Category Archives: General

Smart Baseball (Keith Law)

I regularly read the writing of Keith Law. He has a blog, works as a senior baseball writer for ESPN, and he writes game reviews for Paste magazine. We agree on many things related to baseball (1), games, and science. When he announced last year that he was writing a book focused on baseball statistics and analysis, I knew I would be reading it. At the beginning of the summer I picked up a copy of Smart Baseball.

The book was a delight to read. Admittedly I didn’t get this book to be converted to a new way of thinking about baseball–it was preaching to the choir. I am in the new analytics camp when it comes to baseball, so none of the information was disturbing or startling. It has been a slow change for me, a conversation here and an article there. In 2005 I endorsed many more bunts than I do today (today I value the bunt for attempting to get a hit in some scenarios, but almost never to advance a runner at the cost of an out). In 2007 I valued pitcher wins and saves far more than I do now. In 2010 I would have preferred to see batting average to on-base percentage, but now things have changed. My baseball appreciation continues to grow, and I enjoy thinking about strategy and analysis (2).

Highlights of the book include a discussion on how the save rule results in the reduction of value of players in the closer role, detailing expected runs in relation to bunting/stealing/walking, and the measure of prospects and defensive performance.

In the last section of the book Law taps in to his experiences as an MLB front office statistical analyst and prospect scout to address how players are scouted and quantified. I really liked this glimpse into the front office world.

I think there are two primary groups of people who will appreciate Smart Baseball:

  1. The baseball fan. If you enjoy baseball this is a good book to read and savor. The mix of baseball talk, real-life examples for points, and clear presentation of logic (and logic breakdowns) is refreshing. I found myself reminiscing frequently when Law used a particular examples, many of which I had direct memories of or I had heard stories about. Even if you have a strong grasp of sabermetrics, this book is still an entertaining read.
  2. The thinker/statistician. If you enjoy seeing how people embrace logical fallacies despite glaring evidence to change, then this is a worthwhile book. Law lays out the oldest and earliest numerical measures of performance in baseball, and in most cases, why they have limited value. It is a good reminder that metrics that fail to measure something meaningful can survive due to nostalgia of familiarity. It is also a good reminder that in the world of baseball experts, at one time the primary measures of a player’s value were based on luck and the performance of others (and many current “experts” continue to hold these views).

By the way, the title of the book comes from a hashtag Law created to showcase bad baseball decisions (#smrtbaseball), which is derived from this:

The alternative to smrt baseball is smart baseball.

Good stuff.

(1) The biggest baseball difference that we have relates to the designated hitter. Law does not believe pitchers should be hitting; he supports the National League adopting the designated hitter rule. I feel the designated hitter is an abomination. 

(2) I use baseball stats in my Experimental Techniques and Analysis class. One of the lab exercises involves determining which MLB metrics are the best predictors of team success. The first table In Chapter 1 of Smart Baseball, Law presents correlations of batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS with team runs per game. These data looked very familiar to me, because I have had my students figuring out these r values for the past few years. It’s a powerful lab exercise (especially for a baseball fan). 

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You’ll Know When It’s Time: Dieter Wants Food

During Dieter’s 4 month check-up the pediatrician asked us what our plans were for introducing Dieter to solid food. Pam and I both approach parenthood with substantial humility, so we mentioned we had heard 6 months was a good time but asked for his opinion. He told us to follow Dieter’s cues. “Have you ever seen a dog at the dinner table” he said, “just eyeing the food longingly? He will let you know when he wants to try the stuff you are eating. You’ll know when it’s time.”  He also told us there was more folk-lore and tradition behind the wait-till-6 months recommendation than science. So we left the appointment prepared to observe Dieter at meal times. I will admit, I was a bit skeptical that I would really know when it was time to give Dieter solid food (1).

Last weekend we took a stroll to Pismo Beach. Dieter got his milk lunch on the boardwalk, looking out at the Pacific Ocean. After he ate, we began our walk home. Pam and I decided to stop at Fay’s Fusion for a late lunch. We ordered, got our food, and began to eat (I was holding Dieter).

Soon after I began eating I noticed Pam was laughing. And Fay was laughing as she worked the counter nearby. They were seeing this:

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Dieter wanted my lemon crispy chicken.

