Batting average.424.282 Average SLG.553.361 That stubbornness proved to be Howard’s downfall. Against the shift, Howard posted a batting average of .282 and slugged .361, good for a weighted runs created plus that was 29 percent worse than average. When he wasn’t staring down the shift, Howard was a fearsome hitter with a .424 batting average, a .553 slugging percentage and a wRC+ 62 percent better than average (that wRC+ is identical to the one he posted in 2006, his MVP year).The trouble for Howard was that the no-shift version of him seldom got a chance to shine, because teams almost always shifted against him. From 2010 (the first year for which we have shift data) to 2016, Howard had only 224 plate appearances where he did not face the shift, compared to 1699 with it on. Every team that adopted the shift started off by employing it against big, slow, pull-happy hitters like Howard. As a result, Howard saw more shifts than anyone except David Ortiz, another hitter with the same weaknesses.Ortiz made an effort to adapt; Howard kept plugging away the way he always had. In the first eight years of his MLB career, Howard produced 21.6 wins above replacement.2Using the FanGraphs version of that stat. Over his final five seasons — a period during which use of the defensive shift increased exponentially — Howard was worth an astonishing 2.2 wins below replacement. Injuries also limited his productivity, but even when he was healthy, he was ineffective. As a slow, defensively-challenged first baseman, he relied on his bat to be useful. When the shift neutralized Howard’s hitting, he lost his value to a major league roster.We can never know the true toll the shift exacted on Howard’s production, but we can estimate it: I asked the makers of a simulation game called Out Of The Park Baseball to create a version of MLB without the shift. (Just imagine a universe in which baseball commissioner Rob Manfred managed to outlaw the tactic.) Then I had them replay Howard’s career three times, starting from 2009,3Howard’s last great real-life season. to get a range of outcomes for his final résumé.In a league without shifts, Howard is a completely different player. In the three simulations, Howard finished with an average career batting line of .272/.355/.527, far better than his actual career numbers of .258/.343/.515. Of course, league-wide run-scoring is generally a bit higher4About 3-7 percent. in the shift-free game, but even after adjusting for a higher offensive baseline, Howard racked up an on-base plus slugging percentage that was 40 percent better than league average. In the simulations, that offensive production won him between one and five more All-Star selections.In this world, Howard’s gaudy offensive stats and numerous league-leading totals make him a bona fide Hall of Fame candidate. In order to estimate his chances, I used the same logistic regression model I employed to look at David Ortiz’s case last year, using a player’s Jaffe WAR Score system (JAWS) rating5A method, developed by sabermetrician Jay Jaffe, that tries to balance a player’s career and peak wins above replacement when assessing his career. to predict his odds of Hall of Fame induction. Each of the three hypothetical Howards had between a 10 and 55 percent chance of achieving baseball’s highest honor: Ryan Howard with and without the shift, 2010-16 Average wRC+16271 NO SHIFTSHIFT Runs above average+17.1-52.4 Runs above average totals all the runs a player’s hitting generated relative to an average player who had the same number of plate appearances. Shift data is tracked only on balls in play.Source: Fangraphs It wasn’t too long ago that former Phillies great Ryan Howard was a fixture in MVP discussions, atop league leaderboards and on lists of the game’s most marketable stars. But the slugger’s once-promising career is all but over now, after the Atlanta Braves released him in early May.1Howard’s slash line with the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate was tragic: .184/.238/.263.On the surface, Howard’s fall doesn’t seem completely atypical of a plodding slugger. But his abrupt decline had less to do with aging or ineffectiveness than it did a specific tactic sweeping through baseball during the back half of his career. The defensive shift ended Howard’s career, and it might have cost him a shot at the Hall of Fame as well.When the shift is on, defenders move from one side of the infield to the other to give themselves a better chance at cutting off batted balls from hitters who consistently drive the ball in one direction. Howard was a great candidate for the maneuver because he pulled groundballs 66.5 percent of the time, compared to this year’s league average of 53.8. While some hitters try to overcome the shift with well-timed bunts or tactical changes, Howard always stubbornly refused. “All you can do is continue to swing,” Howard said in a 2015 interview with MLB.com. So even in a world without the shift, Howard was hardly a lock for Cooperstown. But like Ortiz, he could have benefited from some hallmark achievements and postseason success. For example, in one of the simulations, Howard hit 547 homers — only 10 first basemen have ever passed the 500 home run mark, and seven of them are either already in the Hall or likely to make it there. In that same universe, Howard’s Phillies won two more championships as he racked up multiple playoff series MVPs, no doubt earning a reputation as a postseason hero. In that world, it’s hard to imagine how Howard doesn’t make the Hall of Fame.Nothing is certain in baseball, not even in simulations of it. Without the shift, maybe Howard’s knees would still have given out, or maybe pitchers would have found another way to frustrate him. (Then again, maybe not having to worry about the shift would free Howard up to improve his offense even more, allowing him to finish his career more like Jim Thome or David Ortiz.) Either way, a world without the newest defensive tactics would have at least given the big slugger a chance at Cooperstown, which is more than most players can boast.But although Howard succumbed to the shift, his demise also tells us about the future of the tactic — and why its effectiveness might eventually tail off. When modern teams first started realigning the infield, there were plenty of obvious candidates who would be vulnerable to its effects. But as players like Howard get pushed out of the league by the shift, there will be fewer and fewer hitters on whom it can be used so effectively. Eventually, the rewards of slick defensive positioning will shrink; like most tactics in baseball, the shift will have diminishing returns.Had Howard’s career started a decade later, he might have had to cope with the shift in the minors and found a way to adapt. As it was, he came up as the shift was rising, and it probably cost him a long career and a chance at the Hall of Fame.CLARIFICATION (June 6, 6:20 p.m.): Shift data is tracked only on balls in play. The table has been updated to include this information, which was previously omitted.
