The Seattle Seahawks rarely have a hard time stopping any opposing offensive player. During last year’s playoffs alone, over the course of three successive games they shut down New Orleans’ star tight end Jimmy Graham, short-circuited San Francisco’s entire passing game, and humiliated Denver’s Peyton Manning (arguably the best quarterback ever). But on Sunday, the “Legion of Boom” had no answers for San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who caught three touchdown passes in an upset victory over the defending Super Bowl champs.Seattle shouldn’t feel too bad, though. Gates has been doing this kind of thing for 12 NFL seasons now, practically since he made the transition from being the second-leading scorer on Kent State’s 2002 Elite Eight basketball team1Astonishingly, Gates didn’t play a down of football in college. to being an All-Pro NFL tight end. Yet, for all of his accomplishments — by Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value system, he’s the second-best tight end ever — Gates’s career remains under-appreciated. That’s what happens when you play in the long shadow of Tony Gonzalez.Gonzalez, a former tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, was a contemporary, a fellow converted basketballer and usually a division rival. Unfortunately for Gates, Gonzalez is also generally considered the greatest tight end the game has ever seen. That has often rendered Gates the position’s second banana within the AFC West alone, much less the whole league or all pro football history. But Gonzalez retired at the end of last season, and Gates (albeit a diminished version of the player he once was) showed Sunday he can still produce feats worthy of our full attention.It’s a quirk of timing that Gates followed Gonzalez’s script almost line for line. In college, Gates had real NBA aspirations but lacked a true position; at 6 feet 4 inches, he was too small to bang inside against pro-sized power forwards, but he also didn’t have the quickness to chase small forwards around the perimeter.2If Gonzalez started the trend of jumping from hoops to the NFL, Gates solidified it as a legitimate career option; in recent years, Julius Thomas, Jimmy Graham and Jordan Cameron became elite tight ends after playing basketball — and not football — in college. Gates’s agent, realizing his client’s lack of a future at basketball’s next level, scheduled him for a workout in front of NFL scouts and coaches, one of whom was Chargers tight ends coach Tim Brewster. San Diego signed him as an undrafted free agent.Ever since Kellen Winslow redefined the position while playing in Don Coryell’s Chargers system of the 1980s, coaches have been consumed with finding tight ends who check off enough boxes to create mismatches with opposing defenses. Now, when NFL scouts evaluate tight ends, they look for a combination of size, strength, speed and soft hands. In fact, because of the role’s versatility, a tight end can be an offense’s ideal all-around chess piece.Gates possesses an absurd mix of height, quickness, speed and eye-hand coordination. Even his instincts for the game are superior, despite not having the formative experience of playing in college. He runs routes, for instance, with skill and precision, smoothly changing direction and picking out holes in zone coverages, and shows a preternatural ability to adjust to the ball in midair (witness the transcendent one-handed catch he made on his third touchdown against Seattle).The incorporation of such talents in one package made Gates nearly impossible to cover in his prime,3Especially considering he frequently lined up against hopelessly overmatched linebackers or safeties. and puts him very much in the conversation for the most productive pass-catching tight end of his era — Gonzalez included.4Note that I said “pass-catching tight end.” For what it’s worth, neither Gates nor Gonzalez provided much value as a blocker; in the years for which Pro Football Focus’s play-by-play grades are available (2008-13), both were rated as significantly below average in that area, particularly in the running game. Among NFL tight ends over the past 10 full seasons,5So, the decade between 2004 and 2013. only Gonzalez produced more True Receiving Yards (TRY), and none came close to matching Gates’s Approximate Value.Gonzalez hit the scene first, though, and has had the advantage of longevity. Gates started his NFL career slightly later6Gonzalez was a rookie at age 21; Gates began playing in the league at 23. and his production began to slide due to injuries by age 30, while Gonzalez’s numbers were amazingly consistent throughout his 30s (including a remarkable second act with the Atlanta Falcons in which he was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls in his final four NFL seasons).That’s why, if we zoom out to consider the entirety of NFL history, Gonzalez’s body of work is plainly superior to that of Gates — and every other tight end who ever played the game.As football has evolved to the point where first-class tight ends argue (for salary purposes) that the league should simply consider them wide receivers, there’s a case to be made that Gates and Gonzalez should be side by side on the position’s Mount Rushmore.While the decades leading up to the 2000s saw occasional statistical aberrations like Winslow, Ozzie Newsome of the Cleveland Browns and Shannon Sharpe of the Denver Broncos, the best tight ends of the era were still more like Jay Novacek of the Dallas Cowboys or Brent Jones of the San Francisco 49ers — sure-handed receivers who mostly ran underneath routes and could block when needed. Between 1983 (Winslow’s final 1,000-TRY season) and 2000 (Gonzalez’s first), only twice did a tight end crack 1,000 True Receiving Yards in a season: Todd Christensen of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1986, and Sharpe in 1996.But the arrivals of Gonzalez and Gates signaled a change in the position. They ran routes like wide receivers, adding an invaluable dimension to their offenses, and in turn their style of play directly helped spawn today’s generation of supercharged receiving tight ends. There have been more 1,000-TRY seasons by tight ends since 2000, when Gonzalez opened the floodgates, than in the previous 27 years, and more than half of those were by either Gates or Gonzalez.Because they emerged at nearly the same time, in the same division, Gates will probably never truly escape the comparison to Gonzalez. That’s unfortunate; it’s one that Gates can’t possibly win. But if you compare him to every other tight end in history, it’s hard to find another career that stacks up to his, at least in terms of pass-catching prowess. At age 34, Gates is only intermittently capable of the types of outbursts we saw from him on Sunday, but his legacy as a trendsetter — and one of the very best tight ends ever — should nonetheless be secure.
