Rants to High Heaven

Because this site traffics in both sports talk and sports talk talk, the passing of one of the legendary sports talkers of our time merits note. This morning, Paul Finebaum posted a farewell message to Phyllis from Mulga, who is in the pantheon of sports-talk radio callers and the author of truly compelling rants, including a hall-of-fame composition back in 2013 that merited special mention in these pages. If you’re going to tell the truth, then you’ve got to tell the truth: there are no Cowturds in heaven, Phyllis.


A note on rants


Rays of Offense, Clouds in Detroit?

Our quizzically titled series examining the comparative stature of the 2023 Detroit Tigers continues today with a quick look at the offense. The above-referenced prompt for this focal selection is the sort of remarkable occurrence that follows a remarkable team record; in this case, the Tampa Bay Rays’ 25-6 mark to start the season. (That sixth loss, which came on Sunday to the Chicago White Sox, itself is noteworthy to Detroit fans, who surely have been recalling the 1984 Tigers’ record-setting 35-5 opening pace.) Detroit’s sub-middling 12-17 record portends lower offensive rankings for their players, and that’s exactly what we find.

As with the overall player-performance leaderboard, the results here are fairly grim. While the Rays’ roster includes six of the top twenty-five batters according to weighted runs created plus (wRC+), the Tigers don’t even have a single hitter in the current top one hundred hitters by that metric.* If you read last month’s article, you probably will guess, correctly, it’s Matt Vierling leading the way. His 112 wRC+ is good enough for 106th place on the list. Eric Haase (108 wRC+, 114th) and Kerry Carpenter (104 wRC+, 127th) are the only other Tigers who have hit at an above-average level so far in 2023, and it’s a big dropoff after Carpenter, with Riley Greene checking in at 205th place with his 78 wRC+.

Viewed as a whole, the Tigers actually are not the worst team by wRC+, with the Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Royals managing to get lower than Detroit’s 80 wRC+ team mark. Mitigating whatever silver lining of marginal upside that status might thus far provide, however, is the fact that the Tigers have scored the fewest runs of any MLB team, albeit in fewer games played than any other team.

We clearly are scraping the barrel here, so I’m going to stop now. At this moment, the Tigers are just underway against the visiting New York Mets and their new starter, Justin Verlander. Detroit is hoping for a repeat of yesterday’s modest drubbing of the Mets’ Max Scherzer, and early returns– a 2-0 lead thanks to back-to-back homers from Greene and Javier Baez– look promising.

* MLB Network, which created the Rays graphic reproduced at top, failed to disclose therein that these rankings only hold using a lower-than-expected threshold for minimum plate appearances. For comparison, limiting the list to qualified batters places just three Rays in the top twenty-five. I was able to replicate MLBN’s results by dropping the minimum plate appearances to seventy.


Do the 2023 Detroit Tigers have the worst MLB players?

Baseball’s Pitch Clock Has Transformed Game Length—and Not Just in the Obvious Way (via The Ringer)

Fans who follow baseball closely, and a good many people who don’t, know that the pitch clock has cut almost half an hour off the average MLB game time this year. What may be even more remarkable, though not nearly as widely remarked on, is how alike in length this year’s games have been. April 25’s 15 contests included close games and lopsided games, shutouts and slugfests. But there weren’t any extra-long games that were balanced out by a bunch of extra-short ones. Only 36 minutes separated the longest game (2:52) from the shortest game (2:16). Every East Coast game was over before 10 p.m. ET, and every West Coast game ended shortly before 12:30 a.m. ET. On that night, you could almost set your watch to baseball—traditionally, and either famously or infamously, the sport with the most malleable, variable approach to time.

April 25 was one day, but that predictable pattern is pretty representative of this season as a whole. Most of the pitch-clock headlines have, understandably, been about the total time saved relative to last year: At this rate, over a 2,430-game regular season, MLB will have trimmed more than 68,000 minutes, 1,130 hours, or 47 days of hitters lollygagging in and out of the batter’s box and pitchers either staring into space or peering in at signs for the pitches they’d eventually get around to throwing. But the games aren’t just shorter than the ones MLB fans had grudgingly become accustomed to. They’re also significantly more uniform in duration. And even more than the reduction in average game length, it’s the reduced variation in game length that has truly transformed the sport into something unseen in living memory.

