Saturday, July 31, 2010

Timaeus at the LDT Expo

Yesterday was the glorious final exhibition of my and my cohort's final Master's Projects. That means that we're all but done, but for the piecing together of a final paper and the assembly of a portfolio of the work we've done over the year (plus, for me anyway, moving out of my apartment in preparation for a return to Hawaii). The Expo was, I must say, a fitting ending to an intense, but rewarding year at Stanford. Fitting because it was intense but rewarding in much the same way.

LDT stands for Learning, Design, and Technology, and as my project partner Coram and I ruminated, our final project was equal parts all three. We were hardly alone in that, as our cohort's projects were much the same, despite ranging in content from nutrition apps for adults to math games for kids. Each project incorporated the three main aspects of the program well, despite - as far as I know - much work to explicitly make sure it happened that way. It's a testament to LDT that the kinds of problems we wanted to tackle were the kind that required a little L, a little D, and a little T.

I'm getting ahead of myself, however, because I haven't described my own project yet. Timaeus, as we happened to call it*, is a web-based visualization tool designed to support dialogue around the scientific process and the nature of science. That's a bit of a mouthful, but I'll do my best to convey the essence of the project here, before I ruminate about the Expo experience.

* Yes, I can't help it, and no, I'm not sorry.**

** That's for my college roommate Joe. Timaeus is a very St. John's thing to call my Master's Project, even if it did happen by accident. Because we Johnnies have a hard time getting away from our eminent Johnny-ness (some might call it "pretension," but that's not quite it, even if it's close), we have to develop a mechanism for acknowledging that sometimes we end up dropping Platonic dialogue names in casual conversation, much to the chagrin to everyone else in the room. The best response, Joe has found (and I think I agree), is in the posterisk before this one.


Coram and I, at the outset of working on our project, decided that we wanted to do something around dialogue. We did not know what subject area we would design around, or how we would incorporate technology into a design for dialogic pedagogy, but we both agreed that good conversations in the classroom is the best way to facilitate learning.* The design problem, here, is that technology doesn't really support dialogue in the sense we wanted to support it. Sure, there are Internet forums and there's Twitter and stuff like that, but that's not really dialogue so much as, as one of Coram's Professors described it, "Shouting in a crowded room."

* Yes, I can't help it, and no, I'm not sorry.

One of the tricks to good dialogue is that it can't just be a group of people talking about their opinions. "I think this" followed by "Well, I think that" is all well and good for political "discussion" shows and all (especially when accompanied with a good deal of shouting and thumping), but no one really learns anything without trying out new ideas and really listening to each other. The problem is, without a good shared basis of understanding, most people find there's not really a lot to talk about except life stories, geography, and meteorology. When was the last time you and a stranger started randomly talking about philosophy?

For my part, the last time that happened was with Coram; we were talking about Kant before we knew each other's wives names. The reason, though, was not that we're huge nerds,* but rather that we had both read Kant, so we had a shared text about which we could have a conversation. When our Professors brought up modern educational philosophies based on Hegelian phenomenology, we could step outside the classroom and critique the adaptation of Hegel's method to modern education because we were mutually familiar with what Hegel's method was, and how he talked about it. The point is, it's tough to have those conversations without a shared text.

* We probably are, but that's not the point.

Knowing we wanted to support dialogue, and knowing that the best place for technology was not in dialogue in itself, but in the precursor (some kind of shared language, text, cultural artifact, or what-not), we looked for a subject area. Coram has a background in - among other things - Art History, so we bandied about that, especially because of my dabbling in Music History. We both love literature and poetry, so that came up as well. But the thing is, teachers of literature, art, and music usually do a pretty good job of facilitating dialogue. It's easy, really, because you just have to look at a piece of art, study it for a few minutes, and sit down with someone else who has done the same thing to have a rich conversation. Sure, some artistic theory and historical context can help, but it's not necessary. Likewise with literature, where high schoolers across the country have conversations about Romeo, Odysseus, and Tom Sawyer every year. Those may not be the best dialogues in the world, but for the most part they do happen.

Not so in science classes. Rare indeed is the science class that uses dialogue at all, let alone as the dominant pedagogical model. Science teachers will tell you it's because they have to meet so many standards that they have to just convey information. But those same teachers, if you talk to them outside of class, will lament how they have to spend three weeks on stuff that should take two days because they have to repeat it over and over and over again. I would argue that that might have something to do with how people learn: while there are some people who can pay attention and diligently take notes through an hour long lecture, learning everything, that's not the case for most of us. Rather, we learn better in more dynamic environments, having conversations with friends, visualizing concepts, performing actions. A dialogic classroom, potentially, hits all of those things by opening up not only the content, but the very learning process to the learners involved. Students know how they learn best, so let them lead the learning.

Anyway, the systematic problem of didactic science education isn't really a Master's project, because it's simply too big. Instead, we focused on a narrower goal: providing a technological tool that would give students and teachers access to the rich dialogues in science. Biology teachers know that ethical questions are often fascinating and dynamic areas for student involvement in meaningful science debates, so we wanted to leverage that spirit in a way that spans disciplines. Rather than focusing on fringe issues like current events in the ethics of scientific practice (and, after all, it's hard to have a robust debate about the ethics of particle accelerators), we wanted to cut to the heart of the issue: what is science, anyway?

It is remarkable that, despite the general agreement in the scientific community about so many scientific theories, there is almost no agreement as to the nature of science itself. In the following diagram (from our presentation), you can see one of any number of axes along which eminent scientists and philosophers might be arranged.

That a number of well-known and accepted theories and ideas come from scientists across the spectrum speaks to the value of the very debate about what science is. Consider the same graph, but with some famous scientists (and philosophers) on it:

We could argue about whether each of those luminaries is in the right place, but that's exactly the point. Why oh why would we deny students access to this debate? Is there any reason to shut off such a rich source of dialogue? Does it really help to present to students the idea that science is just a set of steadfast rules and methods, practiced exactly the same way by all scientists, in order that they might discover the Truth? Granted, some scientists do think that, too, but that not everyone does - that Newton operated in a way very different from how Heisenberg did - speaks once more to the value of opening up the conversation to high schoolers, especially because, in the course of the debate, they will naturally have to learn content in order to justify and understand their own positions.


So what is Timaeus, then? It's a tool to help students visualize the scientific process, not as a static set of five fixed steps, but as a dynamic, evolving, and iterative set of decisions which may not, it turns out, be easy to classify. We give students a set of five colored shapes that represent the traditions steps of the process, and let them build maps of scientific texts, videos, and accounts of experiments. The results look something like this:

In case you can't read it, the circle stands for "Observation," the square for "Question," the upwards triangle for "Hypothesis," the downwards triangle for "Experiment," and the diamond for "Claim" or "Conclusion." This example in particular charts the process of John Snow in his effort to uncover the causes of the Broad Street Cholera Outbreak of 1854, as described in this Wikipedia article. This is essentially the same map as you may have seen on this blog a few months back, but this was made using our actual tool (which is still in beta, but can do this much as it stands) and not photoshop.

Reading an account of a text closely enough to make analytical and categorical decisions about what is happening at each point is valuable enough, but where Timaeus really shines is in the ability to move from a single student's work to a class's with the search function:

This image shows the work of six different LDT students mapping Marie Curie's discovery of Radium. From the exact same speech, the there are a wide range of understandings of what, exactly is happening. From a teacher's perspective, this not only lets you see how students are understanding science, but also provides the entry point to a rich conversation around what is happening in a given scientific experiment. When we ran through this exercise, for example, with a group of young Baha'is in the area, they jumped from the map creation to questions about how radium is isolated, where it comes from, and, ultimately, what elements are and how the periodic table is constructed. As a teacher, it's hard to get students interested in learning about the periodic table, so how cool is it when they actually want you to pull it out and explain it?


