Intentionally Fouling DeAndre Jordan Is Futile

In the 17 years since Don Nelson first urged the intentional fouling of Dennis Rodman in an attempt to stop the Chicago Bulls from scoring so many points, fans of NBA teams with big men who struggle at the free-throw line have come to rue the “Hack-A-Shaq” strategy. Proponents of uninterrupted basketball have decried it for ruining the flow of games, yet for teams facing Shaquile O’Neal (52.7 percent career FT shooter), Dwight Howard (57.4 percent), Andre Drummond (40.2 percent) and DeAndre Jordan (42.5 percent), it has remained an oft-used, and seemingly viable, strategy.Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson is one of its most ardent disciples. In 2012, Jackson famously helped Howard set the NBA record for free throw attempts in a game by telling his players to foul Howard repeatedly. Throughout his three years as a head coach, Jackson has done the same against Jordan and Drummond, and he’s carried the hacking strategy into this year’s playoffs. With three minutes left in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors were up 100-97 and hacked Jordan, a 43 percent free-throw shooter this year. Even though Jordan made both free throws, the strategy earned the praise of preeminent basketball minds like Haralabos Voulgaris, a stats-driven basketball forecaster.The basic math of the “Hack-A-DJ” strategy goes like this: If DeAndre Jordan shoots 43 percent from the free-throw line, fouling him yields two shots and 0.86 expected points. Compare that to the Clippers’ average points per possession this season — 1.12 — and it becomes clear that an intentional foul strategy is, on its face, a savvy one.Except it’s not, once you factor in all the things that happen before and after a free throw.1The basketball blog A Screaming Comes Across the Court did a great job of quantifying the offensive rebound value in a post in February. With a big data assist from ESPN’s Stats & Info group on the Clippers’ and Jordan’s performance over the past two seasons, my calculations make clear that Hack-A-DJ is not a clear-cut winning strategy.To stress-test the intentional foul conventional wisdom, I first broke down how many points the Clippers were expected to score on each possession. That number is 1.12 overall, but intentional fouls are usually given on half-court possessions. If a team fouls a player like Jordan who doesn’t have the ball while another player is on a fast break, it’s possible that the second player will still make a layup that counts for two points, and the free throws will then follow. This exact situation played out in a Kings-Clippers game last season, when Chris Paul made a layup as the Kings intentionally fouled Jordan. Once I limited the expected points per possession to half-court possessions only, the number dropped to 1.04.2Of course, every team is less efficient when you strip out fast breaks, the easiest points in basketball. What was a 0.26 point spread between an intentional foul on Jordan and a regular possession is now 0.18. The advantage is still there, but it’s narrower.Intentionally fouling Jordan also helps the Clippers set their defense on the ensuing possession, which lowers the chances their opponent will score. To figure out how much that’s worth to the Clippers, I measured the difference between the points they allow on possessions after they shoot free throws versus the points they allow after non-free-throw offensive possessions. That difference was 0.04 points, in part because an intentional foul against Jordan ensures the Clippers won’t turn the ball over or allow an opponent to make a fast break after a missed field goal attempt. What was a 0.18 spread between intentionally fouling Jordan and letting the Clippers play on is now 0.14.Finally, and most important, Hack-A-DJ is rendered inefficient because the Clippers are so good at rebounding Jordan’s missed free throws. Over the last two seasons, Jordan has missed 165 free throws with possible rebounds, and the Clippers have grabbed 34 of those rebounds, or 21 percent. That is nearly double the NBA rate of roughly 12 percent and four times the Clippers’ 4.8 percent offensive rebound rate on misses by players other than Jordan. While it’s impossible to know why LA shows such a remarkable ability to grab Jordan’s free-throw misses, it may have something to do with the team expecting a miss, and that the way Jordan misses somehow helping the offensive rebounders. Having Blake Griffin on the blocks can’t hurt, either.These rebounds are important because the Clippers are brutally efficient after corralling missed free throws. In 70 such attempts over the past two seasons, LA has scored 1.36 points per possession. It makes sense that teams would be efficient after missed free throws: The ball is already close to the rim, and the defense is likely in scramble mode, leaving perimeter shooters open.When we include the value of the Clippers’ offensive rebounding, the expected value of a Jordan missed free throw is 0.16 points. With his expected 0.86 points per two free throws, sending Jordan to the line actually yields 1.02 expected points for the Clippers. The gap still exists, but it’s inverted: It’s 0.03 more points more effective to let the Clippers play on than to foul Jordan.You can see how we got here in the chart below.While the Clippers’ free-throw rebounding prowess may decline in the postseason, and their incredible post-free-throw rebound efficiency may be a product of a relatively small sample size of possessions, it’s clear that the intentional-foul strategy is not a sure thing.Of course, every team and every poor foul-shooter is going to have their own break-even points. Dwight Howard, for instance, is a 54.7 percent free-throw shooter this year, so the Rockets expect 1.09 points every time he gets two free throw attempts. But that’s without accounting for the other factors in play — and we do know that those factors matter for all teams. The Rockets might rebound Howard’s misses at a different rate from the Clippers, or play worse defense after missed free throws. It’s just a matter of calculating them.For opponents of Jordan and the Clippers, though, the lesson seems clear: Neither strategy is superior to the other. Over the small sample size of two, four, or six free throws shot by Jordan in a given playoff game, the Hack-A-DJ strategy could look brilliant or foolish. But if the intentional-foul strategy isn’t working against the second-worst free throw shooter in the league, then it may not work against anyone. For fans of an uninterrupted game, that would be a welcome shift. read more

