Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Sports Section 

[] Detroit's Ponitac Silverdome sold -- to be renamed Union Discount Stadium?

The former home of the NFL Detroit Lions, built in 1975 at a cost of $55.7 million -- $224 million 2009 dollars -- has been auctioned off for $583,000. The sale includes 127 adjacent acres.

The Silverdome had also served as home to the Detroit Pistons, hosted Super Bowl XVI in 1982, and games of the 1994 World Cup.

The winning bidder was "an unnamed Canadian company that plans to bring a soccer league to the stadium. The company's name will be released when the sale is finalized."

With its 80,311 seats, the world's cheapest "personal seat licences" to the new soccer team's games would seem to cover the stadiums entire purchase price amply. (For $7.25 a seat, I might buy a couple from here in NYC in case I ever go out there to visit.)

[] When the lady of the house suggests you turn the game off before it upsets you, maybe you should listen for both your sakes. Via the Sports Economist...
... we find that upset losses by the home team (losses in games that the home team was predicted to win by more than 3 points) lead to an 8 percent increase in police reports of at-home male-on-female intimate partner violence.

There is no corresponding effect on female-on-male violence. Consistent with the behavioral prediction that losses matter more than gains, upset victories by the home team have (at most) a small dampening effect on family violence. We also find that unexpected losses in highly salient or frustrating games have a 50% to 100% larger impact on rates of family violence...
-- Economists David Card and Gordon Dahl, NBER working paper.
It was a great week to see growing divide between ye olde time traditional sports fans and the newly influential quantitatively analyzing sports geeks...

[] Tim Lincecum wins the Cy Young award for best pitcher in the National League. And he did it winning only 15 games, the fewest in baseball history (in a non-strike shortened season).

The traditionalists protest, "When did pitching victories become passe?" I had to listen to a ranting host on NYC's biggest sports radio station: "All my life judging pitchers by wins and losses and maybe Earned Run Average has been good enough for me. Why do I have to listen to all these other geek stats? They're made up by overaged kids who live in the basement and never had a date."

Yeah, like Theo Epstein.

The obvious problem with deciding who's the best pitcher by "wins" is that baseball is half offense and half defense, pitching is only part of defense, and starting-pitcher candidates for the Cy Young award throw on average about seven of the nine innings per game (78%).

Say (generously) that pitching is 90% of baseball defense, then a top starting pitcher is responsible for only about 35% of the "won - loss" outcome (50% x 90% x 78%) in the games he pitches. The other 65% that is "not him" can have a huge impact on his W-L record -- does he pitch for bad team playing a tough schedule? Or a good team with an easy schedule? Etc. All the new statistics measure much more tightly the performance of each pitcher himself.

The divide between the traditionalists and the stat heads was clear in the Cy Young voting. The most first place votes for the award went to Adam Wainwright, who led the league in wins with 19. He collected 12 of those, but only five seconds along with 15 thirds -- and became only the second player with the most first-place votes to not win the award. Lincecum received 11 first-place votes, 12 seconds and nine thirds.

The Baseball Writers Association of America, which delivers the Cy Young award, has two voters for it for each MLB city, but is increasingly designating voters at "stat" organizations such as Baseball Prospectus.
"Five years ago, Lincecum wouldn’t have stood a chance in the voting,” Dave Cameron wrote at ... "He might not have even stood a chance a year ago. But there are clearly members of the Writers Association who are not clinging to the analysis that they grew up with." -- NY Times
We're past the tipping point in baseball. As the Theo Epsteins take over the team front offices, expect the stat geeks to take over the award ceremonies and other recognitions of talent as well.

But as to fooball...

[] Belichick's "4th and 2" brouhaha -- and the ignorance of experts. The Lincecum dispute was as nothing compared to the explosion of arrogant ignorance among media commentators damning three-time Super Bowl winning coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots after he "went for it" on 4th and 2 from his own 28 yard line, with two minutes left in the game, while ahead 34-28, against the Peyton Manning directed Indianapolis Colts.

All of football tradition says, in this position, "punt and hope your defense holds the Colts out of the end zone" -- although in their previous possession Manning had taken the Colts 79 yard for a TD in 1 minute 45 seconds. As it happened, the Pats just missed making the first down, giving the Colts the ball, who took it and won.

But if the Pats had gained the two yards to get the first down, they could have run out the clock and put the game in their pocket. And in fact, trying that was the safest, "high percentage" play, as calculated out by Advanced NFL Stats:
A 4th and 2 conversion would be successful 60% of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from that field position. The total WP [expected winning percentage] for the 4th down conversion attempt would be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount.

However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You'd have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats' 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it.

You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it's pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option.
The other computers agree.

But, oh boy, don't tell that to the commentator "experts". The New York Daily News made it a Page One cover story (in New York -- the Pats don't even play here)
Call it the gaffe heard 'round the world.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick's brutal mistake Sunday night - going for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line with a 6-point lead and 2:08 remaining - not only cost his team a win against Peyton Manning and the rival Colts, it also made him the whipping boy of Monday-morning quarterbacks everywhere.

"This was as bad as anything the Red Sox ever did," writes columnist Dan Shaughnessy in Monday's Boston Globe. "Had it been a playoff game, it would be right up there with Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Aaron Boone, and History Derailed in Glendale, Ariz."


"Bill Belichick, dummy," the Daily News' own football expert Hank Gola writes in his recap of the 35-34 Indianapolis victory, calling it "one of the most bizarre coaching decisions in the history of football."... "Is there an insanity defense for football coaches?" writes Ron Borges in the Boston Herald...
Bill Simmons at had an extended tantrum...
There was no angle other than "What the f--- was Belichick thinking?" None ... and this is coming from someone who watches 12 hours of football every Sunday dating back to elementary school
Wow, that's an impressive claim to authority, isn't it?

But probably most enjoyable was Peter King, who actually tried to play the numbers game but then forgot how to use arithmetic...
Let’s place the odds of Brady getting two yards at 60, 65 percent. The odds of Manning going 72 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes ... that’s maybe 35 percent.
Then he forgets to calculate out his own numbers, which is just as well because with them (Brady having a 65% chance to get the two yards) punting can be the wrong decision only if the Colts' chance of scoring exceeded 100% when the Pats' fourth down attempt fails.

Which all in all leaves us with plenty of evidence that football fans are far, far behind baseball fans in learning to accept any kind of objective rational analysis of their game.

There's more here too. The first paper comprehensively demonstrating that punting is near always an error -- football teams should almost always "go for it" on 4th down to maximize their winning percentages, regardless of the situation -- was written by economist David Romer, to explore why football coaches do not do so.

The conclusion reached by Romer and many other observers is that it's because winning the game is only a coach's #2 priority. His #1 priority is keeping his job. And a coach who never punts when all the fans and media experts "know" he should risks being lynched by the ignorant mob. Ask Jim Zorn.

Belichick has the most rock-solid job security in the NFL today, so he can do the right thing and risk taking all the fire that may result. (Maybe that's part of why he wins more than any other coach.) But others...

There are larger lessons to be drawn from this -- I was going to point to how the very same media organizations report on politics, war & peace, taxes, deficits and health care reform -- and how our political leaders are every bit as concerned with job priority #1 as football coaches are ... but this has run very long, so that will be for another time. (And frankly, I don't like thinking about it.)