Yasiel Puig is a freakish athlete, combining speed and strength in a way you’d have to go back to Bo Jackson to relocate. He’s baseball’s human highlight reel, with a level of effort to match.
Where many have suggested he goes wrong is in aiming for the highlight reel with every swing. Puig has been criticized by many for, among other things, ‘swinging too hard.’ It’s a charge his countryman Yoenis Cespedes also faces, and one leveled at sluggers from Vlad Guerrero all down the line. Some MLB videogames allow you to choose a normal swing or a power swing before every pitch. These are the players that effectively are choosing a power swing, every time.
…even on balls in the dirt
Let’s put that in the back of our minds and pivot to the Saint Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. (This article will be instructive.) Wainwright has one of the best curveballs in baseball. Some believe it is the best. It doesn’t have the highest whiff rate among all curveballs, but it is used far more often. The more exposure a pitch gets, the better the opposition will tend to do against it, as they become comfortable with its break and speed. The fact that this curveball remains mightily effective suggests that it’s even better than you would think on first blush–that it would easily have the highest whiff rate if it were used less often. He has found the equilibrium in the tradeoff between trusting his best pitch and dulling its effectiveness.
You can put a similar thought towards Puig’s enthusiastic swing. Sure the man nearly falls over swinging so hard. But, barring experiment, we may have to assume that he has reached an equilibrium in the tradeoff between average and power–that he is at the apex of a bell-shaped graph.
It’s not as simple as saying that if he swung with less gusto he would strike out less. That would be true, but there would be a cost. By swinging more gently, fewer of his ground balls would go through the infield. More fly balls would land in the gloves of outfielders. (In saber terms, you might guess that his BABIP and fly ball distance would decrease.)
It’s a small, nuanced point, by no means guaranteed to be right. But it’s one instance of a subtlety that most sports announcers just bulldoze right over.
…is not very difficult. Can we get rid of the myth of white male as savior of oppressed peoples the world over? From colonial origins to its corporate, Randian manifestation today–o ye Provider of Jobs–it’s just kinda disgusting. Friends showed me the One Dollar Shave Club commercial the other day, and I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be so funny. There’s this straightfaced mock-bravura thing that is becoming the only way anyone markets to males. Probably it started with, or was popularized by, the Old Spice and Most Interesting Man commercials. But the tired shtick is adopted to poorest taste by Dollar Shave Club:
Mike the White Male CEO: “We’re not just selling razors, we’re making jobs. Alejandra, what were you doing last month?”
Alejandra: “Not working.”
Mike the White Male CEO: “What are you doing now?”
Is it possible Alejandra is a real employee? Maybe. But I can’t be the only one spotting the insidious myth of minorities as lazy–as necessarily manual labor (Alejandra works in the warehouse)–as spoken to, not speaking.
Months before Arcade Fire’s new album came out, I learned of its existence when social media pointed me to a website with some chalked, black and white patterns spelling out “Reflektor.” The designs seemed strange and foreign, and I was intrigued about what the music might sound like—not because I knew what the accompanying imagery meant, but precisely because I didn’t.
This, of course, was the intended effect. It turns out those designs were inspired by Haitian vevegraffiti, used in syncretistic Vodoun practices to summon the Loa (angels or spirits, messengers to the deity). But presented out of context, to the typically unknowing fan like me, they connoted something else: mystery, exoticness, esotericism.
Reflektor itself—now released and at the top of the charts—and the rest of its marketing campaign went all-in on the Haitian tropes. During some promotional concerts the band donned Kanaval masks, coopting a symbol that holds multifaceted, complex meaning for Haitians during Carnival but that was reduced to flat shorthand for “party!” during a raucous SNL appearance. The music evokes similar stereotypes. In the song “Flashbulb Eyes,” glimmering marimbas will, for many listeners, conjure a specific idealization of the Caribbean (where Haiti is located), while singer Win Butler wails about cameras stealing souls. The band’s music used to feel interesting by virtue of its heart-on-sleeve confrontation with mortality; now, it borrows its edginess by leaning on preconceptions about a foreign region.
So with Reflektor, Arcade Fire has employed an old trick. Use seemingly “exotic” cultural elements, regardless of their original context, to grab attention; profit. It’s a model Urban Outfitters, for example, has gotten in trouble for. Many iconic white musicians, from the Beatles to Madonna, from Elvis to Eminem, have done the same, to varying levels of controversy: Most everyone agrees cultural mixing can lead to innovative art, but there are sensitive and insensitive ways to do it, ways that perpetuate inequality and ways that work against it.
At Chart Attack, native Bahamian writer Jordan Darville makes a convincing case that Reflektor’s marketing fell on the side of “insensitive”:
Discussing the album with Zane Lowe, Win Butler described the new sound as “a mashup of Studio 54 and Haitian voodoo music.” It was the beginning of Arcade Fire’s campaign focus: using appropriated visuals to contrast their maroon beginnings as loudly as possible. This method of marketing does nothing to combat – and in all likelihood reinforces – this overarching perspective of Caribbean islands being resources for awakening of white souls.
