Monday, September 04, 2023

Well ... this was predictable: More on Analytics, Boredom, and Baseball

I had set out to write post on the way analytics had made baseball boring.  And, I wanted to do that without sounding like an old timer railing against change for not other reason that he railed against change. Instead, it is boring because each team follows nearly exactly the same strategies. MLB is fighting against those strategies (expanding the bases, introducing pitch clocks and rules about pitcher disengagement). This is not because analytics failed. It is because it succeeded. Analytics worked, or at least seemed to. One could use massive amounts of data to position defenders, organize the pitching staff, and change the "launch angle" on swings to gain an edge on other teams. Tampa Bay might be the new poster child for this approach to baseball and it is hard to argue with success. The Rays are almost always in contention and almost always with a team that is among the least expensive (in terms of overall salary) in the majors. They have worked ideas such as the now outlawed shift, the starter+bulk pitcher, multiple substitutions, and pitch limits harder than just about any other team. 

The very problem is their success. Every team now has an analytics department and every team is using the same data. The result is that there is precious little variation in baseball strategy between teams. For instance, no one lets starters pitch deep into games any more. In fact, deep into games has been virtually redefined as getting through the fifth inning, the minimum number of innings a pitcher can pitch to record a win. The Jays have four starters who have been basically uninjured this year (I know Gausman has missed a couple of starts) and it is not clear any of them will get to 200 IP.  The point is not that the Jays are doing anything different or unusual. They are doing exactly what everyone else is doing. The only starter in the AL who looks like he will make it to 200 IP is Cole (as always data from Baseball Reference).  In the NL, three or four might make it. 

The addition of the universal DH has also created a a higher degree of homogeneity in baseball strategy across MLB. The absence of a DH forced NL teams in the past to adopt different strategies than AL teams (greater pinch hitting and using more small-ball, one base strategies).  I know we need to guard against nostalgia, but there were appreciable divisions of strategy between the baseball teams of my youth. Some were based on speed (KC, Oakland, the Expos, St. L). Some were based on power (Milwaukee). Some where based on platooning (the Jays, Orioles, and Tigers under Sparky). Some managers were quick hooks (Alou). Others expected their starters to work for their living (Vernon).  Said differently, when different teams played each other it was often a conflict of strategies as it was a conflict of players and teams. 

This is no longer the case. I was watching a Jays/Reds game a week or so ago and each team managed its pitching staff in exactly the same way. The only difference was that the Jays starter (Berrios) pitched 5.2 innings. The Reds (Kennedy), 5. There then followed a stream of pitchers pitching one inning (or, in the case of the Jays, the final out of the 6th).  The next game was as close to a repeat as you could get. The Jays needed to yank Richards faster than they wanted to because he was a bit off his mark, but that was it.  What minor differences there are, are a product of talent (Cleveland has to run because it lacks home run power) or taking advantage of particular situations (the Rockies were running on us because our catching is weak at throwing out runnings). Other coaches take advantage of situation but the overall strategies aren't varying. The result is that baseball fans basically know what is going to happen before it does and that does not make for a particularly exciting game, at least from a strategy perspective. 

Analytics have created two effects on the way baseball teams are organized. First, there has been an expansion of the bullpen. Most teams carry eight bullpen pitchers and five starters, taking up 13 roster spots, or half the team. Because there is almost no such thing as a complete game anymore (Lyles looks like he will lead the AL with 3; the Jays have a total of one complete game -- Bassitt -- this year), and because no one uses a reliever for more than an inning, more pitchers are needed. This leads to point two: because roster sports are needed for pitchers,  no one carries a dedicated DH any more (there are no Edgar Martinez, of Big Papi's, or Hal McRae's ... with the notable exceptions of the Dodgers but is anyone surprised Roberts is doing things differently? And, Phil as they try to get Harper into games). And, players are prized by the degree to which they can play more than one defensive position. 

For the Jays, the effect is periodically shaky outfield defence because we play infielders in the outfield (our backup or platoon outfielders are Biggio and Merrifeld, both infielders).  Throughout much of the year, our backup third basement and shortstop was Santiago Espinal, a player who was so not reliable as a short stop that the Jays traded (we really traded nothing so I am not all that concerned) for Paul DeJong.  I actually think Merrifield has done the job the Jays asked him to do this year and it has not an easy job. He makes the odd really good catch as an outfielder if he is moving forward but he has problems with balls over his head and tends -- as we would expect of an infielder -- to misjudge them. There were plays I've watched where Biggio, likewise, seemed completely miscast for the role he was asked to play. 

Is this a management issue? I'm argue that the heavy use of analytics creates this problem. Because the Jays are using up so many roster sports on pitchers, they can't carry a real back up outfielder. 

Likewise, the Jays have to suffer with Vladdy at first. I'll grant him Vladdy due. He did not come up playing first base, defence is not his primary value, and he does make some good plays. But, overall, his defence is hurting the team (it even hurt the team last year in his Gold Glove winning year, its just that all other first basement were worse).  The Jay would improve if they had even a break-even defensive first baseman and moved Vladdy F/T to DH. But, they can't because no one -- exceptions noted above -- carries an F/T DH anymore. Instead, it is used as place holder to give a player a rest. Because benches are so thin, there are just not a lot of backup players to fill in and so the DH spot is used to spell a player from fielding for a game. Or, for the same reason, to keep a player with a minor injury in the game. 

