VIDEO: Rangers vs. Blue Jays is the series to watch Baseball’s playoffs are upon us once again, and as is the case every year, we don’t know much about what will happen. The postseason has a tendency to make fools of us all: Wild cards have won before, they will win again, and even the best team in the league doesn’t have much better than one-in-four odds of winning the World Series. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use all the sabermetric tools at our disposal — including FiveThirtyEight’s MLB Elo ratings — to make an informed guess.Roughly speaking, you can divide this year’s playoff teams into three tiers: On the top, you have three powerful division-winning teams in the Cubs, Dodgers and Red Sox, who together take up 60 percent of the available World Series probability (according to Elo). The next tier consists of the remaining division winners, all of whom are superlative in some respects but also have fairly significant flaws. And finally, you have the wild-card winners — some of which are more dangerous than others, but all of which have to fight through the dreaded play-in game.If you had to pick an eventual champion, you’d choose from the top tier of teams — though even in a year of decreased parity, they’re far from sure things. To sort out the teams within each tier, here’s a deeper look at every club in the playoff field. Tier B — The Good-But-Not-Great Division WinnersCleveland Indians (8 percent)The Indians claimed the relatively weak American League Central, with the Detroit Tigers serving as their only real competition. (Detroit eventually finished 8 games back.) Cleveland did amass 94 wins and posted the fourth-best run differential in baseball, although they also benefited somewhat from good sequencing (as measured by FanGraphs’ BaseRuns) and unexpectedly great performances from guys like Tyler Naquin and Jose Ramirez.Maybe the Indians’ biggest secret weapon is their bullpen. The team’s deadline trade for Andrew Miller gave it a bona fide relief ace; Miller has allowed only five runs to score in 29 innings pitched since coming to Cleveland. Plus, manager Terry Francona has been surprisingly flexible about using Miller in the most important situations, regardless of inning. If Francona can continue his innovative managing into the postseason, the Indians will have a slight but significant edge that the statistical projections don’t fully take into account.Washington Nationals (8 percent)The Nationals are sneaky good. Our Elo-based projections give them only a 16 percent chance of making the World Series, but they had baseball’s third-best run differential during the regular season. The Nats are well-rounded: They ranked among the 10 best in both runs scored and runs allowed per game, boasting a Cy Young candidate in Max Scherzer as well as the sixth-best bullpen in the league, as measured by wins above replacement.So why aren’t their chances better? Part of it is the quality of their competition, both in the past and in the future. They amassed such strong numbers partially by beating up on their NL East rival Braves and Phillies, two of the worst teams in the league according to run differential.1No other division has more than one of the five worst teams in the league, and Washington outscored the two in its division by a combined 66 runs during the regular season. What’s more, their path to the World Series starts with the Dodgers and may also go through the Cubs, two of the league’s top-tier teams. Making matters worse, they lost All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos to injury, and they won’t have Stephen Strasburg in the Division Series either. Add it all up, and Washington has a tough — if not insurmountable — road to the Series.Texas Rangers (8 percent)The most exceptional thing about the Texas Rangers so far this year has been their incredible record in one-run games. They have piled up a 36-11 mark in such contests, helping them win 95 games despite an overall run differential of only +8 on the season. In fact, that mark is the worst among all playoff teams, suggesting that the Rangers have spent the season playing above their heads.It’s easy to assume that because sabermetricians can’t explain one-run performance, it must be random. That would be a mistake: Such performances shouldn’t be completely discarded. But even if you believe that the Rangers have gotten special, sustainable contributions from their bullpen or manager, their .766 winning percentage in one-run games must be at least partially thanks to good fortune — and as a result, they may not be as good as their record suggests. Texas’s best-in-the-AL record gives it an inside track to the World Series, but since the Rangers also sport the worst Elo rating of any team in the entire playoff field, they have a mere 8 percent probability of winning it all, no better than the other second-tier division champions. Tier A — The PowerhousesChicago Cubs (26 percent odds of winning the World Series)The Chicago Cubs won 103 games, the most of any team since 2009 and eight more than any other team this season. But their season has very much been a tale of two halves. Through July 1 the Cubs had racked up a +161 run differential, a number on track to challenge the mark set by the 1939 Yankees as greatest of all time. Since then, in about the same number of games, they’ve only put together a run differential of +91, or a bit more than half as good as they were before.So which version of the Cubs will show up for the playoffs? It might not actually matter. Although having a more dominant team is always better, the randomness of the playoffs means that a great team can always lose. Either version of the Cubs — the record-breakers or the merely ordinary division-winning outfit — would likely be World Series favorites, but neither would have even 50-50 odds of winning it all. Our projections contain a little bit of both versions, and they easily give Chicago the best chance of any team to make, and win, the championship round, at 43 percent and 26 percent, respectively.Boston Red Sox (19 percent)The Chicago Cubs may have captured the lion’s share of the headlines this year, but the Boston Red Sox have been surprisingly dominant. They have the second-best Elo rating of any MLB team heading into the playoffs, 14 points behind the Cubs and 24 points ahead of their nearest competition (the Toronto Blue Jays).Although Boston won only 93 games, fifth-most in baseball, it also faced more difficult opposition in the American League East, which (as usual) featured three playoff-worthy teams. So the Red Sox are probably scarier