Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Stepping to the Line

On Halloween of 2013, Phish debuted a new album's worth of material called Wingsuit.  During the set, one song that debuted was called "The Line".  As  Trey explained “Dedicated with much love to the incredible Darius Washington Jr, that song is about his experience when he missed those two free throws at the end of the Final Four Michigan State game. We love him, and we can relate." Now of course, in proper Trey fashion, he got the story details a bit muddled.  Washington played on Memphis for two years before turning pro in 2006.  In the 2005 Conference USA title game, his Tigers were 19-14 and needed a win to progress on to the NCAA tournament.  He was fouled while attempting a three point shot, his team down 2 with no time left remaining in the second half.  Washington proceeded to make the first shot and miss the next two.  Season over.  At the time, he was a 73.3 percent shooter from the line.
This is relevant:

Although perhaps not on such a large stage, every athlete has a similar story.  Every football player has the memory of a missed block that lost a game or a dropped ball that would have changed a game's outcome.  Every baseball player has struck out at least once at an inopportune time.  And every basketball player has missed the one shot that would have made all the difference.  When I was a senior in high school, I was in a similar situation to Washington: no time on the clock left, down two, against my team's rival and with two free throws that could possibly send the game to overtime.  Now, clearly the stakes were different and the stage was much smaller but we were a very good, state ranked team.  I went through my usual free throw routine: spin the ball out as I stepped to the line.  Bounce the ball three times. Set myself. Exhale. And I missed the first shot. I wasn't a great free throw shooter by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought I should have made those two shots.  I knew I should have.

Also, when I was in high school, a good friend of mine gave me a burned copy of Slip, Stitch, and Pass and recommended me to listen to it as much as possible.  This was in 2001, so the band had just recently gone on hiatus.  As an unabashed Pink Floyd fan, I immediately fell in love with the Mike's Song on the album with all of the "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" quotes. But something else was apparent in the music that I hadn't been used to in my usual listening habits. The guys in this band seemed like they were having fun. They didn't seem to take themselves too seriously. At the time I was listening to a lot of progressive rock (Yes, Rush, etc.). Those bands took themselves very seriously. But Phish was different. It was fun. My first concert was at IT in 2003. The joy I had when me and my three best friends drove up to Limestone from Syracuse was palpable. For two of us it would be our first concert but it would be all of our first festivals. Phish was back together and we were young and nothing could take that away from us.

When Washington missed that last free throw, he first fell to his knees and then fully to the ground.  His coach, John Calipari, was the first to reach him.  He helped him up to his feet and then eventually his teammates helped him off the court. During all of this, his father, Big D as noted in the song, was able to make his way to the floor to help his son as well. He had instilled in his son that if you have to cry, that's ok, just cover your face. That way other people don't have to see you at that moment. When failure occurs at such a pivotal moment, it's easy to hide. To give up. To give in. Instead, the elder Washington took his son to Beale St that night. He wouldn't allow his son to lose himself in the moment. When people saw him in Memphis that night, they didn't heckle. They didn't get negative. They all seemed to remember that Washington had a game high 23 points. That he was a nineteen year old kid. That there would be other opportunities for success in the future. And that's what he needed to see and understand so that his failure could be overcome.

When those failures come and you feel like you've let down your team, your family, your school it's hard to keep perspective. But I knew, that when I missed, it hurt like hell but it was going to be OK. I wasn't worried about my future basketball prospects (because they barely existed, two years of JV D3 basketball awaited me) or getting negative attention. I was already worried about the next game. Because other teams could use that knowledge (the missing of that free throw) as a way to try to get under my skin. So I practiced harder and made sure that my team would be successful. I'd like to say we won the state title that year but it didn't happen.  There's a cliche that states "It is not our successes but our failures that define us" but I don't really buy that.  It's neither our successes nor our failures that define us. It's our ability to learn from failures and make changes to overcome the deficiencies that led to our failures. 

