Friday, March 25, 2016

Finally, a thinkpiece on the election

I haven't actually written anything down about the Presidential election, outside of some stray tweets and private email discussions. I'm not sure if I've ever blogged about an election before (and I've blogged since the early 2000's), but I feel like maybe it's finally time I put something down on paper.

Part of that is just so I can go back and look at it later - but part of it is I'm getting more and more interested in politics. I was never really interested in Presidential elections until 2000, and I think I've been fairly passionate about them since, but it feels like I'm getting deeper and deeper as I get older.

I was trying to think through why I feel that happening, and I've got a couple theories:

1 - I'm becoming a more responsible adult/citizen as I get older: I find this theory deeply unsatisfying and disturbing. I'm still immature, I swear (at this point I took a break to watch a YouTube video of crotch shots.)

2 - Politics is my new favorite sport: One thing that's definitely true about getting older, is that I'm starting to acknowledge the decreasing likelihood that I'm going to become the starting Free Safety for the Philadelphia Eagles. I'm still a big sports fan, but there's something a bit weird about watching and cheering for people much younger than you. I mean most pro athletes are now younger than just about all the people I know on Earth. Politics has that same competitive intensity (some would say that's a bad thing), but politicians are old! There's still an escapism element of putting myself in their shoes, and that's part of the fun. Plus, the stakes are actually meaningful.

3 - Expanded supply is meeting my demand: Sure I'm hugely into this election, but what I perceive as being more deeply invested is also a result of the continual media content explosion. Back in 2000 I don't really remember where I was getting my political news. Probably CNN? Now there are dozens and dozens of lowly-paid content-monkeys punching computer keys and smartphones at all hours of the day. I've listened to three different political podcasts this week. I've got Tweets coming in every second. With no costs or constraints on distribution there's no end to my election news binges. Back on 2004's Election night I remember watching the Bush-Kerry results come in on TV, but not being satisfied, going to the internet and getting county-by-county vote tally updates. Now that live vote tallying is part of the regular primary night coverage and tons of correspondents are bringing in even MORE content.

I think it's mostly #3.

But regardless of why I feel I'm more interested in the election, how do I actually feel about the election???

Cautiously optimistic.

I'm supporting Clinton, for a whole bunch of reasons, even if I remain a little underwhelmed by her. She's just most aligned with my views on the largest number of issues I think are important. It would be interesting to contrast her against a Republican with some reasonable views on those issues -- but that's apparently asking too much.

And since I'm pulling for Clinton, and she seems to be the most likely outcome, I'm as I said, cautiously optimistic.

But I've been disappointed before.

On the Democrat side -- I'm eagerly awaiting a Bernie Sanders dropout, but am resigned to that campaign going on for months. I'd love it if the Democrats could start rallying around Clinton, but Sanders seems like the type to continue to run in the face of overwhelming evidence that he can't win. That's his call, and I get it, particularly as he's bringing up some extremely relevant issues focused on the working-class, but selfishly it'd be best if he just packed it in.

I don't have a big problem with Sanders sticking around, but what's gotten under my skin is the idea that the hardcore Sanders supporters say they won't ultimately support Clinton in a general election. Now for the record I don't know any individuals who have said this explicitly - but if they're out there, I'd love to smack some sense into them.

People who would argue that they see no difference between a vote for Clinton and a vote for a Republican remind me of the same type of doofus you heard from in 2000. The ones who said they'd vote for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore because Gore and George W. Bush were basically the same. You know, the ones who damned us to easily the worst administration since I've been on this planet.

My guess is those Sanders' idealists don't really have an appreciation for the very real consequences of their choice. That's too bad, but something I think will soften once the general election match-up actually becomes clear.

Again, I'm cautiously optimistic.

On the Republican side though, wow, it's really amazing to watch.

What started as a field of seemingly infinite candidates has dwindled and dwindled to just Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich.

It's amazing that this is what it's come to, and even more amazing is that Kasich is the first candidate I can recall who's trying to succeed with the Steven Bradbury strategy. Who is Steven Bradbury? He's the guy that wins the race in the video below...

I would've guessed he had no shot, but hey, last man standing might just win this thing.

There has been no shortage of Donald Trump think-pieces since he first emerged in the race, and I'm not going to rehash them all here. Honestly, it's tough just to keep them all straight.

But there are a couple things about the Trump emergence that I do believe:

- Trump's succeeded because he's telling a good portion of voters he cares: A lot of my liberal friends have wondered this for years...why working class voters support a Republican party that pursues policies that hurt them economically. It's the whole 'What's the Matter with Kansas?' problem. I'd argue that Republican historical success with those voters could be linked to a whole bunch of things beyond economic policy (e.g., social values, national security, etc). But, for the first time, there's a candidate that's actually focusing a populist economic message to these folks who, at least in economic terms, haven't been helped by their party. It's a hell of a white space, it's just amazing Trump's the first one to hit it.

