Thursday, October 30, 2014

The 2014 World Series Was a Classic

Evidently, a few folks have been complaining about the two teams that ended up in the World Series ("So What If These Aren’t The Two Best Teams In Baseball?"). Both the Giants and the Royals won fewer than 90 games this season, and more than one person has argued that neither team were the best team of their respective leagues. This assumes, of course, that regular season records accurately reflect which team is the best team, but that is debatable. As I noted in an earlier post, a team that, on average, wins 90 games a season, in a given season will win from 78 to 109 games (although the extremes are unlikely). Thus, the teams with the most wins during the regular season is not necessarily the best team. As FiveThirtyEight notes
Major League Baseball’s regular season (not even the playoffs, which are almost universally regarded as a crapshoot, but the 162-game regular season) is too short to definitively allow the best team to stand out from the pack. Even if MLB expanded to a schedule of 1,000 games per team (!!), the true best team in baseball would have less than a 54 percent chance of producing the regular season’s best record.
Moreover, each team plays more games against teams within its division, than without, which makes a straight up comparison of records problematic.

That said, MLB could return to a playoff system with only two leagues (no divisions), but does that guarantee that the World Series will be an exhibition of great baseball? No. In fact, the current system is probably better in that regard because it raises the probability that the two teams that reach the World Series will actually be playing good baseball.

And for those of you who missed it, this year's World Series was a classic. Probably the best since the Cardinals rallied and came back against the Rangers in 2011 ("One of the Best World Series Game Ever?") and maybe as good as the 1979 World Series when the Pittsburg Pirates ("We Are Family") beat the Baltimore Orioles in seven games (winning, like the Giants, their final game on the road). Next year, you might want to tune in (even if your team isn't playing).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

One Last (Anti) Rant (at Least Until Next Season)

Several times over this past baseball season, I've ranted about how MLB managers often go to their closers before they need (or even have) to ("Not to Beat a Dead Horse" "The Closer Temptation is Hard to Resist" "MLB's Ridiculous Obsession with Closers" "Not Everyone Can Throw Like Mariano Rivera"). My belief is that if a pitcher's throwing well, there's no reason to take him out. In fact, one of the reasons why the Giants even made it to the World Series this year is because on two occasions (once against the Cardinals and once against the Nationals), the opposing managers (both of whom played for the Giants at one time) pulled a pitcher who was throwing well, and the Giants promptly scored either tying or go-ahead runs.

As a Giants fan, I'm happy to report that this past Sunday San Francisco Giants manager, Bruce Bochy, did not succumb to the "closer temptation" but instead let Giant pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, finish (and win) the game. Perhaps in the future more MLB managers will take notice. Then again, maybe they won't, and the Giants will be able to win a few more World Series.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Terrorism and ISIS

I've previously noted that the stereotype that many people have of Islamic terrorists is mistaken. They are often portrayed as religious fanatics from poverty stricken backgrounds with little or no education. That, however, is not the case. As Marc Sageman noted in his 2004 study ("Understanding Terrorist Networks"), most Islamic terrorists come from a middle-class backgrounds, attended secular grade schools, weren't terribly religious as children, and have attained a higher level of education than average person from their respective countries of origin. Other studies have turned up similar findings:
  • Alan Krueger of Princeton University found that there is little evidence that terrorists are poor or poorly educated
  • Claudia Berrebi of the RAND Corporation compared the characteristics of of suicide-bombers recruited by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the West Bank and Gaza to the general Palestinian population and found that almost 60% of the suicide bombers had a high school education, which is a higher percentage than the general Palestinian population (approximately 25%) 
  • Berrebi also found that they were less than half as likely to come from an impoverished family as a typical man from the general population
  • The 2004 Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed adults in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey and discovered that there is no evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among economically deprived individuals -- instead, more schooling correlated with more sympathy
And now along comes ISIS. At this point it's unclear what the demographics of the group are, but as the video linked to below illustrates (just of kids playing in a park and enjoying living life under ISIS, nothing more), unsophisticated they are not. And if those of us in the West treat the group as a bunch of illiterate country-bumpkins, we could be in for a very long fight.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Not to Beat a Dead Horse...