IT, the festival, was in August of 2003. By Spring of 2004, Phish had announced that it was breaking up again, this time on a more permanent basis with no weasel-words like "hiatus".  I had seen more concerts in 2003 and in the summer of 2004 but Coventry would be the first time that the four of us original festival goers would be back together to see another show. When you're thirty, a year between friends is nothing but when you're 20 a lot can change.  We all grew slightly apart. All at different colleges with new circles of friends.  All at different stages in our lives. Thinking Coventry would be one last hurrah was optimistic at best but that was the way that we all felt. And straight from the start it was apparent that this would not be the case. The weather was terrible, the traffic was worse, and we were some of the few lucky ones that actually were able to get in.  Musically, the band was operating on four distinct planes at times it seems. The Glide still stands as simply grating to listen to and as Trey stopped the Curtain to note the band was in the wrong key and restart the jam I remember thinking "So this is how it ends".  Not with something new or breathtaking but with a broken feeling that things weren't correct.  Things didn't end up the way that they were supposed to.

After the Halloween show, Trey corresponded with the Memphis Flyer newspaper noting that the story of Washington was important to him because “It really spoke to me on a personal level, because I've gone through some difficult moments in public, too".  Clearly, this would seem to indicate his issues with substance abuse and subsequent arrest in 2006. But I think that with the bands new communal method of writing music for Wingsuit, it definitely has its roots in Coventry as well.  When I play basketball now and line up to take a free throw, I'm still a 17 year old kid with a chance to win an unimportant basketball game in high school and when I release the ball I'm a married 29 year old man.  I can think back of how I've overcome my inadequacies in various fields and pushed through obstacles to make myself a better person. How I was determined to not repeat past mistakes. How my ability to overcome my failings was essential in molding who I am today.  I feel Trey and the band as a whole must feel the same way when, in 2013, they are playing the most inspired Phish that I have heard as a contemporary fan.  I used to hold my breath when listening to a tape and would hear Glide or OKP start up not knowing how it would go, but now I can just smile.  I know the band and Trey has got it under control.  They remember where they've been and where they want to go.

It's important to remember that when a person or a group of people step to the line, they'll be exposed to the entire world with nothing to hide behind.  And although sometimes they will fail, other times they'll succeed wildly beyond their expectations.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Quantifying the Unquantifiable - Sabremetric Phish

There is an ongoing debate amongst baseball analysts and sportswriters over statistics.  Or more honestly, there is a debate over the use of certain statistics as it comes to establishing value.  For decades the prevailing wisdom was that Batting Average, Home Runs, and Runs Batted In (for a hitter at least) were the most important statistics in determining who the best players were and who was worth the largest contracts.  Other counting statistics like Stolen Bases, Hits, and Walk, although important, were held to a lesser standard.  Slowly, however, a different way to quantify a players excellence and value was developed by Bill James (amongst others).  These sabremetricians (SABR standing for Society for American Baseball Research) developed new ways of looking at existing data and combined the new statistics to try to holistically view and compare players.  It was determined that RBIs were heavily dependent on a teammates ability to get on base and thus were not directly in a players control.  It followed that the most important thing a hitter can do is get on base (and therefore not get out). Therefore, why shouldn't walks be essentially counted as hits.  No longer was batting average used as a gauge but instead used OBP (On base percentage).  This is greatly simplified from the actual practice but the message was clear to the new breed of analysts: if we have all of this available data, why not use it to do something meaningful.

So as times progressed, some baseball writers changed their meterstick to try to provide a more complete view point.  And one statistic that tries to incorporate all facets of a players game is Wins Above Replacement (WAR).  WAR quantifies the additional wins the player's team will have with him in the line-up over that of a theoretical "Replacement player"; a catch-all term for a readily available player in the team's farm system.  WAR summarizes a player's hitting, defense, base-running, slugging,ability to get on base, amongst other basic stats (there is pitcher's WAR as well which obviously use different basic stats but the concept is the same).   And this is where the debate starts.

Some people like WAR and it's ability to provide a quantifiable measure but other sportswriters and fans think that it takes the eye-test out of the equation.  In 2012, the American League MVP was clearly either Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout.  In summary, Cabrera won the first triple crown (leading the league in HR, RBI, and BA) since 1967 and Trout led considerably in WAR 10.7 to 6.9 (due to a massive edge in defense and base running).  Cabrera also led his Detroit Tigers to the postseason while Trout, a rookie, and his Angels did not make the playoffs.  Quantifiably, Trout had the much better season (in fact one of the best WAR seasons ever and by far the greatest for a 21 year old) but  Cabrera had the more traditionally great season and won the MVP award in a landslide. 

