Frank Deford’s final public words

Almost fifteen years ago, I attended a public lecture by Frank Deford, who applied his winding wit and signature vocal timbre to the athletic matters of the day: drugs, collegiate sports, and, of course, soccer culture, his great nemesis. At that time, in the fall of 2004, I probably was as far as I have been from the person who would later start a sports-focused website, but I knew well Deford’s voice through his NPR essays, which he began delivering in 1980, and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to meet one of the greats in person. Knowing him only from his radio work, Deford’s striking physical presence, upon seeing him for the first time, immediately both impressed and made exact sense; the vocal and corporeal likely never have been more perfectly combined.

His authority in the field was obvious, but it wasn’t until later that I would discover the source of that authority: his print work, including a trove of articles for Sports Illustrated, where he started after graduating from Princeton in 1962, and, arguably even more influentially, his role as editor-in-chief of The National Sports Daily, the forefather to the more recently revered Grantland. Deford also wrote for Vanity Fair and Newsweek, produced novels and screenplays, and contributed to CNN and HBO’s Real Sports.    Continue reading

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Why I don’t gamble on sports, ep. 37

I don’t shy away from writing about sports wagering. I think it should be legal, and I expect it will be as soon as the major sports leagues want it to be legal, which I suspect they will sooner rather than later. The leagues already have a taste of that sweet gambling coin, and they’re going to want more of it once their over-leveraged insurers (i.e., the sports-broadcasting networks) go belly-up and no one can or will pay the exorbitant broadcast-rights fees that fund the owners’ and players’ ballooning salaries.

That’s all speculation, of course, but I’m certain of this: I am not good at betting on sporting events. I know this from personal experience, a bit of which I have detailed here and displayed elsewhere. Unlike my favorite comedian, Norm Macdonald, who has lost all his money three times in pursuit of the thrill of sports betting, the alleged excitement of gambling never has captured me emotionally, and my experiences, which serve as mental reminders that staying away is the right move, have exacted minimal financial cost.

Typically, I keep these little reminders– like my embarrassingly low ESPN Streak for the Cash winning percentage– to myself. Sometimes, though, they’re too perfect not to share:

Good luck out there.

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Related
Lose money playing DraftKings or FanDuel? File a lawsuit.MLB Rule 21(d)
The Invaders: A racetrack, a killing, and the history of organized crime in Hot Springs, Arkansas (via Grantland)
This is what is right with Grantland
Text messaging competitions: Non-sports vs. no sports

Bill Simmons launches new site with help from Tom Izzo

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Bill Simmons is back. The Sports Guy’s post-Grantland project, The Ringer, launched today. Although the site has had a social media presence for a few weeks (and Simmons’ now-eponymous podcast returned before that), action really got underway this morning, when Simmons publicly announced a number of the new website’s hires, and continued this afternoon, when he released the site’s first email newsletter.

The newsletter is The Ringer’s first substantive textual offering. It begins with a Simmons monologue on the name-selecting process for the new project, followed by a timely NCAA tournament article that leads with a nice picture of Tom Izzo and Denzel Valentine. (Bold prediction contained therein: “Sparty is going to be a tough out.”)

After that comes a Game of Thrones season preview, because this is the internet, after all, and the newsletter closes with a list of the three best-dressed people on Billions, which I just used Google to learn is another television show.

If The Ringer is reminding you of Grantland, that could be because of the substantial overlap in the two sites’ subject areas– basketball and premium-network television– and staff– including Katie Baker, Jason Concepcion (@netw3rk), and Brian Curtis. Tracking the similarities between The Ringer and Grantland will be both easy and less interesting than noting the differences, which are what could show us what, if anything, Simmons learned from his last venture.

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We’ll check back in once things have been up and running for a little while. In the meantime, here’s hoping BS can bring the following Grantland alums back into the fold: Brian Phillips, Rembert Browne, Mark Titus, Louisa Thomas, Charles Pierce, Chuck Klosterman, and Norm Macdonald.

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Related
Writing about writing about writing: Grantland

The Ghost of Grantland Past

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ESPN reports:

Effective immediately we are suspending the publication of Grantland.  After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.

Grantland distinguished itself with quality writing, smart ideas, original thinking and fun.  We are grateful to those who made it so.  Bill Simmons was passionately committed to the site and proved to be an outstanding editor with a real eye for talent.  Thanks to all the other writers, editors and staff who worked very hard to create content with an identifiable sensibility and consistent intelligence and quality. We also extend our thanks to Chris Connelly who stepped in to help us maintain the site these past five months as he returns to his prior role.

Despite this change, the legacy of smart long-form sports story-telling and innovative short form video content will continue, finding a home on many of our other ESPN platforms.

Certainly not the Halloween surprise anyone who has enjoyed the talented collection of writing, podcasting, and video production that site has produced since it launched in 2011 wanted to see.

Veterans Affairs: The Uneasy Marriage of Military Money and the NFL (via Grantland)

patriotsAll of sports is a pageant. All sports are, in their own way, propaganda. They create a self-contained ecosystem within which people are convinced to vest themselves — emotionally in their teams, and economically in the various corporate partners with which the institutions of sports have allied themselves. It is a universe of cognitive manipulation that has grown thicker and more complex as the media has changed and accelerated. This is fine for selling beer and shoes and expensive automobiles. It should not be used to sell the idea of military service, and it should not be used to create a false iconography of vicarious heroism for the folks in Section 444.

Most veterans you will see on the field in an NFL stadium, or standing on top of a dugout between innings, are genuinely worthy of the country’s admiration. They’ve earned every cheer they get. They also have earned decent health care and a chance at an education and whatever counseling they need to get beyond what they’ve experienced. What they don’t deserve to be are front people through whom the rich get richer, to be walking advertisements for the services that they already have paid back in full. This is a transaction grotesquely inappropriate for their sacrifices. … Read More

(via Grantland)

If he could do it again, Chris Webber would have gone to Michigan State?

