Value for money in the Major Leagues: the “Moneyball Cup”

I’ve had a lifetime love for baseball. Born a Yankees fan, I remember staying up late into the night watching the Yankees win the World Series in 1998, 1999, and 2000 (only to watch the Yankees’ heartbreaking collapse in 2001) with some of the best teams in baseball history. I loved listening to baseball games on mute, pretending to be an announcer with my younger brother (also a fanatic) who did the color commentary. We watched all the games, played backyard baseball, created countless fantasy teams and played countless video games, and we collected baseball cards–assembling a collection that would later make my brother a fortune on eBay. But baseball, like most things I was interested in when I was 10 or 11, eventually faded for nerdier pursuits.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis

It was about two years ago when I became interested in baseball again, following the league and discussing the game with my friends and family. My brother was still an expert, and I started living with Will, a formidable Boston Red Sox fan who I had to deal with on Red Sox Nation turf. Part of what drove my interest in baseball was Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball, an investigative journalist-style inquiry into baseball’s sabermetric revolution, its impact on the low-budget Oakland A’s, and Oakland’s eccentric General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt will play Beane in a Moneyball movie in 2011).

I had already been familiar with the statistical revolution that was overtaking baseball, being a statistical nerd myself, but the book sparked my interest once again: I began spending way too much of my time on Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, and various other baseball blogs.

Part of what interested me in the statistics was how it played into baseball as a business: with the explosion of statistical sports commentary on the web, teams were constantly being criticized for their front office moves. Did an aging slugger’s statistical performance merit his new contract? Using advanced statistics, the decisions of General Managers could be analyzed not just for their contribution to performance on the field but also for their cost-effectiveness. The change had an impact on me as a fan, but it had a bigger impact on front offices: though Moneyball chronicled a low-budget team trying to catch up with the big boys, even big spending teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees began using advanced statistics to find undervalued and underrated players.

Baseball-Reference.com recently added more sabermetric stats. It's a great tool for quickly looking up players, teams, records, etc.

But what teams are doing the best job at getting value for money in the Major Leagues today? One could take a look at the standings, divide each team’s salary by their number of wins, and determine which team has paid the most in order to get where they have (and which teams have spent the most per win) but a central insight of the statistical era in baseball is that many wins and losses in baseball are due to statistical noise–in other words, luck. The statistic “batting average on balls in play” (BABIP) for example, measures how many times a batter gets a hit per each time he puts the ball in play. Since BABIP tends to be uniform in the Major Leagues for all hitters season-to-season (with slight variations for players who beat out a lot of infield hits), one can use the statistic to determine whether a hitter has been lucky (missing fielders or taking advantage of bad ones) or if his batting average is a result of higher performance.

Wins Above Replacement is a great statistic to determine how much a team’s performance is a result of luck and how much a team’s performance is a result of prudent front office decisions: the statistic measures how many wins a player contributes to his team, compared to an average player the team could have picked up off the waiver wire or Triple-A (click the link above for a fuller explanation, I’ve probably oversimplified it a bit). Overall, it correlates better with winning than most other stats, and when it doesn’t, it’s likely due to luck.

So what teams get the most WAR for the money? Baseball-Reference makes that calculation easy by providing salary and WAR information for all Major League teams. According to my calculations, the team that’s spent the least money per WAR so far this season (winning what I like to call the “Moneyball Cup”) is the San Diego Padres: spending just $1.9 million per WAR. It’s not just because they’re bargain hunters, either: The Padres are currently in first place in the NL West. Here’s the rest of the top 10:

The Padres, bolstered by a few surprises and some very talented young players, are getting the most value for money this season.

1.  San Diego Padres - $1.9 million per WAR
2.  Toronto Blue Jays - $2.9 million per WAR
3.  Oakland Athletics - $3.4 million per WAR
T-4.  Texas Rangers - $3.6 million per WAR
T-4.  Cincinnati Reds - $3.6 million per WAR
6.  Tampa Bay Rays - $4.1 million per WAR
7.  Minnesota Twins - $4.2 million per WAR
8.  Kansas City Royals - $4.3 million per WAR
9.  Cleveland Indians - $4.5 million per WAR
10.  Atlanta Braves $4.6 million per WAR

Unfortunately, as a Yankees fan, I have no bragging rights in this contest (not that I expected any): While the Red Sox are around league average at $6.5 million per WAR, the Yankees pay quite a bit more: $9.1 million.