- It reflects a natural outcome of the conservative media industry: You can debate why they've become this way, but it's hard to deny that a big swath of conservative voters have gotten angrier and angrier over the last decade. These people want the system to change (can't say I blame them) and the longer they go without seeing change, the more extreme measures they'll be ready to take. Now, extreme conservatives would say this is a natural response to a President who doesn't respect the rule of law, works around the Constitution to pass big government disasters like Obamacare, and is actively working to destroy the country. Regardless of whether you believe that or not, there's a massive conservative media industry who has built their success on perpetuating that narrative while insisting that anyone else in power/media is in on the whole conspiracy. With this segment of the population, they've systematically dismantled any faith in institutions or idea that the 'other side' wants what's best for America.

I'm sure some people would dispute that line of thinking - but I've spent a lot of time listening to Patriot Radio on XM - and that is absolutely what I've heard. I don't know who actually listens to people like Mark Levin, but I have, and it's absolutely nuts.

But taking a step back, if you've built a business on getting people angry (and angry people will keep listening and calling), and you've told them that all the standard players in the world of politics are against them, and you convince them of that fact, what recourse do they have?

They can start small -- Tea Party wave in 2010 -- with elections where they can make a difference. But what if that doesn't work? Where do you turn to next?

Bigger change right? And so here we are.

My hope is that there are enough OTHER people who haven't been, is radicalized too strong a word?, that our country won't go completely off the deep end. Based on all the data and analysis (remember I'm a technocrat), I remain cautiously optimistic that it won't happen.

:::Knocks on wood:::

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Saturation Drafting in the NFL

The NFL draft is coming up, and as we approach the draft, it's great to debate all kinds of theories on how teams should maximize their resources.

One theory I've debated with @EaglesRewind is the idea of saturation drafting. What we mean by saturation drafting is when a team focuses most or all of their draft resources on one key position.

For example, let's say your favorite team had terrible wide receivers (Eagles fans from the McNabb era can probably imagine such a scenario). The team is actually pretty well situated at most positions, by WR is just a black hole. Saturation drafting would be that team drafting a ton of receivers, hoping that most will work out and you'll find an absolute stud somewhere in those picks.

It's an interesting idea, although the GM would need to believe a couple things:

- The team is really well situated at all other positions
- You can accept drafting for explicit need rather than best-player-available
- Drafting a bunch of players at one position is going to make us more likely to get good player(s) (either by maximizing draft probability or under the theory that multiple draft picks will help push each other to develop better/faster)

It seemed like something that a team may pursue, even if it's extremely unconventional. But I wasn't sure if it had ever happened and even less sure that it would actually work.

So I checked - gathering data from all NFL drafts since 2000 (thanks to Pro-Football-Reference).

I defined a 'saturation draft' as a year where a team drafted four or more players at a single positional group. Now, I generalized positional group a bit, in part because some positions can be interchangeable (e.g. tackles drafted can often play guard)

I looked across the following positions:

- DL
- LB
- DB
- OL
- WR
- QB
- RB
- TE

I ignored kickers/punters - for obvious reasons. But in the rest of those cases we looked across all the drafts since 2000 to see when, if ever, teams had used 4 or more picks on one position. The only exception I allowed was for quarterbacks - in that case - I set the saturation drafting threshold at 2 picks (no team since 2000 has ever drafted three QBs in a single year).

So - first thing - does saturation drafting ever actually happen???

Well, there are 512 team-draft seasons since 2000, across eight position groups. Since 2000 - there have been 34 instances where a team has taken four or more players at a single positional group (or two QBs).

On average it happens almost twice a year, at least the way I've defined it here. Below are those 34 instances broken down by position group:

DL - 11 times
DB - 10 times
QB - 8 times
OL - 3 times
LB - 2 times

So when teams do end up spending a bunch of draft picks in one area - it's typically on the defensive line, the secondary, or because you've taken two quarterbacks. I was a little surprised teams' have taken two quarterbacks eight times - because that was something that seemed pretty unlikely to me.

Now it's possible these teams were all pursuing best-player-available strategies, and the BPA just happened to be at the same position groupings multiple times. But I've always been skeptical that teams ever pursue pure BPA strategies. I think need is always taken into account to some degree - so many of these instances could very well be considered saturation drafting rather than inadvertent.

So, if that's the case, we then have to evaluate whether this strategy is actually effective.

Well - if saturation drafting WAS a better strategy, if it did help you improve your odds at finding/developing good players, we would expect the share of Pro Bowlers created through saturation drafting to be higher than just plan old drafting under other strategies. I'm using Pro Bowl designations because it's the easiest proxy for very good players and games started is a messy metric when evaluating drafts.

Across over 4000 draft picks, the overall odds of drafting a player who makes at least one Pro Bowl is 9%.

Across all the saturation drafting scenarios we identified, the overall odds of drafting a player who makes at least one Pro also 9%.

