Friday, March 27, 2015

Predicting the 2015 Season—National League

Last October, I organized a playoff pool at the office. After examining everything from starting rotations to weather conditions, I picked the Nats to beat the Tigers in the World Series. A woman I work with doesn't know anything about baseball, so she made her picks based on which teams had the coolest-sounding names. I warned her how unlikely it was but eventually recorded her pick: Giants over Royals.

The lesson here is that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss. We can study all the stats we want; we can make the most finely calibrated projections for the season; we can memorize every player and every split and every transaction. It won't help us make a prediction about baseball that's any better than a shot in the dark by someone totally out of the loop.

So I said, what the heck. I'll make my team-by-team win-loss projections as usual. I'll declare some "fearless predictions" for each team, and for many individual players, like I've always done. But I'll make my World Series pick based on a comedic prophecy dreamed up in a studio lot almost 30 years ago. Read on to see who I mean.

NL East


1. Washington Nationals (95–67, 1st playoff seed)
  • Expect the 2014 Nationals to keep on showing up in Southeast DC for 2015, with pretty much the same results. Jayson Werth (age) and Anthony Rendon (regression to the mean) may each be worth one fewer win, but Bryce Harper will fill in the gap with at least a two-win improvement over 2014. That one monster season may never come, but something close to his 2013 will do perfectly well.
  • The team will again lead the majors in ERA, with Max Scherzer playing the role of Tanner Roark and finishing second in Cy Young voting. (Roark himself will unhappily post a 4.00 ERA and enter career purgatory as he is jerked around from assignment to assignment.)
  • Also in line for regression: Denard Span, whose injury-hampered .250/.300/.320 season will make the Nats regret losing AL Rookie of the Year contender Steven Souza.
  • Yunel Escobar will not be the solution at second base. His rapidly deteriorating defense will make him unplayable at times.

2. New York Mets (85–77, 1st Wild Card)
  • Zack Wheeler's Tommy John surgery is bad news for Wheeler, but not necessarily for the Metropolitans. Wheeler's 3.54 ERA last year was actually below average. In contrast, his de facto replacement in the rotation will be the very definition of an ace: Matt Harvey.
  • For a team whose strength is starting pitching, there's still a lot of room for improvement. Bartolo Colón and Dillon Gee will be supplanted around midseason by Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard, who will rank first and second (in some order) among NL rookie pitchers.
  • Lucas Duda's power and on-base ability is for real. Travis d'Arnaud will also realize his potential, hitting 20 dingers and stretching his .272/.319/.486 line from his last 69 games over a full season.
  • David Wright will double his 2014 home run total, but more importantly he will remember how to take a walk. It'll restore his OPS+ to a more Wrightian 125. With actual production now from left field (Michael Cuddyer), the Mets will be an above-average offensive team for the first time since 2011.

3. Miami Marlins (81–81)
  • The Dee Gordon trade actually made the Marlins worse. He'll post an OBP below .300, which will halve his stolen-base total.
  • Michael Morse will prove the team's shrewdest acquisition. He'll be healthy for the entire season, and the move to first base will mean that his defense will finally not negate his entire offensive value.
  • The Miami outfield—Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and, yes, Ichiro Suzuki—will post the highest WAR of any in baseball.
  • Dan Haren will ride a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an abnormally low HR/FB ratio to his best season since 2011—and will retire on top.
  • Following a two-year pattern, Jarred Cosart will scuffle in the first half, prompting a trade at the deadline. He'll then finish the season with an ace-like 10-start stretch for his new team.

4. Atlanta Braves (70–92)
  • Shelby Miller will evolve into the ace of the Atlanta staff, and this is the year Alex Wood becomes a household name. But after them and Julio Teheran, the rotation will fall off a cliff. No one else will make more than 14 starts.
  • Craig Kimbrel will be traded at midseason for a package that nets the Braves their next number-one prospect.
  • A feckless offense will lead the majors in shutouts and strikeouts. Only Freddie Freeman will register a offensive WAR above 1.0, and the team will finish with the fewest runs scored of any team in a non-strike-shortened season since 1971.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (63–99)
  • This is the year the Fearsome Four become the Noisome None. Cliff Lee won't pitch all year, and Cole Hamels will be traded by July 31. By September, 2014 draftee Aaron Nola will be leading Philly's rotiation. So, um, progress?
  • There will be significant hurdles to the Phillies' so-called youth movement, as Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis, and other newbies play like minor leaguers.
  • The league's most porous team defense will cause the Philadelphia pitching staff to lead the league in unearned runs.