I could go on about the tool a bit more, but I want to talk about Expo as well. Coram and I presented our project in the morning for a panel of five reviewers. Because our project spans across ideas, our reviewers were hardly a homogeneous group. Of the three Stanford Professors in attendance, one was a curriculum specialist, another a science education specialist (whose own work has been in visualization and scaffolding inquiry), one a human-computer interaction specialist from the Computer Sciences department. Our other reviews came from outside of Stanford, one a IT specialist and administrator, and the other a National Board Certified AP Statistics teacher (whose class we had done a user study with, incidentally). Presenting to an audience with such a varied background meant that we had to be sure to address - in our 20 minutes - everything from learning theory to technology design decisions, but I feel we put together a strong presentation and we seemed to be well-received (with the exception of one somewhat tangential question from a non-reviewer in attendance about the "gender" of our project).

In the afternoon we had a three hour long poster session which was packed. In previous years LDT Expos have been held in a smaller space, elsewhere on campus. This year we were in Wallenburg, which opens to the oval and Palm Drive at the front of the school, and we took up the entire lobby and main floor. And there was a time, early in the session, when you could barely move. This may seem unremarkable, but apparently there were about 3 times as many people at this Expo as there have ever been, which means both that our Expo Committee (and our Program Coordinator Karin) did an excellent job getting the word out, and that LDT is gaining some notoriety around the Bay Area and hopefully beyond.

The really value here, though, is that it makes the capstone project of a year's work feel really worth it. It may be exhausting to talk for three hours straight to a continuous string of people wanting to know about your project, but it's awesome that people actually want to know about your project. Even better, for Coram and I, was the feeling we got that people really thought that what we are trying to do is worthwhile. We would believe in it either way, I think, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't help to hear that other people do too.

This project, though, isn't just about feeling good. Because I'll be teaching science back in Hawaii next year with Nalu Studies, I truly do feel that Timaeus is something that can and should be used in the classroom. The kids Nalu is designed for - at-risk and high-risk teens - can benefit as much as anyone from really exploring the nature of scientific work, because it helps them to unlock a whole new way of making and evaluating decisions. For kids who have often already made some bad decisions, there's nothing more empowering than learning how to make better ones in the future, and moreover how to tell the difference ahead of time, how to pick each other up, and how to fail gracefully instead of tragically.


As a conclusion, I want to talk a little about the name Timaeus. To be honest, Coram and I struggled to decide on a name for our tool for a long time, finally settling on Timaeus on the day when we had to submit our final name for the LDT Expo poster. As we've thought more about it, however, we're increasingly of the opinion that it fits. In case you don't know, Timaeus is a dialogue by Plato about the nature of the universe. It's a precursor to Aristotle's Physics and his Metaphysics, in that it attempts to layout how the cosmos is arranged, what the soul is, and how we understand and talk about the material and metaphysical world. In short, it's the first foray into describing the nature of science, despite the absence of that term, and the highly logical (instead of empirical) nature of the process.

If you know of Raphael's famous School of Athens you may know that Plato and Aristotle are the figures at the center of the work. Coram - as an Art History minor - and I both love the painting, and had discussed it prior to selecting our name. After we came to Timaeus, however we returned to the painting because, as I knew (but Coram did not), the dialogue that is under Plato's arm is the Timaeus. There's something fitting about that, because just as Plato and his academy were one of the first forays into forming a scientific community - and just as Raphael's own artistic and scientific community was a rekindling of that same spirit of inquiry - we believe that modern science education should shift to include more students in the debate around the nature of science, the world, and the pursuit of knowledge. Regardless of what happens with our particular technological and curricular tools, that aim is one we both will share with, we hope, an ever-increasing number of educators for the rest of our lives.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Politics of Complacency

In an electoral system like ours, it's awfully easy to get caught up in voting. We make ourselves heard at the ballot box, and thereby shape, as citizens, the direction of our country. There is no need, to our minds, to do anything else. We need only decide which candidate better represents our views - and, lets face it, for most people that decision has been made well before the primaries even begin, thanks to party allegiances - show up on election day, and punch the ballot. Civic duty exercised, it's time to watch CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News (depending on who we voted for) and gloat or agonize over the results.

The notion that there might be more to politics has been lost on us. Oh sure, there are protesters and Tea Parties and so on, but those are usually anything but meaningful political activity. They're, rather, a kind of political catharsis, a release of pent up anger that channel Macbeth, "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Much like the discourse on television, there is a kind of procedural extremism in most political action in the United States. It is not, in fact, the case that most "extremist" protesters actually hold views which are extremely different from the mainstream, but rather that their methods of getting those views heard are more petulant.

In some sense, this kind of protest works, but only because it fits so well into the Keith Olberman, Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, and Glen Beck world of political ranting that we've grown accustomed to. There is, simply put, no outlet for reasonable conversation about politics because there is no model of reasonable discourse within politics. I suspect the reason for this is that we disagree about such trifling issues (people scream and foam at the mouth over a 3% tax hike or cut for people making over $200,000 a year?) that we're trying harder to define our differences than we are to actually persuade anyone to our position.

Because of the structures we have in place, politically, it is much, much easier to say and vote than to say and do. What, exactly, does a politically active or passionate person do? Does she run for office? Does he go to protests? Do he and she watch a lot of CNN together? None satisfies because none works. In the end, the project of political change is far too unwieldy to have any kind of accessible entry point beyond the most bland, culturally acceptable ones. That's why, I suspect, so many politically passionate young men and women voted for Barrack Obama with so much fervor in 2008: it was all they knew to do.

I don't want to get too deep into the President, but I think the way that we, as a nation, engage with our leaders culturally is telling. Consider that the recent healthcare bill has been called, by many, "Obamacare." Consider that any changes to environmental efforts or tax law or are a reflection of Obama. Consider that the same was true for Bush, for Clinton, and so on. We still have terms like "Reaganomics" from the 80s, and, going way back, "The Monroe Doctrine."

There's a great passage from Douglas Adams's Hitchiker's Guide series that comes to mind:

"It might not even have made much difference to them if they'd known exactly how much power the President of the Galaxy actually wielded: none at all. Only six people in the Galaxy knew that the job of the Galactic President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it. Zaphod Beeblebrox was amazingly good at his job."

I don't think I'd go quite that far in American politics, but the point is that Obama doesn't have half the power that we attribute to him. To his supporters (and detractors), Barrack Obama isn't even a person; he's a symbol of all that is good (or evil), an embodiment of their hopes and dreams. Indeed, the need to have a single word to connote one's political perspective (the word: Obama) is so strong, that it might not make much of a difference to them if they knew exactly how much power the President of United States actually wields.

It is because we idolize so easily that the election of a President of roughly our ideology turns us into compliant supplicants while the election of a member of the opposing party turns us into ravenous wolves. Consider that Bush's presidency saw protest over protest, about the wars, about the environment, about almost everything. Consider that Obama's presidency has seen a disappearance of anti-war rallies, but a sudden surge of right-wing Tea Parites. The irony, of course, is that the wars continue and the environmental law doesn't change in any meaningful way. Likewise, under Bush, the kinds of issues the Tea Party people are so upset about were being largely ignored or even flaunted, but the illusion that the President represented their interests was enough to keep them docile.