And that (long-worded intro) brings us to Phish.

I've been intrigued for a while to trying to determine value of a given Phish concert.  The question was: Are there any quantifiable traits that are present that make show "A" intrinsically better than show "B"?  Now, before I get into this too deep, even the worst Phish concert is better than most other things.  But the impetus of this exercise came from a series of concerts I saw in 2009.  I was able to attend the 08-05, 08-13, and 11-28 shows of that year.  Using the Phish.Net ratings, the 11-28 show is the highest rated of the year (4.48 on a scale of 5) and the 08-05 show is one of the lowest with a rating of 2.93.  I loved both of these shows!  But clearly the public was a bit more split.  So in the interest of nerd-dom everywhere, I decided to try to make a stat that would quantifiably look at shows.

I began by trying to determine what traits of a concert are deemed valuable by Phish fans.  Clearly, this is not a comprehensive list (and may not be agreed upon by everyone) but I came up with Song Length, Show Gap, Debuts, Segues, and Encore Length.  When these all were calculated with weighting factors, I ended up with a range that was 1.46 for the lowest show and 3.71 for the highest show.  I looked at all shows for 2009, and using the equation that was developed, the average or "replacement" show was 2.01.  This number assumes that all songs played were exactly the average length for the calendar year 2009 (i.e. if the average length of Golgi was 4:45 during 2009, the version of Golgi played during the show in question was 4:45 as well), an average show gap of 16, 0.6 Debuts per show, an average number of segues, and an encore length of about 11 minutes. Shows with a VORS (Value over Replacement Show) greater than 2.13 can be seen as above average with this metric.  The results are shown here:

To better illustrate the differences between ratings and the quantifiable look based on VORS, a simple chart can be created which shows the correlation between the two:

In general, the R squared shows that the general correlation between the two ratings is there.  Which makes sense.  There should be a correlation between traditionally rated great shows and a statistic that, without listening to any of the songs, tries to gauge the intrinsic greatness. There are some outliers shown but with further refinement of VORS, the alignment should be more defined. The two shows that are rated the highest by VORS, were the Halloween show and November 1. Those shows are skewed slightly due to the Exile set debuts and the bustouts during the acoustic set on 11/1.  The only other shows that present as slight outliers (with high value) are March 8, June 14, and August 2. By the metric they derived most of their value from an extremely long encore, the collaborations with Bruce Springsteen at Bonnaroo, and slightly longer than average songs and long encore respectively. However the reviews aren't quite as high due to a myriad of reasons (probably because there is less importance placed on encore length when reviewing a show).  

The maligned, August 5th show mentioned above had an above average rating by VORS of 2.15 based on a 20 minute DWD and the bust-out of Oh! Sweet Nuthin' (seriously the second set is awesome)!

Conversely, has significantly higher ratings than as would be predicted by VORS for 8/7 and 12/30.  Listening to both of these shows they are both very well performed shows and are highly recommended but illustrate that something is missing from the quantitative statistic.  

One thing I wish was required for show reviews on aggregate sites would be a classification on whether or not the show was attended in person or upon listening.  This would eliminate the subjective bias, because, clearly, once a concert occurs, it is a pretty abnormal occurrence to be able to experience it again visually from start to finish. Plus, with the importance of being in the Lot Scene and general camaraderie that is experienced being at the concert itself, I think the bias can not be fully avoided.

I think there is valuable information that can be gleaned from this exercise.  As fans we realize that time can sometimes be short when selecting a show to listen to at a given time and that reviews on websites can frequently (and honestly should) skew towards the subjective viewpoint very easily. It's a cliche for a reason: My favorite concert I've seen was the last one I attended. Hopefully, as I continue this analysis, refine the metric more (probably incorporating more objective measures and lessening the weight on encores), and apply to other years more hidden and overlooked gems can be found.