Friday, August 24, 2012

Under Siege: For the Orioles, The Time Is Now

Judging by the pun made in The Sun's
 opening Day headline, it would've been hard
for many fans to foresee the Birds having
this much success up to this point in 2012.
Friday marks an important day for the Orioles, maybe more for the fans than the players, but significant nonetheless.  The O's, picked to finish last in the American League East, baseball's toughest division, are in a dogfight for their playoff lives that many would have thought inconceivable on Opening Day. Here's the short version of where they stand:

67-57 (.540)
3rd place, AL East (5 games behind NYY)
T-2nd in Wild Card race (2.5 games behind TB)
Run differential: -54
Last 10 games: 6-4

 Among the mortar shells that have been leveled against the Birds' postseason chances:
  • They have lost four of their five original starting pitchers to injuries or minor league demotions at various times during the season. 
  • Not a single everyday player is hitting over .300. 
  • Their run differential is historically bad, 70 runs lower than any of the other four teams (Tampa Bay, Oakland, Detroit, Los Angeles) near them in the AL wild card race; theirs is the also only one in negative numbers. 
  • Their best third baseman has 13 games of Major League experience.
  • The team leader in RBI ranks 25th in the AL, behind hitters from 11 of the other 13 teams, including lame-duck squads like Kansas City, Toronto, Minnesota & Seattle
  • Their record at Camden Yards is only 3 games over .500, the worst for any team within 5 games of the division lead in the majors.
  • Their primary left-handed DH ranks in the top 5 in the AL in strikeouts, his K/BB ratio is over 5-to-1, and he just reached the 20 HR/60 RBI plateau in the last 10 days; conversely, Adam Dunn (another professional hitter) leads the AL in strikeouts but has 36 HR/80 RBI and a 2-to-1 K/BB ratio.
  • They have one starting pitcher who has thrown as many innings as the O's have played games; no other AL team in playoff contention has fewer than three.
  • They have the worst team fielding percentage in the American League (and the most errors).
  • Their sterling bullpen (ERA: 3.04) has hit twice as many batters as the bullpens of the Yankees, Tigers, Rangers and Angels; if you believe there is an innings pitched discrepancy, you'd be right, but know that the O's ratio is about 17 innings pitched for every beaned hitter, whereas the other bullpens all go (on average) more than 30 innings between hit batsmen.
Judging by that sample of stats, the glass appears deservedly half-empty for Baltimore's longevity in the top half of the standings.  That being said, this is not a team that gives up easily: a 23-6 record (.793) in one run games and a streak of 12 extra-inning wins in a row are hard-earned marks, not some random glitch in the algorithms of luck.  Add those razor-thin margins to 22 losses by 5 or more runs, and you've got the two primary ingredients for their atrocious run differential. 

It seems like the O's tend to 'punt' fairly often when they smell a maleficent situation — intent is mighty hard to determine, but the number of occasions on which Buck Showalter & Co. have ended up the victims of a lopsided loss would seem to suggest that the Orioles manager may just have a feel for knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.  That being said, centerfielder Adam Jones and shortstop JJ Hardy have played in nearly every single inning this season, and if Showalter really intended to wave a white flag in certain games, it would've made sense for those two guys to rest a bit more often than they have, even if only for half a game. But that's neither here nor there. This is about the team, not one or two individual players. And, despite the best attempts of other teams to unseat them, Baltimore has hung tough to this point.

Cal Ripken Jr. turns 52 today, 11 years removed from a Hall of Fame career for his hometown team, one that included three postseason appearances in a 14-year span. It's been 14 years since the Birds last had a winning season, back when The Iron Man still had a post on the left side of the infield, and in recent years there's been some talk of him coming back to help rescue his old club.  It's a happy occasion for Cal, no doubt, that Charm City is awash in orange and black every night these days (for a change) in the hope that kids born in the 1990s and early 2000s will actually get a reprieve from the unseemly baseball years that have plagued their childhoods.

