Selection bias with Derek Jeter’s fielding: bad stats, memorable moments

As Derek Jeter’s career winds down, one baseball pundit wrestles with how Jeter’s defense numbers are so bad even as we remember some of his great fielding moments:

Data-mindful observers couldn’t figure out why the decorated Yankee kept winning those Gold Gloves and garnering raves for his defense. Stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved didn’t merely suggest that Jeter was overrated; they pegged him as downright terrible. Even the best glovemen lose range as they age, which means Jeter actually hurt himself by playing past his 40th birthday and seeing his career defensive totals dip as a result, but the figures are unnerving regardless. Based on Baseball-Reference’s Runs From Fielding, which is based on DRS, Jeter’s combination of subpar defense and exceptional longevity don’t merely make him a defensive liability; they make him the worst defensive player relative to others at his position in baseball history.

That ranking is incredibly hard to fathom because of a very human weakness: selection bias. People remember a few extraordinary events, then ignore or even repress the information that might contradict that initial impression. With Jeter in particular, it’s nearly impossible to make the visceral reactions agree with the data, because Jeter has pulled off some of the most incredible defensive plays we’ve ever seen.

How to put this all together?

So really, it’s OK to agree in part with both sides of the argument. Even if we acknowledge the flaws of advanced defensive stats that aren’t yet based on play-by-play data or dispute the claim that Jeter was the worst ever, we can comfortably say he was overrated defensively by many people for many years, and cost the Yankees their share of outs. But we can also say that every huge-leverage play like The Flip negated a handful of squibbers through the infield during random April games in Cleveland, even if they left him as a net-negative defender on the leaderboards. Jeter might not have deserved five Gold Gloves, but he does deserve credit for crafting memorable plays that can’t simply be chalked up to coincidence or luck.

In other words, memorable plays that lead to key victories can go a long way to wiping out more objective data over a longer period of time. Of course, this is true across a broad range of contexts beyond baseball; showing unusual urban crimes and police responses as “normal” could have a similar effect on television viewers. In the long run, perceptions may have less of a shelf life as people who witnessed those events – like “The Flip” – stop remembering them or die and the data lives on.

A video goes viral with 320,000+ views in one week?

This silent newsreel of the 1919 Black Sox World Series is a great find. A news story about the video suggests it went viral with over 320,000 views in its first week online. Is this enough views to go viral?

This is an ongoing issue for stories and reports regarding online behavior. When does something go from being an online object of interest to some people to being a trend? Reporters often find Facebook groups or a few blog posts and turn that into a trend. Perhaps this is better than interviewing a few people on the street – also still done – but there are plenty of online groups, tweets, and posts.

We need some sort of metric or guidelines for making such proclamations. Unfortunately, there is little agreement about this for websites: should we count page views, unique visitors, click-throughs or something else? Should we just count the number of Twitter followers even though they can be purchased? Other mediums have agreed-upon metrics like Nielsen ratings or book sales or digital downloads.

In the meantime, I would suggest 342,000 viewers is not quite going viral.

Baseball stadiums of the future to be more integrated with surrounding cities?

Urban baseball stadiums became all the rage after the early 1990s (the new Comiskey Park in Chicago was the last of the old models) but one projection regarding baseball stadiums of the future suggests they will be even more integrated into the surrounding cityscape:

Looking forward, there’s no need for the high-arching concrete and steel that separate today’s stadiums from the city around them. Mirakian anticipates “transformative stadiums that will really build a community.” The glass structures horseshoed around Living Park, for example, aren’t just premium seating, but also serve to combine the city and stadium. A street front on one side that hosts everything from offices and apartments to retail and restaurants turns into a stadium portal on the backside, offering stellar views onto the field. Instead of rising out of the city, the stadium sinks into it.

