Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Clobberings

It is not fun to watch Northwestern football right now.  It is not that the Wildcats are struggling at 1-6; even Northwestern fans who have come on in this opulent golden age of winning seasons and bowl berths and quarterbacks somehow getting drafted into the National Football League, the program's historical ineptitude remains baked into the program.  In every generation, every Northwestern fan is obligated to see herself as if she had thrown the goalposts into the lake after the 29th consecutive defeat.

Still from this short documentary on Northwestern just profoundly 
sucking at football

OK I'm not done with this, there's a line where they finally beat Northern Illinois after losing 34 consecutive games and they take the goal posts to the university president's house where, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Philp describes, he came out on a balcony "almost like a dictator, like Mussolini, and he said 'can you cats growl'" and then they all growled exactly like this:

I appreciate the fact that Northwestern just ate shit constantly for so 
many years that there are actual short documentaries about this

Northwestern's season is not depressing only because of the losing but because of the way it is happening.  In 2013, for example, Northwestern started hot, hung tough with Ohio State during a nationally-televised night game where ESPN College Game Day came to Evanston, and then lost pretty much every other game in a series of hail marys, laterals, laterals leading to hail marys, and hail marys leading to backwards hail marys as the opposition ran back and forth across the field like the Tecmo Bowl version of Bo Jackson.  Those games broke hearts but entertained.  Instead, Northwestern is losing games because their offense has been designed by Sisyphus.

As the Wildcats struggle to score points, my focus has gone from hoping Northwestern can qualify for the Truck Nutz Vehicular Ballsack Bowl to wanting them to score points but only in the silliest and least plausible ways.  In this Banner Society list of games between the college football's two worst teams, I was intrigued by nineteenth-century squads scoring only one point, particularly a game between Brown and the Amherst Lord Jeffs that ended with the aesthetically perfect score of 1-0.  This is impossible now.  College football during this time operated under a mix of individual house scoring rules, most of which banned touchdowns and only allowed players to score by kicking one-point goals; in addition, games were often played without a clock and only ended when the muttonchops and mustaches became so entangled that play could no longer continue and someone had to go find a team of horses to drag out the university's steam-powered Follicular Detangling Apparatus that had its own dedicated brass band.

The holy grail of Northwestern scoring a single point remains technically possible.  There is the one-point safety-- this can happen when a team attempting a PAT or two-point conversion loses possession and then the team on defense then fumbles it or gets tackled in the opposing endzone.  This has happened twice, both times when a team had a field goal blocked but then the opponent batted it back into their own endzone and fell on it.  Here's a video of this happening in 2004 between Texas and Texas A&M, when the baffled Harrumph Tandem of Brad Nessler and Bob Griese have no idea what is going on-- at one point, one of them hisses "it is 13-13 and I have no idea why."  The problem with this, as far as I can tell, is that a Northwestern would have to score a touchdown before being able to claim their one-point safety, and that is simply not done.

But, as the same wikipedia page notes, an avenue for Northwestern to score a single point exists.  In this case, a team attempting an extra point or two-point conversion would have to lose the ball and then have it go the entire length of the field before they fell on it in their own endzone.  This feat has never happened; it seems impossible to pull off without one of the members of the special teams being engaged in an active sabotage operation.  The fact that this rule has been codified into the NCAA rulebook reflects the profound absurdity of football rules, one that must have been invented either in a bacchanalia of drunken referee one-upsmanship or because there was some guy named Wes Gallumph in 1897 who notoriously ran the wrong way with the ball and this was the only way to stop him short of setting up bear traps.  There is nothing more I want out of this season than for Northwestern to somehow score a single point and then flee the opposing stadium on a series of railroad pump-carts.

So let me recap last week's game.  Iowa came in ranked and thirsting for vengeance for all of the funny and perverse ways that Northwestern has beaten them for the past several years and flattened Northwestern like a pancake.  The Wildcats never managed to get past the 30.  It was cold and it rained and the entire thing sucked and was garbage.