Baseball’s trademark refusal to stick to a timetable has long been a source of delight or a source of frustration, depending on the observer. In 1971, Roger Angell wrote, “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Eight years later, Herb Caen expressed the same concept a little less lyrically and romantically: “The clock doesn’t matter in baseball. Time stands still or moves backward. Theoretically, one game could go on forever. Some seem to.” … Read More

(via The Ringer)

Do the 2023 Detroit Tigers have the worst MLB players?

It is early in the 2023 MLB season. Very early. Less-than-two-weeks-in early. Not-even-ten-games-played early. Additionally, I take no pleasure in writing what you’re reading, because it is not good news, and because it now is nearly almost-astonishingly early in the 2023 MLB season.

On the other hand, if the thing I was writing was good news, I might not qualify it or hesitate to write about it or share it with the many manys of readers of this website. If the 2023 Detroit Tigers were so extremely separating themselves from the MLB pack in such a singular– but also good– fashion, you would be reading about it here, and you would want to be reading about it here. This is that, but the bad version.

By way of substantive introduction, Detroit does not have the worst record in baseball. They’re very close to having the worst record, and the reason they don’t have the worst record is at least partially circumstantial. The Tigers are tied with the Oakland A’s for the fewest wins (two apiece), but the A’s have played– and lost– one more game than has Detroit. Oakland seems to have better players than Detroit, though, at least if you grant any credence to FanGraphs wins above replacement as a reasonable general indicator of player performance. According to that metric, Kyle Muller, Ryan Noda, and Zach Jackson each have contributed more to the A’s than any player has contributed to the Tigers.

Considering the fact that, by fWAR, the Tigers’ best player so far in 2023 has been Matt Vierling, and further considering that Vierling is by that same measure the 258th-best player in baseball this season, it isn’t that surprising that another team might have multiple players who have been better than the Tigers’ best player. Nor probably is it surprising that more teams than just Oakland would, so far, have multiple players better than the Tigers’ best player. Maybe it’s mildly surprising that every other team in baseball has multiple players who rank higher than the Tigers’ best player on the fWAR leaderboard, but you probably figured that’s where this was going to end up.

Vierling, in case you never heard of him before two weeks ago, was a fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame by the Philadelphia Phillies, for which he debuted in 2021. In thirty-four games that season, he hit .346/.364/.479 and played first base and outfield. In 117 games in 2022, he hit .297/.351/.648 and played all over the field. On January 7, 2023, the Phillies sent him to Detroit along with Nick Maton and Donny Sands in exchange for Gregory Soto and Kody Clemens. Vierling played especially well in the Tigers’ two wins this season, both of which came on the road against the defending-champion Houston Astros. In those two games, he had six hits, including a home run and a double, a walk, and three RBI. In the rest of the games, he has a total of two hits (both singles) and one walk.

The Tigers are back on the road tonight in Toronto and Vierling is back in the starting lineup, hitting third. The A’s are in Baltimore with Muller scheduled as the starting pitcher and Noda hitting second.

Foreign College Basketball Stars Are Missing Out on Endorsement Money Due to Visa Rules (via Reason)

The NCAA used to bar all college athletes from making money off their names, images, and likenesses. But since a 2021 rule change, they have been eligible to earn money through endorsement deals, social media activity, and paid appearances. The NCAA had long viewed college athletes as amateurs, but the policy change—quite sensibly—recognized that students deserved to be paid as professionals. In the first year of name, image, and likeness arrangements, Opendorse, a technological platform for these deals, estimated that college athletes made $917 million. Three-quarters of all NCAA athletes had engaged in the market from July 2021 to July 2022.

But international students largely operate in “a gray zone” in American immigration law when it comes to endorsements, says James Hollis, an immigration attorney at Siskind Susser, PC who has previously advised professional sports organizations on visa matters. “Students, schools, and their lawyers are all operating within the standard student visa framework,” Hollis tells Reason. College athletes are largely in the U.S. on F-1 visas, which place tough restrictions on work. “The student visa rules say that student athletes can work part time on campus, can work if authorized as part of the curriculum…and can work after one academic year if they can demonstrate they’re experiencing economic hardship,” says Hollis.

