Category Archives: Commentary

Michigan: Destined for an early exit?

Michigan is my favorite college basketball team, and for the first time in awhile, they are threatening to make a deep tournament run. However, they just lost three of four during a tough stretch against Indiana (L, away), Ohio State (W, home), Wisconsin (W, away), and Michigan State (W, away). I’m not writing them off — they only lost the away games — but some bad signs appeared in these games. Here’s the Game Stack for all four combined:

Mich 4 games 2-2013

Michigan looks good on turnovers, but that comes at a cost — they get crushed on free throws and two point percentage. Having watched the games, I can connect the dots for you: the Wolverines don’t drive to the hoop much against good teams. They have some great shooters who can get reasonably open (Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr.) who are happy to “settle” for jumpers.

This keeps the ball out of danger in the lane (low turnovers), but it means that Michigan never gets to the line and shoots a lower percentage on twos as well. Michigan also rebounds a lower percentage of their own misses than the opponent, which could be related — a lot of “second chances” are just put-backs after a shot close to the hoop.

So, is Michigan sunk? We’ll see. I have some faith that Mitch McGary can improve and find some high percentage twos down low, but right now, Michigan is probably not efficient enough offensively and not good enough on the boards to compete with the best teams in the country. I would worry less about four games if the problem was just poor shooting in a small sample, but the problem seems to be about playing style against good defenses. I don’t think that’s going to change.

If you’re interested, here are the Game Stacks for all four games. The trends I discussed are pretty consistent across the games:

Michigan at Indiana 2-2-2013 Ohio State at Michigan 2-5-2013

Michigan at Wisconsin 2-9-2013 Michigan at Michigan State 2-12-2013

Sour grapes

True Wins did okay over the weekend — predicting the 49ers and Patriots victories, but whiffing on the Ravens and Falcons. Picking the team with more True Wins so far has six correct and two wrong, while relying on actual wins to pick has just four right, two wrong, and makes no prediction on two games (same records for Pats-Texans and 49ers-Packers).

The True Wins king — Denver — is out! Over the last ten years, the top team in True Wins has won four Super Bowls, and the second ranked team has won two more. It’s up to the Patriots (#2) to carry on the tradition, even though the 13.5 True Win Broncos had the second highest total in the last ten years (behind another famous losing team that you may remember). That couldn’t save them from one very cold Manning flinching first in a stalemate and one very cold Champ Bailey getting toasted over and over again (not to mention one very cold referee blowing a couple video reviews and throwing a ton of flags on the Broncos). More on the playoffs later in the week, but for now, I want to go back to some old predictions and talk about this year’s playoff spectators.

The Sour Grapes Club

Last year, I broke the outsiders-looking-in into four groups (follow the link — the predictions are worth a read-through in their entirety):

  • The Michael Vick Division (pretty good teams that had some bad luck): Eagles, Bears, Chargers, Cowboys
  • The Cam Newton Division (mediocre teams with something to build on): Panthers, Titans, Seahawks, Dolphins, Vikings
  • The Rex Ryan Division (overconfident teams that need to reassess their approach): Jets, Cardinals, Bills, Raiders, Chiefs
  • The Sam Bradford Division (teams that need to start over completely): Redskins, Jaguars, Browns, Colts, Rams, Buccaneers

The first thing that has to change are the names. Cam Newton moves up a notch and replaces Vick, who unfortunately goes all the way around the horn to replace Bradford in the blow-it-up division. Rex Ryan, one of the most overconfident men in the world, is saved by Tony Romo and his buddy Troy Aikman — I can’t listen to Aikman defend Romo anymore. I’m sticking with my man Stafford and handing the “something to build on” division to him, even if my Lions regressed this year.

Here are the standings this year:

2012 non playoff standings

From the first group (I expected good things): Continue reading

Some questions and some predictions

Predictions

If you read my post last week, you know that the AFC is a two-horse race and the NFC is a mess. All four first-round games agreed with the True Wins predictions. I didn’t trust the Seahawks on the road, but True Wins came through (11 for the Seahawks versus just 9.5 for the Skins). So, what are we left with? Two clear favorites in the AFC (Patriots and Broncos) and two toss ups in the NFC. True Wins alone takes 49ers over Packers (11.5 to 11) and Seahawks over Falcons (11 to 10.5). I’m going to stick with the home teams in both cases, but don’t expect blowouts in the NFC unless the turnover margin is really skewed.