Perhaps this is a broken record, but whenever I am exposed to political discourse, or what passes for it, either because I happen by a television or get an email or read an article online, I cannot help but notice how outrageously narrow the debate is. Complacency is assured in the majority when being politically active means being rabid and passionate to the point of violence about things that we don't care that much about. Complacency is assured when we have a symbol, an idol that we can look to and say, "Everything is all right, our guy is in the White House." Complacency is assured when voting always carries the promise - as yet undelivered - to bring about meaningful change.

The problem, it seems to me, is not that our policies are wrong, but that the very foundation of our political system is rotten, that the culture is irredeemably backwards, corrupt, and stupid. What I don't mean is that there are too many people who disagree with my political views. My political views - like those of any individual citizen in a country of 300 million - don't really matter. What I mean is this: in politics there is too much shouting and not enough dialogue, too much complaining and not enough ideas, too much money and not enough people. The whole structure is built on innuendo, lies, bribes, and ideologies. The whole discourse is determined by wealthy media companies, political parties, and special interest groups that don't care - that can't afford to care - about the big picture.

All of this is nothing new, of course, and I suppose if the emperors are always naked, eventually it doesn't help to point it out anymore. But sometimes I think we get complacent, and we get so wrapped up in what is practical (that is, doing our jobs, watching CNN, and voting once every four years) that we forget that being just a little idealistic is, in fact, a fundamental part of being practical. Without a vision as to how things ought to be, how do we know what to do? Or do we just do what we always have, vote for who we always vote for, and hope for some miraculous superhero-cum-messiah to save us from our corrupt political world? If being eminently practical means being that complacent, and, what's more, that stupid, I'll pass.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Workshop That Wasn't

In addition to the sabermetrics workshop I taught earlier this summer, I also wrote a curriculum for a poetry workshop that didn't run. Much as I loved teaching sabermetrics, a part of me was even more excited to teach the poetry course. Why? Because I love the idea of reading awful, awkward poetry written by high schoolers.

Actually, I love the thought of introducing high schoolers to great poems, and sparking their own desire to write. Not necessarily poetry, per se, but poetry is as good an entry point into writing as anything. Maybe the best. Why? Because poetry forces you to be conscious of rhythm, forces you to be pithy, and forces you to use precise diction. Even poor poems usually follow some structural and lexiconical (a word I'm inventing because it's the middle of the night) rules. The result is that, even we poor poets of the world (people like me; there's a reason you don't really see my now exceedingly rare poetry on this blog) learn something about writing in the process.

Beyond learning about writing broadly by writing poetry, I think there's also something to be said for reading poetry. Good poetry is, cheesy as it sounds, highly inspirational. Poets like T.S. Eliot or Langston Hughes make you feel like you're getting more out of their words than the words themselves. Indeed, in Eliot's poems sometimes the worlds themselves feel like complete nonsense. But somewhere in those mess of symbolism and metaphor is that grain of magic that makes you smile, stand up, and read aloud. Like the opening of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

Disturbing and surprising? Sure, but awesome too. Eliot rhymes with so much purpose in Prufrock that it's hard not to fall in love with the poem, even though it's so pompous.

I grow old... I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Such lines! That is what separates those precious few great poets from the proverbial masses. Anyone can write a sonnet (or any other form) with enough patience and effort. Anyone, indeed, can even invent their own wild, Anne Sexton-like form. But the inspiration that results in lines so simple, so mundane, yet so effective is a rare gift.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep... tired... or it malingers

Malingers and fingers! My God, man, where does that come from? We might say that even inspiration is the work of effort and is an acquired ability. Indeed, I am suspicious of the notion of innate talent - pure genius - in the work of the mind. But there is no question that, whether by virtue of some genius or by virtue of the mere acquisition of the mantle of greatness for no particularly good reason, we have such poems as Prufrock and react to them with so much fervor that there must be something there.

The conversation about Prufrock, I promise, would have been more focused than this, because it's too late in the night and the week to get all analytical with poetry. I wouldn't say, however, that analysis and joy are opposed. It's far too easy to say that studying a work of art makes you appreciate it less: makes you lose that innocent, unadulterated love you have for the words by turning you into a cynical, self-righteous, pompous ass (or "connoisseur," you might say). I disagree. Sure, you may become more selective and discerning, and you may abandon some poems and poets (or songs and musicians, or paintings and painters, and so on), but those poems you do love become all the better when you study them closely. I've read Prufrock countless times, and yet I always find something new to love about it, which is a part of why it is great.

The workshop - which this post is about, remember - was not all about Eliot. Indeed, Prufrock was only going to be one day. In addition, we were going to study the following:

Walt Whitman - Song of Myself

We were only going to get to a small part of this one, because it's very long, and it takes a few readings and, I think, a little bit of time to get into those long, rambling lists of images in the middle. The beginning and the end were going to be our focus. Some choice lines:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

How brilliant. In a vast, large, rambling poem that undoubtedly offended the poetic sensibilities of many of its original readers, could you find a more perfect statement? How many writers have tried to say this and taken pages to do so? For Whitman, it takes fifteen words.

T.S Eliot - The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

We've already got some lines from this one, but in the vein of the Whitman quotation, here's one of my favorite lines:

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

Gabriela Mistral - Los Que No Danzan

I planned on using the wonderful translation of Ursula Le Guin, who I have recently decided is clearly a modern Virginia Woolf in that she's so brilliant at so many different things (best-selling, award-winning science fiction and amazing translations of Chilean poems? What gives?). But for the feeling of the poem, the Spanish is better. Since I'm guessing you don't know Mistral, I'll put in the whole poem.

Una niña que es inválida
dijo: -«¿Cómo danzo yo?»
Le dijimos que pusiera

a danzar su corazón...

Luego dijo la quebrada:
-«¿Cómo cantaría yo?»
Le dijimos que pusiera
a cantar su corazón...

Dijo el pobre cardo muerto:
-«¿Cómo, cómo danzo yo?»
Le dijimos: -«Pon al viento
a volar tu corazón...»

Dijo Dios desde la altura:
-«¿Cómo bajo del azul?»
Le dijimos que bajara
a danzarnos en la luz.

Todo el valle está danzando
en un corro bajo el sol,
A quien falte se le vuelve
de ceniza el

I only discovered Mistral - a Nobel winner - in the course of writing this curriculum. Given that the class didn't run, I think finding her poetry is the hidden meaning. This poem in particular stood out to me because I read it first while reading Carol Shloss's biography of Lucia Joyce, a dancer herself who clearly didn't fit into her world. Dancing was taken away from Lucia, but I like to think that, like the girl from the first stanza, she (as Le Guin has it) "did her dancing in her heart."

Edna St. Vincent Millay - Renascence

There's a chance you know Millay, and the opening lines of this poem may sound familiar to you:

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.

From such admittedly mundane beginnings* this poem takes off. Go read it. Seriously. You'll see what I mean. Millay wrote it as a young woman, entered it into a competition, and finished fourth to the outrage of even the poets who finished ahead of her. The winner called his victory "an embarrassment," and with good reason. Renascence may be the work of a young poet, but for that it has an exuberance - a refusal to admit that, even in a highly restrictive formal structure, it can't do everything. It does do everything.

* Though undoubtedly steeped in symbolism, I'm still calling this mundane. Remember that three anythings is usually a dead give away that something funky is going on.

Here's what I mean by "It does do everything:"

I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
The universe, cleft to the core,
Lay open to my probing sense.

And that's before it really gets going.