If anyone deserves to see the
O's make the playoffs, it's Mike
Flanagan, wherever he is.
In the same way, however, it is a bittersweet occasion for the family of Mike Flanagan, a man who would've been living through his 60th summer had he not taken his own life last year on this day.  He had a Cy Young award, a World Series ring, and a knack for comic timing and nuance beyond compare. He'd been involved in baseball all his life and in various on-field, front office and broadcasting positions with the Orioles organizations in the years following his career.  And yet, in a world that turns on what you've done for it lately, the speculation that Flanagan's despondency was related to his role (or perceived role) in the team's slump during the 2000s is hard to dismiss.  Here was a man who gave everything he had to a game and a team he truly loved, and what was his reward?  

Any one of us with a lifetime of experience in a certain field would feel utterly befuddled in moments where our know-how was unable to make a difference (or , especially, where that perception was inaccurately employed); to players and fans, it is hard to imagine the chronic pain felt in that situation and the things it might make us do.  Certainly, if there were ever a man and his family deserving of immediate retribution—as immediate as the game would allow— Mike Flanagan would be that man, and the time would be this year.

The O's are coming off one of their worst series this season, and under the circumstances, it might as well be rock bottom in terms of remaining relevant.  In the last few days, Baltimore has been outscored 20-9 in painful fashion by the Texas Rangers, taking only one game of three while watching Los Angeles sweep the Red Sox, Chicago sweep the Yankees, Detroit sweep Toronto and the Rays take three games of their own. The Blue Jays will have slugger Jose Bautista back in the lineup tonight when they arrive in Baltimore, and the O's are set to face playoff contenders (Oakland, Chicago, New York, Tampa Bay) in the 17 of the next 23 games that won't be against the Jays.  This is a crucial stretch that will almost assuredly make or break the Birds' season, one that may end with a sub-.500 record, just as unremarkable as the fourteen October-less years before it.  

Thus far, the O's have spoken softly of their chances, maintaining that they still intend to catch the Yankees for the AL East lead. Now is the time for Showalter, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Jim Johnson and their brethren to show whether or not Birdland's Best have the big sticks to back those aspirations. 

Mike Flanagan, wherever he is, would sure love to call these games down the stretch—preferably, they'd be wins.

(stats courtesy of

Monday, July 30, 2012

Lew Ford in Left: Day 1 in the Books, Day 2 Comin' Up!

When one door closes for the O's, another opens. Through the former goes Brian Roberts with yet another injury; Through the latter enters Lew Ford, stage left field. Quite frankly, though I'm bummed for Roberts, I’m thrilled to have another capable outfielder on the roster at a critical moment in the schedule.

Since Chris Davis started playing left field back on July 13, I’ve have been closing my eyes every time a ball is hit to left field in Oriole Park (and surely I’m not alone), knowing that I’d rather listen to a radio call, even a bad one, than watch a 6’3” 230-pound converted corner infielder with limited speed play any ball batted into the largest expanse of Camden Yards.

To say nothing of Baltimore’s limited offensive prowess, Davis was clearly a square peg in a round hole, one that spurred me to think more extensively at potential solutions. For me as an observer, someone who does not have to worry about financial considerations or the long-term viability of the team, there seemed to be a ready-made answer that hadn’t yet been tried, one not named Xavier Avery, Endy Chavez, Steve Pearce, or Davis. His name was Lew Ford, a journeyman outfielder.


I had asked that question in late June when my brother and good friend were bantering back and forth about the O’s per usual. Lew Ford, they said. He’s killing at Triple-A. We gotta give him a shot, damn the age!

Ford’s age happens to be almost 36 years young, though he’s nearing the end of a largely unremarkable career spent between the majors, minors, independent leagues and abroad. Defensively, he once provided capable replacement-level play behind Torii Hunter when the nine-time Gold Glove winner was a center-field mainstay in Minnesota. Between 2004 and 2005, Ford made 209 starts in the outfield while committing only 10 errors in almost 500 chances. 500 is a nice, round number, a bit more substantial than say, zero, so right away, Ford is miles ahead of Davis. That said, fielding isn’t the only reason, or even the primary reason, that Ford deserved a call-up.

