Wednesday, March 4, 2015

By MLB's Own Rules, Suspending Josh Hamilton Is an Abuse of Power

The Angels' Josh Hamilton recently had a well-publicized relapse with drugs and alcohol. Late Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Times reported that an MLB panel was deadlocked on what to do about it—and that a suspension of up to one year was on the table. A one-year suspension would represent the punishment for a fourth failure to comply with a drug treatment program.

It's pretty weak—and makes MLB look vindictive—to levy such a harsh sentence on a drug addict who needs help more than anything. But it's also a pretty clear abuse of power by MLB, according to MLB's own Joint Drug Agreement (JDA). Here's what the JDA says about drugs of abuse:
A Player found to have used or possessed a Drug of Abuse through a positive test result or otherwise, or who is suspected of having done so, will be referred to the Treatment Board for an Initial Evaluation (the “Initial Evaluation”). ...

After concluding the Initial Evaluation, and consulting with the other Treatment Board members, the Medical Representatives shall determine whether the Player should be placed on a Treatment Program, and, if so, the type of Treatment Program that, in the opinion of the Treatment Board, would be most effective. ...

The Treatment Program may include any or all of the following: counseling, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment and follow-up testing.

The Treatment Program must be in writing and signed by the Player.
This is the first thing that's supposed to happen when any player tests positive for a drug of abuse. It's the reason that you might hear that there is no punishment for a player's first offense for hard drugs; MLB's sole interest is supposed to be helping them set up a treatment program to get better. It's actually a very progressive policy.

Things take a darker turn if the player flunks another drug test:
The Treatment Board will determine whether a Player has failed to cooperate with his Initial Evaluation or has failed to comply with his Treatment Program.

If the Treatment Board fails to reach a majority vote on whether a Player has failed to cooperate with his Initial Evaluation, or has failed to comply with his Treatment Program, the Fifth Member shall cast the deciding vote. ...

The Treatment Board, including the Fifth Member when necessary, will make its determination whether a Player has failed to cooperate with an Initial Evaluation, or comply with a Treatment Program, by applying the following criteria:

(a) A Player who refuses to submit to an Initial Evaluation...
(b) A Player who consistently fails to participate in mandatory sessions with his assigned health care professional...
(c) his assigned health care professional informs the Treatment Board in a status report that the Player is not cooperating with the requirements of his Treatment Program. ...
(d) If a Player tests positive for a Drug of Abuse after his evaluation by the Treatment Board and written commitment to a Treatment Program (excluding residual positives), the Player shall have the burden of convincing the Treatment Board (including any Fifth Member) that the positive test result did not result from a lack of commitment by the Player to his Treatment Program. In determining whether the Player has met his burden, the Treatment Board shall consider, among other things: (a) the Player’s history of positive test results; (b) the evaluation of the Player’s treating professional; and (c) the Player’s willingness to consider other treatment options such as in-patient therapy.
The Treatment Board is the four-person panel cited by the LA Times as currently deadlocked; they'll have to bring in the "Fifth Member" (a.k.a. an arbitrator) to break the tie. Their decision will decide whether, in MLB's eyes, Hamilton failed to cooperate with his Initial Evaluation or to comply with his Treatment Program. If so, he'd be subject to suspension:
If the Treatment Board determines that a Player refused to submit to an Initial Evaluation, or refused to participate in mandatory sessions with his assigned health professional, the Player will be subject to discipline for just cause by the Commissioner without regard to the progressive discipline schedule set forth below. For all other violations, the Player will be subject to the following discipline schedule:

1. First failure to comply: At least a 15-game but not more than a 25-game suspension;
2. Second failure to comply: At least a 25-game but not more than a 50-game suspension;
3. Third failure to comply: At least a 50-game but not more than a 75-game suspension;
4. Fourth failure to comply: At least a one-year suspension; and
5. Any subsequent failure to comply by a Player shall result in the Commissioner imposing further discipline on the Player.
Here's the problem for MLB. Importantly, as the JDA stated earlier, there must be a written Treatment Program, signed and agreed to by Hamilton himself, if Hamilton can be said to have violated it. Although I have no inside knowledge of MLB or this case, I find it unlikely that Hamilton has a formal Treatment Program, as this is his first offense under this JDA. (The JDA was agreed to in 2006, while Hamilton's previous suspensions for drug use were in the minor leagues from 2004 to 2006.) It makes far more sense to treat this as Hamilton's first offense—making it time not for a suspension, but for an Initial Evaluation and, hopefully, an effective Treatment Program.