None of that fits neatly into the name, image, and likeness apparatus. “Some foreign student athletes have been able to obtain O-1 extraordinary ability visas authorizing them to work, study, and compete,” says Hollis. Others have arranged completely “passive deals where they receive income but do nothing that could be considered work while in the United States.” According to Hollis, “the safest path has been to sign deals and then do the work to promote the NIL [name, image, and likeness] content” strictly while outside the United States.

Two years after the NCAA rule change, the Biden administration still hasn’t offered definitive guidance that would allow foreign college athletes to make money like their native-born peers. On a more basic level, this leaves foreign athletes wondering whether certain activities might be violations of their student visa terms.

According to ESPN, just one of the eight teams that played in the men’s and women’s Final Fours didn’t have at least one international student player. UConn has four. Per the NCAA, “roughly one out of every eight athletes across all Division I sports is from a foreign country,” leaving a gaping hole in the system that allows student-athletes to sign often lucrative sponsorship deals. Visa term violations can be dire—potentially as severe as deportation….Read More

(via Reason)


The NCAA’s response to Georgia’s new NIL law reveals the emperor’s new clothes

Shorter Jam

The default mindset when it comes to jams is the longer the better, but, today, we must mark the inevitable planetary departure of Wayne Shorter, a pillar from the most creatively dynamic period in the history of jazz. Even as I recall his headlining set at the first Duke Ellington Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C., it still seems impossible that among us might walk giants. Shorter’s catalogue and contributions are tall and wide, but, here at ALDLAND, we play the hits. You heard it as soon as you heard the news, and it’s this week’s Jam:

Real Judge Takes Roger Goodell’s Real Badge; The Commissioner Strikes Back?

Two years ago, in the context of the then-emerging conversation about compensation based on college athletes’ names, images, and likenesses (“NIL”), I wrote something that should have been uncontroversial:

It’s easy to forget that athletics organizing entities, and especially in light of their popularity and rhetoric the NCAA, NFL, and MLB, do not act and regulate their respective sports with the force of actual law. (In fact, they in some sense operate outside the law thanks to formal and informal antitrust exemptions.) During baseball’s meltdown over Barry Bonds’ superhuman ascension in the early aughts, you could be forgiven if you weren’t sure whether steroids were illegal illegal or merely MLB “illegal.” The NFL also has done an effective job of coopting this officious language into its in-sport vernacular as well (e.g., “illegal touching” having quite different meanings on and off the field). All of these groups have “committees” that issue “rules” and “regulations” just like real government agencies!

In other words, try as they sometimes might to convince us otherwise, sports-organizing bodies are not the literal government.

That didn’t stop Roger Goodell from trying, though.

In the leadup to Super Bowl LVII, held this past Sunday on a public golf course in Glendale, Arizona, the City of Phoenix, probably totally of their own accord and without any outside influence, suggestion, or pressure, established a downtown “Special Promotional and Civic Event area . . . to support events and activities related to Super Bowl LVII.” Within that area of town, the City granted the NFL the real, actual legal approval authority over signage or displays that might appear on private property. Move over, Peyton Manning; Goodell’s a real sheriff now!

Or at least he was. An owner of property inside the NFL Dictatorial Enclave sued and, days before the Super Bowl, prevailed in court: Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Bradley Astrowsky ruled that the establishment of the special zone was unconstitutional for multiple reasons, including because it impermissibly infringed on free-speech rights and was an improper delegation of government authority to the NFL.

Believing he was freed of his unwanted NFL overlords, that property owner, Bramley Paulin, was able to install signs on his property advertising some sort of hardware product. Success, right?

Hours later, in broad daylight and what Paulin called “an orchestrated event,” two men used a ladder to climb the fence around Paulin’s property, removed his signs, and left with them in their truck.

Was this a covert NFL censureship operation by extrajudicial means? Paulin filed a report with the Phoenix Police Department, but will the municipality Paulin just beat in court investigate vigorously? Was the breaching of Paulin’s fence especially bad press for the MAXguard, the fence-related hardware Paulin apparently was attempting to advertise? You have the facts, now you be the judge. Or Judge Astrowsky can be the judge. It probably makes more sense that he be the judge.


The NCAA’s response to Georgia’s new NIL law reveals the emperor’s new clothes
Erin Andrews says the NFL enforces an in-game press embargo
Jonathan Vilma’s response to his one-year suspension
Buy a share of the Green Bay Packers, sit down, and shut your mouth (and your wallet)
Why is Roger Goodell carrying water for the NCAA?