Freidrich Schiller and Ludwig Van Beethoven - Ode to Joy

Yeah, yeah, I couldn't help myself. Actually, the activity I had designed around this poem and song combination was, I think, a highly under-represented part of the writing process: deleting stuff. The idea is this: the Schiller poem is quite long and unwieldy, and even though the last movement of the 9th Symphony is 20+ minutes long, it simply can't get through the whole poem. Beethoven, however, does not simply take the first two stanzas and throw them in. He judiciously picks the stuff he wants, and mixes around the order to fit his needs. How does he decide? That's the real question.

The lesson, then, is that you have to do that with your own work sometimes, too. It's alright to change the order of your paragraphs around sometimes to make the flow better. It's also alright to excise whole sections of text if they don't meet your needs. It's even good to start over. As one of my middle school English teachers said (and yes, I remember my middle school English classes; I'm just like that): "Sometimes you have to kill your babies." That awesome line you wrote might ruin the poem, so take it out and use it in a different one. Or, more to the point, that awesome line you wrote isn't actually awesome. Kill it.

Langston Hughes - A Dream Deferred

I tried, more or less, to avoid horribly cliche high school poems, but I couldn't dodge this one. For one thing, I'm not convinced people actually read this.* For another, even if they do, it's just so amazing that it's worth reading again and again. In case you don't recall, here it is (after the posterisk).

* Don't they? Isn't this poem like a part of getting a drivers license or something? It's only, like, the most iconic poem in American history.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Even without the context this poem was written in, it packs a huge punch. Add in the context, and it's even better.

In a typical Paul move, I was going to pair this with reading the "I Have a Dream" speech, partially because there's a certain, obvious thematic link, but also because the course would have been gearing up towards a final poem-reading symposium, and King was a marvelous public speaker. Best to learn from the best.

I also planned on having a student choice day, which I was going to leave pretty wide open. I'd be fascinated to know what poems students came in to the course interested in, or if, on the other hand, they'd want to take a look at pop-song lyrics. Either way, frankly, I think we could have had a fruitful conversation. Alas, the course did not run, so no conversations.

Nevertheless, writing the curriculum was a worthwhile experience, not only for the practice in curriculum construction, but also because I learned about poetry in the process. Millay and Mistral, for example, were vague names without words or meaning attached to them. A Dream Deferred was "that civil rights poem I read in high school." There's something to be said for returning to those works you weren't ready to read in high school for that reason: as an adult they mean so much more - and sometimes so much less - and you can get so much further into them. There's also something to be said, however, about reading those poems in high school, even if you don't get into them, because without that exposure, how do you even know where to begin to look when you really do want to know what happens to a dream deferred?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pitchers and Poets

Hopefully I have time to write a proper post this week, but no promises. This is crunch time on the MA project, so I'm fairly busy.

In the meantime, zip over to Pitchers and Poets, one of my favorite baseball blogs. You may recognize the author of their latest post.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

NBA Roster Construction

Since we're on the sports theme, and since this has been a big summer in sportsland, I'm going to stick with the topic for at least one more post. I've got, among other things, a post on my erstwhile poetry workshop in the works, and have been putting off a particular music post for far too long.

Also, you'll notice the blog has widened. I think it looks better this way, plus it let me fit my graphs whilst keeping them readable in this post.

Undoubtedly you've heard about LeBron James joining the Miami Heat alongside Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, making the team prohibitive favorites to win the NBA title for the foreseeable future. Not everyone agrees that the Heat will be good, of course, but there is no doubting that, individually, the Heat now have three of the best players in basketball. LeBron James is a back-to-back MVP, and he and Wade have finished first and second respectively in John Hollinger's "Player Efficiency Rating" two years in a row. In fact, LeBron has led the NBA in PER three years and a row. Add to that Bosh's fourth place finish last season, and it's reasonable to say that the Heat are getting three of the top 10 (if not top 5) players in the NBA right now.

The new "Big Three" are not "top 10" in some bizarre, backwards way like the context-dependent statistics "assists" and "points," either. Rather, they are in the top 10 in efficiency, in turning shots and possessions into points, and likewise stopping other teams from doing the same. That sounds to me like a lot of wins waiting to happen.

Anyway, having three such great players on a single team got me thinking about how NBA teams construct their rosters. Of course, the established narratives are obvious: the Cavaliers, while they had James, were a one-trick pony. The Nuggets much the same, relying on Carmelo Anthony. The Boston Celtics have their "Big Three," with a bunch of role players besides. Meanwhile a team like the Utah Jazz or the Atlanta Hawks tends towards more balance, a distribution of responsibilities among a talented collection of non-superstars. Those narratives are over-exaggerations, admittedly, but they are also, generally speaking, not true.

What do I mean? Well, I plotted each NBA team's roster by Win Shares of the best, second best, third best, and so on player against league average. Before we move on, Win Shares, in basketball, is still a young and rough statistic, but it's about as good as anything we have. In short, it tells us how much a player's performance has been worth to his team - based on a number of offensive and defensive factors - in terms of Wins. Great players like Lebron are worth 15 or more in a season. Most players are in the 4 or 5 range. Again, it's not perfect, but it's pretty good, and moreover it really does tell us something about how roster's are built and how they play out.

Consider this graph of NBA Finalists Boston and Los Angeles:

The black line represents league average at each rank (i.e. the average best player on an NBA team was worth 9.3 wins last season). The yellow line represents the Lakers players in order of production (that is, Pau Gasol, then Kobe Bryant, then Andrew Bynum, etc), while the green line represents the Celtics (Rondo, Pierce, Allen, and Garnett lead the way).

The first thing to notice is the so-called "Big Three." For one thing, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett were second through fourth on the Celtics this season, leaving the heaviest lifting to Rajon Rondo. The other big thing to notice, however, is that those big four were worth fewer wins than the Lakers' top four players, namely Gasol, Bryant, Bynum, and Lamar Odom. Now, that may be in part due to injuries and the way that coaches ration playing time, but that's exactly the point. Over the course of the every game of the whole season, the Celtics were built to win in a different way than the Lakers were built to win.

The Lakers were a great team one through eight. Their top eight players were all above league average in Win Shares for their rank on the roster. That's fairly remarkable, and goes a long way towards explaining the team's success. The Celtics, on the other hand, were great one through five, AND ten through thirteen (if the graph continued, they'd in fact be great ten through seventeen). That means, over the course of the season, the Celtics had great starters, and an extremely deep bench. Their second line was not exceptional - indeed, was below average - but their third line, which they used much more than many teams, was exceptional.

You can see, already, why the Lakers had the advantage come playoff time. In the regular season, it benefits a team to have useful players thirteen men deep on a roster. In the playoffs, the top eight are going to do most of the work, as coaches consolidate and put only their very best players on the floor. It is at exactly the ninth roster spot where the Celtics become better than the Lakers. Though it seems clear that, even with the crossover, the Lakers were the better team overall.

This method, however, isn't built for looking at playoff performances. Let us turn our gaze, instead to some notable teams, starting with Eastern Conference regular-season powers Cleveland, Atlanta, and Orlando.

So Lebron James is the one at the tippy top on the left, with 18.5 Win Shares. Yeah. The Magic, for comparison, were lead by the quite capable Dwight Howard at 13.2, while the Hawks Al Horford collected 10.9.

What is most striking here, I think, is how well-balanced the Atlanta Hawks were. And not just well-balanced, but excellent. While Horford was far from the best star of a team in the NBA, few number two players were better than Josh Smith. Moving down the roster, the Hawks had the best number three guy in the entire NBA in Joe Johnson, and Jamal Crawford at fourth bested everyone but the Lakers' Odom. It's clear from their comparatively even distribution of contribution that the Hawks were doing something right last year, something the Heat undoubtedly want to emulate next season (though at an even higher level).

