LDL

Deep Thoughts: Sabermetrics and my annual checkup

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I went for my annual physical this morning. I’m OK and stuff, but I am NOT in the Best Shape of My Life. And the entire conversation I had with my doctor about it made me realize how silly and stupid old school, anti-sabermetric arguments are.

Note: I warn the medical professionals among you that I am going to refer to some things in a very hamfisted way. Please feel free to correct my mistakes and misleading statements in the comments.

Most of us know that you really don’t want to have a high cholesterol number. We probably had it ingrained in our heads since the 1980s at least that if your “cholesterol” — the term usually used generically, but also known as “bad cholesterol” or LDL-C — is pushing 200 or more that you’re in a bad place and at risk of heart attacks and all of that.  So, dude, lower that cholesterol!

Except it’s not that simple anymore. In the past few years general practitioners have increasingly moved away from talking to their patients about that old bad cholesterol scale to more sophisticated and refined measures. Measures which have a much greater correlation with heart health than the old numbers. I’m sure it’s way more complicated than this (really, talk to your doctor), but for our purposes, LDL-P is a WAY better measure than the bad cholesterol/LDL-C measure. Indeed, you may very well have a low LDL-C number but still be at serious risk of a heart attack because your LDL-P number is too high.

This is where I am. I get a physical every year. After a not great one in 2010 I bought a treadmill, cut out sweets, cut back on beer and lost weight. I lost about 25 pounds or so, in fact. I went for a physical in December 2011. My “bad cholesterol” number was much improved. In the healthy range. As far as I knew, I was in the BSOML.

Since last year, however, my doctor began, as a matter of course, testing LDL-P levels. I am way, way too high in my LDL-P levels. This is true even though I’m still down in weight from where I was back in 2010 and despite the fact that my bad cholesterol numbers are still in good shape. The old metrics are misleading! They were failing me because they were not telling me and my doctor about my heart attack risks nearly as well as the newer, more sophisticated metrics.

After getting lectured by my doctor about how I need to change my diet, I began to laugh. I began to imagine myself as an old school baseball writer listening to this. I began to formulate a rebuttal to my doctor that could have easily shown up in Jon Heyman’s Hall of Fame column or something, switching out WAR for LDL-P:

“LDL-P. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.  Look, doc, you can bury your head in your spreadsheets and clinical studies which purport to show correlation between dying of heart attacks and your fancy acronyms, but bad cholesterol numbers are widely accepted and understood by people who aren’t doctors. If they were good enough for the doctor I had in 1984 they’re good enough for me. I prefer the eye test anyway. I look in the mirror and I see a much thinner me than I saw two years ago. I see that my 34 jeans are actually loose. I see my breakfast each morning and note that I’m eating way more cereal now than eggs, and my 1984 doctor told me that’s what I should do.  I don’t need some abstract number to tell me something which goes against all intuitive sense. You’re using LDL-P as an argument-ender, and frankly, the tone of you LDL-P people has gotten extreme.”

Science and math is science and math no matter what you apply it to. If people in any other field besides baseball treated scientific and mathematical metrics with the sort of willfully ignorant disdain that many baseball writers treat advanced baseball metrics, they’d be laughingstocks. And while, yes, it is an extreme example, if doctors did so in the medical field more people would die.  Baseball isn’t life and death of course, but I’m glad my doctor doesn’t approach his field of study like Jon Heyman and guys like him approach theirs.

Anyway, end of deep thought. I’m off to chuck all of the cereal, bread, crackers and pasta I have into the garbage and begin steeling myself for egg-white omelets, fish and a lot more lentils and things. If that makes me a dietary stathead who needs to get his head out of his laptop and eat some damn bagels once in a while, well, so be it.

People are getting hysterical over Dee Gordon’s positive test

FILE - This April 3, 1972 file photo shows Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, talking to reporters in New York. Miller, the union leader who created free agency for baseball players and revolutionized professional sports with multimillion dollar contracts, died Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 in New York. He was 95. (AP Photo/File)
Associated Press
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A dude testing positive for PEDs and getting suspended for 80 games should, actually, be taken as a sign that the system, however imperfect, still largely works. But the world of baseball can’t stop to acknowledge that. No, this is apparently a crisis. A crisis so dire that decades of labor developments apparently need to be scuttled.

