teddy ballgame

Congratulations to the Toronto Star for having written the stupidest thing ever written about hockey. Maybe not “stupid” overtly, because being Tyler Bozak’s agent on this particular day is a pretty good career move. The article itself was written by A.J. Warner, a law school student and aspiring player agent who has been training himself to inflate his weak argument with so much bullshit, and the casual reader probably hasn’t noticed that Warner has called Bozak “one of the best in the NHL in the faceoff circle” and doesn’t mention that Bozak is just 22nd out of 61 regular faceoff takers in the NHL over the last two years.

And then you read that…

[Mikko Koivu] is another solid comparison to Bozak because they play a similar style and began their professional careers at a similar age. In Koivu’s first 203 games he had 117 career points, or 0.58 PPG.

…and when the remainder of the article neglects to mention that Koivu’s point scoring rate is 25% higher than Bozak’s when he was age 26, you begin to realize that some people work towards a conclusion by pulling together numbers, rather than let the number steer their way towards an educated conclusion. Pulling up Hockey Reference for both players isn’t exactly tough. You just have to type the URL into your browser, search for “Tyler Bozak” and “Mikko Koivu” and the Internet does the work for you. You don’t even have to wait for the newspaper to print out career statistics.

It is easier to say things like “Bozak is good at faceoffs” and “Koivu and Bozak are good comparables, here are Koivu’s points per game numbers” and then somehow get away with not actually writing down how Bozak does in the faceoff circle. I’m guessing if Bozak were 5th in faceoffs rather than 22nd, he’d have written down Bozak’s faceoff percentage.

Just what the world needs though, another white guy writing about sports.

* * *

Good sportswriting exists, too. There’s a great piece written by John Updike on Ted Williams that can be found online here at the Baseball Almanac. Updike went through some of the criticisms against one of the league’s best hitters, and it offers a neat contemporary perspective on Williams, who has the highest career on base percentage.

What was the most frequent criticism of Teddy Ballgame? He wasn’t good enough in the playoffs, of course:

The fatal weakness of the great Sox slugging teams was not-quite-good-enough pitching rather than Williams’ failure to hit a home run every time he came to bat. Again, Williams’ depressing effect on his teammates has never been proved. Despite ample coaching to the contrary, most insisted that they liked him. He has been generous with advice to any player who asked for it. In an increasingly combative baseball atmosphere, he continued to duck beanballs docilely. With umpires he was gracious to a fault. This courtesy itself annoyed his critics, whom there was no pleasing. And against the ten crucial games (the seven World Series games with the St. Louis Cardinals, the 1948 playoff with the Cleveland Indians, and the two-game series with the Yankees at the end of the 1949 season, winning either one of which would have given the Red Sox the pennant) that make up the Achilles’ heel of Williams’ record, a mass of statistics can be set showing that day in and day out he was no slouch in the clutch. The correspondence columns of the Boston papers now and then suffer a sharp flurry of arithmetic on this score; indeed, for Williams to have distributed all his hits so they did nobody else any good would constitute a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness.

I want to make out with that last last thought, with Updike straight up mocking the suggestion that Williams was so selfish, he made sure all of his hits came in situations that did not benefit the only team he ever played for.

But I sort of thought back to this passage when reading some thoughts on the exits of Shawn Horcoff and Mikhail Grabovski, both unceremoniously dispatched yesterday. Horcoff has more of an attachment to Edmonton than Grabovski does to Toronto, but Grabovski is better today.

Horcoff was the one constant for the Oilers between the flashy and exciting teams of the pre-lockout era, into the perpetual rebuild. The one common criticism I’ve found in today’s post-mortems about Horcoff is basically summarized by Robert Tychkowski here, who called Horcoff a “whipping post”:

Being the captain and highest-paid player during the worst era in franchise history made Horcoff’s career in Edmonton a stormy one at times.

He made the NHL All-Star game in 2007-08 and was a solid two-way centre, excellent faceoff man and good leader, but the points never matched the money and that was a problem for a lot of Oilers fans.

