is that setup?), and we all hate watched that team. To hate Duke was an unspoken agreement. Interesting point on the impact of USA basketball, which leads me to a theory.
Alphas and guys who think they are really cool don’t want other really cool guys around them. They don’t like being challenged. Let’s say Cool Guy 1 is the best surfer in his little group of friends, then one day a new cool guy (Cool Guy 2) paddles out with them, and CG2 is a better surfer than CG1. CG1 hates that. CG1 doesn’t want CG2 around when he and his buddies surf; rather, CG1 wants the old surfer who’s been on this break for 30 years passing on locals-only advice and gnarly stories from decades of sessions and sets.
Cool Guys want to be around successful, cool people, but that success and coolness cannot be seen as more of the moment, equal or greater than their own. They aren’t looking for a co-pilot. They want the wise old, sneaky funny guy in the barbershop with real stories. They want a bass player, not a lead guitarist. Someone that is exceptional, but more than fine with being beside the spotlight. Coach K is crazy successful, but he’s not cool relative to LeBron, Kyrie, Carmelo, etc…or cool relative to anyone. He’s tough – people bring up he played for Bobby Knight at West Point seemingly every damn broadcast. He’s old school. Does it the “right way”. Of course LeBron and crew love him. And if they love him, so too will the five-star recruits.
Worth a mention:
- Per USA Today – Gayle Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, wrote a check for $93K to pay off all of the layaway at a WalMart in New Orleans. It was first reported as an anonymous customer, but the Saints confirmed the anonymous donor was Benson. A real Danson move if you ask me…
- SI’s Jack Dickey On the passing of President George H.W. Bush, his life as a sportsman, and the parallels between sports and politics: “The early obituaries were divided as to whether Bush had carried those values with him into Congress, the CIA, the Vice Presidency, the White House and his post-Presidency, or whether, out of political expediency, he had checked them at the door. Historians and the American public will have months and years to ponder, among other questions, whether his grace in defeat in 1992 at all mitigated the ruthlessness he displayed in victory in 1988. For all we celebrate about the character-building powers of sports, their cruelest lesson—winning matters most—can stick, too.”
Video of the Week:
Tweet of the Week
PAL Song of the Week: Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – “Rumors”
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