Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jeremy Lin and Conventional Wisdom

Recently I wrote about how the so-called sports experts sometimes get so hung up on a particular skill set that they can't see a great player when he or she is staring them in the face ("Moneyball and Conventional Wisdom: Or, Why Mitch Ravizza Deserves to Play College Football").

This post happened to coincide with the meteoric rise of New York Knick basketball player, Jeremy Lin, who in spite of a stellar high school career, was not recruited by a major college basketball program. As some readers probably already know, Lin played high school basketball at Palo Alto High where he led his team to a 32-1 record and the Division II state championship. He dreamed of playing basketball at UCLA but attended Harvard because Harvard was the only school that guaranteed him a spot on the roster; the rest, including UCLA, Cal, and Stanford (which is literally right across the street from where Lin played high school basketball) invited him to try out as a walk-on. Evidently, scouts didn't think he was tall or fast enough to play college ball. It appears that they were wrong.

Lin is not the only high school star who talent was missed by the experts. Take Aaron Rogers, for example.  He dreamed of playing for Bobby Bowden at Florida State, but Bowden wasn't interested. Rogers almost "retired" after high school to pursue a career in Law, but he decided to give it one more shot, and went to play at the local junior college where, as he did in high school, he set a number of records. This time the Cal Bears noticed and recruited him to play there where he became a star. He, of course, was drafted by the Green Bay Packers where played behind Bret Farve for a few years (lucky for him he didn't have to play for Mike Nolan in San Francisco) and then became the team's starting quarterback. And just in case you missed it, the Packers won the Super Bowl in February 2011, and this past season he was selected as the NFL's MVP. I bet he's glad he didn't become a lawyer (not to mention Packer fans).

And then there's Golden State Warrior guard Stephen Curry. In high school he led his team to three conference titles and three state playoff appearances and was named all-state, all-conference, and the team's MVP. He wanted to play basketball at Virginia Tech, which is where his Dad had played and starred, but he was only 6'1"at the time and the Hokies weren't interested and only offered him a chance to make the team as a walk-on. In fact, Curry didn't receive an offer from any major college program. Consequently, he ended up at Davidson College, which before he arrived, hadn't won a NCAA tournament game since 1969. While there he led Davidson to the NCAA tournament and was a first-team All-America selection. Not bad for a guy who wasn't good enough to play for the Hokies.

Are these stories merely anecdotal or are they representative of what often occurs in the world of sports? A recent Freakonomics blog post (not podcast) takes on this subject ("Football Freakonomics: What Can Linsanity Teach Us About the Upcoming NFL Draft?") and looks that the NFL draft. It finds that great players are often overlooked, suggesting that perhaps the metrics that many assume to be indicators of future greatness may be flawed. That, of course, is what the book Moneyball is all about, so perhaps what the NFL needs is its version of Billy Beane. Perhaps college sports could benefit from a reevaluation of which metrics really matter and which ones don't as well.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Snow, Ice and 4-Wheel Drive

I just returned from a whirl-wind tour of Oregon with my son Brendan so that he could tour the University of Oregon campus. We flew into Portland late Thursday night, toured U of O on Friday, drove to Bend afterward, skiied Mt. Bachelor on Saturday, and then drove back to Portland on Sunday in time to catch a flight home. Eugene was sunny the day we toured U of O, but the rain arrived shortly thereafter, catching up with us in Bend where it dumped more a couple of feet of snow.

Since it's been about 15 years since we lived in Bend, I'm a bit out of practice driving on icy roads, so I'm sure I was more cautious driving than I was a few years back when snow and ice were my constant companions (at least during the winter). Nevertheless, I was stunned by how fast some people drive on ice, especially those in four-wheel drive vehicles who seem to be under the mistaken impression that four-wheel drive actually helps one drive on ice, which of course it doesn't. Thus, I wasn't surprised that the only accident we saw was a four-wheel drive SUV lying on its back in a ditch (I don't think anyone was hurt).

Of course, this lone incident doesn't count as a random sample, but back when we lived in Oregon, the majority of the accidents we saw during the winter were four-wheel drive SUV's, usually the result of drivers who overestimated the ability of four-wheel drive to keep them from sliding on ice. I guess folks never learn.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What Media Bias?

It is almost an article of faith that the media are biased. Liberals are convinced that because the big newspapers are owned by large corporations, their reporting tilts to the right, at least with regards to economic matters. That is certainly the story one gets when reading reports from FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). Conservatives are just as convinced that because the substantial majority of journalists are political liberals, their reporting tilts to the left, especially when it comes to topics such as religion.

