Buying shares of people

Fantex, Inc. announced today that it has entered into brand contracts with five Major Leaguers: Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco, Astros right-hander Collin McHugh, Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop, Twins right-hander Tyler Duffey and Padres third baseman Yangervis Solarte (as noted on BusinessWire.com).
 
Fantex offers professional athletes an up-front, one-time payment in exchange for a portion of that player’s future earnings both on and off the field. Fantex then sells “shares” of that player to public investors for a set price (thus covering the up-front payment to the player), allowing those investors to turn a profit if said player crosses a certain threshold in his career earnings. Obviously, that creates risk for the investors, who stand to take a financial loss if the player fails to earn enough money in his career to justify the shareholders’ investment. Angels left-hander Andrew Heaney became the first player to enter into an agreement with Fantex last September, taking a $3.34MM up-front payment in exchange for 10 percent of his future earnings. (Notably, the league and the MLBPA each approved that agreement, and Fantex’s announcement seemingly suggests that the same is true of these five agreements.)
 

Hmm. I wonder if this becomes more widespread. I'd heard this idea proposed before but never heard of Fantex. Purchasing shares of Jennifer Lawrence just after you'd seen her in Winter's Bone might feel like scoring a Mantle rookie card, back when baseball cards still had real scarcity (and thus value).

Lip reading as a service

Plenty of pieces have been written about the scuffle between the Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon. For baseball fans who missed it or those who care nothing about sports, the summary is that Harper popped up a pitch he thought he should have hit harder and so he didn't sprint to first base because there was a 99% chance it would be caught easily. Papelbon yelled at him for not running, Harper yelled back, and then Papelbon grabbed Harper's throat and attacked him until teammates broke them up.

I thought this piece in Grantland contained a unique twist I'd love to see more of: author Ben Lindbergh asked a deaf friend who can lipread to see if he could figure out what Harper and Papelbon were shouting at each other.

A few years ago, I asked Evan Brunell, a deaf writer and skilled lipreader, to help me transcribe manager-umpire arguments. I asked Evan to take a look at this confrontation, too. Here’s what he thinks was said:
 
Papelbon: … fucking go! On the fucking … Yeah, run the fucking ball out. [Obscured swearing] … goddamn ball out.
 
Harper: … the fuck up! Are you fucking kidding me? Chill the fuck out, man. Let’s fucking go! I’ll fucking go right —
 
If that transcript is accurate, Harper didn’t exactly deescalate, but this was all posturing until Papelbon charged without waiting to find out what would happen when Harper said “now.”
 

That is fantastic. More sports coverage should include the services of lip readers to help bring us where microphones don't go. Hearing what players say on the field adds an entirely new layer to the narrative of most sporting contests, as anyone who has watched archival footage, with on-field or on-court audio added back in, can attest. Sure, some (much?) of the language is salty, but I'd pay extra for an uncensored audio feed.

Yes, players would probably self-censor once such coverage became common, but even without all the cussing, much of the trash talk or psychological wordplay is amazing. What I wouldn't give to hear some Michael Jordan trash talk from back in the day.

One show comes really close: HBO's Hard Knocks. It's a show I never think I want to watch because it's always about a team I care little about, and then once I start in on the season premiere I inevitably find myself at the end of the five episode miniseries in no time at all. This season was no different. I found myself carried along by Bill O'Brien's constant expletive-filled tirades, J.J Watt's John Bunyan-like athletic feats, and Brian Cushing throwing up for what seemed like half an hour straight. And, as with every season, perhaps the best part of the show, the end of training camp cuts, when one player after another is let go by either the head coach or one of his assistants.

If a Hard Knocks-style of program were produced for every team in the NFL, MLB, and the NBA, I suspect the aggregate ratings across the franchise would be gigantic, and fans' relationships with players and coaches would be deeper, if more complicated. When it comes to sports, a lifetime of being fed clichéd narratives by mass sports media has left me hungry for less mediated coverage. Why settle for a reporter telling us what Bryce Harper is like? Why not let us see him on and off the field and let us judge for ourselves?

Give kickers the boot

Benjamin Morris notes that the consistent improvement in NFL placekicker accuracy across the years means we need to update our fourth down strategy cards.

If you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you scream at your television a lot when coaches sheepishly kick or punt instead of going for it on fourth down. This is particularly true in the “dead zone” between roughly the 25- and 40-yard lines, where punts accomplish little and field goals are supposedly too long to be good gambles.

