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Monday, August 19, 2019

Some People Don't Like Being Passed

A lot of folks don't like being passed. I happen to be one. It's no secret that I'm a bit hyper-competitive, which can lead me to "detect" competitive situations when none really exist. Like when I'm being passed. It does have its advantages, though. My competitiveness is a major reason why I played professional baseball, earned a blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do, and obtained a PhD from Stanford.

Hyper-competitiveness can also lead to rather humorous situations. I've noticed this when biking to and from one of my offices away from the office (i.e., various coffee shops in the area). When doing so, I usually take the Los Gatos Creek Trail, and I apparently bike fairly close to the "flow of traffic." That is, I do not pass or am passed by too many other bike riders. The exception to this are bikers on road bikes. Their bikes are much lighter, have thinner tires, and typically use higher quality derailleurs. Thus, they are far more likely to pass me than I am to pass them.

Interestingly, on those few occasions when I do pass a biker on a road bike, many of them seem to take offense, and as soon as they realize what has happened, they speed up and pass by me. Once they do so, however, it's not unusual for them to slow down, which means I eventually pass them again, leading them speed up once again so they can pass me. Recently, I caught and passed a gentlemen on a road bike, and predictably he soon sped up and caught up with me. He, however, didn't try to pass. Instead, he slid in close behind me (known as drafting) and stayed their for several miles. No doubt he rationalized his behavior as smart biking, but I'm pretty sure he just doesn't like getting passed.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Us vs. Them: When Winning Becomes Everything

Social identity theory, which I have written about before ("Uncivil Agreement: Social Identity and Political Polarization"), argues that we derive our sense of self-worth through a combination of our personal achievements and the accomplishments of the groups to which we belong. Because much of our self-worth is tied to our group affiliations, it’s quite easy to believe that our groups are superior to others and to favor in-group members over out-group members. It can also lead to the tendency to deride other groups that present a challenge to our own group. In fact, putting down members of other groups, such as political liberals making fun of Trump followers, can make us feel quite pleased about ourselves and our place in this world. All of this is somewhat captured in the graph below:

What’s more, it doesn’t take much to activate a sense of group identity. Social psychologists have run experiments where they’ve asked participants to perform a simple task, such as counting the number of dots on a screen or evaluating a paintings by different artists, and then randomly assigning them to groups but telling the participants that they’ve been assigned based on how they performed on the tasks. The participants are then asked to allocate some type of reward (e.g., money) to either members of their own group or members of another group, and most allocate more rewards to in-group rather than out-group members. This even occurred when the experiment was designed so that participants would walk away with more rewards if they didn’t favor in-group members. What’s interesting is that the participants typically didn’t know one another prior to the experiment, and after they’d been assigned to a group, they didn’t meet other members of their group (e.g., they were all assigned to different rooms). In fact, sometimes their group members were nothing more than a computer program.

Such experiments capture what is known as a minimal group paradigm; that is, they use minimal manipulations in order to trigger identification with a group. Imagine how much stronger one’s loyalty to a group and its members can be when we interact with other group members on a regular basis. Subcultural identity theory has been used to help explain prejudice and discrimination, why some religious groups thrive and others don’t, and the emergence of isolated terrorist cells that identify with groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda.

An important implication of these studies is that sometimes “winning” becomes more important than choosing a course of action that benefits everyone: that is, not only members of your own group but also members of your opponents. And it isn’t just “winning.” Often it means beating down your opponents, punishing them, like shooting 3’s when you’re leading by 30 with a minute to go or stealing bases in the top of the 9th when you’re winning by 10 runs or more. Most of us have probably witnessed this in some of the organizations we have worked for. An office or department splits into two over one or more issues, and both sides seem more intent on winning than doing what is best. Of course, both sides convince themselves that what they’re doing to win really is what’s best for the organization. 

The importance of “winning” has been highlighted by the political scientist, Lilliana Mason, who draws on social identity theory to help explain the high level of polarization in American society today (“Uncivil Agreement: Social Identity and Political Polarization”). She presents evidence that although Republicans and Democrats are not nearly as far apart on policy issues as many assume they are, both sides (and she means both sides) are far more interested in winning (e.g., politically punishing the other side) than they are in compromising, even if the latter might be better for the nation as a whole. She sees no short-term solution for the current situation although she has hope for the long-term future. That said, I’d be willing to bet that electing less polarizing candidates and not making fun of our opponents would certainly help in the short-term. Whether we (and by “we,” I mean both sides) will do this or not, however, is very uncertain.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Is a World Series Win Inevitable for the Dodgers?