Bill Haas shot a 68 in the first round of the Masters on Thursday, grabbing a one-stroke lead over a trio of former major championship winners: Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Bubba Watson. But how likely is an early lead at Augusta to hold up?For leaders after a single round, not very. I gathered data from Yahoo’s golf scoreboard for every Masters since 2002, when the website started listing round-by-round scores for every player in the field (including those who missed the cut). After feeding the data into a logistic regression predicting the eventual winner, I found that a player’s first-round score isn’t necessarily the deciding factor in whether he can make a run for the green jacket. Instead, it’s all about how many players are in front of him. And even then, there are no guarantees after just one round of play.Obviously, no players are starting the second round in front of Haas. Based on the regression model, that gives him an 8.6 percent probability of winning the tournament come Sunday afternoon. Scott, Oosthuizen and Watson have only Haas in front of them, so their probabilities are about 7.7 percent apiece. But even someone like pre-tournament co-favorite Rory McIlroy, who finished the first round with 11 players ahead of him, still has a 2.4 percent chance of winning — not too much lower than Haas’.Here are the odds of winning based on the number of competitors a player trails after one round:As we move into the weekend, things will start to become clearer.I ran another regression, this time looking to predict the eventual Masters winner based on the scoreboard after the second round. Once again, a player’s score (relative to the leader, the field average, or the field median) doesn’t have much bearing on his probability of winning the tournament. But the number of players between him and the top slot means a great deal. The leader after two rounds has a 17.5 percent probability of winning, more than double the leader’s expected chance of winning after only one round.More important, the number of remotely plausible winners is cut drastically after two rounds. Look how much more steeply the probability curve drops off based on how many people are in front a golfer after the second round ends:After one round, as many as 40 players had a nonzero probability of eventually winning the tournament (although, granted, the majority at this right tail of the distribution was extreme long shots). After the second round, only 20 have a nonzero probability of winning.Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the leader through two rounds still has less than a one-in-five chance of winning. In other words, while these early rounds certainly matter, when play ends Friday evening we still won’t have much of an inkling about exactly which player will be the eventual winner.But we will have a pretty good idea of the general group of players from which the victor will emerge. There’s better than a 73 percent chance he’ll be in the top 10 after the second round ends, and roughly a 50 percent probability that he’ll be in the top four. Golfers have mounted charges from deeper in the pack than that, but the odds are good that the green jacket will go to somebody near the top of the scoreboard Friday.
On Saturday, California Chrome became the 34th horse to win the Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby, and thus the 34th horse with a chance to complete the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes, to be held June 7. Of the 33 previous horses that had such an opportunity, 11 succeeded — from Sir Barton in 1919 to Affirmed in 1978.The last 12 horses to win the Derby and the Preakness have failed to complete the Triple Crown, which has a historical success rate of 33 percent. The current slump is unlikely: The odds of it happening by chance are about 1 in 130 — nearly the same as the 2011 Atlanta Braves failing to make Major League Baseball’s playoffs with 18 games remaining and an 8.5-game lead for the wild card.Another way to assess the likelihood of the slump is to use the historical odds at the time each race occurred. For example, in 1979, when Spectacular Bid entered the Belmont with the Triple Crown at stake, about 52 percent (11/21) of such attempts had succeeded. The success rate for horses when Pleasant Colony entered the Belmont in 1981 was 50 percent (11/22). And before Alysheba’s attempt in 1987, it was 48 percent (11/23), and so on. (The results for this approach are below.)But the 12 races in question aren’t the only Triple Crown attempts to fall short: They’re the only ones we knew about at the time. What if time weren’t a constraint?In order, the Triple Crown races go, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Let’s ignore order. Since 1979, there have been five horses that won the Preakness and Belmont but came up short in the Derby — let’s call these failed “reverse” attempts. There have been two horses that won the Derby and the Belmont but not the Preakness — let’s call these failed “gutshot” attempts. (All seven horses ran in all three events.) This brings our total failed Triple Crown attempts since 1979 to 19.Between 1919 and 1978, horses actually converted atemporal Triple Crown attempts at a higher rate than temporal ones, winning their “final” leg in 55 percent of opportunities (33/60) versus 52 percent in the Belmont alone.Here are year-by-year cumulative odds for the temporal and atemporal slumps:Note that I used a logarithmic scale on the y-axis, so each gridline represents the event being 10 times less likely than the gridline below. From this perspective, the atemporal Triple Crown slump looks spectacular.If you think those figures seem ridiculous, let’s look at the odds posted by the favorites at the Belmont each year.The odds of all 11 horses that raced in the Belmont losing at their race odds (by chance) are only 1 in 20,000 — about the odds of a random pitcher throwing a perfect game on a given night (and that’s not counting I’ll Have Another, who in 2012 was 4:5 to win but scratched on race day).Although historically comparable pari-mutuel odds won’t be available until the Wednesday before the Belmont, various online/offshore futures markets list California Chrome at close to even money.This seems high relative to the overall Belmont conversion rate of 33 percent (much less the dismal rate in recent years), but there’s good news for California Chrome in our analysis as well. Factoring in atemporal Triple Crown attempts significantly increases the chances that the present slump has a legitimate cause, but it also mitigates the slump’s impact on the historical record. Including our 19 failed attempts since 1979, horses have converted 42 percent (33 of 79) of such opportunities.