Not only does this homogenize strategies but, with regard to the Jays, it has made them a worse team. I am not saying Vladdy could be the Jays Big Papi, but I actually don't see any reason why he could't be. 

And, I have not even mentioned what "max effort" is doing to pitchers arms. 

In short, it is hard to complain about the Jays. I have and will. But, we also need to see that the problems with which the Jays grapple are inherent to this era of baseball (for instance, I know Hernandez had horrible defence. I said it. But, the response to that does not need to be to trade him, even while I think the trade worked out. Another alternative, would have been to teach him how to be an outfielder but, for whatever reason, that die not happen). 

I find myself drifting from baseball and have been trying to figure out why. This post, I guess, is in that spirit. 

Friday, August 25, 2023

Analytics, Boredom, and Mis-assessing MLB Player Value

The analytics revolution in baseball was about uncovering player values. It was about moving away from relying *just* on traditional stats (RBIs, runs, wins, etc.) to try to find ways to assess players independent of their context, say a manager who misplayed them or a pitcher who won a lot of games because their team scored a lot of runs.  Since Bill James and others first starting making the case for a better approach to baseball math over a generation a go, we now have a raft of new statistical categories that sub in for traditional numbers. This includes OPS, OPS+, wins above replacement (WAR), etc.  There are mathematical variations in some of formulae used to calculate these stats (not every determines WAR in exactly the same way), but by and large I think these new stats are remarkably useful for determining player value. But, they also have their problems particularly when combined with an MLB penchant to measure just about everything that can be measured, at least this seems to be Sportsnet's approach with the Jays, where we are treated to a daily discussion of "exit velocity," distance home runs are travel, etc. I find this fascination less useful and I also want to explain why. 

What is now called analytics was about finding more effective ways to evaluate players. The original analytics writings did not dismiss older stats, but argued that they needed to be understood better and in context. For instance, imagine a player who drives in a lot of runs and hence has a lot of RBIs. Was that a product of their ability to hit in the clutch (when, say, their team had a runner scoring position) or was it a product of the fact that the players who batted before him were on base a lot. If that were the case, a player would have more RBIs and not necessarily be any better at driving in runs than a player who have fewer. 

I'm going to come back to this but the two most important offensive skills in baseball are the ability to get on base (hard to score without people on base) and the ability to advance runners (that is move them from one base to the next). Some players are really good at that.  The batter in front them gets a double and is on second with none out. The next batter, hits the ball behind the runner, allowing him to advance to third. It doesn't show up on standard score sheets but that is a productive out, moving a teammate to third with one out where he can now score with a sac fly. Analytics attempted to find ways to enumerate these skills so that a player could be assessed on their merits. 

I agreed with analytics. I think its advances were understood long before baseball had analytic departments or anyone had seen Moneyball. It makes sense that the ability to get on base is important and that it does not matter exactly how one gets on base. Thus, on base percentage is a more important statistical measure than batting average. I get it.

I don't think "we have gone too far" with analytics but I worry that analytic stats are disguising other stats. I'll say it again, Bill James never rejected traditional stats. Instead, he worked with them and interpreted them. The substitution of one stats for another taken out of its context -- I'll say it again, taken out of its context -- disguises a player's value and that, it seems to me, is one of the problems that haunts major league baseball today. The Jays are a case in point and I'll give you an example: Brandon Belt. 

The Jays brought Belt in to provide veteran leadership and good defence at first. He was never going to play everyday but rather was a role player, doing time at DH and backing up Vladdy at first. He could defensive sub in tight games. It is a valuable role on the team. Belt got off to a bad start, as happens but the Jays kept him in and he's played more and more over time. Right now, he's batting third and seems -- barring something unforeseen -- ensconced their for the rest of the year. 

When you watch Jays games, the announcers make a lot of the fact that some -- often nameless -- people were down on Belt because of his slow start. I might say that anyone who knows much about baseball was not down him and recognizes that not everyone gets out of the gates at the same pace. It is annoying (and likely more so to the coaching staff) but nothing to write home about. It is a regular part of the game. After this, however, the announcers go on to make a comment the goes something like "Belt has the second highest OPS, OPS+, etc., since date X."

This is less useful. It is good to know but what are more traditional stats telling us about Belt: that he's not driving in runs at the pace one needs from a top of the order guy. Right now Belt has 350 plate appearances (the lowest of a non-catcher starter or a player who has not missed time for injury, but not a bad number). The problem is that he has only 37 RBIs and 15 of those RBIs come from homers. IOW, aside from himself, Belt has driven in only 22 other runs this year. That is a bad number no matter how you cut it. My point, of course, is not that Belt is secretly a bad player. I don't think he is. My point is that the focus on new analytic stats -- where he looks really good -- disguises the fact that the Jays have put a guy at the top of their lineup who is not doing what a guy at the top of the lineup is supposed to do. 

There are a lot of qualifications, to be sure, and it would not be fair to lay the blame for the Jays inconsistency at the feet of the Belt. But, it might also be fair to say that he's not well cast to the role in which the Jays have him. 