Trending data suggested increased urban densification, giving Mirakian the idea to create a linear park environment that allows the building to play as the central theme—a place activated during a game, but where the community can gather at any time, during either the season or offseason. In this case, the building itself is defined by the edges of the city, acting as a window into the building on game days. There’s no need for fanciful facades, as the stadium instead flows with the park and city…

You’ll still find a traditional seating bowl tucked below premium glass-enclosed spaces, but with the future of team revenue not as reliant on gate receipts, designers can offer new types of space. A city park overlooks rightfield—a riff on Fenway Park’s famed Green Monster, but this time with a green roof—and an enlarged berm beyond leftfield gives the stadium community-inspired life and public accessibility 365 days a year…

Getting to urban sites often proves tricky, so Populous brought the public transit line straight through Living Park, giving transit users a free look at one of the most stunning views in the city. Mirakian called it a “pretty distinct” element of the design.

Sounds like the goal is to make the stadium more of a lifestyle center than just a place where baseball games are played 81 home dates a year. This may require owners to open their park up more to the community and other events, which should appeal to them in the long run because there is an opportunity to generate more revenue from other events. Think of recent efforts to have football games, rock concerts, and hockey games in baseball stadiums. (The owners of the Chicago Cubs have followed this plan in recent years with Wrigley Field.)

While this kind of park sounds appealing, another aspect of the experience is not addressed in the article: what are the costs for all of this? Can the average fan easily attend a game at this new stadium? Some of the new features may make attendance cheaper – we attended a game a few years ago at Petco Park in San Diego and they had a good number of cheaper tickets in their outfield lawn area. Yet, if the Padres were a better team, those prices might be a lot higher. Additionally, in bigger cities with more ticket demand, prices are higher: the cheapest seats at a summer premium game at Wrigley Field start at $25 (more like $34 when you factor in all the fees and taxes).

Note: although it looks less sexy than the Populous projection, the Lansing Lugnuts, a Class A team, are trying to bring in more residents into the ballpark itself:

The Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts and the city that owns their ballpark want to take a page from Wrigley’s book and construct perhaps 100 apartments literally inside of the stadium. By way of a $22 million project split down the middle with public and private funds, the Midwest League’s Class A club for the Toronto Blue Jays and the city seek to expand and upgrade Cooley Law School Stadium in downtown Lansing, the state capital.

The plan, called the “Outfield,” would be part of a bigger plan to upgrade parts of downtown as a whole. It’s a similar concept to what Fort Wayne, Ind. has done with its pro team, the Tincaps, and the Harrison Apartments beyond the left field fence.

I wonder how much of a premium such apartments inside, or very near, a minor league baseball stadium in the Rust Belt can command.

Atlanta Braves bucking the baseball trend by moving to the suburbs

While the new baseball stadiums of recent decades tend to be located in urban neighborhoods, the Atlanta Braves made an announcement that they are moving 15 miles outside of the city:

On Monday, team president John Schuerholz and two other executives told reporters that the franchise will build a new stadium in Cobb County, roughly 15 miles away from Turner Field, and begin playing there in 2017, after their current lease expires, with construction to start in mid-2014.

That’s a shock, in that the Braves have only been playing in Turner Field — which was built for the 1996 Summer Olympics — since 1997. Such a move will make it the first of the 24 major league ballparks to open since 1989 to be replaced, and buck the trend of teams returning to urban centers. The proposed park is in the suburbs and closer to the geographic center of the team’s ticket-buying fan base, a much higher percentage of which happens to be white. US Census figures from 2010 put Fulton County at 44.5 percent white and 44.1 percent black, while Cobb County is 62.2 percent white and 25.0 percent black…

So instead of sinking $350 million into fixes to modernize Turner, the Braves are spending $200 million for a new park, with much of that cost likely to be covered by the development of the surrounding area and the sale of naming rights. Notably, Turner is one of just eight venues that doesn’t have such a deal in place. According to a New York Times piece from July, the Atlanta Hawks get $12 million a year for the naming rights to their venue, currently known as Philips Arena. The largest baseball deal is that of the Mets for Citi Field ($21 million per year), though the dropoff from that figure to the second-largest, Houston’s Minute Maid Park ($7.4 million), is steep.

The new venue is at the intersection of Interstates 75 and 285, said to be a major traffic snarl, “the place so congested we Cobb Countians know to avoid if at all possible,” as the Journal-Constitution‘s Mark Bradley described it. The county has resisted the expansion of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) into its domain since its inception in 1971, so it’s not served by light rail, and while the team claims “significantly increased access to the site” via Home of the Braves, it offers no specifics on the matter.