Interestingly, it’s a little tricky to determine which team is the worst. Both the Houston Astros and the Pittsburgh Pirates have compiled negative WAR this year. What does that mean (after all, you can’t lose negative games…)? By compiling -2.2 and -2.6 WAR, respectively, the players on the Astros and Pirates have done worse than what one would expect from a team assembled off the waiver wire, the Minor Leagues, and free agency. Ouch. Both teams have thus basically wasted the money they’ve spent on payroll this season, though it’s probably worse for the Astros, whose payroll is over $91 million (the Pirates’ payroll is approximately $34 million).

Here are the rest of the worst:

5.  Seattle Mariners - $15.1 million per WAR
4.  Los Angeles Angels - $18.7 million per WAR
3.  Chicago Cubs - $39.4 million per WAR
T-1.  Pittsburgh Pirates - $34.4 million for negative 2.6 WAR
T-1.  Houston Astros - $91.5 million for negative 2.2 WAR

Of course, the Major League standings don’t mimic these standings. The Yankees have the best record in baseball (though several of the best teams are contenders, like the Rays and Rangers), and plenty of other teams use big budgets to win as well. Since teams like the Sox and Yankees have more money, their use of statistical analysis has allowed them to continually assemble competitive teams. Meanwhile, teams like the A’s struggle (still under Billy Beane, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2006). Baseball, the only major professional sports league in America that does not have a salary cap, remains a game that favors big market teams and free-spending owners (heh… go Yankees!). For everyone else, though, there’s always the Moneyball Cup!

Beyond the jump, I have the full standings.

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Brazil v. Ivory Coast and World Cup Game Theory

In keeping with the World Cup series of posts, here’s a quick post today highlighting some interesting cases of game theory in World Cup play, historical and current.

Last World Cup in 2006, I read a Slate article describing how penalty kicks represent a perfect application of game theory in the real world. The situations are predictable and controlled, and the number of choices are extremely limited, providing for an easy model. In a penalty kick, a free kick is taken by one player twelve yards from the opposing team’s goal, with only the goalie of the defending team to protect the goal. There are only a handful of choices for the kicker to make, most importantly which direction to kick the ball–to the goalie’s right, left, or straight center–and to some extent whether to drive it to the high corner or low corner. For the goalie then, he must choose to go to his right, left, or stay in the center. According to the Slate writer, “Game theory, applied to the problem of penalties, says that if the striker and the keeper are behaving optimally, neither will have a predictable strategy. The striker might favor his stronger side, of course, but that does not mean that there will be a pattern to the bias.”

Professionals such as the French superstar Zinédine Zidane and Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon are apparently superb economists: Their strategies are absolutely unpredictable, and, as the theory demands, they are equally successful no matter what they do, indicating that they have found the perfect balance among the different options. These geniuses do not just think with their feet.

Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner also tackled the question in a recent piece for The Times (U.K.). They concluded that the best option was to kick the ball straight down center: “One strategy proved considerably more likely to score a goal than any other. It wasn’t shooting to the left. And it wasn’t shooting to the right. The wisest choice is to kick the ball straight down the centre. And yet that was the least-common choice.” This optimal strategy was the least common because it didn’t take into account the preferences of the kicker, who wanted not only to score, but to hedge against looking the utter fool. A kicker who kicks it straight down the middle and has his shot blocked will be the subject of scorn for making the seemingly ridiculous choice of kicking it straight at the goalkeeper.

In addition to penalty kicks, game theory in the group set-up can also come into play when deciding how to play an individual match. In the World Cup, the top two teams of each four-team group will advance to the knock-out rounds. In the Mind Your Decisions blog, Presh Talwalker recounts an incident in the 1982 FIFA World Cup:

West Germany played Austria in the last match of group B. A West German victory by 1 or 2 goals would result in both teams advancing; any less and Germany was out; any more and Austria was out (and replaced by Algeria, who had just beaten Chile). West Germany attacked hard and scored after 10 minutes. Afterwards, the players then proceeded to just kick the ball around aimlessly for the remainder of the match. Algerian supporters were so angered that they waved banknotes at the players, while a German fan burned his German flag in disgust. By the second half, the ARD commentator Eberhard Stanjek refused any further comment on the game, while the Austrian television commentator Robert Seeger advised viewers to switch off their sets.

