By In Stuff

The Mom Perspective

I wrote about our daughter’s first goal. Well, so did Margo. Leave a message, she’d appreciate it.

Also … have to pass along our good friend Tommy Tomlinson’s latest contribution to JoeWords.

Comflict (n): A stupid, silly argument that almost never happens in real life but happens all the time in sitcoms.

You can leave your own comflict suggestions in the comments.

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By In Stuff

Trading 500 for 325

In Bill James’ epic series on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot — today he posted the third part of the four part series (subscription required) — he makes a statement that is a little bit different from what I had heard before. He wrote this: “500 walks, according to people who study this, have almost the same value as 325 singles.”

I suppose I HAVE heard things along this line — I have heard, for instance, that, walks are worth .6 or .7 of a hit, and this is really just a different mathematical way of showing the same thing. But I had never quite heard the conversion rate put plainly like that: 500 walks = 325 singles. When it is put plainly like that, I think it makes a lot of sense. Ask yourself this: When is a single significantly better than a walk? Or maybe it’s better to first ask: When is a single NO BETTER than a walk.

I’d say a single is no better in these situations:

— With nobody on base, a single and a walk are exactly the same — no difference whatsoever.
— If you have a runner on first who moves to second on a single — no difference whatsoever.
— If you have a runner on first and second, and a single loads the bases — no difference.
— If you have a runner on third, and a single somehow doesn’t score him (infield single, maybe) — no difference.
— If you have the bases loaded, and a single scores one run — no difference.

That seems to cover most of the scenarios. A single is more valuable when the baserunner can advance an extra base (going first to third, second to home, etc.) or when a runner can take a base that is not a FORCED base (scoring from third on a single, moving second to third on a single, etc.) People who have done the math on this figure that this makes singles about 35% more valuable than walks. I’d say that sounds like a good number. To be honest, my gut instinct would say that walks are closer in value to singles than that, but let’s go with that equation: 500w = 325s.

The question then is: What if we allowed players, at the end of their career, to cash in 500 walks for 325 singles? This would do three basic things for their Hall of Fame case.

1. It would make their batting averages look better.
2. It would make their on-base percentages a bit worse.
3. It would add a bit to their slugging percentages.

Bill brings up this walks-for-singles credit swam in reference to John Olerud, who Bill believes is not only a viable Hall of Fame candidate but a strong one. Bill thinks that the voters really missed it when it comes to Olerud*, and he makes a strong point. The point is made stronger with the 500 for 325 trade. Olerud hit .295/.398/.465 for his career. So he is one of those players who, much of his offensive value was in how often he walked. We probably should be at the point in our baseball timeline where everyone can appreciate walks for what they are, but ieven now their value often gets lost.

So, if Olerud trades in 500 walks for 325 singles, and his batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage line suddenly looks like this: .324/.386/.487.

That line might look a lot better to you. Does a first baseman with a lifetime .324 batting average belong in the Hall of Fame? Well every single eligible player with a .320 batting average is in the Hall of Fame except one (min. 6000 plate appearances). The one who is not in the Hall? The great Babe Herman, who hit .324, and according to legend, fielded at about that same percentage.

In any case, Olerud is one of the rare players in baseball history who can spare 175 times on base and still maintain a healthy on-base percentage. Most of the guys on the ballot can’t do it — some (like Raul Mondesi, Benito Santiago and, believe it or not, Juan Gonzalez) literally can’t do it because they did not walk 500 times in their entire careers. Others can’t do it because their on-base percentages would drop to about league average. Yes, Don Mattingly’s batting average would skyrocket to an impressive .338, but his on-base percentage would drop to an unimpressive .343. You need to be a certain kind of player to make the deal, a high-walk kind of player who could use a few extra batting average points to impress the voters.

One player on this year’s ballot who would be helped by the trade, I think, is Edgar Martinez. It’s not like Edgar’s .312/.418/.515 line lacks Hall of Fame sparkle, but it seems like Martinez — partly because he was a DH for much of his career, partly because he spent his career playing after a couple of time zones had called it a night, partly because he was overshadowed by some of the home run mashers of his era — is still not exactly appreciated for being the historically great hitter that he was. Well, we’ll get to him in a minute. Let’s take a look at the 500 for 325 trade for a few of the more interesting players on the ballot, and also a special guest star:

— Mark McGwire
Actual line: .263/.394/.588
After the trade: .300/.380/.609
Make the trade: Absolutely

Mark McGwire did two things remarkably well in his career.* He hit home runs. And he drew walks. The first thing everyone knows about, and it now largely discounted because of his steroid admission. The walking part, though, has been largely overlooked. McGwire — and, hey, I’ve been guilty of this too — has a low batting career average which makes him seem like a one-trick pony, a Kingman for the Selig Era. But he walked more than 1,300 times and so his .394 on-base percentage actually ranks him 10th out of the 25 players in the 500-homer club, ahead of among others: Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt and Alex Rodriguez.

So if McGwire traded in his 500 walks, his on-base percentage drops to .380 … which is still middle of the pack among the 500-homer guys. But now he has a shiny .300 batting average so that people will stop calling him a one-dimensional offensive player.

*A few people also brought up after my Gil Meche column that McGwire walked away from a $30 million extension at the end of his career because he knew he was not worth it. This is absolutely true and McGwire should be recognized for that. BUT, I don’t think it was quite like Meche. What happened was McGwire and the St. Louis Cardinals agreed verbally to a two-year, $30 million extension that McGwire did not sign. Then he had a miserable season — he was clearly done. I assume the Cardinals would have stuck to their word if McGwire demanded the contract be drawn up, but frankly had McGwire signed the extension then he would have been widely ripped and it would have created quite a scene and it would have led to two years of general ugliness. He gracefully stepped off the stage, but that’s not the same thing. What Meche did — retiring with $12.4 million still DUE to him — is, best I can tell, unique in sports history.

— Rafael Palmeiro
Actual line: .288/.371/.515
After the trade: .310/.361/.528
Make the trade: Probably not.

Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame problem is not his numbers. It is his positive steroid test and his lack of a great peak. He could make the trade and get his average over 300, but then his on-base percentage drops some, and I don’t think it would change the perception of him at all. Everyone knows Palmeiro was a good hitter.

— Fred McGriff
Actual line: .284/.377/.509
After the trade: .310/.366/.527
Make trade: Yes.

McGriff’s rate numbers are almost identical to Palmeiro’s. The problem with McGriff’s Hall of Fame resume is that:

(1) He didn’t QUITE last long to reach the magic numbers Palmeiro reached of 3,000 hits (he had 2,490) or 500 homers (he had 493).

(2) Though he has never been connected to PEDs, his numbers have sort of gotten lost in the post Selig Era jadedness.

McGriff walked more than Palmeiro and so can afford to make the trade a bit more. But more to the point, he needs something to jolt people, he needs the voters to take a harder look at him. While no one doubts Palmeiro’s number case, people have never quite warmed to McGriff’s number case. If he makes the trade, he has a glittery .310 batting for everyone to appreciate while his .366 on-base percentage is still better than average. I’d say he should do it.

— Jeff Bagwell
Actual line: .297/.408/.540
After the trade: .325/.396/.558
Make the trade: Sure, why not?

Bagwell’s actual .408 on-base percentage should blow away the voters … but it really doesn’t. Cash in a few walks, and his on-base percentage still stays around .400, but now his batting average is .325 and that his hard to ignore.

— Dale Murphy
Actual line: .265/.346/.469
After the trade: .294/.333/.490
Make the trade: No.

It doesn’t help the Murph’s case at all.

— Harold Baines
Actual line: .289/.356/.465
After the trade: .312/.345/.482
Make the trade: Probably

It doesn’t matter how you shift Harold Baines numbers … it keeps coming up “Professional hitter.” The trade would give Baines a .300 batting average, but it would drop his on-base percentage to just above league average. Eh, make the deal.

— Larry Walker
Actual line: .313/.400/.565
After the trade: .344/.387/.585
Make the trade: Yes.

Walker’s numbers are downplayed because of Coors Field. And that’s fair. But are people making TOO BIG an adjustment? His 140 OPS+ suggests he was a superior player, and OPS+ takes into account both the hitting joys of Coors Field AND the big numbers of his era. If he makes the deal his on-base percentage stays quite high. But now he’s stuffing a .344 batting average at you — that’s TED WILLIAMS batting average.* Sure, cash in those 500 walks.

*Speaking of Williams, no player in baseball history is more fit to make the 500 walks for 325 hits trade than Williams. His .482 career on-base percentage, in addition to looking like a misprint, is the best in baseball history. He can easily give away a few walks to pick up a few singles, and I have little doubt that he would have loved to do that.

In fact, Williams’ walk total is so high that he is actually in position to cash in ONE THOUSAND WALKS. For that, he would get 650 singles. His on-base percentage would then drop to .462, which would move him into second place behind Babe Ruth (third behind John McGraw if you want to count his 1890s numbers).

But his batting average would jump up to .395, and his slugging percentage would soar to .662. Yes, I think he’d make that deal.

