Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Artificial Intelligence and the NFL Draft

It has to happen soon. 

How many times can teams blow draft picks?  How many times do we have to read that one half of quarterbacks taken in the first round do not make it?  And how many times do we have to watch Todd McShay and Mel Kiper, Jr. wax eloquent on potential draft picks when they turn out to be wrong a lot of the time.  Put differently, if either were an NFL executive, they wouldn't last too long.

There's an old saying in law enforcement that eyewitness accounts are not reliable.  Well, what about scouts and scouting?  And then, what about the drills that the players are compelled to do at their pro days and at the combine and matching them up with film studies of how players perform?  Even with all that homework, NFL teams miss a lot of the time.  Tell me of any other multi-billion dollar industry where a business could misfire more than half the time in recruiting key talent and succeed.  You cannot.  But the NFL is a closed system that puts a floor under a team's poor performance -- it just cannot go out of business. 

So what is my solution?  I think that the math guys need to take over more.  They need to measure the best players in the league against a bunch of variables and set a standard for what is success -- and then measure every draft pick against that.  I'm talking micromovements -- how long does it take JJ Watt to get outside on a tackle and then to turn the corner?  How long does it take in one-on-one blocking and a double-team?  How fast does he go in pursuit of a running back running around the end?  How quickly does the average running back hit a hole?  And on and on and on.  With this information, not only would a team be well-situated to draft players who just get it done faster (even if misused at the college level), they also could game plan based upon getting intelligence on the other team's reaction times and micromovement times.  And when I say micromovement, I mean how getting off a snap say 0.15 seconds faster than another defensive tackle might make the difference between a five-yard gain and a tackle for loss?  Right now, it seems that those who write game plans do it by feel -- with widely varying results.

Teams should invest in a super-simulation software that enables them to "war game" against the upcoming week's opponent.  Sure, lots of variable are involved, because you cannot predict totally how, for instance, the Cowboys might use Ezekiel Elliott or whether Cam Newtown will stay in the pocket or take off.  But even then you can figure in tendencies and figure out how to game plan using your available personnel.  So, for example, suppose you have to start a cornerback you just plucked off another team's practice squad who has taken no snaps in the league and who you have to start because you are depleted.  You know that you will have to have a safety give him help, and, in turn that this help comes at a price -- the safety will have to vacate another part of the field to help out this rookie.  So, you'll have to compensate for that, too -- do you blitz a lot, do you play an extra defensive back?  AI software could help you come up with solutions constantly -- even during the game.

For all of its attempts at sophistication -- and my guess is that teams are doing proprietary stuff that they are not sharing -- game planning can be a disaster, as can picking guys in the draft.  By looking at what I call microdetails -- and what makes players successful -- teams will be able to draft better.  And by looking at microdetails within the context of a game, teams will be able to create strategies to enable them to win with the personnel that they have on the field, even if it means abandoning strategies that they had relied upon when everyone was healthy.  After all, it is not comforting to hear a coach say, "well, our strategy was good, but we just didn't execute."  That's a smokescreen for, "If I had a healthy roster, we could have won with this strategy."  An appropriate writer and fan reaction would be the following:  "Hey, coach, if you created a strategy that gave the group on the field a chance, your team would have fared better."  Because it's true.

Now I realize that there are only so many schemes a team can dial up and that a team can get to a point where its personnel is so depleted than even the best AI cannot help it, because too many players on the team are only marginal.  I get that.  But there is a sufficient supply of players out there that creating strategies to win games shouldn't be that difficult in the abstract when using AI. 

Because right now,there are too many broken plays, broken players and broken teams.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

International Soccer -- Disparity

In the English Premier League, there are the big six teams, and then there is everyone else.

In Ligue 1, the top French league, there is Paris Saint Germain, and then there is everyone else.

In La Liga, the top Spanish league, there are Real Madrid and Barcelona, and then there is everyone else.

In the Bundesliga, the top German league, there is Bayern Munich, and then there is everyone else.

And in Serie A, the top Italian League, there is Juventus, and then there is everyone else.