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Hockey Refs Are Out To Get You If They Already Got The

Kerry Fraser, a former NHL official who worked more than 1,900 regular-season games and 13 Stanley Cup Finals from 1980 through 2010, remembers calling penalty after penalty on the Philadelphia Flyers early in his career. “They were a very aggressive team,” he said during a phone interview. “Especially in Philly, they played really tough,” with players like Paul Holmgren and Craig Berube intimidating the opposition with their physicality. They would take penalties because they could kill penalties, knowing they had a stout goalie in Ron Hextall minding the net.When Fraser reffed Flyers games at the Spectrum, he was on the lookout for penalties committed by the home team. But he was also hyper-aware of what the other team was doing because he didn’t want to miss an infraction.“That’s bad game management,” Fraser said. “My mindset was, ‘OK, I’m not going to look for one on the other team just because one team has taken four or five in a row, but I sure as heck can’t afford to miss one.’ Your radar goes up, especially when the other team is in a checking position, and as soon as one is there, you make sure you get it.”Fraser was conscious of any widening gap between the number of penalties called on each team, even if the calls infractions were warranted. The stats suggest that other referees are as well.This is pretty compelling evidence that referees’ past calls influence their next calls. The chart includes every NHL penalty call between the start of the 2005-06 season and the end of the 2014-15 regular season,1We used play-by-play data from the nhlscrapr package in R. To eliminate the possibility that our findings would be driven by coincidental penalties, which often don’t give either team a power play, we dropped all infractions that occurred simultaneously. The margin of error for each probability was less than 1 percent. and it looks at all infractions in a game and how the difference in penalties called on each team affects the next call.2University of Texas at Austin professor Jason Abrevaya gives the penalties for exact sequences of violations in a paper in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. As an example, if the home team has been called for three penalties and the away team five, the away team would be “owed” two calls. The tendency for prior violations to affect NHL penalties is enormous; when home teams are owed penalties, they are called for penalties at much lower rates, and the inverse holds for away teams.The effect is even more pronounced when a string of penalties against the same team starts a game. If a game starts with four straight penalties against the away team, for example, the home team is about three times as likely to be called for the next one.To Fraser, this isn’t about makeup calls. It’s a sign of good game management. “In the overall complexion of the game, it gives the team that has committed multiple infractions recognition that if they commit the crime, they’ll do the time,” he says. “On the other hand, they know the ref is fair because he called a penalty against the other team when he saw it. It doesn’t cause further frustration for the team that is taking more of the penalties.”When we called the NHL for comment, it declined to participate in this story. The league prohibits officials from talking to the media during the playoffs. Stephen Walkom, vice president and director of officiating, declined to speak through a PR rep, who wrote that Walkom “really doesn’t want to do anything to make the officiating the center of attention during the playoffs.”In playoff games, the referees’ balancing effect grows even stronger. Our hypothesis: referees are trying to even out playoff games, where the pressure is on for the officials to avoid becoming a storyline. When the home team is owed a penalty in the playoffs, the frequency of calls on the visiting team is significantly higher than it is during the regular season. (If the away team is owed a penalty or penalties, the effect is about the same as it is during the regular season.)Overtime produces the most dramatic results, with the second penalty call of the extra period about three times as likely to be whistled on the team that received the first power play.Take Game 1 of the first-round match between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators in Nashville, Tennessee, as an example. At the 12:42 mark of the first overtime period, Chicago’s Brad Richards earned a two-minute penalty for a high stick on the Predators’ Ryan Ellis. Minutes later, Chicago’s Duncan Keith hauled down Nashville’s Taylor Beck just as Beck skated past the blue line alone. It appeared to be a textbook holding call, if not a penalty shot.Your browser does not support iframes.However, neither referee Dan O’Halloran nor his partner, Brad Meier, sent Keith to the box. The Blackhawks avoided a second 5-on-4 situation and extended the game.It wasn’t hard to predict what was coming next: Less than three minutes after the teams returned to even strength, the Predators’ Seth Jones was sent to the box for tripping Bryan Bickell. It was a soft call, but it was one that went against the home team, evening up the number of penalties on each team in the overtime period.Your browser does not support iframes.Keith was again the focal point of the game in the second OT, when he scored the game-winner.Of course, there are other factors, such as style of play after spending time on special teams, or perhaps even a revenge factor, that could drive these results. But there’s more evening up of calls in the playoffs, where we’d expect players to have less incentive to retaliate given the higher stakes and closer games. Further, one factor that does not seem to account for the tendency of past calls to affect future ones is the game’s score: The shape of home-team penalty frequencies is the same as on the chart above, no matter the score.While referees attempt to even out penalty or foul calls in other sports like basketball,3See this research from Paul Gift, or this study from Cecilia Noecker. baseball4Check out Etan Green’s work. and soccer,5Find Babatunde Buraimo’s study here. the balancing effect may matter most in hockey, possibly affecting the outcome. Southern New Hampshire University’s Kevin Snyder and Mike Lopez (one of the authors you’re reading right now) found that for postseason games tied through the first period, the team that was owed a penalty was 20 percent more likely to come out on top. And, unlike in basketball, which penalizes players and teams for having too many fouls (through the free-throw bonus and the player cap at six fouls), hockey players and teams are free to rack up penalty after penalty, if they so choose.Call it a biased impartiality. Referees want to appear impartial, which drives them to make partial decisions. The result: New York Post headlines like “In Rangers-Penguins, blind-eye refs are ruining NHL playoffs.” Referees can’t win. But they can be disliked equally. “Fans from all 30 cities say, ‘Kerry, you were hardest on our team,’” Fraser says. “That’s how I know I did a good job.” read more

