What does Wins Above Replacement or WAR mean in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does the stat Wins Above Replacement or WAR mean in baseball?

Thanks,
Rich

— — —

Dear Rich,

Wins Above Replacement is one of the many statistics that have either invaded or enhanced baseball over the past twenty years, depending on your perspective. It’s a single stat made up of many parts that tries to summarize the overall value of a player to the success of their team in a single number. The higher a player’s WAR number, the more they have contributed to their team’s success.

WAR is expressed as the number of wins a player’s team won thanks to their contributions as compared to what the team would have won (speculation warning) if they had been replaced by someone else. Baseball Prospectus, one of the several entities that has their own way of calculating WAR, lists Tim Keefe’s 1883 season as the best ever, during which he contributed 20.2 wins to the New York Metropolitans. If, instead of Mr. Keefe, the Metropolitans had had to scour their farm system for another right handed pitcher, this stat suggests they would have only won 34 games instead of the 54 they actually won.

Here’s the thing about WAR: because it’s intended to be an all encompassing statistic, it’s very complicated. It encompasses a lot of stuff! This is a screenshot from the Wikipedia article on WAR:

Woah! Don’t panic though. In order to understand WAR at a basic level, we need to understand two things — what elements are scored to show whether a player is doing well or poorly and what a replacement player is and how their potential contribution is defined.

What contributes to a player’s Wins Above Replacement?

Although different groups calculate WAR using different formulas, there are some general elements that go into figuring out a player’s contributions to their team. Offensive statistics having to do with hitting and base running are used. Defensively, an everyday player’s fielding is looked at whereas all sorts of pitching statistics are available for pitchers as well as the batting statistics of opposing teams. Overarching all of this is availability – in order to contribute, you’ve got to avoid injury.

What is a replacement player and how is their contribution defined?

Here’s where WAR gets all highfaluting and counterfactual. It’s all very well to measure a player’s contribution to their team’s victories but that’s just the first letter in a three letter statistic! The AR in WAR means “above replacement.” In other words — if Old Hoss Radbourn (the second highest single-season WAR player ever) had broken his ankle before the 1884 season, how would the Providence Grays have done? This question begs another question — who would he be replaced by?

The creators of the WAR statistic believe that there is a generally available and definable level of baseball talent that we can assume would replace any player out there. Given baseball’s well established farm system, (there are 19 minor league baseball leagues with 256 teams in the Major League Baseball ecosystem) that’s probably somewhat true. A replacement-level player is defined for most WAR calculations as one who is 80% as good as the average major league baseball player. One exception to that is the catcher position, which despite (or perhaps because of) being the coolest position in the sport, has fewer players who are decent at it. For that reason, replacement-level catchers are defined as 75% of the league average catcher.


So that’s WAR or Wins Above Replacement in baseball. I find it an interesting statistic because it contains within it the terrifying truth of many professional athlete’s lives that they are eminently replaceable. It’s also sort of funny to think about extending the logic of the statistic to everyday life. “How’s the fried calamari at this place?”
“It’s great — I’d say it’s about seven YAR”
“YAR?”
“Yums Above Replacement…”

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do athletes make so much money?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do athletes make so much money?

Thanks,
Venita

— — —

Dear Venita,

Your question is a topical one given the last week of sports in the news. Just in the last week, four NFL football players made news for signing record new contracts for their positions. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. signed a $95 million dollar five year contract extension, quarterback Aaron Rodgers signed a $134 million dollar, four year contract extension. Then, defensive players Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack signed new deals for six years and $134 million dollars and six years and $141 million dollars respectively. And, as Mike Oz on Yahoo Sports points out, dozens of baseball players make more money than these top football players. How is this possible?