Part of the responsibility that comes with discussing any culture, much less one that isn’t your own, is being aware of what effect certain representations will have on those who consume them. That involves accepting that most Arcade Fire fans would be ignorant of voodoo’s musical element, so describing your new sound as having “voodoo rhythms,” that are “basically how [Haitians] communicate” will lead your audience’s minds to the dolls and zombies of the terrifying old world blackness Hollywood has sold them for decades. It’s being aware that a white man wearing a cravat, the uniform of the French plantation owners who committed their own Haitian genocide centuries before Duvalier, is insensitive to Haiti’s history.
The clumsiness Darville describes has real-world implications. Take this Mashable post, which gives Arcade Fire credit for an embedded music video (for “Afterlife”) whose footage is lifted directly from the Brazilian film Black Orpheus (not mentioned). The mistake was probably unintentional, but so much of racism’s evil occurs in the space between conscious choices, the space occupied by assumptions. It’s telling that the screwup happened despite Arcade Fire’s frequent mention of Black Orpheus as an influence on the album, with credit going to the popularizing borrower (Arcade Fire) rather than the original creator (Brazilian director Marcel Camus).
This demonstrates that peoples’ stereotypes and assumptions operate independent of the appropriators’ own knowledge, however deep, of the culture they’re taking from. In this case, that knowledge is substantial. The band has a longstanding relationship with Haiti, starting with member Régine Chassagne’s ancestry (her parents fled the nation during the Duvalier horrors). They have been dedicated supporters of Partners in Health, which works to eradicate disease in Haiti. As Darville points out, though, audiences generally lack this context, and the onus is on the artist to recognize that fact.
We went through some of this three months ago, after Miley Cyrus twerked onstage at the VMAs. That performance was lambasted as racist: Cyrus, a white woman born into riches, propagating pernicious myths about black women’s sexuality while stealing from bounce music to lend herself a commercially advantageous “danger.” If Arcade Fire’s appropriation is less egregious, it’s still analogous. In both cases, a mainstream artist gains by drawing from the margins of popular culture, while the initial producers of that tradition remain on the periphery. In doing so, white artists have often contributed to whatCornel West calls the modern Black diaspora’s problem of “invisibility and namelessness.”
The racial politics of Cyrus’s performance drew criticism from outlets from The Guardian to The Atlantic, but despite the similarities between that performance and Reflektor, my searches of major publications reveal Darville to be the only writer to substantively question the album’s thorny relation to race. There are a few possible explanations for this.
First, issues of identity: Cyrus is more famous and was already controversial. Arcade Fire’s audience is smaller and famously white—certainly less diverse than the crowd watching the VMAs.
Second, the music itself: Cyrus’s performance was terrible, but Reflektor is a hit with critics. There’s a tradition of racism hiding under the veil of spectacular art, an uneasy truth typified when Stereogum writes, “[Arcade Fire’s] decision to incorporate bits of Haitian music leaves them very open to … cultural-appropriation charges. … But what a beautiful, revelatory song [‘Here Comes the Night Time’] is.”
Moreover, Arcade Fire is only the most recent rock band to borrow from Afro-Caribbean musics (“D’yer Ma’ker,” Sandinista!). This goes to a larger point: The importance of cross-pollination to cultural innovation cannot be overstated. American music has a beautiful and complicated history, and it’s hard to imagine many of our greatest musical treasures without lots of similar borrowing.
Which brings us to a defense to be taken seriously: Arcade Fire may see themselves as using their position of privilege to promote Haitian art to masses of people who would not otherwise be exposed to new cultures. Nevertheless, there’s a troubling dynamic in play when Arcade Fire alone—rather than the people of Haiti together—is the sole arbiter of what is worth passing on in Haitian culture, and when the way it’s passed on will only perpetuate stereotypes about the country. Regardless of the band’s motives, that is a problematic cycle.
West articulates an antidote when he appeals to artists to “reveal, as an integral component of their productions, the very operations of power.” For example, the Clash made Sandinista! while publicizing Third World oppositional politics. Arcade Fire might start by updating their website to feature diverse Haitian explanations of what Carnival means, making a rara mixtape, or choosing a Haitian band to open for them on tour.
Reflektor may say something about its creators, but it probably says even more about the world around it. In the end, I’m not sure what’s more telling: that the system of cultural production and consumption is so messed-up that even something this well-intentioned could come off this badly, or that few seem to have noticed how poorly it did come off.
Here are the Opening Day payrolls for every Major League Baseball team for the 2013 season, ranked in increasing order by $/win, except for the Yankees at the top, who we all get to cruelly laugh at. You could also think of the rank as wins per dollar spent. (All data at bottom; WAR is fWAR from fangraphs.com; sorry the table doesn’t display perfectly.)
Right off the bat, you’ll notice our leaders in this department are the two worst teams in baseball: the Astros and the Marlins. What! you are heard to declare. Why’d you make a table with such bollocks at the top!