That’s the message I’m getting from some folks in baseball media, anyway. Take this for example:

There’s a LOT going on there. For one thing, a casual dismissal of just how massively significant the concept of the guaranteed contract is in baseball. Marvin Miller is always cited as the man who brought the players free agency, but free agency would not have been valuable at all if teams could just void contracts. Just look at how the NFL and its phony salary numbers work. Miller and the MLBPA worked insanely hard to put that system in place and it’s insanely valuable to union membership. It’s not hyperbole to say that any movement on the part of the union to compromise the notion of guaranteed contracts would represent a complete and total repudiation of decades of its own work, and suggesting that it do so because we still get 5-7 PED suspensions a year is preposterous.

Then look at the word “option” there. Abraham wouldn’t have contracts be automatically voided. He’d only have them be voided at the option of an owner. This would give teams tremendous power to get out of bad deals and would give them no risk with respect to PED guys who happen to be on team friendly deals. If contracts were automatically void, underpaid players like Madison Bumgarner would have MASSIVE incentives to use PEDs. If they were merely voidable at the whim of the owner, the owners would have incentives with respect to drug testing other than making the game a clean one.

Finally, note how Abraham puts this all on the MLBPA. He’s not alone in this, as Buster Olney has been tweeting and writing all morning about what the union should and should not be doing to solve this problem. Obviously the union has a huge role as its players are the ones taking drugs, but to suggest that the union be the police force here and that it’s wholly incumbent upon it to solve this problem is silly.

For one thing, as I noted earlier today, a union’s purpose is to protect its members, not police them. To demand that they police them, to the point of undercutting some of their most important protections due to a disciplinary matter, is to turn the concept of a union on its head.

For another thing, as we learned throughout the height of the PED Era, ownership is not totally innocent when it comes to the permeation of PEDs in the game. The people who run baseball play a huge role in shaping the incentive structure of the game which causes some players to cheat. They are thus just as invested in and in just as good a position to help solve the problem at hand as the players are. They cannot, as these reporters would have them, sit back and demand that the MLBPA disembowel itself in order to eliminate PEDs from the game. It has to be a joint effort. Indeed, the drug rules in baseball have the word “JOINT” in the very title. It ain’t a Cheech and Chong reference, I can tell you that.

All of this reveals a certain hysteria that has always permeated the PED discussion in baseball coming to the fore once again. While they once ruled the game, PEDs are a relatively small problem now, comparatively speaking (note: neither Abraham nor Olney bother to establish that they’re actually a big problem or that things are getting worse; they merely assert it and assume it). A problem which, like drugs and cheating in every other walk of life, cannot be wholly eliminated and should not be ignored, but which can be and generally is effectively managed.

Yet here we are with two of the more influential voices in the game — and many others I’ve seen already today but didn’t bother to link here — pushing the panic button and demanding the ridiculous with no basis whatsoever. What is it about this subject, in this sport only, of course, that makes people lose their frickin’ minds?

Marlins’ Dee Gordon says he unknowingly took PEDs

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon looks into his dugout after reaching third on a double by teammate Marcell Ozuna during the third inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. The Cardinals won 4-3. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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MIAMI (AP) Reigning NL batting champion Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins says he unknowingly took the performance-enhancing drugs that led to his 80-game suspension, but he’ll accept the penalty.

The announcement of the suspension by Major League Baseball came shortly after the Marlins’ victory at Los Angeles on Thursday night. MLB said Gordon tested positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol.

“Though I did not do so knowingly, I have been informed that test results showed I ingested something that contained prohibited substances,” Gordon said in a statement released Friday by the players union. “The hardest part about this is feeling that I have let down my teammates, the organization, and the fans. I have been careful to avoid products that could contain something banned by MLB and the 20-plus tests that I have taken and passed throughout my career prove this.

“I made a mistake and I accept the consequences.”

The 28-year-old Gordon led the majors in hits and stolen bases last year. He batted .333, became an All-Star for the second time and won a Gold Glove at second base.

The big season helped him earn a $50 million, five-year contract he signed in January.

He and Marlins manager Don Mattingly were together with the Dodgers for four years, but Gordon didn’t become a regular in Los Angeles until 2014. Gordon was traded to Miami in a seven-player deal in December 2014, and Mattingly became the Marlins’ manager this season.