Now, before you jump on me -- fans of Everton, Leicester City, Olympique Lyon, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Napoli -- look at the data.  I am talking about when it comes to spending money on player salaries.  Players in the EPL make the most on average, but what staggered me were the following statistics:

Something like 11 of the top 12 most highly paid players in Ligue 1 play for PSG.  Something like the top 20 most highly paid players in La Liga play for either Real Madrid or Barcelona.  The top ten most highly paid players in the Bundesliga play for Bayern Munich, and 9 of the top 10 players in Serie A play for Juventus.  Talked about the need for better parity, financial fair play, a salary cap, a luxury tax or some or all of the above, and the European leagues not named the English Premier League have fact patterns that scream for remedies.  As for the EPL, it would be much more intriguing if it wasn't always the case that the following teams will finish in the top 6 -- Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham.  But at least in the UK there are six teams with a fighting chance to win a title.  How many can say the same in the other leagues?

No, I am not advocating for a "Super League" consisting of the top 20 teams in Europe.  Instead, I am advocating for competition within all leagues that at least gives those near the bottom some chance of winning a title every once in a great while.  That chance does not exist outside the EPL, and even there it is rare (Leicester won the title several years back).  And while paying top dollar does not guarantee a team a championship, suffice it to say that if a team doesn't spend money on players it won't have a chance to win the title. 

Do a search or two and look at the distribution of salaries.  You'll be amazed at what you find.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Den of Despair (Again)

I went to the Philadelphia Eagles game yesterday, a disappointing 27-24 loss to the Detroit Lions in Philadelphia, and came away with the following observations:

1.  Make no mistake, the Lions deserved to win the football game.  They played mistake-free football for all but the last minute of the game (when Malcolm Jenkins blocked a field goal attempt), forced a couple of turnovers, did not commit dumb penalties, did not turnover the football, sacked the QB a few times, tipped a few passes, covered receivers well and created space for their wide receivers.  In contrast, the Eagles committed some dumb penalties, had no pass rush, could not cover the Lions' receivers well, dropped passes and fumbled the football.  In certain ways, the game was not as close as the 27-24 final score indicates.

2.  The Eagles won a sloppy affair in the home opener against the Redskins, fell behind on the road against Atlanta and at home against Detroit, lost two close games (score-wise) and are now 1-2.  If Nelson Agholor catches that ball in Atlanta, if he doesn't drop a few yesterday, if JJ Arciega-Whiteside does not drop a ball and if the entire Eagles offense honored Jenkins' block and marched down the field as a good offense should, the Birds would be (a shaky) 3-0.  But wins are wins, and you are what your record says you are.  At 1-2, the Birds just are not that good a football team.

3. From my vantage point, the squad went into the season old, over-hyped, overrated, over-injured and under-prepared (if for no other reason than too many key players were recovering from injuries).  Atop that, they have suffered many injuries since the season started, perhaps more than any other team.  Which means that something was wrong with their readiness and with their training.  Then again, it could be that the age of the players is such that they might be more prone to injury.  Take WR DeSean Jackson, around whom there was so much hype when he re-joined the team after an exodus that took him to Washington and Tampa Bay.  Jackson is 32, and had not played a full season in several years.  Surely, the Eagles could not have been thinking that he would play the entire season.  Ditto the now-enigmatic starting left tackle, Jason Peters, who apparently has his own set of rules.  How could management expect the 16-year veteran to play an entire season, especially since few can remember the last time he did just that?  Jackson got hurt early in the game in Atlanta; Peters had to take himself out of yesterday's game.

4.  It is common for Eagles' fans to diss the Cowboys' Dak Prescott, but Prescott is a very good QB who is much more than a game manager.  And in close games, he is something like 17-6; Carson Wentz is something like 8-14.  Big edge:  Prescott and the Cowboys.  My guess is that most player evaluators in the NFL still would prefer Wentz, but it is not as though these guys get it right more than half the time.  They don't.