than their record would indicate — particularly on offense, where they scored an MLB-best 5.42 runs per game during the regular season (topping even the Coors Field-inflated Colorado Rockies). Their major weakness — and the biggest factor separating them from the Cubs’ lofty perch — is mediocre pitching. But the format of the playoffs will allow them to hide their back-end starting pitchers and hand more innings to David Price and Rick Porcello, so expect the Red Sox to pitch a little better in the postseason than they did in the regular season.Los Angeles Dodgers (15 percent)The Dodgers have had the most eventful season of any division champion. Between injuries, broken perfect games, and the near trade and demotion of erstwhile star Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles has had more drama than you’d expect from a 91-win division champion. The injuries have taken a particular toll on the starting pitchers: No single starter for the Dodgers pitched as many as 200 innings during the regular season.With all of those injuries, you might expect the Dodgers to enter the postseason as a depleted husk of their former selves. And yet they are on track to start Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda, a top three that would be the envy of many other contenders. That talented starting rotation helps give the Dodgers the third-best shot at the title — assuming they can stay healthy through the postseason, that is. Tier C — The Wild CardsToronto Blue Jays (6 percent)Of all the wild-card clubs, Toronto has the highest probability of making (and winning) the Series. In fact, their Elo rating is higher than that of several division winners, which suggests that the Jays are a very good team. Toronto’s only fault is that they share a division with the superior Boston Red Sox, confining them to a do-or-die game that could end their postseason before it really begins. Even the most imbalanced matchup in MLB is usually a 60-40 proposition, so the Jays can’t count on a win against the Orioles.If they do win that wild-card game, however, the Blue Jays will see their postseason odds soar. Their starting pitching has been excellent, and their offense is great (as usual). Provided it can overcome Baltimore, Toronto could end up making a surprise run deep into the postseason. The one glaring issue is its bullpen, which ranks second-worst among playoff entrants in ERA. If the starters end up exiting games early, it will expose a relief crew with few reliable arms.Baltimore Orioles (4 percent)The Orioles’ Elo rates them as the second-weakest team of the playoffs, ahead of only the Rangers. However, unlike the Rangers, the Orioles must win a game against the Blue Jays to advance to the ALDS. Elo only gives Baltimore a 44 percent chance in that game against the Jays, and a depressingly low 4 percent probability of eventually winning the championship.The Orioles’ bullpen is good — it has the third-best ERA among the playoff contenders — and especially top-heavy, featuring a rare Cy Young-contending reliever in Zach Britton. But that won’t be enough to get them to the World Series unless their mediocre rotation pitches better. The Orioles didn’t have a single starter post more than three wins above replacement during the regular season, while most of their fellow playoff teams had two or three starters who were at least that good. Savvy bullpen management can only go so far; barring some very good luck, expect the Orioles to make an early exit.New York Mets (3 percent)The Mets are hard to figure out. On the one hand, they limped into the playoffs on the back of two surprisingly productive rookies (Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman) after their rotation collapsed because of injuries. Add to this toll the lingering problems with their starting lineup and it’s hard to believe the Mets could realistically overcome the strong top tier of National League teams to capture a second consecutive pennant.On the other hand, the Mets may have the best bullpen out of all the playoff teams, according to WAR. We know that relievers get a greater share of a team’s innings pitched in the postseason, so the superlative bullpen may make up for their rookie starters. If, that is, manager Terry Collins allows them to: He has a habit of leaving his starters in too long, which can be fatal in the postseason.San Francisco Giants (3 percent)While the Cubs fell in the second half from historically great to merely fantastic, the Giants dropped from probable division winners to meltdown–prone also-rans. Their collapse hasn’t quite been historic, but their second-half statistics don’t bode well for the playoffs (at least, to the very limited extent that second-half performance matters). More worrisome, their bullpen has been atrocious, stretching even Bruce Bochy’s ability to manage around it.Then again, the Giants have a tradition of overcoming regular-season problems to overperform in October, and they still have Madison Bumgarner. Still, when a team’s playoff hopes rest on numerology (it’s an even year!) and repeating one of the greatest postseason performances of all time, it’s reasonable to conclude that they simply aren’t very likely to win the World Series. Elo agrees with that assessment, giving them only a 3 percent shot, even-year magic be damned.
Is it really dangerous to want to be like Mike? The Public Health Advocacy Institute certainly thinks so. The group has petitioned for the Federal Trade Commission to pull a Gatorade ad that champions Michael Jordan’s famous 1997 NBA Finals performance, during which he fought through a 103-degree fever to lead his team to victory. The ad, tagged with the title “Win From Within,” shows Jordan suffering from flu symptoms during the game, but eventually overcoming it, while drinking Gatorade along the way. The institute claims that the glorification of Jordan’s decision to play could lead viewers to try to imitate him.“The Jordan Ad openly promotes engaging in vigorous physical activity while suffering from a very high fever, in Jordan’s case 103 degrees,” The institute said in its letter to the FTC via USA Today. “It is a generally recognized safety principle that teens and even professional athletes suffering from a severe fever and flu-like symptoms should not engage in vigorous physical activity.”PepsiCo, Gatorade’s parent company, has yet to respond to the PHAI. The group’s website suggested that PepsiCo should create an ad campaign to inform teens and potential consumers that not only is it dangerous to compete while sick, but also that Gatorade cannot treat flu symptoms.
