By In Stuff

Giants and Intangibles

So, I’ve been reconsidering Jimmy the Greek. I’ve written this before: As a kid, I loved the matchup charts that Jimmy the Greek would do every NFL Sunday. Those charts are one of the touchstones of my childhood. Well, to be honest, Jimmy the Greek himself is one of the touchstones of my childhood, one of those 1970s phenomenons that would be difficult to explain to anyone younger than, say, 30, like the Nestea Plunge and the Kool-Aid man who would burst into various scenes shouting “Oh yeah!” and the “You Doesn’t Have to Call Me Johnson” guy and Minnesota Fats and Foster Brooks, whose one marketable skill seemed to be that he could act drunk.

Jimmy Snyder (he changed his name from Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos) grew up in Steubenville, Ohio — he and Dean Martin grew up together. He is probably remembered today, if at all, for those insulting comments he made about African Americans being better athletes because they were bred that way by slave owners (he also talked about coaching being the only thing left for white people — this was when he was at a restaurant when a reporter asked him about Martin Luther King’s birthday). Greek reportedly expressed regret over what he said, and numerous people, while not defending his comments, said that he had never displayed any racist tendencies. He got fired anyway, and disappeared into the ether. We’re coming up on the 25-year anniversary of those comments, if you want to feel a bit older.

But long before those comments made him infamous, Jimmy the Greek was famous for gambling. That was pretty much his whole act. He lived a life of huge bets — big highs, deep lows, peaks and crashes. He lost everything. He won everything. The story goes that his first big success was making it into Walter Winchell’s column after hitting it big betting against Notre Dame. He would claim to win almost $200,000 betting for Harry Truman to win reelection in 1948 because the heavily favored Thomas Dewey had a mustache, and women didn’t like mustaches. Something like that. He was one of those 1970s bigger-than-life characters, and every Sunday he would have his own little segment on the NFL Today where he would pick football games using primitive looking matchup charts with checkmarks.

The checkmarks were to meant to designate which team had the advantage in that particular category. So, for instance, say, the Cowboys were playing the Packers. Jimmy might give the offense checkmark to the Packers, the defense checkmark to the Cowboys, the special teams checkmark to the Packers, the coaching checkmark to the Cowboys. And so on. In my memory, he also had a home-field checkmark, which was the easy one.

And, finally, there was my favorite category: Intangibles. I’ve poked fun at this concept for a long time. How can you measure “intangibles” if they are, according to the actual word, “intangible?” It’s like weighing fairy dust or counting unicorn hairs or tallying the self-destructive cells of NHL owners. It always seemed to me that giving one team an intangibles advantage was spectacularly dumb, since the only thing intangibles really have going for them is that they are, you know, intangible. Indefinable. Indescribable. Ethereal. Even as a kid, it struck me as this beautifully illogical thing, to have this old gambler tell us which team had the advantage in intangibles and then put a checkmark next to their name.

But, I have to say: Lately, I’ve been reconsidering. The intangible, it now seems to me, has a place in sports prediction. In fact, it might be the ONLY thing that should have a place in sports prediction. See, the intangible is a gambler’s construct. Jimmy the Greek believed that what separated him from other gamblers was that he had more information than they did (he famously would collect news from every little town newspaper back in the days when that was the only way to surf for knowledge) but even more, his gut instinct.

Well, what is gut instinct? Is it a feeling? I don’t think so. I think a gut instinct is putting more emphasis on one thing than other people might. That comes from the gut. If a manager sends a slumping pinch-hitter up there against the probabilities, he might say it came down to a “gut feeling.” But the feeling was that he believed that player would get a hit … maybe because he’s been swinging better during batting practice … maybe he’s patched things up with his wife after a tough stretch … maybe he’s had some success against that particular pitcher … maybe it’s a Tuesday and the guy has this thing for Tuesdays. Whatever. The “gut feeling” still comes from some reasoning, and the manager just happens to put more stock in that reasoning than others do.

That was Jimmy the Greek on gambling. I think most successful gamblers think like that. They believe they have a slightly better sense of what REALLY matters than regular, ordinary people. Everyone knew that Thomas Dewey had a mustache. But Jimmy the Greek believed that mustache was what would really decide the election. And in the end, it doesn’t matter at all if the mustache was the reason Dewey lost. What mattered is he DID lose. Jimmy the Greek cashed the ticket.

The more I watch sports, the more this idea of “intangibles” appeals to me. The reason: Most predictions are incredibly dull and unimaginative and vapid. Most of the time they are not only based on what has already happened, they are based on the most OBVIOUS ASPECTS of what already happened.

