Open Thread: AFC Title Game

Santonio's ready to face the team that traded him for a fifth rounder. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Following last week’s thrilling win over the Patriots, the Jets march into Heinz Field to take on the Steelers. They’ve already beaten Peyton Manning and Tom Brady this postseason, and if they complete the trifecta against Ben Roethlisberger tonight, well then mark your calendars for Gang Green’s Super Bowl date. This game start at 6:30pm ET, hence the slightly early open thread, and can be seen on CBS. Enjoy the game, everyone.

“Brett Favre’s f@%d it up for everybody.”

It’s natural to want to compare athletes. In a world where success means being the absolute best – just look at the things we’ve forgiven professional athletes for – you really can’t avoid it. When a professional athlete begins to stand out, be it for their numbers or personality, they become easy targets for comparison. How many closers have been compared to Mariano Rivera? How many prospects might grow up to be Babe Ruth or Albert Pujols?

But there is no “next Mariano Rivera.” It’s not Jonathan Papelbon. It’s not Carlos Marmol. It’s not Jenrry Meija. Some comparisons just don’t work. Maybe it’s a matter of statistics. Maybe it’s a matter of personality. Maybe it’s both. No one is “the next Mariano Rivera,” because no one has dominated some of the toughest batters in baseball with one pitch for 15 (fifteen!) years. It might also have something to do with the fact that you could probably be crushed to death by Rivera’s postseason records.  But the whole Mariano Rivera comparison fails especially badly in the case of Jonathan Papelbon, who is not only not as good at closing and lacks Rivera’s longevity, but is also a total brat.

Another common, terrible comparison which seems to have reared its absolutely hideous head as of late: Andy Pettitte is not Brett Favre. Andy Pettitte is nothing like Brett Favre. Their positions in their respective sports are totally different. Their public personalities are totally different. The way they go about trying to decide if they’re going to retire is totally different. Can we please stop insulting Andy Pettitte by suggesting he is even remotely like Brett Favre?

Admittedly, I’m totally biased on the matter. I grew up in the 90’s, near New York, and Andy Pettitte was a huge part of my childhood. I watched him grow into the pitcher he is today while figuring out who I wanted to be. I cheered for his successes and winced at his losses. I nearly cried when he went to Houston and rejoiced when he returned. Meanwhile, I honestly do not care about Brett Favre. I’m the last thing from a football fan. I watched a grand total of two football games this season, both in the postseason. I had to ask someone what Mark Sanchez’s first name was.

Yes, I know Brian Cashman recently referenced Favre in regards to Pettitte. But it sounded like to me he didn’t want Pettitte to be like Favre, not he actually thought Pettitte was acting like Favre.

Let’s start with the sport and background: from my understanding of football, teams are built around the quarterback. You basically have to figure out what you’re doing with your quarterback before you can make any other moves. The type of quarterback decides what kind of passing game you’re going to play, what kind of running game you’re going to play, and what kind of offensive linemen you need. He’s the leader of the team.

Fourth starters are significantly less important. Even third starters aren’t as big as quarterbacks. Heck, baseball is a very compartmentalized sport: not even your Opening Day starter changes most of your team! Let’s face it, Andy Pettitte isn’t the ace of the Yankees rotation even if he does return. His decision affects absolutely no part of the Yankees lineup besides the starting rotation and where Sergio Mitre starts, maybe if we go after another pitcher or not. It’s not as if Pettitte’s return changes the plan for outfield or helps out in the catching/DH jumble. Cashman has been forging ahead regardless of Pettitte’s decision, and that’s just what he should do. Meanwhile, Favre basically holds up the whole team while he sits on his hands.

Secondly, has anyone noticed that Andy Pettitte has, at no point in time, actually said that he is going to retire? Sure we get that he’s 75% leaning towards retirement, or that he’s not showing up for Spring Training, but the fact of the matter is this: Pettitte hasn’t come out and said he’s retiring. He might retire, yes. He’s considering it. He has a family he wants to spend time with, and he’s admitted he’s not exactly a baseball spring chicken. On the other side, he’s keeping in shape. But I think everything that has been said about Pettitte’s retirement ignores the fact we honestly do not know if he’s going to retire. There is no ‘Yes, I’m retiring.’ It’s not like Pettitte said after this year (or ’09, or ’08), that he’s retiring. He certainly did not hold a press conference to announce his retirement following a tearful post-game interview like Favre did in 2008.