— Dave Parker
Actual line: .290/.339/.471
After the trade: .314/.327/.488
Make the trade: Probably

He is off the ballot, so it doesn’t really matter. And making this trade would make his already suspect on-base percentage drop below league average. But Andre Dawson made it with a .323 career on-base percentage so I think Parker would make the deal and trumpet the impressive-looking .314 batting average.

— Edgar Martinez
Actual line: .312/.418/.515
After the trade: .341/.405/.536
Make the trade: Abso-freaking-lutely.

Edgar was so good at getting on base that he could just give away 175 times on base and STILL keep his on-base percentage above .400. His batting average would soar up to .341, and people might finally realize that when it came to hitting a baseball very hard, very often there are not many people in baseball history better than Edgar.

— Don Mattingly
Actual line: .307/.358/.471
After the trade: .338/.343/.495
Make the trade: No.

It would be nice for Mattingly to have that .338 career batting average for everyone to see. But everyone knows Mattingly was a great hitter — the questions about his Hall of Fame candidacy come down to his longevity and positional value. Anyway, Mattingly only walked 583 times in his career. He simply doesn’t half the walks to cash in.

— Barry Larkin
Actual line: .295/.371/.444
After the trade: .323/.356/.466
Make the trade: Yes.

If Barry Larkin had a .323 batting average — even if his on-base percentage dropped into the .350s — he’d have been elected first ballot. And he should have been elected first ballot.

— Alan Trammell
Actual line: .285/.352/.415
After the trade: .312/.334/.437
Make the trade: Probably not.

Bill, in his Hall of Fame breakdown, offers some statistics that suggest Trammell, while being Hall of Fame worthy, was not as good a player as Barry Larkin. Meanwhile, this WAR chart suggests that they were awfully, awfully similar. Either way, I don’t think that the increase in Trammell’s batting average would help his Hall of Fame case as much as it would help Larkin, especially because it would knock Trammell’s on-base percentage down into barely-average levels. I do hope that when Larkin gets elected next year — and I do believe he will get elected next year — that people will really take a hard, hard look at Alan Trammell’s career.

NOT ON THE BALLOT BONUS
— Lou Whitaker
Actual line: .276/.363/.426
After the trade: .300/.348/.447
Make the trade: Every day and twice on Sundays.

Bill gets into some theories about why Whitaker — who was the obvious baseball twin of his double-play partner and alter-ego Alan Trammell — fell off the ballot his first time around while Trams has coughed and wheezed on the ballot for a few years now. He discusses and dismisses a couple of theories (the race theory, the shortstop theory) before basically settling on the fact the Whitaker was kind of a space cadet as a player. Bill’s words: Space cadet.

I actually think the reason is something else. I think it simply comes down to Whitaker’s .276 batting average. I am usually against oversimplifying things, but in this case I think the simple answer is probably the right one. I think a lot of people looked at Whitaker, said: “Oh, nice player, but certainly not a Hall of Famer, not hitting .276.” And then they moved on. I don’t think there is a more bland looking number in baseball than the .276 batting average. There are a couple of players in the Hall — Cal Ripken and Roy Campanella — who hit .276, but Ripken had the streak and two MVPs, and Campanella had the quote (“You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in your too”) and two MVPs. Mostly .276 means Richie Hebner and Greg Luzinski and Bob Cerv — fine players but not quite Hall of Famers. And Lou Whitaker.

So, absolutely Whitaker makes this deal. It sends his batting average up to .300, his on-base percentage still stays above average, and people might come to appreciate just how good a player Lou Whitaker really was.

— Tim Raines
Actual line: .294/.385/.425
After the trade: .319/.373/.445
Make the trade: Yes

Raines, as I and many of his other fans have written and said many times, reached base more times than Tony Gwynn in a career of almost exactly the same length. To me, that’s all that really needs to be said. They are both corner outfielders and they are contemporaries. Tony Gwynn is in the Hall of Fame largely because he hit singles. Only five players since 1900 hit more singles than Gwynn. He also hit a lot of doubles (25th on the all-time list). Well, Raines mixed singles and walks and reached base even more than Gwynn … and of course, he stole 500 more bases than Gwynn while only getting caught 21 more times. It’s hard for me to see how you could think of Tony Gwynn as a Hall of Famer but not Tim Raines. And since almost EVERYBODY sees Tony Gwynn as a Hall of Famer … well, yes, it is frustrating that it is taking people so long to appreciate just how good Tim Raines was as a player.

Maybe if he cashed in a few of his walks, he could get people to see it. Would Raines be a more viable Hall of Fame candidate with a .319 batting average even if it meant giving up some on-base percentage points? I think for many people, yes, he would be more viable. Raines, in fact, might have more to gain with the trade than anyone else on the ballot. I wish we could make this trade for him just so people could see him a bit more clearly.

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The Retirement of Meche

From the start, I thought the Kansas City Royals got a bad rap when they gave Gil Meche a 5-year, $55 million contract. That was before the 2007 season, and up to that point Meche’s career numbers were 55-44 with an unimpressive 4.65 ERA, an equally unimpressive 96 ERA+, and a penchant for giving up walks and home runs. He had just turned 28 years old.

These numbers, and others like them, strongly suggested the Meche was not worth anything close to $11 million a year … strongly suggested, in fact, that the cash-poor Royals might have been out of their minds. Many people said this out loud. A few — like then-Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, who had been trying to sign Meche — also took some shots at Meche for lacking the fortitude to play for a team that had a chance to compete. It was a open season on the Royals and Meche. And, like I say, from the start I thought it was unfair.

Here’s why I thought it was unfair: Was Meche worth $11 million a year? Of course not … if you are measuring worth by the way we as fans perceive value. But based on the way baseball teams perceive value? He was a healthy 28-year-old pitcher with some experience, great stuff, and he was showing some signs of becoming a good pitcher. And pitchers of that genre get paid.

— A.J. Burnett at 32 got $16 million a year.
— Chan Ho Park at 29 got $13 million a year.
— Carlos Silva at 29 got $12 million a year.
— Vincente Padilla at 29 got $11-plus million a year.
— Darren Dreifort at 28 got $11 million a year.
— Jeff Suppan at 32 got $10-plus million a year.
— Carl Pavano at 29 got $10 million a year.
— Eric Milton at 29 got about $9 million a year.
— Matt Morris at 31 got $9 million a year.
— Andy Ashby at 33 got about $8 million a year.

And so on. Some of these pitchers had pitched better than Meche, but I think they are all in about the same age range, all with various talents, all with various drawbacks, all risks, all making about what Meche was offered by the Royals. Truth is that at least one other team, and perhaps two or three, had offered close to what the Royals offered in money per year terms, which tells you that a few baseball teams (and it only takes one) had set Meche’s price at about $10 or $11 million per year. The Royals, I feel certain, were the only team to offer a fifth year, and they did this because there was no other way they could sign the guy. And they wanted him badly. They thought he had a chance to have a stabilizing effect on a team that had lost 310 games the previous three seasons and had clearly lost its way. They also thought he was ready to emerge. They were throwing deep in an effort to begin turning around a crummy ballclub. And they got battered for it.

The Royals have not been right very often in the last couple of decades. But it turned out they were right on the timing of Gil Meche. He WAS ready to emerge. He had this power curveball that really was quite unlike what almost anyone else threw, and he had a good change-up to go along with his erratic but lively fastball, and perhaps more than anything he had reached a maturity level where he was now taking his baseball career quite seriously. Meche would say that at times things had come too easily to him — he had been a first-round pick out of high school, he was pitching in the big leagues with some success at age 20 — and he had never really dedicated himself to the craft.

And in 2007 and 2008 for the Royals he was one of the better pitchers in the American League. He posted a 117 ERA+, his strikeout to walk ratio jumped significantly (339 to 135), he pitched 210 innings both years, his Fangraphs value was about $19 million, which is almost precisely what the Royals actually paid him for those two years.

And while such things usually are overrated … he really did offer a kind of value to the Royals that is difficult to measure. For one thing, he talked a lot to Zack Greinke. You always saw the two guys off somewhere talking over things. Meche was an outwardly modest guy who would never take any credit at all for helping Greinke overcome some of the difficulties he faced. But Greinke gave him loads of credit. When Meche signed with the Royals before the 2007 season, Greinke was a 23-year-old reliever who had only a year earlier walked away from baseball. In 2009, Greinke won the Cy Young award. Meche played some role in that. Greinke signed with the Royals rather than becoming a free agent. Meche had some role in that too. It wasn’t just Greinke. Meche was always — ALWAYS — trying to help out. That was what the Royals had bet on. And that is what the Royals got.

I have written at great length about Meche’s doomed 2009 season. I’ll try to keep it a lot shorter here. He’d had some back problems in spring training, a bad sign for a 30-year-old pitcher, but he seemed to think that things would stretch out as the weather warmed up and as he reached full throttle. And he seemed to be right. By the middle of June he was pitching about as well as he had pitched in 2007 and 2008. He had a 3.70 ERA after throwing seven shutout innings at Cleveland. He threw 115 pitches in Cleveland — Meche tended to be a high pitch-count guy because of strikeouts and walks. Next time out, he was back home facing Arizona and he pitched brilliantly but, again, somewhat inefficiently. Royals manager Trey Hillman left him out there to throw 132 pitches in a shutout. It seemed a bit much for a guy with a balky back but Meche wanted to stay in, he expected to stay in, and you can’t blame a manager for sticking with his veteran guy. “He knows his body,” Hillman said, not for the last time.

