Do The Green Bay Packers Have Trouble Putting Opponents Away?

January 26, 2011

Before I get to the Green Bay Packers, I just want to quickly comment on three items that appeared in my Twitter feed this morning. My criticisms are petty and brief, but I can’t let these slide. The common thread? A mainstream sports media that is seemingly incapable of delivering commentary simply or without hyperbole.

  • Seth Davis comments on Kansas’ Thomas Robinson losing his mother to a heart attack this past weekend. Of course, it cannot just be called a “heart attack.” It must be an “untimely heart attack,” which is so obviously dissimilar from those auspiciously-timed myocardial infarctions. I suppose timely heart attacks exist – right before Kim Jong-il presses the “Initiate Nuclear Launch” button would qualify – but in this situation, it goes without saying that the heart attack was a bad thing.
  • Andy Katz says that Kansas deserves tons of credit for winning a conference road game while grieving for Robinson’s mother. At the risk of being insensitive, there is no way that her death made it more difficult for Josh Selby, Tyrel Reed, Tyshawn Taylor, and the Morris brothers to play basketball. Kansas does deserve credit, however, for winning a conference road game against an improved Colorado squad.
  • In the wake of Michigan State dismissing guard Korie Lucious from the team, Seth Davis says that “a tough season just got a lot tougher.” Right, because losing a junior who can’t hit 40% of his twos or 30% of his threes is a huge loss.

Now, please watch this clip:  Read the rest of this entry »

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You’ll Never Guess Who’s Writing About Leadership Again

December 23, 2010

That’s right, it’s Andy Katz.

In his most recent column, Katz attributes the Kansas State Wildcats’ troubles to an absence of leadership. Apparently, seniors Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly – who both displayed their veteran savvy by getting suspended by the NCAA – do not have the leadership necessary to lead a team. To fair to Katz, this wasn’t his idea. He’s merely parroting and expanding upon what coach Frank Martin said:

“Everyone said Jacob was our leader last year,” said Kansas State coach Frank Martin, a day after the suspensions were announced. “But last year it was [departed seniors] Denis Clemente, Luis Colon and Chris Merriewether. Jacob talked. The media talked to him. Denis didn’t like talking to the media because he was challenged in English. Luis scored two points a game so no one talked to him. Denis, Luis and Merriewether taught people how to work. Those were the guys when the game started that got us through games. We lost that.”

Of course, that doesn’t stop Katz from interjecting his own brand of contradictory silliness into the discussion. Even though Pullen and Kelly are apparently inadequate leaders, “the absence of Pullen and Kelly, the only two seniors on the team, is a crushing blow for the Wildcats.” Why is their loss crushing? Presumably because Pullen and Kelly are the team’s first and second-leading scorers. That is, their loss is crushing because they are arguably the team’s two best players. Not best leaders – best players. Then later, Katz writes: “But what [Pullen and Kelly’s suspension] has underscored is the issue of where Kansas’ State leadership is going to come from if it’s to achieve those goals.” This is after he writes in the second paragraph that Pullen is not performing as a leader on this year’s team. So the Wildcats need to replace the leadership that Pullen and Kelly weren’t providing?

Katz doesn’t know it, but he is inadvertently arguing the same point that I’ve been hammering away at for a while now: that talent, not leadership, wins games. He can repeat and agree with Martin’s words all he wants, but Katz is singling out Pullen and Kelly not because the team will have trouble replacing their leadership, but because the team will have trouble replacing their production.

As for coach Martin, I hope he actually knows that a lack of leadership isn’t why the Wildcats are struggling (if a 9-3 record can be called struggling). They’re struggling because their offense is light years worse than it was last season. They hit a below-average percentage of their twos and threes, turn the ball over constantly, and absolutely, positively cannot shoot free throws. That’s all there is to it. It has everything to do with the loss (or immaturity) of talent, and nothing to do with the absence of leadership.