The Magic come across very strong here as well. Unlike the Hawks, they displayed depth well beyond their starting lineup. Coupling that with one of the best players in the NBA in Howard, and it's no wonder that they took the Southeast division from Atlanta easily. Consider that the Magic used only twelve players all season, and that every single one of those players was above league average in Win Shares for his rank on the team. That's the kind of recipe that leads to 58 wins.

The Cavaliers are interesting, because they are not nearly as one-dimensional as they are made out to be. Without a doubt LeBron was their best player and the difference between a mediocre and a great regular season, but the much maligned players surrounding the King were more than adequate to get the team to 60 wins (considering that even the great LeBron "only" delivered 18.5 of those wins; even without the King, this was a .500 team). But the cautionary tale for the Cavs comes if you take each of those barely-above-average players and slide them one slot to the left to account for James leaving. The result is not pretty, as the entire starting lineup goes from above to below league average. The bench stays strong - indeed, the Cavaliers were a deep team behind LeBron, believe it or not - but without someone to anchor the starting lineup, Cleveland is looking at a mediocre season next year.

While I have data for all 30 NBA teams (I can send you the spreadsheet, if you like), they don't graph well in groups of more than five teams, so let's finish up here by looking at the Northwestern Division, the most competitive in the NBA last season. Here are the Utah Jazz, the Denver Nuggets, the Portland Trailblazers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves.

The first thing that jumps out, here, is how truly awful the Timberwolves were. Their two best players - Love and Jefferson - would be fifth on the Nuggets and sixth on the Jazz. Yikes.

It's also clear here that Oklahoma City's success has a lot to do with Kevin Durant, much more so than Denver's has to do with Melo (who, actually, didn't even lead the team in Win Shares) or Utah's with Deron Williams. While OKC had some decent players to complement Durant, their starting five is barely above average without him, which would certainly doom the team in this division if not for Durant's absurd season.

The Nuggets and the Jazz are quite comparable, with a slight edge to the Jazz as you get further down the roster. The irony, here, is that the accepted basketball narrative come playoff time was that the Nuggets - who have tremendous depth - couldn't match up with the best players from the Jazz. I suspect the apparent depth of the Nuggets is, much like the apparent hitting skill of the Rockies, an illusion perpetrated by the altitude of Denver. In reality, Nene (10.8 WS) was every bit as good as Carlos Boozer (9.9 WS) this season, and Billups (9.5 WS) very close to Williams (10.3 WS). Where the Nuggets struggle, in fact, is further down the roster, where the inefficiency of Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, and Anthony Carter is far too costly when matched up with the likes of C.J. Miles and Kyle Korver.

The Trailblazers, lastly, are a study in injuries and trades. Because they saw so many players play regularly at different times in the season, they seem to have tremendous depth. And for good reason. Had they been healthy over the course of the season, there's a good chance their graph would look more like Utah's, but as it was, when they needed to get wins out of players 10 and 11 men down the roster, they did. The plateau from their 7th to 11th Win Shares contributors is unmatched by any other team in the NBA last season. Appropriately, that plateau is bookended by up-and-coming Jerryd Bayless and the oft-injured Greg Oden.

A closing note, here, about the "league average" line. Most teams we looked at were above the line, of course, because we looked at good teams, but it really is the average, and it really is as smooth as it looks. The equation of the best-fit logarithmic regression line is f(x) = -3.5 ln (x) + 9.33, with an r-squared of 1(!). That is the Win Shares of a player is, on average, equal to -3.5 times the natural logarithm of his rank on the roster plus 9.33. Still mumbo-jumbo, so try this. The best player on a 2009-2010 NBA team is worth, on average, 9.33 Wins. Each subsequently ranked player is worth decreasingly less, but in a highly predictable way.

On its own, this equation doesn't tell us a whole lot. Without looking too deeply, I'm guessing it represents some well-known statistical law about skill distributions and ranking (something like Zipf's law, though it doesn't quite fit). More interesting would be to look at previous years, as well as other sports, to see what, if any, relationships hold. But that's all for another time.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Artistic and Cultural Categories

I was recently alerted to a small maelstrom that has consumed certain corners of the Interweb. Roger Ebert - of film criticism fame - decided to take on video games, asserting that they are not and cannot be art. That is to say, they are not merely, in their current state, cave paintings waiting to become, with time and refinement, Rembrandts. They are, instead, some utterly non-artistic enterprise, not necessarily valueless, per se, but certainly not of significant cultural value.

Not surprisingly, there was a fair amount of backlash against Ebert, leading to a kind of retraction. That is, Ebert didn't back down from his position, but he did insist, essentially, that it was a bad idea for him to bring the subject up in the first place. He fired a final salvo shortly thereafter, discussing, among other things, the status of Huck Finn, and the definition of art.

Are video games art? That question doesn't really interest me that much. "Art" is one of those moving-target words that is intentionally vague and ambiguous and personal in such a way that it is almost impossible to define in any meaningful way. Why, in just my last post I argued, more or less, that soccer is art, a position that depends, frankly, upon my failure to define the term "art" in the post. Precisely because I let art be an imprecise category, I was free to fit a game and a sport into it.

Which is not to say that soccer isn't art, or that it is. The real point is that soccer - and sports in general - occupies such a central place in the culture of the world that, even if it isn't art, it is certainly something worth exploring and thinking about. Anything - whether it be, by some precise definition, art, a game, a diversion, or what have you - anything that captures the fancy and maintains the interest of some 3 or more billion people the world over is something worth taking seriously. Art or not, soccer is a cultural artifact that tells us a whole lot about how we understand the world, how we want to understand the world, and how we describe that understanding. You might say, the anthropologist is not picky about whether what he studies is "art" or not, but rather how much what he studies reflects or doesn't reflect the culture and personality of the society and its people he is interested in.

Of course, the anthropologist would also care whether or not the culture in question defines the activity or artifact in question as art. If we, collectively or individually, call video games art or, on the other hand, reject them totally, that says something about us, too. It is not, in short, the category "art" that matters, but the way in which that category is used that is most important.

I see, in Ebert's stand and the backlash against him, not some great crisis in the definition of art and the status of modern technology in a world where "kids these days" don't read anymore. Frankly, the kids are going to be ok, and no one has any idea what, 2,000 years from now, people will hold up as the great art of our age, if anything. No, the point of interest here is the fascinating clash of cultures, where Ebert represents a certain subculture which has a certain relationship with artistic categories, while those who are upset with him are acting out a whole other cultural position. What I respect about Ebert in all of this is that he seems conscious of his cultural situation in a way that the authors of many of his angry comments do not. But even that comes with his cultural territory, while the anonymous Internet complainer is anything but self-effacing and reflective, at least in his presentation of self.

What is in conflict here, then, is not video-games-as-art versus video-games-as-trash (at worst) or video-games-as-well-designed-commercial-products (at best). The "I know it when I see it" meme is all-too-easy in that case, and there's not likely to be any kind of productive dialogue. As spineless as it likely seems to hardened disciples of Shadow of the Colossus or World of Goo, Ebert's "forget I said anything" is probably the best thing he could say.

The actual conflict is subtler than that, because its categories are much harder to define. There's something of old-guard versus new-guard, established medium versus new medium. Video games, to a man like Ebert, likely seem like some ugly bastard child of cinema, but let us not forget that cinema was once an ugly bastard child of theater, which was in turn an ugly bastard child of literature, which was an ugly bastard child of spoken narrative. That is not to say that the Iliad recited by Homer is the only true art, and all else is some pale shadow by comparison. Rather, it is to say that the history of what we call art is not a clear-cut one, and that each new innovation is usually regarded with great skepticism, especially by the luminaries and critics of the other mediums.

