Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Sports Commentary Made Easy

It can be hard to fill column space with sports news. Fortunately modern sports offers several templates you can use to fill out the year:

  • The "Preview Column"
    Here, you predict final standings and playoff results just before the season begins. Even better, you can repeat this before each round of the playoffs. The accuracy of the predictions doesn't matter -- nobody remembers this stuff anyway.

    If you want to maximize your appearances on sports talk radio and ESPN shouting heads shows, predict an utterly implausible finish for your local team. For example, if you are a writer in New York, predict a fourth place finish for the Yankees. Then, when asked to defend it, make vague statements about the "chemistry" of the team, and leave open the possibility that it could be corrected, to cover yourself.

  • The "Year in Review" Column
    There's two flavors of this -- you can do this now and recap all the events of the previous year, which applies to any area of news.

    Then there's the "report card" at the end of the year, where you assign a letter grade to every player, coach, and the front office for their performance of the year. My personal favorites are the new players, or players whom you thought should have gotten more playing time, who get "Incomplete"(s). If you're hurting, you can do a mid-season report card, too.

    The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has gone a step further and included a a report card for the Rams after every game.

    You can probably squeeze another column or two by bestowing your personal end of year awards. Start with the standard MVP, Coach of the Year, etc., and then pick some of your own. If a local athlete is in the running for one of the awards, you can break that race out into its own column.

  • Other lists
    Other times will produce lists you can evaluate -- this year's crop of free agents, this recruiting class, etc.

  • The "Snub" Column
    This is really shooting fish in a barrel. Whenever a major sports announces an All-Star or All-America team, put together a list of those who narrowly missed and call it the "All-Snub" team. If you can work in the sentence, "I'll take my guys over the bozos on the All-Star team any day of the week, and twice on Sunday," all the better. Another good one to work in is, "Those on the All-Star team might have better statistics, but statistics don't measure heart."

    Another variant of this can come out after the NCAA tournament seedings are announced. If they went heavy on power conferences, compare the records of the small conference schools that were left out of the tournament with the worst record of a major conference school that got an at large bid. If they went with more schools from smaller conferences, than read off the weakest sounding schools on thier schedules, and compare it to the conference schedules. This should be easy.

  • The BCS "Mess" Column
    The timing on this one is tricky, because sometimes, like last year, there are two obvious candidates who face each other at the end of the year in the championship game, and the system works. So, you need to pick a time when there is some ambiguity about the top two teams, but the later in the season you write this column, the more effective it is.

    This consists of lamenting that some poor team will not get a chance to play for the national championships despite its stellar accomplishments. Gloss over whatever blemishes exist on this team's record. Wonder aloud when oh when college football will come to the same realization that other sports have come to that championships should be decided "on the field," rather than by a bunch of computers. Bonus points if you can sarcastically refer to this as a novel concept. Extra bonus points if you write that money is the reason for this injustice, and ignore the logical improbability that a superior system would generate less money.

    Another easy column in this family is to attack the rankings. Invariably, at some point in the season a team will have only one loss, and that loss will be to a team that has, say, three losses. If the one loss team is ranked ahead of the team it lost to, you can call the rankers idiots since the three-loss team had obviously proven it was superior by beating the one loss team. Wonder aloud why they even bother playing the games if they're not going to impact the rankings. If the three-loss team is ranked ahead, then look at its worst loss, compared to the one-loss team's best victory, and again call those doing the rankings idiots. You can't go wrong, either way.

  • Hall of Fame Votes
    Every Hall of Fame ballot you receive in the mail (or one of your colleagues receives) gives you another column or two. Run down the list of candidates and say you're putting in and leaving out. Ideally, you can back a somewhat obscure candidate so you can be associated with his cause. If there's a high-profile or controversial candidate, you can break that out into another column.

    If you've been employing any kind filter to prevent your columns from having a sanctimonious tone, then this is the time to turn it off. This is about legacy and history, not just about who was best in a particular year. As much as you can, spin your vote as one that is for truth, justice, and the American way, and against lying, cheating, and hypocrisy. Like this.

  • Incidents
    Things like the Pacers-Knicks brawl provide easy column fodder. First, you can assess blame to the coaches, players, or cultural trends. Then, when the punshments are meted out, you can compare them to punishments on previous incidents, and say they're being too hard or too soft. This column should include a "what about..." paragraph compaining that some culpable party that it would be impossible to punish was not punished. So, for the brawl, you can ask why George Karl isn't being punished for playing his starters with a 20 point lead, even though that is not a punishable offense.

    T.O. alone should be good for a few columns like this. Even if he doesn't cause controversey himself, you can make stuff up. So, if he hurt his hand, you can talk about how many balls he's dropped this year, and how that makes him a liability on the field despite him leading the league in touchdown catches.

  • Defending the Pioneer
    This is a real good one.

    Once a year or so, someone will break some sports barrier -- Danica Patrick will finish fourth in the Indy 500, or Annika Sorenstam will play in a men's golf tournament. And so forth.

    It might be tempting to write a column celebrating these achievements, but there's an even easier target. See, reporters will bug the other players about this developement. And they'll do it over and over again until one of them finally gets annoyed and says something stupid.

    Then, you've got your column. Ideally, the athlete who does this will be a past-his prime guy who's barely hanging on. Then you can take the easy shot that he should worry more about his game than about whom should be excluded from competition. Leave aside questions about why anyone should care what the third string catcher on the Pirates has to say about social policy. He's the Bad Guy. He's the one standing in the way of progress. And he must pay.

  • Sports Nut
    Writing an column for the Sports Nut feature in Slate is slightly different but not any more difficult. Just do the opposite of the above, so you can claim the mantle of contratrian:

    • Defend the BCS.
    • Say the All-Star Selections are just fine.
    • Write that the player who said he would never accept an openly gay teammate, while crude, has a point.
    • Write that brawls are a neccesary part of basketball, and efforts to curtail them will result in an inferior product.