 

 



Experience and the NCAA Tournament

March 31, 2010

Sherron Collins' experience allowed him to go 4-15 with 5 turnovers in the biggest game of Kansas' season

Even for a square, pop culture-ignorant guy like me, a neat part of living in Manhattan is the occasional celebrity sighting. I ran into Bill Cosby on the corner years ago. I saw Matt Damon wheeling a stroller – with, presumably, a child in it – down my block this past winter. I’m also beginning to think the entire cast of “The Wire” lives on the Upper West Side, because I’ve seen Seth Gilliam (Carver) taking his kid to school, Wendell Pierce (Bunk) outside Lincoln Center, and John Doman (Rawls) on the 3 train. Does it make me feel cool to write all this? Yes. Yes it does.

The famous person I see more than anyone else, however, is current broadcaster and former NBA player Len Elmore. He must live in the neighborhood, because I see him everywhere. I owe my first interaction with Mr. Elmore to my father. We were walking up Amsterdam Avenue several years ago when a gigantic figure emerged from Caesar’s Palace Pizza on 84th Street. My dad, a University of Maryland fan and graduate, quickly recognized his fellow Terrapin and gushed to me “that’s Len Elmore!” Naturally, my dad introduced himself to Elmore, and the three of us continued uptown together in varying degrees of shock – dad at meeting Len Elmore, Len Elmore at being met by my dad, and me at my dad’s hidden reserves of childlike enthusiasm. It was three blocks of bliss for my dad, who reluctantly parted ways with Elmore at 87th Street.

Obviously, with the NCAA Tournament in full swing, I haven’t seen Elmore around so much in March. But since he’s returned to the broadcasting booth, I’ve noticed a tendency of Elmore’s that I had never noticed before. More than most broadcasters I can think of, and certainly more than any other college basketball analysts, Elmore talks about the importance and significance of experience in the game of basketball. With Elmore, persistent shooting slumps and steady ball handling are attributed less to a simple cold streak or superior dexterity, and more to the absence or presence of a player’s experience. He’s not a radical. He’s not one of these analysts or fans that makes judgments about a player based on their look, their swagger, or any number of other arbitrary criteria on which intellectually complacent folks rely. But he really does seem to like himself some experience in a player.

As you can well imagine, I don’t think experience matters all that much when it comes to in-game activities. I suppose it matters when it comes to mental and physical preparation, but the number of variables affecting an athlete’s play in a game is so high that it strikes me as problematic to pin a player’s success or failure on the slippery and amorphous quality of “experience.” With all other factors being equal, yes, I would prefer an experienced player over an inexperienced one. The chances of “experience” being the deciding factor in any given game, however, seem quite low to me. Read the rest of this entry »


Reports of Free Throw Shooting’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

February 28, 2010

It must be fun to talk about the “lost arts” in the three major American sports. It must be an ego-boost to wistfully lament the disappearance of good, old-fashioned, fundamental athletic skills. I suspect these things because broadcasters have been doing it for as long as I can remember. In football, we often hear about how contemporary running backs prefer to avoid contact, or how wide receivers just don’t go over the middle with the same fearlessness as their historical counterparts. Baseball is a gold mine for these sorts of things too. The bunt is a lost art. A properly-executed hit-and-run is rare. Players are too focused on hitting home runs instead of just putting the ball in play, pitchers nibble at the strike zone too much, and so on.

Basketball is what I want to briefly discuss today, and it, too, has in-game components that many believe are dead. The mid-range jump shot is a popular choice of analysts. Ambidexterity around the basket is believed to be gone too. Criticizing current players’ willingness to play defense seemingly never goes out of style. But I would argue that the most popular lament in basketball is about the death of free throw shooting. Especially in college basketball, where it is easy to latch on to youth and laziness as reasons for the skill’s theoretical demise, broadcasters love to complain about how kids just can’t hit their free throws like they used to.

