O.J.: Made in America.

My latest Insider column discusses Mike Hazen and diversity in baseball, and my latest boardgame review for Paste covers the pirate-themed Islebound, which looks great but plays too slowly.

My employer’s eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America is a real tour de force of nonfiction storytelling, combining two separate, strong narratives to give us the rise and fall of one of the most beloved celebrities of the last fifty years within the context of American race relations, particularly between white police and government authorities and African-American civilians. It paints pictures of two O.J.’s: the sports star who crossed over to become an icon to black and white audiences, and the manipulative wife-beater who eventually killed Nicole Brown and innocent bystander Ronald Goldman, only to be acquitted in a ‘trial of the century.’ Aired in five separate parts, the film casts an incredibly wide net and manages to inform the viewers not just on the facts but on the landscape in which those facts took place. (The film is streaming via the WatchESPN app and can be purchased on amazon or iTunes).

The documentary starts more or less with Simpson in community college, although it dips back into his childhood to introduce us to many of the figures who appear in the documentary on camera or in the action itself, as he’s about to head to USC, where the nation first became aware of his superlative talent on the field. The Buffalo Bills drafted Simpson, but their system didn’t make good use of his abilities for the first few years of his career and he appeared to be a disappointment until new head coach Lou Saban built the team’s offense around him in 1972. Simpson took off from there, becoming the first back to rush for 2000 yards (back in the 14-game schedule), breaking Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record, winning the league MVP and several rushing titles, and eventually retiring with the second-most rushing yards in NFL history.

Simpson started to convert his football prowess into commercial success early in his career, and began acting in films shortly after becoming a football star. Although the documentary focuses more on his comic work – he was Nordberg in the three Naked Gun films, probably the role for which he’s most remembered now as an actor – he also appeared in dramatic works, including an episode of Roots, only the greatest miniseries of all time (per Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz). By the time Simpson hung up his cleats, he was a cross-platform star, a bankable celebrity whom the film credits with ushering in the era of the sports star endorsement that we can blame for those awful Peyton Manning Nationwide commercials.

That story takes up the first two hours or so of the film, and it’s exhilirating to watch: there’s plenty of game footage, but we also get to watch the development of a national icon, turning from a charming but very unpolished athlete into a confident, ambitious actor and pitchman. In an era where endorsements were limited to white stars, Simpson broke the mold. That he did so by avoiding any emphasis on his race, such as commenting on political matters or protests, did not seem remarkable at the time; it was the path of least resistance for someone who wanted the fame and income that came from celebrity, not the power or the podium.

This part of the documentary is interspersed with the backdrop of rising racial animus in California, including the Watts riots, the police shooting of Eulia Love, the murder of Latasha Harkins by a Korean grocer (convicted but sentenced only to probation), and the Rodney King beating and acquittal. In a sense, it’s all prologue for the murder trial of Simpson, where the context of a city where many black citizens were convinced that they were being unfairly targeted by the police and treated differently by the courts informed a trial that included a cop, Mark Fuhrman, with a history of racist statements, and the defense accusation of planted evidence. The physical evidence, including DNA, should have made this a slam-dunk for the prosecution, but the defense created plenty of reasonable doubt, including prosecutor Chris Darden’s own inexplicable decision to ask Simpson to try on one of the gloves with his DNA on it, as well as by playing the race card to gain Simpson a fast acquittal.

I remember being disgusted to see people celebrating the verdict at the time, and the images still repulse me today: the fact that a black man could beat the system should not be more important than the fact that an abused wife and a total stranger were brutally murdered. But O.J.: Made in America doesn’t pass judgment itself; the film gives us both contemporary footage from the trial and reaction along with commentary today from so many participants, including two jurors (both black women) and the practically made-for-television civil rights lawyer Carl Douglas. Although a few key people are missing from these confessional interviews – Al Cowlings, Marguerite Simpson, and Darden stand out among the missing – the sheer number of people who did talk, and talked at length, is the production’s greatest strength. Furhman’s here. So are several of the cops who arrested Simpson, including those involved in the absurd white Bronco debacle. Many of O.J.’s longtime friends appear, including a childhood friend, Joe Bell, who comes as close as anyone here to defending the subject.