With these in mind, you should be able to get a year's worth of columns without breaking a sweat. And that's assuming you won't have any debates about whether some coach should get fired.


twiffer said...

john, you should be reading this.

JohnMcG said...

Thanks -- a little more on the stathead side than is my cup of tea, but fun nonetheless.

JohnMcG said...

The thing about the statheads that gets to me sometimes is the condescending arrogance -- how can you possibly think Player A is better than Player B when player A's WARP3 (park adjusted) is 3.9 lower than Player B's?

I get that A-Rod gets more than his share of criticism. But I also get that he's the highest paid player in the league, and higher standards come with the territory.

I wrote a bit about this when the White Sox won the World Series, and Baseball Prospectus did not publish a book about how they has invented a new way to win. And also when Malcom Gladwell was promoting a book saying that Kevin Garnett was far ans away the best player in the NBA, and Allen Iverson was something like 90th.

Do the statheads have a point? Sure. On base percentage is the most useful statistic, and it makes sense for players to be evaluated on that rather than RBI or batting average. But when they start screaming things like, "Everybody's wrong!!! Derek Jeter is a below average shortstop! Anyone who values a Molina brother is crazy!," they lose me.

twiffer said...

well, the thing is that anecdotal evidence is valued more highly. consider the "conventional wisdom" that edgar renteria couldn't handle the pressure of playing in boston (hence being there one year). well, if you look at his stats, his one year in boston was statistically almost identical to his first season in st. louis.

no offense, but st. louis is not commonly considered a pressure-filled major market.

despite this, renteria is considered "proof" that some players just cannot handle playing on some teams.

that's the sort of thing these guys are really railing against. there is, in the anti-stathead stance, a great deal of anti-intellectualism mixed in.

ps: do you think the white sox won because of "small ball" or very good pitching?

JohnMcG said...

I'd say very good pitching more than anything else. Right now, it seems that quality of pitching is the hardest thing to predict, (and thus control) and it will be interesting to see what teams do to try to maximize it.

I get the anti-intellectual thing, and perhaps from the old guard perspactive, it's taking the fun out of it. Talking about baseball is supposed to be fun; you shouldn't need to know what third order run differentials are in order to talk baseball.

Now, obviously there's a difference between spouting opinions at your local tavern and being paid to analyze the game for a team or the media.

But what makes sports interesting are the stories, and narratives about players' character, and team "chemistry" and so on. Now, the statheads might be right that this is a bunch of hooey, but it's more fun to talk about than things like range factor and VORP(3).

twiffer said...

the problem is that these things take a life of their own, and you wind with a slew of articles on how, say, boston should trade manny cause he just doesn't hustle enough. i mean really, what sense does that make?

it's not even a question of interesting articles. if someone is paid to write something, and claim a "fact" that i can disprove with 5 seconds of searching online, that's a problem.

forgive the boston-centric examples, but here's another. in an article complaining about the sox imminent signing of j.d. drew (which is no longer much of complaint once people finally realized he was being signed to replace nixon, not manny) some boston herald writer declared that alex gonzalez was the best defensive shortstop boston had ever had, and the sox should have kept him. it is declared as understood fact, with nothing to support the statement.

if you look at the stats, you'll see that, other than errors, his defensive stats were nearly identical to nomar in his prime. and my opinion is that errors, for a defender, are similar to judging a pitcher by wins. a percieved "great" defensive player will get less errors, because the scorer is never completely objective. if it's borderline, the thought is that so-and-so is great, and if he couldn't make the play, no one could. not always the case.

anyway, the point is that facts shouldn't be ignored or discarded for the sake of a good story. sure, we all love to hear about the scrappy little guy who hustles every play and always seems to come up big when it counts (not true, but like everything else, we selectively remember success, not failure. case in point, big papi. reverse case, a-rod). sure, people love to read that stuff. but the truth is, those guys scrap and hustle because they aren't as good. consider mark bellhorn. he came up big for the sox when they won the series. couldn't have done it without him, right? (sure they could have). yet, he sucks. he's not an important piece of the team, just got lucky.

i have to disagree about statistical analysis taking the fun out of talking about ball. that's the same argument as claiming textual analysis takes the fun out of reading. no, it doesn't. it can actually add a good deal of interest, instead.

JohnMcG said...

Maybe a more precise way to say what I was saying is it makes it less accessible.

The thing that happens around the World Series is that columnists from other sports write a baseball column and pick the easiest story off the list, and it didn't get much easier than David Eckstein's scrappiness.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that people tend to want to mold the facts into one of a finite number of narratives.

The bad news for guys like Drew and A-Rod is that one of those narratives is the supremely talented person who doesn't care and pisses his talent away. He might put up big numbers, but you can't count on him when it counts.

(Because of course, if we were talented like they were, we'd play for free! You couldn't drag us away from the ballpark. We'd be like David Exckstein..)

The good news is that another one of these narratives is the long-dumped on athlete who proves all the critics wrong.

Switching sports for a minute, I remember Tim Duncan having pretty much his typical games in the Finals Series against the Pistons, but the announcers and analysts were falling all over themselves to talk about how Tim Duncan had proven that he is indeed a clutch player. Same thing with Phil Mickleson and Roy Williams.

Talking about things like WARP3 is probably fun in the same way that talking about C++ and object-oriented programming is fun for me. Most people just want to surf the web and read their e-mail and bitch about Microsoft. And most people just want to watch the game and bitch about why A-Rod can't come through in the playoffs when he's getting paid $20 million.

twiffer said...

i think we're pretty much on the same page here.

when's spring training start?