He describes another perverse incentive in the 1994 Shell Caribbean Cup. Goals in overtime (sudden death) would count double, to reward teams in close matches.

Barbados needed to win by two goals. With less than ten minutes left in the match, Barbados led by exactly two goals and began to play very defensively. In the 83rd minute, Grenada finally scored, making the score 2-1. Barbados tried to answer but, with only three minutes remaining, was unable to score. Members of the Barbados team contemplated their options. To advance, they needed either to score one more goal in the last three minutes (winning by two), or force the game to extra time where a goal would count as if they won by two. Barbados scored on their own net, tying the game at 2-2.

This is not yet the odd part of the match. The Grenada players, initial shock abating, developed their own strategy. If they could score on Barbados in the waning minutes, they would win the match and advance. But, if they could score a goal on themselves, they would lose by one goal which was still enough to advance. For two minutes, Grenada tried to score on either goal, with Barbados players split between defending their own goal and that of their opponents!

Normal time ended in a tie and the game did go to overtime, in which Barbados scored a game winner and advanced (though was eliminated from the tournament in the next round). No penalties for the players’ actions in this game were handed down since both teams were earnestly trying to win their group, and the farce was the result of silly incentives.

Today in watching the Brazil v. Ivory Coast game, I witnessed some poor game theory on the part of the Ivory Coast team. Brazil had taken a commanding 3-0 lead, and were virtually guaranteed to win the game. In fact, according to the announcers, Brazil had never even lost a game where they led 1-0 at halftime. Didier Drogba scored for the Ivory Coast on a good header to make it 3-1, but still the game was likely out of reach for the underdogs. In the 87th minute near the conclusion of the game, Ivory Coast player Kader Keita ran into Kaka’s elbow, and dropped to the ground clutching his mouth. It was a clear dive, because nothing was near Keita’s mouth at all, and additionally he had run into Kaka. Kaka walked away amid some shouting and tension, and soon received a yellow card. It was his second yellow card of the tournament, which equaled a red card, forced him out of the remainder of the match, and suspending him for Brazil’s final Group game against Portugal. As the NYTimes reported:

The midfielder went off, improved from his opening showing but losing the chance to collect more precious minutes against Portugal, minutes he might need given any rustiness born of his injury-addled first season with Real Madrid that saw him play only 22 matches.

In fact, with Brazil in commanding lead of Group G with 6 points from two wins, guaranteed to advance (likely as the top seed), and Portugal and Ivory Coast now tied at only one point, it is actually the Ivory Coast that will miss Kaka’s “precious minutes against Portugal.” If Ivory Coast beats North Korea in their final Group game, and Brazil beats or ties Portugal, Ivory Coast can advance. If Ivory Coast only draws against North Korea, but Brazil beats Portugal, Ivory Coast will advance. Therefore, Ivory Coast should want Brazil playing at top form against their primary opponents for the second spot out of Group G. They should have preserved Kaka’s (ranked 4th best footballer in the World Cup by ESPN) eligibility for the next game. Thus, an inopportune red card for the Ivory Coast.

edit::

I made a mistake in reading the schedule and misrepresented the situations in which Ivory Coast can advance. Portugal currently at 1 pt still has 2 games left against North Korea, then Brazil, so the scenarios are more diverse than I implied. Either way, Ivory Coast should want Brazil with their best player when playing Portugal.

Ivory Coast player clutches mouth as he dives.

Ivory Coast player runs into Kaka's elbow.

The World Cup 2010 and Facebook

The World Cup Trophy

Many Americans are paying attention to competitive soccer for the first time in years because of the prospects of this year's US team. What's in store for US soccer? (ESPN.com)

Everyone watching the US vs. Slovenia World Cup game on Friday morning knows it was a great game. Soccer is growing in popularity in the US (at least right now) because this year’s national team is a good one and has a chance to make a run into the elimination rounds of the World Cup final. But because of the time zone difference between the US and South Africa, millions of Americans are caught on the brink of committing to soccer but unable to watch the games at home on TV. This has lead to a greater focus on Internet marketing and broadcasting, allowing people to watch the games online. Some people still didn’t get to watch the game. But what the time zone difference definitely couldn’t stop was people’s commentary on the World Cup game between the US and Slovenia.