Take Tim McCarver’s checkmark chart before this World Series. The chart broke down the Series in the most obvious ways — it was something like starting pitching, relief pitching, offense, defense, base running, power. This is exactly the sort of chart you will often see in the daily paper. McCarver gave Detroit the checkmark for “power.”  And he gave the rare discount double-checkmark to the Tigers for starting pitching. The rest of the stuff he gave to San Francisco, but it was pretty clear — the rest of the stuff didn’t really matter. You got power (check) and starting pitching (double check!), you pretty much have it all.

There was every reason, based on past performance, for McCarver to give those two categories to the Tigers. Power was easy — the Giants finished dead last in all of baseball with 103 home runs, while the Tigers hit 163 homers and had the Triple Crown winner. And as far as starting pitching goes, the Tigers have the best in the game, Justin Verlander, and a couple of guys, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, pitching lights-out in the postseason. Meanwhile the Giants were forced to start Barry Zito in Game 1 … the same Barry Zito whom the Giants famously left off their postseason roster just two years earlier when they won the World Series. Two checkmarks. Easy to see.

Well, both checkmarks* were in the wrong column. The Tigers have hit one home run in this Series — San Francisco’s Pablo Sandoval hit three in the first game — and have not scored a single run in the last two games. And while the Tigers’ starting pitching has been good since Verlander’s rough outing, the Giants’ starting pitching has been other-worldly. Zito, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have allowed one run in 18 1/3 innings — that’s an 0.49 ERA if you like to figure such things. And the Giants’ best starter, Matt Cain, doesn’t even make his start until Sunday night, in what could be the clincher.

*Well … all three checkmarks.

This is not to say that McCarver’s checkmarks were misplaced — it was just a prediction, and you understand why he put them where he put them. No, it is to say that they were bland, predictable, conventional. And like so many bland, predictable and conventional things, they were wildly wrong. If sporting events actually went according to prediction, we would have stopped watching sports long ago, not only because the games would be unsurprising, but because the scenarios we invent are so bleeping boring. This quarterback will outplay that quarterback. This shooting guard will have a good shooting game. Tiger is ready to emerge because he’s been hitting the ball well on the range. Ugh. Sports would absolutely be unwatchable if all this stuff happened like that.

Maybe that’s why I find myself missing the Jimmy the Greek “intangible” check box. If you had said before this Series began that “The Giants are going to win this World Series because Panda is just 50 shades of awesome and because Maddy Bumgarner totally rocks,” you might have sounded insane, but you would have been right. Short series — like single football games — are not predictable. Oh, you might pick who will win. Maybe. But how? Why? What will be the decisive moment? We are inundated with these pregame inanities like “the team that doesn’t turn the ball over will win,” or “the team that controls the line of scrimmage will win,” or “the team that gets the big hits will win.” Whatever truth these clichés hold is countered by how much they lack in ingenuity and magic and all the reasons we care about games in the first place.

The Giants are on the brink of winning the World Series for the second time in three years. Why? Well, you could say that it’s because for the first three games, they played better than the Tigers. They have pitched better, fielded better, hit better. They did not try to score their 300-pound behemoth of a first baseman from first on a double with nobody out, they have not hit into as many double plays, they have not disappointed quite as often in scoring situations. Already, you hear people trying to come up with reasons for this, tangibles… maybe it’s that the Tigers’ layoff before Game 1 was too long (ugh) or that the Giants have momentum from their comeback victories (bleh) or even that the Tigers, having tied St. Louis for the worst record of all the playoff teams, aren’t actually that good.

I prefer to believe that it has come down to intangibles. What intangibles? Don’t know. Can’t know. They’re intangible. The Giants just have them for this World Series, at least so far. Put the checkmark next to their name.

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29 Responses to Giants and Intangibles

  1. hector31 says:

    See the 30/30 on The Greek. Joe, I assume you did.

  2. Finnhere says:

    For those that never experienced it, here ya go:

  3. @Joe, I appreciate seeing the context to your earlier tweet.

  4. Dan R says:

    Who, after witnessing 2010 and their last two National League series wins, was stupid enough to take an even-money bet against the Giants? This Giants team is almost entirely intangible. Their offense, so anemic in 2010 and so homerless this year, is entirely insubstantial. Their pitchers…well, they don’t have a bad one on the roster, really, but their best one is Matt Cain, who is the living embodiment of intangibility. Compare his expected numbers (extrapolated from peripherals) to his actual numbers and you will be mystified — what volatile element transubstantiates this #2 into a #1? And that’s really it: volatility. That’s what baseball really is. Take a team full of Brandon Crawfords and one Matt Cain and you will win a few games, a few series, and every time you will wonder how it happened. But if you are wondering still as you call your bookie to place your bet you should quantify your wonder and add it to the scale before you measure up the odds, because there’s one thing about intangibility that is perfectly tangible: it’s real, and it’s fantastic.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Like Cody Ross as Mr. October two years ago. It’s just ridiculous. But, in the current playoff construct, you just have to be hot at the right time. The regular season means less and less.