NL Central


1. Saint Louis Cardinals (88–74, 3rd playoff seed)
  • After a 2013 with an abnormally high RISP batting average (.330) and a 2014 with an abnormally low one (.254), the Cardinals will finally settle in the middle of the pack—which means an automatic offensive boost from 2014.
  • Despite claims of a changed approach, Jason Heyward will have a near-carbon-copy of his 2014 season, but that won't be all bad—he'll help St. Louis amass the most Defensive Runs Saved in the NL.
  • Expect middle infielders Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong to switch identities: in 2015, Wong will be the one hitting .260/.340/.440 with 20 home runs, and Peralta will scuffle with a batting average below .250 and an OBP below .300.
  • Beware of a bullpen implosion at Busch. Trevor Rosenthal's and Jordan Walden's 5.0 BB/9 rates will lead to chaos as the Cards try to close out games, leading to the majors' worst record in one-run games.
  • Yes, he's still an MVP for his work with the pitching staff, and yes, his output is still good for a catcher, but this is the year Yadier Molina ceases to be useful as a hitter.

2. Chicago Cubs (84–78, 2nd Wild Card)
  • By July 1, all pretenses about service time will be dropped, and this entire generation of Cubs prospects will be in the bigs. Chris Coghlan, Ryan Sweeney, Tommy La Stella, and Mike Olt will lose their jobs, with the only holdout being Dexter Fowler in center field.
  • Javier Báez will again struggle with contact but, as he's done at every level before this, find a comfortable stroke a few hundred plate appearances in. Matt Szczur will be so valuable off the bench—with 15 stolen bases as a pinch runner alone—that he'll earn a spot on the postseason roster. Jorge Soler will sport a .900 OPS but not even be the best rookie on the team.
  • That honor, of course, will go to Kris Bryant, your NL Rookie of the Year. He'll hit a more-impressive-than-it-sounds 23 home runs—not including his decisive blow in the NL Wild Card game off Matt Harvey.
  • As was preordained by Grays Sports Almanac (there are still sports almanacs?) in 1989's classic Back to the Future II, the Cubs will go from 100-to-one shots when the offseason began to World Series champions. Joe Maddon will be the unanimous NL Manager of the Year.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (82–80)
  • A team largely unchanged since 2014 will finish with the exact same record, albeit more evenly distributed throughout the year. The team won't miss its main subtraction, Yovani Gallardo, as Jimmy Nelson will replicate his numbers closely.
  • The rotation will be the definition of average—with Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, and Nelson posting identical 3.70 ERAs—except Mike Fiers, whose ability to strike out four times the number of batters he walks will make him the new staff ace.
  • Even after two years of elite production, I still don't believe in Carlos Gómez. A spate of bad BABIP luck this year will cut his value in half.
  • Ryan Braun still has one good season left in him—and that season is 2015.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (81–81)
  • Don't expect Vance Worley to keep up the magic that made him Pittsburgh's best starter in 2014. Without master framer Russell Martin, a lot of Worley's advantage will disappear.
  • That's bad news for a team that also lost its second-best starter from last year (Edinson Vólquez) to free agency. Francisco Liriano was third-best and will be again, behind a rejuvenated AJ Burnett and a Cy Young–showing Gerrit Cole.
  • The infield is going to be a mess. Josh Harrison's terrible 4.0% BB% in 2014 was actually a career high, as was his .353 BABIP; he'll slump his way onto the bench by the All-Star Game. Jung-Ho Kang will flop so miserably that no Korean Baseball Organization position player will dare attempt moving to MLB again until the 2020s. Good thing the outfield will be the second-best in baseball, after Miami's.
  • As the best closer on a non-losing team, Mark Melancon will lead the majors in saves for 2015.

5. Cincinnati Reds (72–90)
  • Expect lots of games where Cincinnati scores exactly two runs: a home run by Todd Frazier with Joey Votto on base. Votto is the only player in the lineup who can get on base, and Frazier is the only one with above-average power. Otherwise, this is the division's worst offense.
  • What does this mean for Devin Mesoraco? A bone-headed plan to catch him 145 times a year despite already having concussion symptoms here in spring training will grind him down to a shell of his 2014 self. Like Salvador Pérez in 2014, he'll get worse and worse as the season wears on.
  • Aroldis Chapman's immense talent will be further wasted as he pitches a full-season career-low number of innings—even though he'll remain healthy. He will languish as a closer who barely ever sees a save situation. An otherwise anonymous relief corps will blow a league-high number of leads before they get to the ninth.
  • Johnny Cueto will be his usual brilliant self, but he'll be the only above-average member of the rotation. He'll wind up as some other team's crown jewel acquisition at the trading deadline.
  • Raisel Iglesias will show a lot of promise but run out of gas after five innings on a regular basis—betraying his better fit as a reliever. Jason Marquis will post terrible numbers for far longer than a team with more depth would allow.