Unfortunately, it is fairly easy to "prove" one side or the other. All you have to do is cherry-pick those news stories that support your case and ignore all other evidence to the contrary. What is needed is a systematic evaluation of the media based on either a randomly selected set of news reports from media outlets or on all news reports from media outlets over a given period of time. Alas, those kind of data are hard to come by, which is why it is so easy for both liberals and conservatives to dig up evidence supporting their point of view.

That said, methods for the analysis of texts have improved substantially in recent years, and as a result a number of interesting studies have been conducted that are helping to sort the wheat from the chaff. These haven't settled the debate, of course. A lot more work needs to be done, but they have certainly helped scholars get a better handle on this debate.

Media bias is the topic of a recent Freakonomics podcast, "How Biased Is Your Media?". It nicely summarizes a number of these new studies and presents some interesting statistics, such as which media outlet is the most conservative (it isn't FOX news but FOX isn't too far behind the leader) and which is the most liberal (you'll be very surprised here). One thing these results highlight is the divide between the news room and the editorial board. One would think that at a given outlet the opinions of the two would correlate highly. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don't.

The podcast also discusses studies that have identified the most liberal and most conservative members of Congress along with the most popular phrases employed by Democrats and Republicans. All in all, it is a very interesting podcast.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Just in Time for President's Day: The Faith of US Presidents

Here's a fascinating podcast from Research on Religion about the faith of U.S. Presidents ("Gary Scott on Presidential Faith"). This interview with Professor Gary S. Smith (author of the 2006 book, "Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush") looks at the faiths of several U.S. Presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Here's a description of the podcast from the Research on Religion website:
A week before Presidents’ Day, we visit with the chair of the Department of History at Grove City College, Prof. Gary Scott Smith to survey the faith of various presidents in US history. Our discussion opens with some thoughts as to why it is important to understand the religious underpinnings of the occupants of the White House. Professor Smith then reveals who he considers both our most and least religious presidents. Our coverage of individual presidents proceeds slightly out of chronological order as we first dip into the interesting spiritual background of Dwight Eisenhower and how his beliefs reflected the nature of the 1950s. We then step back in time to discuss Thomas Jefferson and the controversies surrounding his theological leanings. Prof. Smith offers up his perspective on Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” quote. We then cover George Washington and Abraham Lincoln before moving into the 20th century. Whilst in the 20th century, our survey of presidents encompasses the beliefs and practices of Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. We briefly make reference to Richard Nixon before moving to our two most recent presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Finally, Gary offers up some thoughts on whether or not Mormonism will become an issue for Mitt Romney should he secure the nomination of the Republican Party in the 2012 elections. At the very end of the interview, Tony professes ignorance about much of what was discussed and wonders why he is so lacking in knowledge. Prof. Smith provides us a few thoughts about the state of historical education as pertains to the faith of our presidents.
You may be surprised to hear whom Smith thinks was the least devout President he discusses (hint: it isn't Thomas Jefferson) as well as the surprising faith and practices of Presidents who are not generally thought of as being religious. If you have the time, it's worth a listen. I suspect that Smith's book is a good read as well (it explores the faith of eleven Presidents; Smith is currently working on a sequel, so to speak).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Moneyball and the Science of Hitting

In an earlier post, I listed my top 10 baseball books, one of which was Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, a behind-the-scenes look at how Oakland A's General Manager, Billy Beane, used (and continues to use) statistical analysis pioneered by folks such as Bill James (e.g., Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1977-1988) to find undervalued baseball talent in an extremely competitive market. The book's chapters focus on a number of different subjects that help tease out Beane's unique approach to evaluating baseball players.

Some have pointed at the A's recent struggles that Beane's approach is flawed, that it doesn't work, that he just got lucky for a few years. That's certainly one possible explanation. A more likely one is that other general managers have followed his lead and many now use the same approach he does (especially since Moneyball was published). This, of course, cuts into Beane's competitive advantage, making it harder for him to find talented ballplayers that others have yet to notice (and thus affordable for the A's). As any economist will tell you, in a free market successful ideas are imitated and adapted rather quickly, and there's no reason to suspect that the baseball market is any different in this regard than are other markets.

A chapter that all baseball coaches (i.e., professional, college, high school, youth) should read is Chapter 8 ("Giambi's Hole"), which explores why some hitters are extremely effective at producing runs and others are not. It draws, in part, on the approach to hitting that former Boston Red Sox and Hall of Famer Ted Williams's followed and outlined in his book, "The Science of Hitting." In it Williams argues that in order to be a great hitter, one has to be patient. One has to resist swinging at just any strike and instead focus on those pitches where there's a high probability they'll hit the ball well. That's because every hitter has their hot zones (i.e., where they can hit the ball well almost every time) and their holes (i.e., where even if they make contact, they probably won't hit the ball well), and Williams was no exception. But what separates great hitters from good ones is learning how to lay off pitches in their holes and only swing at pitches in their hot zones, at least until they have two strikes on them. This, of course, requires patience and the willingness to hit with two strikes. It also means that sometimes you will strike out. But it is also what one needs to do to be a great hitter.