As I watched the game, I noticed that commentary on the World Cup game was dominating my news feed on Facebook. Through its chat client, private messaging, the links posted and the statuses updated in people’s news feeds, Facebook has become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. I began to ponder after the game the massive scope of what Facebook does to connect us with other people around the world. I figured that the World Cup game was a better time than any to measure how many people’s opinions Facebook connects me to in any given day.

So I went through my Facebook newsfeed and compiled a list of all the people who referenced the World Cup in their status, commented on the World Cup, or commented on other people’s comments on the World Cup during and after the 10:00AM EST game. The list is below the fold as an Appendix (to read, click on the title of the post or click “Read more…” at the end of the post). For now, I’ll just summarize the results, since the sheer multitude of reactions I found allow me to create something of a zeitgeist with my findings:

facebook logo

Facebook is changing our lives in ways we take for granted. This morning, I received the opinions of approximately fifty people on the World Cup game I was watching.

Overall, using Facebook, I received the opinions of 37 (thirty seven) friends and 13 (thirteen) other people about the World Cup match, both while and in the first few hours after it happened. That’s a total of 50 (fifty) people. I have 601 (six-hundred and one) friends on Facebook, which means that I received the opinions of approximately 1/12 (one-twelfth) of my friends. Pretty cool. Here’s a bit of a breakdown:

Only one person cheered for Slovenia. Eleven people (22%) cheered for the United States (though most people who were complaining about the referees were certainly sympathetic to the United States more generally). One person, he recently married my cousin actually, booed the United States, but that was over their poor play early in the game.

fifa world cup soccer

One of my friends posted a picture that demonstrated why the referee's call was bad.

A lot of people complained about a controversial refereeing decision made by Malinese referee Koman Coulibaly (poor guy, it was his first World Cup finals match ever). Sixteen (32%) of my friends complained about the referees, but six additional friends made jokes about the referee, and more blamed the referee for the loss.

A significant chunk of the people just “liked” something that was posted by someone else. Facebook recently added a feature that allows users to “like” individual comments beneath statuses; however, no one used that feature to like a comment about the World Cup.

Most people in my news feed were acquaintances or family friends, but a small minority included my roommate, my immediate family, and some former debate partners. A friend of mine posted a funny video of Robin Williams’ comedy routine that featured a bit about the referees.

As you may know, David set up the StoneSoup World Cup Fantasy League last week on ESPN.com. As I like to get into some of the extreme patriotism that is so clearly wildly popular among my friends (at least according to my news feed), I believe I am the only person in the league who has picked the US to win the World Cup. As such, I am paying a lot of attention to the games – getting up in the morning on a Friday I have off was something I haven’t done for a sports event in a while. But if my news feed is any indication, it seems that plenty of my friends are just as excited as I am.

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Game 7 of the Finals: A Preview

Tonight’s the big night, Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The significance of this game — and this rivalry — to basketball cannot be overstated. This is the Lakers and Celtics’ twelfth Finals meeting against each other; the two franchises hold more than thirty championships. The Celtics seek to win their 18th championship, their second in the last three years; Kobe and the Lakers are looking to repeat, and become the first NBA team to repeat since Kobe and Shaq three-peat at the start of the decade.

Prior to the Finals, Bill Simmons wrote a preview outlining the impact this game could have on the legacies of various players. Going to a Game 7 puts a lot of these predictions in perspective. In one game, several players could move up the list of the greatest players of all time–or fail, in their last opportunity to do so.

The “Big Three” Celtics

It’s fitting that this series has made it to a seventh game, because these Celtics have gone on a remarkable run. They’ve beaten some of the best players in the NBA in quick succession: a 5-game close-out against Dwyane Wade and the Heat; their destruction of LeBron and the Cavs (with a ridiculous 29-18-13 from Rondo in Game 4); Pierce lighting up the Magic (with Nate Robinson helping out in Game 6); and a (potential) upset over Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, the long-time favorites.

All this while coming off a lethargic regular season riddled with injuries, and a championship for Boston makes the “Big Three” Celtics a true NBA dynasty, to be judged against the Spurs or Lakers as one of the best teams of the era. They’d have only two championships, to Shaq’s and Duncan’s three, but a championship this year could raise doubts as to whether Garnett’s injury last year cost them a three-peat.

Rajon Rondo

Rondo: best player on the Celtics? Best PG in the NBA? He's definitely made his mark in the playoffs.