Likewise, the fascination with exit velocity -- the speed of the ball coming off the bat -- and distance for HRs create other problems.  It does not matter how hard a ball is hit if that speed is not producing actual hits. Vladdy hits the ball harder than just about anyone. But, that velocity is not translating itself into either hits or RBIs. Again, don't get me wrong. Vladdy is an exceptionally good younger player who I'd want on my team. He's also the opposite of Belt. He got off to a blazing start.  Hitting .309 by at the end of April (I get my data from Baseball Reference) with an .885 OPS. We don't need to worry too much about precisely what that stats means but it all-star level. He's been up and down with a lot of down since.  Right now, he is not on pace to drive in 100 runs, something you need from your best player. In this case it is not an analytic stat that is disguising a problem but the fascination new measurable stats. 

Let me make this point clear: if a ball is a HR, what difference does it matter how far it traveled? It might be interesting for fans, but not relevant to the score. If you need to hit the ball 400 ft to get a home run, what difference does it make if the ball is hit 401 feet or 456 feet? If you hit a home run, what difference does it matter that its exit velocity was 106 mph or 90 mph. If you said "none," you were right. 

I didn't get to boredom and baseball so I'll carry that into another post, but finally, let me say a word about "best in the league since date X" syndrome. Baseball loves this kind of language and the Jays media is riven with it. But, it is also a problem. Again: I get it. Media commentators are trying to show a trend -- a player heating up or someone who has made an effective adjustment. But, it also misses a point and that point is this: it does not matter when you lose games if you lose them. For instance, imagine that a team needs to win, say, 90 games to make the playoffs. That means that they will lose 72 over the pan of the season. Does it matter when they lost those games? Again, the answer is no.  The fact that a player gets off to a bad start is not a reason to throw them away and. there will be ups and downs over a season. But the fact that a player is playing well at a certain moment and not at another moment could be a problem for a team that is looking for consistency, as the Jays are. Said differently, this start -- or this approach to reporting stats -- disguises something important. Playing poorly and losing games at the start of the season can keep. team out of the playoffs as surely as playing poorly and losing games late in the season. 

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Not the Team We Thought

Since I usually post my complaints about the Jays, I thought I'd post some positive comments because I am positive. That might sound odd after the loss last night (amid more not good fielding), but I don't think this is a bad team at all. In fact, I never did. What is more, this is not the team I thought it was, nor I suspect most Jays fans and what has me upbeat is precisely that. The Jays are a really good pitching team. The have a problems with defence but their defence, particularly in the outfield, is good. I don't like the phrase "ready to go on a run" and I am not certain they are. One of their remaining problems is inconsistent play. But, I see no reason they can't get into the playoffs and I see no reason that can't win a round, maybe more. So, what is good about the Jays? 

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's keep acknowledging that team has problems. For whatever reason, it is not scoring runs. You know the data as well as I do. They are near the bottom of the league in hitting with runners in scoring position and with runners on base. Moreover, a number of their key players have taken a backwards step either year over year or in comparison to how well they played earlier this year. Some of this is explainable. The issue with regard to Springer, for instance, is not that he had a bad run and will come around (as the announcers keep saying -- and he might). The issue is that he is a banged up 33 year old outfielder. He will lose bat speed, for instance, and that will limit his offensive abilities. But, and here is what I think is important to note. The Jays brain trust -- whom I faulted for some pretty poor pitching decisions very recently -- has also made the right decision to get him out of the lead off spot and try to find a place where his skill base is useful to the team. The first good thing to note about the Jays right now, then, is that for the first time in a while, the team decision makers (whomever these are) seem to be responding to the talent that is in front of them and making decisions on that basis.  (As opposed to, in the past, trying to create a plug and play team, Gibby-proof team.) 

Second, I'll also give the Jays front office and field level management credit for not panicking when Manoah went off the rails. To state my point above again: they responded by assessing the talent they had and what they could do with it -- a very Tampa Bay like decision making strategy -- rather than trying to copy another team or using players in ways that moved them out of their comfort zone. They used off days to their advantage and made use of what they had (a potentially good opener in Richards and a potentially good bulk guy in Francis) to get them through a potential problem. For the record, I also think they handled the other Manoah problem tactfully so I'll mention it here. Manoah, you may know, is at AAA and the demotion was needed. It was needed because there was no place for him on the roster (there was nothing that he could do that another pitcher could not do better) and because he shot his mouth off in a press conference about watching to pitch to Ohtani and saying that the decision to walk him was Schneider's. His comment drew a laugh but what was missed were two things: (1) the issue is not what Manoah wanted to do because he was a "competitor" but what gave the team the best chance to win, and (2) the answer he gave sucked. His job is not disagree with his manager but to say precisely point 1 above. It is not about how a player feels. It is about how a team wins. And, players that won't put winning ahead of themselves ... well ... they end up in AAA. 

Third, despite some recent trips to the IL but a number of key players, the Jays have been relatively healthy. I saw that data recently but I forget where (an in game graphic, I think), but the Jays have lost fewer games to injury than most other teams. And, most of those games lost were known (Ryu and Green) at the start of the season. In fact, the Jays have really only had one rough stretch with regard to injuries (and that is right now) over the season. They've gotten more out of Kiermaier, Springer, and Belt than I thought they would. In other words, whatever was not working in the past -- because the Jays were loaded with injuries -- has been corrected (better planned days off?) and the team is enjoying the effect of that. 