Machado is one of the modern era’s best hitting trade targetsBest pre-trade weighted runs created plus (wRC+) for players who were traded at the deadline, 1975-2018 C. Beltran2011MetsGiants150 It’s been a truly miserable summer for baseball in Baltimore. Not only do the Orioles currently have MLB’s worst record, but according to the FiveThirtyEight projections, they are also on pace to lose a staggering 111 games this season. That’s so bad, it would put them in the same company as such notably putrid clubs as the 2003 Tigers (119 losses), 2013 Astros and 2004 Diamondbacks (111 losses apiece). Not even Buck Showalter’s magical managerial touch could save the Orioles from their wretched fate. (Not that they necessarily want to be saved.)Amid such horrors, there has been one bright spot in the form of shortstop Manny Machado. Through Wednesday’s games, Machado has 23 home runs (sixth most in the American League) with a .314/.383/.573 slash line. That helps make him the AL’s seventh-best hitter so far this season according to weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which measures run production relative to the league on a per-plate appearance basis. Not only is it a massive improvement over the disappointing stats Machado put up a year ago, but it represents the best hitting season of his entire career to date.Machado picked a great time to put up career numbers, since he’s set to be a free agent after the season. And it’s good for the Orioles, too, though they’ll miss their star player. When Machado is inevitably traded before the July 31 deadline, he’ll command plenty in return, even if he’s just a three-month rental for a World Series contender.But it’s tough to say Machado isn’t worth the ransom — he’s having one of the best seasons by a trade-deadline target in modern history. Going back to the dawn of the free-agent era in 1975, here is how Machado compares to the top performances by batters who were traded at the deadline,1We also included Marlins’ catcher J.T. Realmuto, whom MLB Trade Rumors has listed among the players most likely to be dealt at this year’s deadline in addition to Machado. in terms of their wRC+ for the team doing the trading: R. Henderson1993AthleticsBlue Jays182 In essence, Machado switching teams is as a big a deal as the A’s trading Mark McGwire at the 1997 deadline. (That one worked out pretty well for the Cardinals, too, with one major caveat.) Machado might not be the best fit for every contender, with questions about his defense at short and his reported unwillingness to switch positions in order to fit better with a potential trade suitor.2Maybe that stance makes sense in the free agent market, since shortstop is considered a premium defensive position. Then again, shortstops don’t seem to be paid more than other positions. But in terms of raw hitting, Machado is making the most of his walk year, and his bat could make a real difference for a top-shelf team looking for that extra edge in October — regardless of whether that team is willing to re-sign him for an increasingly exorbitant price this winter.Check out our latest MLB predictions. J.D. Martinez2017TigersD-Backs160 G. Berroa1997AthleticsOrioles145 PlayerYearTraded fromToPre-Trade wRC+Stayed w/ Acquiring Team? M. Teixeira2008BravesAngels136 M. McGwire1997AthleticsCardinals156✓ G. Parra2015BrewersOrioles138 B. Bonilla1995MetsOrioles154✓ M. Ramirez2008Red SoxDodgers141✓ C. Floyd2002MarlinsExpos147 K. Phelps1988MarinersYankees170✓ O. Gamble1979RangersYankees160✓ J. Guillen2003RedsAthletics159 H. Baines1989White SoxRangers157✓ X. Nady2008PiratesYankees142✓ S. Hairston2009PadresAthletics143 S. Pearce2016RaysOrioles147 Stats through July 10.Machado and Realmuto are both listed among MLB Trade Rumors’ top 10 2018 trade targets.Source: FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors M. Machado2018Orioles?155? F. McGriff2001Devil RaysCubs139✓ J.T. Realmuto2018Marlins?149?
Vlad Jr.? Like father, like son: But it’s how the progeny of former players are reaching the pinnacle of the sport, and at increasing numbers, that is misunderstood.“There’s a lot of misconceptions,” said Zach Schonbrun, author of the “Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius.” “Everyone thinks two great athletes are going to come together and they are going to have a kid, and that kid is automatically going to become a superstar. It’s not so easy.”Imitation gameWhen Cavan Biggio and his brother, Conor (who was drafted by the Astros in 2015), were in elementary school, Craig Biggio picked them up from school when the Astros were at home. They traveled straight to Minute Maid Park for the Astros’ pre-game batting practice. During games, Cavan and Conor didn’t spend their time in the family section; rather, they confined themselves to the Astros’ concrete bunker of a batting cage in the bowels of the stadium. They would hit off the tee and play games in the space, only vacating it if an Astros bench player came to get ready for a pinch-hitting at-bat. They observed the swings and collected the balls swatted into the nylon netting. The only other time they would pause is to watch their dad’s at-bats when their attention turned to the bubble-screen TV attached above the cage.Like his dad, Cavan has a two-handed finish in his swing. This is not a coincidence. “The only thing he would say to me, mechanically, was ‘Two-handed finish, two-handed finish,’” Cavan said. “I still hear it today ‘Two-handed finish’ OK. I know [Dad]. I got it.”He’s not alone in mimicking what made his dad so successful. The swing of Bo Bichette is also similar to his father’s. It’s not just at the plate, too. In Pirates camp, Hayes is renowned for his defensive ability at third base. “My mom says that our mannerisms on defense, the way we stand and stuff like that, are exactly the same,” Hayes said.Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy studies athletic movement patterns and is on the vanguard of player development in baseball. In speaking with Boddy for reporting on the “The MVP Machine,” he said the greatest advantage in being the son of a major leaguer is in mimicking movement patterns. After all, early-life imitation is key in motor learning. He cited the throwing motion of Astros’ McCullers Jr., which closely resembles that of his father’s. DUNEDIN, Fla. — Within a 30-foot radius in the Toronto Blue Jays’ cramped spring training clubhouse are locker spaces adorned with the nameplates Guerrero, Biggio and Bichette. Any baseball fan of the 1990s and early 2000s would recognize these surnames: Vladimir Guerrero, Craig Biggio and Dante Bichette combined for 20 All-Star Game appearances across two decades. But these lockers belong to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette, who have combined for zero big-league at-bats to date. They are on the cusp of the majors, prospects invited to camp in the sleepy Gulf Coast town of Dunedin, Florida.But expectations are high for the Blue Jays’ young trio. Guerrero is the No. 1 prospect in the game according to most evaluators. Bichette is considered a top 20 prospect. And Biggio dramatically elevated his prospect status last season. Another son of a former big leaguer, pitcher Mark Leiter Jr., was also in the clubhouse before undergoing Tommy John surgery.Second-generation prospects are not limited to the Toronto system, either. ESPN’s Keith Law has San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr., another legacy, as the game’s No. 1 prospect, while Pittsburgh’s Ke’Bryan Hayes — son of Charlie — is also a top 20 prospect. And numerous legacy prospects are or will soon be contributing to their big-league clubs: Adalberto Mondesi (son of Raul) is expected to be in the Royals’ starting lineup, Lance McCullers Jr. is a fixture in the Astros’ rotation when healthy, and slugger Cody Bellinger (son of Clay) has already earned an All-Star nod for the Dodgers.If it seems like the kids of former big leaguers are taking over the sport this spring, it’s because they kind of are — they’re making the majors at rates far greater than the general population.Whether it’s Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio or another prospect, the next child of a major leaguer to reach the majors will set a record for legacy debuts in a single decade. Entering 2019, the 2010s (44 debuts) are tied with the 1990s for most such debuts, according to Baseball-Reference.com data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. The share of debuts by sons of major leaguers this decade is the second-highest on record (2.1 percent), and could perhaps challenge the 1990s record (2.3 percent) by the close of the season. Boddy suspects the children of major leaguers succeed at abnormally high rates. With the available data it’s difficult to know exactly how their success rate compares to the general population, but there are suggestions that it’s far better.The proportion of U.S. high school players compared to domestic-born major leaguers has stayed more or less the same. In every year since 1978, there have been almost exactly 500 high school players in the country for every one U.S.