Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Introduction to MMA

This is the first part in a n-part series for MMA noobs who have no idea what a Chuck Liddel is. In this first installment I will discuss the specific style of fighting that is involved and a little bit of history.

MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts. It is a combination of martial arts styles that have been found to be effective in the UFC and other similar events. The three basic elements of MMA are striking, wrestling, and Brazilian jujitsu. While modern fighters usually specialize in one of the three aspects, they must be skilled in all three in order to stand a chance. It is notable that Brazilian jujitsu(BJJ) is the only one of the three elements that references a specific style.

No holds barred fights have been around for a very long time but it really wasn't until the early 90's when events such as UFC 1 took place where skilled practitioners, and not amateurs, of differing fighting styles were brought into the same ring(or octagon). Boxers, kickboxers, wrestlers, sumo wrestlers, etc. competed in the 8-man tournament, but the easy winner was Royce Gracie, a master of BJJ. BJJ dominated these early MMA events.

BJJ includes a little striking, but mainly it is about forcing the other fighter to submit either by bending something in a way it normally would not bend or by temporarily cutting off bloodflow to the brain. (99% of the time a fighter will "tap out" or give up before injury occurs, and in the case of a choke the worst that happens is that they pass out and wake up dazed a minute or two later)This style was very effective against non-practitioners because it involved taking the fight onto the ground where someone like a boxer is unable to fight effectively. While wrestlers had a slightly better chance, they too were doomed because a skilled BJJ fighter could attempt a submission even when the wrestler was in a seemingly dominant position.

As the sport evolved it became apparent that even if a fighter was not a BJJ fighter, he still had to train in enough BJJ so that he can defend against submissions. In modern MMA it is difficult to be a pure BJJ fighter although they do exist. Submissions are becoming more of a submission move used against a tired/hurt fighter rather than a full-fight strategy.

Striking is the art of hitting someone. The following is an exhaustive list of striking styles that have been found to be effective in MMA.
  • Boxing
  • Kickboxing
  • Muay Thai
"Hey, where's karate?" you might ask. Well, it's pretty much worthless. As are many of the Eastern striking arts like Wushu, tae kwon do, etc. These techniques might be effective in action movies and against untrained fighters but not in the UFC. They fail for various reasons and I honestly don't know all of them but I'd imagine that they do not fair well against wrestlers who are intent on taking them down. The three effective styles are modified from orthodox practice due to the need to defend against takedowns and in the case of boxing, defend against kicks. Striking specialists try to keep the fight off the ground where they have an advantage over a fighter who does not specialize in striking. Matches between 2 striking specialists can easily resemble kickboxing fights.

There are several effective Eastern and Western wrestling techniques. In MMA wrestling is used primarily in 2 ways. The first is to score a takedown, that is to get the other fighter onto the ground while remaining on top. Once the fight is on the ground, wrestling is used to maintain or strengthen a dominant position. There is no such thing as a pure wrestler in MMA. Typically, wrestlers employ striking techniques to utilize while in a dominant position(Ground and pound) and/or learn BJJ submissions that can be used when the fight is on the ground. Many successful MMA fighters are former college wrestlers.

Join me for my next installment of the series where I discuss the various strategies that fighters use and the kinds of matchups that this leads to.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Rock Bottom

To state the relevant facts: The Yankees close May 27, 2007 at 21-27, 12.5 games behind the best team in baseball in the American League East, and eight games behind Detroit in the AL Wild Card. As noted many times, the Yankees have a record well below what's expected based on the numbers of runs they score and allow. Yet after losing 4-3 to The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California, Joe Torre's team is 2-9 in one-run games. The only two wins: deficit-erasing walk-off homers by Alex Rodriguez back in April. Injuries, an ineffective bullpen and an inconsistent offense have all contributed to a season on the brink of complete irrelevance. Indeed, projects probabilities of teams winning against their remaining schedules- and if the Yankees continue their level of play, fans can expect just a 15% chance of making the playoffs.