Unlike the previous week, when three of the top five teams in our Elo ratings lost, Week 8 of the NFL season was a good time for the elite. The No. 4 San Francisco 49ers were idle, but the top 3 teams in Elo won, headlined by the Denver Broncos beating the San Diego Chargers by 14 to close in on the majestic 1700-point Elo barrier (a distinction last held by an NFL team when the Seattle Seahawks were putting the finishing touches on their Super Bowl rout of the Broncos in February).It was not, however, a pleasant week for the next-highest tier: the good-but-not-great teams. Among Nos. 5 to 11 in last week’s edition of the Elo ratings, only the No. 8 Arizona Cardinals won. The rest were all tripped up, with the Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers each seeing their ratings decline in excess of 25 points. (Remember, every 25 points of Elo is worth a point in the predicted point spread — so they each lost more than a point per game of future margin-of-victory potential last week.)But out of that group of Week 8 losers (Dallas, Indianapolis, San Diego, Green Bay, the Baltimore Ravens and the Philadelphia Eagles), four teams — the Chargers, Ravens, Packers and Eagles — were not even favored by Elo to win going into the week. All four were on the road. Philadelphia and San Diego had the added misfortune of facing teams ranked ahead of them. That’s why, with the exception of the Packers (who lost to New Orleans by three touchdowns), the ratings damage to those not-quite-elite teams was relatively minimal despite the losses.Dallas and Indianapolis had no such excuses, though. The Colts’ defense was decimated by Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers, contributing to a 31-point drop in Indianapolis’s Elo rating. And the Cowboys lost to Washington as 12.5-point home favorites, leading to a 28-point Elo decline that allowed both Arizona and San Diego (in a loss!) to pass them in this week’s rankings.The Cowboys were of special interest because they’d been so hot going into the Monday-night flop against Washington. Since the beginning of the season, no team had added more Elo points than Dallas, who started the year with a 1496 mark but sat at 1608 before Monday’s game. Although it would have been difficult to foresee a loss to such a lowly squad (Elo said the Cowboys had an 86 percent probability of beating Washington), I wondered whether it shouldn’t have been overly surprising to see some regression to the mean in Dallas’s future, given its meteoric rise.But based on a sample going back to 1978, there’s practically no relationship between the Elo gains made by a team through seven weeks and the change in its rating from that point until the end of the regular season. In other words, we shouldn’t have expected the Cowboys’ rating to bounce back toward their preseason form because our Elo implementation is avoiding autocorrelation properly — meaning that a team’s current rating should also be its expected rating over the remainder of the season.At any rate, Dallas’s upset loss had real implications for the NFC East derby. Despite the Eagles’ loss, the Cowboys’ odds of winning the division dropped from 66 percent to 53 percent. Philadelphia’s chances jumped from 33 percent to 42 percent. Meanwhile, both teams lost ground in the wild card race — Dallas’s odds fell by 2 percentage points, and the Eagles’ chances dropped by 14 percentage points, more than any other team in the league. Much of that lost wild-card probability was soaked up by the NFC West, where Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco’s chances increased by a combined 22 percentage points.Here are the current playoff odds for all NFL teams:In terms of playoff probability, the real losers of Week 8 were the Ravens. Although the Elo-rating damage incurred by their 27-24 loss to Cincinnati was slight — they actually improved by one slot in this week’s rankings because Indianapolis was docked so much for its loss to Pittsburgh — their playoff chances dropped by 18 percentage points, the largest decline sustained by any team. Almost all of that was due to decreased odds of winning the AFC North. Concurrently, the Steelers’ chances of winning the division improved by 14 percentage points. With three teams locked in with division-win probabilities between 28 and 35 percent, the AFC North is the most wide-open division thus far.The North also contains three teams whose chances of making the playoffs range from 49 to 57 percent after adding in the wild card. But whichever of those teams doesn’t win the division will be in for a tough battle with Kansas City and San Diego for wild card slots. According to our simulations, there’s better than an 84 percent probability that at least one AFC wild card will come out of either