While this goes against ballpark trends, it also fits some other trends:

1. Suburban expansion in Sunbelt cities. Many of the new ballparks have been built in Northern cities, Rustbelt places where downtown development is needed. Think Camden Yards in Baltimore or Jacobs Field in Cleveland or PNC Park in Pittsburgh. In other words, Sunbelt cities have different settlement patterns including beltway highways around the city and not that dense of an urban core to begin. Turner Field wasn’t exactly in an urban neighborhood and other reports suggested it would have been quite difficult to expand parking and nearby amenities.

2. Matching ballparks with nearby development projects that can also bring in money. A baseball team can be profitable but developing nearby real estate can be even more profitable. For example, look at the deals suburbs tried to make with the Cubs earlier this year: you can have land and access to transportation and we would be more than happy to develop land around your ballpark. And the Cubs are trying to do this with Wrigley Field as well by developing nearby properties into a hotel to increase their revenue streams.

3. It sounds like Cobb County is giving the Braves a good deal by financing some of the project. This is a longer trend: companies, sports or otherwise, moving to where they can get a good tax deal. This has happened with urban ballparks – cities have financed parts of those stadiums because they can’t afford to let the team out of the city. In this particular case, it sounds like the Braves thought they got a better suburban deal whereas other cities have pushed harder to keep teams with incentives.

I suspect this is a more isolated case of ballpark construction in the suburbs.

Durkheim, deviance, and “Why Baseball Still Needs Steroids”

A sociology PhD student argues that punishing the occasional steroid use in baseball might be more effective for fighting steroids than getting rid of PED use all together:

Societies need deviance to reinforce what behaviors are acceptable. Deviance affirms what behavior is right and wrong, reinforces social order, and deters future deviant behavior. I believe the steroid era combined with Major League Baseball’s weak attempts at curbing behavior blurred the lines of acceptable and prohibited conduct…

The public frowns upon steroids in professional sports, but we need to be constantly reminded that they are bad. Deviant behavior such as doping serves as a reminder of society’s norms regarding sport and fairness, more broadly. So every time the league suspends a player for drug use, it jogs our memory and prompts us to denunciate a rule-breaker.

I am not endorsing athletes to use PEDs. What I am advocating for is keeping the specter of steroids in the background. If we don’t, we may forget about a period in baseball history where we must second-guess whether a player’s impressive statistics were the result of hard work or pure athleticism. It took 20 years, government intervention, and public outcries to curb steroids in baseball, and I fear that not having a constant reminder will dismantle the work that has been done.

While I am happy to see that Major League Baseball is committed to cleaning up the sport, I hope they do a good but an imperfect job. It is the Ryan Braun’s and A-Rod’s of the world that we need to keep the integrity of the sport as we know it.

This sounds like a Durkheimian argument. Rather than seeing deviance and lawbreaking as fully negative, Durkheim argued punishing deviant acts helps remind society of the lines between deviant and non-deviant activity. To translate this into other terms Durkheim used, this helps remind people of the difference between the sacred and profane.

There may be some merit to this argument. Baseball went over a decade with widespread steroid use happening beneath the surface. I even heard someone argue recently (somewhat facetiously) that players who weren’t using steroids were the fools because their counterparts were reaping all the benefits. And there is a longer history of amphetamine use stretching back decades. So now you have a perfect opportunity to enforce the rules with some great players: a recent MVP, Ryan Braun, and one of the best players of all-time, Alex Rodriguez. Add these names to known PED users like record-setters Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire as well as MVP Ken Caminiti. While it is sad to see great players implicated, imagine that it was only minor league players who were caught. Imagine baseball could sweep all of this under the rug and claim that the problem didn’t extend to the major leagues or it was only limited to players with few skills. Wouldn’t that be a worse situation overall?

Fathers still play catch with their sons? What about football, video games?

I recently saw a review of the new Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42 that suggested American fathers still bond with their sons by playing baseball. My first thought: do fathers still do this on a large scale? Here is why I think this may be an outdated sentiment.