Finally, I see nothing wrong with tight pitched games. Whether by design or luck, the Jays have built an impressive bullpen. I still don't like the one pitcher, one inning approach, but the bullpen is deep and it is good. I feel a bit bad for players like Francis and Jackson who will be out of a job in the near future because they have made a contribution.  But, we no longer have to live with the possibility that the brain trust will elect to turn a key game over to a pitcher who they did not think was good enough to make the team (see a pervious post on this) in the first place.  

I expect a spate of transactions before the weekend series. Green and Richards will likely be coming off rehab, which means Francis and Jackson are headed to AAA. Bichette will come off rehab as well and so one infielder is likely hitting the road. If I had to guess, it would Schneider Jr., but we'll see. Keeping DeJung makes sense to me because he provides a defensive sub for Bichette late inning in close games where we have the lead. But, we'll see. 

In short, I am looking forward to the back end of the season. 

Friday, August 04, 2023

The Oddities of the Jays Approach to Pitching

Despite what it might look like, pitching decisions in baseball are not made willy-nilly.  And, while the manager is responsible for them (and has the ultimate on-field call), they are no longer made simply by managers or managers alone.  Instead, pitching decisions are charted out. While everyone would like a starter to go as long as they can, baseball coaching staffs chart out numerous possibilities. If our team is ahead in the seventh by X+ runs, and the starter is tired or losing the zone or has hit their pitch limit, they are replaced by A. If we need a platoon advantage, they are replaced by B, if we are behind ... and we needed to replace the starter .... you get the point. The manager makes the decision -- the call on the field -- but he's had the benefit of advise from pitching coaches, his bench coach, there is a guy down in the bullpen, and the team analytics department. The individual decision that we, as fans, see is actually a collective decision made by a baseball team's brain trust. 

With that in mind, the Jays brain trust makes decisions that I often find difficult to figure out. Put differently, that defy figuring out. I'll give you an example. On Tuesday night the Jays got battered by the Orioles 13-3. It was likely a game that they had no chance of winning regardless of individual decisions because the Os were on and the Jays were not. But, the game marked the return of Hyun-Jin Ryu to the staff after over a hear off recovering from surgery for a major injury. Ryu looked good and pitched well. He got off to a bit of a bumpy start, but was efficient. He was throwing strikes, not going deep into counts. He gave up two in the first and another in the second but blanked the Os for the next three innings.  At this point, he had thrown -- I forget the exact number but -- high 70s in terms of pitches, which is not a tonne for a starter.  Why not pull him? He'd look good, the Jays were in the game, and as a team the Jays had accomplished what they set out to accomplish. They got a good game from a starter who they want to re-integrate into their starting rotation. 

For reasons I don't understand, the Jays sent him back out for the 6th, he was promptly touched up for a home run and was then pulled. My question is this: what was the difference between the 5th and the 6th. Why was that one batter important? And, why was in more important than keeping the score as low as possible and getting a pitcher back into the swing of major league games? There may be a logic here but I can't see it: what difference did the handful of pitches Ryu threw in the 6th make other than to put the Jays behind. Because the Jays scored no more runs, they would never have caught up even if the Orioles hadn't battered our bullpen, It is an odd decision.

Odder still: last night. The Jays were short staffed. With both Romano and Richards on the IL, they were clearly hoping for a long start from Gausman and that was a reasonable expectation. He's pitched very well this year. It was not to be. Gausman ran into trouble in the 2nd and while he recovered his pitch count soared. One out into the 5th, he'd thrown 103 pitches and so he needed to come out.  Gausman had given up another run in the 5th as well. The Jays turned to Bowden Francis who had just been recalled and he did the job. Francis has actually pitched rather well for the Jays but in limited action. He's spent most of the year in the minors. After Francis came the newly acquired Cabrera. Fair enough, this is what the Jays acquired him for.  But, at this point odd decisions started. 

The Jays really needed to win this game. It was not critical but losing it dropped the Jays 7.5 games back of the Orioles with 52 games left in the season, an almost insurmountable lead. Losing the game meant that the Jays were, in effect, conceding the division championship. The bullpen, as I said, was thin but the Oriels only had a 3-1 lead. The game was still in range. And, with this important game on the line, the Jays brain trust elected to turn the Jays fate over to Thomas Hatch, a player who they had just recalled from the minors and, previous to last night, had thrown a total of 4 innings in the bigs this season. 

Let's think about the logic of this. Here we have a very important game that the Jays need to keep the division championship in their sights. If they win, they're 5.5 games back instead of 7.5. Still a tall order but close enough that a mini-losing streak for the Os is all the Jays would need to get within a game or two, and we play them again. So, is this the situation in which you would turn to a guy who 24 hours before you did not think was good enough to be in the majors? Quite literally, this is a guy who, barring injuries, would not even have been on the team. The options the Jays had were limited and I'll get to that in a minute. But, there were options. Mayza is the obvious one.  Hicks would have been a stretch but apparently he had said (at least according to Dan and Buck) that he could go, and Swanson was the other option. I suspect Swanson was being saved to be the closer but since Hatch surrendered 3 runs in the next 2+ innings, both Mayza and Swanson ended the game on the bench. 