the North or West divisions.Meanwhile, on the other side of the conference aisle, the New Orleans Saints’ victory over Green Bay went a long way toward carving out their path to the playoffs — one that almost exclusively relies on winning the NFC South. Projected to produce (by far) the losingest division winner in the NFC, the South’s teams have practically no chance of contending for a wild card. That honor could instead go to the two teams atop the NFC East (Dallas and Philadelphia) or their counterparts in the North (Green Bay and the Detroit Lions), though it looks more likely that at least one (if not two) of the West’s three big guns — Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco — will capture wild card berths in the NFC.Elo point spreadsRecord against point spread: 57-57-3 (8-7 in Week 8)Straight-up record: 85-35-1 (11-4 in Week 7)We wouldn’t advise betting with the Elo ratings above. (They have a perfectly .500 record against the spread on the 2014 season so far, and that mark wouldn’t be good enough to beat the house after taking into account the vigorish.) But they are performing well this season in terms of straight-up predictions, correctly pegging the winners more than 70 percent of the time.This week, there are a number of small disparities between Vegas’s lines and those predicted by Elo, but perhaps the most interesting involves the week’s marquee matchup: New England vs. Denver. The annual Brady-Manning showdown always draws its share of attention, but this edition pits our rankings’ Nos. 1 and 2 teams — essentially the Elo version of a BCS championship game. The Elo ratings consider the Patriots to be ever-so-slight favorites, while Vegas lists the Broncos as favored by a field goal. It’s not clear precisely what is driving the difference, although the history of our generation’s defining quarterback rivalry would seem to suggest intangible considerations tend to break in the direction of Brady and the Patriots.CORRECTION (Oct. 29, 11:01 a.m.): A previous version of this article listed the incorrect Elo ratings for visiting teams in the Elo point spread chart. It also incorrectly said the top two teams in the NFC North are the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. They are Green Bay and the Detroit Lions.
New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi plans to continue working, including Thursday night’s Game 4 of the American League Division Playoffs, despite the recent death of his father, Jerry, earlier in the day.Jerry Girardi had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years, living in an assisted-care facility in Metamora, Ill. He was 81.Girardi’s father passed away on Saturday. Girardi did not share that news with he public, however. He learned of his father’s death during the Yankees’ trip to Baltimore, but he elected to stay with the team and manage the remainder of the series.“I didn’t really want to talk about it,” Girardi said. “I didn’t want to take away from what we were trying to do here, because I know my dad wouldn’t. The one thing my parents always taught me was, finish the job at hand.“It’s been somewhat difficult, but because I didn’t really have to talk about it, it was probably easier.”Girardi would visit his father a couple times each baseball season, usually taking advantage of an off-day surrounding a Yankees series in Chicago or the Midwest. His last visit with his father came in August, on an off-day between the Yankees’ series in Chicago and Cleveland.Girardi recalled the moment he informed his father that he had made the Cubs’ opening day roster in 1989 as one of his favorite memories. Giving his father his 1996 Yankees World Series ring was another.“Huge Cubs fan, loved the other sports, loved basketball, played a year at Bradley,” Girardi said. “We played in the backyard. He was tough on me when we played basketball. I mean, he’d knock me down. He taught me about how to get back up.”Girardi said he hadn’t told any of his players about his father’s death. He planned to inform them this weekend, ideally to tell them he would miss Monday’s workout between Games 2 and 3 of the ALCS.“I feel sorry for him. I know this is very tough,” Robinson Cano said. “I know he’s a family guy; you always see his kids and his wife around. He always says family comes first. Hopefully we can win his game for him tonight.”Jerry Girardi was born on May 5, 1931, and married Angela Perino in 1959 in Tampico, Ill. The couple had five children: John, George, Maria, Joe and Jerry. Girardi is also survived by six grandchildren. His wife, Angela, passed away in 1984.Girardi served his country in the United States Air Force during the Korean War. Later he worked in construction sales for National Gypsum Company, and he also worked as a bricklayer.