This week they play Indiana in Bloomington.  It is a night game for reasons known only to television executives and Satan.  The Chicago area has already gotten four inches of snow in a freak Halloween snow storm, the slush has piled up with dead leaves in a disgusting seasonal burlesque, the sight of snow heaving on trees still filled with blazing autumnal plumage has been downright unsettling, the last remnants of afternoon will be erased early Sunday morning with the unwelcome, cackling arrival of that goblin Standard Time, and there is nothing but bleak winter ahead.  Or, I don't know, maybe they'll win.


There is an argument that Moneyball is the most important sports book of the twenty-first century.  The book brought advanced baseball statistics into the mainstream, attacked received baseball wisdom in a way that irritated an enormous number of tobacco-stained Baseball Men and sports columnists who wear 1940s-style men's hats, and changed the way fans thought of how their front office evaluated players and contracts.  A lot of these changes were well on their way in the early 2000s, and probably would have swept into baseball and other professional sports if Michael Lewis hadn't written a word, but there is no doubt that Moneyball helped move advanced stats from front offices and internet bulletin boards into newspapers and sports talk radio shows and ESPN.  This shift also coincided with internet sportswriting opening opportunities for people fluent in new analytics to reach audiences beyond the reach of newspapers or magazines by unleashing a lot of technical charts or with the profane frustration of Fire Joe Morgan.  But Lewis's method of explaining new industries by focusing on the Billy Beane and the forgotten reclamation projects on the Oakland A's and wrapping the whole thing in a traditional underdog sports narrative helped coalesce all of these disparate strands into a single movement.

If Moneyball can be understood as a baseball team's search for new market inefficiencies, a whole genre of sports books have repeated this quest, searching for the next Great Inefficiency.  Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik's The MVP Machine released earlier this year fits in that mold.  While Moneyball looked at player acquisition by viewing players as static collections of skills, Lindbergh and Sawchik are interested in how players themselves can improve through unorthodox training techniques that question received wisdom.  They have a compelling case.  Baseball, even in this age of mainstream Analytics remains a game with a lot of antique received wisdom that falls apart under the slightest scrutiny-- generations of players may be attuned to their own statistical profiles but are still taught to pitch and hit by baseball lifers who pass on the knowledge of their own approaches and mechanics that they were taught in a process that probably goes back generations to some muttonchop guy whose own idea of physical education involved eschewing brussels sprouts because he claims they "corrode the kidney fibers" but it turns out that his bean growing family had a multi-generational blood feud with a nearby brussels sprout farming concern and he sought to degrade those vegetables whenever possible.

The MVP Machine centers pitcher Trevor Bauer.  Bauer, perhaps best known as the guy who sliced off part of his finger in a drone repair accident during the 2016 ALCS and then tried to pitch as his wound discharged a stomach-churning ooze, has always used unorthodox training techniques. He claims that his methods taken him from a schlub with below average athleticism to the upper echelon of major leaguers by eschewing outdated practices, doing his own research, and embracing technology.  When the book opens, Bauer is attempting to teach himself a slider using a high-speed digital image system and videos from other pitchers; he is basically youtubing a slider and then attempting to use it to throw out major leaguers.
"Flying devices?" said Skunko Trevor-Bauer waving a 
bandaged hand. "I have half a mind to send those Wright 
chaps over a very steep cliff without any apparatus at all." 
You see, old Skunko had found himself at the mercy of one of 
those machines just last week after the lads had borrowed several 
of them to go have a friendly knockabout of some hats during the 
Vicar's convention around the corner from the club.  Skunko had 
been a bit light in the wallet after Excelsior came up lame in the 
fifth turn and Mr Trembley at the polo stables had threatened to 
practice his malleting techniques on his kneecaps, so Trevor-Bauer 
had just taken one from his beloved Miss Spandlen's father.  
Unfortunately, the device fell victim to an umbrella belonging to a surprisingly 
agile vicar, and Skunko's repair technique involved shouting at the apparatus 
and whacking it with a hammer.  Somehow, his foul-mouthed Frankenstein 
techniques provoked the machine back to life. But once alive, the creature 
grabbed old Skunko and gave him a good thrashing about the knuckles.
It was all he could do to prevent himself from bashing it into a metallic stew 
before restraining himself because any damage to this machine would surely 
send Mr Spandler into one of his purple-faced reveries and provoke him to 
preform a similar procedure on Skunko himself and put a quietus on the lad's 
marriage plans.