What is up with Major League Baseball managers pulling starters who are pitching well in order to bring in a reliever? I've ranted about this several times before ("The Closer Temptation is Hard to Resist" "MLB's Ridiculous Obsession with Closers" "Not Everyone Can Throw Like Mariano Rivera"); it usually happens when a starter is pulled for a team's closer, but tonight Cardinal manager Mike Matheny (who played for the Giants) pulled Adam Wainwright after 7 innings even though he'd only thrown 97 pitches (he's got the entire off season to rest his arm), he hadn't given up a hit since the 4th inning (he struck out the side in the 6th -- Posey, Sandoval, and Pence), and he didn't come up to bat in the top of the 8th (the Cards didn't have to pitch hit for him). Matheny then brought in Pat Neshek, who promptly gave up a game tying homer to Michael Morse (I wonder if the Washington DC papers are making fun of him now). And then the Giants won the NL pennant with Travis Ishikawa's walk off HR in the bottom of the 9th. Maybe, someday, MLB managers will figure this out. Or maybe, some have, and they're the ones who win championships.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why Care About Religious Freedom?

In my previous post I briefly summarized a report by the Pew Foundation ("Rising Tide of Religious Restrictions"), which noted that in recent years religious freedom has been in decline. What I didn't do was point out why we should care. Briefly stated, religious freedom is positively correlated with numerous other goods that even the non-religious value. In particular, on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0, where 1.0 indicates perfect correlation, religious freedom correlates with the following goods as follows (from Grim and Finke, 2011):
  • Political freedom = 0.61
  • Freedom of the press = 0.61
  • Civil liberties = 0.61
  • Gender empowerment = 0.48
  • Lower % of GDP spent on military = 0.42
  • Longevity of democracy = 0.40
  • Lower levels of armed conflict = 0.35
  • Economic freedom = 0.31
  • Higher % of GDP spent on public health = 0.29
  • Overall livability = 0.28
  • Lower inflation = 0.25
  • Lower income inequality = 0.25
  • Higher earned income for women = 0.20
Considering that social scientists often get excited of correlations over 0.20, this is an impressive list. To be sure, correlation is not necessarily causation, but one could make a strong case that the structural and cultural factors that lead to religious freedom also lead to many of the goods listed above. That's why we should care.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Decrease in Religious Freedom Around the World

In 2012 the Pew Foundation released a report documenting the level of government restrictions of and social hostilities toward people of faith around the world ("Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion"). The short story is that restrictions on religion have been on the rise. Their data only goes through 2010, so it is possible that things have changed, but probably not dramatically. The Pew study broke restrictions into two types: government and social. The two graphs below map the level of government restrictions and social hostilities for countries around the globe:

As one can see there is a strong correlation between government restrictions and social hostilities. These graphs, however, only capture the average level of restrictions and hostilities. The graphs below present the data in a slightly different format, showing how the two factors change from 2007 to 2010. They are relatively easy to read.  Each "bubble" represents a country; the size of the bubble indicates the country's population. In the lower left corner are countries with low levels of government restrictions and social hostilities, and those in the upper right corner have high levels of both.

At the study's website (see the link above), these graphs are interactive and one gets a better sense of how restrictions on religion have risen from 2007-2010. Even in the United States, which typically enjoys more religious freedom than most other countries, has experienced a rise (see the graph below). Still, when compared to so-called tolerant countries like the UK, France, and Germany, the US is doing much better.

Finally, it may come as a surprise to some that Christians are the most harassed religious group in the world. From mid-2006 to mid-2010 Christians were harassed in 139 countries. Muslims are not far behind, however. They were harassed in 121 countries during the same time period. Of course, Christians and Muslims are the two largest religious groups in the world, together accounting for more than half of the world's population. Jews, who comprise less than 1% of the world’s population, experienced harassment in a total of 85 countries, while members of other world faiths were harassed in a total of 72 countries.

The study is eye-opening, and it's on-line summary (from where the above graphs were taken) is relatively short and highly accessible. I strongly recommend it ("Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion").

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Are the St. Louis Cardinals America's Team?

About a year ago I belittled the claim of Dodgers' manager, Don Mattingly, that the Dodgers were "America's Team" ("The Dodgers: America's Team"). I argued that he was clearly out of touch, that most baseball fans don't look favorably upon teams that try to buy championships (unless, of course, it's your hometown team). The Dodgers ranked 2nd in terms of salary in 2013 (only the Yankees ranked higher). This season they ranked #1 ("2014 Payrolls and Salaries For Every Major League Team") with a payroll of approximately $235,000. My intuition was later "confirmed" when a study of Facebook pages that identified which teams people listed as their favorite team found that the Dodger fan base was actually quite small ("Proof the Dodgers Aren't America's Team").