The strong implication of Chris Webber’s comments on this morning’s Dan Patrick Show is that, if he could begin his basketball career again, he would have accepted Tom Izzo’s offer to become a Michigan State Spartan:

Continue reading

The moral implications of StatCast

moralitycastIf your neighborhood baseball nerd is nerding out a little more than usual today, it’s probably because Pluto’s in retrograde right now or something, and it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with tonight’s television broadcast debut of StatCast, which will go far beyond showing balls and strikes by tracking things like player movements and batted-ball data. Ben Lindbergh has a good preview of the technology and its chief implications for expanded baseball analysis here.   Continue reading

Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers

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Early in Victor Martinez’s career-renaissance season, that being the 2014 Major League Baseball season, I expounded– in a manner so brief it likely took less time to read than the length of an average Martinez plate appearance– upon one component of the (i.e., Rod Allen’s, colloquially) notion of Martinez as a “professional hitter”: Martinez’s ability to extend his plate appearances. I contended that one of the team benefits of Martinez’s approach is that it pushes pitchers to reveal more of their arsenal earlier in the game.

In looking for general evidence of this beneficiary concept by inverting the point of focus from hitters to pitchers, I found Ben Lindbergh’s recent analysis of pitcher performance. The broad, basic point: within a game, pitchers perform worse each subsequent time they face a batter.

pitchingthroughtheorderThus, if batters benefit from increased exposure to a pitcher, it would seem to make sense that, assuming they’re paying attention in the dugout, Martinez’s teammates would benefit further from the disproportionately lengthy plate appearances Martinez induces. Lindbergh’s conclusion confirms this:

The times-facing-hitter penalty isn’t as much a fatigue effect as it is a familiarity effect that compounds as hitters have time to study their prey.

(His article goes on to discuss pitchers’ attempts to strike back against this trend.)

While many will be watching Martinez for the wrong reasons this season, keep an eye on him and his ilk to see whether they can continue to help their teammates in secondary ways, regardless of what happens to their own primary production.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?
Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview

There’s no such thing as advanced sports statistics

While “advanced statistics” are well-ensconced in the baseball world, they are still in fairly nascent stages in the faster-paced worlds of hockey and basketball. For two reasons, baseball is particularly well-suited for this so-called “advanced” analysis: 1) play essentially consists of discrete, one-on-one interactions and 2) a season is long enough to permit the accumulation of a statistically significant number of these interactions, from which meaningful trends can be derived. Hockey lacks both of these characteristics. It’s a fluid sport that rarely features isolated, one-on-one interactions, and numbers people say that the amount of compilable events during an NHL season, which is half as long as a MLB season, are too few to allow for statistical normalization. In other words, the sample size is too small.

Lee Panas’ book on advanced baseball statistics, Beyond Batting Average, which I began reading earlier this year, begins with the deceptively helpful reminder that “[w]ins and losses are indeed what matter.” Statistical data helps to understand why teams won or lost and whether and how they might win or lose in the future.

In the hockey world, advanced statistics, in general, aren’t too advanced just yet, at least when compared with the baseball sabermetric world. At present, the central concept is that, because goals– an obvious leading indicator of success (i.e., wins)– are too rare to be statistically useful, advanced hockey statistics orient themselves around possession. Because it is somewhat difficult, from a practical standpoint, to measure time of possession with useful precision, however, the leading metrics, known as Corsi and Fenwick, simply track those things a player and his team can do only when they possess the puck, which essentially amounts to shooting it.

If you prefer an expert with a more conversational style, here’s Grantland’s Sean McIndoeContinue reading

Bouncing puck: Passing, not shooting, is the key to scoring on the ice and the hardcourt

At 37-8, the once-middling Atlanta Hawks have the second-best record in the NBA. If they beat Brooklyn tonight, they’ll match last season’s win total with more than two months to go in the regular season. Did anyone see this coming? Yes, last year’s Hawks snuck into the playoffs and nearly knocked off the top-seeded Indiana Pacers. And observers should have noted the significant number of games the Hawks’ top players missed due to injuries last season; a healthy team couldn’t help but be better. But this much better? The most important difference seems to be a new coach, former Greg Popovich understudy Mike Budenholzer, who knows how to utilize the players he has, and a group of players that is on board with and executing their brand of team-oriented basketball.

Indeed, as numerous writers have observed,* Atlanta is scoring more by passing more. They have the fourth-best field-goal percentage, and of those field goals they make, more than sixty percent of the two-pointers and nearly ninety-three percent of the threes are assisted. Both of those rates lead the NBA. Behind them: the equally high-flying Warriors, the only team with a better record (36-7).

The principle that passing, rather than isolation play, is the best way to generate good shooting in the NBA also seems to apply in the NHL, where new research indicates that teams generally score at a higher rate on assisted shots as compared to unassisted shots. When further breaking down the assisted shooting percentage into shots generated by one pass and shots generated by two passes, the difference between assisted and unassisted shooting percentage can be extreme. One example is the Florida Panthers, with an unassisted shooting percentage of about 5.5% and a two-pass assisted shooting percentage of nearly thirteen percent.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that similar strategies would be similarly effective in generally similar sports (five active players per team engaged in free-flowing gameplay). With camera-driven player-tracking technology recently implemented in the NBA and on its way to the NHL, perhaps the rudimentary analogy set forth above can serve as a call for inter-sport collaboration between basketball and hockey analysts.

* Blogger code for, “I can’t find the article I previously read that made my precise point, so get ready for me to wave my hands over the raw data and hope you’ll buy the general premise.”