  5. This has been the year I have stopped following sabermetric analysts. Much has been because all the best writers at Baseball Prospectus have been poached by other organizations, leaving arrogant newcomers.

    But much is because as sabermetrics has gone mainstream, its predictions have become boring like McCarver’s. I’m soooo tired of hearing about Mike Trout. Blah blah, where are the Angels? Yes, the Orioles run differential will sink them in the end. Sure and it did, long after they sunk the Rangers.

    You’re right, outcomes are why we watch the games.

  6. Your says:

    I saw that chart and wondered how McCarver could give the double check to Detroit on pitching considering that the Giants have a two time Cy Young winner coming out of the pen. I think that might indicate a solid rotation.

    • adam says:

      Or it was due to the way that two-time Cy winner was pitching.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I agree. Pitching was the only real thing the Giants had going for them, except for Buster Posey. McCarver talks out of his butt most of the time.

    • “Pitching was the only real thing the Giants had going for them except for Buster Posey”

      First of all, pitching is just about the only thing you need. Good starters, the best middle innings man in history (Lincecum) and a light’s out bullpen. Affeldt looked untouchable, then comes Romo who struck out the side. But Giants also had the highest team batting average in September (in all of baseball). They scored a lot of runs. People remember 2009, 2010, 2011, and think the Giants don’t have a great offense, when the statistics show they had a well-above offense. In fact, I would say top 5. And their defense was breath-taking. Diving catches and light-fast double plays EVERY night this postseason.

  7. veteripont says:

    And the Tigers led off with a Cy Young and MVP winner. One might have thought that would give the Tigers a pitching edge in game 1.

    It’s baseball. It’s a game of averages. A guy goes on a hitting streak for two months, bookended by horrible slumps where he can’t seem to buy a single. At the end of the season we say “he hit .300”, and act like that number can tell you how well he’s hitting right now, or how well he’ll hit tomorrow.

    No stat breakdown can tell you who will win a 7 game series. It’s a crapshoot. You can call it on intangibles or you can just flip a coin.

  8. Jesse A. says:

    Luck is intangible.

  9. Gary says:

    I’ve come to believe that gut instinct is the brain making a series of calculations based on past experience so rapidly that you don’t understand it as real analysis, so it seems to come as an instinct. You don’t often hear young coaches talk about gut instinct; it seems much more common among long-time coaches and managers.

    • Dan R says:

      There’s a good reason why the old-timers use their gut more often than the youngins: heuristic analysis (gut instinct) improves with the quantity of information being analyzed. The old-timers may not have entirely reliable gut, but their gut will be better than any other gut. We’re always tempted to fight the battle we can win, so the older guys are tempted to take it to the gut level, where they’ll have the advantage. In the end you’re better off cutting those old guys open and laying out all their information, like those guys did that time with that shark. Failing that, just take it for what it’s worth: the voice of experience, which will always be right until it isn’t.

  10. Scott says:

    I think you are onto something. Intangibles might just mean knowing more about the teams than the other guy and knowing how to interpret that information. It’s pretty obvious why the Tigers are losing the series, and badly, and it was entirely predictable. The reason they won 88 games instead of 98 is that their offense during the regular season shut it in for stretches regularly, and by shut it in I mean completely, dead, ice cold. They only have 3 really good consistent hitters, and in a 9 man batting order that means 2/3 of them consistently disappoint.

    People always say pitching and defense win titles in baseball, and I have always thought that was crazy. Pitching and defense get you into playoff games, timely hitting more often than not is what wins in a tournament where virtually everyone has pitching and defense. The Tigers are a great case in point. Their pitching has been uniformly excellent throughout the playoffs, only 1 bad outing in 3 series. The defense has been adequate, really. But they have been in one of those hitting dead zones they spent the regular season slipping in and out of. Without Delmon Young’s unexpected heroics (this guy is not a big league hitter in any month but October) they might still be grinding out a tie against the feckless Yankees. Against a tam of grinders like the Giants, a team of professional hitters who don’t swing much outside the zone and like to foul off lots of pitches they are getting killed. Well, killed in one game, and edged in low scoring games where their bats didn’t show up the rest of the way.

    Frustrating, sure, for a Tigers fan. intangible? Maybe, but if you had invested Jimmy the Greek type obsessive tracking into the Tigers it’s a familiar story for this team. They just picked the worst week of the year to do something they have done so often in the past, forget how to hit.

  11. Matt says:

    It’s easy to poke fun at these silly pre-game predictions–I do it all the time–but there’s a place for them in sports. If I tune into a game where I know little about the two teams, it helps me to understand at a glance what is the expectation here.

    Sports are about surprises. If you’re watching the Kentucky Derby and one horse breaks away from the pack to win, well I guess that happens. But if you know that horse is I’ll Have Another and is given 15-to-1 odds, it suddenly becomes a much more exciting event.