At that moment, Gil Meche had a 3.31 ERA, and along with Greinke the Royals seemed to have a pretty good 1-2 pitching punch. You could not know at that moment that Gil Meche would never again be the same. But that’s kind of how it turned out.

His next two outings were miserable — 13 runs in 8 1/3 innings — and the Royals talked openly about skipping Meche’s next start because he was exhibiting “dead arm,” which, as I wrote at the time, does not seem like an official medical term. The Royals were always saying goofy things like “He has dead arm,” — I would not have been surprised if the Royals had started announcing injuries by saying that a player had a “hitch in his giddy-up” or a “major boo boo.” In any case, they thought about skipping Meche start but after a couple of days of not throwing Meche said he felt fine and the Royals, for reasons that are as baffling now as they were then, had Meche make his regularly scheduled start. The Royals were not in a pennant race, of course. They were not close to a pennant race, of course. The reasoning behind not skipping a start with a dead-arm pitcher they had paid $55 million was not even convoluted — it was nonexistent. Gil said he felt fine. That was it. That was the reasoning. So he pitched. The Royals did say that they would monitor Meche’s pitch count.

I have no doubt that the Royals “monitored” Meche’s pitch count, as monitor means “to observe and check the progress.” However, they did not actually take him out of the game. The details, as detailed in my piece above, are still as gory to me as the Marvin ear scene in “Reservoir Dogs.” They left him in for 121 pitches, the last 22 of them so labored and cruel that I expected malpractice lawyers to rush the scene. The explanations afterward had something to do with Meche wanting to stay in and that his stuff looked good, and I don’t know what else. It was just a mistake, though no one would admit it. The Royals, apparently trying to prove a point, let Meche throw 115 pitches the outing AFTER THAT. It was like jumping on top of him from the top rope two times in a row. Meche made one more start after that before going on the disabled list for a month. After he returned, he had an 8.14 ERA in four miserable starts. He started 2010 on the disabled list. His first nine starts in 2010, he had a 6.66 ERA and walked more than he struck out. That was when the doctors told him that he needed to shut it down and have shoulder surgery that would sideline him for more than a year, if not for the rest of his career.

He refused. He thought the Royals deserved better than that. Instead he went to the bullpen and tried to help out from there. Pitching one painful inning at a time he did manage six holds and a 2.08 ERA in 13 September innings.

Gil Meche has never blamed the Royals for what happened, not once, and in fact has said again and again and again that they did the right things and what happened would have happened no matter what. When a team gives a player a huge, long-term contract … their hope is that he will live up to it. Gil Meche pitched well when he was healthy, and when he got hurt he did all he could to get back on the field, and he always did everything he could do off the field to make the Royals better. He embraced the responsibility of his contract and gave the Royals everything he had including the continued use of his right shoulder. He did not make the Royals a winner or anything close because he could not, because the Royals had a mostly lousy team with no noticeable strengths except for a little bit of right-handed pitching. But he was a lot like the Black Knight from Monty Python. He kept on fighting, all the while shouting “It’s only a flesh wound.”

On Tuesday, Gil Meche finished off his contract in the most unbelievable way — perhaps the most unbelievable finish in Major League baseball history: He walked away from the money. He retired. He left behind $12.4 million guaranteed that was legally and rightfully his because he had determined that he could not help the Kansas City Royals anymore.

I’ve seen a few pieces on the Internet lauding his integrity for walking away from that money … but frankly I’m stunned at the rather passive way most of the people are lauding him. THE MAN WALKED AWAY FROM $12.4 MILLION DOLLARS. If that has ever happened before in the history of professional sports, I have never heard about it. If that has ever happened in the history of the world outside of the movie “Arthur,” I am forgetting the story. Gil Meche had earned that $12.4 million — earned it by signing with the Royals, earned it by pitching his heart out, earned it by working with Zack Greinke and others, earned it by giving up his baseball future, earned it by signing the contract on that day before the 2007 season.

But he doesn’t feel that way. He feels like he can’t pitch anymore, and so the right thing to do is retire. Sure, he could have had surgery and collected the money. Sure, he could have tried to pitch in relief and collected the money. What percentage of people would do that? I’d say 99.999999999%. Hey, that money was his — it was legally his for signing the contract, it was rightfully his for fulfilling his end of the contract, it was medically his for giving up his right shoulder for the Royals, it was ethically his because nobody could doubt he went above and beyond for the Kansas City Royals.

But he doesn’t feel like he can help the Royals by pitching in 2011. And so he is walking away. It would be wrong to call an extremely rich pitcher “heroic” for leaving behind money he doesn’t feel like he deserves — that’s just not the right word. I wrote a piece for the backpage of SI this week about John Green, father of Christina Green, and that’s where words like “heroic” should go. But there should be a word for what Gil Meche did. Astonishing is one.

“There’s no settlement,” Meche said on a conference call. “The team’s done enough for me.”

He said those words without irony. Four years ago, when the Royals were looking for someone to help change the culture of baseball’s worst team, they signed Gil Meche. For various reasons, it didn’t turn out exactly the way the Royals or Meche wanted. That happens. But it’s clear: The Royals signed the right man.

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By In Family

The First Goal

Not long ago, I wrote a little piece about our 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth and her experience at Harry Potter World and Katie the Prefect. I have been assured by a couple dozen people that word has gotten back to Katie, which makes me happy. In any case, I don’t want to bore you with too many family stories — I feel like one of those people who tries to get you to watch my home movies — but I did come across a little basketball revelation watching nine-year-old basketball the other day that I wanted to jot down. Feel free to skip this one. I have ANOTHER baseball Hall of Fame post coming in the next day or so.

* * *

Years ago — quite a while before I had even met my wife — I was talking with the father of a fifth grade girl. This father was a friend of mine, and he was a pretty conservative guy. I don’t mean politically. I mean he was pretty conservative in the way he acted in public. He was an eye-roller. I associated with that. I’m an eye roller too. If I ever went to a Karaoke Bar — something I would never do except by accident — I would not sing no matter how much people tried to guilt me or bully me or bribe me. I just wouldn’t. I would sit there and roll my eyes. It’s just the stuff we’re made of.

But this guy was telling me how he had taken his fifth-grader to the father-daughter’s dance at her school. And the band started playing The Chicken Dance.*
(more…)

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By In Stuff

The Payoff of Playoffs

We, as American sports fans, like endings. I think that speaks a little bit to who we are. We tend to think of September baseball games being more important than April games. We tend to think of sports heroics in the fourth quarter being more meaningful than heroics in the second. We tend to put more stock into great Sunday finishes in golf than great Thursday opening rounds. I think the vast majority of us believe in the fairness of playoffs over the fairness of extended excellence, the value of single elimination games over the value of many weeks of consistent winning. Like I say: I think that speaks a little to who we are.

Let’s start with a quick review of the NFL playoff system. This is the 21st year of the bye system as we know it in the NFL playoffs. Between 1978 and 1989 (not counting the 1982 strike season), there were only two games the first weekend — the two games featured the league’s four wildcard teams. There were only six divisions in the NFL then, so the six division winners would all get a first-week bye. The two wildcard winners would match up with the six division winners in Week 2. In those years, wildcard Oakland won the Super Bowl (winning at Cleveland in the Red Right 88 game) and the 1985 Patriots reached the Super Bowl before getting pulverized by the ’85 Bears. Other than that, wildcard teams had fairly limited influence on the playoffs.

Starting in 1990, the NFL changed the system, adding one wildcard team to each conference. That meant the division winner with the worst record in each conference stopped getting a bye and had to play a wildcard team that first weekend. That’s when the system we know it began — four teams got byes, the other eight (six which were wildcards) did not.

From 1990 to 2001, teams that had byes the first weekend went 39-9 in their first playoff game. That’s an 81% winning percentage. And that makes a lot of sense. Teams with byes SHOULD win a vast, vast, vast majority of the time, right? You have the best of the division winners, rested, playing at home, they should win something like 80% of the time. It was set up so that the best teams during the season were given huge advantages. And those advantages paid off almost every time. It’s instructive to take a look at those nine games when the bye team lost:

1992: Buffalo beat Pittsburgh 24-3.
— The teams had the same record (11-5), but Buffalo had to play the first weekend because of tiebreakers. They beat Houston that first weekend in the famous Frank Reich game, coming back from 35-3 in the second half. And they manhandled Pittsburgh; it’s pretty clear they were the better team.

1993: Kansas City beat Houston 28-20
— Again, the teams were pretty close during the season, Houston was 12-4, Kansas City 11-5. There always seemed something insubstantial about those run-and-shoot Oilers.

1995: Green Bay beat San Francisco 27-17.
— Two division winners again, both with the same 11-5 record. San Francisco got the bye because of tiebreakers. Green Bay had a young and ascending Brett Favre.