To illustrate what he meant Williams mapped out his strike zone into 77 different "zones" (see above and to the right and to the left). His hot zone was over the middle of the plate and somewhat up in the strike zone. He believed he could hit pitches in that area in the high .300's and low .400's, so when a pitcher threw a pitch there, he would typically swing at it. By contrast, he had a hard time hitting low and outside pitches. In fact, he estimated that the best he could do was hit .230 or .240 if he swung at such pitches, so he didn't until he got two strikes on him. He reasoned there was no point because even if he did make contact, the odds of him getting a hit were quite low.

Williams's approach is the one I took when I played (my Dad picked up the book when I was in high school) and probably one of the reasons why I went further (i.e., playing college and minor league baseball) than did a lot of guys who had more raw talent than I did. It is also what I attempted to teach the players on the Little League teams I coached. Every year, I trotted out Williams's book and talked to them about learning how to wait for their pitch instead of just wailing away in the batter's box. It didn't always take, but sometimes it did.

In Chapter 8 Lewis discusses how in Jason Giambi's prime, he took a similar approach to hitting that Williams did. He knew where the hole in his swing was. So until he got two strikes on him, he didn't swing at pitches that were thrown there. He would lay off them and wait for pitches in his hot zone where his odds of getting a hit were good. Similarly, Lewis notes that Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was a Williams-like hitter. With less than two strikes, he refused to swing at pitches in the strike zone that he couldn't hit well. Amazingly, some Red Sox managers and coaches used to get on Boggs for not being more aggressive even though Boggs was one of the greatest hitters of all time.

The focus of the chapter, though, isn't on Williams, Giambi, or Boggs but on Scott Hatteberg, who didn't overwhelm people with his athleticism but was extremely effective at generating runs. His patience at the plate produced several walks and a number of timely hits, such as his late-inning home run that helped the A's set a record for most consecutive games won (this home run was featured in the Moneyball movie staring Brad Pitt). More importantly, his patience helped the A's score a lot of runs, which in the grand scheme of things, is what matters when you're trying to win games.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Spiritual Elites on the Left and Right

Some years ago I learned of a conversation between a couple of evangelical acquaintances of mine concerning Christian Rock music. They were discussing the merits of Amy Grant. One was a fan, but the other thought Amy's music lacked depth and was only suitable for "baby Christians" but not mature Christians like him. His reference to "baby Christians,"drew on a passage from the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians in which he criticized the Corinthians for their lack of spiritual maturity:
Dear brothers and sisters, when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to mature Christians. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in the Christian life. I had to feed you with milk and not with solid food, because you couldn’t handle anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your own sinful desires. You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your own desires? You are acting like people who don’t belong to the Lord. (1 Cor. 1-3).
Although Paul certainly did not lack for confidence (the New Testament scholar, Krister Stendahl wrote he had a "robust conscience" -- see his "Paul Among Jews and Gentiles"), I hesitate to call him a spiritual elitist. I think he was just trying to motivate the Corinthians into getting their house in order. However, when I hear people refer to others as "baby Christians," my first thought is that they are.

Spiritual elitism is anything but new, of course. As New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman notes:
Christianity in nearly all its forms has always had a spiritual elite, the insiders who have a special insight into the true meaning of the faith, a cut above the rest of us in their nuanced understanding of God, the world, and our place in it. The Gnostics virtually fetishized this notion of an elite, a group of people in the know, who recognized the true nature of the church's profession of faith, of its Scriptures, of its sacraments (Bart Ehrman, "Lost Christianities," pp. 132-133).
Spiritual elitism isn't limited to theological conservatives, either. We have our modern day gnostics on the left who believe that conventional religion is shallow and that they're in possession of knowledge (i.e., gnosis) that gives their faith more depth (i.e., it makes it better). To be sure, there's a fine line between being confident in what one believes and thinking that one faith's is better than others. Unfortunately, there seem to be quite a few folks, on both the left and the right, who have crossed that line. Perhaps a little humble pie is in order.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Benefits of Smiling

Guess what? Not only does smiling make others around you feel more comfortable, but it actually helps you live longer. Read all about it here ("Smiling is good for you - and an area of scientific study by some seriously smart researchers"), or see the TED talk here ("Ron Gutman: The hidden power of smiling").

So, what are you waiting for?


