English Premier League’s Lack of Premier-ness

This piece will make a ton of sense to my British and European readers, likely less so to those of you from the States. The English Premier League has been not so great at finishing well let alone winning in the Champions League.

Super briefly, English football—soccer—has a whole bunch of teams that play at different levels. Kind of like the US minor leagues, but without the affiliation of minor league teams to major league teams. That is, every team for itself. The Premier League is the top rung. (Every year, the worst teams in the Premier League are dropped into the minors and the very best from the minors move up into the Premier League.) This league includes the ones even Americans have heard of: Manchester, Arsenal, Chelsea. And maybe even Liverpool. Liverpool is playing today to make it into the Champions League finals.

(Full disclosure: I always say if I had to pick an English team to follow it would be Liverpool. Why? Because they are owned by Fenway Sports Group, the same group that owns the Boston Red Sox.)

The thing is that as well known as many of these teams are, they have been faring not well in the Champions League, which is like the Premier League but of all European football. That is, the best teams from every top league in all of Europe compete for a European trophy. FiveThirtyEight explored some reasons why, but also included a nice graphic to showcase the relative failures of the Premier League teams.

Making it through the Champions League…
Making it through the Champions League…

The chart makes nice use of grouped bar charts showing the number of teams from each league at each stage of the playoffs. The designers made good use of labelling, especially at the top to indicate to which country each league belongs. My only question would be is whether these make sense from the top down, as they presently are, or if they would work better bottom up, in that the winning team has to climb their way to victory.

To be honest, I am not really sure which approach would work best. I think it might be even odds. Either way, Liverpool plays Roma later today.

Credit for the piece goes to Tim Wigmore.

Down on the Farms

Just a neat little piece today from FiveThirtyEight. They take a look at the potential impact of the Trump administration’s proposed tariffs on the farm vote in the United States. The screenshot of the table shows how the farm population compares to Trump’s margin of victory in 2016.

Farming clearly isn't big in Alaska…
Farming clearly isn’t big in Alaska…

The three states at the top? The very same Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan about which we hear so often. Yes, Pennsylvania does have large cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but agriculture is an important part of its economy. So if the tariffs or the reprisals to the tariffs have any significant impact on the livelihood of farmers, that could be enough, all things being equal, to flip those states.

About the design, I think the inclusion of the mini-bar chart helps tremendously. Tables are great for organising information, but scanning over and through cell after cell of black text can hide patterns. The visualisation of those patterns at the end of each row helps the user tremendously, by making it very clear why those three states were highlighted.

Credit for the piece goes to Rebecca Shimoni Stoil.

The Cost of Giving Birth

Monday was the birth of the newest British prince. We covered that here. Interestingly, the Economist then covered the cost of giving birth. No surprise, those involving royals tend to be costly. But I did not think that the average American birth actually cost more.

Babies are expensive…
Babies are expensive…

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist’s graphics department.

Differences Between Print and Online

On Monday I read, in print, part of a page one article in the Times. I ran out of times given the whole new royal baby coverage, and opted to read the rest digitally. Originally, this was just for my own enjoyment as there were no graphics in the article.

But this one appeared online.

It's a nice graphic too…
It’s a nice graphic too…

I clearly have nothing to compare it to in print, which is a shame because this is a nice graphic with one thing I really wanted to point out. Although, maybe a print version would not have had the thing I will get to. But maybe there just wasn’t space in the print edition or they tried to make it work, but the colours or layout wasn’t working. Who knows.

When I saw the digital version, the line chart struck me as particularly nice. Now, maybe the Times has been doing this for a little while and I have missed it, but notice the highlighted line, Rural public. Yes the line is thicker or bolder than the others, but more importantly it has a thin white stroke attached that helps separate it from the lines behind it. Those lines are important for context, but not necessarily to tell the story of how rural public servant jobs have been hit the hardest.

You often see this kind of approach taken with maps. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Google Maps as one example. Their text often has a thin white outline to make it stand out from the content of the map. I just have never seen the logic applied to a line chart.

I doubt the design would hold up in a number of other scenarios. For example, a straight line chart with no line highlighted in particular, the spaghetti-ness mess would make the above a largely white line chart. Too much overlap. And a simple comparison, say of two lines, probably is clear enough that the approach is not necessary. But in scenarios like these where the highlighted series is important, the choice clearly works.

On a much smaller note, check out the x-axis labels. They are used only once for the first chart. And then because the bar charts and line charts align, they carry through straight down the rest of the piece. Very efficient.

I only wish I knew how this would have appeared in print…

Credit for the piece goes to the New York Times graphics department.

New York Is Still Beating London

So two weeks ago I posted about the graphics in a BBC article about how London has surpassed New York in terms of murders, due to a spate of stabbings in the British capital. Well, somehow I missed this: an article from the Economist that rebuts that point. And it does it brilliantly.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I think everybody who works with data knows that adage. Now, I am not using it to say that the BBC—or the numerous other media outlets that ran the story—lied. Just that it is easy to change the story based on the data, how it is presented, or which subsets of the data are selected.