1995: Indianapolis beat Kansas City 10-7
— Our first major upset, and people in Kansas City have never stopped thinking about it. Lin Elliott missed three field goals for the Chiefs.

1996: Jacksonville beat Denver 30-27
— Our second major upset, and people in Denver probably have lived it down since the Broncos won the next two Super Bowls.

1997: Denver beat Kansas City 14-10
— The Chiefs had beaten the Broncos in the regular season on a last second 54-yard field goal by Pete Stoyanovich to secure the division and the bye. And the game itself, like all close NFL games, has been dissected again and again in Kansas City (you can ask any obsessed Chiefs fan about phantom holding penalties and whether or not Tony Gonzalez was in bounds). The Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl.

1999: Tennessee beat Indianapolis 19-16
— Both teams had gone 13-3 during the regular season, though the Titans had lost the division to the 14-2 Jaguars. They were very close in quality, I would say, and the game was very close. Peyton Manning, in only his second year, had a bad game and the rumblings about his ability to win playoff games would begin right around this time.

2000: Baltimore beat Tennessee 24-10
— Like in 2000, the two best teams in the conference were probably in the same division. Tennessee had won the division with a 13-3 record. But you could argue convincingly that the 12-4 Ravens were better. In fact, the Ravens made a rather convincing argument on the field, and in the Super Bowl too.

2001: Philadelphia beat Chicago 33-19
— Two division winners and though the Bears had the better record (13-3 to Philadelphia’s 11-5), they had the same point differential and the Eagles really beat up the Bears in Chicago.

There was order in the NFL playoffs. Yes, there were upsets but they clearly WERE upsets, things that did not happen often, things that usually happened for a reason.

In 2002, the system changed — but it didn’t seem a particularly big change. The league expanded to eight divisions. So that meant there were now eight division champions instead of six. To compensate, the NFL wisely (methinks) eliminated two wildcard teams, going back to four. So that meant there were still 12 teams getting into the playoffs. And four of those 12 — the two division winners with the best records in each league — got a first round bye.

On the surface, it would not seem the system should change much. The same number of teams were making the playoffs. Two of the wildcards were replaced with division winners … but that just seems to be cosmetics. In 2002, everything looked about the same. The four bye teams all won their first playoff games and by a total of 115-52. Only one of those games — Tennessee’s 34-31 overtime win over Pittsburgh — was even remotely close.

But something kind of bizarre has happened since 2003. That something might just be a fluke or a statistical anomaly, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

Since 2003, bye teams have gone just 18-14 in their first playoff games.

Since 2005, it’s even more stark — bye teams are just 12-12.

Think about that for a moment. Bye teams have:

(1) The best regular season records.
(2) Home field advantage.
(3) An extra week to rest and prepare.

That’s a pretty sizable advantage, isn’t it? You take what looks like the superior team, you play the game at their stadium in front of their fans and you give them an extra week’s preparation. You would expect that team to win almost every time wouldn’t you? But the last six years, the bye team has lost as many times as it has won.

Is this good for pro football? I would say largely that it is. I love the NFL playoffs. I love the randomness of it. The NFL is built around that Any Given Sunday credo, and the game thrives largely because of that. You really don’t know what’s going to happen. But the question I think about, the question I want to ask here: WHY do we love that sort of randomness?

I bring up the BCS again. Lately, it feels like I have been arguing a lot in favor of the BCS which is a weird thing because I don’t like the BCS system, don’t have any desire to argue for it, and I absolutely would prefer a well-designed college football playoff. My problem, I guess, is that I want to have discussion, and it seems that almost nobody wants to talk about it. It seems like just about any time I bring up the question — is a playoff really MORE FAIR — I get yelled at, even by close friends. The BCS has been demonized past the point of absurdity, past the point where anyone even LISTENS when someone suggests that, hey, maybe it’s not that bad.

Is a playoff really MORE FAIR? What does fair even mean? This year in college football, the BCS system had Oregon play Auburn for a trophy they called the national championship trophy. This left out other very good teams, particularly undefeated TCU. This wasn’t fair. There was much griping about it, and rightfully so. It is absurd and somewhat arrogant to believe that we can use our eyes and our computer systems and our innate sense of the game to look at more than 100 Division I football teams playing somewhat self-determined schedules and simply pick the two best teams. The flaws in the system are obvious.

But aren’t the playoff flaws obvious too? This year in the NFL, the playoff system included a seven-win team and took one 10-6 wildcard team while leaving two other 10-6 teams at home. The system made a 12-win team and two 11-win teams go on the road for their first game while three teams with 10 or fewer wins (including the NFL’s first seven-win playoff team) played home games. This year, the NFL rewarded New England and Atlanta for their 14- and 13-win seasons by giving them an extra week to heal and homefield advantage. This seems like a seismic advantage. But is it really? We cannot argue that they promptly lost convincingly — making that one loss much more important than their stellar 16-game seasons. We cannot argue that 12 of the last 24 bye teams have lost their first week.

There might not be any specific REASONS why bye teams have lost the last few years. It could just be one of those things. But I can think of a few reasons why it might be happening.

1. There’s the NFL scheduling system. As you know, the scheduling system is intended to reward teams that had terrible years. In 2009, the Kansas City Chiefs went 4-12. As a result, their non-conference schedule featured these 10 teams (in parentheses I’ve included their 2009 records):

Cleveland Browns (5-11)
San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
Indianapolis Colts (14-2)
Houston Texans (9-7)
Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)
Buffalo Bills (6-10)
Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
Seattle Seahawks (5-11)
St. Louis Rams (1-15)
Tennessee Titans (8-8)

The ten teams’ combined record was 73-87. This was intended to be an easy schedule. It turned out to be even EASIER because the five teams that were .500 or better on the list — the 49ers, Colts, Texans. Cardinals and Titans — ALL took huge steps backward in 2010. The Chiefs went 10-6, won their division, and beat one playoff team all year, that one playoff team being the 7-9 Seahawks. Were the Chiefs a lot better in 2010? Sure. How much better? Why don’t we ask the question next year when the Chiefs play the four teams that remain in the playoffs (Chicago, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets) along with New England and Indianapolis.

This is how the system works. Lose and they try to ease your path. Win and they try to put boulders in your way. Scheduling is a big, big part of what the NFL calls parity. And so records can be illusions.*

*Since writing this several people have pointed out that since 2002, teams in the same division play 14 of the same games — only two are determined by how good or bad a team is supposed to be (the rest by divisions matching up with other divisions). So, for instance, the only two team difference between the 2010 Chargers (who had won the division in 2009) and Chiefs (who had finished last) was that the Chargers played New England and Cincinnati while the Chiefs played Buffalo and Cleveland.

It’s a fair point — and I missed it. Two games out of 10 non-division games is not insubstantial — and if the Chiefs had played the Patriots instead of the Bills they probably would not have won the division. But the NFL schedule does not tilt as much as it once did, and so I would agree that this is not quite as big a factor as I had originally thought.

2. Homefield advantage seems to be losing some of its advantage in the NFL. For some of this, read Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim’s fascinating piece on homefield advantage in this week’s Sports Illustrated.* They point out that a big reason (the biggest reason?) for homefield advantage is unintended referee bias. Well, you’ll have to read the piece.

*I just got their book Scorecasting and am ready to dive in. I’ll give you a full report and see if we can get Jon to come on here for a conversation.

But … with instant replay, the NFL might be taking a lot of unintended referee bias out of the game. Add in that officials surely bear down for playoff games (and they tend to be the best officials), and maybe homefield advantage isn’t quite what is used to be. Maybe there aren’t as many penalties called against the road team as there used to be. Maybe fumbles (or non-fumbles) that used to be called for the home team are overturned a little more. The speaker in the helmet thing seems to help too — it doesn’t seem that teams are nearly as bothered by crowd noise as they used to be.

The numbers don’t exactly bear this out — teams ARE winning a little less often at home, but it doesn’t seem earth shattering:

1970-79: 1087-813, 57.2%
1980-89: 1344-998, 57.4%
1990-98 (year before replay): 1239-839, 59.6%
1999-10: 1593-1205, 56.9%

Not a big deal. But the last five years, the numbers are down a bit more (56.1%). Anyway, with the playoffs you are are dealing with small margins. In baseball, you hope and expect that over 600 plate appearances you will get something close to true value. But the NFL in many ways IS about small numbers. In the NFL, especially in the playoffs, one loss is devastating. Until 2005, road teams in the playoffs won 30% of the time. The last six years, they have won 45% of the time.

These are just thoughts, of course. I am not trying to suggest they are right. We’re just talking.

3. It seems like there is more REAL parity in the NFL than ever before — not just the illusion of schedules, but a real tightening of talent. These would be the effects of the salary cap and the draft and various other things. It does seem true that there really isn’t a lot separating the top two or three teams from the 10th or 11th teams.

The question, I think, is this: What’s the competitive point of an NFL season? Is it to determine the BEST team in the NFL? Or is it to give us a fun and easy-to-follow trail on the way to our Super Bowl party? The New England Patriots won 14 of 16 games, including their last eight. They beat all four of the remaining teams during the regular season (they also lost to the Jets in Week 2 during the regular season). In those four wins, only Green Bay even stayed close. They outscored opponents by 205 points — the best point differential in the NFL since New England’s 16-0 season, and the second best in the NFL since 2001.

