Saturday, November 17, 2012

Arguing against the Infield Fly Rule

Over at the Sports Law Blog, Howard Wasserman continues to try to make the case for the Infield Fly Rule but worries that his four-point test is running into a problem considering the "kneel down" or "victory formation" in football. Here is the essence of his concern:
This will expand on The Atlantic piece. In that essay, I identified four features of the infield fly situation that justify a special rule: 1) The fielding team has a strong incentive to intentionally not do what they are ordinarily expected to do in the game (catch the ball); 2) the fielding team gains a substantial benefit or advantage by intentionally not doing what is ordinarily expected (this is the prong I want to flesh out in economic terms of optimal outcomes, costs incurred, and benefits gained for each team); 3)the play is slow-developing and not fast-moving, so the player has time to think and control what he does; and 4) even doing what is ordinarily expected of them, the opposing players are powerless to stop the play from developing or to prevent the team from gaining this overwhelming advantage.
As I said, I believe the infield fly is the only situation in all of sport that possesses all four features. But in conversations with friends and readers, one situation keeps getting brought up: The kneel down (or "Victory Formation") at the end of football games.
I like his reasoning with the four-point test, but ultimately I believe it fails. I don't like the IFR generally. And I think this test does not sufficiently justify it (or change my mind). Below is the comment I've left on his post. Check out his entire post, and judge for yourself. The Sports Law Blog is a thoughtful source I follow regularly and generally don't quibble with. Messing with those guys is like a sixth grader picking a fight with the entire seventh grade.

My comment:
I really like your reasoning, but I ultimately believe I disagree. 
I think the example of the kneel down is problematic in a few respects. On point one especially but touching on the others, this seems an incorrect or arbitrary description. We should ordinarily expect that an offense is doing its best to continually put its team in the best position to win. This includes running the ball in a play that is unlikely to gain great yardage much less score but that puts the team in a position to score later on. It also includes running to force a trailing opponent to use valuable time outs to stop the clock. It also includes taking a safety rather than give an opponent very good field position for a touchdown opportunity. It also includes (last one, but I think these are progressively important) a defense that intercepts a ball late in a game thrown by a trailing team's offense falling down rather than advancing the ball and risking a fumble. 
If we are to take your four-point test and apply it to football, it seems we must start making a lot of judgment calls restricting these types of plays among others (my apologies for the redundancy, but this is a new point): An offensive team running the ball and falling down in bounds late in the game on 3rd and 20 to force the opponent to use a time out; A team taking a safety on purpose; A defense that is winning late in the game not advancing an interception because of the risk of fumble. My problem with the four-point test is not so much that it will have to be applied to so many other situations potentially, but that I don't find the IFR to be such a problem. It is a bang-bang, during the regular course of play event that happens to create both a situation of advantage (IFF executed properly) for one team as well as the time to execute it. This happens a lot in all sports. Should we prohibit fast breaks in basketball if enough of the defense is not able to contest the play? Should we force a football team on offense, up by one point, with one minute to play, and with no opponent time outs to score a touchdown when they would rather run out the clock and disallow the opposing team's offense from getting the ball back (reference: NY Giants versus NE Patriots in last year's Super Bowl)?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The King knew that great inputs were essential

Barry Switzer was one of the greatest college football coaches ever because, among other qualities, he was one of the greatest college football recruiters ever. Great talent building is a necessary component for success in any team sport be it through recruiting, drafting, or trading. The league structure will dictate the form the talent building takes. It is up to the management to maximize the opportunities given constraints. That sounds a lot like choice under scarcity, and it is, and that sounds a lot like something economics can help shine light on, and it is as well.

Obviously, a college football team would ideally be composed of the top 25 players by position to be drafted by the NFL each and every successive year. Well, that isn't actually obvious. Many of those players don't work out so well for reasons including the NFL isn't perfect in drafting the top performers in order. Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick in 2000 and was the sixth quarterback selected that year. Already we have a knowledge problem, and that is before we get to competition for resources and other factors driving scarcity. It is important to note at this time that the knowledge problem has two dimensions: (1) how well a player can play, and (2) how well a player will play. Neither is fully knowable even by the player himself. The player may think he coulda been a contender, but believing that does not prove it to be so.