After being snagged from the Long Island Ducks of the professional Atlantic League, Ford has hit very proficiently for Triple-A Norfolk. In 62 games since his arrival, he batted .331 for the Tides and got on base at a .390 rate. Admittedly, stats at Triple-A are probably a good 30-50 points inflated from realistic MLB figures (that’s a personal guess, not a SABR-metric figure), but it’s not like the O’s have a proven hitter on their active roster who’s a natural left-fielder, so the risk in trying Ford out was (is) relatively low. If you had to pick out flaws, the biggest “holes” in his standard batting splits at Triple-A were as follows:

Bases empty (151 AB): .291 AVG/.340 OBP;
Runners on (91 AB): .396/.467

Vs. LHP (55 AB): .291/.350
Vs. RHP (187 AB): .342/.401

Ahead in count (68 AB): .279/.462
Behind in count (94 AB): .287/.291

That’s the worst of it. For all the other usual splits you examine, including performance since the All-Star Break (63 AB, .302/.348), Ford has batted over .310 and got on base at a .340 rate or higher. So why did it take this long?

My guess: the explanation involves Mark Reynolds and Steve Pearce.

Reynolds, currently hitting .203, is the only player with at least 150 at-bats who is hitting under .220. He’s struck out 94 times, the second highest total on the team behind Davis (102), but his team-high 40 walks have allowed his on-base percentage to remain among the highest on in the everyday lineup despite his hitting woes. (Davis, in defense of his strikeouts, is hitting .264 with a .311 OBP and has twice as many homeruns as Reynolds in only 10 more games played.) Erratic defensive play aside (though his time at first base has been mostly acceptable), Reynolds somehow provides the one thing the O’s lineup really lacks — a man consistently on base — but he does so at the steepest of prices.

After a 3-year stretch where he hit at least 30 homeruns and racked up at least 80 RBI each season, Reynolds holds a slugging percentage that bests only Robert Andino among everyday O’s players. He’s struggling through a season in which he’s not in a stable or comfortable fielding situation and is no longer doing the things that the O’s hoped he would continue when they traded for him before 2011. The only way Reynolds becomes valuable, aside from miraculously regaining form, is as a trade chip, but he can’t be a worthwhile investment to other teams if he’s riding the bench for us — he has to prove he can play his way out of a slump in order for other teams to want him and possibly agree to pay part or all of his $7.5 million salary. Forced to play Reynolds, Orioles manager Showalter has little choice in where he plays Davis if Showalter is committed to keep a power left-handed bat in his line to supplement Matt Wieters, an aging Jim Thome playing DH and the occasional blast from right-fielder Nick Markakis.

Which brings us back to Steve Pearce, who’s played a good deal more left field in his career than Davis, but still not enough to be called a legitimate outfielder. Pearce had 8 hits and scored had 3 runs in his first 25 at-bats, but he swung a fairly quiet bat after that, posting a 10-for-51 mark in spot duty between June 14 and July 20, when the O’s designated him for assignment on July 20.

As long as Pearce was seen as a viable option, Ford’s chance to return to the big leagues remained on hold. Now, with Pearce gone and Ford still playing well at Norfolk, the O’s finally had justifiable circumstances to call Ford up: he’s a natural outfielder hitting well enough in Triple-A that the O’s could call him up & insert him right away. If Ford keeps playing well, he and Davis would each continue hitting well enough to bump Davis his usual position at first base, sending Reynolds, who now appears to be a trade package afterthought, back to the bench as a righty pinch hitter or DH; at worst, if Ford manages to stick in Baltimore, Reynolds and Davis would platoon at first against lefty and righty pitchers, respectively, with Ford platooning in turn with Chavez in left field with similar matchups (though every replacement outfielder the O’s have tried, including the non-natural outfielders, seemed to have swung a better bat than Chavez).

Ford, to his credit, began his tenuous tenure in left field on Sunday with a bang, throwing out Yoenis Cespedes on his bid for a double in the top of the second inning. He batted fifth, walked in his first plate appearance and advanced to third on a single by Davis in the bottom of the second before Wilson Betemit grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the inning. Ford batted three more times in the game without reaching base: according to, he saw 16 pitches overall and made contact each time he made an out, twice putting the ball in play on the ground. He also didn’t strand anyone in scoring position, and though he grounded into a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the fifth, he managed to beat the relay from second base to prevent an inning-ending double play.

It’s still early in the second career of Jon Lewis Ford, but if he provides a spark for an offense looking for more people to get on base and continues to play adeptly in left field, he may hang around long enough to play in Boston, against the team that drafted him way back in 1999, and against the Rangers in his native Texas. For five years away from The Show, that’d be a pretty decent reward. With Jim Thome still out dealing with neck spasms, Ford has a spot in the lineup again tonight, playing in New York for the first time as a big leaguer since leaving the L.I. Ducks barely ten weeks ago. It’s only about 50 miles from Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip, the Ducks’ home park, to the new Yankee Stadium, but for Ford, it might as well be 50,000.