And on Sunday, after getting a week’s vacation, getting to play on their home field, they were obliterated by a New York Jets team they had already played twice. The Jets had a great gameplan, and they played a sharp game, and Tom Brady looked confused, and the Patriots looked flat. And now their 2010 record is meaningless. Their season is mud. All the winning they did, well, nobody cares. That happened BEFORE the playoffs, before it really mattered. Is this fair? I think most of us would say that absolutely it’s fair. We are a playoff nation. The Patriots lost on the field. Fair or unfair, either way, it made for good television.

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SI Sports Fact of the Day

For the holidays, I was given a Sports Illustrated desktop facts calendar — it is one of those that you tear off a page after each day. I have gotten these sorts of calendars before — Today in American History; Today in Birthdays; Today in New Wave Music; Today in Golf Tips — but they have been pretty useless because I would forget to tear off the pages for, oh, seven or eight months. It would be August 27th, and my calendar would still show “January 23.” And then I would remember about the calendar and tear away months and months of pages at one time, and I would never look at the facts, and then I would forget for another three or fourth months, and by that time the year was almost over, and the whole thing was just kind of pointless.

We’re only 14 days into the new year, but this year I have actually been keeping up daily. Here’s why: I cannot wait to see what utterly random sports fact I will turn up the next day in my SI calendar. The randomness has become a joyous part of my daily life. Every day, I go to my desk, and I can’t wait to tear off the page and find a fact that has absolutely nothing to do with the season we’re in, what day it’s printed on, what sport people are actually playing. For instance, here’s the January 6th fact:

“In 1959, it took three days for NASCAR officials to study a photograph of the first Daytona 500 finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp before awarding the trophy to Petty.”

What is that? My first thought: Is this the anniversary of that race? No. The race was held on Feb. 22. Then I thought: Is this the start of the NASCAR season? No. The season does not start for more than a month. At first I was baffled. The next day’s fact didn’t cease my bafflement:

The January 7th fact was this:

“Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox — known as the greatest hitter who ever lived — ended his famous 1941 season with a .406 batting average.”

Ted Williams? In early January? And this “fact” seems kind of opinionated, doesn’t it? Some people know Ted Williams as the greatest hitter who ever lived. Some don’t. His .482 career on-base percentage is the highest of all time, which might have been a nice fact for the page. In fact, do you know how many players other than Williams had an on-base percentage higher than .482 in a single season? The answer: Nine. And that’s in just one season. The list:

1. Babe Ruth (9 times)
2. Ted Williams (8 times)
3. Barry Bonds (4 times)
4. Rogers Hornsby (3 times)
5. Mickey Mantle (2 times)
6. Frank Thomas (1994)
7. Norm Cash (1961)
8. Arky Vaughan (1935)
9. Tris Speaker (1920)
10. Ty Cobb (1915)

A few things. One: Every player on the list except one had a Hall of Fame career on the field — that one would be Norm Cash. And Cash, while I don’t think he’s quite a Hall of Famer because his career didn’t last long enough, did have career numbers that are stunningly good including a 139 OPS+, which is higher than every single hitter voted into the Hall of Fame since Mike Schmidt in 1995. Cash’s remarkable 1961 season was later dismissed because he admitted using a corked bat. After that, studies showed corking a bat doesn’t really do anything. Around that time people started shooting themselves up with steroids which kind of put the whole corked bat controversy to bed.

Point is, that to have a .482 on-base percentage, even for a single season, is really a remarkable thing. Williams did it for a career.

Two: People really do under-appreciate Arky Vaughan’s crazy-good 1935 season. He was, based on his reputation at the time, not a great defensive shortstop. But he was a shortstop and probably average or better defensively. And in 1935, he hit .385, led the league with 97 walks, banged 34 doubles, 10 triples, 19 home runs. He slugged .607. In the New Historical Abstract, which isn’t so new anymore, Bill James wrote that it was the greatest offensive year for a shortstop other than Honus Wagner. I think even including Alex Rodriguez’s amazing 2000 and 1996 seasons, even including Derek Jeter’s best year (probably 1999), even including the best of Nomah (2000 when he hit .372) that remains true. I simply cannot imagine what the writers were thinking when they failed to vote in Arky Vaughan. I’m just glad I wasn’t around because that would have meant an Internet barrage of words that would make my Blyleven-Morris oeuvre look like a postcard from the beach.

Three: I was stunned that Ty Cobb only reached the .482 on-base percentage line once — and that was actually in a year when he “only” hit .369. For some reason, Cobb walked 118 times that year — he had never before walked more than 64, and he would never again walk more than 85. I’m not sure why Cobb walked so much that year other than he just wanted to — 1915 was also the year he stole 96 bases, which would be considered the modern record until broken by Maury Wills. He was caught 38 times, and that record would last even longer — until broken by Rickey Henderson in 1982.

Anyway, you see what’s happening here? This seemingly pointless fact on my SI calendar — I’d say most adult baseball fans even passably interested in history know that Williams hit .406 in 1941 — spurred me to go back and look up Arky Vaughan and Norm Cash and Ty Cobb and …what at first seemed like an odd and random sports fact actually got me thinking about all sorts of things, not unlike the fortune in the fortune cookie.

The January 8 and 9 sports fact: “Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees also took the 1941 season to new heights with a 56-game hitting streak, the best of all time.”

OK, first off, and I say this with great love: What, we can’t get a new sports fact for each weekend day?

But then, I had to look it up — here are the longest hitting streaks each year the last 20 years:

2010: Josh Hamilton (23)
2009: Ryan Zimmerman (30)
2008: Ian Kinsler (25)
2007: Moises Alou (30)
2006: Chase Utley (35)
2005: Jimmy Rollins (38)
2004: Carlos Lee (28)
2003: Albert Pujols (30)
2002: Luis Castillo (35)
2001: Moises Alou and Ichiro (23)
2000: Gabe Kapler (28)
1999: Vlad Guerrero (31)
1998: Eric Davis (30)
1997: Nomar Garciaparra and Eric Davis (30)
1996: Hal Morris (32)
1995: Jim Edmonds (23)
1994: Rafael Palmeiro (24)
1993: John Olerud (26)
1992: Lance Johnson (25)
1991: Brett Butler (23)

I think, looking at that, you can get a good feel for how difficult — and how random — a hitting streak can be. Nobody has come even close to challenging DiMaggio, of course, and most years nobody even gets to 30. I’ve had a this discussion with various people in the game: When does a hitting streak become news? I will hear announcers or writers refer to a “modest six-game hitting streak” and I will think “Yeah, modest enough you shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

I say that for local fans, a hitting streak probably begins around 10 — that is, if someone on your favorite team gets a streak to 10, you probably would like to know.

For regional fans, you probably have to get it up above 15 — that is, if someone in your division (or on your fantasy team) gets a hitting streak to 16 or 17, that’s fairly interesting.

For national fans, I think you need to get it higher than 20. I don’t think it is even worth mention on Baseball Tonight until it’s at least 21 or 22 games. It’s not worth getting on SportsCenter until 25 or more.

And for non-baseball fans — people only interested in baseball when something outsized happens — I think you need to get it to about 35. At 35, people who don’t care much about baseball might take notice. There have only been two non-baseball-fan streaks in the last 20 years — Luis Castillo’s 35-gamer in 2002 and Jimmy Rollins’ 38 gamer in 2005.

OK, so where does my mind go from here? Exactly: Who has the longest consecutive game streak for getting on base? Glad to know we’re thinking together. I’ve often wondered about this, but I never went back and actually looked at the numbers. Baseball Reference’s remarkable Play Index goes back to 1920 so this does not include, say, Ty Cobb’s amazing 1915 season when he probably got on base 60 or 70 games in a row. But since 1920, players have gotten on base in 56 straight games in a single season* 18 different times. Ted Williams has done it twice.

*Derek Jeter has pulled off the feat twice — but not in one season. From the end of 2006 to the beginning of 2007, he reached base 65 times in a row. From the end 1988 to the beginning of 1999 he reached base 57 times in a row. Others have also pulled off the feat over two years. But we’re going to stick with single season feats for now.

It will not surprise you to know that the record (since 1920) for most consecutive games reached belongs to Ted Williams, who reached base in a preposterous 84 straight games in 1949. His record was almost reached by Wade Boggs in 1985, when the Chicken Man reached base in 81 straight games. The most amazing thing about both of these records is that I don’t remember ever hearing about either. The Boggs thing is particularly amazing because I was a particularly eager baseball fan in 1985. I remember hearing all sorts of crazy facts about Boggs then 0- one year he didn’t pop-up in the infield, one year he hit .310 with two strikes on him, stuff like that. I had no idea he reached base in 81 straight games.