Questions

As part of football month on the blog, here are a couple random questions and answers that I’ve accumulated.

Should the NFL eliminate kickoffs? Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers crazy coach, thinks the NFL should get rid of kickoffs to protect player safety. A Rutgers player was paralyzed running kick coverage while Schiano coached there, so he knows exactly how dangerous kickoffs can be. Never mind that this is the same coach who runs a “kneel down blitz” when the other team is trying to kill the clock, a tactic that might work once when the other team is not expecting it, but will probably never work again.

Continue reading

New York is Lefty Land

I’m a Tigers fan, so I’m pretty excited about how things worked out the last week. Basically, everything went right for the Tigers and nothing went right for the Yankees.

The only glimmer of hope for the Yankees came in game one. Down 4-0, Ichiro Suzuki hit a line drive homer to right in the bottom of the ninth and Raul Ibanez followed with a pop fly two-run “shot” that might have been an out (or perhaps a double) in most parks. Hope turned to despair when Derek Jeter went down with an ankle injury in the 12th, ending his season, while the Tigers stormed back into the lead. Even worse for the Yankees, their near victory finally knocked Jose Valverde off his closer pedestal. The Tigers should have made that move months ago.

I want to go back to the homers though. It’s no coincidence that both homers went to right field off of left-handed bats. Here are the home/road home run splits for the Yankees lefties in 2012:

Continue reading

Sabermetrics: Cabrera vs. Trout, Round 2

Last week, I entered the fray on the Mike Trout versus Miguel Cabrera AL MVP debate. It’s similar to the 2010 AL Cy Young discussion — Felix Hernandez led the AL in strikeouts and ERA but managed just a 13-12 record because Seattle couldn’t score. The new era of baseball stats won out. Voters ignored wins, which have little to do with pitching quality, and Hernandez won the award.

Likewise, Trout lags Cabrera in highly publicized but somewhat meaningless  stats (RBI, Triple Crown). Some saber-men would have you believe that Trout laps Cabrera in the only stats that matter (WAR over 10 compared to 7 for Cabrera), but that requires a level of trust that I don’t have. WAR — Wins Above Replacement — is complicated to the point of complete confusion. Cabrera contributed more in some categories (doubles, homers, total bases, batting average) but less in others (triples, baserunning, defense). Is WAR capturing these contributions accurately?

True Runs Revised (A WAR Replacement)

Rather than critique WAR (which would take days), I developed a new, simpler stat: True Runs. True Runs (named in honor of my True Wins football statistic) estimates a player’s contribution to his team based only on simple statistics. I got some good comments on the methodology, and what better time to revise it than now, while listening to MVP chants ring out at Comerica Park in Detroit.

Per DRDR’s comment, I included outs/reached on error in the revised methodology:

  1. Using data since 1990, regress total runs scored by each team each season on total singles, doubles, triples, homers, walks, hit by pitches, usual outs/reached on error, strikeouts, double plays, stolen bases, and caught stealing in that season
  2. Take the coefficients from this regression, multiply them by each individual’s stats, and add up the result

Intuitively, the regression finds the best way to add up all these stats to most closely approximate total runs scored across all teams in all years. The result: True Runs now captures the four basic things a hitter can do at the plate — walk, get a hit, make an out/reach on an error, strikeout — as well as steals. The regression coefficients approximate how many runs each of these actions is worth, on average.*

Here’s the top 10 for 2012 across both leagues Continue reading

Is Joe Flacco Elite? Barnwell strikes again!

Bill Barnwell is up to his usual tricks at Grantland. This time, he’s tired of hearing that Flacco is an elite quarterback and wants a new measure of quarterback value. Flacco gets credit for piling up wins, which Barnwell thinks is unfair:

For whatever good or bad Flacco provides, he has spent his entire career as the starting quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, who perennially possess one of the league’s best defenses. He also has Ray Rice and a solid running game to go alongside him on offense. It’s safe to say that a win by, say, Cam Newton usually requires more work from the quarterback than one by Flacco.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. In response, Barnwell tries to capture quarterback value by creating an “expected wins” measure based on points allowed by the defense and comparing this to actual wins. He argues that a quarterback with more actual wins than expected wins is doing well because he is scoring more points than average.