Many Yankees fans my age (born 1984) or younger will often have an accusation of bandwagonism thrown at them, given that the Yankees have been a consistent winning team since 1994. Most people, when learning I am a Yankees fan, give me a disgusted look and probably assume I'm one of those frontrunners. When I explain I'm from New Jersey the look of disgust only gets worse ("Why not the Mets, then?"), and for some people even "Well, my Dad is a Yankees fan and I watched games with him since I was in diapers," as an explanation does not satisfy. So, this is a time for Yankees fans to make their true allegiances known.

No longer can a Yankee fan hang on every pitch as if it were the ninth inning of a World Serious game. No longer can a players' poor performance be acceptable because he is a "clutch post-season performer" or whatever. Instead, true Yankees fans must make an adjustment, and show characteristics that separate us from the sheep. I call them the Three Pees: Patience, Persistence, and Perspective. Viewed through this lens, there is lots to look forward to in 2007 for the Yankees:

1. Roger Clemens. Sure, the best pitcher of my lifetime has just become the most highly paid Deck Chair Realigner in history, but it does not change his status as the best pitcher of my lifetime. Odds are he'll still have at least some of the magic he had with the Astros the past two seasons, and that will be fun to watch.

2. Phil Hughes. Though a mild ankle injury has set back his rehab a bit, expect Phil Phranchise to return to the mound for the big league team this summer. For those fans who have come to be dissatisfied with the "spend more!" theory of team building, a young dominating pitcher is the cure. Relatedly, the emergence of young players like Robinson Cano (now on a 11 game hitting streak following a dreadful slump) and Chien-Ming Wang (back killing worms like only he can) give the team a much different look.

3. The Yankees as sellers. This could get exciting- Bobby Abreu, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Myers, Ron Villone, and possibly even Jason Giambi are players that could fill needs for teams with playoff dreams. While no team will be willing to give up too much to the Yankees, it will be refreshing to see other teams fall over themselves to deal for aging veterans.

4. Rooting against the Red Sox. Ah, my second favorite baseball team: whoever is playing Boston. Sure, the best record in the land right now, but they have their own ranks of the old (Schilling, Wakefield, Varitek) and perennially injured (Beckett, Drew). While the dream of overtaking the Red Sox may be far-fetched, rooting for Boston to lose is as rewarding as rooting for a T-lymphocite to knock out some flesh-eating Stapholococcus aureus.

5. Stat Padding! Hey, with the team out of the race, who cares whether A-Rod's home runs come in close games or not? I want to see him heat up again and challenge the AL single-season home run record. I want to see Jeter and Posada battle for a batting title. It managed to keep Yankees fans interested in 1985 when the Mattingly/Winfield batting race came down to the final day; 2007 would be no different.

Of course, knowing the NY Media we'll probably get a steady dose of daily updates on the contract situations of Posada, Rivera, and especially A-Rod. There's always the chance that orders come from up high and Hughes and Clippard and Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain are all traded for some crappy aging veteran to try to get the team on track. With a team out of the race, the Yankees should avoid a lame-duck situation and fire Torre before the end of the season, replacing him with the man for the future: Joe Girardi (Sorry Donnie Baseball, but you're too much like Torre and you're not ready). Brian Cashman, meanwhile, needs to show that he has the ability to make deals that will build a team for the long term: the Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson trades were refreshing but so far an abysmal failure.

In the meantime, there is plenty to like about the 2007 baseball season outside of the Bronx. On the backs of a shaky, fly-ball heavy rotation, the team across town is looking to end a 20-year World Serious drought. Barry Bonds is about to put his asterisk-free name next to the words "All Time Home Runs Leader." In Milwaukee, the Brewers look to prove, once again, that small-market teams can compete without the need for a salary cap. Likewise in the American League, the Indians appear to finally be approaching their potential, while the Angels lead the AL West despite having only one respectable hitter.

So while the Yankees continue their free-fall to rock bottom, it's a time to realize how great a sport baseball is, and that passion can be directed at other targets besides "Win, at all costs."