The conventional answer is that it’s possible because market forces allow it. Taking that down one level, the owners of sports teams are willing to pay players as much as they do because owning a sports team is so lucrative. That’s driven by two related forces. The first, and primary one is fans; people love watching and rooting for sports teams and they are willing to pay a lot of money to do it. Tickets for a game, are just the start of the money spent on a day at the ballpark or field. There’s often the cost of parking, you’ve got to buy popcorn or a hot dog (or at more modern stadiums, some fancy BBQ or a fusion short-rib taco). Outside of game-day, people buy all sorts of items that show their fandom, like jerseys, team hats, team licence plate or cell-phone covers. The list goes on and on.

The other thing fans do, and this is the catalyst for the second big force driving player salaries, is they watch their favorite team on television. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this. Sports broadcasts on television are reliably the highest rated programs. In 2017, the top five and 18 of the top 20 rated television shows of the year were sports. In a world of splintered viewing, sports are seemingly the one force that can still bring a mass audience to the screen. Cable companies are therefore willing to pay leagues massive amounts to carry their sport. The NFL sells its television rights for over four and a half billion dollars per year! The NBA is second at over two and a half billion dollars per year. A single team in MLB baseball sold their local TV rights for more than eight billion dollars over 25 years.

The money flows from consumers through their cable companies to sports leagues to team owners to players. That’s only one way of looking at this though. The market approach only really works as an analysis of why athletes get paid so much if you assume each actor is willing to share their profit down the line. We know, particularly with sports team owners who are often hard-nosed million- or billionaires that no one gives up profit without a struggle. The other way of looking at this topic is through the history of players advocating for themselves in locker-rooms, boardrooms, and court rooms often at great risk or cost to themselves. Here are three major stories from this struggle.

Does a fielder get an error in baseball if nothing bad happens?

Dear Sports Fan,

We were watching baseball yesterday and the second baseman clearly messed up when trying to field a ground ball. After dropping it, he was able to recover in time to get the runner out at first base. Would he get an error? Does a fielder get an error in baseball if nothing bad happens?

Thanks,
Sonja

— — —

Dear Sonja,

In the scenario you are describing, the fielder would not be given an error for that play. This is because, like you wrote,  “nothing bad happened.” According to the rules of MLB baseball (Rule 10.12(d)(4)) “The official scorer shall not charge an error against: any fielder when, after fumbling a ground ball or dropping a batted ball that is in flight or a thrown ball, the fielder recovers the ball in time to force out a runner at any base.”

This seems bizarre to me. I’ve always had a hard time understanding and accepting the importance of errors in baseball. They seem like a truly bizarre mixture of process, intent, and outcome. In your scenario, the fielder’s intent was good — he wanted to catch the ball and throw it to first base. His process was not good — he dropped the ball. The outcome, however, was fine — he got the runner out. So, no error. He essentially lucked out. 

If, however, the the fielder had done the exact same thing but he was up against a faster runner who beat the throw to first base, he would have been assigned an error. No difference in process, just in outcome. Of course, outcome matters — it’s what leads to a win or a loss, which is the whole point. On the other hand, baseball already has outcome stats – if a runner makes it to first base, it’s called a single! The error seems like it’s supposed to be a different kind of stat; one that shows who messed up but in this case, it blends outcome and process.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What sports could be shortened?

Dear Sports Fan,

My wife is a sports fan. I love sitcoms. My hobby takes 30 minutes to watch. Hers takes three hours, whether it’s football, basketball, hockey, baseball, or soccer. How is this fair? What sports could be shortened without making them less fun for sports fans?

Thanks,
Sam


Dear Sam,

You have a point – sports games are much longer on average than other forms of entertainment. As a sports fan, I find it hard to commit to watching a two hour movie, but I think nothing of sitting down to watch a three hour football game… or more than one! On its face, this behavior doesn’t make much sense. Why commit to three or six hours when you won’t commit to two? Do I really like sports that much more than movies? Probably not – instead, the difference can be explained by the intermittent nature of sports. The average football game famously only has eleven minutes of action spread out over those three hours. This is an exaggeration, but there are lots of times during a three hour game when a sports fan can safely leave the couch to get a snack or a beer or check their email or… I’ve even been known to read a book while watching a game! That said, you may be on to something. Sports games are long. Can any sports be shortened without losing the essence of their appeal? Would any actually become more exciting by being shortened? Let’s play out the hypothetical of cutting each of the five most popular sports in half and see what happens.