5.  Miles Sanders might be more effective as a receiver for the Eagles than a running back.  The discerning fan noticed that the Lions started kicking returnable balls to the Eagles after they scored, if only because they thought that Sanders might cough one up on returns, too.  As it was, he fumbled the ball twice yesterday, exacerbating his already subpar start to his career.  Both Sanders and the fans should be patient -- Tiki Barber fumbled a lot early in his career and then changed his tactics and had a wonderful tenure with the Giants.

6.  Fletcher Cox obviously is not healthy.  The Eagles had no discernible pass rush.  The Eagles' cornerbacks had difficulty covering anyone yesterday, and it wasn't as though Matthew Stafford channeled his inner Tom Brady or Drew Brees and had a career day yesterday.  But time and time again, the Lions' receivers were wide open when Detroit needed them to be.

7.  I sat in the fifth row.  Offensive linemen are big people.

8.  Carson Wentz still holds onto the ball for too long.  And he seemed to have little confidence for much of the game in receivers not named Agholor or Ertz.  On many plays, Mack Hollins and Arciega-Whiteside lined up on the left side, and almost never did Wentz look their way.  Perhaps those fellows had trouble getting open, but the failure of Wentz even to look their way made it easier for Detroit to defend the receivers he was looking at.

9.  The Birds failed to honor Malcolm Jenkins' block of the field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter.  Jenkins' committed a penalty on the run back that cost the Birds' about 28 yards of field position, but they still had the ball at midfield with 1:49 left and 3 time outs.  That they could not get the ball at least into field goal position to tie the game and send it into overtime was very telling.  The Eagles had the momentum and should have pushed the Lions out of the way to score a TD and win the ball game.  That's what good teams do.  Instead, they blundered and found themselves out of field goal range with fourth and long.  And then Wentz found Darren Sproles, and somehow the smallest guy in the league gets called for offensive pass interference when it appeared that both players were fighting for the ball.  And then Wentz found Arciega-Whiteside, who was drafted to make catches of 50-50 balls in traffic.  He did not, and that was the ball game.  It was an awful sequence and an awful end to an awful day. 

10.  The officials were bad; the Eagles were worse.  Yes, they missed a glaring facemask penalty against Detroit during which Miles Sanders almost was decapitated.  The NFL's explanation as to why this was not a penalty was such sophistry as to be fit for a laugh track.  And one of the officials is so out of shape that he could not have gotten into position to make the call.  And then there were three offensive pass interference calls against the Eagles.  The second of the three -- against Mack Hollins -- was obvious, but the first one, against Hollins was questionable and the last one, against Sproles, seemed wrong.  That said, had they Eagles dropped the ball less, not fumbled the ball, rushed the QB better and covered better, they would have won the game. 

11.  Had the Eagles pulled out the victory, everyone would be talking about the Jenkins' block and the great drive that ensued.  Everything else would have been considered small in comparison and not worthy of much discussion.  That they lost puts everything on the table -- and there is much to discuss.

12.  Finally, one distinction between the Patriots and everyone else is the lack of sentimentality when it comes to their roster.  They trade players right before they decline, they release veterans who cannot produce, they recycle players who can produce, especially if they do what they are told (Patrick Chung failed with the Eagles; he returned to New England and became a much better player).  The Patriots traded Richard Seymour to Oakland when he was one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL and let Nate Solder become a free agent and sign with the Giants (if you are asking "who?" about the latter, you get my point).  The Eagles, in contrast, have let the team age, keep patching and tolerating Peters and brought back Jackson, who is not the player he was when they drafted him out of Cal about 10 years ago.  To be elite -- truly elite -- you have to be ruthless with personnel decisions.  Among other things, that ruthlessness distinguishes the Patriots from everyone else.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Andrew Luck and Buddy Teevens

You have heard of Andrew Luck.  You probably not have heard of Buddy Teevens.  Both now are former quarterbacks.  One is figuring out what to do next; the other is an innovative FCS football coach.  So you might be asking the question -- who cares?  Or, if you are the least bit curious, you might ask, why am I linking the two men?