From there, we get the ugly post-trial life of Simpson up to his 2007 arrest and 2008 conviction on kidnapping and burglary charges that the film strongly implies was all payback for the 1994 acquittal. Simpson believed, according to his friends, that after the original verdict, he’d return to his old life as if nothing had happened, only to find his endorsements evaporating and many of his friends distancing themselves from him. The narrative gets a bit flimsy at this point, but the story is one of a man who relocates to Florida (to avoid the civil judgment against him), starts hanging out with less and less savory characters, and eventually adopts a “gangster” (their word, not mine) image along with his increasingly erratic behavior and poor judgment. Of course, the worst people Simpson was hanging with were collectibles dealers, and you can interpret that as you wish.

What the documentary doesn’t do, unfortunately, is even explore the question of why. Domestic violence itself is worthy of that kind of discussion – are abusers born, or are they made? If the latter, how do we interrupt the cycle that creates them? – but in Simpson’s case, the program itself gives us portraits of two extremely different men. The Simpson of the 1960s and 1970s that we see in episodes 1 and 2, married to his high school sweetheart Marguerite and out of any sort of trouble, is completely different from the controlling, obsessed Simpson who abused and eventually killed Nicole Brown. This dichotomy all but requires explanation: Was Simpson always a potential abuser, but didn’t become one until his second marriage? (Marguerite has steadfastly said that Simpson never abused her, and there is no record of any violence during their relationship.) Did his football career have anything to do with him becoming abusive or aspects of his personality that changed? The directors seem to hint at O.J.’s troubled relationship with his father, who was gay and later became a well-known drag performer, as a cause, but that’s hardly a justification for violence against women and the subject is barely discussed. It appears the directors didn’t ask any of the many longtime friends and business associates of Simpson the question: was this really who Simpson was all along?

The documentary itself is riveting; I don’t remember any single-story work of this length that held my attention as long as this one did. The pacing is brisk, and the first-person commentaries from folks as diverse as Marcia Clark, Hertz CEO Frank Olson, and Simpson’s friend Ron Shipp, a retired LAPD officer who testified against Simpson at the murder trial, are invaluable for framing (no pun intended) the story. The directors delivered even more on their “in America” part, showing how the racial and cultural context first made O.J. into a star and then helped him avoid a conviction for the two murders, even more than they tell us how O.J. was “made” into a domestic abuser and killer. ESPN released the film to theaters in New York and Los Angeles for a week so it would be eligible for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and I find it hard to imagine any two-hour challenger could come close to topping it.

Scorecasting.

I apologize for the long delay between posts; we moved into our house last week and are finally settled, although far from unpacked.

I tweeted earlier today that I’ll be joining ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast as a co-host three days a week starting in mid-March. And, if you missed it, my preseason ranking of the top 50 prospects for this year’s Rule 4 draft went up last Thursday.

Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim’s Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won aims to be the Freakonomics of sports, a marketing angle made quite clear from the cover quote from Steven Levitt that calls Scorecasting the best book of its kind since Freakonomics, which is funny, since Levitt co-wrote that book. (And one wonders if the authors share an agent or an editor or something else.) My cynicism over the quotes aside, Scorecasting is a fun read, one that does a better job of challenging conventional wisdom than providing hard answers to hard questions, the sort of book that could make an old-school sports fan rethink some of his positions without requiring a background in behavioral economics. If you’re here, however, the odds are good that your mind is already open, in which case Scorecasting is more of an enjoyable lark but might leave you looking for more serious analysis than what the authors offer in a book aimed at the mainstream audience.

Wertheim and Moskowitz attack a number of questions over the course of the book, with the only unifying theme that these are questions that can be examined (if not actually answered) through some very rudimentary statistical analysis. For example, they examine the potential causes of home-field advantage, which is fairly persistent within sports but doesn’t seem to tie to attendance; whether icing the kicker is an effective strategy (I won’t reveal their answer, but have always found the practice unsportsmanlike); or whether momentum exists. The template for each essay – some just two or three pages, others thirty or forty – is standard: Explain the question and the conventional wisdom on the subject, discuss how they operationalized the variables, then present the results in text and graphical format, usually just showing some evidence telling us whether there’s a correlation between the independent and dependent variable. For example, in the momentum chapter (“The Myth of the Hot Hand”), they look at basketball, defining what a “hot” period of time constitutes (one, two, five, and ten-minute samples), then look at point differentials over the one, two, five, and ten minute periods immediately following a “hot” period. It’s not rigorous, but it will likely sway some of your opinions even if it doesn’t convince you.