I’ve been a card-carrying member of Team Go-For-It since the ’90s. And we were right, back then. With ’90s-quality kickers, settling for field goals in the dead zone was practically criminal. As of 10 years ago — around when these should-we-go-for-it models rose to prominence — we were still right. But a lot has changed in 10 years. Field-goal kicking is now good enough that many previous calculations are outdated.

...

But more importantly, these breakdowns allow us to essentially recalculate the bot’s recommendations given a different set of assumptions. And the improvement in kicking dramatically changes the calculus of whether to go for it on fourth down in the dead zone. The following table compares “Go or No” charts from the 4th Down Bot as it stands right now, versus how it would look with projected 2015 kickers8:

My problem with field goal kicking is that it's boring. It's nothing at all like the rest of football. I dislike any sport which suddenly morphs into something else entirely, something worse, near the end of the contest, when things should be at their most tense and dramatic.

In basketball, a fluid, fast-paced game often ends with one foul after the other, forcing 9 world-class athletes to stand around while one guy shoots free throws. In football, if teams aren't just running the clock out or kneeling down at the end of the game, they're often lining up for a field goal, a specialized craft that has nothing to do with running, throwing, or catching the football. It's as if a tennis match that went to a tiebreak were settled by having the two players go to the sideline, replaced by two random people coming in to settle matters by playing Cornhole. I'd just as soon do away with field goal kicking in football and have teams go for it on fourth down all the time.

This is one advantage for baseball. To finish off the game, you have to get batters out just like you had to for the previous innings in the game.

Billy Beane and the resource curse

Benjamin Morris posted a good analysis of the value of Billy Beane over at FiveThirtyEight.

To be conservative, let’s just look at the period since Henry made Beane his offer: In the last 12 years, the Red Sox spent $1.714 billion on payroll, while the A’s spent $736 million. We can then break down what it could have looked like if Beane had worked for the Red Sox like so:

  • Let’s say it would have cost Boston the same $736 million that it cost Oakland to get the A’s performance with Beane.
  • At the hypothetical $25 million-per-year salary I suggested earlier, Beane would have cost the Red Sox another $300 million. (It’s possible that Beane would have wanted more, but it’s even more possible that they could have gotten him for less.)
  • The difference in performance between the A’s and the Red Sox over that period (where the Sox were as successful as at any point in the franchise’s history, and the A’s were supposedly stagnating after Beane’s early success) has been about 50 games for Boston. Since we don’t know exactly how good Beane would be at procuring additional wins above his Oakland performance, let’s assume that the Red Sox would have had to pay the typical amount teams have paid for wins in the period to make up the difference. According to the year-by-year price of wins from my calculations above, those 50 wins (taking when they happened into account) would have a market value of about $370 million (though this might have been lower with Beane in charge).

If we combine these — the price of the A’s performance ($736 million) plus Super-Expensive-Billy-Beane’s salary ($300 million) plus the additional 50 Red Sox wins at high market estimates ($370 million) – merely duplicating their previous level of success still would have saved the Red Sox more than $300 million relative to what they actually spent, and that’s with reasonably conservative assumptions. That’s money they could have pocketed, or spent making themselves even better.
 

Management and ownership are undervalued in sports (though ownership's compensation should include the equity value of the franchise which usually outweighs salary by a lot; it's just that ownership often selects management so they have a ripple effect on franchise competitiveness). It's the reason I have a Cubs jersey with “Epstein” on the back as my profile pic on Facebook. I consider the hiring of Theo Epstein as the Cubs President of Baseball Operations the single most important Cubs hire in my lifetime as a long-suffering Cubs fan, far outweighing the value of any single player. Forget all talk about curses; the Cubs have just been so badly run for so long that even random luck hasn't been enough to deliver a World Series title in over a century.

In December of 2012, Bill Barnwell did a great piece on how Jim Harbaugh was the most undervalued asset in pro football, and in his annual ranking of trade value in the NFL for the year ahead Barnwell still had Harbaugh ranked 49th, the only coach to appear in his top 50 list. Harbaugh certainly turned around the Stanford football program.