The teal curve assumes that Bell reports for Week 2 and begins collecting his $855,529 paychecks,2Players earn salaries during their bye weeks, so Bell would earn about $13.7 million for the rest of the season. and then signs a contract with $38 million in guaranteed money at the end of the season. This would make Bell’s total compensation close to $52 million, representing a probable best-case scenario for Bell. The orange curve assumes that he holds out until Week 11, and thus loses out on $855,529 for the next nine weeks, but then signs the same contract with $38 million guaranteed in free agency. In this scenario, Bell would earn $44 million in total.3Including the $855,529 for Weeks 11 through 17, which comes out to $6 million.Crucially, both models assume that Bell receives no future contract if he is injured. Should he go down after signing with Pittsburgh for this season, Bell would collect only the salary guaranteed him under the franchise tag, a very pessimistic scenario. Yet in our chart, we see that the point at which a holdout is expected to become more profitable is outside the range accounting for our best guess at the true injury rate. So reporting and playing is the best option if Bell is seeking to maximize his earnings.Is this the end of the story? Perhaps not — if Bell is actually worth more in free agency than Fitzgerald estimates. If Bell is able to land a contract worth more than Todd Gurley’s, for a total guaranteed contract value of $55 million, holding out becomes a profitable decision. In this scenario, the point at which a holdout is expected to become more profitable falls within our true injury range estimate. Bell’s decision to hold out here makes sense because it balances future earnings with the risk of injury.In both scenarios, there is a possibility that the injury rate we’ve calculated is underestimating the true danger to Bell’s health and future earnings. After all, Bell’s workload is extreme: He led the NFL with 406 touches last season. There may also be motivations at play in Bell’s holdout that are not related to compensation, and not all costs can be captured in a simple model.That said, the chances of Bell getting a contract north of $38 million seem very low. The last best offer from the Steelers reportedly included just $10 million guaranteed. James Conner, Bell’s replacement, recorded 192 yards from scrimmage along with two touchdowns against the Browns in Week 1. If Bell’s overriding goal is to get paid and maximize his earnings, his best course of action is to report immediately to team headquarters and start cashing his checks.Check out our latest NFL predictions.CORRECTION (Sept. 13, 2018, 6 p.m.): A description of the first chart in a previous version of this article transposed the colors of the curves. Last weekend, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the first game of the regular season rather than play under the NFL franchise tag. Slated to earn $14.5 million in guaranteed money in 2018, Bell loses out on $855,529 each week he fails to report. The franchise tag would make Bell the third highest paid running back in the NFL this season — but only if he actually plays. Around the league, there is a wide range of speculation on how long Bell’s holdout will last. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that his sources believe Bell could be back by the end of September, while others note his holdout could conceivably last through Week 10.1To play any part of this season, Bell must sign by 4 p.m. Eastern on the Tuesday following Week 10, or Nov. 13.Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, has hinted that Bell is holding out at least partially because of concerns that the Steelers will overuse him in what is likely his final year with the team. Bakari and Bell appear to have decided to hold out as long as possible to avoid that potential workload and the injury risk it brings. This is a legitimate concern: If Bell suffered a major injury without already obtaining significant guaranteed money, it could end up costing the star running back tens of millions of dollars.So for now, Bell and Bakari’s plan seems to be to maximize his future earnings by forgoing a guaranteed weekly paycheck. But if profit maximization is the aim, is this actually the correct approach? Should Bell hold out through Week 10 if his goal is to earn the most money?To answer those questions, Bell’s camp must balance the amount of guaranteed money he is likely to earn in the open market with the risk of injury if he plays this season. The market for elite running backs in the NFL is difficult to gauge, but we have two recent comps to help us land on an approximate value. I asked NFL salary cap expert Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap for his opinion, and he believes Bell will likely command a contract that will land somewhere between what Todd Gurley and David Johnson were able to negotiate.“Realistically, I can’t see a path to exceed $45 million in guarantees to top Gurley,” Fitzgerald told me. “In light of the Johnson deal, I’d probably say a fair number to use is something between $35 [million] and $38 million in injury guarantees and probably looking at a three-year deal.”Bell and his agent surely have a salary target in mind, and it may well be different from what Fitzgerald estimates Bell is worth. For now, we’ll use the high end of Fitzgerald’s range and assume that Bell lands a contract with $38 million in guarantees. Next we need to calculate the injury risk of playing running back in the NFL. Moreover, we need to adjust the injury rate to account for players who see a large volume of touches. Over his career, since 2013, Bell has averaged 24.9 touches per game, the most in the league. Each of those touches is an opportunity for a serious injury that could rob Bell of his future earnings.According to Football Outsiders, the running back position has the second highest rate of serious injuries in the league at less than 20 percent. Serious injuries are defined as those that cause a player to miss four or more games, which is the outcome Bell surely wants to avoid. This injury rate estimate is probably too low, however. Football Outsiders includes all running backs on each 53-man roster in its rate calculation, regardless of whether they actually take the field. Being tackled in the NFL is a major driver of injury, so we need to account for touches on the field of play.One way to do this is to leverage fantasy drafts as a proxy for running back usage in the upcoming season. Fantasy players use the early part of their drafts to take running backs who they anticipate will see high volume. To estimate the injury rate for these players, I reached out to epidemiologist Zach Binney, a sports performance and injury consultant and a writer for Football Outsiders. Binney took average draft position (ADP) data from 2007 to 2015 and used Football Outsider’s proprietary injury database to calculate the serious injury rate for running backs with a preseason positional ADP of 24 or greater. He estimates that the true likelihood of serious injury is between 20.9 and 32.8 percent for NFL running backs over a season.Armed with these findings, we can create payoff curves based on a range of possible per-game injury probabilities.