Making matters even more odd, the Jays designated Hatch today. In baseball terms that means, in effect, they fired him. Any other team can take him for his salary and need to provide the Jays with no compensation. If no one else claims him, I suspect the Jays will keep him in the minors but let's process this. The Jays trusted a critical situation in a critical game to a guy who they themselves did not feel was good enough to be on staff and who, the next day, they didn't feel was good enough to keep on the roster. Does this make sense? 

How did we get here? The Jays will claim that the thin staff -- injuries and another player on leave -- forced them to. That is likely exactly what they think, but it just does not make a lot of sense. There is another reason they are short staffed and that relates to the construction of their pitching staff. 

There is nothing unusual about the way in which the Jays have built their pitching staff. They have it set up  like this: the starter gets through 6 innings (or, at least 5) and the Jays then had it over to the bullpen. A series of pitchers in succession pitch 1 inning (or, less if there is a needed platoon advantage). Just about everyone does the same thing. One of the interesting effects analytics has had on baseball is to flatten out strategy differences. Everyone looks at the same data, everyone has analytics departments that crunch numbers, and, on an aggregate level, the data shows something so everyone does exactly the same thing. 

I won't get into the details of why this is done. I'm not trying to say that there is no a reason for it. It just has not served the Jays well. The Jays carry a tonne of pitchers (which also limits in-game decisions, an issue I'll address another time but also something else that is very common), usually 8 relievers and 5 starters but right now 7 relievers and 6 starters because Ryu and Manoah are both back and the Jays intend to go with a six-pitcher rotation because they have a spate of games without a day off. I don't inherently disagree with this decision but it further cramps the bullpen and what happens if ... if, say, your starter has a bad inning and reaches his pitch count early? What happens is that you turn a critical game over to a guy who was not on the team a day or two before and is not now.  

It is a bit like crying over spilt milk, but can I ask about the logic of one-inning relievers? The only guy on the Jays staff who regularly pitches more than an inning in relief is Richards and even he would not meet the definition of "long man" of my youth. The Jays bullpen lacks depth not in the sense that they don't have arms. They do. I think its a good bullpen if each game unfolds according to the 6-1-1-1 formula. But the absence of longer relief was high-lighted last night. Since just about everyone builds their bullpens in the same way, I wondered as I was thinking about last night's game, has anyone looked back on what managers like Felipe Alou did in the past? Alou worked his pens hard but tended to use a much more limited number of pitchers and kept relievers in longer than people do today. 

The Jays handling of the pitching staff, then, was odd in two ways. They made a really odd in game decision that they did not have to make and they have constructed their bullpen in a way that seems to force odd decisions, or at least make a greater chance for them.  I'll be honest. I'm disappointed in how the Jays have played this year and I am looking for reasons that they've under performed. They are a good team and have not played poorly. But, they've not played to the level I thought they would and part of that, I think, relates to the oddities of their approach to the pitching staff. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2023

Canadian Women's Soccer and the Politics of Commitment

The Canadian women's national soccer team made an early exit from the World Cup. That's a drag because they are a good team that went into the tournament with heightened expectations. Another reason this is a drag is the gender politics that have followed this team for a good long time. There is simply no reason that the women's team should be funded at a rate so shockingly different from the men's team and Canada Soccer should be completely embarrassed that it could not even conclude a temporary, interim deal with the team until the World Cup was underway.  One can only speculate on how this level of uncertainty has affected the team. This is not an issue of motivation but, as the team made clear in its press release related to the funding agreement (you can find that here), related to directly to training. To be compensated equally with the men's team, the women's team will have to allow Canada Soccer to transfer resources from training. In other words, Canada Soccer has said "we will pay you the same but not resource you the same. You'll get the same money but not the same support." It is horrible, as the PR notes, that the women's team was forced to make this choice and, if you are a soccer fan, it raises deep and fundamental questions about Canada Soccer's commitment to winning.  What is even worse ... its a short term deal that seems to expire at the end of the year. Canada Soccer's commitment to gender equality (even such as it is), in other words, is temporary and then defaults back to its pay women less stance. For its part, Canada Soccer does not even mention the deal on its website (or, did not when I checked).

None of this is as it needs to be. While I am shocked by the blatant character of Canada Soccer's gender discrimination, I am not surprised by it. In fact, I'd be surprised if the opposite had happened, if Canada Soccer had pro-actively (without being urged to and without the women's team needing to go public) took it upon itself to create the conditions for equality in a substantive way. Imagine the different headlines that we could have been reading: Canada Soccer realizing commitment to gender equality: women and men now compensated and resourced the same. I get that that sounds pie in the sky but why should it? Why is Canada Soccer, in 2023, trying to get away with inequality? 

For its part Canada Soccer seems to be in something of a financial mess. Earlier this July, it found itself backtracking on agreements with the national teams because, it said, the deal had been worked out without the approval of its Board of CFO (you can find that story here). But, that's not an excuse. All that had to happen was that the Board and CFO approve the deal. The exact financial machinations are difficult to track down but Canada Soccer is funded through a different body: Canada Soccer Business. Its website bills it as follows: "Canadian Soccer Business (CSB) is an independent commercial agency that offers a suite of representation services, delivering corporate partnerships, sponsorships and media rights for entities that make up the backbone of soccer in the country" (citation: here). Its web site has the standard feel good stories on it, but it seems that what has happened is this: Canada has outsourced funding for its national soccer teams to a private agency that withholds a portion of the revenue it receives (say, prize money from the World Cup) in order to fund both its own operations and the Canadian Premier League (see here for information), which -- according to its website -- seems to be its main client. This is potentially lucrative as CSB also retains media rights to the national teams. If you want to find out more about the CPL by clicking on the line on CSB's web page, you'll be directed to another web page v-- or, at least I was -- asking you to donate (in a cycling banner at the top of the page). The nature of the deal Canada Soccer has with CSB seems to be pushing Canada Soccer to bankruptcy and has -- according to the men's team -- delayed its payments from the men's World Cup. Canada Soccer, it seems, has attempted to balance its books through the time tested method of paying women less. 