(P.S. This post seems eerily familiar...)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Cookie of the Week

Congratulations to 11-year-old Jamison Stone for winning this week's Cookie of the Week, and for being our youngest Cookie award winner ever. Jamison was talented enough to kill a 9-foot-long boar in Alabama. Jamison was able to continuously puncture the boar's body with .50 caliber rounds during a three hour chase. Said Jamison of the kill, "It's a good accomplishment. I probably won't ever kill anything else that big."

(end of sarcasm)

My initial reaction to this article was complete disgust, but since they're actually using the animal's meat, I can only be so offended as an omnivorous individual. My real problem with it is the mindset of young Jamison. He chased down and killed an extraordinarily large boar, and his only regret is that he cannot chase down and kill a larger boar. This is a mode of thinking that I cannot identify with or understand, and it is my sincere hope that I never will.

Monday, May 21, 2007

No Two Yankees are Not on Fire

Four hamstring injuries (and a fired strength/conditioning coach), a broken leg, a broken finger, a struggling foreign import, and Carla Pavano. These are the days of our Yankee lives this season, and the result has been a frustratingly bad record of 19-23 heading into a three game series against the Red Sox in the Bronx. But I come here not to bury the Yankees, but to praise them, and offer hope. Hang on a second, while I put these on.

Okay, I'm back. We shall begin, as we normally do on this site, with Pythagoras. The three or four people who regularly read this site are rolling their eyes, sure. But it should make intuitive sense to anyone who thinks reasonably about sports that if a team averages a certain number of runs per game and allows a certain number of runs per game, that team will, over the course of a season, win a predictable number of games. This is so, and repeatedly proven by the folks at Baseball Prospectus, within a range of 3 wins or so (which I think is pretty damn good). With this, we can then see if a team, during a season, is over or underacheiving its expectations based on the number of runs it scores.
Indeed, the expected win percentages calculated by Baseball Prospectus show the Yankees as one of the most underacheiving teams of 2007. Only the Cubs and Reds have similar underperformance, while the Brewers seem to be the most overacheiving. I use the word acheive specifically, as opposed to performance; the latter word is exactly what is suggested by the Pythagorean Win Percentage. And the PWP suggest that the Yankees should be 23-19. They have scored 227 runs (5.4/game, tied for 3rd in the ML) and allowed 200 runs (4.8/game, 25th in ML). While the pitching isn't great, it makes sense that a team that scores more than it allows should be above .500, at least.
So why are the Yankees so underacheiving? The classic explanations, which I haven't seen convincingly proven anywhere, are that teams fall below their Pythag Win Percentage when they fail to win their share of close games. The Yankees are 2-8 in one-run games. They also suggest that having a poor closer would sway this one-run game success, and unfortunately the greatest closer of all time has blown three saves this year for the Yankees (and accounts for 3 of the 8 one-run losses). On the offensive side, some would suggest that the result is the ever-elusive Clutch Hitting. While we can argue till doomsday whether it exists for individual players, the sample for a whole team should be big enough to draw some conclusions. So, the Yankees offensive stats:

So there is some evidence that the Yankees are underperforming in "Late & Close" situations (seventh inning on with the game either tied, winning by one run, or with at least the tying run on deck). Part of this can be explained by the 9th inning: hitters are going to do worse against the best pitcher in the opposing teams' bullpen (the closer, theoretically).

My point isn't one of "everything is fine, nothing is ruined." To the contrary, I think that "luck," and specifically better performance in one run games, is only part of the story of a 2007 team turnaround. The other part is better pitching. Allowing 4.8 runs per game just isn't all that good, even if it does project to a winning record with the Yankees' offense. The pitching simply needs to get better. So it's time to do some fuzzy math. The Yankees have played 42 games. Forty-two, in addition to being the answer to the Ultimate Question, is also a little more than one-fourth of the season. The second quarter will feature a similar schedule, as both sections contain six games against the Red Sox, three against the Mets, and three against Oakland. Series against Pittsburgh and Arizona are comparable to series against Tampa Bay and Seattle, while Colorado and Texas are similar. So let's see what could potentially happen over the next 42 games.