I then argued that if there was a team in baseball that would qualify as "America's Team" (which is doubtful), it would have to be the St. Louis Cardinals. As NYU President John Sexton, and life-long baseball fan, notes ("Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game"),
St. Louis has enjoyed a revered reputation for generations among baseball wags. As [Randy] Johnson... has put it, “It’s a fun city to come to because you know it’s all baseball.” 
And baseball there is played famously hard and well, from the spikes-high “Gashouse Gang” rowdies of the thirties to the mad dashes on the base paths of Enos “Country” Slaughter in the forties, to the elegance of Stan “the Man” Musial in the fifties, to the glare of fiery concentration on the face of the Hall of Fame fireball pitcher Bob Gibson in the sixties. Though the record must show that this border-state city was notoriously hostile to Jackie Robinson during his rookie year, the St. Louis tradition generally has been that the game is left on the field, that opponents are respected, that booing is for Easterners, and that rooting for the home team is no less intense during lean years.
St. Louis may just barely be among the twenty largest metropolitan areas in the country, but in recent decades only the far larger-market Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees have kept pace in attendance. When the Cardinals drew three million fans for the first time in 1987, only the Dodgers had done it. Their success was magnified by a famous radio station, WMOX, one of the first fifty-thousand-watt behemoths on the scene; in the years before the major leagues expanded, WMOX saturated the South; if you lived in Dixie, you were a Cardinals fan.
In a rather ironic turn of events, the Cardinals have eliminated the Dodgers from the playoffs the last two years. In some ways it's rather shocking. On paper the Dodgers are the best team in baseball. Their payroll is more than double that of the Cardinals, but so far they've been unable to live up to their talent. Not so with the Cardinals. They seem to get all that they can out of their players. Hopefully, they won't when they play the Giants.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A (New) Bit of Baseball Trivia

Yesterday (or today, for some), the Giants and Nationals played an 18 inning game that lasted 6 hours and 23 minutes. It tied the postseason record for longest game in terms of innings, but it set a record for the amount of time played. The previous record was "held" by the 2005 playoff game between the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros, which lasted 5 hours and 50 minutes.

What's the new bit of baseball trivia? Pitcher Tim Hudson started both games. He started for the Braves back in 2005 and the Giants yesterday. Things worked out better for his team (and for him) this time around.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Closer Temptation is Hard to Resist

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Major League Baseball's obsession with closers ("MLB's Ridiculous Obsession With Closers"). That post was, in part, in reaction to Oakland A's manager Bob Melvin pulling A's starter, Jeff Samardzija, in the 8th inning with the A's leading 1-0, and replacing him with the A's closer, Sean Doolittle, who promptly gave up 5 runs, and the A's eventually lost 6-1 (that, however, wasn't the first time had written on the stupidity of using closer when you don't need or have a decent one: "Not Everyone Can Throw Like Mariano Rivera").

Tonight, Washington National's manager, Matt Williams, was the latest to give into the closer temptation. With the Nationals leading the Giants 1-0 with 2 outs in the top of the 9th, the Nationals starting pitcher, Jordan Zimmerman, walked the Giants' Joe Panik. At that point, Zimmerman had only given up 3 hits, but Williams pulled him anyway and replaced him with the Nationals closer, Drew Storen. Storen promptly gave up hits to Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, tying up the game, which the Giants eventually won in 18. But, it was a game the Giants never should've won (not that I'm complaining), but thanks to a bit of mismanagement (by a former Giant, no less--see the picture above), they did.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Steve Smith, Trash Talk, and Disrespect

Everybody hates loudmouth athletes unless, of course, they play for them. Niner fans loved Terrell Owens until he bolted for the Philadelphia Eagles (although he lost a few of us when after beating Dallas, he placed the game ball on the Dallas star at midfield), and SF Giants fans thought Brian Wilson was hilarious (albeit a bit weird) until he signed with the Dodgers. So, I can't help but wonder what Carolina Panther fans think of former Panther receiver, Steve Smith's, trash-talking after he and his new team (the Baltimore Ravens) beat the Panthers 35-10 this past Sunday. "I'm 35 years old, and I ran around those boys like they were schoolyard kids," Smith remarked after the game. He did, too.

To be sure, Smith does have a reason for being bitter toward his former team. He played for the them for 13 years, but they released him after last season for reasons that are not entirely clear. Still, he could've let his performance speak for itself. And I'm guessing that there are a number of Carolina fans who used to think his trash-talk funny aren't laughing too hard right now.