An example helps explain the concept. First, Barnwell notes that teams have won 86.5% of games recently when allowing between 8 and 12 points. Imagine a team that allows between 8 and 12 points in all 16 games. They are expected to win 86.5% of those games, or 13.8 games. If the team won 14-16 games, Barnwell would argue that the quarterback is doing better than average, while if the team won fewer, Barnwell would argue that the quarterback is doing worse.

As hoped, Flacco is unimpressive by this measure (while the usual suspects — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — are top dogs). He has 44 wins in 64 regular season games, but because the Ravens D is so good, an average QB would have managed about 42.

Before going farther, I’ll warn you: these numbers are pretty meaningless. I’ll start by explaining Continue reading

Cabrera Might Get the Triple Crown, but Does He Deserve the MVP?

Edit: Please see my later post as well, which corrects an omission here.

Miguel Cabrera has a shot at the Triple Crown this year. No one has done it since Carl Yastrzemski. Is it really possible that he could win the Triple Crown and not win the MVP? Well, yes. Every advanced stats guy out there is trumpeting Mike Trout for MVP, with his “wins above replacement” (WAR) above 10 (next best in the majors is 6.8) and his 13 “total zone total fielding runs above average” (basically, this is the number of runs he has saved with his fielding, compared to an average fielder).

The discussion is eerily similar to the AL Cy Young conversation in 2010. Felix Hernandez won because he led the AL in innings pitched, ERA, and, most importantly, WAR,  even though his win-loss record was a mediocre 13-12.

The 2010 Cy Young was a victory for sabermetricians. Pitchers can’t control how many runs their offense scores. All they can do is put up a low ERA and stick around for as many innings as possible. Strikeouts help too, since they reduce the risk of errors, and walks hurt, since fielders can’t do anything about a walk. There might be some cases where pitchers rise to the occasion in a close game to get a win, but for the most part, getting a “win” has little to do with pitcher skill after accounting for pitchers’ direct performance statistics.

2012 MVP: the Saber-Men After Party?

This time around, sabermetric thinking is stacked heavily against Cabrera (and the media is paying attention):

  • RBIs are meaningless. After accounting for total bases and on base percentage in some way, RBIs have little to do with individual skill
  • Cabrera LEADS THE AL IN DOUBLE PLAYS with 28, which is not captured by any traditional stat (granted, he has Austin Jackson’s high OBP in front of him, so he has lots of chances)
  • Trout steals lots of bases and never gets caught (46 for 50 this year), which also isn’t captured by traditional metrics
  • Cabrera is a poor fielder (10 runs worse than average at third base), Trout is a good fielder (mentioned above)

All these factors lead to Trout’s 10.4 to 6.7 WAR advantage over Cabrera. If voters take these numbers seriously, it seems that we’ll be looking at another win for the number crunchers.

But What is WAR Anyway?

Four extra wins is a lot and WAR is widely accepted as meaningful, but before I leap on the Trout-wagon, is WAR actually a good statistic? Here’s a snippet from Baseball Reference’s WAR explanation:

There is no one way to determine WAR. There are hundreds of steps to make this calculation, and dozens of places where reasonable people can disagree on the best way to implement a particular part of the framework.

Uh oh . . . hundreds of steps is never a good sign, Continue reading

Raiders – Chargers Notes: Just go for it!

It’s an old mantra for football analysts, but if there was ever a time to go for it on fourth down, it was in the MNF nightcap for Oakland. Their long snapper was out with a concussion early, making punts a risky proposition. However, at the end of the first half, the Raiders signaled their intentions by settling for a field goal on fourth and one from the one yard line, despite trailing 10-3 at the time.

That decision was probably the wrong one — Oakland didn’t get inside the 20 again until the game was out of reach — but failing to score the touchdown would have been a tough on morale, so it’s semi-understandable early in the game (TMQ was frantically scribbling “game over” in his notebook, of course). However, the second half became comical. Oakland had two fourth and ones between the 20s in the third quarter. On the first, the second string long snapper bounced it up to Shane Lechler, who wisely tucked the ball and fell forward to avoid a block (“GAME OVER” in all caps). On the second, the snap was okay, but someone missed an assignment and the punt was easily blocked (“GAME OVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”).

