Take 5 – October 8th

Welcome to Take Five! I’m hoping this will become a regular post where I highlight a few of the more under-the-radar items from the world of sports from the past week (or sometimes I’ll just pick things I find interesting), with an emphasis on statistics, analytics, and videos. It will also include the occasional rant. Take a 5 minute break from your day and enjoy!

Conservative Coaching

Every week in the NFL, I am baffled by the conservative decision-making of head coaches, particularly in one area: going for it on 4th down. While this is certainly not a new topic, and obviously not only relevant to this week, I wanted to bring it up for my inaugural post. Time and time again coaches make suboptimal decisions, hurting their teams’ chances at victory, because “non-action” (punting/kicking a field goal and attempting a PAT) seems like the safer move.

This is true for two reasons. First, holding one of the 32 NFL head coaching jobs available at any given time means that by the following year you can expect about a quarter of your peers to have been fired and replaced. In a role with so little job security, coaches seem to figure that sticking to the status quo and not going out on a limb with their decision-making might help them keep their job. Since a quarter of them get fired each year, though, I’m going to say that maybe this strategy hasn’t worked so well.

The second reason is that the media reaction to a botched aggressive call can be scathing. Anytime a team goes for it in an aggressive situation and fails, there are numerous tweets fired off about the importance of “taking the points on the road” or “trusting your defense.” Coaches have feelings too (Jim Caldwell aside), and none of them want to face the umpteen questions to follow in the postgame press conference if their aggressive call doesn’t pay off. The best example of this may be when Bill Belichick, the best NFL coach by a country mile and the one with the most job security, went for it on 4th and short deep in his own end against Peyton Manning and Indianapolis a few years back. The play failed to convert a first down, which would have effectively sealed the game, and Manning promptly scored to give Indy the win. The media roasted Belichick for weeks afterwards, but the problem there, is that it was a smart decision. You can argue with the play call itself, but Belichick was just doing what head coaches so often fail to: maximizing his team’s chances to win.

If you’re interested in the idea of teams maximizing their probability of success, rather than being slaves to outcome-based post facto narratives (hindsight is always 20/20; remember that the next time your team is down three late and you wish your coach had just kicked a field goal and “taken the points” earlier in the game), then I highly recommend you check out The New York Times 4th Down Bot. The 4th Down Bot analyzes every 4th down call by a coach, providing the added (or lost) win expectancy for each of a punt, going for it, and a field goal attempt. If you’re ever watching your team and want to know in real-time what your coach should do on 4th down, there’s no better Twitter follow out there.

The bot’s biggest issue with coaches is how they treat 4th and short, almost always recommending that a coach go for it, no matter where the team is on the field, rather than punt or kick the field goal. For the typical suboptimal decision by a head coach, 4th Down Bot estimates that it costs his team 2%-4% win expectancy. That’s a significant number in games that often come down to the smallest of margins between who wins and who loses. Maybe if an NFL head coach listened to a Twitter bot rather than bowing to conventional wisdom, he could not only put his team in the best position to win games, but also avoid the ever-looming chopping block.

We Want a Pitcher

Ichiro
Legendary hitter Ichiro Suzuki took the mound in the Marlins’ finale

If you count his hits from the NPB (the Japanese professional baseball league), Ichiro’s career 4,213 mark is second only to Pete Rose all time. He holds the MLB record for most hits and singles in a season and is one of only two players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. For all his longevity and success, though, one thing Ichiro had never done in the MLB was pitch. That changed last Sunday night, as Ichiro fulfilled a career-long dream and took the rubber for the eighth inning against the Phillies. Ichiro didn’t look like Clayton Kershaw, but he held his own for a 41-year-old position player, giving up one earned run on two hits. With Ichiro reportedly returning to Miami for his age-42 season, maybe his pitching days have one more inning left, but if not, enjoy the fact that an MLB great got to fulfill a dream, and check out this excellent (and completely serious) scouting report put together by Baseball Prospectus.

Kicking into High Gear

The kicking across the league in Week 4 in the NFL was so bad, that multiple columns popped up Monday morning calling for the elimination of kickers altogether. Three kickers have already been cut following their Week 4 performances, and a few more are now hanging onto their jobs by a thread. Buried in all the missed field goals and extra points, however, was a near historic performance from Kansas City’s Cairo Santos. Santos finished 7/7 on the day, one field goal shy of the NFL record. Amidst all the anguish caused by other kickers, who benefited from Santos’ performance?

Pretty much no one. His 21 points were all the scoring the Chiefs could manage on the day, failing to punch it in on any of their red zone trips, and losing by 15 to Cincinnati’s high-powered offense. And fantasy owners, normally those celebrating (or cursing) that meaningless late game field goal in a blowout, weren’t affected either, as Santos was owned in just 2% of Yahoo leagues and 3% of ESPN leagues during Week 4. So congrats Cairo Santos for kicking 7 field goals on a day where so many of your kicking brethren floundered, and having virtually no one notice.

 Preseason Playmaker

D'Angello Russell
Russell’s pass should put the NBA on notice

Presumed Rookie of the Year candidate D’Angelo Russell, the 2nd overall pick in June’s NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, had a disappointing summer league showing back in July in his first foray into NBA basketball. Whether you think the Lakers are an iconic franchise with an inevitable Manifest Destiny propelling them back into championship contention (guilty as charged), or you are basking in the schadenfreude of the franchise’s current struggles (everybody else), you have to be impressed with this play.

It didn’t end in a hoop, so he didn’t even get credit for an assist, but Russell’s pass caught my attention. Preseason results may not matter much, but passes like that show the promise the Lakers saw in Russell when drafting him second overall. Russell will have a steep learning curve in his first season, and he is definitely not the most polished rookie in this year’s class, but there are only a handful of people in the NBA who can make that pass. Forget that it’s preseason. Watch the video three more times and just enjoy.

Zebra Swings

By this point, everyone and their mother knows that the referees missed a call near the end of the Seattle-Detroit game on Monday night, effectively gift-wrapping a win for the Seahawks. As ESPN’s Brian Burke (previously the brains behind NYT’s 4th Down Bot) shows, the referee’s failure to throw the flag for illegal batting caused a 70% swing in win probability, turning the Lions from 80.7% favorites into 10.5% underdogs. This big swing may seem obvious since it was so close to the end of the game and turned a Detroit 1st and goal at the 1-yard line into Seattle possession at their own 20. But that 70% number is huge. For comparison sake, the fantastic Bill Barnwell (my favorite NFL writer if you are reading this but aren’t familiar with him) put this into context. ESPN’s FPI estimated that Tom Brady’s original four-game suspension would have cost the Patriots .78 expected wins over the course of those four games. This means the non-call benefited  the Seahawks as much as the Patriots having Tom Brady instead of Jimmy Garoppolo for four games. Let that one sink in.

That’s it for the inaugural Take 5. Check back next week for more, and feel free to e-mail us if you spot something Take 5 worthy.

By Mickey Katz

Images: Bill BelichickIchiro Suzuki, D’Angello Russell 

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