Is it inevitable that the Dodgers will win the World Series? Not necessarily, but the odds that they will are certainly high. Maybe not this year, but with their nose for finding talent, they'll probably have several chances to bring home a ring. As I've noted before, winning championships involves more than simply assembling a talented team. You also need to have a little luck. Sometimes luck runs against you (e.g., bad bounces, untimely injuries), sometimes it doesn't, which is why teams are far more likely to win championships if they consistently reach the playoffs, something the Dodgers have been doing in spades lately.

In baseball the St. Louis Cardinals have been the best at doing this historically. They're a small market team. They don't possess the payroll of the Yankees (or the Dodgers), but they always seem to be in the hunt for a playoff spot. In football, the Patriots have been great at doing this. Since 2001, they've reached the playoffs every year except 2002 and 2008, and of course they've won 6 Super Bowls. However, people forget there was a 10 year gap between their third (2004/2005) and fourth (2014/2015) titles. In basketball, the San Antonio Spurs come to mind. Unlike the Lakers for which recruiting talent hasn't ever been too difficult, the Spurs are in a small market and not the destination of choice for many NBA players. Still, at least since Gregg Popovich took over as head coach, they almost always reach the playoffs. In fact, this past season the Spurs matched an NBA record for most consecutive playoff appearances with 22. I have little doubt they'll beat the record next year.

Will the Dodgers follow suit? They are blessed to play in a large market and with a talented front office. Giants fans such as myself hope that by snatching Farhan Zaidi from the Dodgers, we may have weakened their front office somewhat. Still, it looks like we're at least a couple of years away from making another run at a championship, and that may not be soon enough to prevent the Dodgers from reaching (and finally winning) a World Series.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Retool or Rebuild: A Choice, Not a Question

Retool or rebuild. That's not a question. It's a choice. If championship teams don't constantly retool, they'll be forced to rebuild (or watch other teams take a run at the championship). In baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals are the quintessential team when it comes to retooling. They never appear to intentionally engage in a rebuild, but almost every year, they're in the hunt for a playoff spot. Given that winning championships always involve a bit of luck, the more times you can make the playoffs, the more likely you'll walk away as champs from time to time. It's no accident that the Cardinals have won 11 World Series titles, which ranks second only to the Yankees, a team that historically has operated with far larger budgets than the Cardinals.

Much to the chagrin of Giants fans, in recent years, the Dodgers have become experts at retooling. They've won six National League West titles in a row (2013-2018) and appear to be well on their way to a 7th. And while there has been some continuity in terms of players from year to year, there are only a couple on this year's team who were on the 2013 team. The only consolation for Giants fans in the face of this dominance is that the Dodgers have yet to claim a World Series title.

By contrast, the Giants have failed in their attempt to retool. They held on to players too long and traded away prospects for older players in the hope of making another run at a pennant. Now, they've been forced to rebuild, and will soon be unloading top pitchers like Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith with the goal of acquiring future prospects. Moreover, it looks like it won't be until 2021 that they become serious contenders again. It is possible that they could surprise everyone in 2020 if a few prospects pan out sooner and/or better than expected, but few of us are holding our breath. Then again, 2020 is an even year...

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Pete Buttegieg Won't Save American Christianity, But He'll Probably Help It

Back when we lived in Bend, Oregon, in the 1990s, a proposition qualified for the state ballot that would've have limited the rights of gays and lesbians, and the "mainline" Bend ministerial association decided to put together a pamphlet opposing it. When I received a draft, I looked it over, thought it was fine, and passed it on to to the Associate Minister of the local United Methodist Church. After he read it, he handed it back to me and remarked, "There's nothing remotely Christian about this." And he was right. There were references to Franklin and Jefferson, but there was nothing about Jesus, which strikes me as bit odd if not sad. Buddhists routinely cite the Buddha, Muslims frequently quote the Prophet, but theologically-liberal Christians seem reluctant, almost embarrassed, to talk about Jesus. Perhaps it's because we're afraid of what others might think. Remember how the media sneered at George W. Bush who, after being asked who is favorite philosopher was, replied, "Jesus."? Such reluctance has led me to quip on more than one occasion that "we liberal Christians are more likely to quote Jefferson than we are Jesus."