-born major leaguer, according to Baseball-Reference.com and National Federation of State High School Associations data. That’s a success rate of about 0.2 percent. We don’t know the total number of major league progeny playing baseball, so we can’t make a direct comparison. But, over the last 30 years, the sons of majors leaguers have accounted for 2 percent of all debuts, and that number has gradually risen throughout the game’s history.1Baseball-Reference.com does not record data on family connecetions of top-level, non-major leagues like Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan) and the Negro Leagues. While data is sparse, there are examples of sons of Negro or NPB players to reach the the majors.Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Hayes’ pedigree played a role in moving him up their draft board, selecting him in the first round in 2015. Huntington is also confident the Blue Jays are “baking in” legacy considerations to their evaluation sauce.“There’s a lot to be said for seeing how things are done at the highest level whether it’s motor learning or whether it’s how people carry themselves,” Huntington said. “They see the drive, the work ethic it takes.”What’s also interesting about Hayes, Biggio and Bichette is not just what they observed but how they were taught.“I never really worked on mechanics,” says Hayes about his father’s tutelage. “ At a young age, I just kinda learned the right movement, the fundamental stuff.”Said Bichette: “We didn’t do a lot of drills.”Boddy is wary of burdening pitchers with too many internal cues. Similarly, Schonbrun says implicit learning is the most effective way to acquire a skill.“Ken Griffey Sr. probably didn’t show his son how to wiggle his bat and find that perfect arc for his swing,” Schonbrun says. “I’m guessing he probably told Ken Jr. ‘Here’s how you should get from A to B,’ and Ken developed that swing on his own. … In a lot of ways, that’s a better way for the brain to learn rather than following really detailed explicit instruction.”‘Specialization’ is not a dirty wordA common experience shared by Biggio, Bichette and Hayes is that they all grew up with a batting cage in their backyards. They all had access to travel baseball, equipment and facilities. Tim Lee, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, believes that those factors are perhaps the greatest advantage in having a professional athlete for a parent.“The relationship of the model to the learner is one of the important moderating variables in observational learning,” Lee told FiveThirtyEight. “My hunch, however, is that this plays a far less important role than does the availability of practice facilities and instructional opportunities.”While those spaces speak to the financial edge that also comes with being the son of a big leaguer, the cages, lessons and tools allowed them to be exposed to not just high-level motor patterns but enabled them to log thousands upon thousands of reps.In the backyard of their Houston home, Hayes estimates he took “anywhere from 400 to 500 swings a day.”Said Bichette of life in the backyard swing incubator: “At one point in my life we would go into cage and count at least 200 swings.”For his fielding work, Biggio said his dad taught him to throw a lacrosse ball off a wall to create unusual hops to improve his hands. Hayes was also taught the practice and still tosses a lacrosse ball off of a wall when killing time in the hallways of minor league clubhouses. It’s one reason he projects as having a 70-grade glove on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.When Bichette was a freshman in high school, he was also an excellent tennis player, but his parents urged him to choose one sport. Dante Bichette understood the importance of specialization.While there has been research and concern about sports specialization leading to injury and burnout, Schonbrun notes it’s difficult to excel without it. Florida State professor Anders Ericsson attempted to quantify the hours of specialization needed to become an expert in 1993, which Malcolm Gladwell later dubbed the 10,000-hour rule in his book “Outliers.” Schonbrun said specialization is “necessary.”“From a cognitive and neurological standpoint, the more you can focus on one task, the more practice that goes into it, the better you are going to be,” Schonbrun said.Baseball-Reference.com‘s database contains father-son pairs to play in the majors but it does not include minor league family history or other family connections. That means the advantage in growing up around the game is probably even more considerable than we’re showing here. Consider the case of another consensus top-five prospect this spring, a player who could be the next teenager to reach the majors: Tampa Bay’s Wander Franco.While he seems like a natural, dominating older competition at age 17 last summer, he is also the youngest of three brothers — each named Wander Franco — who each play in the Giants organization. His father, another Wander Franco, pitched in the minor leagues. His uncles Willy and Erick Aybar played in the majors. His neighbor growing up in the Dominican city of Bani was Cleveland Indians infielder Jose Ramirez.Franco IV was exposed to elite-level motor patterns when he was young, but he was also around people obsessed with baseball. There was a dry river bed near his neighborhood in Bani and that became their ballpark. They used whatever scrap they could find to create bases. They wound up a sock to use as a ball.“It was all games, every day,” Franco told FiveThirtyEight through an interpreter.The Rays gave Franco, the No. 1 international prospect in 2017, a $3.85 million bonus. “One of the things that helped us get comfortable with that level of investment was that he had grown up around the game,” said Chaim Bloom, the Rays’ vice president of baseball operations. “You see a lot of guys who have a tremendous amount of skill but don’t know how to apply it on a baseball field. The way that Wander was able to do that as an amateur was really, really rare.”Franco might seem like a natural, but his story might be more about nurture than nature.Genes do play a role in success, of course. Bichette said the “bat speed” he shares with his father cannot be taught. Biggio says he has better than 20-20 vision and so does his brother and father. There are things Guerrero Jr. does with that bat that are assuredly tied to genetics.But in some ways they are all lesser athletes than their fathers. Biggio is not nearly as fast as his father. Guerrero Jr. is not built like his father listed at a 6-2, 250 pounds, where his father was 6-3, 235. As a shortstop, Bichette has a much smaller frame than his father, who was a slugging corner outfielder.While they are the sons of former professional athletes, there are more talented natural athletes that never reach the major leaguers. Their advantages go beyond genetics, and for a variety of reasons, the advantage of being the son of a major leaguer is growing.