People have done the math on DiMaggio hitting in 56 straight games … I am right now reading the excellent Kostya Kennedy’s upcoming book about DiMaggio’s streak. I suspect the math would be about as impressive for Ted Williams’ 84-game on-base streak, or Wade Boggs’ 81-gamer or — and how about this for an amazing streak — DALE MURPHY’s 74-game on-base streak in 1987. Yes. Dale Murphy’s streak for reaching base in 1987 was exactly as long as DiMaggio’s in 1941.

Here is a list of all the on-base streaks that were 56-games or longer.

1. Ted Williams 84 (1949)
2. Wade Boggs 81 (1985)
3. Dale Murphy 74 (1987)
Joe DiMaggio 74 (1941)
5. Ted Williams 73 (1941)
6. Jimmy Wynn 66 (1969)
7. Orlando Cabrera 63 (2006)
8. Solly Hemus 60 (1953)
9. Joey Votto 58 (2010)
Duke Snider 58 (1954)
11. Johnny Damon 57 (2005)
Barry Bonds 57 (2003)
Ryan Klesko 57 (2002)
Billy Goodman 57 (1955)
George Kell 57 (1950)
16. Tony Gwynn 56 (1987)
Carl Yastrzemski 56 (1969)
Arky Vaughan 56 (1936)

Orlando Cabrera’s 63-game on-base streak in 2006 is the longest of the last 20 years and the most unlikely since Cabrera’s lifetime on-base percentage is .320. DURING THE STREAK his on-base percentage was only .372. But it was uncanny. Look: T he streak lasted from April 25 to July 6.

April 25-30: 5-game hitting streak
May 1: Walk
May 2-5: 4-game hitting streak
May 6: Two walks.
May 7-13: 6-game hitting streak
May 14: Walk
May 16: Three hits.
May 17: Walk
May 18-31: 12-game hitting streak.
June 2: Two walks.
June 3-9: 6-game hitting streak
June 10: Walk
June 11-13: 3-game hitting streak, all multiple hits.
June 14: Walk
June 15-16: 2-game hitting streak
June 17: Walk
June 19: Walk
June 20-28: 8-game hitting streak
June 30: Hit by pitch
July 1: Walk
July 2-6: 5-game hitting streak.

And there you go — 63 straight games of reaching base. I don’t remember hearing a word about it.

See what these SI facts do to me? Today’s SI fact is what got me started with this blog post in the first place:

January 14: In 2000, Mark Calcavecchia became 10th golfer in PGA Tour history to surpass $10 million in career earnings.

Now, your first reaction might be: What? Who cares? What does that even mean? Ah, but it’s clear you have not come to appreciate the genius of this SI sports calendar. Because as soon as I saw that, I immediately thought: Wait, that was 10 years ago. How many golfers have now won $10 million on the PGA Tour?

I’m glad you asked: The answer is 105. Yes. That’s right. There are now 105 golfers who have won $10 million or more on the tour, and these include Pat Perez and Chris Riley, who I have never heard of. I’m sure right now every member of the Pat Perez and Chris Riley fan clubs are writing in angrily to scold me for not knowing about them and to give me many fascinating details about Pat Perez’ and Chris Riley’s golfing careers, and they are right, I should have heard of him, I’ll be glad to hear about them now. I feel sure I should have heard of them because in between two on the career money list — just above Pat Perez and just below Chris Riley — is a golfer I have heard of, I think, a guy by the name of Tom Watson.

It’s inanely fogeyish to talk about how much more money players make today than they did many years ago — fogeyish and generally wrong-headed since each individual dollar is worth quite a bit less now than it was long ago, and golf as a professional sports industry makes many, many many times more than it made years ago. Still, it’s kind of fun. David Toms has long been one of my favorite golfers because we got to know each other a little bit when we were both starting out band because he was born four-days before I was born. I have followed his career pretty closely because of this. I had no idea that he has made more than $33 million on the PGA Tour.

Justin Leonard, who I have always thought of as golf’s Michael Chang — won the British Open when he was young, looked like he might overcome his relative size disadvantage and become one of the best in the world, popped up every now and again to win a tournament but never won another major — has made more than $30 million on the Tour. The Top 20 has Appleby AND Allenby AND Oglivy. Mark Calcavecchia — who I unfairly will always think of as the guy sniping at Arnold Palmer for playing at Augusta at age 70* — has made more than $23 million.

*Calcavecchia snapped off about Arnie after playing a slow and poor round with Palmer at Augusta … Calcavecchia suggested it might be time for the King to hang ’em up. I was there when he did it. Mark apologized madly for a long while after that and wrote a long and reportedly heartfelt apology letter to Palmer. I do think he was sincere in his apology and had really just mouthed off because he was mad at himself for playing a lousy round. I don’t think anyone should hold any hard feelings against the guy. I certainly don’t. But, still, when I hear the name Calcavecchia, that’s the image that pops into my mind. That’s the problem with having a terrible public moment. It stands out in the mind and never quite goes away.A

Tiger Woods, of course, is the all-time leader with more than $94 million. There are, as mentioned, 105 golfers who have made $10 million. There are 179 that have made more than $6 million. Here are a few of the others:

189. Jack Nicklaus ($5.7 million)
249. Lee Trevino ($3.4 million)
278. Johnny Miller ($2.7 million)
327. Arnold Palmer ($1.8 million)*
332. Gary Player ($1.8 million)

*He’s not even close to the highest paid Palmer — Ryan Palmer has made more than $9 million.

This means absolutely nothing. But maybe that’s missing the point. When you’re looking at the SI Sports Facts, I have finally figured out, you’re not looking for meaning. You’re looking for something help you get through the day.

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Whose Game Is It Anyway?

Gene Chizik said something interesting on Monday night after Auburn won the national championship. This, in itself, is news, methinks.* I mean no disrespect: Chizik is obviously a terrific football coach, and I have no reason to believe he’s anything other than a fine man, and Auburn had a marvelous football season — but, I don’t think even Chizik’s most fervent supporter would confuse him with Oscar Wilde.

*I am getting involved in the campaign to bring back the useful word “methinks,” which methinks is MUCH better than the unappealing abbreviation “imo” or the even more unwieldy “imho.” Methinks has a grand Shakespearean flair, and even a 2-year-old can use it and know what it means, and it’s just time to bring it back, methinks.

But Chizik did say something interesting Monday night … specifically when someone asked him how he felt about the BCS system. This is an annual question presented to the mythical national champion coach and year after year the answers tend to be about as useless as the question.* The coach, armed with this year’s shiny crystal bit of mythology, will usually blather on about how this is the system, and everyone knew the rules before the season began, and anyway there is no perfect system, and his team won its championship on the field and so on. I do not remember a winning coach taking the opportunity to say that the system doesn’t seem fair, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect any winning coach to ever say it. Let’s be honest: “College football needs a playoff” are the words of the unlucky, the discarded, the teams that did not make it into the big game.

*A similarly useless question/answer bit of patter is when reporters ask the star player immediately after the championship game if he will return to the school or go professional. Cam Newton was getting medical treatment after Monday’s game and so was only asked three questions — and one of those was the “Will you turn pro” question. This happens EVERY year in EVERY sport, and I have yet to hear the player say anything other than “I’m not thinking about that right now … I’m focused on this victory/loss … I have not made any decisions … I will talk with my coach/family/friends/super agent.” I know people will insist that we we have to ask the question, and maybe we do. I do know the answer is ALWAYS one big, fat “No comment.”

You might have expected Gene Chizik to sputter the same sort of nonsense except for one thing: Chizik has been hurt by the BCS system. In 2004, Auburn went undefeated. Looking back at the talent of the players who were on that team — just STARTING with running backs Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown — it’s quite likely that Auburn was the best team in college football, certainly one of the two best. Instead USC played Oklahoma in the BCS Championship, and Oklahoma was embarrassingly overmatched. Also: The SEC has won five of the six BCS titles since, specifically the last five. Yes, it seems quite likely Auburn was the best team in America, but they did not get to play in the biggest game because of the quirks of the BCS and the unavoidable mathematics of the BCS Championship Game only having two teams. Gene Chizik was an assistant coach on that Auburn staff. He remembers feeling agony because his team did not get to prove itself best on the field.

So, that afforded him a fascinating opportunity as he stood before the nation on Monday night, having won a National Championship (while undefeated TCU played the role of 2004 Auburn). Someone asked him about the BCS system because someone ALWAYS asks. I’ll reprint the entire question and Chizik’s instinctive response:

Q: Coach Chizik, congratulations on your national championship. Having said that, how do you like the BCS format?

Chizik: I like it today.

That was his response. And that was interesting. Chizik did expand just a bit. He said most of the time the system is probably right. He said, yes, every so often there might have been a BCS format “that’s off here and there.” He made sure to point out that 2004 was probably one of those off years (the only year?). And then — because it’s a coach’s law — he said that the system “is what it is” and that “for the most part, it works.”

I think if you did a serious and binding poll of current college football coaches, the vast majority would overwhelmingly vote against a playoff. There have been unserious and non-binding polls that strongly suggest this — just last year, the American Football Coaches Association released results of a poll that said 93% of coaches prefer the bowls to a playoff. Of course, that was just for fun — nobody thought it would CHANGE anything. And I don’t know how they did this particular poll, and am a bit skeptical about the results — 93% seems high to me. But I think the feeling against playoffs for coaches is probably overwhelming.

