Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ah, yes, momentum!

I know what you're going to say already: "Eight days! You can't keep momentum for eight days!"

OK, sure. However vague the concept of athletic momentum might be, it certainly seems to go against form for a "hot" team to sit through eight days and about 50 hours of Fox broadcasts to finally play again. But no one would have said that if the Rockies had won, as inconceivable a concept as that might seem now (see footnote No. 1 ... yes, I've been reading DFW again). Had the Rockies won, we would have been hearing enough Mo talk to fill up the agenda of an LDS Conference.

That, ultimately, is why concepts like "momentum" and "choking" bug me so much; they're always predictive until they're not. Barry Bonds was a notorious playoff "choker" until he pretty much single-handedly took the Giants to the World Series. Derek Jeter was "clutch" until he grounded into three fatal double plays in the final two games of the Yankees season, v. 2007 (though, I suppose, the Cap'n hasn't quite lost his bona fides in the minds of most Yankee fans). And the Rockies had "momentum" until they got one of the worst teste-smashings in recent WS memory. As I said, it's there until it's not.

So what's the point, you ask? At the risk of continuing my Sisophysian trend of late (actually, my entire life), one just has to wonder how much longer we're going to discuss this kind of stuff like it's real, not to mention relevant to the outcome of events. Yeah, I know it's just sports, but I've never quite understood why bullshit is any less fetid in the context of "unimportant" events (see footnote No. 2).

My prediction? We still don't know what's going to happen in the series' remaining six available contests. And, when what will happen does, we will have a choice: We can either accept the fact that the game is free of any imaginary forces, or you can disagree. And since it works for the PUSA, I'll go ahead and say anyone who disagrees with me is no different that the terrorists.

1: I think it's fast becoming time to wonder exactly where Josh Beckett stands in contrast to his pitching contemporaries. While I'll be the first to say that the playoffs shouldn't be weighted differently per se, it's not lost on me that Beckett's track record in the playoffs, albeit in a small sample, is incredible. It's not hyperbole to say he was the chief reason the Fish won the shebang in 2003, and his performance thus far in the 2007 playoffs is certainly as good, if not better, than it was four seasons ago. Clearly, Josh Beckett is no reverse-shrinking-violet; the worst he's ever been in the regular season is very good if not oft-injured, and this season he certainly qualified as great while plying his trade in one of the most difficult pitching environments in the AL. But he's yet to approach the level in the regular season he reaches in the playoffs, which falls in line with the concept of a "big-game" pitcher. Bill James once said in an interview I can't find at this moment that "clutch," while conceptually dubious w/r/t hitters, is both intuitive and statistically provable when it comes to pitchers. I won't bother elaborating on his point, as I'll try and find the interview to link here. But, anyway, what I'm wondering is exactly how much Beckett's talents are worth, if we're to conclude that he can be counted on only to be very good in the regular season, but arguably the best playoff pitcher available, if we're willing to accept both premises as being true. Is he worth more than Johan, even though the latter can be counted on to be one (sometimes two) wins better over the course of the regular season? If you're the Yankees, and both are available as free agents, which one do you prefer in an either/or proposition? I sense that in New York, the answer is Beckett, but I'd be interested to figure out exactly how this would be discussed in a pure economic sense. Right now, I wish I had Nate Silver's brain.

2: This past weekend, I made one of my infrequent trips back to the Old Pueblo, and a certain sports writer friend of mine who will remain nameless renewed his long-standing and vocal objection to the American flag patch on sports uniforms during one of our meandering patio symposiums. To distill his point, he feels that it's become a purely political consideration (flag patches, not patio symposiums), and he would consider himself to be at odds with the political view that stresses nationalism above other all other considerations. I actually think this very topic would make for a great TGWNA debate topic (flag patches, not nationalism) once the baseball material dries up, but we'll leave that for another day. What the entire discussion brought to mind for me, however, was just how wrong the entire rationalization of sports viz. society and life is every time something really bad happens. See, sports so totally aren't unimportant, if for no other reasons than it's such a visible outgrowth of American society. James Caan's character in The Program, still the best sports movie (non-comedy division) out there for this particular writer's taste, defended his position within the school by stating, "When was the last time 80,000 people showed up to watch a kid do a damn chemistry experiment?" There's a reason people who really dig on "important" things are called "wonks," yet people who devote much of their time to thinking about games are most commonly referred to as "normal dudes." Sport is not just diversion, it is a vital aspect of life, and not only for those who actively participate. During an epoch in which we see a rapidly declining birth rate among Americans, in fact, sport may be vital in terms of population growth, as it's been proven that cities that experience a championship in one of the major sports usually have very busy maternity wards nine months later (though, it's troublesome to think the next spike will likely be in the Greater Boston Area, as such an event will likely coincide with fewer English-speaking Americans [I kid]). But, more importantly, I think sports can serve as great educational tools, both in terms of lessons about sportsmanship and the such, and also drawing the otherwise disinterested into stuff like statistics and economics. Needless to say, this particular author had no use for terms like standard deviation until Baseball Prospectus 2004 changed the way he looked at his favorite sport. Also, I really wasn't interested in writing until it became clear I could do so about sports, for pay (however meager that pay might have ended up being). I guess the point is, it really bothers me when Sportscenter rushes to marginalize itself in the aftermath of a disaster, when in truth it should only ever marginalize itself for its role in making us all aware of Stuart Scott's lazy eye.


Pepe said...

I didn't watch the game, and probably won't watch any of the remaining games, because I have no interest in a World Series between a franchise that shouldn't exist and a team full of mercenaries representing the worst fan base in sports.