Horcoff, it would seem, is the same player that A.J. Warner thinks Tyler Bozak is. Numbers folk sometimes take a lot of abuse because our methodology apparently doesn’t consider grit or other intangibles, but I disagree. I think that if a player is working his ass off every night, even if he doesn’t have all the talent in the world, and he generally produces positive things for his team, it would show up on the spreadsheets. Horcoff is a player like this, and there are some good bits of evidence that show Horcoff was a victim of his circumstance in Edmonton.

The common critique is that he was the team’s best player during some particularly lean years. A lot of bad players have hung around Edmonton over the last seven seasons. It is not Horcoff’s fault that the team wasn’t any good, merely because he captained it. The first thing you notice when you start delving into the numbers a little bit more is that the good players that this league advertises are real, real good, but since our expectations for those players are higher, below-zero performances from Colton Orr are accepted as reasons for why the Maple Leafs made the playoffs or why Brian McGrattan gets re-signed by Calgary. It’s easy to do your job every night if your job is to punch faces, it’s another thing altogether if you’re going to singlehandedly bring the Edmonton Oilers into the playoffs.

With Grabovski, you can’t win. Steve Simmons has been front and centre in the case against Mikhail Grabovski, because Steve Simmons thinks that Grabovski’s success is fictitious, that he is simply a player stat guys like to champion because stat guys arbitrarily select players.

When Grabovski puts up some of the highest Corsi Rel numbers in the league as a terrific two-way possession player on a crummy team, the complaint is “yes, but what really matters is goals”. When it’s pointed out that Grabovski is actually 17th among centremen in goal-scoring over the last three seasons, the goalposts move again.

Now, Grabovski becomes a “lone wolf” that apparently doesn’t make teams better, even though across the board, Maple Leafs players are better in both team goal ratio and shot ratio with Grabovski on the ice as opposed to Bozak. Like Ted Williams, Grabovski is so selfish that he doesn’t score for his team when it really counts. He had “zero goals in the playoffs” and the “highest minus in the entire playoffs”.

It’s rare for a player to get a lot of playoff games strung together. There are so many teams now that even elite teams may only see a dozen or so playoff games over a two-year period, and it’s tough to put up points in playoff games, just like it’s tough putting up points in regular season games. Only 53 active forwards have played a full season’s worth of playoff games, and most of them are pretty successful, because if you’re playing a lot of playoff games, you’re probably getting some good percentages and getting lots of goals and plus-minuses.

Of those 53 active forwards, playmaker extra-ordinaire and (I would think) future Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Whitney has the lowest career minus, and just 53 points in 103 games. I don’t think anybody would dare to talk about Whitney as a playoff choker the same way Grabovski has been discussed in the last 24 hours. It’s been a long time since 1994, when Whitney scored 0 goals in 14 San Jose Sharks playoff games.

Also on the list of minuses? Joe Thornton, Henrik Sedin, Teemu Selanne and Brad Richards. I guess they’re all players that take some abuse for not showing up when it counts (although those players are 10th, 13th, 19th and 6th in points per game in the playoffs among active players with 82 games, respectively) but they’re also players that no sane person would leave off their teams because they don’t perform in the postseason. One of them even won the Conn Smythe Trophy.

History is kinder to players that had a tough playoff run or two. Now that we’re more than 50 years since Williams last faced a pitch in the major leagues, we forget his spotty playoff record, because when you look at the back of his baseball card or see his career statistics printed out, only regular season numbers are listed. It’s one of the quirks of sports, that despite so much weight and importance being put on playoff success, the regular season is what counts when determining what goes on your Hall of Fame plaque.

Like mc79hockey said in his defence of Horcoff, that people will realize the importance of Horcoff to the Oilers “maybe a decade from now”. These sorts of critiques get washed away with time. I hope Horcoff and Grabovski have success with their new teams, and that ten years from now, we’ve completely forgotten about the summer of 2013. That was the summer when we thought that Tyler Bozak was more deserving of a $5-million salary cap hit than Shawn Horcoff and Mikhail Grabovski.

That was a particularly stupid summer.