Sheldon Hirsch - July 21, 2015

In addition to riveting competition and great play, the 2015 NBA Finals stood out through the several misconceptions it spawned among many viewers.

The most prominent misconception was that the champion Golden State Warriors provided a blueprint for how basketball ought to be played henceforth: With small-ball and rampant 3-point shooting.

For sure, they ended the Finals with 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at center and sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson launched 3s throughout. But the leap from there to broad statements about the way teams ought to play reflects fondness for simple explanations, new "truths," and overemphasis on the most recent games and series.

An earlier round against Memphis demonstrated the flimsiness of the purported paradigm shift in the NBA. The Warriors trailed Memphis two games to one and could easily have lost the series had Grizzlies star guard Mike Conley been at full health. In that event, the perceived future of the NBA would have turned completely around: A healthy Conley and a Memphis victory would have prompted the theme that you (still!) need big men and low-post offense (e.g. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) and do not rely on the 3-point shot.

Moreover, while the Warriors did go small at times, it was not their primary strategy throughout the year. Traditional big men Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli averaged 24, 16 and 11 minutes per game, respectively. Throughout their dominating regular season and until Game 4 of the Finals, the Warriors mostly played a standard sized lineup.

In... read more »

Sheldon Hirsch - July 15, 2015

Last year, many fans and writers, including myself, depicted baseball as a struggling sport (e.g. “How to Fix What Ails Baseball”). We complained that games took too long (a record three hours and two minutes for the average nine-inning game in 2014) and that scoring had declined too much (the fewest runs per game since 1976) - a bad combination: long and boring. In addition, some bemoaned (particularly with Derek Jeter retiring) the absence of marquee players equivalent to those in other sports like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and LeBron James, or in baseball’s earlier days.

As the 2015 All-Star break approaches it’s apparent that things changed quickly. We’re enjoying a great season and no longer fussing over baseball’s problems.

A few modest changes in the off-season (for example, introducing a countdown clock for breaks between innings; making batters keep one foot in the batters box) decreased average game time by 10 minutes. Complaints about excessive length ceased.

Without any formal changes, simply allowing the regression to the mean that characterizes most of baseball history, home runs increased 10 percent this season, and mean batting average (.251 to .253) and runs per team per game (4.07 to 4.10) are up a tick. Not much difference in the latter, but simply reversing the trends seems to have satisfied fans (attendance also increased a tad).

Moreover, with the Dodgers' Joc Pederson entering... read more »

Sheldon Hirsch - June 30, 2015

Zero has always been an oddity, given much greater attention than other numbers. Modern folks might wonder why anyone would fuss over a number, but zero has theological implications that actually frightened people for millenia (discussed in “Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea” by Charles Seife). Thus, zero did not enter basic arithmetic until the seventh century (in India). And since medieval scholars considered zero evil, it took another 500-plus years for common sense to overcome fear and zero to enter Western mathematics.

Whereas scholars denigrated zero for a long stretch of human history, modern sports scribes and fans sometimes overemphasize it, as if the difference between zero and one is more than just one. That can distort the evaluation of player performances.

Baseball provides two recent examples of excessive focus on a zero-related event - on something whose interest derived from breaking a streak of non-occurrences. First, when pitcher Jon Lester finally threw to first base to hold a baserunner (ending a “zero-throwing over” streak); then, when Max Scherzer hit batter Jose Tabata with two outs in the ninth inning, ending his perfect game (i.e. zero-baserunners allowed) aspirations.

Lester averaged about 80 pickoff throws a year from 2009 to 2011. The lefty precipitously dropped to five and six throws in 2012 and 2013, respectively, but no one seemed to notice until Lester attempted zero in the entire 2014 season. Jon Roegele (@MLBPlayerAnalys) tweeted... read more »

Sheldon Hirsch - June 16, 2015

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon is the only National League manager who bats his pitcher eighth in the lineup. The pitcher bats ninth for the other National League teams (one historical exception: ex-manager Tony LaRussa) because he’s the worst hitter in the lineup and the ninth spot gives him as few plate appearances as possible.

On the other hand, the batting lineup is a continuous loop so the pitcher (as the ninth hitter) immediately precedes the team’s best hitters, typically saddling them with an out. Maddon bats the pitcher eighth because “I just like the idea of a hitter in front of the 1-2-3 in the order.” He aims for another runner on base when his better hitters come to bat, even if the eighth position gives the pitcher more plate appearances over the course of the season.

Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin provide a comprehensive statistical analysis of these competing strategies in “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball.” Tango et al. conclude that batting the pitcher eighth is preferable, though it would provide a team only an additional 1.94 runs over an entire season.

That tiny amount may even overstate the case. Complex baseball analyses with multiple components often yield imprecise results, with different investigators reporting different answers (for example, in WAR values or ballpark effects on hitting). We’d need to know the variability of Tango’s data--the spread and likelihood of alternate results above and below 1.94—to understand the precision (or lack... read more »