Conceivably, the Treatment Board could agree but find that he refused to submit to an Initial Evaluation—a charge that would allow Commissioner Rob Manfred to set whatever punishment he wanted. However, this too seems extremely unlikely. Hamilton's fight against addiction is extremely high-profile, and he has appeared to make every effort to quit his deadly habits for the benefit of his religion and his family (two things that are very important to him if his public statements are to be believed). I highly doubt he'd resist any Treatment Program that could help him keep his life together.

Bottom line: the Treatment Board is given broad discretion to create—or, in the event one already exists, alter and strengthen—a Treatment Program for suffering players, including rehab. The criteria the board is supposed to consider for suspensions even specifically says that they should consider the player's willingness to go to rehab before they pass judgment. This seems like a much more reasonable step to take rather than impose a harsh suspension.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Red Sox' Embarrassment of Riches in the Outfield May Just Be an Embarrassment

No team has embraced the concept of "depth is a good problem to have" more than the Red Sox. Ben Cherington's motto is "sign first, ask questions later," whether it's signing Yoan Moncada to join an infield under team control for the rest of the decade or adding Hanley Ramírez to an outfield that already had six starting-caliber players. I'll admit I've drunk the Kool-Aid; the big-market team is in a great position to translate money into prospects by establishing embarrassing depth at multiple positions, then trading extremely valuable players they no longer need. Call it the Yoenis Céspedes strategy.

The infield is a problem to be tackled another year, but with the start of spring training, the auditions for the 2015 Red Sox outfield have begun. The team has eight major-league-caliber outfielders for five total roster spots (given that some can also play first base, you may be able to squeeze that to six or seven). There are obviously only three starting outfield positions, but each of the players has either been a successful starter in the past or is a prospect who has been a successful starter in the minors and is thought to be capable of the same at Fenway. The players are Ramírez, Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino (the three likeliest starters), Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts (the two whom it's still possible to assign to the minor leagues), Daniel Nava, Allen Craig (the logical choices for the outfield bench), and Brock Holt (the possible backup outfielder who will probably occupy the roster spot for backup infielder).

It seems like, no matter in what combination the team chooses to deploy these eight players, they can't lose. It's why they were able to trade Céspedes to the Tigers and still feel like they had insurance policy after insurance policy in the outfield. But, in true Red Sox fan fashion, I'm worried. Despite all this, it remains entirely possible that the Red Sox will have a poor outfield in 2015—for while every player listed above has vast potential, none is a sure thing.

I present the pessimist's view of the Red Sox outfield:
  • Hanley Ramírez is incredible when he's on the field, but you can pretty much count on some DL time for him every year. In 2013, he played just 86 games; last year he made it up to 128. In left field, he'll also be playing a position he has never manned in his entire major-league career. The Green Monster affords even more opportunities for him to get injured, and learning a new position has been known to lead to slumps at the plate as well.
  • Rusney Castillo is supposed to be the next big thing out of Cuba, but his $72.5 million contract is more a reflection of the exploding costs of international free agents than a free-market determination that he is José Abreu's equal. There is a fierce split among scouts over whether he profiles as anything more than a fourth outfielder.
  • Shane Victorino is 34 years old. He has just one good season in the last three: 2013, when he exceeded all expectations and helped lead the Red Sox to a World Series. Those positive memories are nice, but they mask the much more plausible story of a player in decline. This is a guy whose core skill set—the things that made him valuable in his youth—has practically evaporated. The one-time switch-hitter was so incapable from the left side of the plate that he gave it up in late 2013, and he was besieged by injuries in 2014—the kind that are poison for a guy who relies on speed (hamstring) and outfield defense (back).
  • What can I say that hasn't already been said about Jackie Bradley Jr.? He's still just 24, but after two seasons with the Red Sox produced a batting line of .196/.268/.280, it's fair to wonder if he'll ever make the adjustments necessary for the majors. The Red Sox can't afford to sacrifice a starting spot just to see those kinds of numbers again, and while he's one of the best outfield defenders in baseball right now, they can't afford to devote a roster spot just to a defensive replacement either.
  • Mookie Betts is beloved in Boston after bursting onto the scene in 2014 and hitting .291/.368/.444; many will question my lumping him into the rest of the question marks in this outfield. But the reality is that he sustained those excellent rate stats for just 213 plate appearances. Before 2013 he didn't even rate among the Red Sox' top 20 prospects; this just wasn't a breakout anyone saw coming. One more solid year would convince me, but I'm just not sure he's for real yet.
  • To me, Daniel Nava is the most reliable player on this list—a testament to my on-base percentage and walk fetish. But, in truth, he's overextended as a starter, never recording more than 458 at-bats. He's best suited as a platoon player, as he hit just .159/.209/.190 against lefties in 2014.
  • Allen Craig was one of the most underrated players in baseball during his 2011–2013 run with the Cardinals, but he fell off a cliff in 2014, a decline many attribute to a nagging foot injury. This season will determine which version is for real, but it's hard to be patient with him when his suckiness is this sucky (.215/.279/.315 in 2014, and even worse after the trade to Boston).
  • Brock Holt! became a cult favorite in Boston last year mostly on the strength of one hot stretch. In fact, he rated as merely average (a 100 OPS+) over the course of the year. While his versatility in the field means he'll always have value, he's really just a complementary piece, not a solution at any one position.
In short, it's not hard to imagine a scenario where all or most of these players again fail to live up to Boston's hopes and expectations. In fact, we've already seen that scenario: it was called the 2014 season. Possibly—but hopefully not—last year showed us what happens when a team relies on throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. Especially considering they're a big-market team with a creative GM, I find myself wishing the Red Sox would just acquire three solid outfielders and call it a day.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Race Ratings for the 87th Academy Awards

