Monday, April 13, 2009

Moving to Baseball Analysts

I've had a great month here working on the Behind the Scoreboard blog. The good news is that I've begun writing for the Baseball Analysts website, where my column appears every Saturday. The bad news is that writing for them is making it difficult to keep up this blog as well.

So unfortunately, this blog is on hiatus until further notice. I hope you'll continue to follow me over at Baseball Analysts, which is one of the best serious quantitative baseball blogs around.

You can check out my collection of articles I've written over there here.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

What If the NCAA Brackets Were Really Regional?

The NCAA tournament is nearly drawing to a close. The most exciting part is over, and we're left with the Final Four. In my last post, we discussed the empty seats at arenas around the country, and I suggested that one possible fix was to make the brackets truly regional. Today, that's what I'll explore.

I rearranged the brackets to actually represent teams in each region of the country - West, Midwest, East, and South. I did this with as little disruption as possible. Of course, the trade off is a loss of "fairness". Currently the selection committee uses an S-shaped curve to place teams in the brackets, so that the region with the #1 seed overall will have #1, #8, #9, #16, etc in its bracket. Now things are a bit mixed up. However, is the increased regionalization worth it?

Without further ado, lets look at the hypothetical bracket:

As you can see, most of the teams really are in the correct region. All of the original seeds were kept the same, with the exception of a switch between #3 Kansas and #4 Gonzaga. Another advantage of the plan is that a lot of rival schools are in the same bracket (UNC vs. Duke, Michigan vs. Michigan St., etc). This is a double edged sword however. While this would be great theater to have rival teams clashing in the tournament, is this what people really want to see? Or would they rather see teams which rarely play?

A lot of the teams in a region would be from the same conference - for instance 5 teams from the Big 10 would be in the East regional, with the South regional would be dominated by the ACC. Is this a good or a bad thing? In one sense, it brings drama, but in another sense, it's redundant - especially now that every conference has a conference tournament.

An advantage is the fact that nearby schools from different conferences would get a chance to play each other. For instance, Louisville vs. Memphis would be a fun matchup for those two schools is both made it the Midwest regional finals. Siena would likely get a kick out of facing the Ohio St. giant in the first round in the East regional as well.

Overall, there are drawbacks and advantages to this plan, but perhaps a deciding advantage is that students would actually be within shouting distance of the location of their school's game, giving more interested fans a chance to see the action. And that's what the tournament should be all about.
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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fans Disguised as Empty Seats at NCAA Tourney

College basketball is big business, and as in any sport, the biggest business of all comes during the playoffs - in this case of course, the NCAA tournament. This year's tournament didn't have a lot of Cinderella's or major upsets, but it did have a fair amount of great marquee matchups.

What's puzzling then, is that when you turn on the games - big important games, between college basketball powerhouses, Michigan State, Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville, those types of teams - you often see a sea of empty seats.

The NCAA tournament draws millions of viewers of course, but not many are at the arena. What's more, is that the games don't exactly have the same kind of pizzaz that big conference season games do, mostly because of the crowds. Of course, some venues are worse than others - Miami's first round games were only half full (just like Miami's World Baseball Classic games) - but theoretically games of this magnitude shouldn't be played in front of empty seats.

Were the games actually regionalized in more than name only, perhaps more students and fans could actually go to the games. It's a big commitment to go across the country to see your team play, especially when there's a fair chance that your team may be out of it by the time gametime rolls around.

Perhaps it's time for NCAA to realize that its fans are its number one priority, and that they need to fill the arenas, not just draw TV viewers.
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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reactionary Measures: The Brady Rule

You've proabably heard by now that the NFL has changed its rulebook in a reaction to Tom Brady's injury last season. Brady was injured when a Kansas City lineman tackled Brady from the ground, injurying Brady's knee. The hit was legal, although some said it was a dirty play since Brady had already let go of the ball.

The new rule, states the following: "A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground, even if the initial contact is above the knee. It is not a foul if the defender is blocked (or fouled) into the passer and has no opportunity to avoid him."

The merits of the rule can be debated (personally I think that when the QB has the ball, he should be allowed to be tackled in the same manner as any other player), but what irks me is the fact that the league changed the rule as pure reactionary measure. If the rule was a good idea, why didn't the league implement it before the Brady injury? And can anyone seriously say that the rule would have been changed had Brady not been injured on the play? Or that the rule would have changed had someone like, say, Kyle Orton, been injured, rather than the league's sexiest star? Professional football has been played for over 70 years, and the league has survived just fine, but with one injured superstar, they're changing the rules.

What's more is that sports leagues do this all the time - they change rules and regulations in reactionary moves to quell short-term public outcry. Major League Baseball had gone over 100 years without instant replay, but a string of blown calls and suddenly a rushed instant replay system is implemented...the NFL long had counterintuitive standards of what constitutes a catch, but it took a high-profile AFC Championship application of the rule to institute the "Tuck Rule"...the BCS doesn't select the "right" teams to play in the national championship, and they change the formula.

