Based on the 8-6 final score and the AL win, you’d think I enjoyed this year’s All-Star Game. It was, however, a total bore. Almost all the scoring came on solo home runs, which made me realize that is one of the least interesting plays in baseball – certainly the least interesting run-producing play. There is no anticipation, no drama, no involvement by the other 16 players. How much more exciting it is when there are runners on first and third and one out. Anything can happen, any outcome is possible, every fielder has to be on their toes. Add to that the on-field interviews, which reminded the viewer that this was not a real game, just an exhibition. Then – and this has been an issue for decades – the implicit need to get everyone in the game means that when the game is on the line, it’s being decided not by the big names, but by the guy who’s there because the San Diego Padres have to be represented.
The month-long drama of the World Cup – and, indeed, it is drama! – is giving me an appreciation of international soccer (“football,” to the rest of the world) and one very significant way it differs from American sports, or at least the way Americans watch sports. The big difference: games are often decided by something other than which team plays best, and everyone accepts that. When Portugal lost to Uruguay, Cristiano Ronaldo calmly said, in his post-game news conference something to the effect of, “I thought we were the better team today, but they scored more goals, and that’s football.”
In the games I’ve watched, relatively few goals have been scored by players passing the ball to each other until someone shoots it in the net. First, there have been a record number of “own goals,” where a player inadvertently causes the ball to go into his own net. Next, an inordinate number of goals come from penalty kicks, which more often than not result from an insignificant hand ball or foul – “insignificant” in that the play would not otherwise have resulted in a score, or even a scoring chance. Third, a good number of goals come off free kicks and corner kicks, which again involve plays that otherwise would not have produced a score. Hitting a ball off an opponent so that it goes across the end line is a whole lot easier than hitting it through the defense and past a goalie.
You can say that the better team is more likely to get more corner kicks, free kicks and penalty chances, and that is true and the law of averages would play out in a game that ended up, say, with a 5-3 score. But the last four World Cup matches have been 0-0 at the half, and one goal is often all that is needed for a victory.
In past World Cups there was also the issue of human fallibility in the form of the referee, who might or might not see a hand ball, who might or might not think a challenge in the box warranted a penalty kick, and soccer fans all recognized that this was an integral part of the game. Now the World Cup has added instant replay, or VAR (Video Assistant Referee), which all but eliminates the prospect of egregious blunders. On the other hand, it has increased the chances of calling fouls that would have escaped the naked eye, much like instant replay in baseball that reveals a base runner momentarily losing contact with a base.
In baseball, basketball and football, one team can exert its superiority (for that day) over the course of a game; it is unlikely that one fluke play will determine the outcome. If it does, the American fan will feel aggrieved and complain bitterly that he was robbed. In soccer, the fan will shrug and say, “that’s football.”
I could point to any number of games to support my thesis, but I’ll just mention the most recent game I watched, England v. Colombia. England was methodical, Colombia flashy, but the course of play mattered little. England’s one goal combined three of the factors mentioned above: a corner kick, a referee’s interpretation and a penalty kick. The 1-0 score held until the last few seconds of stoppage time, when Colombia scored off a corner kick. The game was then decided by yet another matter of chance more than skill: a penalty kick shoot-out. I say “chance,” because a goalie’s ability to thwart a penalty is solely a result of his guessing where the shooter will aim.
Or I could point to today’s other game, in which Sweden defeated Switzerland, 1-0, when a Swedish player’s shot deflected off a Swiss leg into the goal, despite Switzerland’s controlling play for more than 60% of the game. There have been some great goals resulting from wonderful team play, but just as often there has been luck. Only it’s not considered luck. It’s considered football.
I watched a half-dozen more games without any new revelation or any reason to adjust my analysis. Take only the example of today’s final, won 4-2 by France over Croatia: France’s first goal came off a set piece set up by what the commentators called a dive just outside the penalty area and it went in, an own goal, off a Croatian head. France’s second goal was a penalty kick, resulting from an accidental hand ball. Croatia controlled a majority of the play and, again in the commentator’s words, played better. France’s play, he thought, was disappointing; but they scored four goals – a rarity in the tournament – and therefore won. What a sport!