One of the things I find particularly offensive about this is the way in which Canada Soccer tried to assure us that it is committed to the national team. Being committed to something, one should note, involves something more than stating a commitment. Canada Soccer has said it is committed to getting a fair and equal deal for the women's team but the last agreement expired in 2021. Not only is that a long time but the path to a fair and equal deal is easily available to them. It involves ... well ... resourcing and compensating the women's team equally.  Another example, from its web site, is Canada Soccer's vision, the first part reads "Leading Canada to victory [...]." If we were to ask the national teams about that commitment, what do you think they would say? How do you "lead" a team to victory when you make the players fight for equality. I think a team that's been without an agreement for two years and was forced to choose between compensation and training, might have something to say about the how real that commitment feels to them.  The point is simply this: it is easy to say one is committed to something but we should not mistake that for an actual commitment. 

The same type of commitment was evident politically from the new federal Minister of Sport and Physical Activity, Carla Qualtrough. Now, I am going to state clearly that I don't think being Minister of Sport in Canada is an easy job. The embedded and systemic inequalities and abuse that have come to light over the last several years are serious and require serious efforts. You can find some information here. On the other hand, at least part of the problem seems to be systemic and when we have people in powerful positions, one might expect something more than a statement of a reiterated commitment, as we received from Qualtrough. Their statement was reported on CBC as follows: "My background is as a human rights lawyer, so you're never going to hear me say anything but pay equity, equal pay for work of equal value. Our women deserve equal opportunities as our men and we're going to make sure they have it." To me, this amounts to little more than virtue signalling. As a minister, one should not simply say they support equality. I'll be honest: I would have thought that was a precondition of the job. Instead, what we have is a person who is uniquely placed to use the authority of the state to accomplish this ... say to help develop a new funding mechanism and to cut out the private business intermediary that seems to be draining money away form the national teams. And, yet, the best we can get out of them is the Coles Notes version of their CV and a commitment to promote the very equality that their government has so far ignored. 

I don't think this will bode well. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Running Backs and Truth Worth:

NFL running backs are upset. By any metric, it has not been a good off season for running backs who feel that their worth to their teams has been devalued. IOW, their paycheques don't match their value. You can read stories about that here and here if you need a quick update. Is this true? Are running backs not receiving their "true worth"? 

That is a more difficult question to answer then it might seem. The Guardian's interpretation (cited above) is that the relative decline in running back pay is a product of changes to the game. RBs are just not as offensively valuable as they once were; other positions (quarterback, wide receiver,  and in the defensive mirror "edge rusher," and cornerback have become more important and, hence, more valuable). The NFL's Collective Agreement might also be depressing running back salaries and that is likely true (see the ESPN piece cited above), but that is a complex issue and difficult to address in a short post. My view is that the real problems lie elsewhere and I'll get to those but first, let's think about worth. 

We need to acknowledge that "true" worth -- in sport -- is a difficult thing to peg down. RBs are not going broke. The average salary for top tier RBs in the NFL will be over $10 million this year and some (for instance, Derrick Henry) will make a bundle more than that. Said differently, one of the better NFL running back will make more money this year than the vast majority of Americans will make over their lifetimes. We are not talking about someone scrapping by and since this issue is often framed as being about the best RBs in the game, I'll take that as a fair point of comparison. I'll return to this issue later because I think it is important. 

We also need to ask this question: why is a player paid whatever they are paid? How actually do we calculate their worth? The short answer is: to win games but that is not 100% accurate. Pro sports is a business. Players are paid because they win games but also because they attract fans, TV deals, sell merchandize, and make money for owners. Let me give you an example: the SF 49ers pay Christian McCaffrey whatever they pay him on the assumption that he will make more money for them. If he doesn't, he will be gone (as he was in Carolina) and the NFL is a remarkably fickle league. There is a connection, to be sure, between winning and making money. But, that fit is not perfect. 

One also needs to think about value in terms of replacement costs. Anyone who has ever calculated the cost of car repairs verse payments on a new car knows exactly what I am talking about. One problem running backs have is that there are a lot of them. I recognize depth has been a problem for some teams (the Bears, for instance, and Baltimore) but the truth is that there is no shortage of good running backs moving their way through US college ranks at any given moment.  While great running backs are almost certainly as hard to find as great quarterbacks of game changing linebackers, there is a steady supply of backs from which to pick and a number that will be all stars. Some (McCaffrey) come with a lot of hype. Others (the recently released Elliott) seem to come out of the blue if you are not paying a great deal of attention to US college games. 