For all the effort that’s gone into developing sophisticated statistical measurements of football, it remains a highly unpredictable sport. As my buddy Chase Stuart once wrote about the NFL, “we don’t know anything and we never will.” And yet, while we may not know anything for certain, we’ve learned enough that from week to week, we can make sense of some of the chaos (though not all).With that in mind, let’s take a look at what transpired over wild-card weekend. How much did it differ from what the advanced stats would have predicted before the game? Some outcomes were easy to see coming; others illustrated just how little we can predict about a single NFL game.What the stats saw comingThe Chiefs ran the ball all over the Texans. KC came into its game against Houston with the league’s top rushing attack according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and the Texans boasted a decent but not great rushing D during the regular season. So it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that the Chiefs ran for 141 yards during their 30-0 annihilation of the Texans. The Chiefs destroyed Houston on special teams. Special teams play is notoriously difficult to predict — and that’s at the season level, let alone in a single game. So although the league-worst Texans specialists were facing the seventh-ranked Chiefs, that should have granted only a razor-thin edge to KC. Instead, Kansas City’s special teams were worth almost a full touchdown by EPA on Saturday, giving KC the 18th-best playoff special teams performance of the past decade. KC’s passing game was good, not great. As well as Kansas City played in other phases of the game, its passing attack was not the most crucial element of its win. Alex Smith averaged 5.9 adjusted net yards per attempt against a team that allowed 5.4 during the regular season, so the Chiefs pretty much passed to expectations, despite the lopsided win. Minnesota’s run defense stuffed Seattle. The Seahawks get a little leeway here because they were playing on the road, in frigid conditions, with neither Thomas Rawls nor Marshawn Lynch. But they also had the NFL’s fourth-best rushing DVOA during the regular season — with a lot of the way paved by their offensive line — and they were facing a Vikings team that ranked 18th in rush defense. So it was extremely unlikely that they’d be held to 3.5 yards per carry and -5.9 expected points on the ground Sunday. Cincinnati’s special teams played well. The Bengals lost in excruciating fashion, but you can’t blame the special teams, which outplayed their Steeler counterparts by 1.2 expected points added (EPA) in the game. During the regular season, Cincy ranked ninth in special teams DVOA while Pittsburgh was dead-average — so in at least one regard, the game played out exactly as expected.The biggest surprisesHouston’s passing was horrific. The Texans ranked 22nd in passing DVOA during the regular season and the Chiefs had the NFL’s fifth-best defense against the pass, so this matchup looked lopsided before the opening toss. But Houston’s quarterback was Brian Hoyer, who had more passing success than the other three QBs the team used during the regular season. The hope was that the Texans would outplay their regular-season numbers; instead, Hoyer had the fourth-worst passing game in postseason history, an outcome no metric could have predicted. The Packers’ ground game delivered against Washington. For all the pregame chatter about Green Bay’s offensive struggles of late, the Pack ranked 10th in rushing efficiency during the regular season, closing the year with 100 or more yards in three of its final four games. Helping matters, Washington was the 11th-worst rushing D in football by DVOA. Sure enough, after 141 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground, Green Bay had run its way into the divisional round. Cincinnati’s passing game struggled badly. This comes with an injury-related asterisk as well: Cincinnati had the league’s best passing offense during the regular season, but most of that was done before quarterback Andy Dalton was injured. However, backup QB AJ McCarron had been doing a reasonable impersonation of Dalton down the regular-season stretch, and on Saturday, he was going up against an average Steeler pass D. If McCarron hadn’t helped Cincinnati post the 34th-worst playoff passing game of the past decade by EPA, Cincinnati’s defense wouldn’t have been put in a position to hold a 1-point lead on the game’s fateful final drive.One final note: These unlikely performances are also the most valuable. Of the 10 cases this weekend where a team added 5 or more expected points in a single phase of the game, all had less than a 30 percent probability of happening based on the teams’ regular-season numbers. Eight had a 15 percent chance or less of occurring; four had a 10 percent probability or less. Some of this can be attributed to randomness and game-to-game volatility, and some is due to individual matchups and planning.In other words, the performances that fuel victory are often also the toughest to see coming. And with the playoff field’s Super Bowl odds becoming more tightly bunched than ever this weekend, don’t expect that to change anytime soon.Read more: After Wild-Card Weekend, There Is No Super Bowl Favorite
Texas A&M’s comeback against Northern Iowa was pretty epic — like, 3,000-to-1 odds against epic. In this video, Neil Paine and Reuben Fischer-Baum talk about how FiveThirtyEight’s in-game win probability model saw the game unfolding and where it ranked according to our excitement index. They then settle last week’s wager about who could predict the most exciting games of the tournament’s first two rounds.Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 March Madness Predictions.
Ben Lindbergh joins the Hot Takedown podcast to preview the 2016 MLB season. neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): All right — the AL East is perennially one of the most competitive divisions in baseball, but the balance of power has shifted a bit away from the classic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry in recent years. Do we think that will persist this year with Toronto winning again, or do we have reason to think New York and especially Boston will return to their former glories?dszymborski: Well, both teams have a plausible case to contention, though either could come off the rails very quickly. I think it’s truer than ever that there are no great AL East teams or even any great AL teams, period.emmaspan: I’d agree with Dan that the AL East is pretty wide open. It wouldn’t shock me to see any of these teams squeak into a wild-card spot. And I believe SI’s preseason predictions for the AL East last year ended up being an exact inversion of the final standings. So everyone should definitely listen to me.dszymborski: The nice thing about the “all teams are plausible!” prediction is that people end up having to be less specific in their anger at me by the time the season ends.emmaspan: I think Boston will be pretty good this year, although to be fair, I also thought that last year, and, well. But I think the race is likelier to be between the Red Sox and the Blue Jays than the Yankees. All three of those teams have a lot of question marks in their rotations, but I think the