To this point, Yankees starters not named Wang, Pettitte, or Mussina have pitched 104.6 innings, giving up 74 runs, or 6.36 runs/game. That is awful. Now, let's have some fun: Roger Clemens, in 2006, pitched 113 innings and gave up 34 runs. Baseball Prospectus has adjusted for his age and move to the American League and projects an ERA of 3.36 for Clemens in 2007. The Rocket could make his first start for the Yankees on May 28 against Toronto; assuming he pitches every five days that gives him seven starts in the Yankees next 42 games. In addition, some combination of Tyler Clippard, Matt DeSalvo, and Phil Hughes will also be making starts every fifth day instead of Kei Igawa and Friends. Those three have combined, so far, to allow 12 runs in 33.7 innings (3.2 runs25-16. /game). PECOTA has Clippard at 4.88 ERA and Hughes at 3.78 ERA for 2007 in the majors (no card for DeSalvo, which isn't surprising).

So let's assume, for a minute, that Wang, Pettitte, Mussina, the Yankees' bullpen and offense all perform similarly for the next 42 games. In this experiment all we're changing is the identity of the Yankees' fourth (Clemens) and fifth (Hughes/Clippard/DeSalvo) starters. They will replace pitchers who in roughly, 27% of all innings for the Yankees, and allowed 6.4 runs/game. By my calculations, if the new guys lower the 4th/5th starter runs/game to the level of the Big Three and the Bullpen (about 4.36 runs/game), the Yankees will have a Pythagorean record of 26-16. That's a three game improvement over the first 42 games. Best case- the Yankees exceed this by a standard error (let's say 2 games) and end up, after 84 games, at 47-37. Of course it is possible that the one-run games futility continues and the Yankees underacheive their Pythagorean expectations just as badly as in the first 42 games- it did happen to the Cleveland Indians last year, who ended up 12 games below their expected win total.

I think it has been shown, though, that it is reasonable to expect the Yankees to perform substantially better in the second quarter of the season- not only because of "bad luck" tossed their way via injury and failure in close games, but also because the pitching rotation will further increase the gap between runs scored and runs allowed. In the meantime, it is useless and only discouraging to look up at Boston in the standings; as long as the Yankees take care of business against non-Boston opponents, they are Doing Their Job. After next weekend the Bombers don't play the Red Sox until September, so leaderboard watching is useless. Besides, there is another way into the playoffs besides winning the division. Ask the Marlins.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Immaculate Near Miss by James Shields

I randomly threw on the Marlins game today on They were down 3-0 and I wanted to catch a half-inning to see if they could do some damage. Perhaps it was fate that guided my mouse as it loaded up right before the Top of the Third.

As soon as it comes back from commercial Miguel Olivo strikes out on 3 straight pitches. Well, that sucks, I thought, but a crazy possibility entered my head. Some dude named Linden was up next and he was solidly below the Mendoza line. Being the terrible hitter that he is, he too went down on three straight strikes. It was then that I started really getting excited.

Strike 1

Strike 2

......breaking ball misses low and outside.

It didn't help that the announcer said something to the effect that Shields had thrown nothing but strikes that inning. Clearly jinxed him...

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Still Got It!

This week's cookie goes to.....ME. Despite barely playing any poker since I started my job, I occasionally poke my head into Bodog where the remnants of my once Mighty Poker Warchest reside. Despite being out of practice, the result usually looks a little something like this.

Yeah, there are better things to do on a Friday night, and it was only a $10 buy-in, but winning still feels good. Also, this means I have more money to put on things such as the Marlins winning the World Series, and the USA winning the World Cup.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Cookie of the Indeterminate Time Period

