A Statistical Appreciation of the Washington Generals And Harlem Globetrotters (via FiveThirtyEight)

gtRed Klotz, the founder and longtime coach of the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ perpetually feeble opponents, died at age 93 last week (I highly recommend Joe Posnanski’s remembrance). Klotz’s all-time record as a head coach of the Generals and their namesakes was something like six wins and 14,000 losses — they lost 99.96 percent of the time.

How exactly did the Generals lose so consistently? How much of it was their conceding games on purpose, as opposed to simply being really bad at basketball?

Let’s first get a sense for how good the Globetrotters were. … Read More

(via FiveThirtyEight)

What are they teaching those kids in Miami? LeBron James and non-history

You may have heard that LeBron James will be returning as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers next season. He announced his decision in a first-person Sports Illustrated post last week.

While sportswriters generally fell about the place in sharing how emotional they thought James’ letter was/made them, no one seems to have examined James’ history recitation with any care. James said that “Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids.” Did they offer a course in American Athletic History there? If so, can someone leak us the syllabus?

James goes on to make the following statement (emphasis added):

When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.

Unless James plans to suit up with Johann Von Football and defend Akron’s 1920 APFA title, it’s difficult to understand what James is talking about. The context of that final quoted sentence clearly indicates James is referring to the Larry O’Brien trophy. That’s the trophy they give to the team that wins the NBA championship. The Cleveland Cavaliers have not ever won the NBA championship. They only even made it to the finals once, in 2007, when the eternal Spurs swept James and the Cavs. You can handle the math from here.

Tennis Time

tennis#

Most jr.-tennis coaches are basically technicians, hands-on practical straight-ahead problem-solving statistical-data wonks, with maybe added knacks for short-haul psychology and motivational speaking. The point about not crunching serious stats is that Schtitt . . . knew real tennis was really about not the blend of statistical order and expansive potential that the game’s technicians revered, but in fact the opposite – not-order, limit, the places where things broke down, fragmented into beauty. That real tennis was no more reducible to delimited factors or probability curves than chess or boxing, the two games of which it’s a hybrid. In short, Schtitt and [Incandenza] found themselves totally simpatico on tennis’s exemption from stats-tracking regression. Were he now still among the living, Dr. Incandenza would now describe tennis in the paradoxical terms of what’s now called “Extra-Linear Dynamics.” And Schtitt, whose knowledge of formal math is probably about equivalent to that of a Taiwanese kindergartner, nevertheless seemed to know what Hopman and van der Meer and Bollettieri seemed not to know: that locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern. Seemed perversely — of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth — each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses, n^2 possible responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone who shared both his backgrounds as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest 81-82 (Back Bay Books, Nov. 2006) (1996).

In tennis, the better player doesn’t always win. Sometimes, she loses in straight sets.

Imagine if basketball, football or hockey games were decided by which team outscored the other in the most periods. Get outscored by 20 points in the first quarter, and it’s no problem, you just have to eke out the last three by a point each to take the game.

That’s sort of how tennis works. Win more sets than your opponent, and you win the match — even if your opponent played better throughout. These anomalous results happen rarely, but more often on grass, the surface of play at Wimbledon, which started this week.

Wacky outcomes like [Rajeev] Ram’s pair of lottery matches happen more often at Wimbledon than at the other Grand Slams. Since 1991, 8.8 percent of completed Wimbledon men’s matches have been lottery matches, won by the player who was less successful at protecting his serve than his opponent. At the other three Grand Slam tournaments, that proportion ranged between 6.4 percent and 6.6 percent, according to data provided by Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract.

The sport’s time-tested scoring system has many virtues, even if total fairness isn’t one of them. Its symmetry makes players alternate the deuce and advantage sides, switch sides of the net, rotate serving and returning. It guarantees that a player trailing by a big margin gets all the time it takes to stage a comeback, provided she performs well enough to earn that time. It keeps matches that are lopsided short, and lets close matches take all the time they need.

Carl Bialik, “An Oddity of Tennis Scoring Makes Its Annual Appearance at Wimbledon,” FiveThirtyEight.com (June 25, 2014, 7:31 a.m.).

Part of the reason baseball is so susceptible to statistical analysis is that the season is long enough for players’ and teams’ statistical averages to settle out and meaningfully describe their performance. Another reason is that the game itself is comprised of isolated interactions. No other sport is so susceptible, but the reasons appear to be different in each case. Basketball may be next up, held back only by our (diminishing, thanks to technology) inability to track and store data. Hockey statistics are thought to be less meaningful because the season isn’t long enough for the random bounces of the puck to settle out from the averages.

To my poorly informed knowledge, advanced statistical analysis has made few inroads into tennis. Part of the reason for this may be that tennis’ scoring structure, alluded to in the second passage above, does not as easily allow for the clean, direct reflection of averaged rates of good things or bad things in individual (and therefore aggregated) match outcomes. On the other hand, maybe looking to a statistical rationale for an explanation of statistics’ inability to aid in the understanding of tennis is futile. Or at least I think that’s what the first passage means.    Continue reading

Stadium Jam

The Wall Street Journal (now with questionable sports bona fides!) published today, in oral-history style, a feature on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1974 summer stadium tour. An introductory excerpt:

On July 9, 1974, a month before President Richard Nixon resigned, with albums by Elton John and John Denver at the top of the charts, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young reunited to begin an ambitious nine-week tour of the U.S., Canada and England. Produced by Bill Graham, most of the 31 concerts were performed at stadiums and speedways with lengthy sets and clear, audible sound—firsts for an outdoor rock tour. Tickets cost about $7.50 (or $36 in today’s dollars).