Luck's story is well-known.  He is the son of a star college QB (a Rhodes Scholarship semi-finalist, if I recall correctly -- the dad, that is) and a former star at Stanford (the son, that is), the QB who was set to become a generational quarterback and pick up the mantle where Colts' all-timer Peyton Manning left off and perhaps win a few Super Bowls.  That was how the script was supposed to have gone down.  Instead, Luck got pretty banged up, missed a lot of games, and, a week ago, decided to hang up his cleats.  He just couldn't get healthy, and the toll on his mental health was rough.  Outside of some criticism about the timing (those who felt he left his team in a bind and could have retired before the draft and someone who suggested that he conspired with the Colts' owner to retire after season ticket holders' commitments were locked in and, yes, some who suggested he just was not tough enough), his decision to retire was met with support and empathy.  Luck wanted to walk away while he could still walk and have feeling in all of his extremities and lower back.  And he has skills to do other things.

Teevens was a quarterback for Dartmouth in the late 1970's, and a pretty good one at that.  He then coached in various places and stepped up to what is now FBS at Tulane a while back, although he was not successful.  He then returned to Dartmouth and has been the most successful coach over the past decade or so, which is an outstanding accomplishment when you have the recent tradition of Penn, the longstanding excellence of Tim Murphy at Harvard and the recent juggernauts that Bob Surace has built at Princeton.  What makes Teevens successful now is that he is an innovator.  While the Ivies have eliminated almost all hitting in practices, Teevens has eliminated all of it and has employed robotic tackling dummies and virtual reality as substitutes for preparation. His motivation?  "If we don't change the way we coach, we will not have a game to coach," he told a reporter from ESPN the Magazine. 

Now, before you anoint Teevens as the innovator on the topic of hitting in practice, he wasn't.  That title belongs to the all-time winningest football coach in Division III history, the late John Gagliardi of St. John's College in Minnesota, who won several national titles and over 400 games.  I could not find a link to a Sports Illustrated article from decades ago touting the magic of Coach Gagliardi, but I do recall a quote from him on hitting.  His teams did not hit in practice.  Ever.  His thought -- "Our players have mothers.  Who wants to see their kids get hit more than they have to?"  Teevens, ergo, is an extension of Gagliardi, and now he is taking Gagliardi's thinking in this area to another level.  As is former Princeton linebacker Glenn Tilley, the CEO of Defend Your Head, which is working on new technology to protect football players for when they do have to hit and get hit.

So what is the link between Luck and Teevens?  Perhaps it is a tenuous one at best.  There's an adage that innovation does not always start with the biggest companies because they are just so big and it is hard to innovate at the biggest places and that they are risk averse to very conservative and that the smaller companies can take bigger risks because the risk of getting fired is smaller or the magnitude of an error with the innovation is a lot smaller.  In other words, try a big innovation at IBM and fail and earnings tank, people get laid off and the company is a mess; try an innovation at MBI in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, with 25 employees, and well, you might be onto something that all of the big companies will want.  Why?  Because you've tested it in a smaller environment and proved the commercial concept.  At least it's a thought.  Teevens has more room to innovate; there is less pressure to win in the Ivies than the SEC.

So Teevens has innovated a lot about hitting and preserving players' health and sanity.  Perhaps that thinking moves from the hallowed halls of the Ivies to FBS schools, places where the elite players get their training for the pro ranks.  And then perhaps it moves to the NFL.  And then perhaps careers last longer and injuries -- physical and emotional -- are less devastating.  And perhaps a guy like Andrew Luck does not get as beat up and can play for longer, as well as hundreds of others who plays with awful injuries for fear of losing their place on their team and their livelihoods, especially when careers are so short and when for some of the players, well, their best earning days could be right now.

Teevens is onto something big.  The big boys should take notice -- both at the FBS level and the NFL.  Teevens' words are foretelling and could be haunting if not heeded -- "If we do not change the way we coach, we will not have a game to coach."

He could help save football as we know it.

For the players.

For the fans.

And from itself.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

U.S. Women's Soccer and Equal Pay

Mediation is not binding arbitration.  Remember that.