Congratulations to the Yankees for aquiring Roger Clemens and thereby securing this week's cookie. This isn't rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, this is installing a new Convention Center on the Titanic. The Yankees aren't going anywhere this year. It's true that Wang has looked pretty good this year and that in Hughes' single start he looked very promising, but their pitching is still a mess. One starter does not a rotation make.
In order for this deal to work out at all, Clemens must regain his top form, not get injured, and get some run support. While this last point is not under Clemens' control, it underscores the effect that one starter has in the regular season. If Clemens takes the mound and the hitters get shut down by Josh Beckett, then it might as well be me up there pitching. Under the most wildly optimistic scenario the Yankees win 5 games more than they would've won had they not made this deal.
Now, one might say, that the Yankees are really looking at the playoffs. I'll condede that a healthy Clemens is a very valuable resource in the playoffs(except when he tries to knock Cabrera away from the plate), but the Yankees are not winning the AL East this year, the Red Sox are too good. The Yankees will have to get very lucky to sneak in with the Wild Card. Perhaps if they did, they could go to war with a Clemens, Wang, Hughes, Mussina(?) rotation. They would still need to make a move to bolster the bullpen and Rivera isn't the three automatic outs that he once was.
I think the real motivation for this move was Brian Cashman's desire to keep his job. From his perspective this actually does make a lot of sense. It's not his money and the Yankees don't have to give up any prospects. On any other franchise that was in a similar situation, aside from the Red Sox, this deal would be completely irresponsible. The Yankees are paying more than half the entire Marlins 2007 payroll to one guy for half a season's work who only plays one out of every 5 games.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

It Hurts So Good

I feel the need to write something to get over the numbness I feel from last night's Yankees game, probably the worst I'll ever feel following a 10-1 win by my favorite team. Phil Hughes was absolutely unbelievable: I don't think he threw a pitch down the middle of the plate and only three batted balls left the infield. There's been some debate as to how fast Hughes is throwing- early scouting reports had him in the mid-to-high 90s, while last night's FSN radar gun had him at 89-92, though the announcers admitted that the stadium gun had him at 93-95. At any rate, it didn't seem to matter, because Hughes was in the hitters' heads with his Philthy curveball and changeup.

My favorite strikeout was Wilkerson's to start the bottom of the third. (Video can be found here, but doesn't work on this computer, so I don't know if this strikeout is shown.) The first two innings, Hughes threw the curveball as if it were his primary pitch, at one point walking Blalock on four straight, and then getting Kinsler to bounce into a double play with another curve on the next pitch. That set up the third inning where Hughes started Wilkerson off with a fastball for a called strike, then another for a swinging strike. Wilkerson, and every batter ever has to be thinking: "Ok, here comes the curve. It's 0-2, he's got a ridiculous hook, here it comes. He's winding up... stay back, stay back.... I'm gonna crush this! Here comes the curve.... oh. Wait. That was a fastball down the middle. Crap." Wilkerson just wheeled, hung his head, and walked slowly to the dugout, a broken man. Hughes then got Wilkerson with a curveball, swinging, two innnings later.

With things like that happening, I don't need a radar gun to know that Hughes is ready to be a good pitcher in the majors, on his way to being great. I feel better now, being able to write about the amazing pitching seen last night. Yes, he hurt himself, over extending, trying to get one of the Rangers' sluggers (Teixiera) with an 0-2 curveball. Yes, that sort of thing probably wouldn't have happened in Scranton. But rather than burning the Yankees front office for calling Hughes up too early, I think it's entirely the opposite. Hughes was ready... last year. I agree with Mike Plugh: Injuries happen to pitchers who are babied and to pitchers who are rushed. Mark Prior, Felix Hernandez, and Fransisco Liriano were all babied on their way to the majors, and they all sit on the disabled list. Perhaps if Hughes were given a normal schedule and was able to build up leg strength during game situations, rather than an absurd pitch count, his hamstring could have survived that curveball to Teixiera.

Regardless, this is not a giant career threatening injury; and in the realm of injuries that happen to young pitchers, a hamstring pull on the landing (left) leg is relatively tame. It's going to take some time to heal, but it's not going to affect his development, other than he won't get to pitch games the next 4-6 weeks. Hopefully someone will show him how to throw that 12-6 curveball without damaging his hamstring, and we'll get to see Phil of the Future in pinstripes for another decade or more. Heck, in 4-6 weeks, Hughes' emergence may be the only reason to watch Yankees games anymore...