“The tougher the battle the sweeter the victory. This is crazy I’m back!” Ford said yesterday on Twitter. “Thank you everyone who supported and believed.”

Monday, May 14, 2012

On Retirement: Athletes and The Grass That Grows "Over the Hill"

It hasn't been all smiles
for Darrell Waltrip since
he retired from NASCAR.  
I was drawn to an article written late last week by Marty Smith, ESPN’s lead NASCAR reporter, who took time in his column to chronicle the emotional and financial struggles of former NASCAR greats like Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip. Smith’s piece included supplementary perspectives from retired professionals like driver Ricky Craven, NBA center Brad Daugherty, and others, but the crux of his work examined the idea that “athletes die twice.” Smith credits the aphorism to comments made by longtime sportswriter John Feinstein on a Charlotte radio show in reference to the recent suicide of retired NFL player Junior Seau. From

“Feinstein expounded on the comment by noting that, upon retirement, the world as a professional athlete has always known it no longer exists, and that he or she must completely relearn how to function in society. He then cited the difficulty many former athletes experience in the taxing attempt to acclimate themselves to what most of us consider normal.

“The stringent nature and structured routing required to achieve professional sporting excellence is no longer necessary. And even more dynamic than that, the doting adulation and attention from fans, media, family and most everyone else in their midst vanishes. Just like that.”

In his column, Smith noted that Wallace and Craven suddenly found themselves unable to pay for all the things they once could. Jarrett said the depression-like emotions he battled in early retirement contributed to his divorce. Waltrip struggled mightily with the idea that his late-career performance didn’t mirror the success of the 80+ wins he’d accumulated between 1975 and 1992.  As triumphant and driven as they’d been on the track, the inability to sustain that prosperity and sense of purpose made their racing “after-lives” painfully unfamiliar.

By comparison, former NFL defensive lineman Trevor Pryce seems to be handling the early stages of retirement with a little more skill. At 36, he’s not even 18 months removed from a 3-tackle performance in the New York Jets’ loss to Pittsburgh in the 2011 AFC championship game. But while Pryce, a father of three, can relate to feeling similarly rudderless in the open water beyond his football career, he doesn’t seem quite as troubled as some. From

Having retired way before my time, I have started to lose focus and drive. At times, I feel ostracized.
“…Starting from scratch can be unsettling. If you’re not prepared for it, retirement can become a form of self-imposed exile from the fulfillment and the exhilaration of knowing you did a good job…

“During the six-month off-seasons [during my career], I pretty much educated myself, dabbling in music, Hollywood, journalism, real-estate and everything in between, with varying degrees of success. I was able to do a lot in so little time. Now that I have all the time in the world, it’s amazing how little I accomplish every day…

Trevor Pryce is a little unsure about his
retirement, but he's working to figure things out.
“Don’t cry for me, though. I’m getting used to it slowly and will be content with my new life. That is, until [Jets coach] Rex [Ryan] calls.”    

One point made elsewhere in the Pryce and Smith pieces was the importance of age and tenure in the retirement process. “[For] Most of us competitors... you’ve [competed] for a very long period of time, and that will and desire to compete doesn’t just go away,” Jarrett tells Smith. But there is a spectrum to that “very long period.” A man like Waltrip, who drove amateur races as a teenager, finds himself beyond the half-century mark with the daunting knowledge that the one thing he’s been trained to do for the better part of 40 years is now no longer his profession; he’s almost twice as old as ball-sport retirees like Daugherty and doubly tethered to his primary skill set.  The older they get, the harder it is to teach dogs new tricks.

In talking to Jarrett (age 55, retired at 51), Wallace (55/48), Waltrip (65/52), and the others, Smith made it clear that none of them really understood the impact of that lifestyle change, how it would more or less wrench the fabric of their existence right out from under their feet.  All of the men spoke to similar psychological problems that handicapped their efforts in post-retirement life: lack of focused competition, departure from community/peer group, financial losses, decreased attention from fans, and overall, a paralyzing feeling of inadequacy and not knowing how or where to ask for help. 