This is too bad because so many Americans have absolutely no idea that not every one who calls him or herself a Christian believes God helped elect Donald Trump to make America great again. Instead, many of us consider Trump to be amoral at best and find the repeated attempts by some Christians to explain away his behavior as theologically troubling. But it's more than troubling. Explaining (or rationalizing) away Trump's behavior calls into question the very legitimacy of the Church. If Trump's behavior is fine, then what's "appropriate? It's no wonder that so many young Americans feel disaffected from the church.

And that's where Pete Buttegieg comes in. He's a theologically-liberal Christian who isn't afraid to talk about Jesus. As the Economist recently noted, he happily fuses liberalism with tradition. If asked, I don't know if he would name Jesus as his favorite philosopher, but it wouldn't surprise me if he did. And that, I think, is a good thing. More Americans need to know that not all Christians believe Trump's the greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, many of us count ourselves among the majority of Americans who did not vote for him, think he's morally challenged, and is not making America great again. At best, he's turned us into a laughing stock. And while I don't think Mayor Pete will "save" the church, he'll almost certainly improve the perceptions that many people have of it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Should the Giants Pull the Plug?

About a month ago, I speculated that the Giants had a good chance of outperforming the predictions of experts ("How Will the Giants do in 2019?"). I argued that they had decent starting pitching, great defense, and an excellent bullpen. The primary wildcard was their offense, but if their core position players (Posey, Panik, Belt, Crawford, and Longoria) ended up hitting close to their career averages, then the Giants might send manager Bruce Bochy into retirement with a winning season. They probably wouldn't make the playoffs, but at least they'd do okay.

Well, 50+ games into the season, it's becoming clear that Bochy's last year won't be a memorable one. Although the defense and bullpen have been more than adequate (Mark Melancon being a notable exception), starting pitching has been a disappointment, and the offense has been terrible. For the most part, the core position players have not hit. Only Joe Panik is close to his career average, and it wouldn't surprise me that by season's end, Buster Posey closes in on his. However, Longoria, Belt, and Crawford are struggling, and there have been few signs that they will turn things around anytime soon. All three look as if they can't catch up with a good fastball. It's hard not to wonder if the increase in average pitch velocity is taking a toll on their performance ("Pitch Velocity and Aging Curves").

As far as pitching, of the starters, only Madison Bumgarner is showing flashes of his former self. The rest of the members of the original starting rotation -- Jeff Samardzija, Derek HollandDereck Rodríguez, and Drew Pomeranz -- have struggled. Holland has been sent to the bullpen, Rodriguez was relegated to AAA to regain his command, Samardzija has continued to give up home runs at an alarming rate, and Pomeranz, in spite of displaying absolutely wicked stuff at times, has pitched inconsistently.

What should the Giants do? I wouldn't pull the plug on the season. I hate giving up. Nevertheless, at a minimum the Giants should begin lighting a few fires for the future. To begin with, it's probably time for the Giants to move (keep) Samardzija, Holland, and Pomeranz to the bullpen and let their young starters (Dereck Rodríguez, Andrew Suarez, Tyler Beede, and Shaun Anderson) take over. All four have demonstrated they can win in AAA, so there's no point in wasting their arms there. Instead, the Giants should use this year to find out whether they can win at the major league level. In other words, the Giants should seek to make this season as "productive" as possible. They may not win any more games. They might even lose more. But, come September, they will have a pretty good sense which of their young starters, if any, will be a part of a future Giants' rotation.

As far as position players go, few, if any, are trade bait. Some are saddled with long contracts, and others appear to no longer have what it takes to be attractive to other teams. If possible, I'd jettison Longoria, but that'll be tough to do with his contract. For now, I'd keep Crawford, Panik, and Belt. Panik might have a few productive offensive years left in him, and all three are playing good defense. Still, the Giants should see if they can pick up potential replacements through trades over the next couple of months (see the next paragraph). I don't see the Giants ever trading Posey, but they might want to move him to 1B soon in order to extend his career. He can't afford too many more concussions, and his knees won't hold up forever. Plus, Joey Bart may be ready for the big leagues by the middle of next season.