Which is not to say that Ebert is some stick-in-the-mud who just needs to play games, and then he'll "get it." Ebert is exactly right, in fact. As he understands art, video games are not and never can become art, just as movies are not and will never be art to some dead guy from the 1800s for whom the medium would have no relevance or meaning. The thing is, in order for us to use any intellectual category, we need to have some relevant context in which we can develop our understanding, and what's more important, where we can be fitted into that cultural position. There is really no acceptance of or resistance to culture of any kind in a vacuum. Ebert, like you or me, is coming from a lifetime full of accepted norms, ideas, and beliefs, most of which are utterly inaccessible to any kind of self-reflection.

Let me put it this way: I believe what I believe about soccer and baseball (and video games) because I grew up in a certain way, with parents of a certain disposition, and because I spent time in schools, in relationships, watching movies and tv shows, playing games, listening to the radio, and so on. I never defined myself in some essential sense. I certainly made choices, based upon all of the cultural options available to me, but even the maverick and the rebel are such in contrast to something. When I say "nicht diese tone," "not these tones," I acknowledge both my resistance to the world-as-it-is and our accounts of it as they are, but also my immense debt to exactly that world. Were it not there, I would have nothing to resist, and I would have no categories - no words, I might say - that I could use to express anything.

The same is true of Ebert, and, as I said, he seems aware of that exact fact. Admitting that he should not have brought up the subject was, it seems to me, a realization that his entire cultural framework is different than that of the 20-something-year-old men that populate the Internet, a generation that grew up on Mario and Master of Magic and Civilization and Grand Theft Auto. It's not to say we can't have a conversation, because there's a lot we share, too, but it is to say that we need to be careful about how different the categories we use are.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Beautiful Game

This post is, ostensibly, about soccer. Hence the title. But really, it's about sports more broadly. Why do we care so much about what happens when grown men - exceptionally wealthy grown men - throw and kick round and oblate balls around variously-shaped fields? What is the deal with our global fascination with competition, whether it be corporate - as in club football, or the NFL, or the MLB - or nationalistic - as in the World Cup and the Olympics? Why, in short, are the people of Ghana so upset after today's match?

It was hard to believe, really, watching the end of it. The announcers kept talking about a script, ignoring that no one could possibly come up with something so improbable on sheer imagination. As if the drama of the sole African team remaining in a tournament played for the first time in Africa, pitted against one of the founding nations of the tournament - but a nation who has not won in 60 years - were not enough, the game went to extra time, and then to penalties.

None of that is unbelievable. What is unbelievable is how extra time ended, with a missed penalty that could have and should have sent Ghana to the semi-finals to meet a solid Netherlands side that had upset Brazil only hours earlier.

Back up. First, it's worth mentioning that this extra time looked like the standard fare. Both teams seemingly said to themselves "you know what, let's just hold here and do the penalty thing." That's not to say they gave up, but there's a certain caginess that goes with that last half-hour of cup soccer, especially because most players have already been on the pitch for 90+ minutes and, frankly, don't have a lot left in the tank. Recall the USA's loss to Ghana, and how winded and desperate the team looked while trying to secure an equalizer. Imagine those bodies not needing a goal, needing only to play good enough defense to keep the score where it is. That's why so many of these tied matches go to penalties.

So Uruguay and Ghana were exhausted, and they were tentative. Ghana had just come off of an extra time win themselves, and they were clearly hesitant to overextend their attack and give an opening on the break to Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, Uruguay's top-flight striker tandem.

As extra time wound down, Ghana was awarded a free kick from far enough outside the box that a shot on goal was impractical. There were mere seconds left in extra time, and penalties were a forgone conclusion if only Uruguay's keeper could wrap up the ball or one of the defenders could clear it in whatever direction was most convenient. We were late enough that even conceding a corner would have brought an end to the match.

Instead, the ball bobbled around, and the keeper was beaten. Ghana put a shot on goal, only to see it kicked out at the goal line by a Uruguayan defender. The ball rebounded to another Ghanan player, who sent it towards goal again, where Luis Suarez did the only thing he could do, he batted it away with his outstretched hand. He was, of course, given a red card, and Ghana was given a penalty for the foul in the box.

This, alone, was unlike anything most soccer fans have ever seen. Suarez was sent off for the intentional hand ball, but he had saved Uruguay's World Cup, if only for a few minutes. He was distraught, of course, assuming that the penalty would be converted. The seconds between the handball and the penalty were odd for that reason: it was as if Ghana had scored - and they would have without Suarez's violation - but it was almost like a late-game NFL replay where no one is quite sure whether the receiver's feet landed in bounds. Or it was as if the ball was rolling towards the empty goal, but it wasn't clear whether it had enough momentum to cross the line.

Everything happened faster than that, though. Ghana's Asamoah Gyan stepped up and clanged the penalty off of the crossbar before Suarez could get down the tunnel. Upon hearing that Uruguay was still alive, he came bolting back towards the pitch, exuberant in the knowledge that he had, ultimately, saved his team and not doomed it, and all because of something done while he was 100 meters away and out of sight.

To Gyan's credit, he made the first of Ghana's penalties in the shootout, but Uruguay capped the dramatic victory by shooting with more composure. And just like that, Ghana's carriage turned back into a pumpkin. Like fans of England, Italy, France, the United States, and all of the other countries that have been eliminated - and let's not forget Costa Rica, Russia, and the myriad countries that were eliminated before the Cup began - Ghanaian fans watched heartbroken as the Uruguayan team celebrated on the field. On, in some sense, their field. Indeed, for that reason, and above all for the drama of the thing, this was a harder loss to swallow than any suffered by any other nation in the World Cup.

Soccer has become, I think, my second favorite sport (behind baseball, of course). It has been growing on me since I watched my brother play as a kid (I never played myself), and we imagined that he would one day be the striker that led team USA to World Cup glory. We were up at 3 in the morning in 2002 cheering on Landon Donovan and company as their hopes were crushed by Germany in the quarterfinals, but with high hopes for 2006 and beyond. I found myself, later, watching European Champions League matches in a packed common-room in college (it speaks to the oddities of St. John's that more students watched the European Champions Cup Final than the World Series).

But why? What is it about soccer? Indeed, what is it about sports? I find soccer incredibly frustrating to watch when I am rooting for someone. The ebb and flow of the game is so much more violent than in almost any other sport. Possession can change in seconds, and a near miss on the attack can - and often does - turn into a goal on the counter. In no other sport does the score mean so much. A team might spend 80 minutes chasing the goal they gave up in the 6th minute, abandoning their entire game-plan. Or a team might try to hold a 1-0 advantage against a superior opponent, giving up on attack entirely and thus living and dying with the bend and spin of shots taken from just outside the penalty area, hoping that the rebound doesn't end up on a striker's foot. Regardless, each goal transforms tactics, transforms strategy, and transforms the watcher's interaction. And so you can't lose focus for even a second, as a player or as a fan.

When I'm not rooting for anyone, that ebb and flow is fascinating. The tactics of soccer are unmatched, because they are as intricate as American Football whilst taking place in real-time. The physical skill needed to play the game is general - pace, stamina, strength, and so on help as much as in any sport - but also specific in that players must be able to direct the ball accurately without using their hands. The precision of the strikes of International stars makes it easy to forget how hard it is for most of us to kick a stationary ball 20 yards without it zipping around in unintended directions.

Is that it, though? Is it the combination of the mental and the physical that intrigues me, intrigues, indeed, the entire world? And what of baseball, or basketball, or cricket, curling, rugby, tennis, polo, or (our) football?