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Buffalo Bills QB Competition EJ Manuel to Start Week

The Buffalo Bills named rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel the starter in the team opener against the New England Patriots on Sunday.Manuel only played in two preseason games after undergoing a minor procedure on his left knee on Aug. 18.The rookie, who was the first quarterback drafted back in April, had a pretty solid preseason in the games he did play. He went 26-of-33 in passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions in his two preseason appearances.Coach Doug Marrone had planned to start undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel if Manuel was unable to suit up. However, the 16th overall draft pick returned to practice wearing a knee brace Sunday.Marrone said Manuel will start for the Bills in the opener because his recovery from the procedure was progressing ahead of schedule. Manuel participated fully in practice on Monday. read more

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Southwest Agent Asks College Basketball Coach to Provide Proof

In an Aug. 30, 2017, photo, California women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb holds her then-6-month-old son, Jordan, during NCAA college basketball practice on the campus.  (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southwest Airlines apologized Tuesday to the Cal women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb after she claimed an airline employee stopped her from boarding because the worker didn’t believe her 1-year-old biracial son was hers.A desk agent questioned Gottlieb ahead of a flight from Denver to Oakland Sunday, saying she “had to ‘prove’ that he was my son, despite having his passport,” Gottlieb said in a series of tweets.“She said because we have different last name. My guess is because he has a different skin color,” Gottlieb tweeted Monday. The head coach from the University of California, Berkeley was traveling with her fiance, Patrick Martin, the boy’s father, who is black.Airlines aren’t required to match the last name of a child and guardian for domestic flights.“We have reached out to Ms. Gottlieb directly to address her concerns and will utilize the situation as a coaching opportunity for our Employee,” Southwest said in a statement. “We apologize if our interaction made this family uncomfortable — that is never our intention.”Gottlieb said Tuesday that the encounter was hurtful, but she appreciates Southwest’s apology.“I felt that in this situation it was my responsibility to say ‘Hey, this isn’t ok,’” Gottlieb said in a statement to The Associated Press. “I hope the coverage this has received can serve as a learning opportunity and that all families — regardless of how ‘traditional’ they may or may not look — are treated with dignity and respect.”Gottlieb, Martin and their child were eventually allowed to board. read more

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Which NBA Team Is Wronged By The Refs The Most