Well, because bad as they may be, they may at least be smart about it. Like Philadelphia in the NBA, Houston has been very upfront about its decision to pursue a long-term rebuilding project that relies on stashing prospects and avoiding unnecessary and frustrating mediocrity. The Marlins probably deserve a little more acrimony, based on owner Jeffrey Loria’s general meddling and misanthropy, but could be said to be pursuing a similar strategy. These organizations are doing much better, by this metric, than the Phillies, Giants, Angels, White Sox, or Blue Jays, all of whom are stuck in a high-priced purgatory.
Our champions by this metric are the low-budget, high-performing contenders out of Oakland and Tampa. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following baseball since the Rays’ surprise run to the 2008 World Series. How these organizations perform at such a high level is the subject for a longer post…but it’s too tempting not to give a cursory run-through now. (The Pirates, Indians, and Braves are also model organizations in this regard, though they do not face as harsh of budget constraints as the A’s or Rays.) Common factors include:
Relying on a young, cost-controlled core
Defensive shifting (Rays and Pirates out front here)
Matching your pitcher types with defensive skillsets or environment (i.e., surrounding sinkerballers with good infielders, or the A’s reliance on fly-ball pitchers in light of o.co’s cavernous interior)
Aggressively pursuing platoon advantages (Indians and A’s ranked 1-2 in league for platoon advantage frequency at the plate)
Courting the almighty walk… (Rays, 1st; A’s, 3rd; Indians, 4th; Red Sox, who also had a very good year on the field and in the front office, 5th; Braves, 6th)
…and not overpaying for singles (none of the five organizations identified ranks in the top 10 for league batting average)
Fewer common strengths emerge on the pitching side. The A’s and Braves don’t walk anyone, I guess. The A’s, Indians, Rays, and Pirates have all had great success with reclamation projects (Colon, Kazmir, Rodney, Liriano, respectively), and all rank in the top half of the league for under-25 pitcher fWAR.
The past ten years have seen an explosion into research onto how to evaluate the disparate parts that make up a baseball team. The digitization of discrete events has played a huge role in this, culminating in that holy grail of holistic player evaluation, WAR.
However, organizations looking for that 2% advantage will be hungrily eyeing the number at the bottom of this page: 0.71. That’s the r-squared value for the relationship between WAR and wins. R-squareds show the fit between two sets of data. WAR is the cutting edge of player evaluation, but it comes up short in evaluating the entire system of play. There will always be an element of luck in play, but the team that can explain and explore the additional 0.29 gap between WAR and wins will be in a position to succeed (and I believe the smartest teams in the league are already doing so by pursuing the strategies above).
In order to do so, I suspect that the next generation of analysis will have to a step further and look at the synthesis or interaction between these parts. How do the front office, managerial style, on-field decisions, and playing environment (field and even fans or travel conditions) interact? Many of the tactics detailed above have started down that path. Examining player statistics individually, without respect to the environments those statistics are put up in, will not yield the insight that platooning two players might be more productive than just starting the “overall” better one. Pitch selection based in part on defense–and defensive shifting based on batter or pitcher tendencies–is another inroad to be exploited. There is an entire program of research to be explored, based on principles of interaction, endogeneity, and holism.
Though neither the Rays, nor the A’s, Indians, Pirates, or Braves remain in the playoffs, their victories may be ultimately more impressive than whatever emerges out of the beautiful, happily random luckfest that is October baseball (I plan, in my fantasy future where I have oodles of time, to examine whether money prevails in the playoffs more often than it does in the regular season–if there is some sort of “star factor”). Of course it would be cool if we started placing more emphasis on regular season champions, but here’s to the Rays, this year’s champion of being good and cheap.
Funnily enough, this suggests that (this year, at least), money was better at buying WAR than it was at buying actual wins. In case you’re curious, here’s the leaguewide r-squared for the relationship between WAR (x) and wins (y).
Notice anything interesting there? There’s the obvious–Boston is the favorite, followed closely by Detroit. But if you take another look, you’ll see that ESPN’s experts favor the American League by a wide margin. Of the 34 analysts surveyed, 23 picked an American League team to win the World Series.
It’s true that the Junior Circuit took the 2013 All-Star game to clinch home-field advantage for the World Series. Home-field advantage does a little bit to explain the discrepancy, but not much. The more salient point is that, since interleague play was introduced in 1997, the AL has outperformed the NL to a pretty astounding degree.
The fact of the matter is that a seven game series is something just shy of a toss-up in terms of determining the more skilled team. And since an NL team is guaranteed to end up in the World Series–even if the league is inferior–it stands to hold something just shy of a 50% chance of winning the World Series, even after accounting for the handicap that the NL may deserve, league-wide. And that handicap may go out the window in the World Series: over that same 15-year span since the introduction of interleague play in 1997, the National League has actually won the majority of World Series, with 8 victories, bookended by the Marlins in 1997 and the Giants in 2012.
So, even though the power of crowds to estimate–for example, the weight of a rhinoceros–is surprisingly precise, it’s unlikely that there’s actually a 23/34 (68%) chance that the American League provides the winner of this year’s Series.