There was nothing generous or magnanimous about the members of the U.S. Women's Soccer team's agreeing to mediation in its lawsuit against U.S. Soccer to obtain equal pay.  Most courts require mediation, and while judges are supposed to be disinterested parties litigants can tick them off if they do not agree to sit down with a mediator to try to work out there differences.  Secondly, it was a good public relations move.  Most people don't want to be involved in litigation let alone understand it.  By agreeing to mediation before the World Cup took place, the USWNT was sending a message that it was willing to. . . well, what exactly?  Compromise?  Perhaps.  All that we can read into this is that the USWNT was willing to sit down and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of its case with a mediator, who has the job of going back and for the between the parties and trying to hammer out a deal.  Sometimes that works, sometimes it does not.  If mediation does not work, litigation proceeds.

It always has struck me that there is nothing really to mediate and that if the USWNT does not get everything it wants -- and "equal pay" is a broad statement that thus far the USWNT has not defined with precision -- it will litigate its case.  It has every right to do that.  Given the UWNT's success and popularity, it just might win.

But what is "equal pay," exactly?  That is the question that a court will determine, if the parties do not reach an agreement through mediation.  U.S. Soccer added fuel to the fire yesterday by releasing a statement that it is its contention -- if not a fact in their minds, at least -- that it paid the members of the USWNT more than the members of the USMNT over the past years because it paid the women both salaries and bonuses and the men just bonuses.  On paper, the statement looks reasonable.  But, as the USWNT members point out, the contention of U.S. Soccer mixes apples and oranges and thus is contaminated.  U.S. Soccer wants credit for backing the women's league in the U.S. and paying the salaries of the women's club teams; the plaintiffs will argue, vigorously, that the salaries should not be part of the equation because the subject in dispute in court is a narrower one -- the pay they receive as members of the USWNT.

Here are some facts that are good background:

1.  Men's club teams have been around for roughly a century longer than women's teams.

2.  Men's club teams enjoy far greater commercial success than women's club teams.

3.  The revenues of men's club teams far exceed those of women's club teams around the world.

4.  The competition among nations to qualify their men's teams for the men's World Cup is much more difficult right now than the competition among the women's teams, in large part because of a historical emphasis on funding men's national programs and teams over women's national teams (the latter which are much more recent in formation).

5.  The U.S. culturally is ahead of most other countries in women's club and international competition.  Some other countries are catching up fast.

6.  The U.S. culturally is behind in men's club (heck, the MLS's season does not even coincide with that of the major leagues in Europe) and international competition -- and, as to the latter, might never catch up so long as the top athletes in the U.S. are not playing the sport, the "pay-to-play" culture persists and the top U.S. professional players (by the hundreds) are not playing for the top club teams around the world.

7.  The U.S. women's national team has a strong brand in the U.S., so much so that it enjoyed better TV ratings this summer in the U.S. than the men's World Cup did in the U.S. a year ago.  Of course, the U.S. men's team did not qualify for the men's World Cup (which explains to some degree, if not in large degree, why the TV ratings for the men's World Cup were lower).

8.  The U.S. women's national team is a perennial annual force.  The U.S. men's national team blundered and stumbled through its World Cup qualifying in 2019, losing at Trinidad & Tobago in its ultimate qualifying match and thus failing to qualify for the World Cup (U.S. men were in good company -- Italy and Netherlands failed to qualify, too).

9.  The U.S. women's professional league in the U.S. does not enjoy the financial support that MLS does and might founder without the financial support of U.S. Soccer (which includes payment of salaries for players in the league).

All of this will come up in the litigation.  U.S. Soccer has played its hand -- its support for the U.S. women's league should count in the equation that computes the pay of the plaintiffs.  The plaintiffs will counter that only their pay -- as U.S. women's national team members -- should figure into the discussion.

This is where the difference seems to lie.  A mediator will do her/his best to try to find common ground between the parties and a solution to the problem.  But don't bet that this will happen unless the members of the USWNT get everything they ask for.  They have been public about this, and they have been very vocal, putting themselves in a position that to take anything less will be a defeat.