What this means for a player's value is complicated. It means that they are simultaneously worth more than their skill on the field might indicate (because of TV contracts and merchandize) and potentially less, particularly if a team thinks they can generate the same level of wins (or, owners think they can make the same amount of money) without someone else at that position. 

This means that there is not straight forward way of calculating a players value (even while the Collective Agreement tries to do in a limited number of instances). We should also acknowledge that a player's value can extend beyond their playing days. The growing football industry in the US absorbs bunches of former players for TV and radio, for colour commentary and PR. There are speaking tours and product endorsements. A player with name brand recognition -- Henry, Jonathan Taylor -- should be able to transform that recognition into income, adding to the income they derive from the game, even if it does not show up in their playing salaries. 

Where does this leave the calculation of true worth? Likely in several places but there are a couple of other points that I should likely make. The first is that sports media is awash in hyperbole. I likely spend too much time watching sports but the number of players described as "stars" "superstars" etc., shocks me. There have been times I've sat and listened to a commentator and thought to myself "well, heck, everyone can't be a star" because that means no one is. Get it? If everyone is great ... what sets one person ahead of another? This is actually a key question if we are trying to get at worth (I'll leave its ethical merits to the side for this discussion). If every running back is great, then ... why should one be paid more than the other because they all have the same skill level. The on-going hyperbole has this effect. It anoints players as great (or some other such wording) and convinces people that Player X or Y is "among the best in the game" but people are actually saying that about so many players that they just can't all be true. IOW, there is a disconnect between sports media language and player rankings. 

As an example I think Saquon Barkley is a really good RB. Is he one of the best in the game? Is he a game changer? Maybe, but he also has an appreciable injury history. Last year was the first year in four that he played what we could call a full season. If I run the Giants, I might say OK, yeah I Barkley's good but how much is an oft-injured player worth? Karem Hunt is another case in point. Really good but a backup who has missed appreciable playing time in the last four years. These are just examples to illustrate a point and I don't want to get too hung up on details. 

The other consideration in the multi-generational wealth being handed out in other sports, notably basketball and soccer. I don't know what to say about this because the figures truly are staggering,  but I suspect it reflects market value as opposed to player value. For whatever reason (fewer players which equals more money per player, more revenue because of more games?) basketball just has more money to pay individual players than football. I get it. RBs in the NFL who are feted in the media see this -- along with QBs in their sport -- and they want it, too. After all, they are routinely told they are great, game changers, historic, etc.  Should they not be paid at least closer to that level. 

They aren't and, unless things change, they won't be. Should they be? I don't know. I calculate value differently and so I can't say. 

Monday, July 03, 2023

Russia and the War in Ukraine

By any account, the war in Ukraine has been a disaster for just about all concerned, but for different reasons. For the Ukrainian people it has created a near disaster with large parts of the country occupied, infrastructure under constant attack, mass civilian deaths and deportations, and significant military and economic losses. For Russian — and specifically the Russian government — that situation is not as bad but it is really bad. I will confess that I don’t know if Ukraine will, in the end, win the war. I actually don’t even know what that means. What I do know is that Russia has already lost. How so? Just about every aspect of this conflict from the perspective of the Russian government has failed. Its intelligence, command and control, logistics, tactics, and weaponry.  There are several points to consider. 

First, Russia has lost the vast majority of its front line armour. According to Oryx (which is about as good an estimate as one is going to get), Russia has lost over 2000 main battle tanks, huge numbers of armoured personal carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, and infantry mobility vehicles. It has lost thousands of other vehicles and appears (at times) to be relying on panel vans to move supplies. Its Black Sea fleet has been virtually incapacitated, Ukrainian operatives have illustrated that they can move across the frontier and set fire to oil storage facilities, factories, and other buildings and derail trains. One needs to take social media reports with a grain of salt but there are reports of Russians using shells manufactured in 1939, and obsolete T-54 battle tanks have been reported in the field. What is equally important is that Russian weapons are clearly vulnerable to western weapons. While there is more than enough blame to go around for this, it is evident that simple point-and-fire Western anti-tank weapons appear to be able to incapacitate even the latest Russian armoured vehicles. 

What this amounts to is this: Russia's weaponry has failed on two counts. Russia has now lost massive amounts of heavy weapons. I don't know exactly how long it will take Russia to replace its lost weapons but I would be shocked if this is not a decade long situation even acknowledging that redevelopment is needed as much as replacement. Russia is so low of weapons -- and soldiers -- that bizarre Wagner mutiny was virtually unopposed inside Russia. There was simply nothing to stop them. And, its weapons are just not as good as they were generally thought to be. 

Second, for whatever bizarre reasons, Russia's assessment of the situation in Ukraine was so wrong it is ... stunning. Russia had had considerable success in the post-Soviet era attempting to extend its "sphere of influence." It has done this in a number of ways. Let's not give too much credit to computer manipulation during American elections. Instead, Russia has worked with right wing populists (Hungry, Trump), who are, for their own reasons, favourable to Russia. It has used Wagner mercenaries to prop up and so curry favour in the Middle East and Africa. It has ruthlessly repressed internal dissent, and it has made its level best of separatist movements to carve up Georgia and the Moldova, for instance. There was success in 2014 in taking control of Crimea and part of the Dombas in Ukraine. What was wrong this time was legion. It is almost as if the Russian government assumed that nothing had changed since 2014. Russia underestimated the degree to which the Ukrainians would fight back, the degree to which Ukraine and NATO had effectively retrained Ukraine's military, the degree to which western (and other) countries would rally round Ukraine providing vital support, the potential degree of support of its own allies, let alone Russia's own abilities to conduct an extended mission on foreign territory with limited logistics support. 