The relationship between NBA players and referees has arguably never been more strained than it is right now.In January, Golden State forward Draymond Green — who is never shy about complaining and already has a league-high 14 technical fouls — said that too many refs carry personal vendettas against players and that the NBA should consider replacing its entire crop of referees. Kevin Durant, who is Green’s teammate and started the season with one ejection in his entire 10-year career, leads the NBA this year, with four early exits. And this week, Paul George and LeBron James have both outlined what they perceive to be biases in how games are officiated.1The players and officials met during the All-Star break to talk about their differences, but it’s unclear how much that has helped, if at all. One report suggested that some officials were disappointed by the lack of star-player turnout at the meeting.When the NBA’s biggest names are complaining about something, it’s obviously going to get a lot of attention. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those voices have the biggest reason to complain. That honor belongs to the Brooklyn Nets. Through Wednesday, Brooklyn had seen more blown foul calls than any other club this season, according to our analysis of The Pudding’s compilation of the NBA’s “Last Two Minute” reports. In those, the league evaluates the accuracy of calls and non-calls made by officials at the end of close games.2Specifically, in the NBA’s words: “officiated events that occurred in the last two minutes of games that were within 3 points at any time in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or the last two minutes of any overtime period.” 1Spencer DinwiddieNets11011– Sources: NBA ‘Last Two Minute’ Reports, The Pudding 5DeMar DeRozanRaptors066– 7Dennis SchroderHawks145– 5Kristaps PorzingisKnicks066– 7J.J. BareaMavericks145– Through Wednesday, the Nets had been disadvantaged by an official’s incorrect call or incorrect non-call 28 times this season. In second place is Dallas, with 26.To get a sense of the sorts of plays that have hurt the Nets, watch the clips below, which highlight several sequences that the league later determined should have drawn whistles in Brooklyn’s favor. One involves Nets swingman Allen Crabbe, who managed to score a tough bucket despite being bumped by one defender and being fallen upon by another at the conclusion of the play. Two other examples show forward DeMarre Carroll being bumped or swiped across the arm while trying to get a shot off during the last 20 seconds of play. After many of the plays, you can see Brooklyn players turn to officials in disbelief over the fact that no foul was called.Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/netsfouls.mp400:0000:0000:36Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.There are a handful of interesting takeaways from this data. For starters, it seems to provide evidence to support comments made by Brooklyn guard Spencer Dinwiddie in January suggesting that this young Nets team gets less respect from officials than other clubs.“To see the same type of respect not reciprocated is very frustrating for us,” Dinwiddie said after the Nets fell 87-85 to the Boston Celtics. “The other thing that’s very frustrating as well: We have these meetings as teams, or with [the players’ association], about respect, so we want to treat everybody with respect, right? Because everybody’s doing their job, and they’re trying their best, including us, [even if] we turn the ball over or calls are missed or whatever it is. But when you approach somebody, and they shush you or they wave you off like you’re not a man, or something of that nature, that’s also very frustrating.”On an individual level, Dinwiddie’s frustration may be justified. The 11 blown calls that left him disadvantaged led the league as of Wednesday and is a very high number considering there’s still more than a month left in the campaign. In fact, that figure is already tied for the highest number of calls that left a player disadvantaged in a single year since the NBA first began publishing these reports during the 2014-15 season. (The National Basketball Referees Association, which has long pushed for an end to the public reports, recently called them “pointless.” The union argues that publishing the corrections, which ultimately have no impact on the standings, only creates more division, despite the transparency that the NBA is aiming for.) 7Nikola JokicNuggets325– 2Will BartonNuggets178– 7Kemba WalkerHornets055– 7Marcus SmartCeltics055– These players have the most legitimate complaintsThe NBA players who had the most blown calls against them (incorrect calls and incorrect non-calls) in the last two minutes of 2017-18 games when the score was within 3 points, through Feb. 28 PlayerTeamBad CallsBad Non-CallsTotal 3Dennis Smith Jr.Mavericks077– 3LeBron JamesCavaliers077– 7Josh RichardsonHeat055– In the Jan. 23 Nets-Thunder game, according to the report, Dinwiddie was disadvantaged twice — smacked on offense (with no call) and then bulldozed on defense (also with no call) — within a two-second span during the final 10 seconds. By swallowing the whistle both times, the officials likely sealed a loss for the Nets — in particular, the second non-call would have triggered an offensive foul on George, which would have kept Russell Westbrook from making a game-winning basket seconds later. (Worth noting: Going back to the 2014-15 season, we found that incorrect non-calls occur about 8.4 times more frequently than incorrect calls, suggesting that referees would rather risk missing a call than calling a phantom foul that ends up deciding a game.)Said Dinwiddie of the play: “It’s like, that’s Russell Westbrook and Paul George … and I’m Spencer Dinwiddie.”Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/pgdinwiddie.mp400:0000:0000:11Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.Whether it’s a respect issue or just a mere coincidence, five of the six NBA teams that have seen the most blown calls this season — Brooklyn, Dallas, Denver, Atlanta and Chicago — each lack a bona-fide, go-to star in the most traditional sense. None possesses a 20-point-per-game scorer, perhaps making it tougher for officials to anticipate who’d be most likely to draw a foul in a given situation.While Brooklyn has almost certainly dropped at least a game or two as a result of these missed calls — this ultimately benefits the Cavs, since the Nets don’t own their first-round pick anyway — some additional details around this subject are helpful in understanding the full picture here.First off: The Nets have played a relatively large number of games that went down to the wire, meaning that officials may have been forced to make more decisions — both correct and incorrect ones — in situations involving Brooklyn than with most other teams. The Nets have the fourth-highest of rate of incorrect calls against them this season, at 9.8 percent — meaning that nearly 10 percent of all possible calls in the Last Two Minute reports that could have gone against them did. That’s a high number, but not astronomically so compared with the leaguewide average of 6.8 percent this season.Another detail that suggests officiating equity: That a team as awful as Orlando — in contention for the top overall draft pick — has the second-lowest blown-call rate in the league (4.1 percent, ahead of only Detroit) is a relatively strong counterexample to the notion that a team needs a star to get late-game calls to go its way.Taking the opposite approach from Dinwiddie, Carroll said he wanted his teammates to stop focusing so much on how the games were being officiated.“Hollering at the refs, screaming at them — that isn’t going to do us justice,” said Carroll, who was grabbed on the wrist while going up for a shot in the closing seconds of an overtime loss to New Orleans but got no call. “They’re human just like we are, so at the end of the day, we’ve got to try something different, maybe. Hopefully it works.”CORRECTION (March 2, 7:05 p.m.): The analysis in this article originally miscounted “bad calls”/incorrect calls — in which refs made a call that shouldn’t have been made. Those calls were counted as disadvantaging the opponent of the team they were made against but should have been counted as hurting the team whistled for an infraction. The text and charts have been updated throughout. In correcting the analysis, the number of 2017-18 games that were included in the analysis was extended, from Feb. 15 to Feb. 28.Check out our latest NBA predictions. read more

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Pitchers Are Slowly Adapting To The Home Run Spike