I was reminded of this perpetual fad during Saturday’s Vanderbilt-Arkansas game. You know you were watching it. An Arkansas player was at the free throw line – Michael Washington, if we’re playing the odds – and bricking his shots. The SEC Network broadcasters, who might well have been beer vendors pulled from the crowd if the telecast’s production value was any indicator, instinctively sunk their teeth into the matter:

Broadcaster #1: “It seems like free throw shooting is at an all-time low. No one seems to want to practice shooting free throws anymore.”

Broadcaster #2: “It’s a basketball-wide epidemic, is what it is. And there’s a simple cure for it: hard work, getting into the gym early, and practicing your free throws. But nowadays, kids just want to run up and down the court in the summertime and play pickup games.”

Broadcaster #1: “And dunk and shoot three pointers.”

Broadcaster #2: “You’re exactly right.”

Even for a condemnation of modern free throw shooting, this seemed pretty strong. What’s more, there’s not just a statistical argument going on here. Most obviously, there’s glaring ageism in this exchange. This is essentially the basketball equivalent of “when I was your age, we had to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow,” a defense mechanism for former players and coaches against the superior athletes in today’s game. That’s one non-statistical aspect of their exchange that makes it difficult to take seriously. The other part of this exchange is more troubling. Whether they meant to or not, their comments played on common stereotypes of black athletes specifically (lazy, favoring style over substance), and black males in general. And to say this while covering a sport that is overwhelmingly black is problematic. Like I said, I have no idea if these broadcasters knew how their comments would come across. But if their complaint was truly and only with the modern state of free throw shooting, I’m sure there was a better way to word it.

The major problem, as you might have guessed, is that these guys are simply wrong. I hopped on to Kenpom.com and looked at college basketball’s free throw shooting since 2004 (I would have looked further back, but for some reason it’s impossible to find season-by-season free throw shooting percentages for the entire NCAA). Here’s what I found:

  • 2010: 68.8%
  • 2009: 68.9%
  • 2008: 69.1%
  • 2007: 69.1%
  • 2006: 69.2%
  • 2005: 68.7%
  • 2004: 68.8%

These numbers are shockingly consistent, but as a fan of sample size, I was somewhat wary of relying on such a small set of data to disprove the broadcasters’ assessment. Luckily, however, I discovered this story from The New York Times (almost exactly a year ago, coincidentally). It’s worth a full read, but the pertinent facts are the following:

  • since the mid-1960s, the free throw percentage for each season has been roughly 69%
  • the lowest free throw percentage for a season was 67.1%
  • the free throw percentage for a season has never been higher than 70%
  • the free throw percentage for an NBA season has been roughly 75% for 50 years

For whatever reason, it’s been impossible to break the 69% plateau in college basketball. It’s also been impossible to sink below the 67% mark. So, you see that the exact opposite of what our broadcasters said is true. Free throw shooting isn’t worse than it’s ever been. It’s exactly the same as it’s always been. And as is too often the case, perhaps the people who are being paid to analyze the game should spare us their clueless declarations of the sport’s deterioration and focus more on truly educating their audience.


Worst. Chat. Ever.

February 24, 2010

Does it make me insensitive or a racist to criticize Joe Morgan in a chat that was held as a part of ESPN’s tribute to Black History Month? I hope not, because I’m going to do it anyway.

Joe Morgan (12:00 PM): It would be impossible to record black history without recording what baseball has contributed. From the Negro Leagues to Jackie Robinson breaking of the color barrier, baseball has contributed a lot towards our society moving forward together.

Poignant. Note the time.

David (Florida): Hey Joe!Who do you think is the best improved team this year?

Joe Morgan (12:02 PM): I guess you would have to say the Giants in the National League because they have made the most moves. If their moves work out or not, we’ll have to wait and see. In the American League I’ll say Seattle. On paper both teams did a good job of improving themselves.

“The Giants improved the most because they made the most changes. I’m not sure if the Giants improved themselves. Like Seattle, the Giants improved themselves.”

victor ( monroe,la): what are the cubs chances on winning the n.l.central this year?and do you think aramis ramirez will remain in chicago?