If somebody tells you they know what's going to happen at Sunday's Academy Awards, they're lying. At the most competitive Oscar ceremony in recent memory, there is legitimate suspense about up to half of categories—unheard of for an election so closely watched.

That means it's fruitless to give binary predictions that X will win or that Y won't (although that will never stop me from making my own personal predictions). Instead, a probabilistic forecast is the way to go. That's why, every year, I issue Cook Political Report–style "race ratings" for the Oscars—to help guide the picks of those of you who haven't been following the film awards as closely. Here is this year's snapshot of the race.

Best Picture: Tossup
It's Birdman vs. Boyhood. Birdman is the late-charging challenger and won all the major guild awards but failed to nab an important Best Editing nomination; meanwhile, Boyhood still has a strong base of support and won the BAFTA. Odds are practically even.

Best Director: Tossup
Usually the Best Picture winner also wins Best Director, but this year I've seen some Alejandro Iñárritu/Boyhood picks and some Richard Linklater/Birdman picks. Iñárritu's Birdman was more directorially stylistic, but Linklater's Boyhood is a 12-year labor of love.

Best Actor: Leans Eddie Redmayne
Birdman's Michael Keaton started the awards season as the favorite, and many (including me) still believe he could prevail. However, frontrunner status has clearly shifted toward Eddie Redmayne's flashier portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

Best Actress: Solid Julianne Moore
Still Alice may not have been widely seen, but Moore has this locked up on buzz alone.

Best Supporting Actor: Solid JK Simmons
Simmons has won every conceivable precursor award for his role in Whiplash; he's had this coming since last year's Sundance Film Festival.

Best Supporting Actress: Solid Patricia Arquette
Boyhood's one certain win on the night.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Leans The Imitation Game
Whiplash is a dark horse in this category, but The Imitation Game is in pole position as the most serious Best Picture contender nominated here.

Best Original Screenplay: Leans The Grand Budapest Hotel
Unlike Best Picture, this category is first-past-the-post, which means Birdman and Boyhood could split the vote here. Many think that will clear the path for Wes Anderson to win his first Oscar, but watch out if either Birdman or Boyhood has a particularly strong night.

Best Animated Feature: Likely How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Foreign Language Film: Likely Ida

Best Documentary Feature: Solid CitizenFour

Best Cinematography: Solid Birdman

Best Costume Design: Likely The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Film Editing: Likely Boyhood

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Leans The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Production Design: Solid The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Score: Leans The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song: Solid "Glory"

Best Sound Editing: Leans American Sniper

Best Sound Mixing: Tossup

Best Visual Effects: Leans Interstellar

Best Documentary Short: Likely Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Best Live-Action Short: Likely The Phone Call

Best Animated Short: Likely Feast

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How the "10 Days of Teddy" Unwittingly Exposed the Nats' Fan Problem

As I'm sure you're aware, the "10 Days of Teddy" ended last Friday. The contest was meant to commemorate the Nationals' 10th anniversary in Washington, DC, by unveiling 10 special promotional items the team will give away this year (never mind that 2015 is actually their 11th season). The conceit was that the team's famous racing president, Teddy, would show up at 10 random locations around metro Washington, tweet a clue about his location, and then give away free tickets to the first person to find him using the clue.