For Ray Allen, this has been a strange series: A record-setting performance in Game 2, followed by 0-fers in the next three games. He wasn’t the reason for their loss on Tuesday, with 19 points, but a big game for Allen in Game 7 could be a game-changer for his legacy. Bill Simmons has said that Allen’s already passed Reggie Miller on his basketball “pyramid;” another NBA Championship (and possible MVP honors if he really lights it up) could propel him above even more of the greatest NBA players. Oh, and he’s a free agent after the season, too.

The impact of this game on Paul Pierce‘s legacy may be even more significant. The MVP of the Finals in 2008, Pierce had his best performance this series in Game 5, the Celtics’ triumphant final game at home. If the Celtics win the series tonight, Game 5 will be remembered as the game where the Celtics took control. If Pierce is dominant and the Celtics win, he has a chance at his second NBA Finals MVP award in three years. A performance like that would shoot Pierce way up the list of NBA greats.

Kevin Garnett‘s situation is more complicated. As Bill Simmons noted, Garnett has reinvented himself over the last year or so, becoming more of a complementary player than the dominant force he used to be. A championship definitely moves Garnett up the ranks, but Garnett’s legacy as a great player already exceeds that of Pierce and Allen.

I actually disagree with most of Simmons’ predictions regarding Rajon Rondo. Winning the Finals doesn’t make Rondo the best point guard in the NBA (though best-defending Point Guard is probably already true); nor would a championship make him “The Athlete With The Highest Approval Rating In Boston” (that title, I think, goes to Tom Brady or Dustin Pedroia). Then again, Rondo hasn’t had a great series, except for Games 2 and 5. Still interesting, though, is that he still has a chance at Finals MVP (with his big performances in Boston’s most important wins) and that two titles this early in his career could put him on a Hall of Fame trajectory (which would give this Celtics team FOUR Hall of Fame players). That being said, Rondo needs to improve his Free Throw shooting (his % has gone down in each of the succeeding playoff series this year) and his jump shooting in order to pass Chris Paul (or Nash or Deron Williams) as the best PG in the NBA.

The Kobe Bryant Lakers

Kobe Bryant

This game could put Kobe solidly in the top 10 players of all time. Or it could cast doubt on his sole championship without Shaq. Tonight we'll find out.

With Gasol, Fisher, and Artest inconsistent, the real story here is Kobe Bryant. Kobe has been fantastic, though his 30-7-4 with 43% shooting in the Finals has been worse than his performance against the Suns or the Jazz. While he got in foul trouble in Game 2, a key game for the Celtics, and he’s been inconsistent from long range, Kobe has undoubtedly been the MVP of the Lakers–and if the Lakers win the championship, he’ll almost certainly be Finals MVP.

But that’s what it comes down to. Game 7 will have a bigger impact on the legacy of Kobe Bryant than any other player on the court. A loss throws the 2009 championship into question (with Garnett’s injury keeping the Celtics out of the Finals) and may leave an asterisk on his career (*never beat the Celtics). If he wins, he’s solidly in the top-10 of all time… with no end in sight. This could be the most important game of Kobe’s career — finally on his own, series entirely on his shoulders, against the Laker’s most hated enemy.

Predictions

Interestingly, both of the two people I talk to most about basketball said the same name when I asked for predictions about Game 7, and it’s a guy whose name is not mentioned above: Rasheed Wallace.

Here are their predictions:

“Sheed plays the game of his life. Rondo breaks free. Key 3 pointers are the keys. LA’s bench chokes. Pierce will have double-digit rebounds. Boston 96 LA 90.” – Garron

“Rasheed Wallace has got to get down in the low post and make a difference. If he can hold his own in the post, the Celtics will take Game 7. If he drifts out to the perimeter and jacks up long 3s, LA is taking home the title.” – Will

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of either team (I’m a New York sports fan). I do like Ray Allen (a UConn alum) and I’m definitely interested in the potential history-making. My prediction, however, is less optimistic than my fellow Bostonians: Lakers by 10. While I wouldn’t mind seeing Boston take home another championship while I’m here, I think there’s too much on the line for Kobe. I think he’s going to show us why he deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. LeBron James is probably the best player in basketball right now, but Kobe Bryant is close and Kobe definitely has a more well-rounded game. A clutch moment tonight could cement that in people’s minds. What’s more, without Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics will (as mentioned above) rely on Rasheed Wallace. I’m not confident the Celtics won’t get dominated inside.