The Raiders defense didn’t get the memo, though, and played their tails off, holding the Chargers to successive field goals (it helped that Phil Rivers seems legitimately afraid of the blitz). When the Raiders faced a third and 21 later on, Continue reading

Part 2: The Return of Adrian the Canadian

Yesterday, Adrian reasserted himself on the blog with a clear proposal to reduce diving in soccer.  Today, he shows off his versatility with a response to my recent thoughts on fairness in U.S. and European professional sports leagues (written in relation to my brother Conor’s defense of talent concentration in European soccer). For a taste of the historical, economic, legal, and political, set aside 10 minutes and read on:

How long has it been? Too long, I think.  But Tyler’s recent post has compelled me to withdraw from my self-imposed hibernation and away from the stultifying process of studying for the Ontario bar exam. In short, I disagree with the capitalist/socialist, American Sports/European Sports dichotomy or, rather, I think it abstracts away from the real issue – that cartels make a heck of a lot more money than entities that exist in competition with one another. In short, the NFL and MLB are not staunch defenders of equality values; Dan Snyder and Hank Steinbrenner are not driving the train to the Finland Station.

The standard argument goes something like this: isn’t it ironic that America, land of unbridled capitalism, home of animal spirits on free and open fields, has “socialist” sports leagues that redistribute resources from winners to losers while red, socialist, pinko Europe has a free and open market for sports talent? It’s a cute argument and one that elicits a nice “hmmm…” from readers and there are certainly large elements of truth to it. American sports are, at least nominally, more redistributive, and there is a larger perception that American sports are organized more “fairly” than European sports from a competitive standpoint. Still, it’s far from clear that European sports are more aristocratic than American sports if we look at the highest levels and, more importantly, I think this distracts us from a deeper, more thorough comparison of why European sports and American sports are organized so differently.

Barcelona’s greatness is undeniable, but it’s not a greatness that has translated into a dynasty at the highest levels of competition. While Barca has been the dominant team in La Liga, it’s only won three of the last ten Champions League titles despite making each of the last ten tournaments. This means that the Champions League may not even be as “aristocratic” as the NBA:  eight different teams have won the Champions League while only six have won the NBA championship in the same span. And, unlike La Liga Continue reading

Part 1: The Return of Adrian the Canadian

It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from the real Rules Guru, Adrian the Canadian. He has a good excuse – he’s been busy studying rules that actually matter to prepare for Ontario’s bar exam. However, my recent post addressing two soccer articles by my brother Conor lulled him out of hiding. Conor’s spot-on tribute to the toughness of Carles Puyol set me off on a tangent about soccer’s worst trait: diving. In Part 1 of his return, Adrian tells FIFA how to clean up this eyesore:

I’ve been watching a lot of Euro 2012 recently. The standard of play has been high. Games have featured ample scoring, good defense, and the top teams have made it through, leaving us with two potentially excellent semi-finals and the prospect of an even better final. And yet I’m still deeply troubled by the amount of diving in the game. Every half features at least one or two incidences of notorious play acting as players, in an attempt to draw a foul, contort and moan on the grass. It’s not just inelegant, it slows down the game and interrupts potentially excellent passages of play. Worst of all, I think the problem is a tractable one, just one that football authorities have been reluctant to combat.

The biggest problem with eliminating diving is that there will always be a tremendous incentive for players to dive. As we all know, it’s very difficult to score in soccer. Having a stern penalty for fouls in the penalty area – a penalty shot and near sure goal (unless you’re England) – opens up play and increases scoring. The issue is compounded by the fact that soccer is a fast game. It’s very difficult for officials to determine whether a challenge was legitimate or not or whether a player is diving or was actually hurt by a tackle. Thus, we should avoid a rule that makes scoring more difficult or a rule that puts a greater onus on the referees – they’re in a difficult enough situation as it is.

The most intuitive solution is what the MLS does (and what the NBA is threatening to do) – it decreases the incentive to dive Continue reading