The Economist’s article points out that the surpassing of New York is a short term data point, a worrying short term trend, definitely, but they then look at the data. They select two timeframes and look at them side-by-side.

It's all about what data you show, choose to highlight, and then how you show it.
It’s all about what data you show, choose to highlight, and then how you show it.

And that is what I love about this piece. It shows the long-term context of New York having a far-higher medium-term history of murder (some 28 years of data is shown). When I was growing up in the 90s, murders in New York—and to be fair almost all large American cities—was just something that was a known fact. During that time, London hovered below 200 or so, compared to the 2000+ in early 90s New York.

But then they also show the short term, which does point to a steady rise in London murders. But, the data could also show a one-time dip in the murders in New York. But they also show that the total number of deaths is still higher in New York than London, despite the three months of data.

Murder is not good. But these graphics are a good example of how selecting different time series for the same data set, and then showing which parts of the data to show. The earlier BBC piece, and my revision of it, did not show the total deaths. Nor did either piece show the longer timeline of data.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist graphics department.

News Deserts

Yesterday we looked at the shrinking Denver Post. Today we have a graphic from a related story via Politico. The article explores the idea that President Trump performs better in what the article terms “news deserts”, those counties with a very low level of newspaper circulation. (The article explains the methodology in detail.) This piece we are looking at here shows how those counties performed against the circulation rate and their 2016 presidential election result.

How the news deserts performed
How the news deserts performed

Overall, the work is solid. But I probably would have done a few things differently. First, the orange overlay falls in the middle of one column of dots. Do those dots then fall inside or outside the categorisation of news desert?

Secondly, the dots. If this were perhaps a scatter plot comparing the variables of circulation rates and, perhaps, election vote results as a percent, dots would be perfect. Here, however, they create this slightly distracting pattern in the the main area of counties. When the dots are stacked neatly and apart from other columns, as they are more often on the right, the dots are fine. But in the packed space on the left, not as much.

As I was reading through the article I had a couple of questions. For example, couldn’t the lack of newspapers be reflective of the urban–rural split or the education split, both of which can be seen in the same election results. Thankfully the article does spend time going through those points as well. It is a bit lengthy of a read—with a few other perfectly fine graphics—but well worth it.

Credit for the graphics goes to Jeremy C.F. Lin.

The Cost of the US Tax Cut

I know I’ve looked at the Times a few times this week, but before we get too far into the next week, I did want to show what they printed on Saturday.

It is not too often we get treated to data on the front page or even the section pages. But last Saturday we got just that in the Business Section. Two very large and prominent charts looked at federal government borrowing and the federal deficit. Both are set to grow in the future, largely due to the recently enacted tax cuts.

That's about half the page on those two charts.
That’s about half the page on those two charts.

The great thing about the graphic is just how in-the-face it puts the data. Do two charts with 14 data points (28 total) need to occupy half the page? No. But there is something about the brashness of the piece that I just love.

And then it continues and the rest of the article points, at more normal sizes, to treasury bill yields and car loan rates. The inside is what you would expect and does it well in single colour.

These two seem small by comparison…
These two seem small by comparison…

But I just loved that section page.

Credit for the piece goes to Matt Phillips.

US Olympic Performance

I don’t know if you heard, but the Winter Olympics just concluded. I’m admittedly not a huge fan of the Winter Olympics, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t keep my eye on some of the stories coming out of the coverage. One that I liked was this piece from FiveThirtyEight.

US performance was lagging at this point
US performance was lagging at this point

It was about halfway through the Olympics and the US was not doing terribly well. The chart does a great job of showing how various countries were performing, or over- or under-performing, their expected total medal winnings. It did this through a filled bar chart with a bar-specific benchmark line. It was a nice combination of a couple of different techniques to incorporate not just the usual above or below the trend, but also the actual amounts.

Credit for the piece goes to Gus Wezerek.

Baseball’s Free Agency Problem

Baseball season begins next week. For different teams it starts different days, but for the Red Sox at least, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training on Tuesday. But the Red Sox, along with many other teams throughout baseball, have holes in their roster. Why? Arguably because nearly 100 free agents remain unsigned.

I do not intend to go into the different theories as to why, but this has been a remarkably slow offseason. How do we know? Well using MLB Trade Rumours listing of the top-50 free agents this year, and the signings reported on Baseball Reference, we can look at the upper and middle, or maybe upper-middle, tiers of free agency.