For the past two years, baseball’s power surge has turned anonymous middle infielders into 30-home-run hitters and made power-happy rookies look like the second coming of Babe Ruth. The long ball has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to recall that just three seasons ago, pitchers ruled the earth. In 2014, MLB was mired in a dead-ball era similar to the one it faced in the 1960s through early 1970s, when the league was forced to lower the height of the mound in pursuit of some offense.Today, regardless of where you place the blame (my money is on a juiced ball), baseball is on track to shatter nearly every dinger-related record. So in our third consecutive year of increasing offense, our attention now turns to the players serving up those homers: When and how will pitchers adjust to the fact that so many batters are launching shots over the fences?For a long time, the strategy for facing a slugger was clear. “The best way to limit slugging percentage was to throw down and away and off the plate,” said former MLB catcher and current Chicago Cubs coach John Baker. Baker played from 2008 to 2014, at a time when the bottom was falling out of the strike zone and offense was dropping with it. In 2013, 36.5 percent of throws crossed the plate less than two feet off the ground, and hitters racked up a slash line of just .210/.295/.298 against those pitches. Meanwhile, hitters did considerably better against pitches more than three feet above the plate: .210/.351/.348.Then the league adjusted. More recently, “the guys that are the best guys in the world right now all seem to have this [Mike] Trout-type low-ball swing,” Baker said. Nowadays, the same low pitches that once got hitters out are getting slugged at a rate 20 points higher than in 2013 (.212/.301/.321). While production high in the zone is still decent (.203/.351/.362), the gap between the two types of pitches has closed significantly.1Data is up to date through July 17, 2017. It seems as though a wave of young players entered the league with their swings geared to combat the knee-high strike, and that trend reduced the pitch’s effectiveness.But for every hole in the zone that the league’s batters close, another one opens. “It goes in waves, the pitching changes its philosophy, and the hitting changes up, and the pitching adjusts, and on and on,” Baker said. With batters adopting uppercut swings to generate loft even on low pitches, it stands to reason that pitchers could go even higher in response. Previous research has shown that when a fly-ball hitter meets a high strike, the result is often a popup or weak contact. I looked at the median height of all four-seam fastballs month by month to see whether pitchers are giving that strategy a try. By and large, hurlers have adopted the elevated approach. But the home run surge began in 2015, and fastball height only started increasing noticeably this July. Even as recently as 2016, when home runs were up about 15 percent compared to 2015, it appeared that pitchers were still aiming low in the zone. Complicating matters, the strike zone has been shrinking at the bottom. In the last few months, umpires have been more reluctant to call strikes down at the knees, bringing the strike zone closer to its 2013 height. It might be that pitchers are adjusting upwards in reaction to fewer low strike calls, rather than anything hitters are doing.There’s no question that the low-strike strategy is entrenched. “They’ve taught the same thing in pitching for a hundred years: Be down, and they hit the ball on the ground,” said Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester. Lester has had an above-average ground ball rate over his career, but his ERA has spiked this season to 4.03. But pitchers across the league are giving up more runs this year, and as a result, Lester is on pace for similar levels of overall production (as measured by wins above replacement) as he generated last year. Because the dinger revolution seems to be affecting everyone equally, pitchers including Lester and Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw are seeing career highs in long balls allowed even though they’re matching their career norms in value. Cubs swingman Mike Montgomery pinned some of the reluctance to adjust on the evenness of the change across the league: “The thing is, it’s a fair playing field.”Lester said that he sometimes makes height adjustments for specific hitters, but only one or two guys per lineup. He declined to name an opposing batter who he would target this way, but said that his teammate Ian Happ might be a candidate if Lester ever faced his fellow Cub. Armed with better scouting reports than the public has available, pitchers might be revising their approach to deal with the home run surge on a player-by-player basis, in ways that wouldn’t move the overall median pitch height very much.While pitchers have been slow to expand the zone upwards, they have adjusted in other ways. Four-seam fastballs are usually the pitch of choice to generate pop-ups, since they naturally rise (relative to other pitches). Baker characterized MLB as moving from a “sinker/slider” league to “reverting back to the fastball/curveball game it was before.” The use of four-seam fastballs was declining for years until the home run surge began. Since September 2014 (the lowest point in the usage of four-seam fastballs), pitchers are throwing about 10 percent more four-seamers. In addition to leading to fly balls, heater usage is also associated with additional swinging strikes compared to sinkers. As allowing contact becomes increasingly dangerous for pitchers, it make sense that they’d aim to keep the batter from touching a pitch, which might be the surest way to limit the damage.There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to avoiding home runs. “Everything is specific to individual situations,” Baker said. A high fastball might work well against some batters, but it might also be the wrong move in some contexts. With the breeze blowing out at Wrigley, even a weak fly ball has a chance at making it over the fence, so the optimal pitching strategy varies from day to day.Still, the increase in home runs demands new tactics, even on windy days. Between the shifting strike zone, evolving hitting philosophies and changes to the ball, the league is challenging pitchers to adjust to several new factors at once. “That’s the fun part,” Montgomery said. “How are you going to be the one to adapt and survive?”If all else fails, they could just raise the mounds again. read more

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The Eagles Offense Needed To Be Virtually Flawless And It Was