The above examples are only a few. The leagues should take care to get it right the first time, and analyze all of the possible scenarios when they make the rules. Then when fire strikes, stick to their guns and say "that's baseball" or "that's football", rather than bowing to pressure from sportswriters and fans.

In this new rule, did the NFL consider all of the possible scenarios when they implemented this rule? It's the final play of Super Bowl 44, Brady's back to pass, nobody's open, he sees daylight and rushes toward the goal line for a sure touchdown when suddenly Brian Urlacher spectacularly dives and drags Brady down from behind by his ankles to save the game.... Wait, here comes the flag. And here comes, the rewritten rule for 2010.
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Good Baseball Knows No Borders

Selig and his friends did not get their wish when Japan defeated the USA Sunday night, but they sure got a hell of a consolation prize. Last night's WBC championship game was an immensely entertaining affair and featured crisp baseball and many great plays by both sides.

A great deal of the enjoyment was due to the fantastic crowd at Dodger Stadium. Many people put down the WBC as a mere exhibition, but rest assured you will not see Dodger Stadium rocking like that on April 13th when they open against the Giants. This was a playoff crowd and the game was played with playoff intensity. A few years ago if someone had told you there would be playoff intensity baseball in March you would not have believed them, yet there it was Monday night in Chavez Ravine.

For all of the heat that Bud Selig has taken through his tenure as commissioner, some warranted, some not, this has to qualify as a genuine coup for Selig. The game, admittedly, could not have gone better - right down to Ichiro, one of the few MLB players in the game, getting the big hit to win it.

Selig himself is, as usual, crowing about it as well as playing a bit of gamesmanship, challenging the USA to field a better team so that it can reach the finals four years from now.

While I wrote that Selig needed a USA win in Saturday's semifinal game, perhaps losing will give the needed psychological effect to entice more US players to play in future Classics. Had the US cruised to victory in each of the first two Classics, more players may not have felt the same sense of urgency they will now.

The same happened with US Olympic Basketball. After the novelty wore off and the US established their dominance, a lot of players begged off of the team and lost interest. Now, after a few embarrassments, the US team is better and more serious than ever, enhancing the Olympic as a whole as well.

So while Selig didn't get his star-laden finale, the silver-lining may have been worth the sacrifice. If nothing else, Monday's game proven that exciting, must-see baseball can be played in March, which is worth something in itself.
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Sunday, March 22, 2009

WBC Must Win Tonight for USA, Selig

Last night, Korea routed Venezuela 10-2 to move on to the finals of the World Baseball Classic. Tonight, the US takes on Japan for the right to face Korea on Monday for the title. Of course, as a single elimination game, it's a must win for the United States, but I would argue it's also a must win for Bud Selig and his WBC pals.

One of the things I'm interested in is how sports, leagues, and teams affect the fan, and I can say unequivocally that a Korea-Japan matchup will not be good for the fan or for the WBC. Tonight's game, featuring Dice-K vs. Roy Oswalt, two of the best pitchers around, should be a doozy and I hope it's a tight, well-played, and exciting game. However, I hope that the USA wins and I say that out of more than nationalistic pride.

After 2006's nearly MLB-playerless finale, the World Baseball Classic can't afford another one in Korea vs. Japan. Korea, with no MLB players on it's roster, is a fine team and its underdog trip to the finals is a fine story - but it needs a powerhouse, star laden opponent, and while Japan will have four MLB players eligible to play in the game, it's not the same as the USA's entire team full of stars.

A USA-Korea finale while still probably not what the WBC planners had dreamed, should be a relatively satisfying final and stir at least modest viewership across the globe and in the USA. However, a Japan vs. Korea matchup - which will be the fifth time they've played (something I warned about here) - will not be the interesting East vs. West, MLB vs. unknowns, underdog vs. favorite matchup that the US vs. Korea would be. Essentially, all of the things that the WBC needs to be draw viewers will be missing, and once again poor ratings can be expected to ensue.

So tonight, Bud Selig, who probably could care less about nationalistic pride, will be pulling hard for the home team in what should be a great game. And me, a fan of the WBC, will be doing the same.
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Friday, March 20, 2009

Does Barack Obama Read 'Behind the Scoreboard'?

Ok, probably not. I haven't received any hits from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue yet, but whether he knows it or not, he does seem to be taking my advice on picking upsets. Barack's picking very few upsets this year, going with the straight seeding for his Elite 8 and three #1's in his Final Four. Out of a total of 63 games he's gone against the seeding only 9 times.

What's funny is that though I filled out my own bracket a few days earlier, every one of my Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final 4, and Championship game pick was the exact same as Obama's! As for myself, I used almost exclusively the AP ranking and Sagarin Ratings to guide my selections - perhaps Obama did the same?

So, if you want to know how good of a college basketball prognosticator I am, just track Obama's picks. Great minds think alike!
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