As my colleague Ben Morris wrote Wednesday, the NFL’s annual free agent market is not, by and large, where Super Bowls are won and lost. At best, it’s a place where teams tread water, paying the going rate for known talents. At worst, it’s where teams waste a ton of money. It’s not hard to see why: Because of “the winner’s curse,” the team that lands a coveted free agent (cough, Ndamukong Suh) is usually the one whose front office overestimated his value by the greatest amount. And with a hard salary cap in place, miscues of that sort mean another aspect of the team is necessarily handicapped with fewer resources as a result.Want more evidence that offseason roster reshuffling is pointless? Going back to the advent of the NFL salary cap (before the 1994 season), I looked at the relationship between the Approximate Value (AV) of veteran players acquired by a team1Via free agency or trades. over the offseason and how much the team’s Simple Rating System (SRS) score improved the following season. Whether you gauge the quality of incoming players using their AV from the prior season alone or their cumulative AV over the preceding three seasons, there’s essentially no connection between how much talent a team adds over the offseason and how much better (or worse) it gets that season.But maybe adding talent is only half the equation. There’s also the matter of preventing talent from leaving by re-signing veterans — or at least maintaining a positive mark in the offseason AV exchange ledger. However, even when looking at net veteran AV gained/lost over the preceding offseason, there’s still no relationship between a team’s ability to hoard proven talent in the offseason and its improvement or decline in the ensuing season.Free agency always feels like one of the most exciting parts of the NFL offseason. But if history is any guide, the vast majority of what happens this week will have little bearing on how much any given team improves or declines next season.
Every singles tennis match is bound by the same dimensions — played on a court 78 feet long by 27 feet across and a net 3.5 feet high at the posts, with rackets no more than 29 inches long and 12.5 inches across — yet each one is a laboratory for innovation, unrestrained by a risk-averse coach or the conflicting desires of teammates. Not every tennis player thinks or talks deeply and consciously about analytics, but each one is analyzing herself and her opponents, strategically and tactically, before a match, between points and before every shot.Top-ranked players can afford coaches who analyze and dissect play instead of serving as glorified companions, hitting partners and lay sports psychologists — but even they can’t help players once they’re on court at Grand Slam tournaments.1The WTA, which runs professional women’s events outside of the Grand Slams, allows on-court coaching during matches.Singles players make hundreds of decisions in each match, sometimes thousands,2A match usually contains more than 100 points, and each point can contain a dozen or more shots. all alone on their side of the net. Hit a backhand or run around the ball to hit a forehand? Hit the ball with slice or topspin? Come to net or stay back? Go for placement, speed or spin on serve? Serve to your opponent’s forehand or backhand? Any one decision like these might involve an entire coaching staff in another sport, but tennis players not only do it alone, but under match conditions that evolve because of weather, injury or an opponent’s change in strategy.In this way, the sport’s very format lends itself to invention and calculated risk-taking. Top stars play as many times in a season as an NBA or NHL team, and far more often than an NFL team. Unlike those team sports, though, they aren’t working toward a single championship. Each event is a fresh start, and the biggest events — the Grand Slams — come four times a year. This year there’s an extra target in the Olympic Games. Lose at a major tournament, and there’s another chance or two in the next few months.The experimentation isn’t just born out of opportunity, but necessity. Every tennis player who isn’t ranked No. 1 gets chances to play as an underdog, as seen in this year’s Australian Open. Angelique Kerber is ranked sixth in the world, yet bookies gave her just a 19 percent chance of beating No. 16 Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals because Azarenka had won all six of their previous matches. (For the vast majority of matches — those that aren’t fixed — prematch odds are a decent indicator of players’ chances to win.) Maria Sharapova is ranked fifth in the world, yet she was given just a 22 percent chance of beating top-ranked Serena Williams in the quarterfinals — after all, she’d lost 17 matches in a row to the American. Even after losing a match in which she tried guessing where Williams would hit her first serves, Sharapova said she relished meeting her rival. “If I don’t have that chance then I don’t have the opportunity to try something different,” Sharapova said. She added, “She makes you go back to the drawing board, not just for me, but for many other players.”Underdogs can try new things without much fear of failure, and sometimes those new methods can produce great upsets, such