In Super Bowl LII on Sunday night, the New England Patriots racked up 613 yards, the most ever for a team in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady threw for 505 yards, which was the most by a quarterback in playoff history. The Patriots didn’t punt once in the entire game. It was a masterclass in offensive execution, and it was all for naught.The Philadelphia Eagles’ 41-33 win over New England will be rightly remembered for the triumph of backup quarterback Nick Foles over a Super Bowl legend. But perhaps more remarkable was that the Eagles needed to be virtually flawless on offense to keep pace with New England, and they succeeded.Defensive coordinators Matt Patricia and Jim Schwartz, who both received heavy head-coaching buzz this hiring cycle, watched helplessly on the sidelines as the offenses combined for 1,151 yards. Forget Super Bowl records or even playoff records, that’s most total yards in any game in NFL history.Between Foles’ downfield passing and the inside/outside power-running combo of LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, the Eagles piled up 538 (hey, FiveThirtyEight!) total yards themselves and were able to counter the league’s most prolific offense each time it landed a punch. After averaging just 5.3 yards per pass attempt across six regular-season appearances1Not counting an appearance in Week 8, when he entered the game with a minute left so that he could kneel twice and run out the clock. and three starts in relief of starter Carson Wentz, Foles burned the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship for 352 yards at a 10.7 yards-per-attempt clip. Whatever changed in Foles — or whatever magic spell head coach Doug Pederson cast — was still in force Sunday when Foles threw for 373 yards against the Patriots defense, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. He also showed a willingness to test the Patriots defense downfield, connecting on 11 of 19 throws of 10 air yards or more.After the teams traded red-zone stops on the first two drives, Blount set the tone with a bruising 36-yard run. On the very next play, Foles went for the jugular with a 34-yard touchdown strike to receiver Alshon Jeffery. It was one of five passes — and two scores — where Foles connected for 20 more yards. To put his development this past month in perspective, he only had three such passes in the regular season. The effectiveness of the Eagles’ run game set the table for Foles’s downfield feast. Repeated zone runs and outside stretches kept the Pats defense honest — and running horizontally — while Foles attacked vertically. Four Eagles combined to gain 164 yards on 27 carries, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt, while Foles completed 28 of 43 passes for 373 yards and a 88.6 Raw QBR. Pederson’s creativity shows up in the box score; five Eagles had at least seven touches — and two others had at least 70 yards, a receiving touchdown or both. Yes, that includes Foles: Pederson’s balance and aggression broke the Patriots’ bend-but-don’t-break defense. As expected, the Patriots still made halftime adjustments; the Eagles averaged over 2 yards more per play in the first half than in the second half. But they were still devastating on third and fourth down, keeping drives alive by converting 12 of 18 tries. Per ESPN Stats & Information Group, Foles was practically perfect in conversion situations, posting an 11.4 yards-per-attempt average, two touchdowns and 99.9 Raw QBR on 15 attempts.Yet it was a sloppily played game. Mistakes — including three missed first-half kicks, two failed two-point conversions, Brady’s dropped QB throwback and a host of blown coverages — took some of the shine off what was otherwise a sterling offensive performance by both teams.Besides his dropped pass on the option — which, to be fair, was not a good throw from Danny Amendola — it’s hard to put any blame on Brady, who put up his best statistical effort in eight Super Bowls. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to lose any game while posting 500+ passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. No Super Bowl-losing quarterback has played better.Yet Brady raised the ire of the entire footballing internet after the game, when he was quoted as saying the Eagles made “one good play”: As the full context of the quote reveals, though, Brady was spot-on: Brandon Graham’s fourth-quarter strip sack of Brady was the only consequential defensive play of the game, and it came at the perfect time to short-circuit Brady’s now-routine postseason heroics. Fittingly, it was also the only sack by either team in the game, which tied a Super Bowl low mark.Pederson has to be credited for his amazing coaching performance, winning it all after completely remaking his offense to suit his backup quarterback. The same is true of general manager Howie Roseman, who not only survived his power struggle with deposed head coach Chip Kelly but also won the Super Bowl two years later.But most of the credit should go to Foles, who deservedly won the Super Bowl MVP award after getting jerked around by Kelly, the Eagles and the rest of the NFL. Despite contemplating retirement after being cut by the Rams in 2016, Foles stayed humble and hungry and returned the team that drafted him in 2012.His patience, and theirs, resulted in a Super Bowl payoff for a fan base that desperately needed a championship.CORRECTION (Feb. 5, 2017, 2:25 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Eagles who had fewer than seven touches but who had at least 70 yards or a receiving touchdown — it was two, not three. read more

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The Raptors Tip The Finals With Their Own Strength In Numbers

