Category Archives: Common Sense

Shutting down Strasburg: the dumbest move in sports history?

Most baseball fans already know — the Nationals are in first place in the NL East, but they’re going to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg after 180 innings to protect his young arm. Strasburg had Tommy John surgery two years ago, and the Nationals aren’t taking any chances. I don’t necessarily think he should go over 180 innings (I’m no doctor), but why are the Nationals doing it this way? He’s going to hit doomsday just before the season finishes and the playoffs begin. Sorry fans, sorry players, your first place team is going to be shorthanded when it counts.

In a similar situation, the White Sox have found ways to give Chris Sale extra rest throughout the season. Why not do that or even use a six man rotation? GM Mike Rizzo has favored a regular schedule for Strasburg on the advice of various medical experts. A six man rotation would be pretty regular. I’m not the first to suggest this — I just want to highlight how dumb this decision was. The Nationals have never been to the playoffs! They might miss their shot at a World Series because of this.

In celebration of the Nationals strategy, poll your friends/office mates and share the dumbest sports decision(s) that you can think of in the comments below. “Trading Babe Ruth” is a good start but not very original.

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The Islanders offered ALL THEIR PICKS for the 2nd pick: doh!

Incredibly, the Blue Jackets turned them down! I thought the Redskins trade for the second pick in the NFL draft (used to select Robert Griffin III) was crazy. The Islanders offered the fourth pick along with six other picks. How could the Blue Jackets — who are terrible — refuse the chance to collect six extra prospects? Doing so would give them trade assets and limit their risk exposure substantially. Even if their second pick (highly regarded defenseman Ryan Murray) works out, how can he possibly be worth more than seven draft-worthy players, including the fourth overall pick?

As in the NFL, I was shocked by the value the Blue Jackets and Islanders placed on the second pick. There’s so much risk involved with top draft picks. Given the price teams are willing to pay, why not trade them for known quantities (current NHLers) or multiple picks slightly lower down? I made this same argument about the first pick in the NFL draft this year. Just because Andrew Luck is “the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning” (or whoever) doesn’t mean the Colts should have drafted him. The value of that pick was astronomical precisely because Andrew Luck is considered to be a sure thing, when we all know there’s no such thing as a “sure thing” in a sports draft.

Edit: At least the Bobcats have realized that they should trade the second pick this year. Even if they had the first pick (which they surely would keep), I would suggest that they at least check Anthony Davis’s market value.

All 22!

Here it comes – out of nowhere, the NFL decided to release the “all 22” video for every game. Clearly, the NFL read my petition a few months ago and decided it was time for action. As evidenced in the linked article, many insiders are deathly afraid that people will analyze the all 22 tape incorrectly, since accurate analysis requires knowledge of the play call (or a good guess) as well as keen observation and football acumen. The obvious response to this is, “In what sport do observers correctly analyze the proceedings?” There will always be errors in layman analysis. Meanwhile, releasing the all 22 will allow serious fans to actually see the entire game, which has tremendous value of its own.

How much money are college football players worth?

A few months ago, my friend Jeff and I worked out how much University of Florida athletes are worth to the school for ESPN the Magazine. The key to our approach — in contrast to other studies — is that we looked at profits generated by each player, rather than revenue. Revenue is not so relevant if it is outrun by costs. What matters is profit (before subtracting player compensation). Profit tells you how much schools could actually pay their players.

The numbers at Florida

The short answer: the best college football players at Florida are worth millions per year, the best basketball players are worth a few hundred thousand, and all other athletes cost the school quite a bit of money. If you have ESPN insider, you can view the full article online. How much of this profit do football and basketball players see? Very little. Player compensation in the form of scholarships is between $15,000 and $50,000 per year per player at most schools. By contrast, other athletes are getting a great deal. Not only do they get a free education, but Florida spends tens of thousands more on each player to ensure that they have awesome coaching, facilities, and equipment.