as Fernando Verdasco’s win over Rafael Nadal in the first round despite being given just an 11 percent chance before the match. Sometimes they almost produce great upsets, like when Gilles Simon (4 percent) extended Novak Djokovic to five sets in the fourth round. And sometimes they don’t even come close, like when Margarita Gasparyan (8 percent) won just three games in the fourth round against Williams. “I have a lot of double faults because I want to hit the ball more aggressive in the second serve, but I have mistakes,” Gasparyan said. Sometimes you swing big and you miss big. But that loss didn’t cost Gasparyan any money or ranking points, didn’t bring her any harsh questions from reporters, and didn’t get Gasparyan fired by her boss, because she has no boss.Players who were big underdogs, or faced them, often use the word “aggressive” to describe their approach in trying to pull off a big upset — Kerber used it in one news conference to describe how Annika Beck had tried to beat her, and how she would in turn try to beat Azarenka. Sometimes aggression can describe underdogs’ in-match demeanor, like when Lukas Rosol unnerved Nadal with his posture while returning serve on his way to eliminating the two-time champion from Wimbledon in 2012. More often, though, “aggressive” describes underdogs’ style of play, such as Rosol’s and Verdasco’s. It means playing offense, not defense, and taking big risks on individual shots by hitting the ball hard, close to the lines and the top of the net. Any one shot is less likely to go in, but hitting a series of shots like that throughout a match can neutralize top players’ defensive skills and natural talents while giving underdogs their best chance to win. Tennis players have figured out something that still flummoxes multimillionaire decision-makers in other sports: The riskiest strategy is often what looks like the lowest-risk tactic, and even if aggressive shots misfire once or twice, hitting many of them will pay off down the line.“Today I was just like trying to be as aggressive as possible, but also not like so crazy,” Verdasco said after ousting Nadal. “Sometimes if you do like what I did today, you put all the balls outside, it’s like, ‘This guy’s crazy. He just hit everything and he miss.’ But when they are coming in, you play unbelievable. The difference is just so little and can be so big.”“I’m an aggressive player,” Sharapova said after her fourth-round win. “But there is a difference between making the wrong errors and making the right errors. I feel like, yeah, I made errors. I went sometimes for a little bit too much. But I think the difference is sometimes you’re making errors, but you feel like you’re doing the right thing. Ultimately when the time comes, you have to believe that those errors are just, you know, a few centimeters wide or long that they’re going to start going in.” Sharapova had to believe guessing Williams’s serve placements would give her a better chance to win. She didn’t, but she probably wouldn’t have anyway, and it might work in a future meeting.Not every player, though, has the same strength and competitive advantages of Rosol, Verdasco and Sharapova. Part of what makes a tennis tournament a lab with many simultaneous experiments is the wide range of players’ physiques and skills. After Barbora Strycova’s effort to beat Azarenka in the fourth round fell short, Strycova — who is seven and a half inches shorter than Azarenka — was asked about her unusual style, which includes serving and volleying, a rarity in women’s tennis today. “I’m not big enough to play powerful tennis,” Strycova said.Simon is 6-foot, weighs just 154 pounds and has earned more than $10 million with his mind and his defense, not his power. After he’d pushed Djokovic to the limit, Simon contrasted himself with Stan Wawrinka, the last man to oust Djokovic from a Slam. “I have to find my own way to do it,” Simon said. “Like I wish I could hit like Stan, but that’s far from being the case. … I just try to keep it simple, use my strengths, use his weaknesses, yeah, just try to work it out.”Roger Federer was watching. When a reporter pointed to Djokovic’s 100 unforced errors against Simon — representing 57 percent of the points the Frenchman won — as a sign the world No. 1 played badly, Federer replied, “How much did you see Gilles Simon play? I’m just wondering, because I think people miss the point of him. He plays every match like that. He makes you miss. He makes you go for the lines and he runs down a lot of balls. A lot of points end in errors … he knows exactly what he’s doing out there, and it worked almost to the very end.”Athletes of all sizes and skills can thrive in part because tennis’s structure rewards idiosyncratic game styles, whatever you may have heard about the stultifying sameness of today’s players. At the macro level, that may be true, but players who have an uncommon style are hard to prepare for when matchups are set only a day or two ahead of time, and when you could face any of hundreds of other players in a Grand Slam. Dustin Brown was 30 when he upset a 29-year-old Nadal last year at Wimbledon, yet the two had played just once before and Nadal looked utterly perplexed by Brown’s serve-and-volley, go-for-broke, rush-between-serves