Yesterday, Ritchie King and I ran the numbers on the most popular teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and the English Premier League, according to the number of Google searches they generate.The rankings compared teams within each league. But we can also make cross-sport comparisons. What’s the most popular North American professional team in any sport, as judged by Google search frequency globally?It’s either the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox. Each generates about 30 percent more Google searches worldwide than the most popular NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys, and almost 40 percent more than the most popular NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers. You can skip down to the giant chart at the end of this blog post to see how all teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB compare to one another.The Montreal Canadiens, the most popular NHL team, aren’t particularly close to the most-searched teams in other leagues. Does that mean there’s really a “Big Three” rather than a “Big Four”? (Disclosure: ESPN doesn’t broadcast NHL games, and the league isn’t the subject of all that much focus at the network.)I’d say that the NHL’s status as a major league isn’t in question. The average NHL team generates about two-thirds as much Google search traffic as the average NBA team. There’s a gap there, but it’s no larger than the one separating the NBA and MLB. Furthermore, there’s a lot of overlap in the rankings. The 60th-percentile NHL team (roughly speaking, the Washington Capitals) is about as popular as the 40th percentile NBA team (the Philadelphia 76ers).Keep in mind that these figures are based on global search traffic, so that includes traffic in Canada. Canada — despite its much smaller population — generates almost as much revenue and fan interest for the NHL as the United States.But if we’ve included the NHL, what about Major League Soccer, the Canadian Football League and the WNBA?We have bad news for fans of women’s basketball. The most popular WNBA team, the Seattle Storm, generates only about one-quarter as much search traffic as the least popular Big Four team, the Columbus Blue Jackets.MLS has a better argument. Its most popular teams, the LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders, generate more search traffic than the Blue Jackets. The Galaxy and Sounders also earn about as much search traffic as the least popular NBA team, the Milwaukee Bucks.If MLS has a case, the CFL probably does, too. Two of its teams, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Edmonton Eskimos, also surpass the Blue Jackets in search popularity.But we’ve neglected the league that has the strongest case for inclusion alongside the Big Four. You may have heard of Mexico. It has the 11th-largest population and the 14th-largest economy in the world. It’s a part of North America. And soccer is awfully popular there.In fact, Mexico’s top professional soccer league, Liga MX, is comparable to the NHL in terms of global popularity. Liga MX’s most popular team on Google, C.D. Guadalajara, produces about as much search traffic as the Canadiens, the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago Bulls.So, if we’re talking North America — not just the U.S. — there’s really a “Big Five”: the NFL, the MLB, the NBA, the NHL and Liga MX. The most popular teams in MLS and the CFL are more popular than the least popular teams in the Big Five, but their inclusion is debatable, especially because they are surpassed by other leagues playing the same sport on the same continent.In the spirit of inclusivity, we’ve ranked the teams in all seven North American leagues in the humongous chart below. (Rankings are taken relative to the average team across all seven leagues, which works out to be roughly the Buffalo Bills or the Cincinnati Reds.) We haven’t included the English Premier League. The top teams in the EPL swamp everybody else in global search traffic; even the Yankees are no match for Man U.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s March 2 Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!In the 2000 edition of Baseball Prospectus, Keith Woolner identified 23 problems — avenues of analysis that had been dead ends for turn-of-the-millennium statheads. (For instance, No. 10: “Projecting minor league pitchers accurately.”) Woolner named these Hilbert Problems, after mathematician David Hilbert, who in 1900 outlined his own set of 23 vexing mathematical problems that he hoped would be solved in the 20th century.Of Hilbert’s 23 math problems, just 10 have been answered — not a great track record for more than a century’s worth of work. While Woolner’s baseball problems don’t lend themselves to mathematics’ hard-and-fast proofs, we have become a lot better at, say, “measuring the catcher’s role in run prevention” (No. 3). There’s still a margin of error in calculating how valuable Yadier Molina is to the Cardinals; nevertheless, the progress in baseball is remarkable.Analysts have made huge strides in “separating defense into pitching and fielding” (problem No. 1): The discovery that pitchers have relatively little control over balls in play has increased the value put on fielding and pitchers’ strikeout ability. And research into “determining optimal pitcher usage strategies” (No. 20) has led teams to transform struggling starters into top-shelf middle relievers with ERAs that would make Bob Gibson blush. Indeed, the shift toward pitching and defense reflects the rise of sabermetrics as much as the decline of juiced balls or juiced players.And all of this has taken 15 years, rather than since William McKinley was president. Sure, teams could still glean more about “assessing the ‘coachability’ of players” (No. 13) or “quantifying the manager’s impact on winning” (No. 22). But baseball analysts can’t complain, unlike their counterparts in other fields.As I describe in my book “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail but Some Don’t,” the rapid and tangible progress in sports analytics is more the exception than the rule. It’s important to remind sports nerds — who, as they look at streams of PER or wRC+ numbers, have become a bit spoiled — of this fair and maybe even obvious point. Because out there in the wider world, questions far more basic than Woolner’s remain unresolved. We still have tremendous trouble predicting how the economy will perform more than a few months in advance, or understanding why a catastrophic earthquake occurs at a particular place and time, or knowing whether a flu outbreak will turn into a bad one.It’s not for any lack of interest in data and analytics. For a while, I gave a lot of talks to promote my book and met a lot of people I might not encounter otherwise: from Hollywood producers and CEOs of major companies to the dude from India who hoped to be the Billy Beane of cricket.But there’s a perfect storm of circumstances in sports that makes rapid analytical progress possible decades before other fields have their Moneyball moments. Here are three reasons sports nerds have it easy:1. Sports has awesome data.Give