The Bears have a rich 30-year history, dominating the game under George Halas, winning the very first NFL championship in 1933, drubbing the Washington Redskins in 1940 by a record score of 73-0, and amassing four championships under star quarterback Sid Luckman. But in the 60-plus years since, the Bears have struggled. Since 1950, they’re down in cumulative point differential overall, and in 2011 they gave up their all-time margin of victory throne to the Green Bay Packers.The Lions had a promising start in the NFL, winning a famous “iron man” game in 1932 (in which they beat the Packers with only 11 men playing and with no substitutions), and winning a championship with QB Dutch Clark in 1935. But since the 1940s, the Lions have mostly tread water or gone downhill.Things have looked a bit better for the Lions in the Matthew Stafford era, and this season started out very well. Although they have lost their past two games (to conference leaders New England and Arizona), they enter this matchup two games ahead of the 5-6 Bears, they’re playing in Detroit, and they have an SRS2“Simple Rating System,” or average margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule advantage of 6.8 points (meaning they’ve been nearly seven points per game better). But it’s hard to know that much about the teams after only 11 games, and their franchise histories have been average for the past few years. So, to get some more insight into Thursday’s game, let’s focus on the QBs.A few weeks ago, I introduced my experimental QB “win curves,” which compare a QB’s expected win percentage to his actual win percentage at any given point in the game. One of the craziest of these win curves was Matthew Stafford’s — which indicated that he won way more than he was expected to when his team was trailing, but lost way more than he was expected to when his team was ahead — and he had easily the most extreme such effect in the league.But as I’ve also discussed in past columns, Stafford has gotten pretty terrible support from his defense and special teams. While I like the purity of the original win curve, I thought it might be interesting to see what happens if we try to remove non-offensive contributions from the picture. So I came up with “adjusted” win curves, which are basically the amount that each QB would have won if his defense and special teams had no positive or negative impact on their chances of winning at any time.3 OK, here’s the nitty-gritty: To do this, I took the win percentage added from all of a QB’s subsequent offensive drives and then added them to the win percentage he had at the start of the present drive (on a drive-by-drive basis). So, if his chances were 40 percent at the start of a drive and he added 30 percent between that drive and all future drives, it would count as an expected win percentage of 40 percent and an “approximated actual win percentage” of 70 percent. Note that technically these numbers can go higher than 100 percent or lower than zero percent for a given drive and situation (for example, if a QB’s defense keeps trying to give the game away, but he keeps bringing them back), but they typically don’t. I’ve also tweaked the curves to make them a little less sensitive to deviations.4I did this a couple of ways. First, as mentioned in the previous footnote, I did the analysis on a drive-by-drive basis instead of a play-by-play basis. This cuts down on the amount that a single crazy game can affect the overall analysis, because the number of drives per game is much more constant than number of passing plays. I also forced the smoother to use a “loess” (local regression) fit, so that larger samples would be treated the same as smaller ones. Also, by virtue of using win percentage added instead of binary wins/losses, we get a little additional granularity.Here’s how the new Stafford curve compares to the old:The magnitude of the curve is a bit less extreme (particularly Stafford’s habit of losing in what should be winning spots), but the basic phenomenon remains: Stafford appears to be much better at coming back than he is at holding on to wins. But more importantly: Stafford’s “adjusted” curve increases continuously, meaning the Lions no longer have to consider falling behind just so they can win.Now, using these adjusted win curves, let’s compare Stafford and Jay Cutler, Chicago’s QB:Get ready for some excitement, as both of these guys have been better at digging out of holes than at burying their opponents.Philadelphia vs. DallasThe Dallas Cowboys began playing their traditional Thanksgiving game in 1966 not long after joining the league as an expansion team in 1960. This was right about the same time they started getting good. Really good:During the Tom Landry/Roger Staubach era, the Cowboys had one of the most dominant runs in the post-merger NFL. Then, after a brief slump in the late 1980s, Jerry Jones seemed to have the team back on its winning track under coaches Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, and the potent QB/RB combo of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.5The Cowboys were also generously aided by the infamous Herschel Walker trade/outright larceny. Since Aikman’s retirement in 2000, however, Jones’s squad has struggled to recapture its old magic.And that’s despite Tony Romo. Although I love watching Romo play and usually I’d wager that he is a very good quarterback, the Cowboys experienced only a modest bump in their historical chart since Romo has been under center. And though judging an individual based on team performance is somewhat unfair, having pored over these charts repeatedly for weeks, I’ve noticed that the arrival or departure of a top QB normally has a pretty noticeable effect on his team. It may not be enough to make an awful team a winner, but there is usually some kind of turn (like with Stafford).Or, for example, with Donovan McNabb and the Eagles. Or Nick Foles,6And yes, I’m aware that a lot of these turns also correspond to head coaching changes, but that entanglement question is a constant issue in the NFL. We can think of them as two-headed QB/coach monsters, and the analysis is mostly the same. my gunslinger of the first quarter. In Foles’s short tenure, the Eagles have been on a nice upturn, but unfortunately he will be out of this game.So, the Eagles will rely on Mark Sanchez (someone who didn’t move the New York Jets’ chart much) to take on the enigmatic Romo, our gunslinger of the first half of the season.How do these two stack up on the win curve scale?Sanchez came out looking surprisingly OK in the chart’s non-adjusted version but ends up a little Stafford-y in the adjusted version. Romo — as expected — is a lot like Peyton Manning when behind, but is average