(And for the record, those totals are weighted based on number of picks in each round - because saturation drafting instances have disproportionate picks in the later rounds)

In total, saturation drafting doesn't seem more effective at taking/developing Pro Bowl players (some of you might quibble because of the first round data that suggests saturation drafting is better, 50% to 39%, but that's off a sample of only 12 picks and skewed by saturation draftees Andrew Luck and RGIII making the Pro Bowl)

With that data - I think it's very hard to argue that saturation drafting is an idea worth pursuing. It's not any more effective at leading to finding great players, and let me offer a couple other reasons why it's not a great idea...

1 - Throwing Good Resources After Bad: If a team is considering saturation drafting because a position is a glaring weakness, it's likely that the weakness is not by chance. What I mean by that is, it's likely the team has invested in players at that position (either through earlier drafts, free agency, or trades), and things haven't worked out. Well, that suggests that maybe this team, for whatever reason, can't successfully evaluate talent or develop talent at that spot. It's not impossible to imagine a front office that's very good at identifying/developing offensive lineman but terrible at defensive backs. That would set you up to consider saturation drafting -- but if you can't evaluate the position relatively well -- the last thing you'll want to do is invest disproportionate draft resources at that spot. Better to draft what you know and maybe pursue trades for proven NFL players at your positional weakness

2 - Playing Time is a Zero Sum Game: This is an even bigger practical limitation to saturation drafting. Imagine you're a GM in the 2012 draft with the first overall pick. You take Andrew Luck (good choice), and then in the 3rd round, you take Russell Wilson. Well, that's great - only unless you try some new offense no one's tried before, you probably aren't going to play two quarterbacks at once.

Quarterback is the most extreme example, but this would hold for all positions. There's only so many game snaps to go around, and only so many first-team practice reps, and only so much positional coaching time. If you draft five defensive backs like the Jaguars did in 2013, simply put, not all of them are going to be able to play. So even if you ARE able to hit on a bunch of saturation picks, you're not going to maximize that value.

But even if it turns out saturation drafting isn't a good idea, at least we've got some data on it and have looked at it objectively. Sometimes proving which ideas won't work is just as helpful as finding ones that do. And honestly, if the Eagles took 4 OL this spring, even notwithstanding everything I've said, I'd still probably be OK with it.

Appendix (Saturation Drafting situations by team since 2000):

Monday, March 14, 2016

Hard Knocks Odds 2016

One of the only saving graces from the Eagles dumpster fire of a season was the possibility that they could've been forced into participating in HBO's Hard Knocks training camp documentary series.

As a brief refresher - the NFL has previously decreed that individual teams may be 'volun-told' to participate as long as they haven't made the playoffs in the last two years, do not have a new coach, and haven't been on the show in the last ten years.

The Eagles were right in prime candidacy until they fired Chip Kelly. A new coach means they're off the potential selections. Too bad.

But that doesn't mean we can't predict who this years' team will be. Last year around this time, I successfully predicted the league would pick the Houston Texans.

This year, I'm going to try and predict it correctly again (caveat that a team might actually volunteer itself and blow up my prediction, as the Falcons did in 2014).

Here are the potential teams that meet the criteria as a selection:

- New Orleans Saints
- Oakland Raiders
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- Chicago Bears
- San Diego Chargers
- Los Angeles Rams

I took this list off another article about Hard Knocks casting - so I'm just assuming it's right. If it is, the NFL certainly has its work cut out for it.

Right off the bat - I think we can eliminate three teams.

The Rams, Chargers, and Raiders all might be cross-offs because they've all been conducting huge campaigns to move their teams. The Rams will be in LA, the Chargers will probably be in LA after another year in San Diego, and the Raiders are still up in the air.

All those changes, combined with the fact that these teams have pissed off a lot of local communities, means the NFL might just avoid the mess altogether.

So we're already down to just three teams. The Saints, the Jaguars, and the Bears.

Now, of those three, the Saints have the highest player celebrity in quarterback Drew Brees. That's usually a good indicator. But I'm very hesitant to pick them, as their owner has been in a pretty nasty dispute with his family over control of his estate. All the hallmarks of a rich family feud - declining mental faculties, allegations of gold digging - yikes.

Even if that suit is resolved - does the NFL want to go near the executive offices where that tension might be simmering? I'd guess no.

So that leaves us with the Jaguars and the Bears.

I had the Jaguars as a fairly likely team last year, only on the basis of their owner's willingness to help out the league. The Jaguars always seem to play in London. But they've never really been an exciting team or one with any kind of national following.

The Bears, while they have a storied history, haven't exactly been thrilling anyone either. They also just let a big name offensive superstar, Matt Forte, walk in free agency. Jay Cutler remains at quarterback - but he definitely doesn't have the same charisma as JJ Watt brought last summer.

But I can't predict neither team will get put on the I'm forced to make a call between two less than thrilling options (not too different than the election I suppose).

I'm going to pick the Bears - mark it down. They have a good history, a big market, and no real dark clouds hanging over their heads. These days in the NFL, that's pretty hard to come by.