There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Posts from — August 2008

The Most Overrated Position in Baseball That’s Actually a Position

I read an article this morning about the closer being the most overrated “position” in baseball. I would say that closer is not really a position. But anyway, a similar argument was made in the book Moneyball, which described how the Oakland A’s routinely exploited the overvaluation of the closer across the MLB to make lopsided trades.

Jonathan Papelbon and Jason Varitek

Then, driving home after work there was a discussion on sports radio about the struggling Jason Varitek. Varitek is a beloved sports icon in Boston – he’s a gritty, blue-collar type of player, and by all accounts a great clubhouse guy. There’s a reason why he wears the C on his jersey. And who can forget how he roughed up A-Rod with a mitt to the face a few years back. But I also think that since 2005 he has been the most overrated player on the Red Sox. He batted .122 in June, .197 in July, and he’s at .220 on the year with an OBP of .310. The last couple of years he has batted .238 and .255. I’ll stick up for him because he’s a veteran leader on this team and a class guy, but his offensive numbers are what they are – bad. But when he gets criticized for his offensive production, fans passionately defend him for what I believe are nonsensical reasons. The most common arguments I hear are “Oh, but look at the way he handles the pitching staff.” Or, “he calls a great game.”

How much is a pitcher really affected by the way he is “handled?” What happens if you take an average pitcher and put Jason Varitek behind the plate? Does this make him an above average pitcher? I don’t think so. I think if you substitute the real Varitek with a cardboard cutout, Red Sox pitchers would perform comparably (of course discounting the fielding plays that a real catcher would have to make). Maybe there’s some degree of pitchers being comfortable with their catcher, but I imagine they can get over that in 2-3 starts. Also, if Varitek is so badly needed to handle the pitching staff, is he to blame for Josh Beckett and Hideki Okajima’s lackluster performances this year? Are they the same pitchers as last year and Varitek is just not handling them as well?

As for the aspect of calling games, I’m sure Jason Varitek knows all the batters in the league and their strengths and weaknesses. But anyone can learn that information. In some crucial situations, pitches can called in by the coaching staff from the dugout anyway. It ultimately comes down to how good the pitcher is. Give me Johan Santana and the worst catcher in the minor leagues and I’ll take that combination over anyone on the Red Sox staff throwing to Jason Varitek right now.

Before I get a deluge of comments about my ignorance in regard to this matter, I admit, I have never played pro baseball. I have little idea of what it’s like to be a pitcher in pro baseball. I mostly rode the bench in high school. But it just doesn’t make sense to me. I think that the intangible abilities of a catcher are overrated, much like they are with a closer. It seems like the biggest non-offensive contribution a catcher can make is throwing some guys out at 2nd base. So I’d like to see a study showing the effect of catchers on pitchers. What happens when pitchers move around the league and play with different catchers? What happens when a team’s regular catcher gets injured? How does that affect the team’s pitching staff? Bill James, if you’re reading this, I’d like to hear your take.

August 6, 2008   4 Comments

The Best Sporting Event (to Watch)

Recently I had a discussion with friends about which sporting event is the best to watch. First, let’s define a sporting event. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll define it as any game, match, contest, or series of games, matches, or contests, which can be referred to collectively and which occur over a time span of at most two months. So one possible “sporting event” could be the Super Bowl, or it could be the NBA playoffs – both would qualify under my definition. I’m also writing this from mostly an American perspective so the FIFA World Cup, for example, doesn’t make the cut (although that is one hell of an event and rivals my #1 and #2 choices in some aspects). Maybe if the U.S. started having better results in soccer it would be a different story.