or below average when ahead.Philadelphia has a slightly higher SRS (3.7 vs. 1.6) – and, very marginally, the better recent history to corroborate that, while Dallas has home-field advantage and more of a known quantity at QB. But again, be prepared for potential comeback-y goodness when either of these teams falls behind.Seattle vs. San FranciscoSince 2006, the NFL has added a prime-time game to the usual Dallas-Detroit fare, and this year it’s showcasing a rematch of last year’s NFC championship game, featuring divisional rivals Seattle (the dynasty hopefuls) and San Francisco (the original modern NFL dynasty). Presently, the two teams are battling for the NFC’s wild card spots (with Arizona their surprise divisional leader), but they’ve both been on strong trajectories the past couple of years, since the arrivals of Jim Harbaugh/Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Pete Carroll/Russell Wilson in Seattle.While the most dramatic effect is the amazing 1980s and 1990s 49ers run (which I discussed last week), the Seahawks trend is a great example of why I love these historical charts.From the Seahawks’ record, we know that they’ve lost more games this year (four) than all of last year (three), leading to a slight deceleration in their chart. But it’s barely even a blip in their multiyear trend. As discussed earlier, most major shifts on these charts happen for pretty transparent reasons: the departure/arrival of a great QB or coach, major injuries, etc.7In fact, the more I contemplate these histories, the more I suspect that QBs may be even more important to their teams than even I previously thought. We have no such event in Seattle and every reason to think they should stay good for awhile.But San Francisco has a solid trend and a dynamic young quarterback as well. In fact, these two have been such consistent winners that I also plotted Peyton Manning (generally the gold standard for these things) curve for comparison:Wilson’s unadjusted curve, which I showed last week, looked otherworldly, but I warned that it might be partly due to the strength of the team around him — especially the Seahawks’ defense, which crushed the league in yards allowed per play in 2013.But with the defense-adjusted curves, he comes down to earth a little — to excellent but not-quite-Peyton-esque levels (note that Wilson’s curve is impossibly high on the far left as the odds ought to be approaching zero, but that’s because bad losses have been so rare for the Seahawks that the data is unreliable). He’s in a fierce competition with Andrew Luck for best win curve of the 2012 quarterback class.Kaepernick’s curve is more Romo-esque. That makes sense considering he has been featured as my Goatslinger of the Week8Though not a fixture, I must note that the Goatslinger Award for Week 12 goes to Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer, who threw three interceptions with his team up less than a touchdown while his team still eked out the win. I’m going to covertly give the week’s Gunslinger Award to Peyton Manning, who did not have any interceptions but did futilely try and connect with some wide open receivers who could have scored him touchdowns. If you never miss a wide open receiver downfield, you probably aren’t throwing downfield enough! Too many open receivers go streaking down the field only to see the ball dumped off to some running back for a -2 yard screen. At least Manning was trying. for making the kinds of mistakes I like (interceptions!) at times when I don’t like them (when his team is ahead).Seattle has the far stronger SRS in this game (5.6 vs. SF’s 0.5), but it’s playing on the road. San Francisco is apparently the slight betting favorite in this one (-1 — I probably would have made it a slight underdog). I won’t say the game will be close, but it could go either way.Reminder: If you tweet questions to me @skepticalsports, there is a non-zero chance that I’ll answer them here.Charts by Reuben Fischer-Baum. On Thanksgiving Day 1892, the Allegheny Athletic Association — featuring the world’s first professional football player, William Heffelfinger — beat the Cleveland Athletic Club with a single touchdown, by a score of 4 to 0. Back then, field goals were worth five points — meaning, yes, a field goal was worth more than a touchdown — and the forward pass was illegal (it wouldn’t be allowed for an additional 14 years). In other words, teams have been playing football on Thanksgiving since long before it was football as we know it.The NFL has embraced that tradition since its inception. The NFL played six Thanksgiving Day games in its inaugural year of 1920 and has played games on the holiday every year since (except from 1941 to 1944, during World War II). So, as we prepare to stuff ourselves with turkey and ham, and sneak away from relatives to watch some gridiron on the big screen in our uncle-in-law’s den — we’ll be doing Skeptical Football a little differently, with historically oriented previews for each of the day’s games.Let’s get started.Chicago vs. DetroitThe Detroit Lions have been playing home games on Thanksgiving since 1934 and haven’t taken the holiday off since 1945. Their inaugural home game was against these same Bears, who won 19 to 16. Eighty years later, the two teams are back for more.They’ve come a long way since then. Here’s what their franchise histories have looked like, based on their cumulative regular-season margin of victory/defeat:1These charts come from the interactive graphic we introduced in last week’s Skeptical Football, which has been updated to include the latest games.
Hot Takedown If you’re a fan of our podcasts, be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts and leave a rating/review. That helps spread the word to other listeners. And get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments. Tell us what you think, send us hot takes to discuss and tell us why we’re wrong. More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS Welcome to this week’s episode of Hot Takedown, our podcast where the hot sports takes of the week meet the numbers that prove them right or tear them down. On this week’s show (Oct. 20, 2015), Chadwick Matlin is on vacation, so Slate’s Mike Pesca sits in as we discuss what our new CARMELO basketball projections can tell us about the upcoming NBA season, why only 10 NFL teams have winning records and what that says about parity, and whether the National Women’s Hockey League will learn the lessons of other startup leagues. Plus, a Significant Digit on the Mets’ Daniel Murphy and his postseason hot streak.Stream the episode by clicking the play button, or subscribe using one of the podcast clients we’ve linked to above. Are NFL wins weirdly bunched?