Only Bumgarner and the bullpen offer the Giants much hope of getting some decent prospects. I'm not sure how much the Giants can get for Bumgarner, but they should get a pretty decent return for closer, Will Smith. Several teams seem interested in him, including the Milwaukee Brewers, which is where the Giants got him from in the first place. The Brewers might be willing to give up quite a few prospects, including Lucas Erceg, who is from the Bay Area, if it looks like they'll reach the postseason. I hate to see Bumgarner go, but if he's traded, I hope he lands with the Houston Astros, which looks like the team most likely to keep the Dodgers from winning the World Series. That would offer me (and other Giants fans) some consolation for losing one of the greatest Giants of all time.

P. S. It'd be nice if the Giants could figure out a way to rid themselves of Mark Melancon, who has turned out to be one of the worst investments the Giants have made in recent years, that would be great. It would help make room for players who actually might help the Giants get back to the playoffs in the future.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Pitch Velocity and Aging Curves

On numerous occasions I have railed with the training regimens imposed on young arms by today's youth baseball leagues, primarily because it has led to an exponential increase in arm injuries (""). That said, it has also led to an increase in the number of pitchers who can throw exceptionally hard. Pitchers who threw 100 mph used to be rare. Now, they're becoming more and more common. As an article in the Washington Post ("Velocity is strangling baseball — and its grip keeps tightening") recently noted:
Im 2008, there were 196 pitches thrown at 100 mph or higher... In 2018, there were 1,320, a nearly sevenfold increase. In 2008, only 11 pitchers averaged 95 mph or higher; in 2018, 74 did. Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees and Jordan Hicks of the St. Louis Cardinals have both been clocked at 105 mph.
Average pitch velocity has also increased. Not at quite the rate of 100 mph pitches and pitchers, but,  as the graph below from 538 illustrates ("Where Have All The Crafty Pitchers Gone?"), the increase has been steady and substantial for the last several seasons.

Unsurprisingly, this increase has led to a decrease in batting averages and a rise in the number of strikeouts. In fact, 2018 marked the first time in the history of major league baseball that there were more strikeouts per game than hits.

Not only is this decline in offensive production because pitchers are throwing harder, but also because teams are using more pitchers each game. It is rare for a starter to finish a game. There is too much evidence that shows that a starting pitcher's effectiveness decreases the third time through the batting order. Thus, teams are increasingly using relievers, most of whom are only expected to pitch an inning or less, which means that they can throw as hard as they want without worrying about having to pace themselves. Thus, while in the past, in later innings batters could "look forward" to a pitcher's whose velocity had fallen from the start of the game and they had already seen at least twice, now they have to face a fresh (and unseen) arm.

What I'm curious about is the effect that the increase in pitch velocity, if it remains unchecked, will have on the aging curves of position players. What's an aging curve? An aging curve measures the average improvement or decline expected based on a player’s age. Here's a brief description from FanGraphs ("The Beginner’s Guide To Aging Curves"):
Human beings generally can’t run as fast at 36 as they can at 26. They get injured and tired more easily. Sometimes their vision or hand-eye coordination diminishes. No two players bodies age in exactly the same way, but overall there are consistent trends, [but]... players are typically much better overall at 27 then they are at 37.
The graph below plots expected or average runs above average (RAA) by player age. As it indicates, an average player peaks in terms of run production around the 26 years old, and at around 30-32 years old, their productivity drops below that of an average 21 year old. Better players tend to age slower or at least are still productive into their early 30s, but what this graph (and corresponding data) suggests is that when a player reaches 30, it is probably time to start looking for a replacement.

So, what might the increase in pitch velocity have on aging curves? Well, it's not hard to imagine that having to hit a high-90 to low-100mph fastball becomes increasingly difficult as reaction time diminishes. Thus, I wouldn't be surprised that the long term effect could be to push the curve to the left. That is, players might peak at a younger age or their decline could occur more rapidly.

The decrease in offense has corresponded with a decline in attendance. People may lament the steroid era, but it brought people out to the ball park. Not any more. Attendance has declined for six straight seasons. In 2018, average attendance was 28,659 per game, which is 13 percent from its 2007 peak. Thus, it is no surprise major league baseball (MLB) is looking into ways to address the issue. Back in 1968 when batting averages hit an all-time low, the MLB lowered the mound 5 inches (from 15 to 10) and reduced the strike zone. Now, they are talking about moving the mound back. The last time MLB moved the mound back was in 1893. Back then, they moved it back 10 feet, and batting averages jumped 35 points and strikeouts dropped by 34 percent. I don't anticipate anything quite so drastic. In fact, beginning in the second half of the 2020 Atlantic League season, the mound will be moved back by two feet. It will be interesting to see its effects.