game. Williams doesn’t encounter many opponents like Roberta Vinci, whose slicing, net-charging game halted the world No. 1’s 33-match Grand Slam winning streak at the U.S. Open last year.And a player’s style isn’t a fixed quantity but one that can change during a career. A player can change her serve, or her racket, or where she stands on returns, or how often she comes to net. Federer has gone from a serve-and-volley style on fast surfaces earlier in his career to a baseline game to a hybrid that includes net charges off short-hop returns. He found the right mix for one set against Djokovic in Thursday’s semifinal, but Djokovic’s own tactical countermoves won the day, clinching the decisive break with a searing return as Federer charged the net. Fellow semifinalist Milos Raonic, who beat Federer to win the Brisbane tournament earlier this month, has excelled this year by improving his net game. Sharapova has started switching her racket to her nondominant left hand to reach balls out wide. Sometimes players work on new tactics in practice, then unveil them in matches — and shelve or retool them if they don’t work out. The constant adjustments to counter new rivals and tactics push the best players to new heights — by our Elo measure, Djokovic is playing the best tennis the sport has ever seen.The tennis lab is far from optimal. The sport’s stats are limited and hamstrung by its fragmented structure, which makes it hard for players — and for us — to quantify the success of new gambits. Many players and coaches don’t pay attention to the stats that are available. For every player who talks tactics in news conferences, there are three who say they just try to “play my game.”But don’t just listen to what they say. Watch how they play. You might learn a thing or two about mixed strategy and when the biggest risk is not taking risks. The women’s and men’s singles finals start at 3:30 a.m. Eastern on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. That’s not too early for coaches in another sport who could stand to learn about the right time to take risks.CORRECTION (Feb. 1, 10:50 a.m.): An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Rafael Nadal’s record at Wimbledon. Nadal was the runner-up at Wimbledon in 2011 to Novak Djokovic, and so was not the defending champion in 2012.
After a combative voting season, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced the induction of three players Wednesday evening: Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines. Of the three, two came as no surprise: Rodriguez made it on his first try, and Bagwell came incredibly close in 2016, so this year’s less-crowded ballot helped him get over the top. But the real story is the Hall’s embrace, at long last, of Tim Raines. In his tenth and final year on the ballot, the former Montreal Expos speedster showed that a concerted campaign based on advanced metrics can help elect a player who might previously have been overlooked.Raines was never a contender for the Hall if you looked solely at his traditional numbers. His 170 home runs spoke more to longevity than prodigious power, and he fell short of such old-school benchmarks as 3,000 hits or 1,500 RBI. Making matters more difficult, Raines was perpetually overshadowed by fellow Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who played in the same era with a similar set of skills, but racked up much more value. (According to Baseball-Reference.com, Henderson had 110.8 career wins above replacement, compared with 69.1 for Raines). As a result, Raines failed to acquire much “black ink” in his career: He rarely led the league in any particular category; Henderson always seemed just a little bit better.But Raines still found ways to excel: He got on base in about 38.5 percent of his plate appearances, and he racked up more than a hundred runs of value above average in his career as a baserunner. Although 69.1 WAR may not be in Henderson’s league, it still made Raines worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration.Despite the misfortune of playing alongside Henderson, Raines also developed a passionate fanbase. His underrated statistical merits, combined with his lack of traditional accomplishments, spurred the nascent sabermetrics movement to lobby for him. Noted analytics website Baseball Prospectus consistently advocated for Raines’s election from the moment he retired, with former BP staffer (and, later, FiveThirtyEight contributor) Jonah Keri spearheading the campaign.Partially because of sabermetrics and a changing electorate, Raines’s vote totals climbed almost every year he was on the ballot. After news broke of Raines’s induction, Keri told me that “a handful” of voters had reached out to him over the years to credit his work with changing their mind on Raines. This year, Raines finished with 86 percent of the vote, a long way from the low of 22.6 percent he received in his second year.Raines’s election should give hope to all the underappreciated players whose advanced metrics exceeded their traditional accomplishments. As the electorate gets smarter and more informed, even hitters like Raines — without gaudy home run or RBI totals — can hope to make their way to Cooperstown eventually.