Reining in the Moneyball Revolution’s Chief Excess, Twenty Years Later

What was the point of Moneyball? Nerds said on-base percentage is better than batting average and were technically correct on that narrow point? The real answer, of course, is that cheap owners‘ teams still can win by excelling at identifying and exploiting budget-friendly market inefficiencies. But when Brad Pitt says “on-base percentage is all we’re looking at now,” people tend to focus on that part and forget the rest.

Reaching base, however a player does it, is good, and counting only some ways players reach base necessarily misses relevant data points. By including walks and hits-by-pitch (“hit-by-pitches”?), on-base percentage (“OBP”) does paint a more complete picture of a baseball player’s offensive production than does batting average (“BA”), which only counts hits. The responsive inclination to look first to OBP rather than the traditional go-to, BA, thus is understandable.

Those comfortable with taking this new step, especially the early OBP adopters, often did so zealously and callously, even as they cloaked themselves in the mantle of measured reason. And when they did so, they very often took a second step: banishment of BA. Elevation of OBP was not enough; BA, the very embodiment of the old and impure way of thinking, must be cast out.

For the SABR revolutionaries, like not a few revolutionaries before them and to mix corporeal metaphors, that second step proved to be something of an overreach. As it turns out, the ancients were in fact onto something with BA, and there was something in that something that deserved to be conserved and carried forward through the revolutionary wave. BA, Eli Ben-Porat writes, not only deserves its place in baseball’s basic offensive statistic trinity– the Triple Slash Line of BA/OBP/SLG– but is the only component that actually belongs there.

As Ben-Porat explained over the weekend: “Dismissing batting average, in this author’s view, is just plain wrong. It is statistically significant in terms of predicting team runs, and on a per point basis, the most impactful component of” the building blocks of the triple slash line. After all, BA is a big part of both OBP and slugging percentage (“SLG”). And because of the way OBP weighs walks relative to hits, it can obscure the value of the offensive production it presents; in other words, not all OBPs are created equal. To Billy Beane’s point, it is important to account for a batter’s walks, but a hit– even a single– is better than a walk. Two players thus could post identical OBPs but have gotten there in much different fashion. Dumping BA would mask the real significance of a light-hitting, ball-taking batter’s empty OBP that matched the same mark of a more balanced player who hit more than he walked. Ben-Porat shows both that BA still matters and that presenting OBP without BA really makes the former less useful.

Whether Ben-Porat’s proposed adoption of an even more elemental triple slash line that omits the BA components of OBP and SLG and leaves the remainders (i.e., BA/BB%/ISO) catches on is another question. For now, rest with the satisfaction that you aren’t wrong to not get irritated when you see a player’s BA displayed during an upcoming MLB telecast.


Why I’m not going to see Moneyball
Baseball Notes: Offensive Discrimination
Window Shopping: Ian Kinsler’s Walking, Not Running
Trout vs. Cabrera, and Aging with DRC+

Vanderbilt Basketball’s Abyss Stepback

A week ago, we were here wondering whether the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team had, at least in its current construction, terminally cratered. We “hope,” I wrote, this “will be its nadir.” The offending event, the school’s third-worst loss ever and worst in twenty years, felt fundamental, essential, and irredeemable. The big-time coach with the small-time record sounded like he was firing himself.

Since then, things for the Commodores hardly could have gone better, at least relatively speaking. Two home conference games in magic Memorial Gym. Two wins.

To call the first a get-right game against middling Ole Miss obscures the depths from which the team necessarily climbed to claim that victory and falsely implies a level of predicate rightness that simply did not exist. Still, it’s like when you’re standing on the South Pole: any step you take in any direction is a step north.

The second was satisfying, affirming, and, for Stackhouse, likely job-saving:

It speaks for itself, as does Tennessee’s record as a top-ten ranked team in Nashville, where the Volunteers are winless in regulation.

There’s no firm basis to believe that these two wins constitute building blocks toward an imminent future of sustained success. It sure is better than losing, though.


The #StackhouseEra on Life Support in Tuscaloosa

The #StackhouseEra on Life Support in Tuscaloosa

Following the departure after the 2015-16 season of the longest-tenured coach in its program’s history, Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt’s men’s basketball team turned for his replacement to a celebrated former player.

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