The result was a fun little scavenger hunt, not dissimilar from many other teams' marketing campaigns around this time of year to get people excited for the coming season. To most people, that's probably all it was—but since when has this blog passed up an opportunity to overanalyze something? More than a mere contest, the 10 Days of Teddy gave us a peek into how the business half of the Nationals front office thinks—and it wasn't pretty. The team's choices and approach for the promotion subconsciously revealed how flawed its view of the DC sports fan base is and how distastefully weighted its priorities are toward corporate sponsors and elites.

This is all based on the geographic pattern of where Teddy landed each of the 10 days. It's very hard to find a pattern that is truly random, and you can be sure that a lot of thought went into this one. Teddy would have to appear at strategic points: major gathering places, easily accessible transportation nexuses, densely populated office clusters, and/or landmarks well-known enough to provide a solvable clue. There are countless places around Washington that meet these criteria, so it's a shame that the Nats chose the 10 that they did.

This Google map of Teddy's 10 hangouts reveals three in Maryland, three in Virginia, and three in Northwest DC; that left just one for the three more neglected quadrants of the District: Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast. Likewise, only one rendezvous point was located anywhere east of 11th St. NW. (The exception in both cases was the final day of Teddy, when he finally showed up in Northeast—albeit at Union Station, just one block into the quadrant at 1st and F St. NE and a hub for suburban commuters.)

For those who don't know DC, this is a problem because the city gets more disadvantaged the farther east you go. Indeed, if you were looking to draw a line between the haves and the have-nots, you could do a lot worse than 11th St. NW. The Nats clearly followed the money with their 10 Days of Teddy, but in so doing they ignored the bulk of the nation's capital—the non-federal city, where residents have suffered dilapidated schools and unsafe streets since before the current crop of yuppies moved to town, and will for years after they've left. Instead, the 10 Days of Teddy focused on paying fealty to DC's elites: the District Building (Washington's city hall), the Pentagon, and Union Station, just a few blocks north of the Capitol. Many of the stops also appeared to be cross-promotions with the Nationals' main sponsors, such as the random visits to the Hard Times Cafe in Clarendon and the Harris Teeter in Potomac. Although corporate interests will never disappear from baseball, a team is also a social institution, and it should serve underprivileged areas and people with equal opportunity.

There's a racial element, too; the Nats' tour did not visit any predominantly minority neighborhoods, which unfortunately tend to be the parts of Northeast and Southeast that have been left behind economically. Although the entire nation has ignored it for decades, Washington is an African American city first and foremost. When I worked for the Boston Red Sox, minority outreach was a corporate priority, reflecting both an awareness of the Red Sox' checkered racial record and the reality that Boston has become a majority-minority city. If they have similar priorities, the Nationals did a good job hiding it with their choice of 10 Days of Teddy locations.

You can argue this analysis isn't entirely fair. Given that the promotion took place Monday through Friday from 11am to 1pm, it makes sense that the Nats would target the downtown area and other concentrations of office buildings, rather than residential areas. This would be a valid defense of the Nats—if the map showed that was really what they were doing. But, in fact, only three locations (the District Building, Union Station, and the Pentagon) were truly business districts anywhere close to the city center. Another four, all in the suburbs (Clarendon, Alexandria, Bethesda, and Silver Spring) were more mixed-use. This leaves three (Mt. Pleasant, the National Zoo, and Potomac) in predominantly residential areas. Surely the Nats could have spared one of those residential slots for Brookland or Anacostia instead.

You can argue that the Nats are just going where the fans are—that's probably what the Nats thought when they were designing the promotion. But it is incredibly short-sighted to think that Nats fans can only be found in "good" neighborhoods or the suburbs. Of course there are baseball fans in the inner city—and, more importantly, there are potential fans. Although the case for baseball's death by demographics has been overstated, the game is losing ground to sports like basketball in America's poor urban areas thanks to the high costs of playing youth baseball.

The Nationals should be especially sensitive to this issue, as they have one of the most acute cases of urban-fan-apathy in the major leagues. FanGraphs recently published an excellent analysis by Mike Lortz comparing MLB attendance figures to Census data—specifically, the number of people living within a 30-minute radius of each ballpark. The Nats are one of only two teams with more than two million people within 30 minutes as well as average weekend attendance over 20% higher than average weekday attendance. (The other is the Chicago White Sox, who, it's worth noting, have a borderline attendance crisis on their hands.) What this means in layman's terms is that the Nationals are over-reliant on suburban fans. Suburbanites are more likely to make the trip to the ballpark on weekends, when games are during the day and they don't have work on one end and a fast-approaching bedtime on the other cutting into their travel time to and from the game. Conversely, the depressed weekday attendance shows that the Nats are underperforming with city-dwelling fans, despite easy public-transit access to the ballpark and the 2.25 million Washingtonians who can get home within 30 minutes of the final out.