Put together, what all of this means is that Russia will emerge from its debacle in Ukraine far weaker than it went in. If the objective of attacking Ukraine was to establish a friendly government, seize or secure resources (particularly but not exclusively in the Dombas), secure military facilities (Crimea), while illustrating the speed and effectiveness of its military ... every possible objective has not only failed so far but has failed completely. Add to this that Russia's supposed allies in central Asia don't seem to want much to do with it -- and must, now, necessarily be considering a potential post-Putin future -- its standard of living has been hit -- and will continue to be -- and hundreds of thousands of Russians are in exile, providing a potential basis for a long-range anti-government opposition. But, it gets worse. Whatever territories Russia has been able to seize are not secure nor are the military basis in the Crimea. They can only be protected -- if they can be -- by an extended and expensive conflict. Said differently, Russia's military basis are less secure than they were, it access to resources have been impeded and cannot be secured, and at least some section of its population has become deeply skeptical of governmental leadership. 

And, we can throw in the kicker. NATO has expanded and the EU will as well. The Russian invasion of Ukraine forced Sweden and Finland off the fence and shifted the centres of authority in NATO to the east. As this conflict moves well into its second year, Poland has emerged as a key player in NATO, while a block of Balkan countries has become a key focus on both the EU and NATO. The addition of Sweden and Finland to NATO will augment this shift.  In other words, if the objective of the invasion was to enhance Russian power, the result has been the exact opposite. The conflict has served to enhance the military and political power of countries hostile (or, now hostile) to Russia. 

The odd thing is, I don't think it needed to be this way. There have already been a number of analysis of what went wrong for Russia, but the big thing that went wrong was the decision making process. Even under the most favourable circumstances, the Russia could have hoped for was to secure more Ukrainian territory losing less of its own soldiers. It would still be embroiled in this scenario. There is a need for a critical analysis of the governmental situation in Russia -- including the balance of various social classes and their connections to specific sections of the economy -- that can highlight the political organization of the state that made possible these kinds of decisions. Russia has been able to maintain its field operations only through fairly drastic means (use of mercenaries, prisoners, foreign workers, and minority groups) as front line soldiers. But, that can't continue for ever. Ukraine's counter offensive is slow but they make gains each day, destroy more Russia equipment each day, and force more drastic measures (such as flooding a vast region to slow down a counter offensive), but each of these movements can only buy time. They can't reverse what has happened. Moreover, Ukraine is now strong enough that it has no reason to leave this conflict "frozen." If that worked in Moldova and Georgia, the relative balance of power will means it won't work here. 

I think, before the invasion, maybe two or three years before, there was room for a solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict that could have prevented the war. That solution involved each country accepting certain things that it did not want to accept. For instance, Russia needed to abandon separatists in the Dombas. This was always an artificial movement anyway. If Russian-speaking Ukrainians living in that region were concerned about their culture and autonomy within Ukraine political solutions were available. This included some form of bilingualism and local autonomy or semi-federal arrangements. Both sides could have agreed to a demilitarization of the region and separatists needed to disarm. All this could have been possible, if Russia and Russian-speaking separatists were being honest. If they weren't ... well .... I suspect they weren't. 

Crimea could have been much more difficult to address but some kind of condominium status might have worked, monitored by third parties or the UN. Agreements on off shore authority would need to be worked out but, again, all this would have depended on the honesty of those involved.  These kinds of deals don't seem great but they allow Ukraine to avoid costly and destructive war while allowing Russia -- and Russian separatists -- the security for which they claim they were looking. 

In the longer run -- and I suspect this is one of the reasons the current government of Russia would not have been interested in this kind of deal -- Russia would also have to accept Ukraine's borders and accept its sovereignty. This means that it has the right to arm itself and the right to make its own international decisions. Exactly why Russia should be concerned about that, however, is a bit confusing to me and might require the kind of political-economic analysis I noted above. 

I say this because I can't see how a European-oriented Ukraine is, in any way, a threat to Russia. Before the conflict, Russia itself was pretty European oriented. It sold mass amounts of energy to Europe, its elites vacationed in the west and had extensive business interests there. There is also a long-running cultural connection. On some things -- say, opposition to ISIS -- there was even room for common international accord. Complaining about a European-oriented Ukraine seems at best hypocritical so something else must have been going on. 

I might also take the time to say that this conflict is not the fault of the Ukraine, the US, the EU, or the west. Let me pick an example, the idea that Russia has a natural interest in Ukraine and this means that Ukraine does not have the right to select its own system of international relations is a serious backward step in IR. Anyone making it is either a toady or working with some sort of bizarrely backward conceptions of IR. We are not -- and should not be -- in a time where people can say that, say, the US caused the conflict by maintaining a relationship with Ukraine. It did not. The decision to start this conflicts rests solely and exclusively with the Russian leadership and the problems it has created are their responsibility. Because they made such bad decisions, the problems are going to take a long time resolve and will cause tensions, potentially, for decades to come. 

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