Whether it's Beane or Epstein or Harbaugh, of course it's not just their influence but the staff they bring in that matters, too. But that's one thing about bringing in someone like that: their ability to hire great people or bring past teammates with them is one of the keys to their value. Epstein brought in Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod and countless other people whose names aren't public but who've given the Cubs, in a few short years, the best farm system in baseball. The mantra with the Cubs has always been "wait til next year" but now it feels more like “can't wait til next year.”

The longer I'm a sports fan, the more I think the most important thing if you're loyal to a sports team is quality ownership. In some sports, more football and basketball than baseball, a good manager or coach matters, too. Baseball being a series of individual confrontations, the tactical value of a good manager is less there than that of a coach in basketball or football.

The hypothetical question of how Billy Beane would have done with the Red Sox is an interesting one. On the one hand, as Morris notes, Beane has done a ton with less in Oakland. On the other hand is the well-known phenomenon called the resource curse.

The resource curse, also known as the paradox of plenty, refers to the paradox that countries and regions with an abundance of natural resources, specifically point-source non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources. This is hypothesized to happen for many different reasons, including a decline in the competitiveness of other economic sectors (caused by appreciation of the real exchange rate as resource revenues enter an economy, a phenomenon known as Dutch disease), volatility of revenues from the natural resource sector due to exposure to global commodity market swings, government mismanagement of resources, or weak, ineffectual, unstable or corrupt institutions (possibly due to the easily diverted actual or anticipated revenue stream from extractive activities).

 

Sports has its own version of the resource curse, and even Epstein, who delivered the Red Sox their first World Series in ages, ran into it late in his tenure there, signing a ton of expensive free agents like Carl Crawford. Beane would have had a much larger payroll in Boston, and that might have had him chasing more big name free agents rather than searching for inefficiencies as he has had to with the A's.

Or so the theory goes. Readers here know I'm wary of extrapolating phenomenon across boundaries, of the temptation of metaphor, and taking the resource curse, which is often used to discuss countries with rich oil supplies, and applying it to wealthier teams in baseball draws my immediate suspicion.

What's happening in baseball is that teams are smarter about locking up players for their prime years. In baseball, players become eligible for arbitration after three years of MLB service, and they become free agents after 6 years of service in the major leagues. However, teams can sign players to contracts that lock the player up for their first few years of free agency, as well, and more and more teams are doing so for their star homegrown players to secure more of their highest productivity years. This means rich teams like the Yankees can swoop in and buy with a fat contract are older and further into their career. Older players are more likely to be on the downside of the careers or to suffer injuries. Thus what appears to be a resource curse in baseball, as noted in the ESPN article I linked to above, may just be a temporary phenomenon.

Anomaly

Great piece by Rany Jazayerli on the mysterious formula of success of MLB pitcher Mark Buehrle.

In his 1984 Baseball Abstract, Bill James described “The Tommy John family of pitchers” as having “5 things in common.” James wrote:

1. They are all left-handed.
2. They are control-type pitchers.
3. They cut off the running game very well.
4. They receive excellent double-play support.
5. They allow moderate to low totals of home runs, lower-than-normal totals for a control pitcher.

This combination of abilities or tendencies enables this family of pitchers to be effective and to win at unusually high levels of hits per game, which then is another defining characteristic of the group.

Points four and five are essentially the same thing. James didn’t have access to ground ball/fly ball data 30 years ago, but he’s basically saying that Tommy John–style pitchers are extreme ground ball pitchers; ground balls lead to double plays and don’t lead to home runs. John himself allowed more than a hit per inning in his career, but many of those runners were wiped out on 6-4-3s.3

Buehrle would fit into the Tommy John family of pitchers perfectly, except for one small detail: He isn’t a ground ball pitcher. His career ground ball rate of 45 percent is just barely higher than league average, and thanks to spending most of his career at U.S. Cellular Field, he has surrendered 333 home runs in 3,009 career innings, a rate of exactly 1.00 per nine innings; John allowed 302 home runs in a career that spanned 4,710 innings. Thanks to all of those home runs in addition to hits surrendered on balls in play, Buehrle has allowed a higher batting average (.272) than John did (.265), even with a higher strikeout rate.
 

It's worth reading the piece to find out which two factors isolates as being enough to tip Buehrle over from failure to success, and just how fine that line is (as measured in outs and runs).

TMac on the mound

Former NBA star Tracy McGrady is trying to make it in baseball as a pitcher. The ESPN highlight is below, but more video of his pitches can be seen at this Deadspin compilation.