The great home run mystery of 2015-17 has been solved. Maybe.Yesterday, former FiveThirtyEight writer Ben Lindbergh and prominent sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman published a piece at the Ringer with evidence showing that alterations to the ball might partially explain the spike in home runs over the past two seasons. By physically testing the balls, they found that in addition to changes that make the ball come off the bat faster, the seams were made flatter in a way that could affect the ball’s aerodynamics. With their findings in mind, I examined the rate of home runs per fly ball and found further evidence suggesting that the ball itself may be the culprit.Just after the All-Star Break in 2015, MLB’s home run rate increased without warning or explanation. Since then, it has continued rising, and it now threatens the all-time record set in the heart of the steroid era. In a series of articles at FiveThirtyEight, Lindbergh and I ruled out various explanations for the home run surge, including weather, a wave of young talent, and steroids, leaving alterations to the ball as the most likely answer. It’s either that, or 750 MLB players woke up one morning in 2015 with more pop in their bats. Despite MLB’s repeated denials, Lindbergh and Lichtman reveal that the 2016-17 baseballs have different physical properties — and those changes could explain the record-breaking home run rates. The primary alteration to the ball affected its bounciness, making it come off the bat faster. But Lindbergh and Lichtman also uncovered evidence that the ball’s seams are lower and that its circumference has decreased. Those changes should decrease the ball’s air resistance, so that a new ball should go farther than an old ball that leaves the bat at the same speed.And it turns out the new balls do tend to travel farther. I built a model to predict whether a given fly ball would go over the fence in 2015, based on the launch angle, exit velocity and stadium.1I defined a fly ball as one hit with launch angle greater than 20 degrees. Then I used that model to predict how many home runs there were in 2016.2I used a random forest to produce the results discussed in this article. I also ran a logistic regression, which produced similar findings.If the ball stayed the same, the model should be able to forecast the right number of homers. Instead, the league hit about four percent (201 total) more home runs hit than expected in 2016, even accounting for the higher exit velocities and better launch angles. That’s significantly more than you’d see by chance.3The p value was less than 0.01. The changes can also be seen in the trends of the last few years: If you focus on balls hit with launch angles of between 20 and 40 degrees and exit velocities higher than 100 miles per hour (roughly corresponding to the league’s definition of “barreled balls”), 72.9 percent of those flies ended up over the fence in 2015, compared to 74.7 percent in 2016 and 76.4 percent so far this year. Of course, another possibility is that MLB recalibrated Statcast, the radar tracking system that maps the trajectory of every batted ball, which could cause the same ball to be listed with different exit velocities in 2016 to and 2015. But even if that did happen, it would not resolve the mystery, it would only shift responsibility for the home run spike to inexplicably harder hitting, instead of more favorable ball aerodynamics.It’s possible that weather (temperature, wind or humidity) could be affecting home run rates, but when I examined only domed stadiums, I found the same increase in dingers. I asked baseball physicist Alan Nathan to calculate what effect the new balls could have, and he found that the changes in the seam height and circumference would increase average batted-ball distance something like 1 or 2 feet, raising home run rates by approximately 4 percent — identical to what I observed.Reached for comment, Major League Baseball noted that the league regularly tests baseballs to ensure that they meet established standards, and that recent tests have found that the balls are within those standards. MLB also said that an outside consultant has examined their results and found no reason to suspect that the baseballs in use today would cause an increase in offense.To be sure, the league-wide impact of tweaking the ball’s aerodynamics is small. According to Lindbergh and Lichtman, who note that their experiments are not definitive, the seam height and circumference changes only appeared in 2016, well after the midyear adjustment in 2015 that kicked off the home run surge (that part of the increase is likely attributable to increases in the balls’ bounciness). It’s likely that many factors are contributing to the ongoing spike in home run rates, including hitters adjusting their approaches and favorable weather conditions, but we now have a compelling explanation for the bulk of the spike.
Ohio State has officially responded to its NCAA Notice of Allegations. An OSU spokeswoman confirmed to The Lantern that the athletic program’s response, originally expected on Tuesday until the NCAA extended the deadline for all parties involved, was filed today. OSU representatives also confirmed to The Lantern last week that the report OSU filed today would be made public Monday. On Thursday, OSU athletic director Gene Smith told the Associated Press that the process of responding to the NCAA has been “hard.” “We’re really been hurt by the fact that everybody in the athletic department has been indicted because of the actions of a few,” Smith told the AP. Smith has declined to comment to The Lantern since June 1. The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations, sent to OSU President E. Gordon Gee on April 21, detailed the charges the university faces. In the report, the NCAA said former coach Jim Tressel failed to behave with “honesty and integrity,” and knowingly played ineligible players, including former quarterback Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Solomon Thomas and Mike Adams. Pryor departed the university on June 7 to pursue an NFL career. The NCAA’s report also revealed that OSU may be designated as a “repeat offender” due to violations committed by former basketball coach Jim O’Brien and 2006 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith. At least one additional fateful date awaits OSU and its fans before the 2011 football season begins on Sept. 3 at Ohio Stadium against the Akron Zips — on Aug. 12, OSU officials will convene with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in Indianapolis and make a case for lessened punishments.