Although the band hadn’t had a top-10 album since 1971, CSNY performed three-hour sets before crowds averaging 50,000 per concert, paving the way for rock stadium tours that followed.

Graham Nash: The idea for the tour was Bill Graham’s. Bill called me in my room at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles in early ’74. Bill said a lot of money could be made, and we knew Bill was used to putting on large events and had just produced Bob Dylan’s 40-date tour. Bill also pointed out that something on this scale had never been tried before, which sounded pretty cool to us.

For our music-sports nexus, the article also sheds a little light on Stephen Stills’ well-photographed penchant for wearing football jerseys onstage and on album covers:

[Tour photographer Joel] Bernstein: Stephen started wearing football jerseys on stage that year. The jerseys had a practical purpose—they were big and loose and perfect for a guitarist on stage. But they also were a statement. Remember, there were no NFL stores back then. All of those jerseys were originals, given to him by NFL players. I think for Stephen, they symbolized being in a stadium on a great team. There probably was a certain amount of irony there, too—he was a big football fan.

Speaking of photographs, the article includes a slideshow, which is the real gem here. High-quality audio and video from the tour are due out next month, but HD sideburn images are just a click away.   Continue reading

Before the Flood: USA men’s soccer attempts to break through

Recife, Brazil, site of today’s final group-stage match between the United States and Germany, is under water. I’ll leave the real soccer talk to Brendan and Marcus (and Chris)– here’s the latest episode of the ALDLAND Podcast– and proceed with the essential information.

If the Americans beat or tie Germany, they’re into the knockout round. If the U.S. loses, though, they’ll need one of a few different outcomes in the Ghana-Portugal match, which will be played simultaneously. This chart from FiveThirtyEight summarizes what Ghana-Portugal outcomes will allow the U.S. to advance despite a loss to Germany:

Both matches begin at noon Eastern.

Vanderbilt wins the College World Series, claims its first-ever mens’ national championship

After struggling through the first two games of the College World Series, Vanderbilt came out looking like a team that belonged in the final pairing in a much tighter game three. The Commodores drew inspiration from energetic and emotional starting pitcher Carson Fulmer, who really limited the Virginia bats for the first time this series. Timely hitting finally arrived for Vandy as well: Although they only plated one run in an extended first inning, the only inning for UVA starting pitcher Josh Sborz, VU claimed the only home run of the series, John Norwood’s solo blast that proved to be the game winner, in the eighth. After that, Vanderbilt reliever Adam Ravenelle dealt two innings of solid relief to close the door on Virginia and secure the 3-2 victory. (Fans of the MLB team that drafted Ravenelle, the Detroit Tigers, are already asking whether he’s available to help stem the club’s bullpen woes this season.)

For Vanderbilt, a charter member (1932) of the Southeastern Conference and a university with an interscholastic athletic history dating to the 1800s, last night’s win was especially remarkable, because it was the school’s first-ever national championship for a men’s team, and just its second national championship overall. (The women’s bowling team claimed the school’s first national championship in 2007.) This win certainly feels like the culmination of the steady development of the VU baseball program by coach Tim Corbin, and with a very young roster, it shouldn’t be surprising if his Commodores are back in Omaha next year to defend their title.

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Postscript: Like any overdue collegiate athletic victory, last night featured a post-game marriage proposal. After his team won it all, Vanderbilt pitcher Brian Miller came away with a win of his own as well. Long live college sports.

History at stake in the College World Series finale tonight

The outcome of tonight’s game between Vanderbilt and Virginia will decide the College World Series. A victory for the end of the alphabet is guaranteed, but for Vanderbilt, the stakes are higher: a win would be the school’s first national championship for a men’s team, and only its second overall. (The VU women’s bowling team won it all in 2007.)

After winning game one of the best-of-three series on Monday, the Commodores had a chance to clinch last night. They were unable to hold an early 2-1 lead, however, and ended up falling 7-2. While some are criticizing Vandy coach Tim Corbin’s decision to leave starting pitcher Tyler Beede in to pitch the seventh inning, during which Virginia’s 4-2 lead expanded to a 6-2 lead, the real problem lies with Vanderbilt’s absentee offense. There remains plenty of attention on Vanderbilt’s nine-run third inning in the first game, but UVA still owns the run differential advantage, 15-11, over the two games. Take out that wild third in the opening contest, which was as much a result of an early and unexpected pitching collapse as it was Vandy plate discipline or hitting, and that expands to a 15-2 advantage for Virginia. The truth is that VU has been unable to generate its own offense in this series, and outside of one disastrous frame, Virginia has been in control. The Commodores aren’t a power-hitting bunch, and the conditions in Omaha won’t do anything to change that, but one has to believe the Vandy bats are due to come alive. They must do so tonight if the Dores are going to claim this national championship.

While a Vanderbilt win tonight would make school history, and last night’s bid may itself have been historic as (possibly, I haven’t researched this) the school’s first actual opportunity to win a men’s national championship, the Cav-Hoos are carrying the mantle and burden of a conference into tonight’s game: The ACC has just one College World Series win, and it came in the 1950s, when Wake Forest topped the Broncos of Western Michigan.