If there were an obvious solution to helping retirees in their second careers, the answer would seem to be education, an objective the NFL has already identified. I’ve definitely wondered whether or not the existence of so many NFL players’ charitable initiatives is a requirement of league by-laws, but depending on how involved the player is, I suppose it could also serve to expose the athlete to a business-like infrastructure that they don’t see in weekly practices or one-on-one contract negotiations with their front office. I’ll have to do more digging into that to see if players’ foundations are somehow mandated by the country’s only professional non-profit sports league. 

I don’t know nearly enough about NASCAR to even begin to think of ways that its veterans might benefit from some sort of post-racing training — shoot, for all I know, such a program already exists, and the struggles of these lifers simply surpass the knowledge delivered therein.  Nonetheless, it’s distressing to read a column like Smith’s, where there is no apparent answer for dealing with a lifetime of success that seems to have suddenly fallen out of one’s pocket. To be fair, these drivers have had their share of nights with bright lights and days with bulging wallets, far more than the average joe who works a 40-hour week for 40 years and gets to retirement a whole lot later.  But considering the early end met by Seau and others who battled post-career demons, the most responsible move would be to putting even more emphasis on making drivers and other athletes aware of the fiscal and mental challenges that face them once their primary careers are finished.

“The idea of doing nothing — that’s the American Dream, right? That’s called retirement?” Craven told Smith. “It’s a lonely place.”

Nobody should be lonely at the end.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Daric Barton & The Art of Fielding

This really isn't about about Chad Harbach's 2011 novel, though I highly recommend that book, especially to anyone who's ever attended a D-III college or played baseball. But on a related tack...

As Daric Barton proved Sunday, even the best
fielders aren't immune to the occasional bad game.
The Orioles trailed the Athletics yesterday by the count of 2-0 to begin the top of the ninth inning.  Oakland starter Bartolo Colon had shut down the O's for eight innings, collecting four strikeouts through 28 batters faced and 95 pitches thrown. The seven Orioles in Sunday's batting order who had participated in the nine-run shelling of A's starter Tyson Ross on Saturday were, by my count, a combined 6-for-21 (.286) on the day, and nobody had made it past second base. Colon was proving again why he is still valuable at age 38: a truly good starting pitcher can be nearly unflappable when he's in the zone.

However, the O's hadn't flinched. Tommy Hunter turned in a strong outing on the mound, allowing two late-inning runs after completing the first five unscathed. Darren O'Day had worked a 1-2-3 eighth inning and Pedro Strop had managed to keep the margin from growing in the ninth despite allowing a one-out double to pinch hitter Daric Barton.

To be sure, the pitching stats in this game were not "defense-independent," a distinction that many statisticians like the make in this era of SABR metrics.  In the fourth inning, Mark Reynolds, making his first start of the season at first base, fielded a sharp grounder down the line and whirled to turn an impressive 3-6-3 double play with J.J. Hardy for outs 1 and 2. The very next batter, Seth Smith, was gunned down at second on an assist from right-fielder Nick Markakis after his grounder hit first base and jumped over a diving Reynolds.  To start the following inning, left-fielder Nolan Reimold robbed A's catcher Kurt Suzuki of a homerun by reaching over the top of the left-field wall to make the grab.  Adam Jones got the next out with a sliding catch in center to keep Eric Sogard from reaching base. The fielding behind Hunter seemed to be aces all around.

But perhaps the most important defensive play for the O's happened in the final frame. With Strop on the hill, Barton on second and Smith on first after a one-out walk, Suzuki popped up to second baseman Robert Andino for the second out. The next batter, Sogard, grounded a ball to the right side. Reynolds muffed his chance, and the ball scooted through his legs onto the outer infield dirt. Andino was Johnny-on-the-spot, fielding the ball as it skittered away and tossing to Strop, covering first for the inning's final out. Had Andino failed to back up Reynolds on the play — a duty that tends to get overlooked, particularly when fatigue is a factor later in the game — Strop would've had to work at least one more batter in a bases-loaded situation, and that assumes Barton, who was probably running hard with two outs, hadn't scored from second on a play that would've otherwise been ruled an error.

Here's the kicker: the fielding wasn't done being the fulcrum of the game.