Soccer

Soccer is 90 minutes of running around without much happening. It seems ripe for disruption through abbreviation. The problem is, because there is so little scoring, shortening the game would pose a serious problem. Think there are too many ties now in soccer? Wait until games are only 45 minutes. It’s not just the length. Many soccer games don’t really “open up” until the 60 to 70 minute mark. This is when players start getting tired enough to make mistakes that allow the other team to get some legitimate scoring opportunities. If we are going to shorten soccer, we would at least have to require players to tire themselves out before they begin; say, run a 10k before the game starts.

Verdict: Not a good candidate. Soccer requires a long time for one team to win as it is.

Ice Hockey

Ice hockey doesn’t have soccer’s issue with excitement. Hockey is so exhausting to play that players don’t stay on the ice for more than 45 seconds to a minute at a time anyway. While they are on, they go like gang-busters! A 30 minute hockey game would be just as exciting as a 60 minute one. There are two issues with cutting hockey in half. First, the necessity of rotating players makes hockey a uniquely team-oriented sport. Cut the time in half, and you would definitely be able to get away with having only 3/4 or even 1/2 the number of players, which would harm this aspect of the game. Second, and more conclusively, hockey is one of the most random sports because goals are scored in such a chaotic way. A lot of the time, even watching in slow motion on a high definition television doesn’t help the viewer figure out how the puck went into the goal. The average game in 2016 had 5.45 goals scored. Just enough for the weirdness of the game to even out and the better teams to win most of the time. Cut the game in half, and the better team might not win most of the time. The weirdness could easily overpower the statistical significance of the sport.

Verdict: Ice hockey is just too random to be any shorter than it already is and still have the better team win most of the time.

Baseball

Baseball seems like a great candidate for cutting in half. At its heart, it is a series of one on one interactions anyway. Pitcher faces batter, repeat. Because of this, baseball is the sporting culture obsessed most with statistics. Any change to the game which affects the ability to compare contemporary players to players in the past is fiercely resisted. If that could be overcome, the next obstacle to consider would be the endurance of starting pitchers. A lot of baseball games are decided only when one team’s starting pitcher gets tired enough to make a mistake and the other team is able to start hitting their pitches. Over the past decade, baseball teams have adjusted to patch this vulnerability by substituting relief pitchers in for their starting pitcher earlier and earlier – before he even gets tired. So, in a way, cutting the game in half might create a throw-back to an earlier era, when starting pitchers were expected to pitch complete games. Hmm!

Verdict: It would never happen because of the rabid baseball traditionalists, but if it did, they might find themselves oddly pleased.

Football

Why not football? Football is facing a looming crisis anyway. The brutality of the sport and our new understanding of traumatic brain injuries has already forced a number of changes and promises to force many more, or perhaps end the sport entirely. I’ve thought and written a lot about this issue and my conclusion was that NFL football rosters should be reduced from 53 to 20. This would reduce the specialization of football players that allows for 350+ pound men and 180 pound men who run 20+ miles an hour to coexist on the same field. It would also make it impossible for players to “give 110%” on every play. Slow everyone down, encourage everyone to have bodies optimized for endurance over speed and strength, and maybe players will have the split second they need to avoid calamitous collisions. Cutting the game in half is exactly the opposite of this! It would make every play more important and encourage everyone to play even harder on every play. No way!

Verdict: Not a good idea for players’ long term or short term health.