Of course, coaches don’t run college football and should not. But I think if you did a serious and binding poll of current athletic directors, the majority would vote against a playoff. I think if you did a serious and binding poll of college presidents, the vast majority would vote against a playoff. I think if you did a serious and binding poll of college football PLAYERS, the majority would vote against a playoff too. I’m not confident in saying that about the players, but it’s my best bet. The polls I’ve seen of players seem to be unreliable based on how the questions are phrased, but they never suggest that players are united in their desire for a playoff. And I just I don’t see players voting to add more games and more practices and more pressure to their already overcrowded lives. Seems to me that players with NFL aspirations don’t want a playoff, and players at schools unlikely to get into a playoff don’t want a playoff, and players who feel like they already do PLENTY for their scholarships don’t want a playoff. I believe just those three categories would make a majority. The fact that nobody can say for sure what would happen to the current minor bowls in a playoff system could play a role in their vote as well. I think players would vote against.

So, basically I think the plurality of coaches, athletic directors, presidents and players would vote against ANY of the playoff systems offered (with the possible exception of the plus-one — one more championship game after the bowls — which does seem to have at least a little bit of traction). Why do I think this? Simple. People generally vote from self interest.

When Auburn was not given a chance to play in the 2004 BCS Championship game, Gene Chizik was against the BCS system.

But when Auburn wins the national title, Gene Chizik thinks the system mostly works, and anyway there’s no better system out there. He states authoritatively that the Auburn Tigers are “the best football team in the United States.” In two fairly wide ranging press conferences after the game, he does not say the letters “T-C-U,” at least not together.

I don’t think this makes Gene Chizik hypocritical or even inconsistent … I think it makes him human. When the system shut him out, it was unfair. When the system gave his team an opportunity to prove their greatness, it is probably the best we could do. I would guess most of us are like this in a million of ways in day-to-day life. Chizik in spirit might still be for a playoff, and he might still be waiting for a great playoff format that he can get behind. But I think his answer after winning is pretty telling. Does he like the BCS? He does right now.

If the majority of coaches don’t want a playoff, if presidents don’t want a playoff, if athletic directors don’t want a playoff, if players don’t want a playoff — if you accept this premise — then it’s fair to ask: Who DOES want a playoff? Well, fans do, at least television viewing fans do — and by a pretty vast majority. But again, we get into self-interest: Do fans want a playoff so badly that they will stop watching bowl games on TV? No. Do fans want a playoff so badly that they will stop going to games? No. Do fans want a playoff so badly that they will simply reject the BCS Championship by boycotting the game? No. Ratings in the BCS title game were down 11% from last year — was that a statement about BCS fairness? Probably not since last year there was MORE controversy about who was in last year’s game (Boise State AND TCU were undefeated and left out). I’d say the ratings fall was due to the game being on cable instead of Fox, and Auburn and Oregon not being as popular nationally as Alabama and Texas last year.

I guess my point is that there’s a lot of talk about a playoff in college — there is a lot of fire on talk radio and in Internet chat rooms — but there seems to me no genuine movement here. A large majority of college football fans — myself included — want a playoff because the system doesn’t seem inclusive and it would be awesome to have a month of meaningful college football games on television in December. That would be so great.* The larger question, though, is this: Whose game is this? Is it our game, the fans game? Or is it the colleges’ game and the players’ game?

*Here’s something I do find strange — and I’m a playoff advocate: Many, many people, in their case for a playoff, point out that a television playoff would generate much, much, much more money for the schools. In the fascinating and convincing Death to the BCS, the number was as high as $750 million per year. I have every reason to believe it’s true. But here’s what bugs me: I’m not sure why we’re supposed to believe this is a good thing. The theme seems to be that this extra money could help schools pay for things like other sports that have been cut for budgetary reasons and it could expand opportunities. Is this really what we think will happen with the money? Or will this just give schools opportunity and reason to spend even more money to hire Nick Saban and build larger stadiums and better workout facilities and pump up recruiting? I mean, college football makes a lot more money now from TV than it did 20 years ago, and all you hear is that schools don’t have money to keep longtime wrestling or swimming programs going. I guess my point is: Since when did we as fans start to ROOT for more television influence and more money to be infused into college football?

Ted Williams used his stage at the Hall of Fame to call for the induction of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and other worthy Negro Leaguers, and that helped create change. If Gene Chizik had gone up after the game and said: “I’m proud of this team, and have no doubt that we are the best team in college football, but I feel for teams like TCU that aren’t here and would have preferred to settle it in a playoff system” — well that might have been the sort of statement that might help create change. He had no responsibility to say anything like that and he didn’t, and I don’t blame him. This was a great moment for his school, his players, his family, and I didn’t expect him to make a political statement. I have little doubt in my mind that Auburn was the best college football team in America, and they should celebrate themselves, and they do.

I also think that TCU fans have every right to declare THEMSELVES national champion. I have little doubt TCU could have given Auburn a great game. And while the screaming from us fans about the unfairness of the system and the desperate need for a playoff will only get louder, and while every so often there will be a protest (like an unnamed coach going against the rules and voting TCU No. 1 this year), and while there will be some high profile support from a playoff (such as when President Obama spoke out), I don’t think there will be a playoff any time soon. There are too many people in the game who don’t want one. And, there are too many people in the game who are just fine with the BCS system on their happy days..

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By In Stuff

Chiefs vs. Ravens: Live

OK, so the last live blog didn’t quite work … I think I messed up the time slot. Let’s try it again.

Chiefs vs. Ravens

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By In Family

Katie The Prefect

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about our plans to take our daughters — particularly our nine-year-old Elizabeth — to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios in Orlando. I worried, I suppose, that nothing surprising and magical would happen. Well, as it turned out, something surprising and magical did happen.

The first thing I had to do when we got to Harry Potter World was stand in line. This was not unexpected. We had been told by several people to prepare for 1930s Soviet bread length lines. However, it was a bit surprising to find that I had to wait in line just for the right to go into Harry Potter World, where I could wait in those long lines. It turns out that Harry Potter World is rather small, and they can only let in so many people at a time. So, I had to wait in a 45-minute line that twisted and turned through the park just to get a return ticket — which would allow us to go into Harry Potter World four hours later.

(more…)

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By In Stuff

The Hall of Fame Recap

Well, for the most part, Hall of Fame day went as expected. Roberto Alomar didn’t just go into the Hall of Fame, he received 90% of the vote, a higher percentage than Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson among most others. This seems to solidify the perception that last year (when he felt short of election) a bunch of voters (more than 100 of them) thought Alomar deserved a year’s penance for the spitting incident that marked his reputation. This seems churlish to me, but it has become clear that Hall of Fame voters like to make their points.

And Bert Blyleven, finally, made it into the Hall of Fame. This should cut back my writing work load by about 10% in 2011. There has been quite a bit of discussion, it seems, about how Blyleven’s Hall of Fame percentages could have risen from 17.5% his first year of eligibility down to 14.1% his second year all the way up to 79.7% and election on Wednesday. There has been talk about how big a role the Internet played, how big a role our amazing access to statistics played, how a big a role intelligent lobbyists like Rich Lederer made and so on.

Seems to me that the issue is that Blyleven was wildly unappreciated in his day and this carried over into the voting. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we could find an Elizabethan Era English theater fan. I sometimes wonder if he would say: “Shakespeare? That’s who you guys chose as the best of the era? Are you kidding me? That guy was NOTHING compared to Ben Jonson and John Webster. Christopher Marlowe kicked his butt. And then you have the Spanish guys like Cervantes and Lope de Vega. Are you serious? Shakespeare?”

Point being: While it is interesting how a player was viewed in his day, and while it certainly plays a part in how we judge his career after he finished playing, I think we have to consider much more than that. You will hear people say: “Well, if you it’s all just about statistics, we even have a vote? Why not just put an arbitrary line of Wins Above Replacement and be done with it?” I would agree with the premise that a Hall vote should be based on more than numbers. But I think the converse is even more absurd: “Well, if it’s all just about how we viewed them when they were playing, we even have a vote? Why not just put an arbitrary line of All-Star Game appearances and MVP votes and Cy Young votes and be done with it?”

Bert Blyleven was a great pitcher. People didn’t see it clearly during his era for several reasons, some of them, I suspect, may have had to do with Blyleven’s attitude. Over time — and it does take time — people saw through the fog and realized just how good Blyleven was at striking out hitters, throwing shutouts, pitching complete games and those very real things that made him one of the best of his or any era.

Beyond those two great players getting into the Hall of Fame, there were some other interesting Hall of Fame trends and one gigantic bit of foreshadowing that was easy to miss. I’ll get to the news in a minute. First, five smaller things:

1. I think Barry Larkin is now on the brink of the Hall of Fame. His vote total jumped pretty dramatically — from 51.6% to 62.1% — and this on a stacked ballot. Larkin was a great player, I think, one of the most well-rounded players in baseball history. But he did have numerous injury problems, and he was SO well rounded that he does not have any one dramatic Hall of Fame sell point the way Ozzie Smith (greatest defensive shortstop ever) or Tony Gwynn (best pure hitter of his generation) did.