He was clocking in the low to mid-80's with his fastball. Not sure if he's still building up arm strength, but even with the potential downhill plane he can generate with his 6'8" frame, that's not really going to cut it.

Still, moving from almost any of the other major U.S. sports to baseball is unbelievably difficult because so many of its skills, especially hitting and pitching, are so vastly different and specialized. Think about most major league pitchers and how terrible they look when trying to bat, and then recall that many of those players were the best player on their high school team, both as hitters and pitchers, and you realize just how complex a skill that is. It's one reason Bo Jackson was such a legend, and deservedly so.

McGrady's 6'8" frame and long arms make pitching even more difficult because of the length of his lever. Recall how hard it was early in Randy Johnson's career for him to control his pitches. It's one reason you don't see a ton of super tall pitchers in MLB.

So McGrady is likely to fail, but it's a good story.

The genius of Greg Maddux

Growing up a Cubs fan, Greg Maddux was my favorite Cub ever, and the day Larry Himes let Maddux slip away as a free agent to the Atlanta Braves over a few million dollars remains one of the great stains on a heavily bloodied Cubs flag. I was so angry I sulked for weeks like a child whose parents have divorced.

One of the reasons I loved watching Maddux pitch was how unconventional his style was. Standing just 6'0" and weighing only 170 lbs, he didn't throw hard, and perhaps none of his pitches would be graded by scouts as an 80 (though his changeup was exceptional). His greatest strengths were his brain and his poise.

Many stories have been written about his understanding of both pitching and the hitters he was facing, but a recent article by Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post pinpoints a fascinating insight that might hold the secret to his mastery.

First, Maddux was convinced no hitter could tell the speed of a pitch with any meaningful accuracy. To demonstrate, he pointed at a road a quarter-mile away and said it was impossible to tell if a car was going 55, 65 or 75 mph unless there was another car nearby to offer a point of reference.

“You just can’t do it,” he said. Sometimes hitters can pick up differences in spin. They can identify pitches if there are different releases points or if a curveball starts with an upward hump as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. But if a pitcher can change speeds, every hitter is helpless, limited by human vision.

“Except,” Maddux said, “for that [expletive] Tony Gwynn.”

Because of this inherent ineradicable flaw in hitters, Maddux’s main goal was to “make all of my pitches look like a column of milk coming toward home plate.” Every pitch should look as close to every other as possible, all part of that “column of milk.” He honed the same release point, the same look, to all his pitches, so there was less way to know its speed — like fastball 92 mph, slider 84, change-up 76.

 

From reading The Sports Gene by David Epstein earlier last year, I learned that much of what a professional baseball hitter does is predicated on being able to read the motion of the pitcher and the rotation of the baseball. It's why major league hitters flailed helplessly against Olympic women's softball pitcher Jennie Finch despite the fact that her pitches reached home plate in the same amount of time as major league pitches and came with the larger hittable surface area of a softball.

It seemed that Maddux knew that long before the studies mentioned in Epstein's book. Amazing. But that's not all.

Then he explained that I couldn’t tell his pitches apart because his goal was late quick break, not big impressive break. The bigger the break, the sooner the ball must start to swerve and the more milliseconds the hitter has to react; the later the break, the less reaction time. Deny the batter as much information — speed or type of last-instant deviation — until it is almost too late.

But not entirely too late: Maddux didn’t want swings and misses for strikeouts, but preferred weak defensive contact and easy outs. He sought pitches that looked hittable and identical — getting the hitter to commit to swing — but weren’t. Any pitch that didn’t conform to this, even if it looked good, was scrapped as inefficient.

 

It's another secret of pitching that he seemed to have understood long before others: the batter must commit to swinging or not before a major league pitch has made it halfway to the plate, so after a certain point any unanticipated break in that pitch is not something the batter can react to. On TV, his sinking fastball with armside tailing action was a thing of beauty to watch, like spherical frisbee that always toppled to one side, but to the batter it must have been even more infuriating, like trying to swat a fly with chopstick.

Maddux was so good at inducing the weak contact he discussed above that he had a stat named after him: a Maddux is a complete game shutout requiring no more than 99 pitches.

Let's hope he writes a book about pitching someday, the pitching version of Ted Williams famous tome on hitting.