Basketball

Like football, basketball is played harder than ever these days. If you look at film from the 1980s and compare it to now, it’s radically different. Players in the 1980s were not expected to cover nearly as much ground as they do today. The dominance of the three point shot today means that players need to play high intensity defense in parts of the court that they used to simply allow an opponent to dribble in without being contested. This difference showed up in the playoffs last year, when teams built around a single great player, like James Harden on the Houston Rockets or Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder, fell apart in the fourth quarter when their star got too tired to play effectively. This could be an argument against shortening the game — teams should have to be built in a more balanced way, not around a single player. Basketball is already the sport that is affected most by a single player. One player out of five on the court is more impactful than one out of eleven in soccer, eleven (plus eleven, plus special teamers in football), or one out of nine in baseball. (Hockey has only six on the ice at a time, but because they can only play for a minute or so before they need a rest, the impact of a single player is proportionally smaller.) Basketball is the most star-oriented sport but its length, combined with the way it’s now played is getting in the way of the best players being able to play their best when it matters the most.

Verdict: Let’s do it!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Happy New Year 2016 from Dear Sports Fan

Happy New Year!!

2015 was a wonderful year in sports and a great year for Dear Sports Fan! Thank you for being a part of this experiment with me. I feel lucky to have been able to share so much of what I was thinking about with you during the past year. Here are some of the highlights of the year. Read to the bottom for a special treat for 2016.

In February, right before the Super Bowl, I published a series of heartfelt and deeply researched articles on the topic of brain injuries in football… and also what the top ten dirtiest sounding football phrases actually mean. In March, the madness of the NCAA basketball tournaments inspired me to share four business lessons one can learn from the sport and also four ways to fill out a tournament bracket if that’s more your speed.

In May and June, I came down with a bad case of World Cup fever and wrote dozens of articles about the 2015 World Cup. My non-gendered profiles of each of the women on the U.S. Women’s National Team were popular, which I was proud of, even if some of the most common search terms for them was “is [insert player name, most frequently Megan Klingenberg] married?” I fleshed out Dear Sports Fan’s coverage of soccer in general and shaped the articles into three email courses which are still available today: Soccer 101, Soccer 201 – Positions and Logistics, and Soccer 202 – Culture. A personal high point was my trip to Montreal to watch the USA vs. Germany semifinal match.

After I moved to the Boston area in the spring, I decided to take Dear Sports Fan into the real world by starting a Meetup group. We’ve had a great time at our viewing parties, watching sports in an environment friendly to questions and welcoming to people who approach sports from all angles.

Throughout the year, I kept an eye out for moments when sports and the larger culture intersect. This has taken serious forms, like when shared my disgust with the drafting of Jameis Winston, and silly forms, like before the Kentucky Derby when I mined the world of musical theater for horse racing and betting tips, As always, the heart of the website has been a desire to make it easier for sports fans and non-fans to co-exist. With the NFL playoffs coming, it’s worth revisiting my thoughts on how a household can survive the football season without going crazy.

As one year comes to a close, another is just beginning. As a token of my appreciation for all the support I received during 2015, here is a New Year’s guide to the top 16 sporting events of 2016!

What is a balk in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a balk in baseball? I think it’s when a pitcher starts to pitch but then doesn’t but I’ve asked a few friends I have who are baseball fans and no one can explain it more clearly. Can you help?

Thanks,
Jeff


Dear Jeff,

The balk is one of the most unique rules in baseball. It’s controversial, important, and simultaneously confusing to the point of opaqueness. Reading Major League Baseball’s rulebook on the subject is almost entirely useless for anyone who doesn’t already know what a balk is. For example, here is a short passage on what constitutes a balk:

From the Windup Position, the pitcher may:
(1) deliver the ball to the batter, or
(2) step and throw to a base in an attempt to pick-off a runner, or
(3) disengage the rubber (if he does he must drop his hand to his sides).
In disengaging the rubber the pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first.
He may not go into a set or stretch position —if he does it is a balk.

There’s only one response to language like that, and Groucho Marx said it over 80 years ago.

Luckily, we don’t need to understand the particulars of the rule as it’s written to understand how the rule works in actual baseball. We can work our way backwards from what the rule is trying to prevent to how it’s actually enforced.