After the A's were retired in the top half, Barton went out to play first base in the bottom half after his pinch-hit appearance. Barton has only played two full seasons at the Major League level, both for the A's: the last time he did it was 2010, when he hit .273 and ranked first in the American League in putouts and Range Factor per nine innings, second in fewest errors committed and Total Zone Runs per nine innings, according to Baseball Reference. In 122 chances at first base this season, Barton had not made an error. He's the most experienced first baseman on the A's — it made absolute sense to put him out there in the bottom half. In fact, manager Bob Melvin had done it two days earlier, when Barton was inserted at first before the bottom of the 8th without being asked to pinch-hit beforehand; the A's won that game, 5-2.

Sunday, however, was a different story for Barton.  The first batter in the bottom of the ninth was J.J. Hardy, who sent Colon's 2-1 pitch on the ground back up the middle. Given that the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser seems to be the only major writer to have highlighted Barton's late-inning blunders (or at least, the most prominent Google search result), I'll let her narrate the action once the ball left Hardy's bat.

From's blog "The Drumbeat":
The first grounder was to Eric Sogard’s right and he made an off-balance throw to first base, but the ball took a big hop in front of the first-base bag, usually a play Daric Barton makes easily. He couldn’t handle the throw, and J.J. Hardy was awarded an infield hit.
With one out, Adam Jones hit a tapper to Colon’s right and Colon, who is usually a decent fielder, picked up the ball and rushed the throw, throwing what looked like a hard and pretty tricky bouncer past Barton.
That’s the one Barton really felt he should have had; he said he wasn’t sure if it was going to hit on the dirt or the grass, but he pulled at it a little too much and it went by him.
“I should have had ‘em both,” Barton said. “That’s my job, especially if they’re putting me in for defensive purposes.”
It was ruled a hit for Jones, and an error on Colon for Hardy advancing to third. That meant that all subsequent runs [scored by the runners on base, Jones and Hardy] were earned [and charged to Colon].
In case you missed the final three batters, Colon exited after his error in favor of closer Grant Balfour, who quickly blew the save by giving up a two-run double to Matt Wieters and a game-winning homerun to Wilson Betemit two batters later.

To be fair, the job of anyone fielding an infield ground ball is two-fold: A) field it, or at least keep it in front of you by any means necessary, and B) get it to the proper base as quickly and precisely as you can. Sogard's throw was rushed, and Colon's was sub-par for a veteran player; that said, Barton has probably seen lots of those throws throughout his career, and in a tight game like that, those are plays he must make in order to preserve the win. If he scoops only Sogard's throw, Jones arrives at 2nd base alone with two outs and the O's still down 2-0, with Wieters representing the tying run at the plate rather than the winning run.  If he somehow picks Colon's throw with Hardy at first, Hardy gets to second alone with two outs and Wieters at bat; either way, the endgame strategy likely changes for Melvin with two outs already in his pocket. Maybe he leaves Colon in to face Wieters. Maybe Balfour enters as as he did and still gives up a double to Wieters — with the tying run now on second and two outs, does he walk Chris Davis, now the potential winning run, just to set-up force-out opportunities at second and third? Probably not.

But, like Barton's bobbles, those scenarios all died in the post-game box score. With one play ruled an infield hit and another called a throwing error on Colon, Barton's fielding percentage remains a sparkling 1.000, tops in the league.  It's a strange day when the stats say you're perfect but the tape says otherwise.

"Some games just don't work out," Melvin told Slusser afterward.

Indeed. Some games feel quite like fiction.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Non-Sports Post: Jabari Greer, advocate for fatherhood

Here's the LINK: "Hometown Saint"

The shortened URL above will take you to an article I wrote a few weeks ago on New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer and the non-profit foundation he's started to promote fatherhood.

