Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking Back at 2008

New Year's Eve is a time to reflect on the year that's ending, and it's always a bittersweet exercise. It was a tremendous year in the world of sports, from the Giants' improbable Super Bowl win, to the amazing spectacle of the Olympic Games in Beijing, to Tiger Woods winning the US Open on a broken leg. The Celtics and Lakers renewed their rivalry, Yankee Stadium closed, and Michael Phelps won 600 gold medals. But the sports world also lost some legendary figures. Three NFL Hall of Famers died this year, including Sammy Baugh, the first great quarterback. Legendary sportswriters Bill Heinz and Jerome Holtzman both passed away, and so did longtime Rams owner Georgia Frontiere.

I've put together a list of some of the end of year tributes on the web that I recommend.

Best of 2008 articles
There are two other names that don't show up on most of these sports lists, because their endeavors don't fit into the modern definition of sport. One was Bobby Fisher, the reclusive and eccentric former world chess champion. The other was Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers known to have reached the summit of Mount Everest. Hillary's feat came in 1953. Fisher won the World Chess Championship in 1972, but refused to defend his title in 1975 and stopped playing competitive chess.

I wanted to offer up another list of links. In every sport, there are groups of researchers who specialize in keeping track of former players who pass away. When a guy like Sammy Baugh dies, it's on the front page of sports sections across the country. When a less well-known player dies, it can escape notice. This sort of biographical research is crucial to folks like me who create sports encyclopedias and other reference sources.

Sports Necrologies

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Pink Slips Start Arriving

It's not even noon on the day after the NFL season ended, and already three coaches have been given their pink slips. In New York, Eric Mangini lost his job after the Jets swan dive cost them a playoff berth.

The Browns fired Romeo Crennel after four disappointing seasons. there were signs of life in Cleveland last year, when the team surprisied everyone by finishing 10-6. This season they fell to 4-12, and by the end of the year weren't even competitive.

Rod Marinelli is out in Detroit, and that'll happen when your teams goes 0-16. He won just 10 games in three seasons and endured criticism for hiring two relatives to his coaching staff.

There will undoubtedly be more moves. During a radio appearance three or four weeks ago, the host suggested that as many as 12 teams might change coaches. I thought that was a rdiculously high number, but that the number of openings still might be as high as seven.

Two other guys are really on the hot seat, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear their names before the day is out. Herm Edwards has a 15-32 record in three seasons with the Chiefs. His job security evaporated when his biggest supporter, Carl Peterson, resigned two weeks ago. Across the state, Jim Haslett has been serving as the Rams interim coach since late September. The team went 2-10 under his leadership, and while the team likes Haslett, GM Billy Devaney may be pressured to make a move.

It's tough to tell what will happen in Oakland and Cincinnati. Marvin Lewis has a year left on his contract, and history has shown that owner Mike Brown doesn't like to pay coaches to walk away. Raiders' Owner Al Davis doesn't have any such qualms... if anything he's been impatient with his coaches. Interim Tom Cable got off to a slow start, but he got a dysfunctional group pulled together and won three of his last six games.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said "the coaching staff is set," but the team's December swoon and 12-year playoff drought suggest that head coach Wade Phillips could be in trouble.

Buffalo's Dick Jauron reportedly signed a three year contract extension in October, but the team's 2-8 finish has many fans calling for his head. The Bills haven't been to the playoffs since 1999.

I suspect that at least two of those six guys will lose their jobs within the next ten days, and we'll probably see another surprise. Someone who had a good season will get the ax, or someone will retire. That'll put the number of openings at six, which is about what I expected.

Stay tuned.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Predicting the HOF Vote

For a few years I've been working on a predictive model for HOF voting. Not a method for determining (and advocating for) the players I think *ought to be* in the Hall of Fame, but a way to predict how many votes a player will actually receive, based on a study of actual voting patterns.

I haven't written about it or published any predictions for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is that I don't think many people are interested in it. There's a big market for predicting player statistics, thanks to the folks who play fantasy baseball. But nobody really pays close attention to the Hall of Fame balloting. If anything, they just take note of the new inductees each winter. Even if I could be 100% accurate in my predictions, so what?