The Nats need these 2.25 million extra fans in order to be a sustainable franchise. Their current suburban base simply isn't enough; various analyses have determined that the Nats probably have the fewest fans, in raw numbers, of any team in baseball. Yet the 10 Days of Teddy betrayed how the team doesn't appear to be reaching out to urban demographics. Imagine Teddy showing up in one of the neighborhoods that has grown accustomed to being ignored; imagine the disproportionate amount of excitement for baseball it would gin up among those who have never seen Teddy up close before. It wouldn't be a cure-all, but giving free Opening Day tickets to a poor family who never would have dreamed they could be there—instead of someone who was already paying to go anyway—would be a good, even necessary, first step. The Nationals are going to have to win these fans over one by one, and the 10 Days of Teddy missed their chance to start.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Your Oscar Precedents Are Worthless—or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I said this last year, but it's even more true now: This is the most unpredictable Oscar season in memory. After Richard Linklater's 12-year epic Boyhood swept critics' awards at the beginning of the season, it looked safely on its way to Oscar gold. But Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman suddenly scored back-to-back-to-back wins with three critical guilds—the same industry professionals who cast ballots for the Oscars. As a result, Best Picture is now a two-horse race without a favorite.

The fascinating thing about the race is that, no matter which film wins, it will break Oscar precedent in a big way. If Birdman wins, it will become the first Best Picture since Ordinary People at the 1981 ceremony not to receive a nomination for Best Film Editing; the correlation between these two categories has been one of the most ironclad pieces of Oscar wisdom in the 30 years since. If Boyhood holds on, though, it will be the first time a Best Picture winner lost all three of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award, the Producers Guild of America (PGA) Award, and the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award since Braveheart at the 1996 ceremony—and that was back when the award season was much longer and put over a month of distance between the guild awards and the Oscars.

My predictions/wild guesses for this year's awards will be coming soon, but for now I just want to warn anyone who thinks that their knowledge of Oscar precedent or precursors can save them in this volatile year. Comparing the 2015 Oscar season to the 1995, 2005, or even 2013 Oscar season is like comparing apples to oranges. This is because the Academy is continually reassessing how it votes. Voting for categories like Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary Feature have been opened up to the entire Academy where they had previously been restricted to the few who attended select screenings. The number of Best Picture nominees has changed, from five to 10 to a flexible number (this year there are eight). Most importantly, the Academy changed the method of Best Picture balloting in 2009 to instant-runoff voting, rather than the first-past-the-post system that allowed films to win without majority support.

If the underlying rules have changed, can we even consider it the same election as pre-2009? We can't expect precedent to hold up if the Academy doesn't even count votes the same way it has in the past. It explains why, so quickly, the old rules of Oscarology have broken down—Argo winning Best Picture of 2012 without a Best Director nomination, for instance. And when you introduce precursor awards into the equation, the opportunity for error doubles: the Oscars have changed their rules, and the precursors have too. Before 2012, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) only allowed practitioners of a specific craft to vote on that craft's award. The PGA switched to a preferential ballot for its version of Best Picture when the Oscars did, but they have stuck with 10 nominees rather than the Academy's flexible total. The SAG merged with another union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, in 2012, adding thousands of non-film voters to its electorate. The DGA's five nominees and standard vote-counting procedure once matched the Oscars exactly but now feel obsolete. Clearly, a guild or other group that may once have been a great barometer for the Academy may now reflect totally different realities, and it's all because of the rules of the election.

Rather than relying on historical accuracy, then, it may be most helpful to simply look at each precursor award side by side with the Oscars and see how much they have in common, here and now in 2015. The two main questions to ask are (1) how similar are the voting processes and (2) how much do the electorates overlap? In theory, if two elections poll the same electorates in the same way, the results will line up exactly. Our luck will never be anywhere near that good, but here's how the major precursors stack up:

SAG

% of Academy in the SAG: 20.0% (~1,200 out of ~6,000)
% of SAG in the Academy: 1.1% (~1,200 out of ~110,000)
Voting Process: Traditional, first-past-the-post winner chosen from five nominees. The award is not for best film, but rather Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture—often referred to as "best ensemble."
Commentary: The SAG's top award has historically disagreed with Best Picture more often than they've agreed, and that's not surprising looking at the election specs. Although a lot of Academy members are actors, Oscar voters make up only a tiny share of the SAG, limiting the body's predictive power. The non-preferential ballot and, especially, non–Best Picture nature of the award make the election a totally different animal anyway. I wouldn't recommend even considering the SAG Award when trying to read the Oscar tea leaves; even a broken clock is right twice a day.

