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 »

Sheldon Hirsch - June 06, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner’s curvaceous feminine figure on the cover of Vanity Fair prompted spirited conversations on sports talk radio and in other media outlets. Many people bemoaned that they didn’t know how to explain Bruce Jenner’s male-to-female transformation to their younger children.

No need to worry: The kids will figure it out as they grow older, just as their older siblings have.

From the Greatest Generation through the Baby Boomers and Generation X to today, American society has moved toward tolerance of those who differ from the mainstream or from traditional thinking. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and the like are waning (though for sure, too slowly). Greater acceptance of the full LGBT community is on the way.

Every new generation seems to embrace tolerance more easily than its predecessors. The Jenner transformation is not controversial to many of today’s youth; to them, the story got amped up because of Bruce’s well-known role on the TV show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” Younger people commonly accept the sexual blurring, confusion, and fluidity they have seen around them without getting stirred up and becoming judgmental.

They seem to intuit several concepts:

1) Privacy

What Jenner does in her private life is none of our business (even if she chooses to publicize it). It affects no one outside of her own personal sphere.

2) Sympathy

A traditional heterosexual person can only imagine the long-term angst of someone like Bruce Jenner. Normally we... read more »

The basketball world gasped when Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors somersaulted out of control over the Houston Rockets' Trevor Ariza in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, and hit the back of his head on the court. Curry lay immobile for several minutes before rising and walking with assistance to the locker room. Surprisingly, Curry returned to action in the second half.

After the game Warriors coach Steve Kerr explained that Curry had been evaluated by team doctors using the NBA’s concussion protocol and was cleared to play. Kerr made it sound straightforward: big game, medical clearance, get out there and compete. In fact, Curry’s return was unwise.

Concussions can be difficult to diagnose. One can suffer a concussion without losing consciousness and symptoms may not develop for hours or even days after head trauma. The risk of exacerbating the injury with further contact is highest in the immediate aftermath. Accordingly, athletes who experience head trauma would best be served by at least overnight (and perhaps longer) observation to determine if symptoms of a concussion develop before allowed to return to competition. The NBA concussion protocol does not represent a scientific approach so much as a practical compromise between the realities of concussions (about which much remains unknown) and the exigencies of professional sports. More demanding protocols would mean that some non-concussed athletes would miss playing time.

Even assuming the NBA’s approach is reasonable, it must be applied with and leavened by... read more »