Second, the model still needs some work. My approach had been to come up with a model, then to go back and run the predictor for past seasons to see how well it would have performed in predicting ballot totals for those seasons. I keep running through these regressions and refining the model, learning from the anomolies.

We've got a new set of results coming out in a couple of weeks, so I wanted to throw this out there, both to get my predictions on the record and to spark some interest from the handful of people who think about such things.

Some of the rules for the Hall of Fame selection process have changed somewhat over the years, but the basic process has remained essentially the same since the Hall opened in 1936. To appear on the ballot, you had to have played at least ten seasons in the major leagues, and you must be retired for at least five seasons before you can be considered. The voters -- active baseball writers with at least 10 years of service -- can vote for up to 10 players each season, and any player who receives 75% of the votes is put into the Hall of Fame. If a player falls short of that threshold but receives at least 5% of the vote, his name carries over to the next year. If a player isn't selected after 15 years on the ballot, he's dropped from the process, although he can later be considered by the Veteran's Committee.

The results of the voting process have been published each year, giving us a wealth of data to study. I've been primarily concerned with asking three questions.

1) How likely is it that a player will be voted in this year?
2) How likely is it that this player will ever be voted in?
3) What percentage of votes is a first year player likely to get, given his playing record?

Question #3 is the toughest one to study. Subjective factors have a huge influence, and it's almost impossible to measure what sort of impact those will have on voters. Last year was a perfect example, with slugger Mark McGwire appearing on the ballot for the first time. My methodology predicited he'd get around 50% of the votes, but he ended up with 24%. This was due largely to the allegations of steroid use, and his disastrous appearance before a congressional committee investigating the subject. While we're aware of these subjective influences, it's very difficult to measure them.

Questions #1 and #2 are much more straightforward, and while it's not an exact science, the voting totals do reveal some patterns.
  • Players who get at least twenty percent of the votes in their first year on the ballot have an 80% chance of eventually being voted in. (Another 7% will be inducted by the Veteran's Committee).
  • Only one player got higher than 35% in his first year of eligibility and didn't eventually make it into the Hall of Fame: Steve Garvey.
  • If players ever get as high as 25 percent of the vote, their chances of getting in eventually (either through a future ballot or by the Veteran's Committee) are roughly 60%.
  • Only two players have gotten over 40% on a ballot and not eventually gotten in: Ron Santo and Tony Oliva.

There are 23 players on this year's ballot, and I feel fairly safe in predicting that only two players will reach the 75% needed to get in: Rickey Henderson, in his first year on the ballot, and Jim Rice, in his final year of eligibility. Here are my predictions for the percentage of votes each player will receive. Players in their first year of eligibility are marked with an asterisk.

95 Rickey Henderson *
77 Jim Rice
62 Andre Dawson
60 Bert Blyleven
46 Lee Smith
41 Jack Morris
38 Tommy John
29 Tim Raines
27 Mark McGwire
19 Alan Trammell
15 Don Mattingly
14 Dave Parker
12 Mark Grace *
11 Dale Murphy
9 David Cone *
7 Harold Baines
5 Mo Vaughn *
4 Matt Williams *
3 Jesse Orosco *
3 Greg Vaughn *
2 Ron Gant *
2 Jay Bell *
1 Dan Plesac *

Other than Henderson, there aren't any decent first year candidates. Frankly, I'm puzzled why some of them made it through the screening process, but I suppose I'd rather have more players make it through than less. Let the voters have their say. Here are a few comments about specific candidates.

There's no precedent for someone coming as close as Rice was last year and not making it. Nineteen players have received between 70 and 75 percent on a ballot. Sixteen of them made it the next year. The other three (Nellie Fox, Jim Bunning, Orlando Cepeda) were in their last year of eligibility and had to wait for the VC to put them in.

The voting pattern for Andre Dawson suggests that he's probably a year away from going in, maybe two. Blyleven has five years of eligibility left, and while he's within striking distance (61.9% last year), he's entering into the steepest part of the climb. Bunning was at 65.7% in his 10th year on the ballot and didn't make it. Neither did Gil Hodges, who was at 59.5%.