But anything can happen. Odom and Gasol will need to show up, and the Lakers need to limit the damage inflicted by Artest when he starts jacking up 3s. What’s more, a return to form from Garnett or Pierce could turn things upside-down (like Game 5) even with a virtuoso performance from Kobe. For a new basketball fan like myself (or for anyone with even a marginal interest in sports), it’ll definitely be worth watching.

Join the StoneSoup World Cup Fantasy League, pt. 3

Despite all the planning, ESPN has obviated my need to manually create a World Cup bracket league.

Join the Stone Soup World Cup Bracket League here.

http://games.espn.go.com/bpredictor/en-us/group?groupID=34796

Group:  StoneSoup League
Password:  stonesoup

I am offering a Grand Prize for the winner:

Jason Heyward rookie card

Armando Galarraga baseball card

$10 Gift card from Amazon.com

Runner-up gets:

a Hug

Of course, the best bracket on all of ESPN will also win $5000.

Deadline for sign-ups: 9:59AM, Friday June 11th

The Supreme Court and Baseball.

Justice Alito, Phillies phanatic.

As a baseball fan, I was pleased to read the NY Times’ article yesterday highlighting some of the current Supreme Court justices’ connections with the venerable American pastime–baseball. Nominee Elena Kagan is a New York Mets fan, while Bronx-bred Sotomayor is a New York Yankees fan. The article relates a fun story about Breyer (Red Sox fan) organizing a welcoming party for Samuel Alito (Phillies fan). As Alito remembers it, “He opened the door and the Phillie Phanatic came in and gave me a big hug. And it was great.” Aww.

A story about Justice Stevens’ early history with the game testified to the senior jurist’s advancing years. Jeffrey Toobin penned the tale in a tribute piece in The New Yorker earlier this year:

On a wall in Stevens’s chambers that is mostly covered with autographed photographs of Chicago sports heroes, from Ernie Banks to Michael Jordan, there is a box score from Game Three of the 1932 World Series, between the Yankees and the Cubs. When Babe Ruth came to bat in the fifth inning, at Wrigley Field, according to a much disputed baseball legend, he pointed to the center-field stands and then proceeded to hit a home run right to that spot. The event is known as “the called shot.”

“My dad took me to see the World Series, and we were sitting behind third base, not too far back,” Stevens, who was twelve years old at the time, told me. He recalled that the Cubs players had been hassling Ruth from the dugout earlier in the game. “Ruth did point to the center-field scoreboard,” Stevens said. “And he did hit the ball out of the park after he pointed with his bat. So it really happened.”

Stevens has a reverence for facts. He mentioned that he vividly recalled Ruth’s shot flying over the center-field scoreboard. But, at a recent conference, a man in the audience said that Ruth’s homer had landed right next to his grandfather, who was sitting far away from the scoreboard. “That makes me warn you that you should be careful about trusting the memory of elderly witnesses,” Stevens said. The box score was a gift from a friend; Stevens noticed that it listed the wrong pitchers for the game, so he crossed them out with a red pen, and wrote in the right names.

This meticulousness is evident in Stevens’s judicial writing.

There were a few stories that I was surprised the author did not touch on, however. In discussing the high frequency of baseball analogies in legal writing (by law-makers and law-appliers alike), the author failed to mention the pithy remark from John Roberts at his Senate confirmation hearings: “I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.” It was a metaphor that not only sparked much commentary in the immediate aftermath, but extended into Sonia Sotomayor’s hearing, as this Gawker video compilation and this YouTube clip illustrate:

The other major relationship between the Supreme Court and Major League Baseball has been the latter’s preferential treatment at the gentle and accommodating hands of the former. Just this past week, the Supreme Court held in American Needle v. NFL, in a unanimous decision, that the NFL was not exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act prohibiting anti-competitive cartel collusion. The NFL cannot decide as a group which single company would hold the license to manufacture merchandise for all NFL teams, and the decision may broadly impact a wide range of NFL policies–from TV rights, to marketing, and perhaps even free agency.

Baseball fans need not worry, however, because the Court has affirmed the MLB’s unique exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act on three separate occasions. No other sports league is similarly exempted.