NL West


1. Los Angeles Dodgers (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • If you thought Yasiel Puig was good before, just wait until 2015, when he will combine his improved 2014 walk rate with the realization of his 20-homer potential and smoother right-field defense. He'll give the Dodgers the NL MVP to go along with their obvious Cy Young champ.
  • Joc Pederson will be the best non-Cubs rookie in the National League.
  • The fact that Juan Uribe can't walk anymore will prove untenable as an unlucky year brings his average down to .260 and his OBP to .280. The team will finally decide to accept Alex Guerrero's shaky defense to get his electric bat (.330/.380/.480) in the lineup. Hector Olivera will be a non-factor as his health conditions—not properly treated in his native Cuba—keep him off the field.
  • Chinks in the armor could crop up in the rotation due to injury. Expect Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu to miss occasional time—and be surprised if Brett Anderson manages more than 10 starts.
  • The bullpen will start off as a weakness, especially with Kenley Jansen out for April, but no one knows how to build a strong but cheap bullpen better than Andrew Friedman. By August, it'll be a team strength, probably thanks to guys you've never heard of.

2. San Francisco Giants (83–79)
  • Most World Series–winning teams feature a lot of guys having career years, and that tends not to repeat itself. Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Ángel Pagán lead the charge of guys who will slip from useful to harmful cogs in the lineup.
  • When Casey McGehee regresses to his career .264, suddenly everyone will realize he's a third baseman with zero power. His teammate Brandon Belt will pick him up, though, finally pushing the 30 home runs everyone once expected of him.
  • After throwing 270 innings (including the postseason) last year, Madison Bumgarner will show signs of fatigue with a step back in the regular season—like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain before him. (And no, they won't be any better either.)
  • Don't listen to anything anyone says right now—Yusmeiro Petit will force his way into a rotation job and, from that date forward, be San Francisco's best starter.
  • At some point, Sergio Romo will win back the closer's role.

3. San Diego Padres (80–82)
  • The Padres' biggest enemy this year will be their own outfield fence. Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers will combine for just 40 home runs but –40 Defensive Runs Saved.
  • Robbed of his only asset—power—Will Middlebrooks will be the least valuable player in baseball in 2015.
  • Excellent years from Tyson Ross and James Shields will keep this team in the hunt at first—but it won't be able to survive Andrew Cashner hitting the DL for good in July.
  • It's sad, but the writing has been on the wall for a while now: Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson are finished as viable major leaguers.

4. Colorado Rockies (75–87)
  • The highest-scoring offense in the NL will be at it again in 2015, thanks to a once-in-a-blue-moon event: totally healthy seasons from both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González.
  • Nolan Arenado will start getting mentioned in the same sentence as those two as the Rockies' invaluable core players. His big offensive step forward comes this year, and combined with his stellar defense, his WAR will crack 6.0.
  • Of course, the pitching will be even worse than the hitting is good. However, the Rockies won't regret any starts they cede to exciting young prospects Jon Gray and Eddie Butler.
  • Charlie Blackmon won't regress (his 2014 ended up being about average anyway once he cooled down in the second half), but Corey Dickerson will.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (68–94)
  • Yasmany Tomás will be a mess—although it won't all be his fault. He'll be an incapable defender at third base, and management will delay moving him to the outfield for far too long. However, he'll have one of the game's lowest contact rates no matter where he plays, and his contract will quickly look like a bust.
  • Trevor Cahill will have a surprisingly effective season, making for a nice trade chip for Arizona. A league switch will rob him of Comeback Player of the Year.
  • Ender Inciarte will show he deserves to start in the outfield over David Peralta—and Peralta will do nothing that disagrees.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Follow Local Politics, Anywhere, in One Click

It's not the stuff of major television events, but state government is where the real action happens. With the current levels of gridlock in the federal government, chances are that any new laws that affect your life are being made in your state capitols. Given my obsession with state-level politics, I keep tabs on it very closely via Twitter—all 50 miniature political ecosystems. To share my obsession with the world, I recently organized those Twitter followings into 50 Twitter lists—one for the political reporters and observers in each state. Each state's list is linked below; I encourage you to follow your state's, if not several others you're interested in (I have a feeling Iowa and New Hampshire will be pretty relevant in the year ahead...). If you just want to follow one political news source from each of the 50 states—the Reader's Digest of local politics, if you will, you can do that too.

Alabama
Alaska
Arizona
Arkansas
California
Colorado
Connecticut
Delaware
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho
Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Kansas
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Ohio
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Vermont
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Wyoming

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.