I got the chance to meet Mr. Greer at a free movie screening in his hometown of Jackson, TN while covering the event for my school's student newspaper. Judging by the things he said over the course of the evening and our own brief dialogue, my overall impression was that he's more thoughtful than your average joe. (Further proof: he's cerebral enough that he dares to express himself in verse on his blog.) Maybe that's not what you might expect from a man who has played for a coach that preached unapologetic intentional violence as a primary tactic, but even in that light, Greer made sure he identified himself and his fellow Saints as "fathers, professionals, and men of integrity," individuals who are not bound by the cruel instructions of a few bloodless overseers thirsty for victory.  Players, let's not forget, are the ones who do the hitting, not the coaches.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

2012 Final Four Preview: Is the "Trifecta" a bad bet for Kentucky and Louisville?

I get distracted a lot, mostly by sports-related topics that non-sports people would find boring (the one-and-done rule, the NFL's tax exemption as a non-profit, the various ways to throw a curveball, etc.). On some occasions, I find myself to have a sudden fascination with numbers, though I am wretched when it comes to keeping track of figures.  However, my lack of arithmetic skills aside, I have a certain curiosity about efficiency and the ways in which things are done. I attended a lecture by Moneyball guru Paul DePodesta a few weeks ago, and he emphasized the importance of asking what he termed the naive question (which he credited to a man named Peter Drucker):

"If we weren't already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?"

Hitting "trifectas" is usually a jackpot, but shooting
too many could spell disaster for Kentucky or Louisville.
So I thought about the three-point shot, specifically about how it figures into an offensive gameplan. The three-pointer has become the cliched "double-edged" sword of college basketball, particularly in March when teams are trying to rally from big late-game deficits in the NCAA tournament. If you went back and looked at every preview box for the 68 teams on the ESPN and Yahoo! Sports bracket challenge games, I swear you'd find at least 41.2657% of the analysis done on the team's chances included a mention of their prowess or deficiency in shooting from beyond the arc.  On its face, an offense built on knocking down 3s makes some sense. True, it's a lower percentage shot than your run-of-the-mill two pointer, but it's great for teams in need of a comeback, assuming they shoot it well. Example:

  • Situation: Comeback Kids are down by 12, four minutes to play, possessing the ball
    • Two-point solution: The Kids, who favor two-pointers, have to make six FGs (with almost no fouls committed by the Leaders) as quickly as possible AND play stellar defense a minimum of five times just to tie the game. At best, if they score in the first ten seconds of each possession and can't manage a steal but keep the Leaders from scoring, the Kids will get the ball with 15 seconds to play needing to score to tie the game. If they don't, they lose.
    • Three-point solution: The Kids, now favoring three-pointers, only have to make four consecutive shots (remember, the Leaders will mostly avoid fouling) and get three defensive stops in order to tie the game. Not only do the Kids have more time to mount a rally - more importantly, they have to do less in that time than if they were all shooting jumpers. At worst, the Kids can use their entire shot clock, defend without trying to steal the ball and still get possession with 30 seconds to play needing a three to tie the game. The best case scenario? If they don't steal but are still able to score in the first ten seconds of each possession, they'll tie the game with 1:45 to play and are certain to get the ball back, with a chance to win, at least two more times if they defend and rebound properly. 

I'm sure someone has come up with a stat to demonstrate the usefulness of a trey-centric offense (please point it out if you know it), but I wanted to run my own numbers for the sake of procrastination and satisfying my need to feel like some strange intrepid fan-sleuth.

Using, I looked up a bunch of the team shooting and scoring stats from the past 4-5 years and tried to determine a few things:
  • In a 40 minute game with a 35 second shot clock, there are about 68 possessions if every shot clock is used fully, giving each team about 34 shots in a given game. HOWEVER, teams often take very early shots, especially with the prevalence of fast-break offenses and man-to-man defenses now-a-days. Consider:
  • The average NCAA Division 1 men's basketball team shoots about 55 times per game from the floor.
  • The average team FG percentage is roughly 42.5%.
  • That said, keep in mind that the average team also shoots about 20 3-point shots per game. (Sounds high, right? It is, a little bit - the real figure is about 18 per game. But these calculations are pretty rough, gimme some leeway for a moment.)
  • On those three-point shots, the average team hits about 35%.

20*.35 = 7 three-pointers made per game = 21 points from 3-land
55-20 = 35 two-point attempts per game

In order for the overall team FG% to be around 42.5%, the % from two-land has to be slightly higher to balance out the 35%, right? Sure. After a few trials, I found 46.5% to be a valid input here. (Not surprisingly, the actual 2pt percentage for average teams is about 47%).