Drama has something to do with it, of course, and that drama comes from the finality of victory and defeat. Every sport, in the end, has more failure than success in it. For every champion, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of losers. In most Cinderella stories the evil step-sisters win. So what is more dramatic than victory? What more meaningful to a species that is always searching for meaning? Victory is something certain in an uncertain world, something we can hold on to, something we can unite around. It's no wonder fans say "we" when their team wins, "they" when the team loses.

I think it's more than that, though. Fandom that cares only about victory and defeat is shallow. Why, if victory is all that matters, am I happier watching the other nations - not the USA - in the World Cup? Why, indeed, was I a happier Rockies fan back when the expectation was that the club would battle for 4th place, and not for a playoff spot?

Victory alone is limiting, and dangerously addicting. Too many fans, I think, get caught up in wins and losses, get caught up thinking that what matters is the outcome of the game, or even of a play. What strikes me as more important, though, is the art of the games we follow. Indeed, I would argue that, in our modern era, athletic competition has become our more refined art form, our most respected creative pursuit. Just as the Romantic era honored its composers, and the baroque its painters, we're in the Athletic era, when art is spontaneous and physical.

Sports - as they stand in the modern world - are an outgrowth of the spirit of jazz. In almost every competition what draws us are those extemporaneously constructed solos set against the background of a familiar theme, and supported by an able band. Just as in the 30s bebop listeners would bob along with a Charlie Parker solo, knowing that Dizzy was right behind him, and that the rhythm section had his back, we love to watch the artists of modern sport, their foils, and the teams that make it possible. Indeed, like in music, while we honor those stars, we know that, deep down, the best player in the world is nothing without a good team, just like Bird without a good drummer keeping the beat.

Don't get me wrong, competition is not incidental to sports. Competition is not incidental to any art. The need to be the best, to out-do one's opponents, to achieve victory, all of that is a huge part of why athletes and artists (and indeed anyone) does what they do. Victory and defeat - we might as well say life and death - are an integral part of the canvas of human experience. Without them, there's no art at all.

Is it any wonder, then, that soccer is called "The Beautiful Game?" Is it any wonder that there's a special place in the Baseball Hall of Fame for the Vin Scullys of the world, who nightly turn competition into words and stories and art? Is it any wonder, indeed, that we have "Halls of Fame" to begin with, or that elder statesmen in every sport strive to instruct young players in the history of the game?

I suppose it's hard to describe watching Ghana lose to Uruguay this afternoon as beautiful. It was hardly that. But it was every bit as moving and as surprising as a piece of music nonetheless. I don't mean, ultimately, that is was like something from a movie, as the announcer described, but rather, that it was so much better than that. Here was art for arts sake, sport for sports sake. Sure there's all the money, all the hype, all the over-extended metaphors (of which I too am guilty, I suppose), but, in the end, there was something pure that sits below all of the silly language we're reduced to using when trying to describe anything meaningful in the world.

The Beautiful Game, like any game, isn't really all that profound. What makes it so gripping - what makes me a sports fan - is that it seems so profound even when I know it isn't. The cynic in me suggests that maybe all art is like that. Even if it's not, even if some things really are profound, I think that sports occupy that seemingly-profound space because, despite their unscripted, unpolished, sometimes brutal, often money-grubbing exterior, the heart of why we play and why we watch and why we care does matter, even if none of the particulars do.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

All-Time Yankees Roster

The following the the final write-up from the two students in my sabermetrics workshop. They worked hard on it, and they should be proud of the level of analysis they performed. The write-up was coauthored by the three of us. Also, disclaimer, I'm not a Yankees fan, but they are :). Needless to say, this is probably the only time you'll see "Go Yankees" written in this blog.

*All-Time Yankees Roster*

By Rory Davidson, Tierna Davidson, and Paul Franz


Do you think you have the best all-time Yankees roster? Well think twice and read ours. We have made our team through a series of numbers. Whether it is looking at OPS+ or ERA+, the numbers are very reliable (compliments of and Our team goes back to Babe Ruth, Lou Gerhig, and Mickey Mantle, all the way up to Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mariano Rivera.


OPS+ is a statistic in which they make the average OPS of the major league and make it 100 and then take another persons OPS and see how much better or worse a players OPS is. We used this stat to our advantage by looking the number and seeing if they are worthy enough, for example Babe Ruth’s OPS+ was 210 for his Yankee career, we thought, “Wow this guy is amazing lets put him up.” Of course we already knew Ruth would be on our team, but that was just an example. For pitchers we used ERA+ which the exact same thing as OPS+ but with ERA.
After we picked about 40 players we looked a little deeper into their stats and see if anything jumps out at us. Another thing we did was see if they had better seasons with another team, for example Roger Clemens was a Yankee for a period of time and did very well with them, but his prime was when he was with the Boston Red Sox so we decided to put someone else on the team.


Starting Pitcher - Whitey Ford, 1950-1967
133 ERA+, 55.3 WAR

Ford was the Yankees ace during the Casey Stengel era, leading the Yankees to no less than 8 World Series titles. There are fewer storied pitchers than hitters for the Yankees, but Ford measures up to the Berras and DiMaggios nonetheless.

Catcher - Yogi Berra, 1946-1963
125 OPS+, 62.1 WAR

As much has been written about Berra as any other player in Yankees history, thanks to a wit that lies somewhere between genius and savant. With a seemingly infinite collection of quotations to his name, Berra would be famous even if he weren’t one of the best catchers of all time. As it was, he was Joe Mauer before Joe Mauer: the All-American kid made good, with charm and the remarkable ability to hit and catch.

First Base - Lou Gehrig, 1923-1939
179 OPS+, 118.4 WAR

“The Iron Horse” was voted the best first-baseman by the Baseball Writers’ Association. Lou holds the record for the most grand slams. He played 2,130 consecutive games. That record stood for 56 years before Cal Ripkens Jr. broke it. Gerhig was also elected into the Hall of Fame in 1939. His life and career was cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gerhig’s Diease), a horrible diesease in your nerves. He died 2 years after being diagnosed. He is a legend that will live on forever.

Second Base - Robinson Cano, 2005-Present
118 OPS+, 22.5 WAR

Second base was a very tough decision because the Yankees have not had very good second base-mans in their franchise, out of all of the second base players I had a very strong argument for the MVP candidate Robinson Cano. In only six years he has accumulated 102 home runs. Adding on to that amazing stat he has a career .311 batting average. Also he has been an MVP, won the silver slugger award, and runner up rookie of year. Our final reason to picking Cano as our starter was because we have a soft spot for Cano because he has helped our favorite team win a World Series.

Shortstop - Derek Jeter, 1995-Present
121 OPS+, 70 WAR

Derek Jeter is obviously the best shortstop choice in the Yankees roster. He won the Rookie of the Year in 1995 and was the only player to win the All-Star Game MVP and the World Series MVP in the same year. He was selected as an All-Star ten times and he won Silver Slugger and Golden Glove awards on four occasions. He has a .317 career batting average and team captian for the Yankees since 2003. Finally, Jeter is the all-time Yankees hit leader, passing Lou Gerhig in 2009. He still plays for the Yankees and continues to break records.

Third Base - Alex Rodriguez, 2004-Present
147 OPS+, 40.2 WAR

Alex Rodriguez is considered one of the all-time best players. Pretty good. Joining the Yankees in 2004, he was the youngest player to ever hit 500 home runs, breaking a record previously set by Jimmie Foxx. Though he used steroids from 2001-2003, he has stopped using drugs and continues to play for the Yankees as a phenomenal third baseman.