But do the plaintiffs, the members of the USWNT, have to be careful that they can win the battle but lose the war?  Is there more to yesterday's statement of U.S. Soccer than meets the eye?  Is the statement a foretelling of U.S. soccer's arguments in court or a threat?  What is the threat -- that we are supporting a league that has failed to get commercial support and our well is only so deep, so, members of the USWNT, take this to court if you wish and you might win and get your bonuses as USWNT players increased, but we could take away our financial support for your domestic league, either because it has been a bad business proposition or because if we need to pay higher compensation for USWNT appearances we will not have the money to support your professional league in the U.S.  Is that where U.S. Soccer is going?  Would that be a good strategy, or is that a "scorched earth" policy that will set back soccer and women's soccer for years if not decades in the U.S.?

There are two sides to the argument, and both sides clearly are frustrated.  U.S. Soccer should remember an old adage -- you don't always win by being right all the time.  Put differently, if you have too good a deal, the other side will figure it out and get really annoyed.  That time is now.  Good dealmakers understand that a good deal is not getting everything you want and leaving little or nothing on the table for the other side.  And they have a chance, with the right focus and marketing, to propel women's soccer in the U.S. and globally to heights that no women's team sport has ever experienced.  Likewise, they have the opportunity to set it back years, too.

This could be what business people call a "high class" problem.  The key will be to craft a solution that enables both sides to get what they want and maintain their dignity in the process.  That type of solution benefits everyone, especially at a high water mark for the sport.  Nasty litigation battles do not tend to do that.

In the end, it is very understandable that the plaintiffs are doing what they are doing and fighting hard for their compensation.  After all, how can we expect them to battle hard for every ball in the air, every loose ball and every ball in front of the goal if they don't battle hard for themselves and their livelihoods?

Stay tuned.


Sunday, July 28, 2019

Nick Francona

He is the oldest of Terry Francona's four children, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, a former military sniper and employee of MLB teams.  Sadly, he did not find traction in his career with MLB teams.  I do not know what he is doing now, but I highly recommend that you read his Tweets if nothing else.

Francona is candid, so much so that he probably will not work in MLB again.  He certainly speaks like someone who does not care whether any team will hire him.  Unlike most writers who cover baseball, he is very critical of the game and its future.  He is bright, and he is insightful.

My guess is that those inside MLB are trying to tow the line between abjectly disliking Francona and telling people to stay away from him and tolerating him at a distance because he is the son of a future Hall of Famer.  A national network or publication would be wise to hire him and give him a platform.  Now, more than ever, baseball needs very tough critics who challenges every aspect of the game.  The game has some significant flaws which, unaddressed, could contribute to making it a shadow of what it once was.  So long as the game currently is lucrative for the owners and they enjoy a favorable collective bargaining agreement, the owners will be content to sit tight and only offer slight tweaks. 

And that would be a shame. 

So, if you have a Twitter account, follow Nick Francona.  As Hemingway once wrote, write not because you want to say something, but because you have something to say. 

Nick Francona has something -- actually many things -- to say.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Baseball -- The Balls are Not Juiced

I know.  I know.

What I am about to write is heresy.  The easiest explanation for all the home runs in baseball is that the balls are wound tighter, are juiced, jacked, however you want to describe them.  What else explains the wacky number of home runs that future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander has yielded?  What else explains that the Phillies are on pace to shatter the record for home runs yielded in a season?  What else explains, well, all of the home runs?

Except that there are some holes in this argument, and that I think that there might be a better explanation.  I am not a math guy and do not have access to the databases and underlying results that could help prove my case.  So take this post as an outline of an argument -- for a sportswriter to pursue and test to see if it is correct.

First, if you look up all of baseball's numbers, there are other numbers that are compelling, such as how awful bullpens are doing this year.  Second, it isn't as though offense has taken off to the point that the average league OPS or batting averages are way up.  I haven't been able to locate a free site that gives me these numbers, but you would think that if batting numbers overall were way up that topic would be the subject of many broadcasts.  If you go back to the late 1960's, hitting numbers were way down, so much so that MLB lowered the pitcher's mound to take away the pitcher's advantage.  Seemingly, that change worked.  And, yes, now there is talk -- primarily among pitchers and their parents -- about un-juicing the baseballs to reduce the number of home runs to "normal" levels (even though fans like the long ball).  But MLB denies that they are juiced.