The balk rule was put in place in 1898. Before then, a pitcher could get a base runner out in the following way. Imagine there’s a runner on first base. He takes a short lead toward second base and waits there. As the pitcher starts his windup to pitch the ball, the base runner takes one or two steps farther toward second base. This is a smart move, because it puts him in a better position to get to second base on a weakly hit ball and it still leaves him with plenty of time to return to first in the case of a strike or a pop fly. However (!) the pitcher hasn’t actually pitched. Instead, he’s tricked the base runner by winding up and starting to throw the ball but not actually letting it go. Now that the base runner has moved further from first base, it’s easy enough for the pitcher to stop, turn, and throw the ball to the first baseman, who calmly tags the base runner out. Now, baseball prides itself on being a tricky sport, but it’s possible that this trick was simply too devious to allow. It’s also possible that the main problem was not the move’s deceptive nature, but its effectiveness. Rules have always been created to balance the power between offense and defense, and a move which is almost guaranteed to remove a base runner from the game may simply have been too effective to allow. In any event, the balk rule was put in place to prevent pitchers from doing this.

For all its complex language, the balk rule can be summarized as this – once a pitcher starts his pitching motion, he must complete it by throwing the ball to home plate. I italicized the word “his” because pitchers all have unique pitching motions. One pitcher’s motion may be as distinct from another’s as a lion is from a house cat. The motion itself is not important to the rule, what is important is that every pitcher’s motion during one pitch is identical to his own motion on every other pitch. Umpires learn pitchers’ motions and are able to notice if a pitcher deviates from it, even slightly. When a pitcher throws to first base, to hold a runner there, or to try to pick him off, he uses a motion that may be similar to his pitching motion, but is not identical. The umpire is able to distinguish a pick off throw motion from a pitching motion.

Although the balk rule exists to prevent a pitcher from intentionally tricking a base runner by starting to pitch and then doing something else, the rule is enforced slightly differently. Most sports rules try to stay away from legislating intent and the balk rule is no different. In order to avoid asking umpires to make a judgement call about whether the pitcher intended to trick the base runner and whether the base runner was actually fooled, the balk rule simplifies the decision. If a pitcher enters his pitching motion but does not complete it, a balk must be called. This results in some unfortunate accidents when a pitcher starts to pitch but slips or stumbles or is attacked by a fit of sneezing or bees. In any of these situations, the umpire should call a balk. Balks legislate action, not intent.

The penalty for a balk is that all base runners get to advance one base. If there was a runner on first, he goes to second. A runner on third would score. The only exceptions to this are if the balk also results in the batter reaching first base because of a walk or a hit batter. In this case, all the runners would advance anyway, so there’s no further penalty. If, in the process of the balk, the pitcher loses the ball and it goes flying somewhere, the base runners are allowed to try to advance more than one base, but they do so at their own risk and can be tagged for an out.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra

 

 

What is a shift in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a shift in baseball?

Thanks,
Darrel


Dear Darrel,

If you’ve watched a baseball game on TV lately, there’s a good chance you looked up at your television screen at some point and were surprised by the location of the players on the fielding team. Perhaps the short stop was on the first base side of second base instead of in his normal position on the third base side. Or the first and third basemen were on the home plate side of their bases and creeping in as the pitcher readied to pitch. What you were seeing was a shift – a tactic whereby the fielding team adjusts its positioning before the ball is put in play. A team may choose to shift its outfield, its infield, or both for situational or personnel reasons. We’ll run through a few examples of each scenario in this post.

The shift is a compelling element of baseball because it is simultaneously so obvious and so revolutionary. If you’ve ever played in the outfield of a baseball or softball game, you probably automatically shifted based on who was at bat; that dude with biceps the size of watermelons who hit the ball way past you last time is up to bat? You move back. That’s an example of a shift based on personnel. You see who is up to bat and adjust based on what you think they might do. In the example we gave, it doesn’t feel revolutionary. The personnel shifts you see in Major League Baseball (MLB) games today are the product of a similar type of analysis, just formalized and backed by big amounts of data. By the time a player has been in the league for three years, they will have played in close to 450 games and been up to bat over 1,250 times. This gives opposing teams a lot of information about where they usually hit the ball. Virtually every player has patterns that will reveal themselves over time and with study. A player who has a strong tendency to hit the ball in one direction or location is more vulnerable to a defensive shift.