Bauer finds a kindred spirit in Kyle Boddy, a fellow iconoclast who founded a sort of rogue pitching academy to try to find a way to reengineer pitching mechanics from the ground up.  Lindbergh and Sawchik explore a similar revolution in hitting, focusing on a hitting guru named Doug Latta who helped turn Justin Turner from a marginal utility guy to one of the best hitters in the game.  Latta focuses on launch angle, encouraging hitters to hit it in the air for power, an early exponent of the launch angle revolution.  Like Boddy and all of the other development wonks on their own or within major league organizations, Latta takes advantage of new technology that allows players and analysts to know far more about their movements and biomechanics than ever and spur almost unheard-of improvements.  Conventional wisdom from sabermetric thinkers had downplayed mechanical changes, tending to see players as more or less fully formed.  Joe Sheehan, the founder of Baseball Prospectus who had pooh-poohed J.D. Martinez's new power stroke as a small sample fluke, later admitted the extent to which players could use data to remake themselves on the fly had escaped him.

The MVP Machine is a fascinating and compelling book about a revolution in baseball training that is changing how the game is played and approached.  Lindbergh and Sawchik did a wonderful job outlining the history of player development, explaining cutting edge techniques and how they translate, and even explaining these training ideas by trying them out.  But there is something a little disquieting about baseball's newest information revelation.  To their credit, Lindbergh and Sawchik point out these concerns: privacy worries for players whose biometric data can be weaponized against them in contract talks, especially with minor leaguers who have no leverage; reliance on expensive technology and expert training sessions that push baseball away from families who cannot keep up with the financial commitments; an information advantage that moves the game further into a strikeouts, walks, and homers configuration that increasingly marginalizes aesthetically pleasing but poor strategies that put the ball in play.  Lindbergh and Sawchik, though, remain optimists, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of cool stuff that technology can generate and the innovative minds that put it to work.

There is also something about this book that does not sit quite right with me, and it has nothing to do with Lindbergh and Sawchik.  It has a lot to do with the legacy of Moneyball and the ecosystem of Business Innovation where the MVP Machine lives, of the continuous celebration of Innovators and Disruptors and Mindset People and Gladwellians who Ted Talk their way around conferences and National Public Radio to take a threshing machine to received wisdom and trumpet new ways of doing things.  This makes sense in baseball, where the results are granular and measurable, the stakes are confined to a goofy game played by people in pajamas, and the hidebound orthodoxy often reflects the empirical method of squinting.  

But where Moneyball also represented a revolution against the Oafigentsia, the sea change in thinking about sports that it helped popularize led to a large number of unpleasant changes: the broad financialization of the sport, the obsession with efficiency and Assets, the ability to sell fans on the concept that tanking entire seasons and trading useful players and refusing to sign costly free agents who are good at baseball for months at a time are not only smart strategies but that actually attempting to win games without that sort of framework is a chump's game-- it is a way of thinking about the game that elevates and lionizes ownership and front offices who manage to eschew payroll for its own sake.  The Moneyball A's were indeed winning by investing in cheap, marginal players, but in another way the book put a gloss on an ownership group so disrespectful of their fans through their continued parsimony that they had no business owning a professional sports team.  That is the unfair game.

These feelings have little to do with what Lindbergh and Sawchik have accomplished with their excellent baseball book.  It is indeed possible that these innovations driven by outsiders and marginal players may in fact turn the tide against the owner's overwhelming urge to use data primarily to underpay its labor force.  But given the quick way that teams have bought out and adopted these methods to place them within proprietary control of their own baseball organizations, I can only fear that in another decade we will see some unexpected way that Big Data has warped the structure of professional baseball in some perplexing and grotesque way.

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