Here is how I break the two dimensions down. The first I generalize under the heading "athletic talent". The second I generalize under the heading "grit". Each encompass many components.

Athletic Talent would include:
  • Athletic skills within the sport
  • Athletic skills in general
  • Intelligence
Grit would include:
  • Ability to be motivated
  • Ability to motivate
  • Desire
  • Work ethic
  • Attitude
Notice that a basic level of both groups of attributes are necessary. Notice also that each should complement the qualities of teammates and the team where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but grit probably plays a bigger role here than does athletic talent. This gets us to the tradeoff aspect. Here is where economics comes in.

The first dimension is higher profile and more easily observable, albeit with a significantly large standard deviation. The recruiting services don't give stars for determination to succeed. Their recognition is much more closely aligned with record-setting stats. From the start coaches will be biased toward recruiting with a heavy emphasis on the first dimension. The fan, donor, administration, and peer group will expect it up through accepting it as an excuse when a player under performs.

The best examples I have where a player exhibits the extreme case of having a lot of one dimension and a little of the other are Marcus Dupree with extremely high athletic talent but little grit and Wes Welker with slightly above average athletic talent and extremely high grit. A better example than Wes Welker would be a player with the grit but who failed because of a lack of talent. But that player doesn't exist because of the factors mentioned in the prior paragraph. In recent years Boise State had a lot more grit but probably one level less athletic talent than did Texas. The players recruited into each program most likely had a lot to do with this. Of course there were other contributing factors, but the point remains.

My simplistic approach to recruiting for the realistic ideal college football team is a great quarterback (extremely high levels of both dimensions) surrounded by above average athletic talent and highly above average grit. Yes, I said it was simplistic--probably should have said obvious too. But I don't think the process employed by many or any college football programs actually works this way. I think the process is actually a great or above average quarterback surrounded by highly above average athletic talent and average grit. And these are in all cases the goals of which a program will fall short in varying degrees of magnitude. Categorize this under the heading educated conjecture. I am sketching out an argument and theory not finalizing a thesis.

If we were to approach college football recruiting for a Moneyball angle, I believe this would be it. Athletic talent is the expensive input; grit is much less well paid. Where possible, trade athletic talent for grit at the margin. What this would mean in practice is being not very choosy when looking at players high in athletic talent--a three-star and a five-star might be nearly equivalent. You'd be looking for indications of grit where a little goes a long way to make up for relative athletic talent shortcomings. The first and most basic filter would be athletic talent. Get that out of the way quickly, and then focus the majority of your resources filtering on the dimension of grit.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A little something for the readers

Just to prove this isn't all about me, I am announcing my intention to add something to every blog post. From now on I will try to incorporate a reference to a movie, usually a line of dialogue, in every blog post. I've already done this in at least a couple (there may be more, I do this so often and naturally in my everyday life that I lose track myself).

This should give you something to savor everyday. A reason for living perhaps. Or at least a reason to check in daily. Every time you find the reference, you win. Add the points up and keep track. At the end of the year you'll have a total. That total can be redeemed for merchandise in the Magnitude Matters general store (location and merchandise pending). You know, it's all about merchandising. Merchandising, merchandising, where the real money from the movie is made.

Yes, these references will be biased toward my taste in movies. So if you have bad taste in movies, you probably won't be cashing in for a set of steak knives at month end.

Friday, November 9, 2012

2012 Election is in the books, Obamney wins/loses!

So that happened. And a status quo, lame duck session begins. I forecast whip-lashing, headline risk as we endure the race to do nothing significant about the fiscal cliff. Let's prognosticate, shall we...