Other times, it’s not the player who is up to bat but the situation that dictates a defensive shift. For example, if the batting team is down a run, has a player on first base, and is likely to try to bunt the ball to advance the runner to second, the first and third basemen may move toward home plate so that they are prepared to field the bunt they believe is coming. If it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, the batting team has a player on third base, and the game is tied, then the fielding team knows that they will lose if they allow that player to reach home. If the batter hits a long fly ball to the back of the outfield, the base runner will stay on third base until the ball is caught but then have plenty of time to run home safely before any throw could reach home plate. In this case, the fielding team knows for sure that any ball hit to the back of the outfield will result in them losing. So why even have outfielders back there? Isn’t it better to have them move in, so a ground ball hit through the infield may be able to be fielded quickly enough to prevent the runner from scoring? It is! The outfielders moving in in cases like that are another classic scenario that calls for a situational shift.

 

Defensive shifts have become much more common and more extreme in recent years. As of this year, they have doubled in frequency every year since 2011. It’s now quite regular for teams to shift all or almost all of their defensive players to one side but it still looks weird. One wonders how professional baseball players, people who are paid millions of dollars to be good at hitting a ball, cannot simply hit the ball in an unexpected direction. Apparently, it’s harder than it looks! Shifts are all part of the greater statistical revolution in baseball. The gloriously large and discreet data that baseball creates have offered numerous opportunities for teams to identify exactly what each opposing player and team does best… and do everything in their power to take that away from their opponents. Shifts are an integral part of the tactical game of cat and mouse that makes baseball a compelling sport to watch.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra

Who owns the rooftop seating near Wrigley Field?

Dear Sports Fan,

Who owns the rooftop seating near Wrigley Field? My partner and I were watching the playoffs last night and the television cameras were focusing on some bleachers set up on a building across the street from the stadium. We wondered if that was officially part of the stadium or not.

Thanks,
Matthew


Dear Matthew,

Those seats are cool, aren’t they? Wrigley Field is one of Major League Baseball’s last two great old historic baseball stadiums. It was built in 1914 for a baseball team called the (I kid you not) Chicago Whales, but the present tenants, the Chicago Cubs, have played there since 1916. As was true with many of the old stadiums, it’s built inside the city, instead of in a suburb with lots of room for parking like most modern stadiums. One result of this is that the stadium is surrounded by relatively normal city streets with buildings on them that are around the same height, at least on the two outfield sides. As you noticed last night, many of these neighboring houses now sport bleacher seating on their roofs, from which you can watch the game. You can actually see them on Google Maps:

The Wrigley Rooftops, as they are called, have their own Wikipedia page, which I leaned heavily on for this article. How they got there and who owns them is a surprisingly long and twisted story.

For most of Wrigley Field’s history, the neighboring rooftops were home to informal gatherings. Watching the games from them was a perk neighbors enjoyed, perhaps as a consolation for the literally hundreds of thousands of drunk people the stadium brought to their neighborhood every year. Sometime in the 1980s, some of the people who owned the buildings started bulking up their seating arrangements and charging admission. This escalated gradually to where we are today: most of the buildings are no longer residential. Their primary purpose is to support the bleachers on their roofs. Some of them even have bars and restaurants inside. They provide a stadium-like experience at stadium-like prices.