With that said, here is my list of the best sporting events to watch:

  1. The Olympics. Summer, then Winter. The key to having a great sporting event is drama. There’s just something incredibly dramatic about watching the best athletes playing for their country on the world stage. I’m talking about when some athlete you’ve never heard of before from some country you’ve never heard of before, wins a medal and proceeds to cry his or her eyes out. And this is something that happens almost every day in the Olympics for 3-4 weeks. Even watching USA Basketball obliterate their opponents is something to see, but even more so is watching some country that has no business beating the USA in basketball play like it’s the last thing they’ll ever do. I put the Summer Olympics first because there just seems to be more of a mystique about the summer events (with the exception of hockey in the Winter Olympics). Also, the fact that the Olympics happens only every four years puts more pressure on the athletes and makes for more drama.

  2. The NCAA Basketball Tournament. The next best thing to watching athletes play for their country is watching them play for their college, especially if it’s some podunkt college you’ve never heard of. In the tourney, there’s always a Cinderella, and there’s always a powerhouse team that loses to Cinderella. Also the television coverage is usually fantastic. There are no fancy camera angles, no gimmicks, no silliness – the next game begins just before the previous one ends so it’s nonstop basketball from the start of the broadcast to the finish.

  3. MLB Playoffs. Baseball is the National pasttime, period. There is such a great history and tradition in baseball, and history and tradition creates drama. The 2004 ALCS between the Red Sox and the Yankees might have been the greatest thing I have ever seen in sports because no team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit and the Red Sox had never beaten the Yankees in a big game and the Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series since 1918. That kind of statement doesn’t make sense in any other sport because the other major sports aren’t that old, or they were played totally differently in their early stages. With the exception of steroid usage, baseball is the same sport as it ever was and the statistics and records are applicable going back 100 years.

  4. NFL Playoffs. The NFL Playoffs beats out the NBA/NHL because succeeding seems like so much more of a struggle due to the violence of the sport. Watching a dog-tired running back fighting for a few more inches to get to the first down marker as the 4th quarter winds down is some serious drama. The Super Bowl is sort of lumped in here, but I would not count the Super Bowl itself as a great event. It has just become too much of a spectacle, and there’s too many people that watch the game who don’t care, which takes away from the pleasure of watching for people who do care.

  5. Major Tournament Golf. Again, golf has great history and tradition. It also currently has the most dominant athlete in any one particular sport since Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods is that good and he is liable to do just about anything on Sunday when the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, or the PGA Championship is on the line (see this year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines).

  6. NBA Playoffs. With the exception of hockey, this sport raises its level of play the most when the playoffs start. The first month of NBA Playoffs are incredible – multiple games every night of the week, going into the wee hours of the morning with the west coast games.

  7. NHL Playoffs. Yeah it’s a Canadian sports but the level of play goes through the roof in the playoffs. I love the new rule changes implemented after the strike but the league is in serious trouble. I’m sure the ratings were pretty good for the Bruins-Canadiens playoff series, and even Detroit-Pittsburgh was a great final this year. I’d suggest skipping the regular season unless you can stomach a steady dose of your favorite team playing a stretch of games against the likes of Columbus, Anaheim, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Florida, Nashville….ugh. The NHL needs to send some teams back to Canada and get the whole U.S.-Canada rivalry thing going again.

  8. EOT

August 5, 2008   11 Comments

How to Get a 5% Raise in Massachusetts

Massachusetts currently imposes an income tax on its workers as well as capital gains taxes. The income tax rate is a flat 5.3% which is also the long-term capital gains rate. The short term capital gains tax rate is a whopping 12%. Of course, these are in addition to any federal taxes you will pay.

Today, there is an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that describes an upcoming November ballot initiative to eliminate the income tax and capital gains taxes in Massachusetts altogether. The motive is to force legislators on Beacon Hill to reduce spending and exercise fiscal restraint. If this sounds like it might be a long shot to happen in “Taxachusetts”, the article reminds you that the same question appeared on the ballot in 2002 and garnered 45% of the vote.

For more information, visit:

If this measure actually passes, then it has to force the state government to reduce spending. I imagine it will also cause local governments to raise property taxes to compensate for the loss in state money. Although I’m certainly all for a reduction in taxes and more fiscal restraint in government, I’m not sure I can completely support this movement in theory because it doesn’t seem all that unusual across the United States to have a small state income tax. But maybe the idea is to fight for an outright elimination and end up with a compromise.