Sox and Jays have lineups that can cover for a lot of that, and I’m not sure I’d say the same for New York. A FiveThirtyEight Chat emmaspan: Oh my gosh. I changed my mind: Orioles are going all the way this year. neil: So, to recap: slight edge to the Jays, but maybe the Red Sox, Yankees or even the Rays … And the Orioles will either finish last or recapture the spirit of ’89 in song and performance.emmaspan: That about sums it up on my end.dszymborski: Seems like a reasonable wrapup. And hi, Nate. I see you typing.natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Thanks, Dan and Emma!emmaspan: Hi Nate! [waves]natesilver: Was gonna say that we really need to work on an oral history of the 1991 Detroit Tigers: Tettleton + Fielder + Deer + Incaviglia = AWESOME.neil: Save it for the AL Central chat, Nate. :)emmaspan: And don’t give me any ideas you don’t want me to steal. dszymborski: I know the whole “Why Not?” song. I had the 1989 team video on VHS. It also included a Mickey Tettleton version of “I Love Mickey.” Boston Red Soxneil: You guys sound high on the Red Sox, despite the last-place finish a year ago. How much of that is the offseason additions (David Price, Craig Kimbrel, etc.) and how much is simply the guys who had down seasons a year ago bouncing back in some way, shape or form?dszymborski: I’m slightly higher on them than the Yankees. I actually picked them as very slight division favorites, but a lot can still go wrong.emmaspan: The latter, for me — the Red Sox played much better the second half of last year than the first. It looked like things were starting to come together. And any time you can add a durable (so far) ace like Price, it’s a big boost.dszymborski: Hard to go wrong signing David Price!emmaspan: I don’t think Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval will necessarily return to form, but if they can just be decent, there’s still a lot to like in that lineup.dszymborski: Ramirez at least seems to have more buy-in about playing first base. I urged people not to overrate how good he’d be in left field, but I didn’t see that disaster coming. I’m less optimistic on Sandoval. It was such a strange pair of signings. Third base was the logical reason to sign either Hanley or Sandoval going into last winter, but then they signed both.emmaspan: I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic about Sandoval, either, but last year was his worst ever and he’s still only 29, so I don’t think a return to (at least) mediocrity is out of the question. But yeah, those were strange moves even at the time. Personally, I will miss the sheer adventure of Hanley in left. A real adrenaline rush.dszymborski: I think the GM change is good for the Red Sox not just because of any managerial issue, just because it’s easier to walk away from various Sandoval/Ramirez experiments if they go poorly. Dave Dombrowski has nothing personally invested in Sandoval’s contract working out.emmaspan: That “if” is very generous of you.dszymborski: I’m a sunny optimist.neil: Yeah, I wanted to ask about the regime change there — Dombrowski is demonstrably one of the best GMs in baseball, but what is he going to do to succeed where Ben Cherington failed? And what do we make of that story where John Henry backed away from sabermetrics a bit as a guiding strategy?emmaspan: We’ll obviously have to see how it plays out, but I think the John Henry quotes got a little overblown — I think what he was saying is that they want to use a good mixture of analytics and scouting, which at this point is hardly controversial. Or shouldn’t be.dszymborski: Yeah. His comments also came at a slow time in the news cycle, so they got blown up a bit. Though Ruben Amaro and their “secret analytics” was highly entertaining for a few days.emmaspan: One of the most fun aspects of SI’s baseball season preview every year is we talk to a bunch of scouts, anonymously, about every team. They have some really fascinating (and funny) insights that you don’t get from even the best statistical analysis — but, of course, they also are spectacularly wrong sometimes. The Red Sox obviously did very well by sabermetrics and I don’t see them tossing it over the side. Almost all the best teams in baseball right now are teams that have done a good job balancing those perspectives.dszymborski: It used to be you had a serious divide between teams using data well and teams that don’t. That’s so much not the case these days.emmaspan: One thing to watch with Dombrowski is how much freedom he gets from ownership. That was an issue with Cherington, apparently, at several key points in his tenure.dszymborski: Yeah, he never really had the political capital that Theo Epstein did.emmaspan: You can be the best GM in the world, but if the owners insist that you hire Bobby Valentine, well …neil: Fair enough. So if Red Sox fans had any reason to panic, it should be more about maybe, say, the back end of that rotation than any grand shift in organization direction.emmaspan: Yes, although ownership meddling is something to be wary of in that and other areas.dszymborski: As organizations have more complex management structures and ownership groups continue to get more involved, I think chalking moves up to a specific GM isn’t as useful as it once was. New York Yankeesneil: All right, let’s move on to the Yankees. According to the numbers, at least, they might be the most underrated team in baseball — which I never thought I’d actually hear a Yankee team described as.dszymborski: One surprising — and positive — thing about New York is just how young its good pitching is. I do this thing called “contribution age,” in which I weight a team’s age by its projected WAR, and the Yankees actually have the second-youngest pitching staff based on where they’re getting the value from (slightly behind the Mets).emmaspan: Do you think those young guys are ready, Dan? Luis Severino did look really strong last year, but small sample size and all that.dszymborski: Oh, I’m frightened by the downside, but a lot of the contributions that they’re going to get will need to be from those young/youngish guys. I’m bullish on Severino especially, simply because he’s one of the few starters that actually has his arm completely intact.emmaspan: Speaking of which, I worry about Michael Pineda staying healthy. I mean, also every other pitcher in the league, but Pineda has a long list of injury issues.neil: Masahiro Tanaka, too, has his own injury history as well.emmaspan: A good chunk of the Yankees’ season probably hangs on Tanaka’s elbow, which is pretty precarious. And I think at CC Sabathia‘s age, it’s unlikely he’ll get back to his top form, which is too bad, because he was enormously fun to watch.dszymborski: He was one of the great hopes for the next 300-game winner for a while, too. Watching his ZiPS career projection for wins come down year after year is very depressing. It peaked at 274 five years ago. Now it’s down to 231.emmaspan: Aw, CC. At least it sounds like he’s in a good place off the field and that’s great.neil: But is it fair to say the Yankees will probably once again be somewhere between OK and pretty decent on both the runs scored and allowed fronts? That was their formula last season, but it fell short of what are always the ravenous expectations in the Bronx.dszymborski: That seems about right. It’s an old risky team that can still patch together enough of a run to remain solid.emmaspan: That’s what I think. Their lineup is still overly reliant on old (by baseball standards) players but they shored it up a bit this offseason. I think it’ll be serviceable, and like the last few years, probably enough to put them in contention for a wild card. Money can’t buy you a championship, but it can keep you from totally sucking.dszymborski: I find using “old” a more loaded term these days, given how quickly baseball is running out of players that are older than I am.emmaspan: You should love the Yankees, then, Dan. Speaking of old, I thought for sure A-Rod would be cooked last year, but he was one of their best players. Is there any way he manages that again?dszymborski: I think he could. The question before last year was whether, after injuries and missing a year, he’d be able to do it at all. That he did it once should make us slightly more optimistic.neil: A-Rod’s regression potential, though, is another limiting factor for that lineup that probably keeps them more “OK” than “great.”dszymborski: Some of the issues in the offense would look less urgent if not for the Greg Bird injury.emmaspan: Yeah, not a great idea to go in without a good Mark Teixeira backup plan.neil: And what do we make of this bullpen Death Star they’ve built when Aroldis Chapman returns from suspension?emmaspan: It could make up for some of those rotation question marks — you don’t need to rely on length from that group of starters. For me, it would be more fun to watch if their buy-low on Chapman while he was under investigation for domestic violence hadn’t been so discouraging. But yes, from a pure baseball perspective, it’ll still be a spectacle.One of the more impressive aspects of the Yankees’ recent history is that for all their issues, they’ve done a good job replacing Mariano Rivera, which is a tall order. None of these guys are Mo, don’t get me wrong, but the bullpen hasn’t really been one of their problems. Toronto Blue Jaysneil: Well, let’s talk about the team that won the division last year, the Blue Jays. They were arguably the best team in baseball last season (sorry, Royals), but neither FanGraphs nor Baseball Prospectus’s projections think they’re the frontrunners this season. What do we think? Was last year their peak, or can they be as good this time around?emmaspan: The Blue Jays are my pick to win the division this year. Like last year, their lineup should be terrifying, but their rotation is less steady than you’d like. They’ll miss David Price. But when you can outscore everyone on the planet like that, it makes up for a lot.dszymborski: I think they come back to earth a bit. Not a lot went wrong last year. They’ll score a ton of runs, but there’s certainly some downside risk there. Though they’re still competitive, like the rest of the AL East.emmaspan: Even assuming that Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion won’t all have 40-HR seasons like last year, they can still bludgeon a lot of pitchers. They should also have a full year of Marcus Stroman, which could be huge (though I do worry a little about putting so much pressure on a kid who only had five starts last year).I covered the Blue Jays in the playoffs last year, including that crazy ALDS Game 5, and it was something else. I actually might be overestimating them a little because of how insane that moment was.neil: It was an incredible moment. But at that stage of the season, they’d also been buoyed by deadline pickups (in addition to actually playing to their run differential). Do they need to go out and get pieces again?emmaspan: I think they need a pitcher. Though there probably won’t be another David Price lying around.dszymborski: And even if there was, trading for a second David Price is tough.emmaspan: Yes. And their new GM has expressed reluctance to make those huge moves, which I know has some Jays fans worried.dszymborski: Yeah, say that the Nats are terrible and Stephen Strasburg is available. That’s all well and good, but it will be harder for the Jays to come up with another trade package in 2016.emmaspan: But one other thing in their favor — their offense was that good without Troy Tulowitzki hitting very well. He’ll help their defense regardless, but if he can return to even kinda his usual form, that’s huge. Even if you don’t get another ace at the deadline, even just a solid mid-rotation guy can be enough when you score 18 runs per game. (Slight exaggeration.)neil: Only slight.emmaspan: They also could use another reliable bullpen arm or two, I think. That might be easier to come by.dszymborski: But they have the mid-rotation guys. It’s the ace-type that you can confidently start six times in the playoffs they don’t have.emmaspan: I think Stroman can be that guy, though they’ll want to watch his innings this year.dszymborski: It’s a lot to put on a guy who just came back from one injury.emmaspan: Also, I personally am ready for the R.A. Dickey renaissance. Is it likely? OK, no. But it would be wonderful and you never fucking know with knuckleballers. (Please feel free to edit out my profanity — I get very worked up about knuckleballs.)neil: Profanity is fine, but only in the context of knuckleball pitchers.dszymborski: Dickey hasn’t been disappointing even, just not super inspiring: a slightly above-average pitcher that never misses a start. He’s also only 41 — he can be around for another decade or so.emmaspan: Right, but I vividly remember his Cy Young season for the Mets. That was crazy fun.dszymborski: That mid-year stretch when nobody scored on him ever!emmaspan: And he had a few great starts last year, too, if I recall correctly. It’s still in there, somewhere, maybe!dszymborski: 2.80 second-half ERA!emmaspan: There you go. In my mind the AL Cy Young is already sewn up. Everyone else can go home.neil: You said it, Emma — you never (fucking) know with guys like that. But barring some kind of Dickey renaissance, the Jays’ only really question mark is the rotation, it seems. Emma said she’s picking Toronto as favorites; what say ye, Dan?dszymborski: Slightly picking Red Sox. But again, this is a year in which I can just project everybody to have a fun time.emmaspan: Red Sox were a close second for me. We pretty much agree, which means this is probably the Rays’ year. Tampa Bay Raysneil: Maybe the real wild card in this division (not literally the AL Wild Card, just the figure of speech — although maybe the literal Wild Card, too) is the Tampa Bay Rays. PECOTA is picking them to win the division, on the strength of a really outlier-ish fielding performance. What do you think? Are the Rays back?dszymborski: Yeah, ZiPS had the opposite: Rays at 80-82.neil: I think most other sources were more in line with ZiPS. Vegas pegged them with an over/under of 78 wins.emmaspan: I don’t think the Rays are back quite yet, but they’re better, and if a few things went right for them, the Wild Card is pretty realistic. I do think they’ll have good defense (Kevin Kiermaier by himself is basically a good defense), and potentially a strong rotation.dszymborski: Yeah, it could happen for sure. They’re a non-terrible team in a wide-open division.emmaspan: I just don’t see them hitting enough. But a few surprise