As you might suspect, the people who own the Chicago Cubs have not always been happy about the idea of others profiting off of their investment so directly and in such a similar way to how they are trying to make a profit. In 2002, the Cubs sued the owners of the Wrigley Rooftops for copyright infringement. I guess the idea was that rooftop viewers were engaged in an act analogous to pirating a TV feed. Most of the rooftop establishments eventually settled out of court and agreed to pay the Cubs 17% of their proceeds as a form of royalty. The Cubs agreed to officially endorse those roofs. That led to a detente which lasted almost a decade until the current owner of the Cubs, Thomas S. Ricketts, who had purchased the team in 2009 after the settlements, decided to renovate those sides of the stadium in ways which would obstruct the rooftop views. All hell broke loose. In a classic turn of legalistic fate, the owners of the rooftops sued the Cubs! Their argument was that the Cubs were now breaching the contract they entered into during the settlement of the last lawsuit.

Despite this antagonistic and adversarial relationship, (or maybe because of it), the era of the independent rooftop may soon be over. Frustrated with the lawsuit filed by the rooftop owners, the Cubs have decided that it would be easier and cheaper in the long-run to simply buy the neighboring buildings with their rooftop clubs. To date, Ricketts has purchased at least six of the buildings, a process made easier by the fact that some of them seemed to be in financial straits to begin with. How long the other rooftops will be able to hold out remains to be seen.

That’s the story of the unique Wrigley Rooftops. It’s a classic American story of lawsuit and counter-suit that fits America’s Pastime perfectly.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

The good and evil of baseball's Wild Card game

Major League Baseball’s Wild Card Game is a unique way to start the playoffs. This year’s two games, the New York Yankees vs. the Houston Astros in the American League and the Chicago Cubs vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League, clearly represent what is good and what is evil about the Wild Card Game. The Yankees vs. Astros game has everything that’s good about the game, while the Cubs vs. Pirates game is everything that’s evil. I’ll explain what I mean by this, but first, here’s a quick reminder of how the playoffs are constructed and what the Wild Card Game is.

There are 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams. These teams are broken up into two conferences of 15 teams each, the American League (AL) and National League (NL), and three divisions of five teams each. After 162 regular season games, the team with the best record within each division is declared the division winner (said to have “won the pennant”) and automatically qualifies for the playoffs. Since the goal of the playoffs is to end up with the best team from the NL playing against the best team from the AL, three teams from each league is an awkward number to have. Four would be better, because then you could have two teams play each other, and then the winner of each of those matchups play to end up with a single team. The simple way to get from three teams to four is to add a single extra team, called a Wild Card, by selecting the team with the best record in the conference that isn’t a division winner. That’s how baseball did it from 1994 to 2011. In 2012 they added a fifth team — a second Wild Card team — by selecting the team with the second best record in the conference that isn’t a division winner. Since five is also an awkward number of teams, the playoffs are designed to quickly get back down to four. The two Wild Card teams in each league play a single elimination game to decide which of them gets to be the fourth team and play a seven game series against one of the three division winners. (If you want more detail, read my full post on how the MLB playoffs work.)

The Wild Card Game is at its best when it’s between two teams like the New York Yankees and Houston Astros. The Yankees are the winningest team in baseball history. They have won 27 World Series, a whopping 16 more than the next best team. Although they are only second in the league in payroll this year, they’re famous and infamous for spending more money on players than any other team can afford or would want to afford. They’re the bullies of the league, the royalty — Darth Vadar and his army of clones. They were the first Wild Card team and would have been the only one had the system still only taken one. Playing them are the Houston Astros. The Astros are almost the complete opposite of the Yankees. They’ve been playing in MLB since 1962 and have never won a World Series. They haven’t even made the playoffs in the past decade. They have the sixth lowest payroll in the league. As a very casual baseball fan, I literally cannot name a single player on their team. They are a surprise, a heart-warming story. The Wild Card game gives the Astros a chance when they wouldn’t have had one otherwise. It creates a wonderful and dramatic spectacle. And it provides a clear rooting interest for all non-partisan fans. Why wouldn’t you want to see the Astros knock off the Yankees and stride into the playoffs? Watching this game is all upside – if the Astros win, it will be glorious; if the Yankees win, then giving the Astros an extra game didn’t cause anyone any harm. This Wild Card game is all about opportunity.