With Kevin Durant still sidelined by the calf he injured nearly a month ago, Kevon Looney out indefinitely with a fractured collarbone suffered in Game 2 and Klay Thompson sitting out a playoff game for the first time in his career,1Thompson was the only Warrior to play all 101 previous playoff games during the Steve Kerr era. it was clear before the game started that the Golden State Warriors would need a Herculean effort from Stephen Curry in order to win Game 3 and take a 2-1 lead over the Raptors in the NBA Finals.Golden State got that Herculean effort. And it wasn’t enough.In fact, it’s difficult to imagine Curry playing a better game: Steph scored 47 points, snared eight rebounds and dished out seven assists. He became the first player in finals history to score 45 or more while also recording five or more rebounds, assists and made 3-pointers. And yet the Warriors trailed for almost the entire game and lost by 14 points at home. Curry’s 47 points are now the second-most ever for a player in a losing NBA Finals effort, behind only the 51 scored by LeBron James in Game 1 of last year’s finals.Combined with his 16 assisted points, Curry created 63 of the Warriors’ 98 points while he was on the floor, a truly incredible feat. Those 63 points tied for the second-most points he’s created in any playoff game during the Warriors’ five-year run of excellence. They also marked the sixth time that Curry has created at least 60 points via his shots and assists — though this is the first time he has done so in a loss.The Warriors fell largely because Toronto got whatever it wanted on offense for the entire game. Golden State yielded 123 points to the Raptors — the most it has allowed in any NBA Finals game at Oracle Arena under Steve Kerr. All five of Toronto’s starters scored at least 17 points, and they combined for an incredible 106 points on just 70 shot attempts. The Raptors all together connected on 43 of 82 shots from the field, 17 of 38 from beyond the arc and 20 of 21 from the free-throw line, recording just the 42nd 50-40-90 game2That’s shorthand for shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent on threes and 90 percent from the line. in NBA playoff history and only the third in the history of the finals.Their offense was in blitzkrieg mode right from the jump. Toronto scored 15 points in the first four and a half minutes of the game and eventually totaled 36 in the first quarter. They ended up scoring 1.44 points per possession in the opening period — the most efficient quarter either team has had during the series. The Raptors’ only blemish was a five-minute stretch in the second quarter where they turned the ball over three times and shot 0 of 6 from the field. Otherwise, they were practically unstoppable. Toronto even scored a completely absurd 1.59 points per possession on tries that began after a made Warriors basket.It was a total group effort — the kind of “Strength in Numbers” victory the Warriors themselves love to claim. Kawhi Leonard, while clearly still playing at least somewhat hobbled, nevertheless continued his metronomic consistency. Leonard finished with 30 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks, and he paraded to the free-throw line nearly at will.Danny Green — who is now officially out of the shooting slump that plagued him throughout the Eastern Conference finals after apparently getting some shooting advice from Shaquille O’Neal, of all people — nailed three 3-pointers during the aforementioned first quarter, giving him multiple triples in all three games of the series. Though Raptors coach Nick Nurse chose to start Fred VanVleet over Green after halftime to keep his best Steph stopper on the floor, Green ended up nailing another three treys after the break.After a Game 2 in which he largely struggled near the rim, Pascal Siakam connected on 7 of 12 shots from inside the paint. Siakam tallied six assists as well and was a game-high plus-22, marking the third time during Toronto’s 21-game playoff run where the Raptors have outscored their opponent by at least 20 points with Siakam on the floor. Kyle Lowry played perhaps his most complete game of the playoffs, pouring in 23 points while dishing out nine assists.The starters were not the only Raptors in double figures. VanVleet, still piping-hot since the birth of his son, scored 11 points and made three 3-pointers — including an utterly ridiculous shot-clock-buzzer-beating circus shot while falling down that pushed the Raptors’ lead to 13 points with less than two minutes remaining and sparked the beginning of garbage time. From ABC News: The lone Raptor to record a basket but not reach double figures was Serge Ibaka, who nonetheless had quite an interesting game. Though two of them likely should have been disallowed and called goaltending, Ibaka officially ended the game with six blocks, marking just the 17th time in NBA Finals history that anyone has thwarted that many attempts. The clean swats were all of different varieties: a chasedown in transition, two different help-side blocks on the drive and one where he planted himself in the paint and dared Curry to challenge him, then stepped up to block a floater when Curry took up the dare.The varied contributions put the Raptors two wins away from claiming their first NBA title in franchise history. Teams in their position — coming off a victory in Game 3 of a finals series that was previously tied at one game apiece — have gone on to win the series 82 percent of the time. The Raptors, though, have two different players — Marc Gasol with the 2015 Grizzlies and Ibaka with the 2016 Thunder — who have found themselves up 2-1 in a playoff series and have still gone on to lose the series to the Kerr-era Warriors. They should know better than anyone else that against an opponent this good, nothing is guaranteed.Especially when the Warriors may soon be getting some rather important pieces back. Kerr said after the game that he expects Thompson to return for Game 4, while Durant played coy about his potential readiness, suggesting the possibility that he could return from his monthlong absence as well. While the return of one or both stars would certainly increase the chances that the Warriors come back and win the series, such a comeback is unlikely to come easily — no matter what Draymond Green might say. Check out our latest NBA predictions. read more

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Ohio State mens soccer team sets program record with 7th straight victory