DGA

% of Academy in the DGA: 6.7% (~400 out of ~6,000)
% of DGA in the Academy: 2.7% (~400 out of ~15,000)
Voting Process: The DGA uses traditional, first-past-the-post vote-counting to choose among five nominees. The DGA's top award is technically for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, not best film overall.
Commentary: The DGA's election laws used to fit the Academy's exactly, before the last decade's reforms, but now they're pretty well out of sync. So even though the DGAs have the best 25-year predict rate of Best Picture (76%), its modern relevance may be limited. What it does have going for it is that the Oscar for Best Director still plays by the DGA rules, and a healthy 6.7% of the Academy are directors.

PGA

% of Academy in the PGA: 8.3% (~500 out of ~6,000)
% of PGA in the Academy: 7.7% (~500 out of ~6,500)
Voting Process: Instant-runoff voting determines the winner from 10 nominees. The award is technically the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures but is understood to be the equivalent of best film.
Commentary: The PGA is best aligned with the Academy Awards; it's the only guild to use the preferential ballot, and each electorate constitutes a healthy sample size of the other. The PGA hasn't missed a Best Picture winner since the 2009 switch in both elections to instant-runoff voting.

BAFTA

% of Academy in the BAFTA: 8.3% (~500 out of ~6,000)
% of BAFTA in the Academy: 7.7% (~500 out of ~6,500)
Voting Process: The DGA uses traditional, first-past-the-post vote-counting to choose among five nominees for Best Film.
Commentary: The BAFTAs have the same solid overlap with the Academy as the PGA, and it's the only industry precursor to be explicitly for the best movie of the year, so it's automatically a better bet than some of the other award shows listed here. But those election rules (so 1990s!) make them a worse precursor overall than the PGA.

Writers Guild of America (WGA)

% of Academy in the WGA: 6.7% (~400 out of ~6,000)
% of WGA in the Academy: 5.0% (~400 out of ~8,000)
Voting Process: Traditional, first-past-the-post voting system. Five nominees for Original Screenplay, five nominees for Adapted Screenplay—there is no "best film" award.
Commentary: The WGA has decent overlap with the Academy's electorate, but not as strong as the PGA or BAFTA. More importantly, though, its Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay awards are rubbish for predicting Best Picture. They're not even great at predicting their counterpart categories at the Oscars, as the WGA's strict eligibility rules often disqualify major Oscar contenders, such as 12 Years a Slave last year. Like the SAG, it's best not to let these awards influence your Oscar picks.

American Cinema Editors (ACE)

% of Academy in the ACE: 4.0% (~240 out of ~6,000)
% of ACE in the Academy: 34.3% (~240 out of ~700)
Voting Process: Traditional, first-past-the-post voting system. Five nominees for Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic) and five nominees for Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy or Musical).
Commentary: The ACE seems like an odd guild out in this list, but just like the Best Film Editing and Best Picture Oscars, the "Eddie" for Best Edited Film is seen as a Best Picture portent. It probably shouldn't be, though, given the SAG-esque misalignment between the contests. The Eddie winner is probably a good indicator of how Academy editors think, given the large share of ACE members who are also Oscar voters. But editors are a relatively small slice of the Academy, and even if they weren't, it would serve more to influence the Best Film Editing Oscar. "Best Picture" is not what the ACE votes on, and that category at the Oscars does not use the same vote-counting process the ACE does.

Of all the industry awards, the PGA is easily the best predictor. BAFTA and the DGA aren't great but can be acceptably used with a grain of salt. The WGA, SAG, and ACE shouldn't enter your calculus. This may not square with each guild's previous correlation with Oscar, but it's what makes sense among new voting realities. This is because it's not that the Academy ever looked to these groups—and, say, the DGA more than the PGA—for cues on how to vote. As In Contention's Kris Tapley quite astutely put it, the guild awards don't affect Oscar voting; they merely reveal sentiments and opinions that are already there. These guilds are the closest thing we get to polls of the Oscars, which unfortunately—and inexplicably—don't exist. A poll's past record of accuracy is worthless without the correct methodology, and so it is with Hollywood's awards.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Derek Jeter, Political Spin Doctor

During his playing career, Derek Jeter was a favorite of the sports media. He was easy to build a narrative around; he was always good for a quote. In return, they did nothing but shower him with praise, especially last season as he made his farewell tour around the league. So it's not very sporting of Jeter to make his first move post-playing-career to try to destroy them.