Joe Morgan (12:03 PM): I think the Cubs chances are pretty good in that they have a lot of talent but they always seem to find a way to under achieve. Until they get over that, it’s always a mystery to see what they will do. I especially like their starting pitchers.

“I don’t know! And I’m ignoring your second question even though I could just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

Chris Fiegler (Latham,NY): Between Joba Chamberlain & Philip Hughes who do you think will be the 5th starter for the New York Yankees?

Joe Morgan (12:04 PM): I think Hughes will be the fifth starter. Chamberlain is a late inning set up man and maybe a future closer.

Joe Morgan proves that he is, in fact, capable of directly answering a simple question. Victor in Monroe fumes.

alex (dc): Joe how long till my nats can make a run for a wild card considering the moves we have made

Joe Morgan (12:06 PM): I think they defiantly improved their team and they do have some veterans like Ivan Rodriquez that can lead this team. Like everyone else, we’re waiting to see what Strasburg can do. I defiantly think they have an improved team this season.

Wow, so much defiance. Why would the Nationals improve themselves in a defiant way? I know not much is expected of the Nationals, but there’s no shame in self-improvement. Good for them. And good for you too, Joe. Nice job coming down hard with your opinion and stating it firmly. You should try that more often; a fairly common criticism of your opinions is that they aren’t, well, opinionated enough.

Oh. Wait.

You meant “definitely.”

Oh.

Joe Morgan defiantly (definitely works too) refuses to learn how to spell “definitely.”

Joe Morgan (12:18 PM): I would like to end this chat with one of my favorite quotes. “A people without a knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots”. All this is saying is that African Americans should really think about our ancestors and what they had to endure in order for us to be where we are at today. Thanks for taking the time out to chat.

I, too, would like to share one of my favorite quotes. It goes “a baseball analyst with a habitual aversion to analysis, a horrid grasp of English, and a stubborn refusal to improve either is like an infant with a bazooka.” It comes from Tortola, I believe.

Note the time.

Talk to you later, Joe!


Reviewing The Twins-Yankees Series

October 12, 2009

I missed college a great deal yesterday. I don’t miss it often; the South and I had a doomed relationship, I never found a subject that fired me up, and wearing a jacket and tie to a football game will never, ever make sense to me. Two out of those three could easily be classified as self-inflicted, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m at peace with my dispassion towards much of my college experience. But if there were ever a day to make me long for a time machine, yesterday would be it.

The magnitude of the day revealed itself slowly. I woke up eminently cognizant of the Yankees game at seven o’clock. I also knew the Giants were playing the Raiders at one. Then, as if the sports schedule were a coloring book and these games were the thick black lines, I slowly filled in the vacant spaces. The Angels were playing the Red Sox at noon. The Broncos and Rockies were playing at four and ten, respectively. I realized there would be twelve consecutive hours of meaningful sports, and that’s precisely when I started to miss my closest friends from college. If the year were 2007 instead of 2009, the five of us would have procured our adult beverages of choice, secured some terribly unhealthy provisions, and embedded ourselves in front of our too-large television for a day of witty banter, obnoxious proclamations, and the rare enlightening debate. That’s what I missed and will continue to miss the most about college: those endless, sports-filled Saturdays and Sundays that gave us a great excuse to do nothing but enjoy each other’s company.

On a less nostalgic note, yesterday also provided the faint but exhilarating possibility of the elusive fivefecta (I couldn’t find anything higher than a superfecta, so I made this up.) The fivefecta is the unassisted triple play of sports fandom, albeit less sudden in its occurence. If the Red Sox lost, the Giants won, the Broncos won (at the Patriots’ expense), the Yankees won, and the Rockies won, October 11th, 2009 would have to be considered one of the all-time great days in personal fan history. Naturally, I decided to monitor this situation very closely, only to see it fall short because of the uncharacteristically effective Brad Lidge. And so it goes.