So what is going on?

Here is an alternative theory.  The balls are not juiced.  They are the same as they ever were.  It is the deployment of analytics and the changes in batters' behavior that are creating the extra home runs.  

Let's talk about the changes to hitters' tactics.  First, there is significant talk about exit velocity and launch angle.  Take those two approaches together, along with the fact that hitters keep on striking out in record proportion, and you get a partial explanation as to why home runs are way up.  The hitters simply are trying to hit more home runs.  And lots of them.  The numbers guys will tell you that they would prefer strikeouts to balls in play that could end up in double plays.  So, hitters now try to hit the ball up and out as opposed to down and through.  Look at games today; balls are in play an average of about every four minutes.  Players are not trying as much as they used to for singles and doubles; they are trying to hit the long ball.  And they are succeeding.  Presumably, if you place an almost singular emphasis on trying to hit home runs, you will hit more of them, and at the expense of other hits.  To put it differently, if the balls truly were juiced, more of them would be getting through the infield and creating higher batting averages for players.  But that isn't happening.  True, players are trying to hit the ball harder (exit velocity) and further (launch angle), but presumably they would be more successful if you added the juicing of the balls to their approach.  Except the numbers do not seem to bear that out.

Secondly, the pitching.  Pitchers and pitching have not evolved as much as hitting has.  The recent approach to pitching is to have pitchers throw as hard as they can, especially relievers.  That's all well and good, but the analytics are so good that the hitters have been catching up to the overwhelming power of pitchers (who have had an upper hand).  There are a few dynamics going on.  First, starting pitchers are having increasing trouble getting through lineups the second time around and even more so the third time around.  Why?  Because the hitters are getting more and better information and because they get time to adjust to the approach of the pitcher that night.  Second, relievers have very few pitches, making it easier for the hitter to guess what's coming.  Typically, a reliever has a setup pitch and his "out" pitch.  Each is thrown at one speed, hence only two different varieties for the most part.  The analytics guys can help hitters figure out what is coming much more easily than say even five years ago.  Okay, so you'll argue then that averages should be way up, and you'd have a point.  Except one fact remains true -- it is very hard for a human being to hit a baseball.

So what's the solution for pitchers?

Change speeds.  Much more frequently than they currently are doing.  Right now a starting pitcher throws three or four pitches, and some are better than others.  Typically, he throws each of these pitches at one speed.  That means he is throwing only three or four varieties.  That number of pitches makes it easier for the analytics folks to guess the tendencies of the pitchers and teach the hitters what to expect.  The variables are not all that many.  But what if a starting pitcher threw his two- and four-seam fastballs at three different speeds, his change-up at two and his breaking balls at three different speeds, true old-time pitching.  It would be hard for the hitter to know what was coming.  Atop that, this approach could save wear and tear on arms.  Gibson, Koufax, Carlton, Spahn, you name it, all used this approach.  And each could rear back and throw and amazing fastball with a few men on in the seventh to kill a rally.  Increase the number of variables the hitter has to deal with, keep the hitter guessing more than ever.  It just might work.

The same holds true for relievers.  It's easier to tattoo a relief pitcher who throws one out pitch with confidence and a mediocre fastball.  Sure, it was still impossible to hit Mariano Rivera's cutter, but he was an outlier.  Most guys do not have that talent, grit or innate confidence.  The reliever who masters a few pitches and changes speeds just might have more success.

Right now, though, the combination of hitters' focusing on launch angle and exit velocity and an increasing predictability of a pitcher's tendencies because of analytics combine to form the foundation for the additional home run numbers in Major League Baseball.  That is the counterargument to the notion that the balls are juiced.

It's just that contending that the balls are juiced is the easier argument, the one that draws headlines.

Except that it just well could be wrong.