These days, Jeter runs The Players' Tribune, which is really hard to see as anything but an attempt to replace sports media. The Tribune is "a new media platform that will present the unfiltered voices of professional athletes"—no pesky middleman required! In the Tribune, athletes (or, more likely, their representatives) will be able to write their own stories, eliminating the possibility of their words getting twisted or any negative publicity getting presented whatsoever. Well, now, maybe that's not fair. Surely there's a place for first-person diaries from players that doesn't replace traditional sports reporting, right? Well, in Jeter's own words: "My goal is for the site to ultimately transform how athletes and newsmakers share information, bringing fans closer than ever to the games they love." This is an attempt to control the message, pure and simple.

This is a fairly revolutionary idea in the sports world... So why does it seem so familiar? Actually, attempting to harness the media to control one's one message is an age-old trick by those who are a little more crafty, a little more devious: politicians. The first campaign ad appeared in 1952—it's only taken athletes 62 years to see their brilliance. Paid media allows politicians to communicate directly to the public with virtually no filter. They can say what they want to say and only what they want to say. For millions of Americans every election year, TV ads are the main way of learning about the candidates.

So far, political paid media hasn't destroyed the independent political press corps. However, there was a disturbing development on this point last week, when Indiana Governor Mike Pence unveiled plans for a state-run news outlet, Just IN. Exactly like The Players' Tribune, Pence's office sought to write their own stories, about themselves, for direct placement in front of Hoosier eyes. Just IN would also compete directly with the rest of the state house press corps, occasionally breaking its own stories—and presumably not giving scoops to traditional media members. Practically plagiarizing the mission statement of The Players' Tribune, Just IN said its content would "range from straightforward news to lighter features, including personality profiles."

There is obviously something more insidious about a politician controlling his own coverage than an athlete doing so. Under its wire-service-esque business model, Just IN news articles would be disguised as regular independent journalism in many smaller Indiana papers looking to fill pages cheaply; a world where this self-reporting pushed out real political journalism would be a chilling one indeed. Ultimately, that's what made Just IN dead on arrival. After just a few days of backlash and comparisons to totalitarian regimes, Pence pulled the plug on the program that many had taken to calling "Pravda on the Plains."

But Jeter's venture is as much a sign as Pence's of an evolving media landscape. The internet and social media have democratized communication, creating ways for nontraditional content producers (this blog not excepted) to reach an interested audience. But it also provides a direct pathway for people to get information from a primary source, rather than through a middleman (i.e., professional reporter) that has usually been necessary. That this trend is evident across fields is strong evidence that it could be the way all media are headed. In sports, you have Jeter's site, but you also have teams announcing signings and pitching assignments themselves via Twitter or MLB.com. In politics, you have Pence's agency, but you also have Voice of America and a White House that prefers to interact with the public through Reddit AMAs or hashtag #asktheWH on Twitter, cutting out the press corps more and more.

The motivations are certainly understandable; newsmakers rely on publicity to earn a vote or a buck, and there can be benign reasons for them wanting to keep a direct line open to the public. But as soon as the independent press is threatened, we are losing something valuable in the case of sports and essential in the case of politics. I cling to the perhaps naïve belief that there can be room for both a strong independent press and the option for important voices to reach people directly. But with how rapidly media is changing, hopefully we don't lose the former even as the latter seems inevitably on the rise.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A First Glance at February's Big Election

Every year around this time I take a brief respite from politics and baseball, where it's slow season, and dip my toe into the deep, deep pool of Oscar-watching. Keep checking this space and my Twitter feed for occasional commentary, including my final predictions right before the Academy Awards ceremony on February 22.

For now, though, just a few observations of interest on the initial state of play. Always of interest to me is which nominees are the most "due" for an award; last year, I wrote about some of the most long-suffering Oscar bridesmaids in history. This year, as I updated my comprehensive list of everyone in history with five or more Oscar nominations, I identified plenty of people who have been to the dance before—many times—but come away empty-handed. The following 2015 nominees are still looking for their first Oscar:

Person Occupation Nominations
Roger Deakins Cinematographer 12
Alexandre Desplat Composer 8
Diane Warren Songwriter 7
Daniel Sudick Visual Effects Artist 7
Frank Montaño Sound Mixer 7
Paul Thomas Anderson Director/Writer/Producer 6
Wes Anderson Director/Writer/Producer 6

Unfortunately, as I found in my study last year, the idea that the Academy notices when you are "due" and throws you a sympathy Oscar is largely a myth. And lo and behold, none of the above people is favored to win this year; the reality is, except in the acting categories where nominees are truly brand names, voters go for the movie or the body of work, not the person.