Also, comparing these two totally different athletes does more than talk about their different retirement strategies. One of these players sent pictures of his, uh, nether regions to a reporter and, if you believe what you read on the internet, harassed plenty of other women too, all while being married. He’s a guy who’s been addicted to both Vicodin and alcohol at different points in time. The other one of these guys publicly admitted to and apologized for messing up even in the heat of the steroid drama.

Let’s say tomorrow Andy has a tearful press conference in which he says he’s going to retire and hang up the pinstripes. We all have a good cry about it, but we move on. Then, Pettitte decides he’s actually going to pitch this year, and he ends up starting for the Tigers. Shortly after, we discover Pettitte said some lewd things to Kim Jones and had some lovely ladies over at his house. Then this comparison is a legitimate one. Until then, it’s totally wrong. Andy Pettitte is Brett Favre and Jonathan Papelbon is Mariano Rivera.

I’m going to guess that most of the people reading this blog are probably Yankee fans. Why would you insult someone as wonderful as Andy Pettitte by comparing him to Brett Favre? Come on. Really?

*Quote in the title is from Billy Wagner, who appears to actually be retiring when he said he’s retiring.

Quantifying a Player’s GRIT Capacity

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Yesterday, we looked at the origin and definition of GRIT capacity, one of the newest baseball metrics available to those who want a full composite of the courage and tenacity of a player without having to resort to anecdotal descriptions like “gutsy” or “spunky.” No longer will fans be bound by the words of baseball announcers who may tab a player as “gritty” for affecting a scowl or waving a towel when we know full well it’s the guy who can taste the onset of a four-game win streak by licking a blade of outfield grass who’s the real GRIT hero.

Now that we’ve established what GRIT capacity is, we can quantify it by first isolating and then totaling its four primary components: Guts, Resolve, Instinct, and Toughness.

We’ll start with guts, GRIT’s most integral component. To decipher it, we first select the player’s offensive stats that are most associated with a presumptive likelihood of engaging in a bar brawl: hit-by-pitches, seasons played as a member of the Boston Red Sox, and public displays of false bravado. Each of these components factors into the guts subset and receives its real numeric value.

To exemplify this, let’s take Player X’s 2008 season.

Having played four full seasons for Boston, in 2008, Player X was hit by four pitches. Also, despite a reputation for insufferable petulance, he engaged in only one public display of false bravado. Knowing this, all that’s left to do here is to find the sum total of all of these elements, which gives Player X the above-average guts component score of nine. In other words, here’s a player we can envision willfully taking a 95 MPH heater to the ribs, and then three hours later, shattering a bottle of Schlitz against a biker’s jaw after losing 2 out of 3 in beer pong.

Next up, we have resolve, the GRIT component that measures a player’s drive and stamina. This time, we’ll combine a new set of criteria that establishes a player’s ability to endure abject pain and misery: total games played (during the 2008 season), plus total years spent toiling in the minor leagues prior to his big league call-up, plus additional years beyond one’s free agency date spent playing for the Pirates (if applicable). We then divide this sum by the sum of the universal indicators of physical and emotional frailty: disabled list stints and in-season lollygags, each of which receives a numeric value of 2.

Looking at Player X, we see someone who breezed through the minors in three seasons and played in 157 games in 2008 while accruing zero DL stints. However, for a player with an otherwise growing list of impressive GRIT peripherals, he also accumulated a staggering eleven lollygags. In fact, one such misstep cost his team a pivotal late-season game against the rival Tampa Bay Rays in which he inexplicably stood motionless as he leered at his own flexed right bicep while a slow grounder trickled past for the game-winning hit. Along with not sprinting to first base after a walk, removing oneself from a game after tweaking an abductor, or draping a heated water bottle over one’s lap in the dugout during a night playoff game at Comiskey Park, few things decimate a player’s GRIT faster than adoring or fondling one’s arm, ab, or calf muscles during crucial moments of a game. There’s no doubt these on-field lapses proved costly to Player X’s 2008 resolve quotient and overall GRIT capacity. But for now, it’s enough to know that he finished the season with a resolve component quotient of 14.5.

Instinct is the GRIT component that measures what’s frequently dubbed by veteran analysts as a player’s “feel for the game” or “Baseball I.Q.” As such, it accounts for four elements that are attributed to players with keen mental awareness and a higher understanding of the game: sacrifice bunts, sacrifice flies, stolen bases, and the third – but often overlooked – indicator, which is intuition (sometimes referred to as “horse sense”), which receives a numeric value of 10. Valued for their focus, versatility, and wild-eyed awareness, players with a strong instinct component can compensate for a shortage of talent with uncanny powers of perception. Brett Gardner, for example, who was second only to Scott Podsednik in leftfielder GRIT capacity in 2010, has been known to literally taste the rotation on a breaking pitch as it approaches the plate. By placing his hand on the infield prior to a game, veteran shortstop David Eckstein can predict within 98 percent accuracy the total number of bounces groundballs will take during the entire ensuing game. And Twins shortstop Nick Punto can smell a baby crying in the upper-deck bleachers (which, he claims, carries the scent of lemon Now and Laters).