The best essays in the book combine the Freakonomics-style analysis with interesting stories, like the chapter on the history of trades in the NFL draft (“Off the Chart”), which discusses the famous Mike McCoy chart on how to value draft picks in trade talks. The authors describe the chart’s genesis, early successes, propagation, and loss of usefulness once everyone had it, along with some potential explanations for the psychology behind incorrect valuations of draft picks. (Yet another reason why I’d like to see MLB allow teams to trade draft picks: It’s another way for smart front offices to create value.) Another essay (“Rounding First”) asks why we see more round numbers in seasonal statistics than you’d expect if the results were normally distributed, pointing to psychological and perhaps financial incentives that drive behavior in situations where the leverage (to the player, not the team) is increased.

Scorecasting is a text for the mass market, which means fewer numbers and more broad brush strokes in the book. I’m not the first to raise this objection, but the way the authors treat results that are merely indicative as if they’re conclusive is offputting if you realize what they’re doing and misleading if you don’t. For one thing, their analytical methods, while valid, are on the superficial side. For another, they often confuse correlation with causation, and even though I often agreed with their arguments on the causes of the effects they discovered, they meld those opinions with statements of statistical facts in a way that just isn’t warranted. It’s a marketing issue – the book wouldn’t sell if they just presented data paired with a lot of “draw your own conclusions” quotes – but it takes what could have been a serious work and makes it a popular one.

And some of their conclusions just aren’t supported by the analysis, at least when it comes to baseball. They offer throwaway comments on how a salary cap would increase parity in baseball without an ounce of evidence to justify the statements. They claim that PEDs improve baseball performance by showing that players who had been suspended for PED usage were more likely to be promoted to the next level, a lousy proxy for multiple reasons and one that makes their conclusion, “In addition to the science, the data support the claim that steroids work,” ignorant on both sides of its comma. I imagine that the authors glossed over similar controversies in other sports, enough that no matter your game of choice you’ll find something in the book to annoy you.

You should read Scorecasting, though, in spite of its shortcomings. Moneyball was equally flawed, perhaps more so, and yet it launched a quiet revolution not just within the industry but within the fan base, an inflection point that I believe saw a major increase in the number of students of the game who began pursuing and publishing their own analyses, with some even finding themselves entering the industry as a result. I could see Scorecasting as a similar spur to innovation in the analysis of sports, and in the way sports are covered. One thing that Scorecasting does confront, without ever explicitly saying so, is ignorance. If you say “X causes Y,” others will look for a way to verify it, so don’t make the statement without trying to verify it yourself.

What the Dog Saw.

I really enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, since even when I disagree with the conclusions he presents, his writing is interesting and thought-provoking, and he is unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom by looking at the underlying data. His most recent book is a compilation called What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, bringing together nineteen essays from Gladwell’s tenure at the New Yorker, uneven as compilations typically go, but anchored by several very strong essays that, again, challenge some pretty basic assumptions of our society and daily lives.

The most relevant essay to my day job was “Most Likely to Succeed – How Do We Hire When We Can’t Tell Who’s Right for the Job?” which is available, like all essays in this book, for free on Gladwell’s site. The essay deals with the difficulty in hiring for certain positions where the qualities required for success are either poorly understood or difficult to measure in candidates, with a focus on teachers and on NFL quarterbacks. (That intertwining of two seemingly unrelated stories is a Gladwell conceit, and, from a narrative perspective, a highly effective one.) NFL scouts have a hard time evaluating amateur quarterbacks because the college game is so different from the professional game, and that difference is most pronounced in areas that directly affect the quarterback, notably the style and quality of opposing defenses. Gladwell mentions the Year of the Quarterback draft in 1999, where just one of five first-round QBs (Donovan McNabb) had a first-round career, and cites a study by two economists (David Berri and Rob Simmons) that showed neither Wonderlic scores nor draft position had any correlation to NFL success for quarterbacks. (For more on this, there’s an excellent blog post by Jason Lisk at pro-football-reference.com.) And he carries the analogy back over to the teaching world, where hiring criteria like master’s degrees have done nothing to improve teacher performance.

There is, of course, an obvious parallel in baseball to what Gladwell calls “the quarterback problem:” The fact that most high school and college baseball programs use composite metal bats, making the amateur game (exclusive of top summer leagues and showcase events like ESPN’s Area Code Games) substantially different from the professional game. Scouts from MLB clubs (and non-scout evaluators like me) are always grappling with the question of whether a particular hitter’s swing will translate to pro ball, or which pitchers will take advantage of the ability to pitch to the inner half when the sweet spots on hitters’ bats are reduced by more than half with the switch to wood. Amateur catchers almost never get to call their own games, as pitches are called from the bench, while ignorant college and high school coaches employ brain-dead small-ball strategies completely unsuited to the high-scoring environments of metal-bat baseball. And, as the guys at CollegeSplits have shown us, there are often large differences between the pitcher a hitter faces on Tuesday night and the one he faces on Friday night. It’s not the same game, and those differences are part of what makes the MLB draft seem, at times, like a “crapshoot.”