“Dee is always a guy we felt could play, but at that point he was 145 pounds soaking wet,” Mattingly said during spring training. “Now he has turned into a man. He has put some physical strength on him, and he’s a different player.”

Following the suspension announcement, Mattingly said the Marlins will continue to support Gordon.

“I feel like Dee’s one of my kids, to be honest with you, because I’ve known him so long,” Mattingly said.

Shortly before the penalty was announced, Gordon hit an RBI single in the seventh inning and scored after forcing a balk as the Marlins rallied for a 5-3 win and a four-game sweep over Los Angeles.

Gordon became the seventh player to be suspended this year under the MLB drug plan. Last week, Toronto slugger Chris Colabello was penalized 80 games after testing positive for a PED.

Miami President David Samson said the Marlins “completely support the drug prevention program in every way.”

“Dee Gordon is a very important part of our team, and we all love him and support him,” Samson said. “That said, I don’t like or condone what he did.

“He will be back 80 games from now, and he will be welcomed back to this organization,” he added. “But in the interim period, we expect him, and we are positive that he will do everything that’s necessary to make it up to his fans, to his teammates and to this organization.”

The speedy Gordon is the son of former All-Star pitcher Tom Gordon.

The MLBPA continues to shoot itself in the foot regarding PEDs

Tony Clark
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Most players are adamantly anti-PEDs now. Unlike their complicit or passive predecessors, today’s players don’t, for the most part, accept PEDs as just part of the game. They’re competitors and they see PED use as their competition cheating. They consider these guys to be taking money and service time away from other players. They are legitimately angry about it. And they should be.

But the manner in which they have expressed that anger — publicly, emotionally or by being quoted at length by baseball’s top writer calling for draconian punishments — is neither the best way to address their concerns about PED use in the game nor is it in their best interests in a larger sense. Indeed, it undermines their interests and sets them up to be taken advantage of by the owners both with respect to PEDs and other matters which affect their lives and their livelihoods.

PED rules and every other rule which affect the circumstances of baseball players are the subject of collective bargaining. It’s union stuff, negotiated with ownership. And it’s a zero sum game. You make a concession, you get something in return. If you give up something for nothing, you get nothing. It’s like any other sort of negotiation. If you cease to treat it as one, you lose your leverage to get what you want. You get no points whatsoever for your personal virtue, your public position and what people not party to the negotiation think of you. Players loudly and publicly proclaiming their desire for the harshest possible PED penalties are like a man in midlife crisis walking into a Porsche dealership wearing a shirt that says “I will not leave here without a red 718 Boxter.”

Ownership knows that the players will agree to anything and will even put the anything on the table themselves. And they’ll take maximal advantage of the players. For example, maybe the players are in favor of a contract-voiding provision in the narrow case of PED use. Maybe they see it as something confined solely to drug situations. The owners could jump at that knowing full well that, for the first time, the union has caved some on the critical concept of guaranteed contracts in baseball and will use that as a basis to make further inroads later. Maybe the players want to suspend players pending their drug test appeal. The owners will nod and privately acknowledge that players will, in the right cases, negotiate away their due process protections. Once a party caves on something, even if it’s a broad concept, it’s extraordinarily difficult for them to later present a credible defense to that concept or to claim that it is sacrosanct.

At the same time, maybe there are things the players can actually GAIN if they’re more guarded in their approach. Many acknowledge that PED use is, at least in part, a function of players trying to keep their bodies together over the long grind of the baseball season. Meanwhile, players would love more off-days and changes to the schedule. Why not link these issues and, in exchange for some harsher penalties, force the owners to give them some schedule relief? Why not get something they want and need in exchange for giving something up? It’s an ideal situation for a party to a negotiation and it’s a situation lost if one spends months before the negotiation making it clear that they’ll freely give away something that would otherwise have to be paid for.

None of which is to say that the players cannot or should not try to get exactly what they want, up to and including, I dunno, an instant death penalty for PED users if they feel it’s necessary. It’s to say that, to get that, they have to be unified. They have to agree on a strategy to get what they want and execute it the same way every other strategy is executed in these situations. There is no negotiating strategy that has ever been helped by loudly signaling to your adversary what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Being guarded about what it is you value and how you value it in the context of a negotiation does not mean that you don’t value it. Demanding that the owners compensate you for an increased PED sanction does not mean that you’re pro-PEDs.