At this point we don’t know if the Golden State Warriors will survive Game 7 in Houston on Monday and advance to the NBA Finals, but the show they put on in Game 6 was both thrilling in itself and reason to hope we get to watch them some more this year.
I turned the TV on at halftime, when the Dubs were 10 points down to the Rockets and the halftime crew, Charles Barkley in particular, thought the end of their season might be near. The third quarter, however, started with a sudden 8-0 run for Golden State, and when you next looked up, they were leading by 20. The final score was 115-86, which meant the Warriors had outscored the Rockets by almost 40 points in one half. It was, however, how they did it that was so exciting.
First, it was their defense. James Harden, the league and Rockets’ MVP, had to this point in the playoffs appeared unstoppable, much like LeBron James. The Warriors, however, guarded him tightly through screens out deep, and when he drove to the basket, three bodies collapsed on him – and he didn’t get the foul calls he expected (maybe this will change when the series shifts back to Houston). Clearly, this tight coverage and his inability to defeat it damaged his confidence, for he began shooting three-point shots that missed the basket completely, as did his teammates.
Energized by their defensive successes, the Warriors’ offense exploded. First was Klay Thompson, who couldn’t miss a three-pointer, including an exclamation point from five feet behind the arc. Kevin Durant, who had shot 3-for-11 in the first half and had been widely criticized the last two games for playing isolation ball, found his mid-range jumper and showed that he can’t be guarded. The coups de grace, as usual, came from Steph Curry, who alternated three-point shots that seemed to barely scrape the net (like a perfect dive that barely ripples the water surface) with impossible driving layups through and around defenders a half-foot taller. Curry plays with such evident pleasure that when he’s hot he lights up his entire team and the arena above him. Last night was such a night.
I should add a PS on the Timberwolves’ quick exit from the playoffs at the Rockets’ hands. While they have three legitimate potential stars – and Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns were just voted to the NBA All-Star Third Team – they show none of the cohesiveness of the Warriors. Once Anthony Wiggins, their other #1 draft choice, or Towns gets the ball, the play is usually over. There is no one on the team like Curry, who is constantly running with a purpose and will appear out of nowhere to take a quick three. Watching the T’Wolves play, even when they win, is drudgery. Watching the Warriors is magic.
By way of contrast, the Cavaliers’ win the next night in game 7 against the Celtics was a clunker. Cleveland’s offense consisted of LeBron James either driving or backing in to the basket for a layup or firing a pass to an open teammate in the corner who then missed a three-point shot. Boston, aside from some baby-hooks by Al Horford, was content to run a weave and pass around the arc until someone decided it was his turn to miss a three. Combined, the two teams were 16-for-74(!) from three-point range – hardly inspiring basketball and not much fun to watch.
May is, appropriately, the season for the May Apple in the Central Park Ramble, also the Virginia Bluebell. And May is the time the warblers, at least this year with its late spring, arrive species-by-species, with the males in the vanguard. On May 1 I counted four warblers, led by the easy-to-spot Black and White. The highlight of May 2 was watching three species in full song: Prairie, Black-throated Blue and Northern Waterthrush. Today the Park was alive with the song of the Northern Parula, which I pronounce by accenting the first syllable while the consensus seems to have settled on the second. Just like I say “Plover” rhymes with “hover,” while others prefer “clover.” The other new treats were close and prolonged views of the Magnolia and Black-throated Green, both quiet. You do wonder about warbler names: have I ever seen a Magnolia in such a tree? and where is the “green” on the Black-throated Green? So far, I’m up to 14 warbler species, with many obvious, and some less so, to come. Interestingly, the flood of Yellow-Rumps that usually precede the warbler wave by a week showed up just today.
In other bird news, today I saw my first Chimney Swift of the year. From my birding in the ‘60s I associate Chimney Swifts with Memorial Day and the end of spring. Great Crested Flycatchers, too. Maybe this fellow was early. Or maybe it’s climate change.
May 6 was cool and gray, and both birds and birders, despite its being Sunday, were sparse. I saw 10 warbler species, but for most it was a single example. The newcomer was the Chestnut-sided: there were a couple and they were singing. High in an oak I saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and an Indigo Bunting, but the wave, if there is to be one, is still to come.
