The Human Element: Uniting Me and Keith Olbermann
Win Probability Added, (“WPA”) is one of those acronym inventions from the sabermetric community that means little to baseball fans whose enjoyment of statistics is limited to batting average, runs batted in, and home runs. But unlike some of the difficult- to-explain (and impossible to calculate on the fly) sabermetric inventions like WAR (Wins Above Replacement) WPA is actually a fun statistic for even casual viewers of a baseball game. It can be used to answer the question, “what was the most important play of the game?” that gets asked in a lot of bars and living rooms when a game ends.
WPA calculates a team’s chance of winning its contest after each event in a baseball game and compares it to that team’s chance of winning before the event. Once the game ends, the event that shifted the game’s probability the most can then be easily determined. For instance, the largest WPA possible would be a player hitting a grand slam, with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, while trailing by three runs. Before the grand slam the home team had a 9.8% chance of winning. After the home run, of course, the game is over so the batter had a WPA of 90.2%.
That’s an extremely rare reading – it’s only happened eight times in major league baseball since 1988. Many games don’t feature an event that changed a team’s win probability by even 10%. On Saturday, September 8, across all fourteen games played, the biggest WPA event changed the probable outcome of a game by 43.8% -- a huge occurrence. Who gets the credit for Saturday’s biggest game-changing play? The man at first base . . . . .
* * *
Anyone under 30-years of age reading this may only know Keith Olbermann as the guy reviled by Republicans and who gave MSNBC its liberal-leaning/counter-balance-to-FOX News identity during the George W. Bush presidency. That’s unfortunate because there’s a reason his New York Times obituary will prominently cite his work as a sportscaster; Olbermann and his partner Dan Patrick presided over the golden-era of ESPN’s SportsCenter, when they hosted, at the time, the only hour-long episode of the show on Sunday evenings. Even competing with hosting luminaries such as Craig Kilborn, Kenny Mayne, and Chris Meyers, Olbermann and Patrick stood above all. Remember him for his political commentary if you wish, but Olbermann, in the eyes of some, is “the most talented sportscaster” in ESPN’s history. Why the quotes? Because that’s the opinion of none other than Dan Patrick.
Keith Olbermann is also a combative individual. Book such as, These Guys Have all the Fun, and even some of Olbermann’s own writings document his sometimes stormy relationships with employers and co-workers. Today, he delights in agitating conservatives, one-by-one, on Twitter with his critiques of their views, grammar, and spelling. Therefore if you start a reply to one of his tweets, as I did on Saturday night, with the phrase, “that’s as dumb as . . .” it would seem prudent to duck. The very last thing I expected was for Olbermann to re-tweet my response with the following lead-in to his followers:
“Benefit from my mistake: That’s EXACTLY THE CORRECT ANALOGY”
I’ve been a writer for, oh, about twenty minutes but in that time I’ve established a simple rule: Any time I get Keith Olbermann to change his mind and he credits me in the process – let alone rendered in capital letters – I write nearly 2,000 words about it.
* * *
On Saturday night the following occurred during a major league baseball game in Baltimore, Maryland (hat tip to Joe Sheehan for phrasing): With one out in the top of the 9th inning, runners on first and third base, and the Yankees trailing 5-4, Yankees first baseman Mark Texeria grounded into a fielder’s choice while Chris Dickerson scored from third base to tie the game. With two outs and a runner on first in the top of the 9th inning, the Yankees now had a 43.8% chance to win the game. You know how announcers love to say, when evaluating the play of gritty players that their contributions “don’t show up in the box score?” Well Mark Texeria’s fielder’s choice will never appear in a box score either. That’s because first base umpire Jerry Meals decided to call Texeria out and in the process reduced the Yankees chance of winning the game to zero. That 43.8% drop in WPA was the largest of any single play in baseball on Saturday.
The call was so bad, so incredibly egregious, that it’s actually impossible to attach any rational explanation to it. You can’t say “sure he never calls the high strike, but he’s consistent,” or “it was a bang-bang play” or “it takes super slo-mo to make a determination” or “camera angles can be deceiving.” Take a look at this screen grab: http://www.yankeeanalysts.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/tex.jpg. The distance between the ball and the glove can be measured in feet – it’s not even to the first base cut out when Texeria touched the bag.