I look at Justin Verlander‘s public comments and the comments of other players who are angry at PED users and I understand where that anger comes from. But I also know that, if Marvin Miller or Don Fehr were running the union today, those comments would be made in communications with union leadership and fellow players for the purposes of developing a strategy, not in public for the purposes of venting anger. They would form the basis of a consensus with which a unified MLBPA could approach ownership in a way best calculated to accomplish the players’ goals. As I put it rather crudely on Twitter this morning, if players in Miller and Fehr’s day spoke publicly in a way that undermined the MLBPA’s negotiation leverage, they’d end up in body bags.

This morning I wonder what Tony Clark is doing to address the legitimate anger of players like Justin Verlander. Does he have their confidence that he can accomplish what they want to accomplish with respect to harsher PED penalties? Are their public comments actually frustration by players at what they perceive to be a union which doesn’t value their concerns? Or, alternatively, are the players simply not as invested in the sort of unanimity of voice that all unions require to be successful? And if so, why not? Is it because they’re complacent or has MLBPA leadership simply not done as good a job explaining to them the real consequences of a failure of solidarity?

Dee Gordon‘s suspension is not, in and of itself, a big deal. But it could have some big repercussions. The MLBPA and its membership had best be on the same page, publicly and privately, if they want to ride out the repercussions and shape their future in a way that best serves their interests. As opposed to the interests of ownership which, in the context of the CBA, is their adversary, even if their interests often coincide.

Dee Gordon’s suspension is likely to lead to a call for harsher PED penalties

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon celebrates after hitting a double against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Miami. Derek Dietrich scored on the double. The Tigers won 8-7. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Associated Press
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Objectively speaking there is no difference between Dee Gordon’s suspension for PEDs and anyone else’s. Abraham Almonte, for example. Or Cameron Maybin. Or David Rollins. All were guys who got their 80 games, served their time, came back and whose cases didn’t raise too much of a fuss. But Gordon’s suspension will almost certainly be talked about longer and more loudly and will likely lead to calls for harsher penalties and changes to the PED suspension rules.

Part of it is simply fame. He’s a pretty big name as far as these things go. The biggest since the Biogenesis guys a couple of years ago. He won the batting title last year. He’s the son of a famous major leaguer. There is a direct correlation between the volume and intensity of the narratives applied to one’s story and the fame of the subject of the story. For that reason alone Gordon’s story will last longer and loom larger.

Another reason — a bigger reason, I think — is timing. Gordon was seen by many to have had a breakout season in 2015 and, when it was over, he was rewarded for it with a nice five-year $50 million deal. The narrative will arise by, oh, 9AM today, that the suspension was “worth it” for Gordon and that he cashed in because of it, rendering his suspension a mere slap on the wrist. This is especially true given that his deal is severely backloaded. He’ll lose less than $2 million in salary in 2016 while collecting the other $48 million-plus. Totally worth it!

I understand why people will say that, but such a stance has some serious flaws. Among them:

  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows when Gordon began to take PEDs;
  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows how, in fact, Gordon’s performance was actually enhanced;
  • It forgets that lots and lots of people were talking about how Gordon’s “breakout season” was actually 2014, not 2015, rendering that whole “he juiced and then got his money” argument fairly problematic.

Those points will likely be ignored as arguments in favor of harsher penalties grow louder. Ken Rosenthal reminds us this morning that some have called for some form of contract voiding or clawing back of more money than just the salary earned while on suspension. Those calls too will likely grow louder. There will also be calls for changes in the appeal process. Like this one, which came moments after Gordon’s suspension was announced:

When you have an actual union member angrily call for the repeal of a collectively-bargained protection in punishment situations, you’re sort of through the looking glass. Or past a tipping point. Or something. You’re certainly in a world where the usual dynamics between employer and employee are not operative and, as a result, changes are inevitable. As we noted recently, players today are perhaps more adamantly anti-PED than the owners and the league are. They’re competitors reacting to cheating by their competition. The fuel for stronger penalties is likely to come more from them than anyone.

The union and the league will be negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this year. Performance enhancing drugs and their penalties will be a part of that. Expect harsher penalties and possibly different sorts of rules altogether. Expect Dee Gordon to be the poster child for these changes, even if his case is no different in form than that of Abraham Almonte, Cameron Maybin, or David Rollins. Expect emotion, rather than logic, to lead the coming debate.