Friday, November 19, 2010

“King Felix” and the AL Cy Young: The Victory of Sabermetrics

More than any other sport, baseball has always been a game of statistics. For over a century, as fans, we are impressed with the homerun kings and strikeout specialists; yet, we reserve a certain reverence for the high BA and the low ERA (and my favorite stat, the RBI). However, over the past decade and a half, the more complex formulas of Sabermetrics (from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research) have colored our perception of statistical categories, as WHIP, OPS, and VORP have progressively crept into common baseball parlance. What was originally reserved for “nerdy baseball lab rats,” with the advent of on-line fantasy baseball leagues (like the one Corry and I played in last summer, finishing first and second, respectively) and the recent hires at ESPN/The Sporting News (and various other weekly baseball publications) of resident sabermetricians, has evolved into the modern way of analyzing the old ballgame.

While shocking to many so-called “baseball purists,” for whom the Cy Young Award (MLB’s annual top prize for the best pitcher in each league) represents not only big numbers in traditional categories (Ks, ERA, Wins) but also success in big game situations (i.e., usually a pennant race), Félix Hernández winning the 2010 AL Cy Young yesterday truly marks the “Victory of Sabermetrics” and assures its mainstream presence in baseball sportswriting. Generally speaking, since 1967 (when the award was first given to both leagues), a Cy Young winning starting pitcher needed to reach a plateau of at least 18-20 wins for a competitive team to even be in the running. Hernández, who pitched this season for the lowly Seattle Mariners (who finished 61-101 this season, dead last in the AL West and 29 games back of eventual AL champion Texas), barely won half of his decisions with a mere 13-12 record. However, his ERA and Ks were unreal this season: His K total was second best in the AL with 232 (one of five pitchers in the hitter-friendly AL to eclipse 200 total Ks) and his ERA was an MLB-best 2.27. Still, while the Mariners did not play a meaningful game after April, other AL pitchers with comparable stats (Cliff Lee, David Price, Clay Bucholz, CC Sabathia) were on competitive teams.

So, how does one justify awarding the top prize to a 13-12 pitcher on a 61-101 team? Sabermetrics. In all SABR-valued categories, the Venezuelan Hernández was in the top 5 or 6—and usually in the top 1 or 2 for each, including being #1 for TLoss (tough losses, a quality start that results in a loss due to poor fielding or batting from position players) at a whopping 8 (twice his nearest competitor) and not recording a single cheap win (the opposite situation). With wins in those situations, his total is 21; yet, before Sabermetrics, we would probably not even realize this. Also, Hernández was the only pitcher in all of baseball to face over 1,000 batters this season and, while perhaps meaningless to the Mariners’ fate, he was a formidable foe to those teams vying for the pennant—almost no-hitting the Texas Rangers on September 17th. All in all, nonetheless, (although a case could be made for last year’s champ Zack Greinke of the dreadful Kansas City Royals, who was also head-and-shoulders above the competition in traditional categories) I hold that King Félix stands alone in baseball history as the man who broke the purist hardball machine and brought Sabermetrics to the fore in 21st-century baseball.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sports Film Review: Looking for Eric (2009)

Dir.: Ken Loach. Feat.: Steve Evets & Eric Cantona. 116 min.

“You can leave your wife; you can change your wife. You can change your politics. You can change your religion. But, never, never can you change your favorite football team!” (ManU fan)

Driving the wrong way into a turnabout, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) speeds headlong into the crash that metaphorically represents his entire existence. A struggling everyman postal worker based in Manchester, Eric and his reeling life are basically summed up in his mate’s quote above: he left one wife and lost another; politics and religion are beyond the scope of his menial sort, nor has he room for them, for football—quite specifically Manchester United football—is the only creed to which he and his drinking partners adhere. Only Rooney and Scholes, a few pints with the lads, and memories of Eric “the King” Cantona can momentarily ease the sting of daily reality for this Red Devils fanatic. However, when his two live-in stepsons turn to delinquency, even organized crime, and he confronts memories of the wife and daughter he abandoned years ago, will football be enough?

In this midst of this painful, gritty social drama (that sometimes bears resonances with the work of the Dardenne brothers), an official Cannes selection, director Ken Loach offers a fantastic element of almost magical realism when Eric Cantona (played by himself) enters the scene as a sort of apparition/philosopher to help the other Eric make sense of his life and begin to shore up the shards of a shattered domestic past, make amends and, ultimately, foster a caring relationship between himself and his stepsons.

Worth the price of the DVD alone, digitally remastered highlights from Cantona’s stellar career with ManU are interspersed throughout the film with a crispness of image and focus heretofore unseen. What’s more, the enigmatic Cantona, whose “philosophy” is the stuff of football legend, becomes a “flawed genius” guru to the deeply-ashamed, even suicidal Eric with memorable lines such as “He that forecasts all perils will never sail the seas,” “He that is afraid to shake the dice will never throw a six” and “If you do not enter the lion’s den, you cannot get his cubs.” To this exchange, Eric the postman retorts in angrily telling Cantona where to shove his proverbs and philosophy, admitting that he’s “barely getting over the […] seagulls!” (In a nod to the viewer, the famous 1995 post-“Kung Fu King” hooligan kick press conference, with the unforgettable seagull quote, is included on the disk!) Still, as barriers break down and the men smoke pot, drink wine, and train together outdoors, Cantona explains his sweetest moment on the pitch being not a goal but rather a pass, and Eric discovers the importance of always trusting one’s teammates.

Even beyond reliving Cantona’s highlights, video footage plays a key role throughout the film, especially as Eric is humiliated by his stepson’s abusive gangster “friend” on YouTube. In the interest of avoiding all spoilers, let it be said that video plays a vital part in the entirely unexpected but delightfully “hooliganistic” conclusion to Eric’s legal/family problems. Eventually learning to trust his mates, Eric eventually says “Non!”, flips his collar to the world and stands up for himself.

Beyond the central plot of a man overcoming crisis and regaining control in his life, this remains a film about football. Eric’s hooligan pals, English football references, Cantona’s career, the hated Glazer family, corporate sponsorship, gentrification of the EPL, working class clubs, etc.—even the question of the French King Cantona in England—are all undercurrents in this rich sports film. In one particular scene, a small group of ManU dissenters who now claims to support a minor club in Manchester, FC United, express their discontent for the EPL brass in saying: “We may be small but there’s no fat […] chairman who can sell us out for 30 pieces of silver.” So, if you seek a sports film that simultaneously celebrates football and the resilience of the human spirit—and can overlook the heavy-handed scenes of domestic turmoil, frequent drug use and the over 200 appearances of the F-word(!)—or if your life is simply lacking the philosophy of a "flawed genius" guru, perhaps you, too, should consider Looking for Eric.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is This Cheating?

Scott sends me the following video of a trick play in a middle school championship football game:

Apparently the quarterback made the other team think they needed to add five more yards to a penalty that had just been assessed against the defense. He took the ball, walked through the line, then took off. (For a write up and my source click here).

Trick play or cheating?