Another angle that catches my attention more than you'd think is the politics of the Oscar race. Yes, even (especially?) Hollywood can't rid itself of politics completely. This year, two films have been appropriated by the left and the right and used as weapons in bringing their war to a new theater (no pun intended)—Selma and American Sniper. Selma, one of the best-reviewed films of the year, looked to be an Oscar frontrunner—but that made it an easy target for negative campaigning, as much a staple of Oscar season as of electoral politics. One of the oldest negative campaign tricks in the Oscar playbook is to make an issue of a film's historical accuracy. What had been done before, successfully, to Zero Dark Thirty (that film managed to win just one Oscar, a tie for Best Sound Editing), happened to Selma when various corners accused its director of making President Lyndon B. Johnson out to be a villain. "The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season," Johnson loyalist Joseph A. Califano Jr. wrote in the Washington Post. Despite the movie's liberal alignment, this perceived criticism of a white Democratic president ("white Democrats" basically are Hollywood) stopped the movie's awards campaign in its tracks. When Oscar nominations were announced, Selma received just two: Best Picture and Best Original Song.

A lot of Selma's late momentum instead went to another Christmas release: Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, which appeals to a very different (read: conservative) demographic. Despite mixed reviews, criticisms that it glorified war, and questions about its own historical accuracy, Sniper was nominated for six Oscars, including one that probably came at Selma's expense (Best Actor for Bradley Cooper). The combination of Selma's snubs and Sniper's success on nominations day inspired a new wave of frustration with the Academy's demographics: 94% white, 77% male, a median age of 62. None of the 20 nominees for acting were minorities, and none of the 15 nominees for directing and writing this year were women.

These stats, and the fact that American Sniper is clearly more liked among Academy voters than we previously thought, have caused many to see it as a serious threat to win Best Picture. Sasha Stone, the prominent Oscarologist behind the blog Awards Daily, is a noted preponderant of this theory. But in my opinion, Stone (a vocal critic of the Oscars' white- and male-centric tendencies) is letting her cynicism cloud her predictions. As we sit here on January 20, Sniper is at the peak of its power—coming off the high of six Oscar nominations and a box-office-busting $108.7 million opening weekend. Sniper benefited in the nominations stage from flying under the radar and thus not attracting a loud negative campaign, but now that it has asserted strength in the race it appears that the backlash is beginning. "A week is a long time in politics," the saying goes, and it's no different in an Oscar campaign. There are three of those weeks left until Oscar voters even start voting, and five weeks until the awards ceremony. I'll be surprised if Sniper still looks this strong after taking Selma-level criticism and, probably more importantly, seeing other films take their turns in the sun as films like Boyhood (my Best Picture pick) win important precursor awards like the Producer Guild Awards.

It's also mathematically very difficult for a film as polarizing as American Sniper to win Best Picture. For their top award, the Oscars use instant-runoff voting, which allows voters to rank their preferences; if a voter's top choice is eliminated, their vote gets redistributed down to their second or third choice. This rewards films that are broadly liked, which I doubt American Sniper is; as Grantland's Mark Harris pointed out, the film's association with conservative values (a narrative that has been everywhere this weekend) probably won't do it any favors. For every Jacksonian voter who ranks American Sniper first on their ballot, there is almost certainly a Democrat who will rank it last. At the end of the day, I predict Sniper will win the two awards usually won by war/action movies: Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. The result will be what everyone might have expected six months ago, and when we look back at this Oscar season, it will seem like an unremarkable achievement, hardly driven by a hidden conservative agenda.

However, that doesn't mean we should go on ignoring Hollywood's diversity issue. I'll bring it full circle here with a shared suggestion for both the Academy and the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), the slow-to-evolve body that elects players to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Both the Academy and BBWAA are showing why lifetime membership and lifetime voting rights may not be the best idea anymore in a rapidly changing world. In the film industry (as in every industry), demographics are changing and bringing more women and minorities into prominent roles, yet the older generation of filmmakers are still voting strong in retirement. In the BBWAA, retired baseball writers still vote for the Hall of Fame without even considering new approaches, like sabermetrics, that have fundamentally changed how we assess baseball in the 21st century. Both organizations are also too slow to accept new members and give them a vote in their high-profile elections. If either organization would like to get with the times and avoid all this bad press—and they should—it's time to make their voting pool reflective of the new age we live in.