There’s another sports-related essay on the difference between choking and panicking, starting with the story of Jana Navotna’s epic collapse in the 1993 Wimbledon women’s singles final and ending with Greg Norman’s final ten holes at the 1996 Masters. (He mentions another collapse by Novotna in the 1995 French Open, but omits her 1998 Wimbledon title, and doesn’t mention Norman’s two British Open championships, which both raise the question of how deep the psychology of “choking” runs in any individual.) More interesting within this essay, to me at least, was the issue raised of “stereotype threat,” where an individual’s performance on a task or test may be negatively affected by stereotypes of his or her ethnic/racial/gender group:

Garcia gathered together a group of white, athletic students and had a white instructor lead them through a series of physical tests: to jump as high as they could, to do a standing broad jump, and to see how many pushups they could do in twenty seconds. The instructor then asked them to do the tests a second time, and, as you’d expect, Garcia found that the students did a little better on each of the tasks the second time around. Then Garcia ran a second group of students through the tests, this time replacing the instructor between the first and second trials with an African-American. Now the white students ceased to improve on their vertical leaps. He did the experiment again, only this time he replaced the white instructor with a black instructor who was much taller and heavier than the previous black instructor. In this trial, the white students actually jumped less high than they had the first time around. Their performance on the pushups, though, was unchanged in each of the conditions. There is no stereotype, after all, that suggests that whites can’t do as many pushups as blacks. The task that was affected was the vertical leap, because of what our culture says: white men can’t jump.

Gladwell goes on to explore some of the psychological reasons why we see these significant correlations – and no, it’s not because women are naturally bad at math or white men really can’t jump. In baseball, scouts often have players run the 60-yard dash and perform other athletic tests, often in groups at showcases … but what if the “stereotype threat” is in effect? Are we getting bad reads on white or black players because of this psychological issue?

The second essay in the collection explores, of all things, the markets for condiments, asking why we have many kinds of mustard but only one kind of ketchup. The answer to that specific question isn’t all that interesting – in a nutshell, Heinz has struck a nearly perfect balance across various dimensions of flavor that appeals to a mass market because it doesn’t stand out in any one dimension – but the discussion of the science and statistics of taste was. Gladwell veers off into a conversation with Howard Moskowitz, a researcher in the realm of psychophysics, who uses taste tests and user feedback to identify clusters of taste that might be targets for new variations on existing products, such as the “extra-chunky” tomato sauce category he uncovered through research for Campbell’s to fix its flagging Prego brand in the 1980s.

Other essays of note include one on Nassim Taleb, an investor now known as the author of The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness; puncturing the myth that genius burns bright when young but fades early; and calling the entire field of criminal profiling into question. The essay on the hair dye industry covered a couple of very interesting characters, but the essay on Cesar Millan managed to make him – and the subject – boring. (Disclaimer: I’m not a dog person.) Gladwell gets personal with one section on a case of plagiarism that involved the use of material from one of his articles in the Broadway play Frozen, but I couldn’t quite come around to his ultimate conclusion that we are too protective of authors’ intellectual property rights.

I listened to the audio version of What the Dog Saw, read by Gladwell, who has a fantastic voice for reading audiobooks and, of course, can always use the perfect tone for what are, after all, his own words.

Go Natinals!

So by now you’ve all seen the fact that the Washington franchise in the National League is saving money by only embroidering some letters on the fronts of their uniforms.

I just showed my wife the photo, and the first thing she said was, “That’s great – but who are the Chefs?”

I weep for our language, part 8.

From what is otherwise a very interesting article on NCAA recruiting rules as they are being applied to fan pages on Facebook:

But dozens of Facebook groups are still up in plain site for current recruits, including Wall, and other top undecided basketball players such as Xavier Henry and Lance Stephenson.

I suppose the redesigned Facebook might qualify as a plain site, but I doubt that was the writer’s intent.