Right Field - Babe Ruth, 1920-1935
210 OPS+, 149.6 WAR

A huge no-brainer!!!!!! Babe Ruth is the best player of all time. There is nothing else to say for the greatest player ever.

Center Field - Mickey Mantle, 1951-1968
172 OPS+, 120.2 WAR

Mantle’s story reads like a Greek tragedy. The All-American boy with a broad smile and all the talent in the world saw his career and greatness always overshadowed by the history against which he was pitted. He was an infamous alcoholic, his playing career was continually marred by injury, and while he continued to march bravely out into center field, his knees could barely hold him as his career went on. It is stunning, then, that he put up the kind of numbers that he did in his career. One wonders what might have been.

Left Field - Joe DiMaggio, 1936-1951
155 OPS+, 83.6 WAR

“The Yankee Clipper,” or “Joltin’ Joe,” has been immortalized in song and popular culture, of course, but he also kicked off what would become 30 years of dominant performance from Yankee center fielders. Joe was so good - the truest of the “True Yankees” - that fans met the rookie Mantle, who would replace him, with great skepticism. We decided to leave Mantle in center, because, in the end, he was an even better ball player than DiMaggio (who we assume could handle the transition to left field alright).

Designated Hitter - Reggie Jackson, 1977-1981
148 OPS+, 16.9 WAR

The original “Mr. October” didn’t play with the Yankees for long, but he forged his legacy in the five years he spent in pinstripes.

Closer - Mariano Rivera, 1995 - Present
205 ERA+, 51.4 WAR

As we all know this was another complete no-brainer with Mariano Rivera’s record setting 205 ERA+ and that he will be holding the saves holder in 2 to 3 years.

Starting Rotation and Bullpen

Starting Pitcher - Lefty Gomez, 1930-1942
125 ERA+, 43.2 WAR

Lefty Gomez was overshadowed, in his career, by the careers of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, but he - along with Red Ruffing - was one of the aces and star pitchers of the first Yankees dynasty.

Starting Pitcher - Red Ruffing, 1930-1946
119 ERA+, 49.7 WAR

Red Ruffing was a converted outfielder, who changed positions after losing four of his toes in a mine accident. Odd as it sounds, the change probably helped Ruffing, who didn’t have to compete in a stacked New York outfield, and instead went on to become a hall of famer and one of the best pitchers of his era.

Starting Pitcher - Ron Guidry, 1975-1988
119 ERA+, 44.4 WAR

One of the few modern starting pitchers on the shortlist of great Yankees, Guidry won a Cy Young and was runner up for an MVP in his dominant 1978 campaign, when he went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA. The Yankees won the series that year, behind Guidry’s stellar season, and the pitcher went on to anchor the Yankees staff through the 80s.

Starting Pitcher - Waite Hoyt, 1921-1930
115 ERA+, 47 WAR

Hoyt is probably better known as the longtime announcer of the Cincinnati Reds, but before his broadcast career he was the ace of the first Yankees World Series winning team.

Starting Pitcher - Andy Pettitte, 1995-2003, 2007-Present
114 ERA+, 42.3 WAR

Pettitte has been an amazing pitcher for the Yankees in his career. He has contributed to 5 of the Yankees World Series. Along with 5 World Series he has a 114 ERA+ and a 3.97 ERA.

Relief Pitcher - Rich “Goose” Gossage, 1978-1983
179 ERA+, 18.2 WAR

Gossage was one of the first “closers” in baseball history, amassing a now unimpressive 310 saves (151 with the Yankees). In Gossage’s time, most of these were two or three inning affairs, as his 533 innings in 319 appearances with the Yankees suggest. In his brief time with the Yankees Gossage was good enough - with an outstanding 179 ERA+ - to warrant inclusion in the All-Time discussion.

Relief Pitcher - Sparky Lyle, 1972-1978
148 ERA+, 14.4 WAR

Lyle’s WAR total is unimpressive, but he was a work horse for the Yankees, pitching over 700 innings in relief in his seven seasons with the club. He picked up 141 saves at a time when the statistic wasn’t recorded, and struck out twice as many as he walked.

Relief Pitcher - Dave Righetti, 1979-1990
127 ERA+, 23.3 WAR

Righetti started his career as a starter, winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1979. He was later switched to relief thanks to a glut of starters on the Yankees roster in the 80s, where he continued to shine as a replacement for Goose Gossage. As a minor leaguer, Righetti was acquired by the Yankees in an ill-fated trade by the Rangers for, it turned out, a past-his-prime Sparky Lyle.


Catcher - Jorge Posada, 1995-Present
125 OPS+, 45.7 WAR

Like Yogi Berra, Jorge Posada is the rare catcher who can hit. We chose Posada over the also-deserving Thurman Munson because Posada has managed to continue as a top-level performer well into his late 30s. Of course, we don’t know what Munson would have done had he not died in a tragic plane accident, but Posada has been every bit as good in his career, and he has anchored the latest Yankees dynasty.

Second Base - Tony Lazzeri, 1926-1937
121 OPS+, 46.6 WAR

The only second baseman in the discussion besides Cano played alongside Babe Ruth, routinely hitting 10-20 homers a year at a time when no one (except his slugging teammate) was hitting much of anything. Lazzeri’s Hall of Fame entrance took a long time thanks to suspect defense, but his offensive ability, especially for a second baseman, is unquestionable.

Left Field - Charlie Keller, 1939-1949
152 OPS+, 42.4 WAR

The best Yankee you’ve never heard of, Keller lost some of his best years to World War Two. Even so, a stunning .410 OBP and .518 SLG speak to his skill as a hitter. One can only imagine an outfield consisting of him, DiMaggio, and George Selkirk (who narrowly missed inclusion on this roster). No wonder the Yankees won all those World Series.

First Base / Designated Hitter - Jason Giambi, 2002-2008
143 OPS+, 21.8 WAR

The “Giambino” earned his nickname with a series of outstanding performances for the Yankees earlier in this decade. For someone as high-profile as he is, Giambi is actually one of the most underrated sluggers of his era, thanks to his amazing ability to get on base. As a Yankee Giambi’s OBP was .404, stellar even when not coupled with 30+ homers a season.

First Base - Don Mattingly, 1982-1995
127 OPS+, 39.8 WAR

Immensely popular, Mattingly never looks as impressive on paper as he is in people’s memories. Even so, his career 127 OPS+ is nothing to laugh at. Being a first baseman without a ton of power in the late 80s and early 90s works against “Donny Baseball,” especially because the generation following him hit more homers than any other, but his overall skill with the bat (and glove), along with his spot in Yankee-fan hearts, means that he warrants a spot here.

Right Field - Roger Maris, 1960-1966
140 OPS+, 27.9 WAR

No player was more polarizing in his time. As he and Mantle chased the Ruth’s hallowed home run record in 1961, Maris was subjected to the best and worst that fans have to offer. What often gets lost, however, in the Maris story is what a good hitter he was, period. His 61 homer season was staggering, and probably at least in part due to luck, but it was hardly a total fluke. Maris had led the league in SLG the year before, after all, and had hit 39 homers. He has been kept out of the Hall of Fame thanks largely to a short career, but he definitely warrants inclusion here.


After reading our thoughts, you probably know why our roster is the best. Not only did we do deep research, but being Yankees fans we know a lot of the players. If we were to go into even greater detail, we would write paragraphs upon paragraphs about each player. But we didn’t want to bore you (we hope we didn’t) out of your minds, so we did the main factors of each player. If we were to do a different team, that would be a different story. First, the Yankees are so much better than other teams... GO YANKEES!