In one of a brilliant justice’s most flawed pieces of legal reasoning (second only, in my opinion, to this), Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for a unanimous court in Federal Baseball Club v. National League (1922):

The business is giving exhibitions of base ball, which are purely state affairs. It is true that in order to attain for these exhibitions the great popularity that they have achieved, competitions must be arranged between clubs from different cities and States. But the fact that in order to give the exhibitions the Leagues must induce free persons to cross state lines and must arrange and pay for their doing so is not enough to change the character of the business. According to the distinction insisted upon in Hooper v. California, 155 U.S. 648, 655 , 15 S. Sup. Ct. 207, the transport is a mere incident, not the essential thing.

If future commerce clause decisions depended on Holmes’ reasoning, our nation would look far different today. Really? An organization dedicated to transporting groups of players from one city, to another city, and charging for tickets for their show is not involved in interstate commerce? According to Holmes, it wasn’t, and was thus shielded from federal antitrust meddling. Holmes’ tenuous legal ground was upheld in 1953 in Toolson v. New York Yankees, largely on the basis of deference to Congressional inaction to correct the problem. Yet when antitrust cases came up soon after in boxing and football, on nearly identical facts and transportation requirements, they received far different treatment.

In U.S. v. International Boxing Club, the Court could not bring itself to overrule Federal Baseball or Toolson, or to grant a similar exemption to boxing. Justice Milton wrote in a disbelieving dissent: “When boxers travel from State to State, carrying their shorts and fancy dressing robes in a ditty bag in order to participate in a boxing bout, which is wholly intrastate, it is now held by this Court that the boxing bout becomes interstate commerce.” In Radovich v. National Football League, a similar fate befell football. Justice Harlan wrote bitterly in dissent: “I am unable to distinguish football from baseball under the rationale of Federal Base Ball and Toolson, and can find no basis for attributing to Congress a purpose to put baseball in a class by itself…”

After generations of eminent scholars wrote in dissent against baseball’s monopoly on monopolistic behavior, the Supreme Court had a third swing at rectifying its error. But by 1972, it was too late. The aging slugger had signed too large of a contract to simply bench. The struggling pitcher had been given a no-demotion clause and just refused to leave. In Flood v. Kuhn, the Court revisited the question of baseball’s privileged position in sports. Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion read like a paean to a sport he clearly loved. Proceeding with a history of baseball’s formation (“It is a century and a quarter since the New York Nine defeated the Knickerbockers 23 to 1 on Hoboken’s Elysian Fields June 19, 1846…”), Blackmun decided to name… every single one of his favorite players and personalities:

Then there are the many names, celebrated for one reason or another, that have sparked the diamond and its environs and that have provided tinder for recaptured thrills, for reminiscence and comparisons, and for conversation and anticipation in-season and off-season: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson, Henry Chadwick, Eddie Collins, Lou Gehrig, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rogers Hornsby, Harry Hooper, Goose Goslin, Jackie Robinson, Honus Wagner, Joe McCarthy, John McGraw, Deacon Phillippe, Rube Marquard, Christy Mathewson, Tommy Leach, Big Ed Delahanty, Davy Jones, Germany Schaefer, King Kelly, Big Dan Brouthers, Wahoo Sam Crawford, Wee Willie Keeler, Big Ed Walsh, Jimmy Austin, Fred Snodgrass, Satchel Paige, Hugh Jennings, Fred Merkle, Iron Man McGinnity, Three-Finger Brown, Harry and Stan Coveleski, Connie Mack, Al Bridwell, Red Ruffing, Amos Rusie, Cy Young, Smokey Joe Wood, Chief Meyers, Chief Bender, Bill Klem, Hans Lobert, Johnny Evers, Joe Tinker, Roy Campanella, Miller Huggins, Rube Bressler, Dazzy Vance, Edd Roush, Bill Wambsganss, Clark Griffith, Branch Rickey, Frank Chance, Cap Anson, Nap Lajoie, Sad Sam Jones, Bob O’Farrell, Lefty O’Doul, Bobby Veach, Willie Kamm, Heinie Groh, Lloyd and Paul Waner, Stuffy McInnis, Charles Comiskey, Roger Bresnahan, Bill Dickey, Zack Wheat, George Sisler, Charlie Gehringer, Eppa Rixey, Harry Heilmann, Fred Clarke, Dizzy Dean, Hank Greenberg, Pie Traynor, Rube Waddell, Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell, Old Hoss Radbourne, Moe Berg, Rabbit Maranville, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove. The list seems endless.