Football profits across the FBS

Today, Jeff and I have a related project at ESPN, which will also appear in ESPN the Mag soon. We argue that college football players should be paid. Why? Average profit generated by FBS football players — before scholarships — is about $164,000. The average scholarship payout is just $27,000 by our estimation. So, “non-profit” schools are making an average of $137,000 in profit per player. And if that’s not enough, look at the breakdown by conference (all numbers are from the U.S. Department of Education for the 2010-2011 season):

The SEC and Big Ten are making over $300,000 per player! It’s no wonder we see recruiting scandals every year. They won’t disappear until schools are allowed to pay players closer to what they are worth.

For the curious, here’s the top 10:

Paying players is the right move

We thought about the arguments against paying Continue reading

Basketball questions

I’ve been watching my fair share of basketball during the playoffs — very exciting, compelling series so far, despite the injuries. However, I have a few questions:

  1. Why do you have to hand the ball to the ref before you throw it in? Wouldn’t it be much more exciting to let players throw it in as soon as they can get a ball, like a soccer throw in? Teams are allowed to do this after a made basket already. Add another commercial break to balance out the faster pace if that’s what it takes.
  2. Why can you only draw a charge if you stay on the ground and fall over? The offensive player can draw a foul while jumping and keeping his feet, why not the defense? If the defender jumps, the best case is a no call. Referees have a big say at the end of basketball games, but it’s not a bigger say than baseball umpires, for example, who must make every ball and strike call. I think one of the reasons people persecute basketball refs (besides the Tim Donaghy scandal) is that the foul rules aren’t especially consistent.
  3. Why do teams get so many timeouts, especially in the first half? They have lots of practiced plays that they can signal in from the sideline. I suppose that the endgame timeout flurries increase the tension on those individual plays, but the downtime in between is no fun, and I bet the rest of the game seems less important by comparison. Again, if we need a couple more evenly spaced TV timeouts or sponsors on the jerseys to compensate, I’m fine with that.

These are my questions. Do you have any answers?

More NBA spatial data

Adrian the Canadian — my designated Deadspin trawler — sent me an interesting graphic by Kirk Goldsberry and Matt Adams showing the highest percentage shooters from various regions of the court. You might recall that Goldsberry presented similar work at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March (runner up for the research award). My take on this work is that, while interesting and impressive in terms of data, much of the spatial variation in shooting could be explained by factors other than location-specific shooting ability (this will sound familiar if you read my post yesterday on player tracking data).

First, random chance is an issue, especially when trying to identify the best shooters at each location. I think Goldsberry requires a certain number of shots for inclusion at each spot, but he doesn’t do the statistical analysis to determine whether the differences he presents are statistically significant (i.e., large enough such that they are probably not due to chance variation). His big surprise — Rondo leading the league in one mid-range zone — is likely based on a fairly small sample of shots.

Second, defensive position is missing from the analysis. A big red flag for this one is that Durant, at only 40% shooting, leads in the three point zone just to the shooter’s right at the top of the key. Every other three point zone has a guy over 50%. Unless there’s something challenging for right handers Continue reading

Player tracking in basketball: not a silver bullet

For anyone who follows quantitative sports analysis, player tracking cameras are not news. Along with the NBA, soccer teams use them (even in the MLS) and rugby teams use them. They give x-y-z coordinates for each player at a high frame rate, which can be processed into a variety of statistics. Many think that this approach will revolutionize sports analysis. I stumbled across an article at ESPN today spreading this view to the masses.

Tracking data can help with many things, but it won’t save analysts from themselves. Here’s a point-counterpoint from the article linked above.

Point: “Paul Pierce averaged 4.5 assists this season, which is pretty good for a scoring wing. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. According to SportVU, Pierce’s teammates shot a higher percentage after his passes than any other player in the NBA. This shows Pierce is passing at the right time — he’s giving his teammates mostly layups and open shots.”

Counterpoint: Pierce might be making great passes, but it’s just as likely that Pierce plays with better than average shooters or better than average cutters/floor spacers, or that Pierce commands a strong defender Continue reading