Player X initially shines in this department with seven sacrifice bunts, nine sac flies, and twenty stolen bases. But does he possess the critical third indicator of intuition? Sadly, it turns out, he does not. Despite flashing a knowing smirk that seems to indicate a superior knowledge of his surroundings, when our Player X was asked about whether or not he believed himself to have keen powers of perception, he stared confounded at the interviewer and then responded with, “Your face is a keen power of perception – ha! Nah, you’re face is cool – just messin’ with ya! Whatever, ya know?”

As a result, Player X receives a surprisingly mediocre instinct component score of 36, well below the league leaders from 2008.

Lastly, we have toughness. Players who exhibit this characteristic have an abnormally high threshold for both receiving and inflicting pain and anguish. Think of the kid back in P.E. class who got off on pegging terrified freshmen in the face with dodgeballs, only to prove he wasn’t above it all by inexplicably slamming his own forehead into his locker before Physics class amidst his own blood-curdling pleasure cackles. Thus players with a high toughness component don’t merely endure pain; they marinate in it. They dive into the stands on balls looped into the upper loge section or barrel into home plate with their team up by eleven. And they lobby their managers for them not to have to wear a batting helmet, even though they’ve been mandatory since 1971.

For players with unusually high toughness ratings, catching a boring sinker in the elbow fills them not with anger, fear, or even defiance, but mild disappointment – like the feeling one gets when a delicious meal or great movie has come to an end. When they get plunked, the look on their face doesn’t say, “Damn, man…Damn!” or “You don’t know me!” but rather, “It’s over? And so soon?” Coaches, managers, and reporters remind us that these aren’t sado masochistic sociopaths; they’re warriors who should be looked upon as everything that’s right with the game.

Assessing Player X’s toughness component will take almost no time at all, since there’s only one true element to measure: Hair. This may seem inane and painfully superficial at first, but when one considers baseball history’s litany of hard-nosed players, these designations prove remarkably accurate. The graphs below reflect hairstyle translation scores.

Still unconvinced? Ty Cobb had a flat-top, as did Billy Martin. Pete Rose and Johnny Bench were both proud owners of impeccable bowl cuts. Phillies tough-guy backstop Darren “Dutch” Daulton wore a classic Mullet. And as for his entire 1993 hardscrabble pennant-winning Phillies team? Every last player on the 24-man roster be-mulleted.

Our Player X scores a solid 12 points here with his traditional #2 metal razor buzz cut, which closes out his toughness component and preps him for his final GRIT score. Because we’ve already made all the preliminary calculations, we’ll determine this by doing some fairly simple arithmetic:

Guts (+9) + Resolve (14.5) + Instinct (36 ) + Toughness (12) = 71.5

And there you have it. Player X’s 2008 GRIT capacity was 71.5, which put him among the elite at his position for the 2008 season, as illustrated by the chart below:

Whether or not GRIT translates to “good” is still open for debate, although judging from the table above, there seems to at least be a strong correlation. As the answer to this question begins to emerge, at the very least we no longer have to acknowledge a player’s grit based on what Hawk Harrelson thinks is “heady,” whom Rick Sutcliffe believes has “that look,” or what Joe Magrane is talking about when says “spunk factor.”

Boring is beautiful: the $180 million everyman

On Thursday night I was fortunate enough to attend a benefit dinner at Yankee Stadium for an organization dedicated to assisting urban youth, called Street2Street. The special guest was none other than Mark Teixeira. I was not only able to meet Mark, but I also sat at his table during the dinner and got to ask him a fair amount of questions. Everything that I heard about Mark is true: he’s exceedingly polite, professional and business-like. His parents did a good job training him to look someone in the eye when they’re speaking to him. He has very good posture and he said nothing controversial, except when he told me that he thought Joba belonged in the bullpen. Afterwards I told my dad that I can see why writers describe him as bland or robotic, although I found nothing wrong with it. In a lot of ways he was surprisingly normal and calm. He talked about his life in Connecticut, his workout schedule, and his youngest son teething. He asked people at the table questions about their lives. He was like a dinner guest trying to be polite. So why did it strike me as so abnormal?