OSU junior forward Yaw Amankwa (23) kicks the ball during a game against Louisville on Sept. 29 at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. OSU won 1-0. Credit: Breanna Williams / Lantern PhotographerThe Ohio State men’s soccer team made school history by extending its winning streak to seven with a 2-0 shutout victory over Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon.The Buckeyes improved to 8-4-2 overall and 3-1-1 in Big Ten play while moving up to first place in the conference, while the Badgers fell to 3-9-2 on the season and 1-2-2 in Big Ten play.“I’m really happy for the guys, and so now to go into the record book as the team that has the longest win streak in program history is good,” OSU coach John Bluem said. “It’s a really good accomplishment for the players and I know it meant something to them today.”After losing two key players — sophomore forward Marcus McCrary and redshirt senior forward Kenny Cunningham — because of injuries, other members of the team stepped up to the plate to triumph over Wisconsin.OSU senior midfielder Kyle Culbertson and junior forward Christian Soldat were both instrumental to the win with a goal apiece.“We really do come together as a team and always fight for it,” Soldat said. “If one guy is not having a great day passing or a great day attacking, everybody else pumps him up and picks up the slack until he gets in his groove. It feels great having a team that’s always behind you.”After a rough couple of weeks, Culbertson was able to get it going for the Buckeyes when he scored the first goal of the game off an assist from junior forward Danny Jensen. Culbertson launched the ball into the back of the net in the 13th minute for his third goal of the season.Culbertson said although it was tough in the past couple of weeks for him, it was nice to see some of his other teammates step up and form a chemistry to keep the team rolling without his contributions.Soldat’s goal came in the second half when he knocked in a shot off the near post in the 65th minute, marking his third goal of the season. Jensen and junior forward Yaw Amankwa were credited for the assists.“Jensen gets the ball and I’m coming through and the ball slides to Yaw. I see him staring at the goal and I know he’s hungry for a goal too,” Soldat said describing the play. “I’m just screaming in my head asking for it. Luckily, it was on his left foot so he kicks it off to me and I just have an easy placement of the ball.”The Scarlet and Gray defense was another factor in the history-making win on Sunday. The Buckeyes’ defense was able to keep the Badgers away from the net to prevent Wisconsin from threatening for much of the afternoon. However, when Wisconsin did come close to scoring, OSU redshirt senior goalkeeper Chris Froschauer came out with the saves to keep the clean sheet.Froschauer had a total of three key saves on the afternoon, contributing to his fifth shutout of the season and third consecutive.Overall, shots were 13-8 in favor of the Buckeyes, who also held a 6-3 advantage in corner kicks.The Buckeyes, who have not lost since Sept. 11, will next look to extend the school-record winning streak to eight when they are set to host Cleveland State on Wednesday. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. read more

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Ohio State womens basketball notches first win against Cincinnati

After a tough loss against then-No. 7 Notre Dame in the Carrier Classic, the No. 20 Ohio State women’s basketball team came out firing and blazed past Cincinnati in their home opener at the Schottenstein Center. Wednesday night’s 87-49 victory gave the Buckeyes their first win of the year and Cincinnati’s coach Jamelle Elliott said OSU’s loss to Notre Dame might have served as some extra motivation. “They had a chip on their shoulder,” Elliot said, “and you could tell tonight.” The Buckeyes shot 77.3 percent from the floor in the first half and had a 42-21 lead going into halftime. Senior guard Tayler Hill led the charge with 21 points, while redshirt senior guard Amber Stokes and sophomore guard Raven Ferguson each scored 16 apiece. The Buckeyes defense stymied the Bearcats all game long and held them to 29.7 percent shooting from the field overall. “Our defense against Notre Dame was good and tonight’s defense was very good,” said OSU coach Jim Foster. “I think we’re solid defensively at the guard position.” Stokes said not only was their defense efficient tonight, but they had a strong overall game right from the tip off. “It felt better than the Notre Dame game from the beginning,” Stokes said. “The defense was good and everyone was getting their shots, so that makes for a fun game.” This year, the Buckeyes seem to be quick and precise, as they exploited the Bearcats’ defense with hard, dribble penetrations that set up wide open three-point shots, or with pick-and-rolls where players seemed to snipe in accurate passes. “We are such a faster team this year,” Ferguson said. “With Amber and Tayler on the court, you need to be moving and keep the ball moving at all times.” Hill was happy the way her team was able to score Wednesday, but said they still have a lot of work to do in order to perfect their offensive scheme. “According to the score, I think tonight went really well,” Hill said. “We rushed on the ball a little too much in the beginning, but that is something we can fix at practice.” Coming into this year, many people wondered who would step up to take some of the scoring burden off of Hill, especially after losing their dynamic point guard in Samantha Prahalis, who was drafted No. 6 overall to the Phoenix Mercury in the 2012 WNBA Draft. Stokes and Ferguson might be the front-runners to fill the void. Stokes, however, said the strength of their team is unity. “I thought my game was good, but it could have been better,” Stokes said. “We held Cincinnati back and our defense was solid. Everyone was helping each other out and we had one another’s back, and we kept a good rotation. I am proud of the way we played.” Hill also noted how unique the team’s chemistry is, echoing Stokes comments about everyone having each other’s backs. “The team chemistry has been the best since I have been here,” Hill said. “We all want to see one another play well and are very supportive of one another. We are very close and I think that shows on the court because we trust each other very much.” Foster said he is excited about the group of players he has this season, not just because of their versatility and athleticism on the court. “From day one I’ve liked this group,” Foster said. “They’re unselfish and can be a lot of things this season.” The Buckeyes will return home to face Winthrop at St. John Arena on Saturday at 2 p.m. read more

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