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Moneyball and Conventional Wisdom: Or, Why Mitch Ravizza Deserves to Play College Football

My son has recently attended several baseball prospect camps, which are typically hosted by colleges looking for potential prospects. The coaches put the players through the usual paces: batting, fielding, throwing, pitching, and running the 40-yard dash. As I watched some of the boys run, I couldn't help be reminded of how coaches and scouts often get so hung up on players' raw skills that they sometimes can't see the forest through the trees. Sometimes speed becomes more important than whether someone can actually play the game. To be sure, speed is important, but it doesn't make a baseball player. There have been plenty of great ballplayers over the years who have looked like they were pulling a piano when they were running down to first base. For me, this hangup on speed worked to my advantage since I ran rather well, but when I was in pro ball, I played with guys who could run like the wind but couldn't hit their way out of a paper bag.

And this brings me to a story told about Billy Beane by Michael Lewis in the first chapter of Moneyball. In 1980 a handful of professional baseball scouts attended a workout that included Billy Beane and four other prospects (one of whom, Garry Harris, I played with later that summer after we were both drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays). They ran, hit, threw at the behest of the scouts, and of the five, Billy was considered to be the best. He could throw harder, run faster, and hit farther than any of the other four. He was seen as being almost a sure thing, a can't miss prospect.

Except, he wasn't. Beane had all the tools, but he couldn't put them all together in order to be the superstar almost everyone thought he should be. And that is what led Beane to realize that there's more to being a great player than having all the right tools. In fact, Beane realized that were a lot of players who'd had successful careers but lacked the requisite skills that many of the so-called experts thought necessary in order to someone to succeed in professional baseball.

And, in many ways, that's what Moneyball is all about. As the general manager for the Oakland A's where he had to work with an extremely limited budget, Beane often ignored the expert opinion of his scouts and sought out players who didn't have great arms or could run fast or were great infielders, but were real good at either generating runs (i.e., position players) or keeping the opposition from getting on base (i.e., pitchers). The chapters on Scott Hatteberg (Chapter 8 -- "Scott Hatteberg, Pickin' Machine") and Chad Bradford (Chapter 10 -- "Anatomy of an Undervalued Pitcher") are especially illuminating in this regard (I plan to return to them in a later post).

An this brings me to Mitch Ravizza, a local high school quarterback who has been nothing short of amazing in his years as the starting quarterback for the Willow Glen Rams (see YouTube video below). He was named to the first team All-CCS (Central Coast Section) football team two years in a row. But in spite of his accomplishments, Mitch has hardly been recruited to play college football. I suspect it's because  they don't think he's tall enough to see and throw over defensive linemen at the college level. It certainly can't be anything else. He can run like a deer and throw the football a country mile.

If my memory serves me right, the experts thought Joe Montana wasn't tall enough to see or throw over defensive linemen at the professional level -- we all know how well that prognostication turned out to be! Which is why I think this is one of those times when the conventional wisdom needs to be ignored. Ravizza deserves to play college football. He's that good. I hope some college coach takes a flyer on him. I'm almost certain he won't be disappointed.

Full Disclosure: Four years ago I coached Mitch when he played for my Little League Juniors (13-14 year-old) baseball team.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cell Phones, Worship and Eternal Damnation

Here's something funny that was reported in the February 8th issue of The Christian Century (p. 9):
In a video shown by the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Burbank, California, congregants are reminded to turn off all cell phones and all electronic and messaging devices. The video warns that a fine of $25 will be assessed for a cell phone that goes off during announcements, $50 if it goes off during prayer concerns. Anyone whose phone goes off during the sermon... is going to hell.
I think the last part was meant as a joke... (not a bad fundraising device, though).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Faith, Sports, and Pressure

Recently I commented on the faith and demonstrations of faith by Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow ("A Hijab Fencer, The Flying Scot, and Tim Tebow"). In an interesting piece by David Briggs of the Association of Religion and Data Archive's (the ARDA), he argues that research suggest that prayer helps players (and anxious father's) calm their nerves and, in turn, enhance their performance ("Prayer, Tebowing and the Super Bowl: The evolving relationship of sports and religion"). Here's the abstract of his column:
The success of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and his personal expressions of faith - including the addition of a prayer posture now known as Tebowing - has reignited conversation about the relationship between sports and religion. Some secular commentators argue against any breach in what they would like to see as a wall separating faith from the playing field. Many religious folk fear too great an accommodation with big-time athletics can promote worship of false idols. As Super Bowl XLVI approaches, however, research provides evidence that for both athlete and fan, prayer may serve to help them cope with the pressures of sports, and help them keep in perspective that, in the end, it is just a game.
It's worth reading and considering.