Big Number(s)46 percentThere are only six teams who are on the bubble for a playoff spot in the NBA right now. Three of them are effective locks; the Spurs, Jazz and Thunder each have a higher-than-97 percent chance of making the postseason. This leaves three teams jockeying for two playoff spots. The Pelicans and Timberwolves are in the best position, each projected to finish 47-35 and each with just over an 80 percent chance of getting in. But there’s still hope for the Denver Nuggets, who have a 46 percent chance of making the postseason. [FiveThirtyEight]Leaks from Slackchris.herring:Shoutout to @kyle’s timing this year. He’s had at least 3 stories in which a team or a player had a huge win that same night. Jokic last night, Blazers a couple weeks back. Good stuff, man.Predictions NBA Things That Caught My EyeWoods and Nicklaus are the only draws in golfTiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus are the only two players where high finishes have a statistically significant effect on Sunday ratings for the Masters tournament. When Tiger finished in the top 10, the average rating was a 10.0, and when Jack finished in the top ten the average rating was a 9.5. [FiveThirtyEight]When Dinosaurs Ruled The EarthThe fullback position is a tough one in the NFL these days. For college fullbacks, they’ve got to make an argument they can also contribute considerably on special teams lest teams overlook them in the draft. This is just part of the position; fullbacks averaged 182.4 plays per season last year, while offenses averaged 1,015.7 snaps per season, meaning you’re only going to see a fullback on offense 18 percent of the time. With a 53-man roster, that’s a tough sell. [ESPN]Sleep; it’s important!I don’t mean to blow your mind with science, but athletes need adequate sleep in order to perform at their peak performance levels. Due to the nature of the NBA schedule and also the width of America, that isn’t always feasible. There were 54 games this NBA season where one team faced a significant competitive disadvantage because of scheduling. For instance, the Denver Nuggets played in Memphis, then left immediately and traveled overnight, then lost an hour en route to Cleveland where they played their third game in five days. Indeed, the Nuggets have been the victims of these “schedule alert” games more than any other team, six of the 54 total games. [ESPN]Try out our interactive, Which World Cup Team Should You Root For?Big Ten lost in Frozen FourThe Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs best out Notre Dame this past weekend to win the Frozen Four NCAA men’s hockey tournament. They were the distinct underdogs; Minnesota Duluth spent just $655,000 on men’s hockey to Notre Dame’s $1.6 million. [ESPN]College Football Playoff probably happens without a Big 12 teamWith Oklahoma sending Baker Mayfield to the NFL, the Big 12 will see its chances of sending a team to the College Football Playoff slashed to 26 percent, lower than any of the other Power 5 conferences. Part of this is that the Big 12 lives and dies based on Oklahoma’s disproportionate performance. The SEC has an 84 percent chance of sending at least one team to the playoff, the Big Ten has an 80 percent shot and the ACC has a 65 percent chance. [ESPN]Cavs should consider preventing the other team from scoring so muchThe Cleveland Cavaliers would ideally prefer to make the NBA Finals, but they have a tough time preventing the other team from scoring the ball a lot, a strategy that other teams have taken to calling “defense.” Yes, interfering with the capacity of opponents to score is, for 28 other teams, a higher priority than for the Cavs and their 29th ranked defense. If they want to beat the Raptors, Celtics or Sixers — again, all who make any attempt, however small, to stop the other team from getting points — LeBron James should consider it! [ESPN] See more NBA predictions All newsletters Oh, and don’t forgetThis is a pro-Nikola Jokic zone haters go elsewhere We’re launching a sports newsletter. 🏆 Join the squad. Subscribe
The McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion is no stranger to Olympic medalists, and the nation’s best have descended on campus to compete this weekend. Before taking to the pool in the 2012 NCAA Championships, some members of the Ohio State swimming and diving teams will participate alongside headliners Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin in the Columbus Grand Prix Friday through Sunday. “Many swimmers from around the world will be here,” said OSU men’s swimming coach Bill Wadley. “There’s a lot on the line.” OSU is the fourth stop on the USA Swimming Grand Prix Series, a seven-city tour that allows swimmers the opportunity to compete against the best in the sport and prepare for the U.S. Olympic Trials, which are scheduled to take place June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb., and U.S. Olympic Games in London. First place performances are awarded five points. Three points go to second place and one point for third. The athlete with the most points at the end of the series is given $20,000. Frontrunner and 14-time Olympic gold medalist Phelps leads the pack with 41 points. Defending Grand Prix Series winner Missy Franklin trails by six going into the meet. Additional visiting American Olympians include Jason Lezak, Matt Grevers, Christine Magnuson, Allison Schmitt and more. But to other contenders, the competition site will feel like home. Former OSU swimmer, Elliott Keefer, who broke school records in his senior season as a Buckeye last year, will compete in the breaststroke representing the U.S. National team. Keefer’s former teammate, junior Tim Phillips, is on the roster of the OSU men’s swimming team but chose to redshirt this season. “He has decided to sit this year out because he is so close to making the Olympic team,” Wadley said. “It’s difficult to balance 20 to 30 hours of studying and 20 to 30 hours of swimming. One of them is going to suffer.” Phillips will participate in the Columbus Grand Prix in the same bout as Phelps. “Tim is in the butterfly event and they only take the top two to the Olympics,” Wadley said. “In order to be in the top two, you either have to be No. 2 behind Michael or beat him.” Preliminaries begin daily at 9 a.m. with finals beginning at 6 p.m. Time trials will be held in between.