performances and a couple of trades and who knows?dszymborski: You’re really seeing some of the effects of their recent drafts not bearing fruit yet. Only a single drafted Ray since David Price in 2007 has five WAR in the majors: Kiermaier.emmaspan: I’m pretty fascinated to see if Kiermaier’s insane defensive stats hold up. I mean, he’s obviously an excellent, excellent centerfielder — but worth five wins on defense alone?dszymborski: There’s gotta be some regression on that. Defensive stats are just so volatile. But even at +15, he’s a valuable player.emmaspan: Yeah, generally you take a single season of defensive stats with large grains of salt. That said, you watch him field, and he really is awesome. Obligatory plug — check out last week’s issue of SI for more on Kiermaier and his crazy centerfielding.dszymborski: I prefer “centerfieldery.” Sounds better after “feats of.”emmaspan: You’re right. Let’s go with “crazy feats of centerfieldery.” I won’t tell the SI copy desk if you don’t.neil: But it sounds like you both are somewhat skeptical of that +56 fielding runs above average PECOTA is spitting out for Tampa. Do they have much of a plausible path to the division crown if that doesn’t end up happening? Looking at the rest of their roster, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough else there.dszymborski: To establish +56 as a baseline, you gotta do it longer. (It’s like projecting Bonds in his 73-homer season. Even though he did hit 73, you probably shouldn’t have projected it beforehand.) And without that +56, it’s tougher for the Rays. But remember, I don’t see them being quite that good defensively and still think there’s a path — just not the most likely one.emmaspan: Right. I don’t think it’s likely but, again, it wouldn’t be shocking. Chris Archer is awesome. Matt Moore’s looked great. I think Drew Smyly can be good. Combine a really good rotation with very good fielding — even if it isn’t +56 fielding runs above average — and stranger things have happened.neil: In fairness, I should also say their catchers — specifically, Hank Conger and René Rivera — are really good framers. So some of that is being factored into PECOTA.emmaspan: Evan Longoria going back to his star levels would go a long way towards helping. I don’t know how likely that is. And even if it did, I still think they need a couple bats. But I don’t think they’re far away from contending.dszymborski: No, just need some things to go right. Like when you don’t want to do your homework and there’s a 40 percent chance of snow in the forecast. In honor of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, which starts Sunday, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about the year to come. Today, we focus on the American League East with Sports Illustrated senior editor Emma Span and ESPN analyst Dan Szymborski. The transcript below has been edited.Toronto Blue JaysBoston Red SoxNew York YankeesTampa Bay RaysBaltimore Orioles Baltimore Oriolesneil: You guys have just told me why any of the Jays, Red Sox, Yankees or Rays could win this division without anything too crazy happening. Does it stand to reason that Baltimore, who won this division as recently as two years ago, also fits that description?dszymborski: Pretty much. Although there’s something depressing about the fact that the Os had to increase their payroll to $150 million just to essentially maintain last year’s roster. (Which went 81-81.)emmaspan: They would surprise me the most of any AL East team, but even for them I would say they still have a shot. They’re gonna clobber a ton of home runs. That pitching, though.neil: The rotation looks especially shaky.dszymborski: It’s essentially four soft-tossing righties and Kevin Gausman, who they spent all of last year trying to use in the most awkward way imaginable.emmaspan: We did a big article on Jake Arrieta this week. Between what he said about his time in Baltimore and what the scout we talked to said about Gausman, yikes. Developing pitching prospects is risky for any team, but the Orioles desperately need to break this pattern.dszymborski: I think the Os lead the league in home runs, go 81-81, and the organization can’t quite figure out why.emmaspan: Their path to success is similar to last year’s Jays: out-slug all comers. But, again, for the Jays that involved picking up one of the best pitchers in baseball at the deadline, and that’s a tall order.dszymborski: Baltimore’s closer to a rebuild than any of the other AL East teams, I think. The farm’s dried up, they can’t increase payroll any more, and Manny Machado’s only got three years to free agency now.emmaspan: I feel awful for Orioles fans if the team doesn’t extend Machado and he goes elsewhere. Oof.dszymborski: I’m from Baltimore! I’m slowly coming to terms that he’s signing somewhere else for $300 million.emmaspan: I do think they have kind of a secret weapon in Buck Showalter, who can win you a few extra one-run games. And Yovani Gallardo should be pretty solid. It’s not an inspiring signing, but it’s something.dszymborski: Despite the doom and gloom, they do have a playoff scenario. It’s just that they’re going to have to face some tough questions quicker than the others.emmaspan: Your 2015 Baltimore Orioles: “Well, It’s Something.”neil: Better or worse than “Why Not?” More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed Embed Code
1Carlos SantanaCLE86968946+0.18 10Kyle SchwarberCHC8959369+0.02 4Charlie BlackmonCOL80308683+0.14 RKNAMETEAMCONTACTWALKSISO. POWERRUNNINGRUNS PER GAME ADDED Reader Mail: Doubleheader hangover?Twitter follower Natalie Troxel asked: 9Dexter FowlerSTL36965991+0.02 Predicted runs per game added based on a regression between leadoff hitters’ percentile ranks in each category and team runs per game from 2002 to 2016.Source: FanGraphs Welcome to Full Count, our new(!) weekly baseball column. Have anything you want me to write about? Email or tweet me at email@example.com or @Neil_Paine.Rickey Henderson. Kenny Lofton. Ichiro Suzuki. Kyle Schwarber?Schwarber may not play exactly like those other great leadoff hitters, but he’s been at the front of the Cubs’ lineup in every game he’s played in so far this season, and he currently ranks third in MLB among leadoff hitters in on-base percentage and fourth in OPS. With numbers like those, he’s shaping up to easily replace departed No. 1 hitter Dexter Fowler, who signed a big contract to hit leadoff in St. Louis this past offseason.Schwarber personifies a strange new trend sweeping through lineup cards across baseball: The leadoff guy who bears no resemblance to a prototypical leadoff guy. This modern leadoff man hits for big power, isn’t afraid to strike out and rarely steals bases. He’s essentially a middle-of-the-lineup hitter who happens to hit first — the next rung on the evolutionary ladder of lineup construction.Traditionally, a top-of-the-order hitter was the master of small ball. He needed loads of speed, with a good batting average and maybe a good enough eye to draw some walks. Power was completely extraneous; in 1980, the average team got 46 steals and only 7 home runs from its leadoff slot. But then came Henderson, widely regarded as the greatest leadoff hitter ever. Henderson certainly swiped a lot of bags — he easily holds the all-time record — but he also held the record for walks before Barry Bonds came along, and he even bashed 297 career home runs. Henderson could do it all, and in the process he changed the idea of what a leadoff hitter could be.At the tail end of Henderson’s heyday, early adopters of sabermetrics confirmed that it was great to have walks and power at the top of the lineup. They were less sure about speed, though. Rather than trotting out speedy leadoff hitters who get thrown out stealing, the numbers suggested that teams should instead emphasize on-base percentage at the top of the lineup.In the mid-to-late 1990s, those two philosophies on leadoff hitters drove teams to sometimes ask traditional leadoff men to do more than they would have otherwise. Doug Glanville was one of those players who had speed but lacked power and patience.