In discussing the petitioner, he reads like a fantasy baseball player, scouting for his next draft pick. “In those 12 seasons he compiled a batting average of .293. His best offensive season was 1967 when he achieved .335. He was .301 or better in six of the 12 St. Louis years. He participated in the 1964, 1967, and 1968 World Series. He played error less ball in the field in 1966, and once enjoyed 223 consecutive errorless games. Flood has received seven Golden Glove Awards. He was co-captain of his team from 1965-1969. He ranks among the 10 major league outfielders possessing the highest lifetime fielding averages.”

In reaching his decision, he finally vacated Holmes’ logic on interstate commerce–“Professional baseball is a business and it is engaged in interstate commerce.”–and was forced to rely on that old judicial crutch, stare decisis:

Even though others might regard this as “unrealistic, inconsistent, or illogical,” see Radovich, 352 U.S., at 452 , the aberration is an established one, and one that has been recognized not only in Federal Baseball and Toolson, but in Shubert, International Boxing, and Radovich, as well, a total of five consecutive cases in this Court. It is an aberration that has been with us now for half a century, one heretofore deemed fully entitled to the benefit of stare decisis, and one that has survived the Court’s expanding concept of interstate commerce. It rests on a recognition and an acceptance of baseball’s unique characteristics and needs.

The Supreme Court’s relationship with the sport of baseball is not merely a trivial matter for the sports fans to laugh over. It is an ongoing love affair that has lasted nearly a century, and shows no signs of abating. Our national pastime has also captured the hearts of our dear legislators in Congress, who have never managed to clarify the law once and for all, and even take advantage of the special protection to regulate, purify and perfect their beloved sport.

It seems, on the matter of baseball, our legal titans are incapable of fairly calling balls and strikes. And yet, as a Supreme Court junkie, and baseball devotee, I completely understand.

FIFA World Cup Fantasy League Rules

Some time ago I blogged about the intention of setting up a World Cup Fantasy League, to help myself and friends keep up with the World Cup and perhaps replicate the excitement of the NCAA Tournament or Fantasy Baseball in having a “horse in the race”, aside from the United States, of course.

Here are the proposed rules for the Fantasy League, and for readers in cyberspace, feel free to adopt them to create leagues of your own! And if you’d like to join this league, we can accept more players (since we’re no longer doing a snake draft).

Instead of a snake draft–in which players draft in order, and then in reverse order, etc.–we’re going to do something a bit different so everyone has an equal chance of choosing Brazil or Argentina (the World Cup might be a little too top-heavy for a snake draft). Each player will first choose the 16 teams that they believe will advance out of the Group Stage, 2 from each group.They will get points for the number of wins, ties, and points scored by those teams during the Group Stage.

After each Group (from A through H) finishes playing a round robin tournament, two teams will advance to the Second Round (The Round of 16). One will be the top-seeded team from that group (e.g. 1A) and one will be the second-seeded team from that group (e.g. 2A). Beginning with the Second Round, the teams will play in a single-elimination bracket until they reach the finals. After the seeding of the Second Round is determined (by who makes it out of the Groups), our fantasy players will submit a completed bracket of which teams they think will advance through the tournament. One catch though: you can only get points for the 16 teams you chose to get out of the Group Stage. So if you didn’t think Team USA would advance out of Group C, you can’t get points for any victories they get after that (maybe you can choose them to win, but you wouldn’t get points for that).

Scoring System:

Each Win – 1 pt
Each Draw – 0.5 pt
Each Goal Scored – 0.25 pt

Advancing to Second Round – 3 pt
Advancing to Quarterfinals – 5 pt
Advancing to Semifinals – 9 pt
Advancing to Final – 17 pt
Winning Tournament – 30 pt

I’m flexible about changing the scoring system/points. What do people think about the rules?

Important Dates:

Players should submit their 16 Teams (2 from each group) by 11:59pm June 6th, 2010 (Eastern Time).

Players should submit their brackets for the Second Round and beyond by 9am, June 26, 2010. Kickoff for the first Second Round match is at 10am on June 26th, so it’s important not to be late!

Joining the League:

If you’d like to join this league, we can accept more players since we’re no longer doing a snake draft (though we’re limited by my time/energy, so I’ll set a cap of 8 additional players).

The current players are Alex, Thomas, Trevor, Lauren, Crocker, Ryne, Josh, and David. Please comment below if you’d like to join!