Dieter was watching my food like a hawk. He was excited, riveted, and certain he needed some of my crispy lemon chicken.

Just look at that expression:

And the next day Dieter got to try some bland rice cereal. It was time. He managed to sneak solid food in just before he hit 5 months.

In the past week Dieter has sampled avocado and carrot, with peas coming up soon. It’s a big, scrumptious world out there–I look forward to introducing him to it.

(1) I do not believe as a parent I am naturally all-knowing about taking care of my kid. As a scientist I do my best to make good decisions, and I am blessed to have a fellow scientist (Pam) to collaborate with on this journey. We read books and articles, we ask questions of experts and family/friends, and we try to make good decisions. When someone tells me I’ll just know something, I am wary. . . 

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A Rose By Any Name

Plant names are interesting and often insightful. Thunbergia alata, for instance, has a winged petiole. Acer macrophylla has large leaves. Ginkgo biloba has leaves with two lobes. I think you get the point.

Here are silhouettes I sketched of the two species of Washingtonia that exist. One is Washingtonia filifera, the other Washingtonia robusta. Guess the identites.

Well, here are the answers.


Proof that tall and skinny can be robust.

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Fatherhood and Life

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The little guy has arrived

The winter and spring have been a busy and rich season. Pam and I welcomed little Dietrich into our family. We attended birth and infant safety classes, read books, sought advice, and prepared for our new arrival. He waited until Spring Training started, then he decided to emerge (a world without baseball is a sad world indeed).

Since he has arrived he has had my full attention for stretches of time. Even when other parts of life demand attention, he has found a way to be involved. I have graded papers, prepared lectures, written an abstract proposal, responded to emails, prepared for a fantasy baseball draft, and done many other mundane things while entertaining him. As he gets more interactive it is fun to see his personality emerging.

He has the tiniest little hands and feet (that are large for his age). When I’m holding him I wonder how he will use those hands. What skills will he have? How strong will he be? How gentle will he be?

I’m caught between wanting to do everything for him and wanting to teach him to do everything for himself.

My prayer is that he will learn to love God and love others extravagantly, that he will seek to defend the defenseless, that he will rest in the security of being loved.

I’m planning to be careful about how much I post about him to protect his privacy. He just might run for political office someday, and pictures of his raucous 1 month-old party might cause a scandal.

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The 2017 Australian Open

Tennis Grand Slam events are wonderful. To me they are the ultimate elimination bracket championship in sports (I realize many will disagree and side with the NCAA basketball tournament, but as someone with strong reservations about “amateur” college sports I have a stronger affinity for tennis). This year I caught small pieces of many matches via Sling TV.

By the time the championship matches arrived this past weekend, there was much talk of the tournament being a throwback. This talk was based on the Williams vs Williams and Federer vs Nadal matches, but it could have included my viewing behavior too. In the 2008-2012 window of time I would watch large amounts of tennis majors–especially the Australian Open. I returned to form this year, watching the majority of both finals in the wee hours of the morning.

In the women’s final I didn’t have a strong rooting interest. I found myself pulling for Venus, since she was such an underdog. But when Serena established her dominance I didn’t mind. The match was entertaining, but not particularly memorable. The story was great; the tennis was okay. I think the women’s matches lose out on a lot by being best of three. There is only so much drama that can fit in three sets, and two set finals are too common.

The men’s final was poetry. I’m a big Federer fan, so his return from injury and success in Australia was a source of happiness. When I get old I expect to tell people I watched the greatest tennis player of all time. I was hoping for a Federer vs Nadal final, since it might be the last championship clash between these titans of the court. Even though Nadal is Fed’s nemesis, I feel nothing but respect for him. In fact, if I’m honest, there is a part of me that fears him. He has a pocketful of kryptonite, derailing Federer even when he was playing otherworldly tennis.

The match did not disappoint. When the decisive fifth set began with Nadal breaking Federer’s serve I was worried. But Federer played inspired tennis. He attacked Nadal’s serve with fury. In the moments of highest tension he came through with a break. And then another break. In a very close match he edged ahead when it mattered most. Masterful tennis from a legend.

Every time I watch tennis I start to get the urge to play again. I need to get out on the court. . .

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