As you can probably guess, the most important game of the day for me was the Yankees-Twins contest. Because it’s October and my doctor says it’s bad for me to be a statistically-inclined curmudgeon all the game, I decided to watch it the way most fans do: with youthful exuberance, relentless optimism, and with the belief in the unlikely. Valiantly, that approach lasted until the bottom of the eighth inning, when a perpetual pet peeve and occasional blog topic reared its ugly head. I simply could not resist the temptation. I regressed into curmudgeonhood, which I why I’m writing this right now. Read the rest of this entry »


Team-Wide Trends Continue To Elude Joe Morgan

September 22, 2009

I’d like to apologize for the lack of content recently. I spent much of last week working on a large piece, hoping to post it on Friday. Then I sent it to the smartest person I know, who lived up to that billing by pointing out several problems with the argument and its lack of focus. So, licking my wounds, I’m returning to the drawing board with no estimated time of arrival. I’ve also started a new job working with middle schoolers to improve their literacy skills (those of you that have followed Fan Interference since its inception can feel free to shudder now). Although it’s only part-time, it requires a significant commute and some work outside the classroom, so finding time to post will become marginally more difficult. But, much like utilizing both sabermetrics and scouting, I’m confident that a balance can be found.

Today’s offering is meager but meaningful. One week ago, I posted a blurb about ESPN analyst Joe Morgan’s infamous reluctance to look things up before offering his opinion. Well, Morgan did it again in today’s chat:

Matt (St. Louis): Hi Joe, From the current playoff contenders which team do you think is the best well rounded?

Joe Morgan: I think St. Louis in the National League. They have excellent starting pitching. Good relief pitching. Until recently Ryan Franklin was great as a closer and I think he can be again in the playoffs. In the American League, I’ve been believing in the Yankees for the last month. But you have to wonder about their starting pitching. Sabathia will get the job done, but you have to wonder about Burnett. Pettitte has the shoulder problems and Joba is a star in the Yankees’ minds and no where else. But I guess all the good teams have some weaknesses. Philly doesn’t have a closer. Anaheim is just now getting their pitching in order, but you have to wonder about their power. Boston, their starting pitching, Lester and then Beckett, but he’s been struggling until recently.

Astute baseball fans will quickly notice Morgan’s incorrect assessment of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s perceived deficiency – lack of power. The Angels rank fifth in baseball in slugging percentage, 11th in home runs, 12th in triples, and 14th in doubles. Morgan’s argument for the St. Louis Cardinals is peculiar in two ways: (1) the Cardinals rank 12th in slugging, 15th in home runs, 19th in triples, and 11th in doubles and (2) his argument consists entirely of touting their pitching. I’m not sure the answer to Matt’s question is the Angels. But if Morgan is going to pass over the Angels because of their weak hitting, he can’t go for the Cardinals either.

The more interesting aspect of Morgan’s response is its relationship to the rest of the mainstream sports media. Traditionally, the sports media is slow to pick up on changes in a team’s style of play. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, in which people base their analysis on their perception of a team’s style (usually rooted in history) rather than what the data tells them. Good examples of this include last year’s persistent declaration that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a running team, even though they finished the season ranked 23rd in rushing. Or that the Minnesota Twins are built on defense and unselfish play (read: bunting), when in reality they rank 21st and 25th in those categories. It’s a pretty common practice.

Joe Morgan has consistently demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to evaluate each edition of each baseball team on its own terms. That much is unsurprising. What’s quite surprising – and more than a little disconcerting – is how he’s been left in the dust by even the most obtuse of his peers. I will refrain from naming names, because I still haven’t given up hope that a major sports media network will offer to buy this blog from me for millions of dollars (note: kidding), but I’ve consistently heard these members of the mainstream sports media admire the Angels’ sudden shift from a punchless team to a slugging one. I never thought I’d see the day when the talking heads aren’t praising the Angels for their headiness, grit, guts, baserunning, and timely hitting, but that day has come. The word is out, and everyone knows it: for the first time in years, the Angels can really, really hit. Everyone but Joe Morgan, professional baseball analyst, that is.

… And there goes my multimillion-dollar absorption.