Baseball these days can seem overrun with statistics – Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position and Two Outs, for example – yet records for pitchers all seem to me fundamentally flawed. Which is why I am proposing a new, more meaningful, one, which I will get to in a minute. First, however, a recap of some existing flaws.
For years, Won-Lost has been the gold standard for pitchers. The first problem, though, is that its validity is largely limited to starting pitchers, the only ones who routinely have some control over a game’s outcome. The emphasis, however, must be on “some.” We are all familiar with the “hard-luck loser,” who pitches eight innings, allows one measly run, yet suffers a 1-0 defeat. (Last night the Indians’ Josh Tomlin surrendered a first-pitch, first-inning opposite-field home run to the Twins’ Miguel Sano and suffered that fate.) The flip side is the lucky winner, who gives up five runs in five innings, yet records a win because his teammates have clobbered the opposing pitcher for more. Sometimes this averages out over the course of a season, but sometimes it doesn’t. Then there is the disparity among offenses. A pitcher for a hitting-starved team could give up three runs a game and finish with an 8-12 won-lost record; while his counterpart for a powerhouse could allow the same number of runs and wind up 12-8.
The next most recognized statistic is Earned Run Average, which would show the equivalence of the two pitchers in the above example. This statistic in theory should also work for relief pitchers as well as starters, and it has the advantage of not being dependent on the hitting success of the pitcher’s team. Its weakness, though, is its failure to account for situational pitching, which is crucial in evaluating a relief pitcher’s value. By “situation” I mean both the stage of the game – is the scored 7-2 in the eighth inning, or 3-2 in the ninth? – and the situation within the inning. A reliever who enters the game with two outs and the bases loaded and gives up a triple is a failure, yet his ERA will go down if he gets the next batter out. Conversely, the pitcher who let those three runners reach base while getting two outs will see his ERA soar, even though no one scored while he was pitching. The other problem with judging a reliever by his ERA is that one bad outing can skew it, because relievers pitch so few innings compared to starters. (Last night the Twins brought in Matt Belisle with one out, one on in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game despite an unheard-of ERA north of 11.00, precisely because that figure bore little connection to his perceived reliability.)
I have written elsewhere about the Save, the least useful number of all. 1) It only is relevant for the usually one pitcher per team who gets to pitch the ninth inning. 2) The number depends on his team’s success rate – only the winning team can record a save. 3) The criteria are too loose to be meaningful: a reliever can give up two runs in the only inning he pitches (an ERA rate of 18.00) and still get a save.
Because of the overemphasis on Saves, some baseball writers in 1986 came up with the Hold as a way of recognizing the effectiveness of middle relievers, who don’t get Save opportunities. Although routinely included in game box scores, the Hold is not an officially recognized statistic and there is some confusion as to what qualifies. The first prerequisite is the existence of a Save situation – so right there, it incorporates the weaknesses of that stat. The second requirement is that the reliever hand over pitching duties to the next reliever with his team still in the lead – which means, similar to the Save defect, that a reliever could load the bases while recording only one out and earn a Hold despite doing a lousy job.
So, what would be a more useful measure of a pitcher’s – specifically, a reliever’s – performance? Say ‘hello’ to the QA – the Quality Appearance. A reliever earns a QA by recording three or more outs without giving up a run, including the runners he inherits and the runners he puts on base. Alternatively, if he enters a game with two or more men on base, and he records two outs, ends an inning and no one scores. That, after all, is what really matters – keeping the other team from scoring. This statistic has the advantage of applying whether a team is ahead or behind. After all, when a team is behind 3-2 late in the game, it is crucial to their chances of winning that they not give up another run; and the pitcher who holds that margin is doing just as important a job as the pitcher who is credited with a Hold. Yes, there are some flaws: a pitcher could lose a QA by giving up a run in a second or third inning of work, although the rule could be refined to cover that, if desired. And what happens to runners that a pitcher puts on base before he is relieved will depend on the relievers who follow. Not every good relief effort will be recognized, but many more will, and more fairly than either the Save or the Hold currently does.
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