The NL Wild Card Game between the Cubs and Pirates is bad in all the ways the AL game is good. The Cubs and Pirates are both teams that are easy for unaffiliated fans to root for. The Cubs famously have not won the World Series since 1908, the longest streak of bad fortune in the league. What you might not know is that they’ve actually played in the World Series and lost seven times since then! The Pirates have won it more recently, in 1979, but haven’t been back since. Both teams are chock-full of young, talented, exciting players, like Andrew McCutchen on the Pirates and rookie phenom Kris Bryant on the Cubs. Both teams have strong-fan bases who have stuck with them through the fallow years. There are lots of reasons for neutral fans to want both teams to advance, so while this game may actually be a better baseball game than the Yankees vs. Astros, it’s far, far more insidious. There’s simply no way you’re going to watch this game and leave without your dominant feeling being one of sadness for the eliminated team. This Wild Card Game doesn’t feel like it’s about opportunity. It feels like it’s a cruel trick to play on teams that have worked so hard during a long, grueling season.

What’s the solution? A third Wild Card team? A three game Wild Card mini-series? I’m not sure. My short term-solution is to watch the AL Wild Card Game and root for the Astros but ignore the NL Wild Card Game entirely. Just tell me which team advanced and which team got screwed. As intriguing as I find both NL teams, the inevitable heartbreak is not worth the investment.

The glass ceiling isn't breaking for female coaches but there is a crack

On August 5, 2014, the San Antonio Spurs became the first National Basketball Association (NBA) team to hire a woman as a full-time coach by hiring Becky Hammon as one of their assistant coaches. On July 27, 2015, the Arizona Cardinals, a National Football League (NFL) team made similar headlines by hiring Jenn Welter to their coaching staff. Just recently, the Oakland Athletics, a team in Major League Baseball (MLB) made their mark by hiring Justine Siegal to their coaching staff. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the glass ceiling preventing women entering professional coaching as equals is breaking all over the place — across the country and across many sports. Alas, it’s not true. The hiring of Welter and Siegal by the Cardinals and Athletics are vastly different acts than that of the Spurs in hiring Hammon. They’re not comparable in any way. If anything, these lesser hirings should show us just how radical, brave, and smart the Spurs are.

Welter was hired by the Cardinals to be an “assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason to work with inside linebackers.” She was one of four people to work with the team’s linebackers – who are a group of around eight to 15 on teams of 53 to 90 people. Come the regular season, and Welter was gone, having served her time. Siegal is likely to have a similar experience with the Oakland As. She was hired as “a guest instructor with [the As] Instructional League team.” The Instructional League is a place for very young prospects and injured or over-the-hill veterans to play. Its season lasts only for September and October, and is separate from the core minor league system. In other words, she wasn’t hired to coach the major league Athletics nor any of their seven full-time minor league teams.

Hammon, on the other hand, is one of six full-time assistant coaches on the San Antonio Spurs bench. She has already spent a full season with the team and is entering her second year. During the summer, she was asked to head coach the Spurs Summer League team, an honor typically given to a team’s top assistant coach. She led that team to the Summer League title. As premature as this sounds, there are already speculative articles being written about Hammon’s prospects as a head coach. Given the Spurs well-established record of stability, my guess is that she’ll stay with the team for at least a few more years. The speculation isn’t unwarranted though. As you can see in this chart, four former assistant coaches under Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and an additional three players who played for him have become head coaches in the league. If Hammon continues on the path she seems to be on, she will become a good candidate for a head coaching position.

The problem is – will anyone team have the guts to hire her? As sad as this sounds, my guess is that her only reasonable chance is to stay in San Antonio and aim to be hired as Popovich’s heir when he decides to retire. Other teams just don’t seem to be up to it. Don’t be fooled by the other high profile female hirings in sports. Any movement toward equality is a good one, but it’s important to understand that they have been small head-fakes toward equality, while the Spurs move was a full-on slam dunk.