Friday, June 24, 2011

How's Your Manager's WOR?

It used to be, the only baseball statistics that counted were fairly simple: runs, hits, RBIs, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, ERA, strikeouts and the like. Then, SABR came along, and Bill James and Moneyball, and suddenly we saw a proliferation of hybrid and derivative statistics like OPS -- on base percentage plus slugging percentage -- that may or may not compute in a dimensional analysis but are useful gauges of hitting prowess.

It's a struggle to keep up with all the new permutations and combinations that the stats geeks come up with to measure performance on the field -- what OPS is considered good, anyway? -- and I say that as a poser of a stats geek myself. Then, there's further analysis you can do once you fold in the business aspects of the game. Player payroll, stars' salaries per season, attendance figures, and season ticket equivalents all serve to indicate the health of a franchise.

In the competitive, metrics-oriented world of sports business, performance on the field is inevitably compared to ownership's investment in player salaries. Analysts originally began by measuring payroll per win. Then, some smart guy figured out that, if a team can win 60 games in a 162-game season even with a roster of Triple-A stiffs, the player payroll should be divided not by total wins but by wins in excess of 60 to determine spending efficiency.

(The ghost of Marvelous Marv Throneberry will thank you not to remind us of the New York Mets' magical 40-win inaugural season in 1962.)

Which brings us to managerial efficiency. If you or I were to manage a major league team -- which, after all, we do in our minds each time we watch a game -- how many wins would our team achieve, despite our indisputable incompetence? We need a baseline number in order to calculate managerial success as the number of wins over that figure.

Happily, the baseball gods have just bestowed an answer upon us. Today we learned that Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman reportedly took advantage of a rare winning stretch and super-.500 June record to insist that the Nationals GM Mike Rizzo pick up the manager's contract option for the following season. Rizzo, recalling the adage that the worst deal is the one that you make on someone else's timetable, and in any case we haven't seen July, August, or September yet, demured, and Riggleman resigned before a mid-season road trip.

Over 12 big-league seasons managing the Padres, Cubs, Mariners, and Nationals, Riggleman has compiled a .445 career winning percentage. I heard today on the radio (but have not verified myself) that this is the worst percentage in baseball history among managers who have managed during 12 MLB seasons or more. Multiply the .445 winning percentage by a 162-game season, and Jim Riggleman-managed teams have averaged 72 wins. This exceeds the 60-win bad-team baseline, to be sure, but enough 60-win seasons would doom a manager to a very short managerial career -- certainly, fewer than Riggleman's dozen seasons.

Riggleman's 2012 contract option with the Nationals reportedly carried a salary of $700,000. Presumably you can hire him next season to manage your team for the same, modest price. Or, you can bring in someone else with managerial experience for a bit more, as the Pittsburgh Pirates did this season by hiring former Colorado manager Clint Hurdle for about $1,000,000. Hurdle's career winning percentage in 7 seasons with the Rockies was .461, translating to 75 wins per season, or a WOR (Wins Over Riggleman) of 3. We seem to have established, based on absurdly limited data, that the Pirates paid $100,000 per WOR for their new manager.

(Indeed, 75 wins is a reasonable expectation for the P-Rats this year. Whether they overpaid or underpaid for Hurdle will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

Alternatively, Pittsburgh could have hired former Pirate, Phil "Scrap Iron" Garner, with a career WOR of 6, or Ken Macha, originally from Western PA, with an impressive, if shorter career WOR of 15. However, Macha's early career with the A's might be overvalued, in terms of WOR, with A's GM Billy Beane's stats-driven organization a more likely cause of the team's long-term success. Moreover, Macha had just come off a disappointing Brewers stint (WOR of 7).

Or, the Pirates could have hired a rookie manager with no established WOR, as the Brewers did in replacing Macha with Mike Scioscia's former assistant, Ron Roenicke. Roenicke faces a trial by fire. Brewers' GM Doug Melvin brought in front-line, free-agent starters Zack Greinke and Sean Marcum and kept slugger Prince Fielder for his contract year, widely assumed to be his last in Milwaukee. The expectations for the Brew Crew in 2011 are enormous, and it could be now or never -- which means that, for Roenicke, the only statistic that matters is WOL (Wins Over LaRussa).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ghost Racers of the Ninja Apocalypse

That distinctive screaming, whirring, movie-sound-effects noise filling the air this weekend emanates from the Milwaukee Mile at State Fair Park, where the Milwaukee 225 IndyCar Series race is being run. It's kind of cool, actually, and so is the knowledge that it will go away later today.

Running errands yesterday in The Silver Zloty -- there was an old radio ad in which a happy-go-lucky doofus said, "We were just looking for some throw pillows for the loveseat in the breezeway," and my noble quest was about that important -- I meandered up National Avenue in West Allis, within livestock-sniffing distance of the State Fairgrounds, and found myself in sudden peril, chased by a pack of black-hooded ninjas on black racing bikes holding small, laser-guided handweapons, their black helmets of the latest curved design concealing their eyes as they bore down on me with extreme intent, as if in the opening sequence of a Japanese action comic. No? Well, that's what it sounded like yesterday in the vicinity of the Milwaukee Mile.

The funny part is, I was listening to golf on the car radio while being chased by the invisible ninjas. Sportscaster Sean McDonough hosted ESPN Radio's coverage of the U.S. Open from Congressional Country Club, at which young Jedi knight Rory McIlroy seeks to redeem himself in the eyes of the August Master. At the time, it seemed like a better listening option than weekend infomercials for living trusts.