Therefore, 35*.465 = 16 two-pointers made per game = 32 points the old-fashioned way

If at this point you think that 3-pointers are not as valuable as 2-pointers, you'd be right where I was about twenty minutes ago. Then I thought about the discrepancy between the number of attempts, so I looked at my numbers in terms of points per shot:
That's the spirit, Thad! But be
careful not to shoot too many.
21 points scored on 20 three-point shots
32 points scored on 35 two-point shots

Aha! Now we have a mismatch: it seems that long-range bombs are about 15% more efficient in the long run than the good ol' jumper. I think  the next logical thing to examine would be whether or not a law of diminishing returns can be applied, i.e. if shooting more than a certain number of three-point shots makes the efficacy of the shot diminish, as on a bell-curve.

Food for thought (scoring composition in brief):
  • Kentucky: 77.9 ppg, 17.1 ppg off 3s, 43.6 ppg off 2-pointers      
  • Louisville: 68.4 ppg,  17.6 PO3/g, 36.4 PO2/g
  • Kansas: 74.2 ppg, 17.4 PO3/g, 41.2 PO2/g
  • Ohio State: 75 ppg, 15.1 PO3/g, 39.1 PO2/g
Now we get to investigate the law of diminishing returns as it applies to the three-point shot. We already guessed that Average U. takes about 18-20 three-pointers per game. Virginia Military Institute (VMI) has been known in recent years for launching an absurd amount of triples: the Keydets have averaged more than 26 attempts per game in each of the last six years, registering as high as 40 in 2006-2007. However, they haven't made the NCAA tournament even once during that time, another proof that extremism in any form is generally not a good thing.

Of the teams in the last four Final Fours, here's where they ranked in 3pt attempts:

2012                    3PA/G         Rank
Kentucky  ?             15.1          288
Louisville  ?           18.5          143
Kansas     ?          16.8          217
Ohio State ?          15.1          286

2011                    3PA         Rank
UConn*               17.5          195
Butler                 21.2          52
Kentucky            18.6          145
VCU                    22.9          20

2010                    3PA         Rank
Duke*                    19.6          105
Butler                    20.0          81
WVU                    20.1          80
Michigan State     14.7          306

2009                    3PA         Rank
UNC*                    17.8          175
Nova                    18.4          149
UConn                  13.4        325
Michigan State      14.9          296    

2008                    3PA          Rank
Kansas*               16.9          250
Memphis               21.6          68
UNC                    14.9          313
UCLA                    15.6          301


As the stats show, the teams from the non-major conferences - VCU, Memphis and Butler (twice) - relied on the long ball to reach the Final Four, but all of the winning teams shot fewer than 20 three-pointers on average.  The only team since 1998 to win it all using the three-pointer as a dedicated weapon was the 2001 Duke Blue Devils, who shot 26 threes per game and were officially an offensive anomaly with four starters - Jay Williams (42.7%), Shane Battier (41.9%),  Mike Dunleavy (37.3%), and Chris Duhon (36.1) - shooting lasers from three-range and averaging more than 27 points per game combined on deep shots alone. [With the support of Battier and Williams sinking 256 combined treys, the team set records for most three-pointers made (407) and attempted (1,057) in a single season.] The only other recent year any team has even had two staters in that neighborhood was the following season, when Mizzou's Clarence Gilbert (38.4%) and Kareem Rush (41.6%) combined to average over 18 ppg on three-balls.

And from all this madness, I've learned...what? Well, it seems like putting up more than an average number of 3s per game is a bad idea unless you have the most talented shooters in the world, though I suppose that's somewhat self-evident. Anybody wanna guess how many 3-pointers Kentucky put up in their last loss? That'd be 28. And Louisville? 23 attempts in their most recent loss to Syracuse.  Interestingly enough, Ohio State and Kansas have not surpassed 20 three-point attempts in any of their last three respective losses. Might a deep-ball drought spell doom for the Bluegrass teams, given Louisville's comparative lack of offensive firepower & Kentucky's method of being judicious from distance? You could draw that conclusion & rationally decide that picking the winner of the Kansas-OSU game might be a safer bet**. Or you might make that pick based just on what color you flipped a coin for, red or blue. Me? I'm just nuts enough take the Buckeyes.

**(Wait: does this mean extremism as it applies to efficiency - either really inefficient or totally effective - is a bad thing? Well When there's a bias in favor of balance, as I have consciously or subconsciously identified here, even good efficiency in the long-term is dangerous, because nobody is safe from "one bad night.")