Incidentally, add me to the list of people who finds the NCAA’s intrusive attitude on this matter troublesome. It’s not even remotely clear what the harm might be, and as long as the page or group in question is not formally affiliated in any way with the university or its athletics program, I fail to see how the NCAA has the right to demand its termination, and the last time they got a little too big for their britches, an Ohio court put the smack down.

Awards picks.

On my ESPN blog.

Milwaukee writeup soon.

Name-checked.

I’m working on that top ten cooking mistakes post I promised in chat – wrote six of them on the plane today – but in the meantime, here’s an interesting and slightly testy interview with St. Louis’ scouting director/director of player development Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow name-checked me in the following answer (the bolded section is the question, the unbolded section is his answer):

Pete Kozma wasn’t considered to be a “sexy” pick at the time he was drafted. A lot of different media outlets said that while he had solid tools across the board, other then power, he possessed no real standout tool. Yet so far Pete has been played extremely well. Are you surprised at how well Pete’s performed early?

If we wanted a “sexy” pick, we would read Baseball America, read Keith Law’s articles, and pick based on their opinions. But we don’t, and neither do any other clubs, because while the journalists are doing a good job of expressing their opinions based on the information they have, we have to live and die with our selections and the future of the organization is impacted by these picks. If the journalist is wrong, he just admits it (maybe) and keeps writing about the next guy or the next draft. They will still sell papers or get eyeballs. If we are wrong, we’ve missed a huge opportunity to make our organization better, and nobody wants to do that.

He’s dead on about two things there. One is that my process is nowhere near as thorough as a major league club’s process is on high draft selections. I might see a player twice – once over the summer, once in the spring – and the depth of my evaluation doesn’t match what a good scout will do by seeing a player five or six times just within a spring. I don’t have to worry as much about makeup and barely think about signability outside of the context of projecting the first round.

The other point Luhnow scores is on the consequences of a bad evaluation. If a scouting director doesn’t have productive drafts, he could lose his job. If my rankings turn out to be totally off base, the most I’ll lose is some credibility, and some pride as well, since I actually like to be right now and then.

Where he’s wrong … well, I think I’ve hit on it above. My looks are limited, and I make evaluations based on what I’ve got, but I take the task very seriously because I find it embarrassing when I make a poor evaluation, and I know that I do have to answer to the readers, including members of a lot of front offices and a lot of scouting departments. Their respect for me as an analyst is predicated on me getting stuff right, and making sure my opinions are backed up by strong arguments. And I feel an obligation to the wider readership to present objective opinions backed up by strong arguments, fact-based wherever possible.

I also think it’s silly to say that “the journalist” (first time I’ve been called that, I believe) won’t admit he’s wrong. If Pete Kozma turns into an above-average major-league player, of course I’ll admit I was wrong. And if I was foolish enough to try to finesse the bad evaluation, I doubt that futureredbirds or vivaelbirdos would let me get away with it anyway.

Luhnow, who is among the most intelligent people I’ve met in this industry, is using a lot of small verbal cues to put the “journalists” in their place, but really, isn’t our place on the outside anyway? I could shout from the rooftop that Pete Kozma was the worst first-round pick ever (he wasn’t), but it won’t have any influence on his career as a player. What I write and say doesn’t influence what happens on the field, so for any exec to worry about what I say is a waste of his time.

On race and baseball.

This BP Unfiltered post from Kevin Goldstein is a must read.

My own experiences inside the game did, unfortunately, expose me to some of that unpleasant side of human behavior as well, and I was glad to see Kevin address it head on as he did.

The facts will bend to the will of my premise!

From reader Eric L. comes this bit of sloppy journalism from Sports Illustrated football writer Don Banks:

But Long isn’t taking a backseat to anyone these days. Not even his dad, the square-jawed and crew-cutted Howie, or his younger brother Kyle, who is a highly regarded left-handed high school pitcher who might go first overall in baseball’s June draft.

Kyle Long is, in fact, a left-handed pitcher who graduates from high school this year. He didn’t make my ranking of the top 60 amateurs back in November. But don’t take my word for it – Baseball America placed him 58th in its preseason ranking of the top 100 HS prospects for this draft, which would place him somewhere in the fourth round, third at best.

I don’t really expect Don Banks to know a lot of specifics about prospects for the upcoming baseball draft, but would it be so hard for him to reach out to someone – like Kevin Goldstein, who has contributed some pieces to SI – to check a fact? Or is this, as Eric put it in his email, “just a case of a football writer talking about something about he doesn’t really know that much about and then stretching the truth to make a cute parallel?”