August 5, 2008   No Comments

An Alternative to the Presidential Debate

1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debate

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debate in 1960. Source: Wikipedia.

Traditionally, the televised U.S. Presidential Debates involve two or more candidates answering questions proposed or relayed by one or more debate moderators. The questions can be highly subjective since they are usually written or chosen by the network, and the quality of the debate depends heavily on the skills of the moderator and the selection of questions. The candidates’ responses are usually well-rehearsed beforehand, and it is easy for a candidate to rattle off his or her position on an issue, and why it is superior to the opponent’s position. Also it is quite easy for a candidate to dodge the question, or just give a well-rehearsed answer to a different question. But oftentimes, in order to make the debate more interesting, the moderator(s) will try to trap the candidate into contradicting him or her self. The moderator will ask the candidate a question, and then compare the response to a soundbite that the candidate might have given weeks, months, or years beforehand. This puts a candidate in the uncomfortable position of trying to defend a past statement without looking like a “flip-flopper.” This may appear to be interesting television for some, but it is hardly a constructive process for educating the American voter on who would make the best President.

Therefore, I propose (perhaps not originally) an alternative to the conventional debate, which I first heard described by New York Times columnist David Brooks on NBC’s Meet the Press on April 20, 2008. Mr. Brooks proposed a format where the candidates would be presented with some issue, and have to work out a solution in front of an audience. I’ll try to describe one such example in more detail. In the debate alternative, each candidate would be presented with what is essentially a hypothetical case study. The candidates would be told days in advance that the case study will involve, for example, a foreign policy crisis. The candidate will then be able to assemble a small staff of 3-4 advisors of their choosing. At the event, the candidate will be presented with a detailed description of the case. For example, the candidates might be told that nuclear weapons in North Korea have suddenly been made operational and are pointed toward South Korea and Japan. The candidate will work with their advisors for 20-30 minutes and discuss a measured response to the scenario. The discussions in each camp will be broadcast live and the viewer will be able to hear how the candidates lead the discussion with their teams and what questions they ask, both to their advisors and to the moderators that can provide more detail about the scenario. The voter will learn about the candidate’s temperament, his/her skills in leading a constructive discussion, and will get a more realistic illustration of how the candidate might react to an actual crisis.

Not only does this debate alternative produce more relevant information for a potential voter analyzing who would make the best President, but I argue that it would produce more entertaining television, and improve declining debate ratings. Consider, for example, the television show “The Apprentice”, which in its first incarnation was a ratings juggernaut. The show captivated viewers by putting business professionals and MBA students into real-life situations. Similarly, putting presidential candidates into more realistic situations would make for great entertainment and higher ratings, with the added benefit of serving as a better indicator of presidential ability.

If you would like to see this or another alternative to the traditional presidential debate for the upcoming election and future elections, please comment and share this article with others.

August 3, 2008   No Comments

Proving the Kevin Bacon Theory? No!

By analyzing billions of instant messages, Microsoft researchers have proven that the average number of connections it takes to get from any one person to another is about 6.6. This number is darn close to 6, as in Six Degrees of Separation, title of the well-known 1990 play by John Guare. According to Wikipedia, the idea may actually have originated from a Hungarian author named Frigyes Karinthy. But in any case, there has certainly been a lot of research done by mathematicians and computer scientists over the years trying to prove or disprove the idea that any two strangers are separated by only six relationships, and so this Microsoft study may be the first such work that is really conclusive.

Unfortunately, it appears that some major news outlets are referring to the results of this research as proof of the “Kevin Bacon Theory,” which is all wrong! There is no such thing as the Kevin Bacon theory. Rather, there is a party game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” that was invented by some college students who thought Kevin Bacon was in a lot of movies. In the game you try to connect him to other actors through their roles in the same movies, which is sort of similar to the idea of Six Degrees of Separation. But it’s a game – it ain’t no theory!

August 2, 2008   1 Comment