But ... it strikes me as a bit revisionist to say, "The Rockies lost today! I told you there was no such thing as momentum!" while ignoring the fact that they mounted the single greatest (and most statistically inconceivable) winning streak in baseball history over the last twenty games and change. It's easy to say they never had momentum now, but you couldn't have said it anytime during the last three weeks. It's the same thing you're arguing against, only in reverse: you're saying it was never there, after it's gone. I don't think many people were projecting an undefeated postseason for the Rox.

I couldn't care less about flag patches, but I'd debate you to the death about your point that sport is a "vital aspect of life." I couldn't disagree with that more; actually, that sentiment strikes me as indicative of a few different widespread social ills.

But I think we've taken a few trips across that ground already.

Big C said...

@Diesel: You will be able to tell by the following horrible grammar that I have NOT been reading DFW lately.

You know, the problem with my truck is; it works until it doesn't, thus proving that it does not exist (or never worked in the first place).

The problem with classical mechanics is; it works until it doesn't, thereby implying that it can't be used to accurately describe anything (untrue!).

I think it is quite plain to see where I'm going here: Sabermetrics work until they don't, as well. Like with the Rockies/D-backs/Cubs. Case closed.

All of the above was a joke but, seriously, I never thought about bringing pitchers into the whole 'clutch' debate. Do you think that 'clutch' may apply to them? I don't know; perhaps 'clutch' is too small or too erratic a quality to be consistently observed in hitters, but do pitchers provide a more concrete example? Also, I want to make a quick point right here and now; if 'choke' exists (which you may have alluded to in a previous post/bar debate, I'm not sure), then 'clutch' does. One cannot exist without the other.

It seems to me that pitchers are much more in control (there's that word again!) of their destinies than hitters. Control is a term that is ubiquitously used to describe a pitcher's performance, and appears to be the primary quality that determines whether or not one is suitable for the big leagues at all. I would posit that a 'choke' performance on the mound would be very much indicative of a pitchers mental state, as his usual tendencies are very well known by the manager who decided to put him in.

I'm just throwing shit out there on this one. I am by no measure a baseball guru. Hell, I don't even LIKE baseball. I'm the one who vehemently stated that the Sox would sweep the Indians. I also thought that, due to the residue of their superior design (some call it 'luck'), the Rockies were going to win last night, natch. Yikes.

@Pepe: How is Boston the worst fan base in sports? Because their teams are winning? If you can, in earnest, say that Philly fans would not be every bit as smug, loud, and prideful about the Eagles/Phillies success, then your point is taken. Otherwise, it just kinda sounds like sour grapes, bro. Boston fans have long been disappointed (I don't like the term 'suffered') by their Sox/Celts/Pats/Bruins. Any success that any of those teams have now is a cause for celebration. I can understand someone saying 'Fuck the Red Sox' because they are a fan of another team and/or jealous of Boston's winning percentage, but going after Boston's fans is a bit off-base. It just dawned on you that you may have been joking; I was a little surprised to hear an accusation like that from an embattled Philly fan. But, regardless; [Sobbing uncontrollably] Leave Boston fans alone! They are humans!

Let's just suffice it to say that sports are certainly a part of modern life. I know that my life would be quite different without them, and probably with a pejorative effect. I've blown off a lot of steam screaming at my television over sports. I'm not sure that yelling at the Today Show would garner the same result.

big C said...

Edit: *It just dawned on ME...."*

Diesel said...

@ Pepe:
First, thanks for stopping by. If I hadn't just spent the weekend getting drunk and arguing with you, I would wonder if you were dead.

My point with the momentum stuff is that is has absolutely no predictive quality. Momentum didn't help the Rockies in Game 1 of the World Series or, I suspect, Games 1-4 of the NLCS. But, in retrospect, you can look back at the second-greatest run in modern history, and say momentum was at play. Though, I have been saying momentum was bullshit since the Rox pretty much started the streak, to be fair (people can attest to this).

I think we should debate the sport thing, despite the fact we've already been there. It would be nice for there to be some spirited disagreement on this blog again.

@ Big C:
You're not really comparing a tangible commodity or provable theories with the concept of momentum, are you?

The aspect of "control" is certainly what makes "clutch pitching" more believable than its hitting counterpart. I'm tempted to get into it, but I really just need to find the interview, because James puts it very well.

b said...

Ah yes, the “where does sports fit in the grand scheme of things” argument is tired, especially when debated between a handful of mid-20s white men whose lives are very much dominated by them. Still, ESPN’s mentioning of cancelled sports events in San Diego is comedy, with everybody going out of their way to remind everybody else that lives are more important than sports “in times like these,” my all-time favorite qualifier. Um, yes, no kidding - San Diego State-BYU can wait! Even LT, who I can’t fault for anything other than being a bad quote, sent his best thoughts, as if that’s supposed to make everyone feel better/make the Chargers, who bolted to Phoenix immediately, look like they care. If my house was burning down, the last thing I’d really want to hear would be Rasheed Wallace sending me his wishes. Wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Will Clark's grand slam off of Greg Maddux in 1989. The classic clutch hit: in the post-season, off the opponents ace, late in the game, a grand slam that wins the game and propels team to the world series.

Clutchologists may find themselves divided over hits produced by virtue of stolen signs or tipped pitches or simply reading lips.

Harder than divining what Boyz II Men are vocalizing during the seventh inning stretch, yet possible, Clark sees 'fastball in' mouthed by Maddux.

This is a great story, it changed every trip to the mound since, however describing it as clutch hitting fails to accurately capture what transpired.

The odds were shifted. It was no longer my best against your best.

A mistake was made and exploited, which is central to all games/sports, but not to clutch hitting.

Anonymous said...

Check out this brilliant piece of sports writing from John Czarnecki:

The Eagles are a unique team because coach Andy Reid is an above-average leader.

-D. Suave