Lee Smith seems to have reached a plateau in the mid 40s, which is the range in which a lot of the candidates who fall short seem to stall. Ron Santo and Roger Maris are a couple of prominent examples. Smith does have one thing going for him: the voters seem to have broken the bottleneck on closers, inducting Dennis Eckersley in 2004, Bruce Sutter in 2006, and Rich Gossage in 2008. I'd put Smith's chances somewhere north of 50-50 at this point.

Tommy John is in his last year of eligibility and doesn't have a shot. Jack Morris isn't gaining much traction, and I think he is heading down a very similar path. Raines got 24% of the vote in his first year, but he has a lot of supporters from the Sabermetric community, and his is the sort of candidacy that could gain a lot of momentum. If his supporters remain vocal in making an impassioned case for him, I think it will take six years to get him in -- the class of 2013.

McGwire's case is perhaps the most interesting. I'll be curious to see how many people have softened their stance towards him having had a year to put his candidacy into perspective. I'd wager there's a 2/3 chance his vote total will only move by +/-3 percentage points, and a 1/3 chance he jumps up 10-15 points.

Results will be announced on January 12.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I'll be back on WHAM-1180 with Bob Matthews on Tuesday December 16 from 7 to 8. Bob and I will be discussing the upcoming vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and other topics of interest. We'll also be taking phone calls.

UPDATE: I've been bumped to Friday night, same time, same channel.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Golden Age of Passing?

There's a great piece by Kerry Byrne running at Sports Illustrated this week, calling this "the Golden Age of Passing." Observing the success of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and first-year starter Matt Cassel (who hadn't started a game since high school), Kerry suggests that this reflects a major shift in pro football.

It's a far cry from the traditional coming-of-age story for NFL quarterbacks, who were expected to struggle for years while they adapted to the speed and picked up the intricacies of the pro game.

But it's also no surprise: after all, the game itself has changed dramatically over the decades, and those changes have only accelerated in recent years, making it easier than ever to pass the ball and easier than ever for new quarterbacks to have an immediate impact on their team.

This echoes something I wrote in the New York Sun in January, noting that our expectations for young quarterbacks had changed, and that we now expect them to be successful right away. Teams used to be more patient, not only allowing them more time to develop but accepting that it would take several years for them to get acclimated to the pro game.

But while Kerry asserts that this shift originates with the stricter enforcement of pass interference rules, I'd argue that it started earlier than that. Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to the AFC Championship game as a rookie in 2004, and won the Super Bowl a year later. Kurt Warner made his first NFL start in 1999 and ended that season with a Super Bowl victory. Tom Brady did the same thing two years later, and won a total of three Super Bowls in his first four seasons at the Patriots' helm. Eli Manning seems like a slacker by comparison, not winning his first Super Bowl until his fourth season.

That's why I'm hesitant to ascribe the success of this current crop of young quarterbacks to the 2004 rules changes. I think some of it has to do with the fact that college offenses have adopted more pro-style schemes over the past decade, making these young quarterbacks better equipped to make the adjustment to life in the NFL. I also think the mindset has changed and teams are much more likely to thrust a young quarterback into a starting job than they were even ten years ago.

And for what it's worth, I think the golden age for quarterbacks came in the early 1970s. Ten of the 25 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame were active then, along with two more guys (Ken Anderson and Ken Stabler) who are likely to go in eventually. Even with a very optimistic appraisal of the quarterbacks playing today, I don't think we're anywhere near that total.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Mea Culpa, Don Beebe

On the radio last night, host Bob Matthews and I were talking about former Buffalo Bill Steve Tasker and his chances of making the Hall of Fame. Bob's a big supporter of Tasker, but I told him I thought that the lack of statistics for special teamers would keep him out. The one thing that would help, I said, was the big play he made in Super Bowl XXVII, chasing down Leon Lett from behind and swiping the ball out of his hands as he crossed the goal line.

It was a memorable moment, except of course it wasn't Steve Tasker who made the play. It was his teammate, Don Beebe.

Thanks to the eight (yes eight) people who emailed me to set me straight. And of course, thanks to the folks who called up to talk football. I love talking to radio hosts across the country, but I especially enjoy taking calls and fielding questions from listeners.