Now, I've been known to give the radio medium its due. Baseball on the radio is a continuing joy. I've listened to Matt LePay's countless calls of "Touchdown, Wisconsin!" on Saturday afternoons (probably while shopping for curtain rods). I've listened to the Indy 500 on the radio in fascinated amazement at the tight broadcast production. I've even been involved in offbeat radio sports in a small way myself; back in the day, for example, I wore a highly attractive orange life preserver in a small powerboat as the remote engineer for college radio broadcasts of crew races, hanging on for dear life. (Pro tip: position yourself and your puffy vest as a noise baffle between the guy with the microphone and the outboard motor. Pro tip 2: if he falls overboard, immediately yell, "Let go of the mike!")

But, it's hard to do golf on the radio. Exactly how fascinating can the basic arithmetic of the leaderboard possibly be? How many times can McDonough & Co. describe Phil Mickelson's booming, errant drives into the next zip code and his wedge shots to 18 inches from 85 feet, and sound surprised? How critical is it whether McIlroy's proficient game stacks up to that of Tiger Woods, whose absence looms over this tournament like a ghostly apparition? Why do golf announcers whisper during the putts when they're probably sitting in a studio in Bristol, watching on the big screen like everyone else?

Yet on this day, the broadcast team provided an informative, workmanlike depiction of the sights and action from Congressional, never letting the audience wonder for a moment what Mickelson or McIlroy or their caddies might be thinking -- it seems that, according to all golf announcers throughout history, all pro golfers have "the courage of champions" -- as I sped through West Allis intersections and took hard corners trying to shake the racing ninjas in hot pursuit.

It suddenly occurred to me that I could slow down; I was not in mortal peril. The ninjas meant me no harm. It was merely Tiger and his entourage, trying to get close enough to The Silver Zloty to hear the latest updates on the leaderboard.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Someone else will have to write the definitive review of Neil Gaiman's darkly comic fantasy novel Neverwhere, for I didn't make it past page seventy.

That's not Gaiman's fault. Neverwhere is a perfectly entertaining story, at least so far, with enough colorful whimsy and clever lines to fill a Monty Python movie. There's an Arthur Dent-type urban everyman as protagonist, a mysterious damsel in distress, two Looney Tunes villains whose urbane, Dickensian dialogue only heightens their cartoonish menace, a host of Doctor Dolittle-like transgressions of the animal-human communication barrier, and enough impressionistic descriptions of London proper and the London underground to fill a Fodor's guide.

To be sure, I'm not usually one for the fantasy genre. Fiction is already unreal enough for me; fantasy fiction seems like overegging the pudding. Moreover, having seen "Stardust" on the big screen and a recent, Neil Gaiman-penned "Doctor Who" episode on the small screen, I think I get Gaiman's recurring meme: normal meets fantastical at a mysterious frontier, to both scary and wonderous effect, à la Terry Gilliam. The spooky, semi-occult themes of fantasy lit don't often grab me -- but that's not what stopped me from reading this light, slightly subversive thriller in mid-noir.

Nor can I articulate any particular objection I had to Roy Blount, Jr.'s Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, the noted humorist's personal, crafty, scene-by-scene explication of the Marx Brothers classic flick, "Duck Soup", that kept me from finishing that book; nor can I recall why An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin's amiable novel of the modern art collecting world, failed to capture my eyeballs for more than a couple of chapters, for it too looked promising; as did a fascinating historical treatment of the New York City art world, The Pop Revolution by the late Alice Goldfarb Marquis.

I actually did finish The Year of the Hare, a wry picaresque tale set in Finland that became a touchstone of the 1970s back-to-nature movement. In truth, however, Arto Paasilinna's symbolism-laden allegory was less than 200 pages long and super-simple reading; it's one of those Euro-fables that your foreign language teacher might have assigned to your tenth grade class, were it not already in English. Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou, a starkly riotous and ribald African novel of similar brevity and simplicity, comprising a series of low episodes told to a street-smart Congolese bartender and relayed in his purported diaries, deserved a much better fate in my hands than it received, but halfway through fell victim to my all-too-brief attention span and manic library habits.

Therein lies the tale. Each trip to the public library is a festival of eyes-bigger-than-stomach reading avarice. The ritual begins with the guilt- and sadness-inducing return of a big bag o' books that I haven't even begun to read, despite initial excitement, earnest intentions, one or two online renewals, and a grace period, along with perhaps two or three books that I speed-read through page twenty or fifty in the last hour of their due date, just to get the sense of what I would be missing, before dropping them into the slot. There! Now I can focus on the two or three checked-out books still at home, left behind as it were, a sensibly small number of items awaiting my undivided attention. Naturally, as long as I've already spent the gas money to return the others, I'll just take a quick peek at the New Books section by the front door...and two and a half armloads later, I'm on my way.

Once home, I'm doomed, pile-driven to distraction by a looming, unread stack of erudition and expert storytelling on the oval side table in the living room, the defined check-out period for each item establishing an anxiety-inducing expiration date. There's compound guilt, of course: so long as I'm not reading them, I'm not experiencing the cozy, enlightened life of writerly illumination that I'd imagined they would confer upon me when I checked them out; so long as they're in my possession, I'm preventing another equally delusional County Library cardholder from checking them out with similar earnest intent. The cycle repeats.

Only one way to break this pernicious recurrence, this wretched "Groundhog Day" scenario, this Fortuna-thon: discover a new musical infatuation on YouTube to absorb my restless mental energies, and return all the books. As it turns out, they have CDs at the library, too.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Live Apple

Why on Earth hasn't Fiona Apple been rediscovered yet?


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