It’s like Bill James said when determining characteristics of overrated and underrated: “Specialists and players who do two or three things well are overrated; players who do several things well are underrated.” Larkin did many things well.

But I think next year is his year. The only viable Hall of Fame candidate being added to the ballot next year is Bernie Williams, and while it will be interesting to see how much support he gets, you can bet it won’t be that much. That will make Larkin, in the minds of voters, the premier guy on next year’s ballot. I think he’s well situated to be the only player elected in 2012.

2. Jack Morris made almost no movement. He went from 52.3% in 2010 to 53.5% in 2011. I think that could be bad news for his Hall of Fame candidacy on two fronts. First, Morris’ time on the ballot is running out. This is his 12th year, meaning he has only three more. But even more than that, the 2013 ballot is looking absolutely stacked. That ballot will include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling — it is going to be a voter’s nightmare is what it’s going to be. And even to those who are determined not to vote for any suspected steroid users, I think Jack Morris’ case iwill not look especially compelling with those players on the ballot. Add Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas to the ballot in 2014 and … well, yes, Jack Morris really needs to make it next year.

And I don’t think he has that kind of momentum. That’s the second thing. I kind of think that Morris’s support is kind of maxing out. Yes, about half of the voters will vote for Morris based on his Game 7 performance, his general grit, his excellent mustache, he remarkable durability, his most-wins-of-the-80s feat. But are there another 125 voters who are going to vote in a guy with a 3.90 career ERA, no Cy Youngs and advanced numbers that are generally inferior to Dennis Martinez and Frank Tanana and clearly inferior to Kevin Brown? I kind of doubt it.

3. Tim Raines simply cannot get any momentum going. His percentage did go up from 30.4% to 37.5% so that’s not an insubstantial jump. But Raines faces the same general problem that Morris faces … the dark cloud of steroid players is approaching. I think he will could fall entirely off the radar when that wave of players roars in.

I guess Raines’ best hope is that in the steroid cloud he will become a cause celebre, an anti-steroid option, sort of the way Jim Rice did. Raines’ greatness — his amazing base stealing and his ability to get on base and create havoc — sort of cuts against the Selig Era of baseball. I always want to remind people: Tim Raines got on base more times than Tony Gwynn in just 127 more plate appearances. Gwynn had 488 more total bases, which is a lot. But Raines had 540 more walks, which would be more. Raines also had almost 500 more stolen bases while being caught just 21 more times. He was essentially as valuable as Tony Gwynn only in different ways … and Gwynn was a first-ballot, slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Someday, I hope, people will appreciate just how good a baseball player Tim Raines was.

4. Mark McGwire’s total, as I suspected, went backward (from 23.7% to 19.8%) after he admitted using steroids but refused to concede that they made him the player he became. I understand this, and I understand those voters who have decided plainly that steroid use was cheating, and cheating makes a player unworthy of the Hall of Fame. I suspect McGwire will probably never see even 25% support again. I voted for McGwire, and I will again. But I also don’t think this is any great tragedy. He knew what he was doing.

I guess my only thought is that, as far as I know, the only person on this ballot or any of the next three ballots who has actually come forth and admitted using steroids … is Mark McGwire. We all know he isn’t the only player in his era or on those ballots who used steroids. He’s just the one who came forth and admitted it and said it was wrong and that he was sorry.

If the Hall of Fame voters feel like they should punish McGwire for admitting he used steroids — even if he was evasive about the effects — then it seems to me that we are discouraging anyone from coming clean. It’s almost like the voters don’t really want to know the truth. Maybe we would rather think the worst.

5. When you consider all infighting that led up to Wednesday, Jeff Bagwell did reasonably well in the voting at 41.7% — that’s exactly what Hoyt Wilhelm got his first year (it took him eight years), and better than the first year percentages of Hall of Famers Billy Williams (six years), Luis Aparicio (six years), Duke Snider (11 years), Eddie Mathews (5 years), Ralph Kiner (13 years — Kiner got 1.1% his first year on the ballot) and Early Wynn (4 years) among others.

Bagwell’s first year percentage suggest that he is on pace to get in four or five years down the line, but of course Bagwell faces the same issue as Morris and Raines, only more so: The ballot is about to get swarmed with a bunch of hitters with remarkable numbers. He’s no lock to get in.*

*Brilliant reader Barry asks this question — before Pujols, was Jeff Bagwell the best first baseman in National League history. It’s kind of a trick question because the best first basemen — Gehrig and Foxx in particular — were American Leaguers, and so was Frank Thomas, Eddie Murray, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Greenberg and Mark McGwire for the most part. I’d say the top contenders would be Johnny Mize — granting him the three years he lost to war — Willie McCovey and, going way back, Cap Anson. But Bagwell has a case.

* * *

The biggest story on Wednesday, I think, is that the opinion about steroid use seems to be hardening. Rafael Palmeiro, with 3,000 hits and 500 homers, got only 11% of the vote. Mark McGwire’s numbers went down. Kevin Brown actually fell off the ballot. Juan Gonzalez, despite a campaign that featured a full-color brochure, barely stayed on the ballot. All of them have been connected with steroids.

And I think they are the canaries in the coal mine, the ones that are telling us what is coming in two and three and four years. I guess I have believed that, in time, the steroid fury would settle down and that while it might hurt borderline cases, all-time greats like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would still get in. I’m not sure I think that anymore. I think there was a powerful statement made on Wednesday. I’m not sure a strongly-suspected steroid user can get to 75%, no matter how good he was.

I’ve said plenty on the subject, and I’ll undoubtedly babble about it more over time so I don’t have anything else from a personal perspective to add here. But from a news perspective, well, before the announcement, I talked a bit with Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson. I was curious how the Hall of Fame views the voting and how they view the future. And I have to say the answers surprised me. Jeff said a few things that reiterated that surprising thought in my mind: Right now, from the way everything is pointing, I don’t think Barry Bonds is going into the Hall of Fame. I don’t think Roger Clemens is going to the Hall of Fame. I don’t think Sammy Sosa is going to the Hall of Fame. Not for for a long time.

Here’s what makes me say that: Jeff made it clear that the Hall of Fame, at least for now, is extremely pleased with the way the voting is going. He thinks — and I would agree — that the Baseball Writers of America take the task seriously and are doing their best to follow the longstanding voting directive, which is as follows:

“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.”

There seems no question that any voting directive that has “integrity” AND “sportsmanship” AND “character” on there will encourage voters to become moral arbiters. Idelson is comfortable with that. More than that: He and the Hall of Fame want sportswriters to think hard and be firm when it comes to a player’s on-the-field character.

“Baseball has historically been held to a very high standard, right or wrong,” he says. “There’s a certain integrity required when it comes to baseball’s highest honor, which is being inducted into the Hall of Fame. The character clause exists as it relates to the game on the field. The character clause isn’t there to evaluate and judge players socially. It’s there to relate to the game on the field. … The voters should have the freedom to measure that however they see fit.”

I told him that this was fine to say now … but that there could come a time in the near future when the All-Time home run king (Barry Bonds), a man with a case as the greatest pitcher in baseball history (Roger Clemens), and several other players who seem to have slam-dunk Hall of Fame credentials but are shadowed by indistinct and blurry steroid rumors could be denied the Hall of Fame. And the Hall of Fame could be denied them as well. How comfortable is he with some of the greatest players in baseball history not being elected to the Hall of Fame?

Answer: Very comfortable. It seems clear to me from what he says here that the Hall of Fame has no problem with the exclusion of known steroid users or even strongly suspected steroid users.

“When you look at the Hall of Fame elections,” he said. “you see that those who are elected are representative of that era. The Hall of Fame election is a continuum. And the standards have upheld the test of time. We believe they work. We believe the voters have exercised a great understanding about the candidates in the Hall of Fame. I think when you look at who the writers have voted into the Hall of Fame, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t belong there.”

Well, um … no, don’t get me started here. Back to Jeff Idelson:

“There’s always going to be arguments about who’s in,” he says. “Only 1% of all players are making it to Cooperstown. Am I worried that this era will be under-represented? No. I mean, you have a set of guidelines and rules in place. … I think we are happy with the way the voting has gone, we’re happy with the diligence of the voters who have participated, and the chips will fall as they fall.”

Well … I think that’s pretty clear. The Hall of Fame, Jeff is plainly saying, will be just fine if the voters do not vote in Bonds or Clemens or anyone else because of steroid use. I have always been uncomfortable with sportswriters as judges of sports morality — seems to me we have a hard enough time agreeing on fairly obvious baseball points.

After talking with Jeff, though, I think judges of sports morality is PRECISELY what the Hall of Fame wants.

“You know this … as you walk through Cooperstown, you have the history museum where every facet of the game represented,” he said. “That will not change. That’s the celebratory nature of the Cooperstown experience. But when it comes to players inducted, we feel strongly that the rules for election need to be where they are. … There’s no question that in many ways, this is an odd time. But at the end of the day, we want to maintain the high standards of the Hall.”

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