Winners, Losers, and Trends:

Immigration reform and liberalization seems likely to be a winner. It is clear the Republicans lost critical votes on net from the hard-line positioning the party took from the primaries on regarding immigration. This may make a lot of the bad winners in this election worth it all. And who'da thunk it from the victory of the president responsible for a record number of deportations.

Data crunching a la Sabermetrics is a winner. The Obama team took it to new heights, and Nate Silver showed just how powerful a nerd and some numbers can be.

Generally, social freedom was a winner as marijuana legalization at the state as well as the municipal level continued its success and marriage equality lept forward.

Economic freedom probably took a hit on net; although, that remains to be seen and unseen . . . so we'll never quite know. The chances for good tax reform including simplification ebbed some I believe.

The politics of envy and distrust were winners.

One-size-fits-all social policies defeated one-size-fits-all social mores.

Central planning by good intentions won out over fiscal planning by good intentions.

Count also bailouts and TBTF as continued winners. While Romney/Ryan didn't have a sterling record on this front, they promised better in rhetoric. That at least gave a small rational expectation to believe they would be better.

Defense contractors were probably losers while every other conceivable beneficiary of government largess was victorious on net.

Speaking of "defense", war was probably given a change of venue. Iran is a less likely destination for our restless drones but they still may get to vacation in the sunny Middle East in Syria.

There is a good chance I add to or edit this list.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

United versus Southwest

My wife is about to take a short trip up to Denver. She is flying up on Southwest Airlines and back home on United Air Lines. Because she is taking our five-month old, she needs to arrange with the airline that she has an infant lap child.

She called Southwest first. She immediately spoke with a person, was never put on hold, and quickly relayed the information. The agent of Southwest said it was taken care of and thanked her. Easy as that.

She then called United. She was greeted by a recording: (I paraphrase) "Thank you for calling United Air Lines. We are currently experiencing extreme telephone congestion due to the recent events from Hurricane Sandy. We are unable at this time to take any additional calls or to place you on hold. Good bye." And with that they hung up.

The story reminded me of this post from Bryan Caplan re: John Cochrane's recent essay, "After the ACA: Freeing the Market for Health Care"

This passage has the direct point (emphasis added):
The fact that so much cost reduction comes from new entrants, not reform at the old companies, is testament to the painfulness of this process, and the ability of incumbents to protect the status quo. The big 3 still take 40 hours to build a car relative to Toyota's 30. And two of them went bankrupt, while Toyota sits on a cash reserve. American and United are still struggling to match Southwest's efficiencies, after 30 years. The parts of Kodak invested in film simply couldn't let the company exploit its technical knowledge in optics and electronics. Chicago's teacher unions are fighting charter schools tooth and nail. And a quick look at a modern hospital, and its suppliers, suggests just how wrenching the same transformations will be.

How far we have yet to come

It is shameful and amazing that as far as we have come as a society, we not only still have legislation on the books like this, but we have politicians who gain favor by promoting it. It would be bad enough if anti-price gouging law was legacy law left over from a bygone age. It is far worse that this harmful nonsense is actively supported.

Look here (from a "leftist" economist), here (the maximum temperature analogy), here (directly refuting the other side), here (a roundup with videos), here (Cowen reminds us that the current owners of resources, shopkeepers, are also the competition), and here (interference with economic triage) for some wisdom on the topic.

To those who support anti-price gouging: The price increase you find distasteful is a symptom of the distasteful (big understatement) events that have transpired. Don't blame the price messenger. He is one of your greatest allies.

Mantis versus Moth

I was walking in the backyard and noticed a fluttering sound coming from the flower garden in the back corner. Upon inspection, I found an amazing sight right out of wild kingdom. A 4-inch-long preying mantis had captured a very large moth in its front legs. It was proceeding to basically eat the moth's face. Despite the moth's intense struggle, it could not free itself. The mantis was basically strong enough to hold down the moth's attempt to fly away. Below are some pictures and a link to a video I shot.