Penn State senior quarterback Trace McSorley (9) carries the ball during the game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 21, 2018. Penn State defeated Illinois 63-24. Credit: Courtesy of Caitlin Lee | The Daily Collegian Photo EditorThe latest edition in the Ohio State-Penn State saga will continue on Saturday when the two best offenses in the country battle in Happy Valley.The Nittany Lions come in as the top-ranked scoring offense in the country with 55.5 points per game. Ohio State comes in second by only a point behind with 54.5.These powerhouse offenses headline the clash of two undefeated top 10 teams that have come together for some of the most memorable moments of the past two seasons, including a game-winning blocked field goal for a touchdown by Penn State two years ago, and an 11-point comeback with less than five minutes to go led by J.T. Barrett at Ohio Stadium last season.Add that to the game being on the road at Happy Valley, No. 4 Ohio State likely won’t see a matchup this challenging again all season.“That’s one of the tops in the country. Very loud and the fans are very into it just like our Horseshoe,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. “You’ve got to be ready for that kind of environment.”No. 9 Penn State comes in off back-to-back 63-point games, the last being a 63-24 victory against Illinois. The top-scoring offense in the nation ranks No. 16 in total offensive production, with a top 10 rushing attack at 275 yards per game on the ground.Redshirt senior quarterback Trace McSorley leads the Nittany Lions offense as the program leader in total touchdowns with 77. This season, McSorley has 998 total yards and 14 touchdowns — eight through the air and six on the ground — and two interceptions while competing 53.7 percent of his passes.Meyer praised McSorley’s competitive edge.“A winner, a guy that can do it all and a competitor,” Meyer said.Meyer also complimented the play of junior running back Miles Sanders, who is No. 6 in the NCAA with 495 rushing yards, and has five touchdowns in the first four games. Sanders ran the ball for 200 yards against Illinois, helping break open a game that remained close for much of the first half.Meyer said the Penn State team this year is very much the same team that lost to the Buckeyes by a point last year.“Offensive line is better. And that running back is really good,” Meyer said. “We don’t see much difference at all. Scheme’s very similar to what they’ve done in the past and obviously the quarterback’s the guy that makes it go.”McSorley is the major threat Ohio State will be looking to contain in Happy Valley. The redshirt senior brings a dual-threat ability and energy to the offense that becomes even more impactful in big games.In last season’s Fiesta Bowl, McSorley completed 78 percent of his throws and amassed 402 yards of offense and two touchdowns in Penn State’s win over Washington. A year before, he threw for 382 yards and four touchdowns in the Big Ten championship win against Wisconsin.He also has never lost a collegiate start at home.Sophomore linebacker Pete Werner said he sees McSorley’s winning attitude in the film.“He has a lot of toughness. He’s a great quarterback — the best one, most likely, we’re going to see this year,” Werner said. “He’s just a guy that has a drive to win games.”The Nittany Lions defense ranks No. 8 in sacks per game with 3.5. Redshirt junior defensive end Shareef Miller leads the team with three, and 12 separate players have recorded a sack on the year.Redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins said he is expecting a strong defense in the Nittany Lions.“Experienced players, really sound defensively,” Haskins said. “Yeah, they make a couple of mistakes but every defense does. When they get things rolling, they’re pretty good.”Penn State ranks No. 29 in passing defense at 173.3 yards per game, while allowing the 48th most rushing yards per game with 172.5.PredictionOhio State might have won five of the past six meetings against Penn State, but the series has dramatically picked up in intensity since 2016. Happy Valley is going to come out loud, and Haskins is going to be in the most hostile environment he has faced since Michigan a season ago.Haskins will have to be as strong and composed as he has been all season for Ohio State to win, while McSorley will need to bring the energy and vocal leadership he’s known for in big games to give the Nittany Lions an advantage.The run games have been strong points for both teams overall this season, but Penn State’s has been clicking more as of late, as sophomore and redshirt junior running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber each ran for less than 60 yards each against Tulane.Penn State’s weak point on the defensive side has been the run, and the Buckeyes will have to exploit that to allow Haskins to open up the passing game.Ohio State has the stronger win under its belt, a 40-28 victory against TCU, and that added experience could help against a Penn State team that has not faced a ranked opponent this year.But Penn State has the benefit of playing at home in one of the most intimidating stadiums in college football, and will face an Ohio State defense missing its best player, junior defensive end Nick Bosa.The Buckeyes did not get real game-time experience for the Bosa-less defensive line against Tulane, but the line still has plenty of talent without him.This game may very well come down to the cool and collected Haskins vs. the energetic, enthusiastic McSorley, and from what 2018 has shown, I give the edge to: Haskins.Yes, McSorley has proved his ability in the crunch time, but his lackluster completion percentage and lack of strong opponent this year gives me more worries than the Ohio State quarterback who breaks a record with each new start.This is a matchup that could go either way, and one that could be a shootout. In either case, Haskins has sold me as the guy who can get it done, and if his 16 touchdowns, 1,194 yards and single interception haven’t sold you, a winning performance against the No. 9 team in the country on Saturday will.Wyatt Crosher: 38-36 Ohio StateColin Gay: 35-31 Ohio StateEdward Sutelan: 42-35 Ohio StateRachel Bules: 32-28 Ohio StateChase Ray: 45-35 Penn StateSydney Riddle: 35-27 Ohio State Amanda Parrish: 38-35 Ohio State
Police forces across the UK, including Police Scotland, are investigating more than 80 potential suspects and 98 clubs in an abuse scandal that has rocked the game.The SFA said it was “imperative that we take the necessary time and guidance” to ensure its review complemented the work of the police.Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive, added: “Police Scotland has reaffirmed that it is the investigatory authority regarding reports of child sexual abuse in football.”It is therefore crucial to draw the distinction between their ongoing investigation and what lessons football can learn from historic allegations.”According to a BBC Scotland investigation, the former youth coach and referee Hugh Stevenson, who died in 2004, was allowed to carry on working in football for several years after being reported to police and the SFA over child sex offences.In another developed last week, Jim McCafferty, 70, a former kit man for Celtic, Hibernian and Falkirk, was arrested in Belfast after allegations were made against him.Rachael Hamilton, the Scottish Conservative MSP, welcomed the move and said that as long as the review was “truly independent” it would help people have confidence in Scotland’s governing body.The move follows pressure from various quarters, including the Deputy First Minister John Swinney.He said on Sunday that he would not extend the Scottish Government’s historical abuse inquiry – looking into the treatment of children who were in institutional care – to include football.He urged the SFA to set up an inquiry conducted by an “authoritative, independent, respected figure” The Scottish Football Association is to set up an independent review into allegations of historic child sex abuse in the sport.Football has been rocked by claims from several former players that they were abused by people in positions of authority.The SFA said it had taken steps towards establishing the scope of the review to see what lessons could be learnt, but stressed that Police Scotland remained the main investigatory authority.The announcement followed meetings between the SFA, police and representatives from PFA Scotland, the players’ union.The association said it wanted to reassure people that football was a “safe and enjoyable environment for children” and the review would focus on “processes and procedures” in place both currently and historically in Scottish football. Youth coach and referee Hugh StevensonCredit:Universal News and Sport Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings.