29 September 2011

Wacky baseball night!

Baseball fans in the US are now well familiar with the epic collapse of the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves.  Last night was probably the most exciting night of baseball I have seen in at least ten years.  There are many, many places to read about what happened to the Red Sox and Braves.

I wish to point out something else that interested me last night.  There were four shutouts last night, three of which were complete-game shutouts by starting pitchers.  The most important of the four was Chris Carpenter's gem against the Houston Astros.  Carpenter gave up just two hits and one walk while striking out 11.  Also throwing a two-hit shutout was Miguel Batista of the New York Mets.  He blanked the Cincinnati Reds as the Mets finished the season at 77-85.

The one run the hapless Minnesota Twins scored for Carl Pavano was enough as Pavano shutout the Kansas City Royals while giving up five hits.  The win kept Minnesota's loss total for the season at 99.

Finally, the Seattle Mariners were shutout last night by two pitchers for the Oakland A's.  Gio Gonzalez gave up just two hits in eight innings; Andrew Bailey got the save after pitching a scoreless 9th inning.  It is a fitting end to the Mariners' season as they finished dead last in baseball in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, batting average, and runs scored.  The team's on-base percentage was 0.292 for the season.  Ouch.  Scoring just 556 runs in 162 games, the Mariners averaged about 3.43 runs per game.  The American League ERA average was 4.08 with the Angles leading the pack at 3.57.  Pitching against Seattle this past year meant that every team was better than the best pitching staff in the league!

There were 323 shutouts in major league baseball this past season; four of them took place last night.  There were 2429 total games played (the Dodgers and Nationals missed a game against each other), meaning shutouts happened in about 13.3% of the games.  There were four shutouts last night in the 15 games played, or about 26.7% of the games, which is double the seasonal average.  I know not to make much out of single points of data, but I did find it interesting that four shutouts took place on the last day of the regular season.

27 September 2011

So long to the Eagles ...

Italy defeated the US in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, 27-10.  Italy got a bonus point, which sets the stage for a great match with Ireland on 2 October.  My initial thought was that Ireland would make it through, but there is still work to do against Italy.

Congratulations to Italy for a great win against the US.  My country's team is now out of the direct qualifying pool for the 2015 World Cup in England.  It will be interesting to see how rugby progresses in the US from here.

26 September 2011

New Marathon World Record!

Congratulations to Patrick Makau Musyoki of Kenya for setting the new world record in the marathon at the Berlin Marathon on 25 September 2011.  The new record is 21 seconds better than the old, which was set almost three years ago by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia.  Musyoki finished the 26-mile and 385-yard race in 2 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds.

What was Musyoki's average speed?  Take the distance traveled (26 miles 385 yards or 42.195 km) over his record-breaking time and get 12.724 mph = 20.478 km/hr = 5.688 m/s.  Put another way, Musyoki averaged 4 minutes 42.927 seconds per mile.

I have never run a mile in under 5 minutes in my entire life.  Musyoki averaged better than 4.75 minutes per mile for more than 26 miles!

Note that 25 September 2011 is an historic day in Kenya.  Besides Musyoki's new marathon world record, Kenya lost one of its greatest citizens.  Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, died on the same day.  A phenomenal political and environmental activist, Maathai's Nobel Peace Prize marked the first time the award was given to an African woman.  Click here to learn more about Maathai's work.

23 September 2011

Wow ... Australia!

It is not easy following the 2011 Rugby World Cup while living in the US.  Online updates were the best I could muster for my Eagles match against the Wallabies.  Though we competed well against Ireland, we got hammered by Australia earlier today, 65-7.  Congratulations to Adam Ashley-Cooper for scoring the fastest hat-trick ever in Rugby World Cup play.  Ashley-Cooper accomplished the feat in just seven minutes.  As obvious as it is to state, the US simply got clobbered by a much better team.

Australia and Ireland certainly look to advance out of Pool C, and that is probably not a shock to rugby fans.  I am happy, however, to learn something about rugby in the US while following this year's Rugby World Cup.  Even without the US in the knockout stage, I will keep following the other teams.  I just hope I can watch some of the games.

The sport is relatively new to me, which makes learning about it a lot of fun.  To nobody's surprise, there is a lot of interesting science in rugby.  I am still reading The Physics of Rugby by Trevor Lipscombe (click here to get the book), and I am enjoying it.  Though the physics is familiar to me, the rugby jargon and intricacies of the game are not.  My ignorance of the game is driving me to learn more about it, its rules, styles of play, tactical subtleties, and legendary players.  Rugby is definitely growing on me! 

14 September 2011

A blocked punt leads to the Jets win over the Cowboys!

I analyzed Joe McKnight's great blocked punt from this past Sunday's Jets win over the Cowboys.  This was done at the request of YAHOO! SPORTS.  Click here for the link to the article by Kristian Dyer.

11 September 2011

My introduction to rugby ...

Growing up in the US meant that my sports interests were dominated by baseball, basketball, and football, the "Big Three" American sports.  While in graduate school, I was introduced to other sports by friends and colleagues.  I saw my first soccer game when I was about 24 years old; I played cricket for the first time when I was about 25 years old.  As my research moved into sports physics, I became a lot more familiar with sports that are popular outside the US, like soccer and cycling.  Studying the aerodynamics of soccer balls and modeling the Tour de France have opened my eyes to wonders in sports I never knew as a child.

Today is a special day in the US.  We remember that terrible Tuesday morning ten years ago when we were so viciously attacked.  Thousands of innocent people lost their lives because a group of people had no respect for human life.  Feel free to read countless words elsewhere for analysis of the pernicious people who were responsible.  My blog concerns physics and sports, and sometimes a little more.  Hate and fear are borne out of ignorance.  Even in the sports world, ignorance of a given sport may lead one to dislike that sport at first sight.  I was that way with soccer.  After just a cursory peek at the game as a child, I thought it was boring, certainly not like the action in the "Big Three" American sports.  It wasn't until my mid thirties that I really watched soccer, and then grew to love The Beautiful Game.

While living in Sheffield, England during my 2008-09 sabbatical year, I had great fun watching "football" in pubs.  I also had a lot of fun watching a sport I knew very little about -- rugby.  On a trip to Ireland, my family saw the Irish national team play on television while we had a fantastic meal at the Brazen Head Hotel in east Dublin.  After seeing a few more rugby matches in English pubs, the game grew on me a little.  Nothing like removing ignorance of something to like it a little more, right?

Instead of watching American football on its opening Sunday today, I watched the NBC replay of the US vs Ireland match in the 2011 World Cup of Rugby.  Despite the fact that the US lost by the score of 22-10, I rather enjoyed the match.  My country's team is clearly not as good as the Irish team, but I admired the way we fought on defense.  The rainy weather and some sloppy Irish passes made me appreciate how much physics there is in rugby.  Reducing friction between the ball and a player's hands does not make for good passing!

My interest in the science of rugby has grown through knowing Trevor Lipscombe, my former book editor at The Johns Hopkins University Press.  I have just started reading Trevor's book, The Physics of Rugby, and it is a wonderful read.  Click here to get a copy from Amazon.  I highly recommend it!

Finally, I learned something else while watching the halftime show on NBC.  I did not know the name Mark Bingham.  Born just 106 days before I was, he played on championship rugby teams at UC Berkeley.  Mark Bingham was one of the heroes on United Airlines Flight 93, which went down ten years ago today.  I'm glad to have watched the rugby halftime show because I got to learn about Mark Bingham.  Click here for his Wikipedia page.  Click here for efforts made after Bingham's death to give people who are victims of prejudice an opportunity to shine on a rugby field.

He gave up FIVE HOMERS ... and got the WIN!

I saw an interesting box score last night.  Click here for the box score of the Rockies win over the Reds.  Thinking about the absurdity of the "win" and "loss" stats in baseball got me thinking once again about science and sports.

In physics, we concern ourselves with cause and effect.  We want to understand why a hit baseball eventually returns to Earth just as must as we want to understand why an electron moves around the nucleus of an atom.  Questions of why often involve a little philosophy because we use words like "gravity" and "electromagnetic force" to explain the baseball and the electron, respectively, even if we really don't understand what those interactions are.  Richard Feynman once noted that we use the concept of "energy" all the time, but we really don't understand what energy is.

Perhaps we in science do better with how something works.  We know how a baseball will move through the air because we have developed good models for gravity, air resistance, and the Magnus force that's responsible for a baseball curving.  If we tuck philosophy under the rug, we feel good about our ability to describe why a baseball does what it does.  We have a reasonable understanding of its motion (there are, however, still interesting questions to answer in the realm of baseball physics!).

Sabermetrics tries to understand the why in what happens in baseball.  What can batters do as causes that best lead to the effect of runs on the scoreboard?  What can pitchers do as causes that best lead to the effect of the opposing team not putting runs on the scoreboard?  At the end of a game, the winner is determined by who has scored the most runs.  How those runs were scored, be it by a bunch of home runs or via "small ball," is irrelevant.

Think about what a pitcher can control.  He can strike out or walk a batter essentially all on his own.  The manager or pitching coach might signal the catcher to signal the pitcher what pitch to throw and where to throw it, but the pitcher is the one who has to make the pitch.  A pitcher can also give up a home run.  The fielders can't do anything about a ball sailing into the stands.  The pitcher can also pick runners off base and throw certain pitches that try to "induce" things like ground balls that might lead to double plays.  Pitchers can also hit batters and throw wild pitches.  But, really, a strikeout, a walk, and a home run are where the pitcher is most on his own.  Everything else relies on the quality of the defense behind him, and subtle things like where managers have positioned the defense before a given player comes to bat also play a role.  The bottom line is that a pitcher cannot "win" or "lose" a game all by himself; it's a team effort.

I am certainly not the first person to point out the absurdity of the "win" and "loss" stats in baseball.  Though I've thought about it for more than two decades, this is the first time I've ever written about it in a public way.  Many others have written on this topic, and much better than I will today. See, for example, what the great Joe Posnanski recently wrote by clicking here.  Wins and loses might be fun stats and they have connections to baseball's storied past, but they do not say much about the cause and effect of what pitchers can do to prevent runs from being scored.  As others have written, the "win" is not completely useless as a stat, especially over the length of a player's career.  A pitcher who wins 300 games is a good (or great) pitcher, but the "win" stat doesn't tell the best story.  Over the course of a long career, it might reveal some averaging over "tough luck" losses (say, 2-1) and "lucky" wins (say, 10-9).  In the end, though, the career win total reflects how many games a pitcher pitched, how deep into games the pitcher was able to go (five innings needed for a starting pitcher to get a win), and how successful the pitcher's teams were.  Greatness can be hidden from those who focus too hard on wins.  Just click here to read what Rich Lederer has written since 2003 about the insanely long wait Bert Blyleven endured before getting the Hall of Fame call this past January.

Okay, back to last night's Rockies win over the Reds.  Alex White got the "win" for the Rockies, despite giving up eight hits, seven runs (six of them "earned"), a walk, and FIVE HOME RUNS.  He struck out just one batter.  He got the "win" because (1) he pitched five innings and (2) the score was 8-7 Rockies after the fifth inning ended, and the Rockies never gave up the lead.  As far as preventing runs goes, Alex White had an AWFUL game.

Who got the "loss" in last night's game?  Was it Bronson Arroyo, who started for the Reds?  He pitched just ONE inning and gave up seven hits, six runs (all eared), and struck out one batter.  Giving up five home runs in five innings is bad, but Bronson Arroyo gave up THREE home runs and was the pitcher of record on just three outs.  At least Alex White was the pitcher of record on 15 outs as he gave up seven runs.  Arroyo did not, however, get the "loss" in last night's game.  That went to Matt Maloney who pitched two innings and gave up two runs (one earned).  Matt Maloney was unlucky enough to have pitched the fourth and fifth innings, meaning he was the "pitcher of record" when Colorado took the lead for good after five innings.

So, does Matt Maloney feel like the "loser" in last night's game?  Does Alex White feel like the "winner" in last night's game?  Bronson Arroyo pitched worse than anyone in that game, but he got the "no decision" because his offense kept his team in the game for the first five innings.  Alex White was terrible for five innings, but his teammates scored enough runs to give him the "win."  Of course, four Rockies pitchers came in after Alex White and pitched four shutout innings.  Three of them settled for the wonderful "hold" stat.  Bronson Arroyo was so bad that he could not contribute to more than three outs, but Matt Maloney pitched the wrong two innings and wound up with the "loss."  At least he helped get six outs.  Sam LeCure helped on just three outs while giving up two runs, and Aroldis Chapman gave up two runs and wasn't a part of a single out (he walked two batters and threw a wild pitch)!

Last night's game is certainly not an anomaly, and I'm not just cherry-picking a strange game to make the argument that a pitcher's "win" doesn't tell us much.  Scan box scores every day and see if the "win" and the "loss" tell you much.  C.C. Sabathia, for example, is a good pitcher, but he accumulates wins better than some pitchers because his team scores a lot of runs.  Of his 19 wins, I count six games in which he gave up four or more runs.  C.C. Sabathia is having a great year because he is pitching a lot of innings, has a great strikeout-to-walk ratio (216 K to 55 BB), doesn't give up the long ball (just 15 this year), and has a stellar 150 ERA+.  The "win" total is high because C.C. Sabathia is not only a good pitcher, his team scores runs for him.  Per nine innings, C.C. Sabathia gets 7.06 runs from his teammates, good enough for 13th in the American League.  Don't fault C.C. Sabathia for his good run support, find his greatness in other, more meaningful, pitching stats.

Regarding last night's game in Colorado, I prefer to think that the Rockies got the "win" and the Reds got the "loss."  The Rockies did, after all, score more runs than the Reds before their allotment of outs was used.