The reason is because I expect sports superstars to be abnormal. Everything about their lives is different, starting with the way they’re brought up. Look at LeBron James. How young was he when people started treating him differently, deferring to him, trying to please him or curry favor? How young was he when he first realized that people were trying to befriend him to get something from him, rather than because they liked his personality? What was it like for him, or any other sports superstar, to have teachers, friends, coaches and peers cater to him? Before LeBron James turned eighteen years old he was accustomed to being treated like a god, and then the money started rolling in and the real privileges of being truly elite at something started manifesting themselves. How can you expect someone like LeBron to be self-aware and to have empathy for others when he’s been taught to be single-mindedly self-centered his entire life? In retrospect, The Decision seems perfectly consummate with what we’d expect from someone with his background. The fake Twitter account LeBron James’ Ego is popular because it reminds us of what we think is the real LeBron James.

Compared to some other recent star missteps, LeBron’s Decision looks tame. Brett Favre refuses to stay out of the news, whether it’s because of a text messaging scandal with a masseuse or sideline princess or because it’s time for him to retire and unretire again. Alex Rodriguez got caught taking home a stripper in Toronto despite a wife and children at home in New York. Both Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger were accused of rape. Michael Jordan had an alleged gambling problem. Tiger Woods and his mistresses dominated the front pages of New York newspapers for literally weeks on end. These are people who have reached the upper eschelon of the sports world, and their lives are frequently marked by chaos and pain. This isn’t about criticism or passing judgment, and hopefully the comments don’t turn into a flame war about who did what or why so-and-so’s alleged offenses weren’t as bad as people think. The point is not to point a finger at professional athletes; the point is to try to understand why they do the things they do. When you compare your personal formative years with Tiger Woods, when you compare your checking account with Kobe Bryant, and when you think about the insane world of opportunity these guys have in front of them on a daily basis, it’s not that hard to figure out.

This is why I expected a fundamental difference of orientation to arise with Mark at dinner. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he affected a strong storytelling persona, or an arrogant diffidence. It was surprising then to see Mark answering questions like he’s just as nervous as the people around the table and asking questions because he doesn’t want there to be awkward silence.  It was surprising to hear Mark ask a tablemate about a planned vacation. I was expecting outsized, overgrown and larger than life. Physically he’s larger than life – he’s built like a brick house and ate his entree in what seemed like four bites – but he seemed most comfortable when he was talking about his son teething.

Tex is frequently described as bland. Maybe it’s simply that he was fortunate enough to go through life without getting stunted and still has his head on straight. He is who he is, he’s not a caricature, a goon or someone playing a part.  Maybe that’s boring, and maybe that doesn’t translate into good copy or a witty back page headline. But when you consider the alternatives, maybe being abundantly normal is just flat refreshing.

Open Thread: Jeter’s pad

(Photo Credit: Michael Egger, TBO.com)

That up there is Derek Jeter‘s now completed mansion on Davis Islands in Tampa. Here’s the construction photos we saw two summers ago, and here’s the east side spread Jeter is trying to unload for $20M. The new place sits on three lots of land that the Cap’n purchased for $7.7M back in the day, and the house itself cost another $7.7M. Seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and a Hillsborough County high 30,000 square feet make the place about as big as a Best Buy. From what I understand, it’s actually a pretty modest neighborhood and Jeter’s house sticks out like a sore thumb, but correct me if I’m wrong. The photo comes from TBO.com, and if you click through you’ll see some more photos of the place. It’s good to be king (of New York baseball), eh?

Anyways, once you pick your jaw off the floor, use this as your open thread. The Devils already played, but the Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are all in action tonight. You all know what to do, so have at it.

What is GRIT?

All-grit first-baseman Ty Wigginton reacts to a baby smiling at him. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

What makes a baseball player gritty? Is it tenacity? Work ethic? Selflessness? Bravado? Or is it something more tangible, like whiteness. We can presume that having grit will improve one’s chances of scoring a date with a woman with Misty or Dawn or Misty-Dawn in her name. But does having a surplus of it make for a qualitatively better ballplayer? These stubborn questions have pitted baseball fans against each other and have only intensified since the dawn of advanced statistics, when it was revealed that virtually all players with a Fu-Manchu, stirrup socks, or a propensity for bunting every third at-bat were perhaps not as good as advertised.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2007 that MLB commissioner Bud Selig, after an intense barrage of e-mails from the stat-minded segment of the baseball community, finally replaced former Phillies second baseman Mickey Morandini on the All-Century Team with Lou Gehrig, in a posthumous nod to the venerable Yankee. During the 2008 World Series, you might recall that Selig alienated even more people by issuing an awkward half-apology while interviewed by Fox’s Tim McCarver on national TV:

Don’t get me wrong, Gehrig was good. But Morandini was like a welterweight out there, mixing it up – scrapping, hustling, spitting chew, telling people what’s what, and laying down bunt after bunt after bunt. And you wanna’ talk heady? Who else would have the presence of mind to lay down a sac bunt with his team down eight runs or more. Mickey Morandini – fourteen times. But that Gehrig: he was certainly a true Yankee.