The upper tiers of baseball's free agent market, as of 9 February
The upper tiers of baseball’s free agent market, as of 9 February

Kind of messy to look at with all the player labels, but we can see here the projected contracts, in both length and total value, along with the contracts players signed, if they have. And for context we can see how those contracts compares to the Qualifying Offer (QO). What’s that? Complicated baseball stuff that is meant to ensure teams that lose stars or highly valuable players are compensated, especially since they might come from smaller market teams that cannot afford superstar prices. The QO is meant to help competitiveness in the sport. How does it do that? Let’s just say complicated baseball stuff. We should also point out that some players, most notably the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka, were expected to opt out of their contracts and try the free market. Tanaka did not, which is why his projection was so far off.

Comparing the signed to the unsigned free agents
Comparing the signed to the unsigned free agents

So is it true that free agency is or has moved slowly? Consider that approximately 100 free agents remain unsigned as of late Thursday night—please no big signings tomorrow morning—and that of the top 50, 22 of them remain unsigned. And if we take the QO as a proxy for the best players in the game, add in two players who were exempt because baseball stuff, we can say that 8 of the 11 best players remain unsigned. Though, in fairness to ownership, three of those players are reportedly sitting on multi-year offers in the nine-figure range.

But if players are unsigned, does that mean they are competing for lower value contracts? Possibly. If we use MLB Trade Rumours’ projected contracts, because in years past they have proven smart at these things, we can see that for the 28 who have signed, it’s a roughly even split in terms of the number of players who have signed for more or less than their projection. Sometimes however, non-monetary factors come into play. Two notable free agents, Todd Frazier and Addison Reed, both reportedly signed lesser value contracts to play closer to a specified geography, in Frazier’s case the Northeast and in Reed’s the Midwest.

How are the signed players doing versus their contract projections
How are the signed players doing versus their contract projections

But the telling part in that graphic is not necessarily the vertical movement, i.e. dollars, but the horizontal movement. (Though we should call out the cases of Carlos Santana and Tyler Chatwood, signed by the Phillies and Cubs respectively, who did far better than projected.) Consider that a team might not have a lot of money to spend and so might extend a contract over additional years, offering job security to a player. Or in a bidding war, the length of the contract might be what leads a player to pick one team over another. In those cases we would expect to see more left-to-right movement. So far we have only had one player, Lorenzo Cain, who signed for more years than expected. Most players who have signed for less have also signed for fewer years. Note the cluster of right-to-left, or shorter-than-expected, contracts in the lower tiers versus the small, vertical-only cluster in the same section for those signing greater than projected contracts.

Lastly, are these trends hitting any specific positional type of player? Well maybe. Ignoring the market for catchers because of how small the pool was—though the case of Jonathan Lucroy as the unsigned catcher is fascinating—we can see that the market has really been there for relief pitchers as there are few of the top-50 remaining on the market. Starting pitchers and outfields, while with quite a few still on the market, have generally done better than projected. But infielders lag behind with numerous players unsigned and those that have signed, most have signed for less than projected.

Are there any trends at the position level
Are there any trends at the position level

But at the same time, I would fully expect that once these higher level free agents come off the board—while one would think they would certainly be signed, who knows in such a weird offseason as this—the unsigned middle and lower tiers will quickly follow suit.

Of course none of this touches upon age. (Largely because lack of time on my part.) Though, in most cases, getting to free agency in and of itself makes a player older by definition the way baseball’s pre-arbitration and arbitration salary periods work. (Again, more baseball stuff but suffice it to say your first several years you play for peanuts and crackerjacks.)

Hopefully by this afternoon—Friday that is—some of these players will have signed. After all, baseball starts next week. If we are lucky this post will be outdated, at least in terms of the dataset, come Monday. Regardless, it has been a fascinating albeit boring baseball offseason.

Credit for the data goes to MLB Trade Rumours and Baseball Reference.

Onwards and Upwards

Yesterday SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy rocket on its maiden voyage, and then recaptured several, though not all, of its reusable rockets. The Falcon Heavy represents the most powerful rocket available to mankind today, though NASA’s Saturn V of the Apollo programme era was considerably more powerful. That was all the stuff you could read in the news yesterday and today.

But how much more powerful? Thankfully we have the Economist who put together a nice graphic detailing not just the standard size comparisons of the Falcon series to the Saturn V and other famous rocket systems, e.g. the Space Shuttle and its boosters. The Economist graphic also adds information about the payload capabilities and timeframes for either historical operation or expected service dates.

It's big and powerful, but SpaceX still has a long way to go…
It’s big and powerful, but SpaceX still has a long way to go…

From the illustrative side, there were three really nice touches. First, the faint Statue of Liberty to give the rocket height context to famous landmark buildings. Two, the little human figure on the left-hand side to give context to ourselves, these things are big. Three, the ridiculousness of the Saturn V is captured by having its peak break the top frame of the chrome or graphic device, i.e. the red bar, standard on Economist graphics.

Overall a solid piece. (Yes, I know these are liquid fueled.)

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist’s graphics team.