Baseball is no longer the most popular sport in the United States. Even with the large number of kids who play baseball or Little League, baseball’s peak has long passed with the NFL taking over the sports lead. The NFL released its 2013 schedule last week and ESPN was breathless for a while looking at the most tantalizing games that have yet to be played. Baseball is no longer the “all-American sport” and surely this must trickle down to the activities of kids and fathers. While it does have the same nostalgic pitch, what about playing catch with a football in the backyard? (This may be impacted today and in the future because of fears of concussions.) Moving in a different direction, as has the racial composition of baseball players, what about kicking around a soccer ball in the backyard?

Here is another possibility for how fathers and sons might now be interacting in the United States: by playing video games together. The generation who grew up with video games has reached adulthood and these video games habits don’t simply disappear. What if fathers and sons don’t play sports together as much as play Madden? What if they enjoy a good session of Call of Duty? This may not be happening on a large scale yet but I imagine this would grow in the future.

All that said, I want to see some data about how exactly fathers are bonding with their kids in 2013. Appeals to playing catch in the backyard might just be nostalgia for a bygone era.

Argument: the movie “42” ignores Jackie Robinson’s role in the larger Civil Rights Movement

Peter Drier argues that the new movie 42 fails to properly put Jackie Robinson in a larger context: as part of a larger social movement.

The film portrays baseball’s integration as the tale of two trailblazers—Robinson, the combative athlete and Rickey, the shrewd strategist—battling baseball’s, and society’s, bigotry. But the truth is that it was a political victory brought about by a social protest movement. As an activist himself, Robinson would likely have been disappointed by a film that ignored the centrality of the broader civil rights struggle…

42 is the fourth Hollywood film about Robinson. All of them suffer from what might be called movement myopia. We may prefer our heroes to be rugged individualists, but the reality doesn’t conform to the myth embedded in Hollywood’s version of the Robinson story…

Starting in the 1930s, reporters for African-American papers (especially Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, Joe Bostic of the People’s Voice in New York, and Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American), and Lester Rodney, sports editor of the Communist paper, the Daily Worker, took the lead in pushing baseball’s establishment to hire black players. They published open letters to owners, polled white managers and players (some of whom were threatened by the prospect of losing their jobs to blacks, but most of whom said that they had no objections to playing with African Americans), brought black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring training centers, and kept the issue before the public. Several white journalists for mainstream papers joined the chorus for baseball integration.

Progressive unions and civil rights groups picketed outside Yankee Stadium the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field in New York City, and Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago. They gathered more than a million signatures on petitions, demanding that baseball tear down the color barrier erected by team owners and Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. In July 1940, the Trade Union Athletic Association held an “End Jim Crow in Baseball” demonstration at the New York World’s Fair. The next year, liberal unions sent a delegation to meet with Landis to demand that major league baseball recruit black players. In December 1943, Paul Robeson, the prominent black actor, singer, and activist, addressed baseball’s owners at their annual winter meeting in New York, urging them to integrate their teams. Under orders from Landis, they ignored Robeson and didn’t ask him a single question…

Robinson recognized that the dismantling of baseball’s color line was a triumph of both a man and a movement. During and after his playing days, he joined the civil rights crusade, speaking out—in speeches, interviews, and his column—against racial injustice. In 1949, testifying before Congress, he said: “I’m not fooled because I’ve had a chance open to very few Negro Americans.”

Fascinating. Robinson can be applauded for his individual efforts and we can also recognize that he was part of a larger movement – it doesn’t have to be one or the other. But, our narratives, now prominently told in biopic movies, love to emphasize the individual. This is part of a larger American issue regarding an inability to recognize and discuss larger social structures, forces, and movements.

Many Americans might assume the Civil Rights Movement begins in the mid-1950s with Brown vs. Board of Education or the actions of Rosa Parks (this is where the Wikipedia article on the subject starts) but things were stirring in Robinson’s day. While baseball was America’s sport (pro football didn’t start its meteoric rise until a decade or so later) and Robinson’s play was influential, there were other efforts going on. In 1948 the military was integrated via an order from President Truman. After World War II, blacks tried to move into better housing, often found in white neighborhoods, but faced serious (sometimes violent) opposition in a number of locations.

I’ve been conflicted about whether I should see this movie as a big baseball fans. Sports movies are a little too mawkish for me and don’t ever really reflect how the game is played. This argument is not helping the movie’s cause…