Part of what makes the concept of grit so polarizing is its favorable reputation among baseball people who still covet the more intangible elements of the game. In this context, a player who would otherwise get traded or cut for putting up substandard advanced stats like OPS+ or WARP 3 can add years to his Major League career based on an interminable scowl or an uncanny talent for somehow finishing every contest with splotches of blood on his uniform, even in games when he doesn’t play.

The defining moment of the grit controversy occurred in 1996, when Sports Illustrated ran a cover story entitled “The 21st-century ballplayer.” In the piece, which is accompanied by a now famously incendiary pie chart, baseball beat writer Dave Ballaster celebrates the grittiness of the next generation of ballplayer while railing against excess and greed. Here’s an excerpt, per the S.I. archives, along with the graph:

Jaded fans and diminished ticket sales will mean fewer teams, less room for pretenders, and more competition among remaining big-leaguers. In other words, the 21st-century ballplayer will be of tougher, grittier stock and attitude. And it will be a welcome change. Gone from the baseball diamond will be the gold-chain-wearing, Crystal-swilling, diamond-earring-having, seven-figure-earning prima donnas. A new breed of heartier, headier ballplayer will emerge. He’ll slash at an outside pitch instead of waiting for a free pass and seethe when his line drive clears the outfield wall because he won’t have had the chance to stretch a double into a triple. He’ll have convictions, an unsinkable work ethic, longevity and, yes, even a grunginess about him: Think Temple of the Dog, not ‘N Sync; Seven Mary Three, not Ace of Base. They will be throwbacks, to be sure; and here’s what they will be made of:

The saber community revolted; understandably, talk of quantifying a player’s instinct and resiliency vanished. But the real truth was, there just weren’t any tools available at the time that could accurately measure such a nebulous thing. Until now, that is. Enter the newest advanced baseball metric: GRIT capacity.

GRIT is an acronym for Guts, Resolve, Instinct, and Toughness, and was devised by a team of aerospace engineers at NASA when the question arose of which baseball player would be most able to endure the 20 G centrifuge without fainting, power-vomiting, or sobbing uncontrollably. And as for their unanimous answer? Ty Wigginton.

Before I get into the specifics of GRIT, it’s probably important to note that it’s taken some heat lately from sabermatricians. Tom Tango, for example, referred to the advent of GRIT in one of his more recent blog posts as “what would happen if Bill James lost everything, went on a smack binge, and found himself tattooed and naked, at 3 A.M., at the bottom of a Wendy’s dumpster in Bakersfield.” I disagree. Though imperfect, like every advanced stat, GRIT has its utility, providing it’s used in the right context. For example, knowing the overall GRIT capacity of a player can help a manager decide whether or not to play him in centerfield at Wrigley, lest a deep fly ball inspire him to dive face-first into a solid brick edifice.

At its essence, GRIT is a weighted measurement that attempts to accurately assess the overall nature and value of an individual player’s soul, which goes a long way in determining whether or not he would make for a winning teammate. In going about this process, GRIT accounts for aspects of that player’s work ethic, mental toughness, physical resiliency and life philosophy – qualities that are gauged through subjective observation, preconceived notions, and statistics that have, for the most part, fallen out of favor – and then scales them to the venue in which he plays. The ballpark adjustment is necessary because it accounts for individuals who play their home games in stadiums with domes or retractable roofs; it stands to reason that few factors can adversely impact a player’s favorable GRIT capacity as rapidly as a spotless uniform and climate control.

It should be pointed out that GRIT capacity is the only current metric that assesses these dimensions of a player by using an all-inclusive formula. A team version of GRIT (tGRIT) also exists, but for now we’ll focus primarily on the individual player version: As you’ll soon see, things can get pretty complex in a hurry. With that said, don’t let the intricacies intimidate you. While all of the moving parts may seem daunting at first, any numerical miscalculations made in arriving at a player’s GRIT can be easily overridden by one’s gut instinct, personal biases, or mood

Tomorrow, we’ll set off on our pursuit of one particular player’s GRIT capacity by isolating each of the metric’s primary components, starting with guts. We’ll also ponder a very real question that continues to divide fans: Does GRIT transfer to good?