    So when Tim McCarver is going through his checklist and says exactly nothing interesting, it still serves a purpose. It sets the stage. When Detroit’s power checkmark wilts while Pablo Sandoval hits three home runs, Tim McCarver’s utter wrongness helps make the game fun for the casual viewer.

    • Rob Smith says:

      True, it is fun when McCarver is wrong, and he is often. But I’ve seen local announcers break down keys to the game that are right on…. based on recent trends for teams and the key individual players. I think that’s much better information to help enjoy the game than some vapid checklist.

    • Funny, going back, I never thought McCarver was all that bad or all that idiotic. I always figured the reason that hardcore fans disliked him is that he was always explaining things that they already knew. He’ll take two minutes to discuss why there are advantages to starting the runner with a 3 – 1 count, or 30 seconds on why a lefty is going to have a great pick off move.

      I never held it against him, as I figured he was talking to his audience, most of whom are casual fans who watch baseball during the playoffs and only during the playoffs. He was explaining from a traditional POV, which was sort of his job.

      But, watching him these past three weeks he’s kind of lived up to his reputation, frequently saying things that were either wrong as he said them, or were very shortly thereafter found out to be so.

      So, a question, against which to gauge my peculiar perception: of the vanishingly small subset of baseball fans who DON’T think McCarver has been terrible since halfway past forever, do any think that he is actively getting worse, and showed it big time over the last month?

  12. djangoz says:

    I haven’t watched baseball in a long time. I went to two world series in Minnesota, both were very exciting. But baseball is a roll of the dice more than most sports. It is cricket with a limited field. It is…boring. And in a 7 game series the best team doesn’t always win.

  13. Ima Ryma says:

    Gambling gambler, Jimmy the Greek
    Did picks in the sports with the stats,
    But intangibles he would seek,
    That gave a winning edge – congrats!
    Such a gut instinct served him well,
    Till he let it go to his head.
    Sometimes best let gut feelings dwell
    Unshared intangibles instead.
    On Martin Luther King’s birthday,
    He shared that athletes who were black
    Were better cuz were bred that way
    By white slave owners, going back.

    Too bad Jimmy’s feeling of gut
    Could not at times keep his mouth shut.

  14. Rob Smith says:

    It’s interesting to think of Jimmy the Greek and his comments about blacks that did him in. It’s kind of romantic this idea of a professional gambler who has the inside scoop. He knows something everyone else doesn’t know. The fact is, however, that Jimmy the Greek was wrong most of the time and his predictions were often ridiculous. He drove most of us crazy with his slovenly idiocy. It’s not surprising that this guy who just threw his opinions up against the wall, hoping something would stick, would ultimately be fired for making stupid racist comments that he just blurted out after a few cocktails. The guy added pretty much nothing to the NFL broadcasts. He was more the town fool than town savant.

  15. Chris Smith says:

    I think that baseball is the most individual of all team sports, having more to do with pitcher vs. batter than anything else, but when you see the smack-down the Giants just put on the Tigers, maybe it isn’t. This is the most fun team to watch in baseball (though I hated seeing them beat the Reds). They have personalities, they look like they enjoy playing ball, and they have all the quirks that seem to bring them together. I don’t know how that can translate to pitcher vs. batter, but it has worked in 2 of the last 3 years.

  16. Mark Coale says:

    I always thought that if the things Jimmy The Greek had been said by an academic, especially a minority like Cornel West or Harry Edwards, it would not have gotten the same kind of backlash as the old, intoxicated gambler.

  17. John Kuzma says:

    I love your posts but…..Truman was NOT reelected in 1948. he was elected after assuming the Presidency after FDR’s death.

    • brhalbleib says:

      Hmm, two comments on your comment. One: It is highly pedantic. We talk about the sitting president as trying to get reelected whether he became President by election before or some other event. Two, to be equally pedantic, HST was elected in 1944 on the Presidential ticket, so he was in fact, trying to be reelected, just not to the exact same post. (your argument would hold more water in 1976 with Gerald Ford, who had not been elected to VP before assuming the Presidency)

  18. Mark Daniel says:

    Intangibles are essentially confounders to statistical analysis. Some confounders can be adjusted for, such as age, park factor, etc. Others cannot be adjusted for or are difficult to adjust for. Hustle, leadership, morale, etc are all confounders to statistical analysis of baseball. In general, if the statistics don’t explain why a team was successful (or unsuccessful), then there must be a confounder. Sometimes the confounder is impossible to quantify, but it doesn’t mean it is non-existent.

  19. Mark Daniel says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. True, it is fun when McCarver is wrong, and he is often. But I’ve seen local announcers break down keys to the game that are right on…. based on recent trends for teams and the key individual players. I think that’s much better information to help enjoy the game than some vapid checklist.


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