I found the reaction on Twitter, at least on my time line, quite surprising. There were lots of people excusing the call because “the Yankees always get calls” “the Orioles lost Nick Markakis earlier in the game when Sabathia hit him with a pitch” “I love hearing Yankees fans whine” etc. After about an hour of absorbing this line of thinking, I then saw Keith Olbermann re-tweet the thoughts of Ken Rosenthal, a FOX MLB reporter:
“Orioles 1-12 with RISP in (1997’s Jeffery) Maier game, Yankees 1-9 tonight. In both cases, teams could have avoided umpire deciding fate. Usually that way.”
I detest faulty logic like that and I couldn’t believe that a professional baseball reporter (Rosenthal) would espouse it and a passionate, extremely knowledgeable baseball fan (Olbermann) supported it, as evidenced by his re-tweet. So I thought long and hard about constructing an analogy that would highlight how utterly flawed that logic is. Knowing my audience, here’s how I replied:
“That logic is as dumb as saying Gore could have avoided FL theft by SCOTUS by winning TN.”
Based on Olbermann’s response, that did the trick. Given that I’ve been saying “put the biscuit in the basket” for more than 15 years, it felt good to turn the tables and actually influence him, a man who doesn’t take his opinions lightly.
As a baseball fan, (and I’m a Phillies, not a Yankees fan) here’s why I find that play such an enormous problem for MLB. Commissioner Bud Selig, 78, has over the years doggedly refused to use available technology to correct calls on the field for anything bur the barest minimum of situations. MLB vice president, Joe Torre, 72, in recent years has served as Selig’s mouthpiece in opposing any expansion of instant replay, citing preservation of “the human element” involved in umpiring the game. As if it’s an asset and not a liability. How on earth are two men in their 70s making decisions on the use of technology? I’m reminded of some comedian’s joke about Ronald Reagan during the latter years of his presidency: “He’s 77 years old and he has his finger on ‘the button’. Is that really such a good idea? My father is that old and we don’t let him touch the remote control.”
Selig, in claiming during this year’s All-Star break that “nobody is anxious to expand replay” cited letters from fans. Letters! That sounds an awful lot like a person who doesn’t use e-mail, probably proudly. You know what? The days of an executive in any business shunning e-mail as a point of pride have long past and only serves to underscore the problem.
As I mentioned above, Meals’ call on Saturday was so inexplicable that it immediately raises questions of credibility. Since it’s impossible for any viewer to comprehend how an umpire could miss that call, fans will naturally question his integrity. Then we’ll read deplorable stories about death threats the umpire subsequently received. That entire sequence is avoidable. Just imagine what happens if that occurs in a game that decides a playoff berth or worse, a post-season series. Why on earth would a $7 billion-a-year industry, with teams collectively valued at more than $30 billion, risk its credibility by not embracing available technology? It would be like Amazon purposely not encrypting its transactions so that customers can enjoy “the human element” of a retail purchase.
Sadly, I’m certain true change won’t occur until a much younger administration takes over the management of Major League Baseball. That’s a shame because based on some of the fantastic products the industry has released for mobile devices, PCs, as well as the MLB web site and cable TV channel, there are many brilliant technology minds within the game. Even though the Texeria play should serve as a warning for a potentially disastrous event for baseball, it’s equally as certain nothing will be done about it. For the time being the industry can only hope tens of millions of dollars in value aren’t transferred from one franchise to another due to the an entirely correctible mistake made by an umpire like the one Jerry Meals made on Saturday night.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
If you have been forwarded this issue and would like to be placed on the mailing list, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
All newsletter archives are located at http://tradingbases.squarespace.com
You can follow me on Twitter here: @MagicRatSF
I will be updating progress on the path to publication on Facebook as well where I can be found here: http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=1761681056
If you want to be taken off the e-mail list, please let me know at email@example.com