“I distinctly remember a lot of consistent pressure to be the guy that sees a lot of pitches, gets on base and takes the walk,” Glanville told me. He ended up having MLB’s 13th-most hits from the leadoff slot during the span of his playing career, but it wasn’t easy trying to be the leadoff man his era was starting to demand.“I wasn’t a big on-base [percentage] guy — I was more of a swing-and-contact guy who used my speed,” Glanville said. “I think the conversation during my time was about getting on base. I used to get stopped on the streets of Philadelphia — because Philly fans are no joke,” Glanville said. “They’d be like, ‘Hey, you gotta get on base more, man!’ And talk radio [said the same thing]. It was a constant struggle.”For all of Henderson’s influence, though, teams weren’t yet asking leadoff men to hit for power — if anything, they were discouraging it. “There was an emphasis on the type of swing and your approach,” Glanville told me. “You wanted to go the other way, be able to use the whole field, spray the [ball], hit the ball on the ground … I was a three-hole hitter in college, but early on I [realized] I’ve got to make this adjustment to use my speed, focus a lot more on contact and use the whole field.”But as statheads have proliferated throughout MLB front offices, the leadoff role has shifted even further from its traditional archetype. Teams now realize that it’s important to place their best hitters at the top of the order, giving more plate appearances to players who both get on base and slug the ball. (A team can also grease the wheels of offense slightly more by emphasizing on-base skills at leadoff and power in the No. 4 hole, with the top overall hitter slotting in at No. 2.)Even if we only go back to 2002,1That’s the earliest season of data available in FanGraphs.com’s splits leaderboard tool. we can see how the leadoff philosophy has changed: 2016 PERCENTILE 8Adam EatonWSN78613983+0.03 7Ian KinslerDET75297382+0.09 3Brian DozierMIN53609987+0.14 This deserves more research, but I took a quick first pass at it using our MLB Elo ratings, which account for the quality of each team in a given matchup, as well as the pitchers starting each game and other factors such as home-field advantage and travel distance.I collected that data for 4,277 pairs of doubleheader games during the expansion era (1961-present), and fed it into a regression that tried to predict the result of the second game of each double feature. And after controlling for those ordinary factors that go into the outcome of any game (team ratings, starters, etc.), the winner from earlier in the day didn’t have a statistically significant edge in the later game.In other words, although what happens in the daytime half of a doubleheader can affect lineup choices at night, it appears that (for all intents and purposes) the two halves of a twin billing can be treated like two independent games. 2A.J. PollockARI87547096+0.15 Today’s leadoff men draw more walks and hit for substantially more power than they did in previous generations — which, unsurprisingly, leads to better production (i.e., a higher on-base plus slugging rate) than in the past. But they’ve also changed how they approach each at-bat: Relative to overall trends in the game, leadoff hitters now launch more fly balls and hit to the opposite field less.Even that fabled top-of-the-order speed is on the decline, with leadoff men stealing 21 percent fewer bases per trip to first base (again, after adjusting for league average) than they did just 15 years earlier. Clearly, our mental image of a speedy slap-hitter leading off is as outdated as a 25 cent hot dog.But if our vision of the ideal leadoff hitter needs updating, who are today’s leadoff prototypes? Schwarber is a good guess — he showed a mix of power and patience as a rookie in 2015 (he missed practically all of 2016 with an injury), and speed is no longer as much of a requirement for the role. But he’s not perfect.To find out who is perfect, I ran a regression between a leadoff hitter’s playing attributes2Specifically, his seasonal percentile rank among all MLB hitters in strikeout rate, isolated power, walk rate, speed score and defensive WAR, over a sample that included the 2002 through 2016 campaigns, with more weight applied to recent seasons. and his team’s runs scored per game (adjusted for the stadium they were scored in). According to that, the ideal current leadoff man3Among current 2017 leadoff hitters, based on percentile grades from last season (or 2015 in the cases of Schwarber and A.J. Pollock, both of whom were injured in 2016). is Cleveland’s Carlos Santana. Leading off for the Tribe while splitting time between designated hitter, first base and right field, the 210-pound Santana doesn’t look like the traditional platonic ideal of a leadoff man, and he stole just 5 bases last season. But his peculiar blend of abilities — great contact skills, tons of walks and the power to drill 34 home runs — is associated with about 30 extra runs (or 3 more wins) over a 162-game season, tops of any leadoff man in baseball. The best leadoff hitters for the modern game 5Jean SeguraSEA85186693+0.10 6Jose ReyesNYM69526397+0.08 Of course, we could do even better if we set out to create a Frankenstein-style ultimate leadoff man for the modern game. Build a player with Dustin Pedroia’s supernatural ability to put bat on ball, Santana’s plate patience, Brian Dozier’s 40-homer power stroke and Dee Gordon’s blazing speed, and you’d have a leadoff hitter who’d add nearly 50 runs (or 5 wins) to his team’s ledger at the top of the lineup, relative to average.That player doesn’t really exist yet. (Trout doesn’t lead off for the Angels anymore, but even if he did, he wouldn’t quite be the perfect leadoff guy because he’s also “only” an average contact hitter.) But with the evolving role starting to favor players like Schwarber and Santana, it might only be a matter of time before the perfect combination of skills comes along — and that player has a manager willing to break with convention and pencil him in atop the lineup card.Upset of the week (according to our Elo ratings)Your browser does not support iframes.April 15: Pirates (31 percent) defeat Cubs. With Jake Arrieta (who at the time was ranked by Elo’s pitcher ratings as the 11th-best starter in baseball) leading the top-ranked Cubs at home against the No. 19 Pirates and Tyler Glasnow (the seventh-worst starter in MLB), Chicago appeared to have a big advantage over Pittsburgh. That edge only widened when the Cubs took a 6-2 lead into the sixth inning — FanGraphs gave Chicago a 92 percent chance of winning at the top of the frame. But the Pirates scored 5 seventh-inning runs, including a 3-run homer by Andrew McCutchen, off Brian Duensing and Pedro Strop, then held off the Cubs late to secure the improbable victory.TroutBeatMike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels isn’t merely the best player in baseball — he could very well finish his career on the short list of greatest players ever. He’s so consistently good that sometimes it’s easy to take him for granted. As a result, I’ll be using this column to drop occasional updates reminding us that we might be watching history being made in Anaheim.For our first TroutBeat, The Ringer writer (and my former colleague) Ben Lindbergh points out that last week Trout was already leading the American League in wins above replacement, a distinction he’s held in each of the past five seasons:
The Ohio State softball team was unable to swing its momentum from a Wednesday win against Ball State into Madison, Wis., as Wisconsin swept the Buckeyes in a three-game weekend series. The Badgers used solid pitching and defense to limit the Buckeyes (27-17, 6-9), winning, 7-6, in 10 innings and again, 3-1, on Saturday, before taking Sunday’s capper, 4-2. The teams played a doubleheader on Saturday after Friday’s tilt was postponed due to inclement weather. Despite the sweep, first-year coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly was able to find positives in her team’s performance. “I thought Mel (Nichols, a redshirt junior pitcher) threw well when we called on her. We will need her down the stretch,” Schoenly said. “(Junior catcher Melissa) Rennie is really seeing the ball well. And over the last several weeks, (sophomore) Maddy McIntyre has really grown as a shortstop. She has worked really hard to increase her range and has done so.” Nichols pitched 4 1/3 innings on the weekend in her two relief appearances, yielding two hits and giving up no runs while striking out five Badger batters. Rennie went 1-7 on the weekend, with two starts at catcher, and McIntyre went 3-9 with two walks and a run scored for the series. During practice before heading to Madison, Wis., McIntyre said her goals for the series were to focus on her job and “being there for the team.” Schoenly said she thought McIntyre accomplished her personal goals, both defensively and offensively. Despite OSU’s team struggles offensively against Wisconsin, freshman left fielder Cammi Prantl was able to have a solid individual series at the plate, highlighted by her extension of a 10-game-long hitting streak. Prantl went 4-10 with two RBIs on the weekend and pushed her season average to a team-leading .365. “I couldn’t be happier for Cammi,” Schoenly said. “She is the complete offensive package, with speed and power. She is a confident kid and that helps tremendously in the box.” Wisconsin came into the weekend second in the Big Ten in stolen bases, and during practice, senior third baseman Megan Coletta said stopping Wisconsin’s speed would be a point of contention for winning the series. Schoenly said that OSU handled Wisconsin’s speed well for the most part, even if it didn’t translate to wins. With 10 games remaining in the regular season, OSU sits in eighth place in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are scheduled to face Michigan State, which sits at fifth in the conference, at Buckeye Field Wednesday at 4 p.m. for a doubleheader. Both games will be televised on Big Ten Network.
Ohio State redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop (33) passes the ball in the second half in the game against Michigan State on Jan. 7 in Value City Arena. Ohio State won 80-64. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo EditorAfter carrying his team to victory against No. 1 Michigan State Sunday, Ohio State redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop was named the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association announced Tuesday.On Monday, he also was named Big Ten Player of the Week. In two games last week — against Iowa and Michigan State — the 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward averaged 29.5 points and 10 rebounds. He tied a career-high in points with 27 against the Hawkeyes and surpassed that with 32 against the Spartans. He shot 57.9 percent from the field on 22-of-38 shots, including 4-for-10 from beyond the arc. Bates-Diop has been the Buckeyes’ top player this season and has emerged as a strong contender for the Big Ten Player of the Year award. He has averaged 20 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game this season. He is ranked 10th in the 2018 kenpom.com player of the year standings.
The Ty Tucker Tennis Center, set to be completed in December 2020, will be in the Athletic District, adjacent to the current outdoor tennis facilities. Credit: The Ohio State UniversityThe Ohio State tennis team will soon receive a home-court advantage after the Board of Trustees announced a plan for a $21.9 million project to build a new indoor tennis complex.The Board released a report on project funding and scheduling for the new tennis complex on Sept. 6. Construction is set to begin in September 2019 and will be completed by December 2021, the report said. The tennis center will be funded by development funds and university debt. The project, set to be built in the Athletic District on north campus, includes a 75,000-square-foot facility, with six indoor courts and seating for 450 spectators. Both men’s and women’s teams will receive locker rooms and training facilities. “With the facility in the middle of the Athletic District, it will provide the men’s and women’s tennis programs with a state-of-the-art practice and competition venue, offices and other spaces that will enhance the student-athlete experience,” a press release by the Department of Athletics said. The facility will be named the Ty Tucker Tennis Center, after the current men’s head coach and director of tennis. Tucker is currently the winningest tennis coach in the Big Ten. “I’d like to thank the individuals who have a deep appreciation for the Scarlet and Gray for giving to and supporting this project,” Tucker said in a statement. “They have touched the lives of generations of Buckeyes and their impact is immeasurable.” With both teams making national appearances in the past two years and the men’s team ending as runners-up in outdoors last season, the overall goal of the indoor center is to attract future recruits, something about which senior tennis player Andrea Ballinger said she is excited. “I am grateful for the investment Ohio State is putting into the future of Buckeye tennis,” Ballinger said. Tucker said he wanted a facility to match the success of the Ohio State tennis programs. “This facility is going to be one of the best tennis facilities in the country,” Tucker said. “With it located in the Athletic District, it will provide the best student-athlete experience for countless Buckeyes in the years to come.” Redshirt junior Danielle Wolf said not only is the facility a good opportunity to recruit potential players, but that it could not be named after a more fitting person than Tucker.