me a sec. Really, I’ll only need a second. I just went to Baseball-Reference.com and looked up how many at-bats have been taken in major league history. It’s 14,260,129.The volume is impressive. But what’s more impressive is that I can go to RetroSheet.org and, for many of those 14 million at-bats, look up the hitter, the pitcher, who was on base, how many people attended the game and whether the second baseman wore boxers or briefs. It’s not just “big data.” It’s something much better: rich data.By rich data, I mean data that’s accurate, precise and subjected to rigorous quality control. A few years ago, a debate raged about how many RBIs Cubs slugger Hack Wilson had in 1930. Researchers went to the microfiche, looked up box scores and found that it was 191, not 190. Absolutely nothing changed about our understanding of baseball, but it shows the level of scrutiny to which stats are subjected.Compare that to something like evaluating the American economy. The problems aren’t in the third decimal place: We sometimes don’t even know whether the sign is positive or negative. When the recession hit in December 2007 — the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression — most economists didn’t believe we were in one at all. The recession wasn’t officially identified until December 2008. Imagine what this would be like in sports! We’re not sure how many points Damian Lillard scored last night, but we’re reasonably confident it was between 27 and negative 2. Check back in a few months.As if statheads weren’t spoiled enough, we’re getting more data all the time. From PITCHf/x to SportVU, we have nearly a three-dimensional record of every object on the field in real time. Questions once directed at scouts — Does Carmelo really get back on defense? What’s the break on Kershaw’s curve? — are now measurable.2. In sports, we know the rules.And they don’t change much. As I noted, there has been little progress in predicting earthquakes. We know a few basic things — you’re more likely to experience an earthquake in California than in New Jersey — but not a lot more.What’s the problem? “We’re looking at rock,” one seismologist lamented to me for my book. Unlike a thunderstorm, we can’t see an earthquake coming, nor can we directly observe what triggers it. Scientists have identified lots of correlations in earthquake data, but they have relatively little understanding of what causes one at any particular time. If there are a billion possible relationships in geology’s historical data, you’ll come up with a thousand million-to-one coincidences on the basis of chance alone. In seismology, for instance, there have been failed predictions about earthquake behavior in locations from Peru to Sumatra — all based on patterns that looked foolproof in the historical data but were random after all.False positives are less of an issue in sports, where rules are explicit and where we know a lot about causality. Take how we evaluate pitcher performance. It turns out that if you want to forecast a pitcher’s future win-loss record, just about the last thing to look at is his previous record. Instead, focus on his ERA, or better yet his strikeout-to-walk ratio, or maybe even the PITCHf/x data on pitch velocity and location.Why? Winning is the name of the game, and you win by allowing fewer runs than your opponent. So ERA says more about winning than a pitcher’s record. But you can do even better: Runs are prevented by striking out batters (and not walking them), and strikeouts are generated by throwing good pitches, which is why WHIP and strikeouts per nine innings also serve predictive purposes. Understanding the structure of the system gives statistical analysis a much higher batting average.3. Sports offers fast feedback and clear marks of success.One hallmark of analytically progressive fields is the daily collection of new data that allows researchers to rapidly test ideas and chuck the silly ones. One example: dramatically improved weather forecasts. The accuracy of hurricane landfall predictions, for instance, has almost tripled over the past 30 years.Sports, especially baseball, fits in this category too. In Billy Beane’s first few years running the A’s, the team had awful defenses — bad enough that Matt Stairs briefly played center. Beane theorized that because defense was so hard to quantify, he shouldn’t focus on it. His assumption turned out to be completely wrong. As statheads came to learn about defense, it proved to be more important than everyone thought, not less. Because the A’s were playing every day and Beane could study the defensive metrics like dWAR that emerged, he learned quickly and adjusted his approach. His more recent teams have had much-improved defenses.Contrast this with something like presidential elections, in which lessons come once every four years, if at all. Mitt Romney’s belief that the 2012 election was his for the taking (it wasn’t, according to both public polls and political science research) may have led him to underinvest in his get-out-the-vote operations. He underestimated Barack Obama’s popularity and his own ability to sway voters with his message. Republicans will have to wait until 2016 to improve their approach.It also helps that sports has a clear objective: winning. Obvious? Sure. But that’s not the case in other subjects. What counts as “winning” for the U.S. economy, for instance? Is it low inflation or high growth? If it’s growth, does it matter how the income is distributed? You have opinions about that, and I do too, and we might not agree even given all the data in the world.But the zero-sum nature of sports competition (there are a finite number of wins and championships to go around) also yields the greatest risk to continued innovation. When I was working for Baseball Prospectus a decade ago, most of the innovation was occurring among outsiders like us. It was competitive, but the point of getting a data “scoop” was to publish it for the rest of the world to see.Now almost all MLB teams employ a statistical analyst, if not a small gaggle of them. But those analysts are working on behalf of just one team — and have less incentive to share. At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference every year, the panels featuring current employees of major league teams are deathly dull because if the panelists said anything useful to a roomful of their competitors, they would be fired. Sports analytics runs the risk of losing the momentum of the past 15 years.Woolner, for his part, is now the director of baseball analytics for the Indians. No doubt he has 23 new problems to solve. But now it will take the rest of us longer to know when he has cracked them.
Longer fights might be a product of the changing nature of MMA. It’s likely that, as MMA has become more popular, the competitive parity has risen too. And so it’s possible that fighters, facing more fearsome and equally matched opponents, are tweaking their tactics to be more risk-averse — to bide their time for an opportunity to strike, rather than coming in with the all-out aggressiveness that characterized the early days of the sport. Whatever the reason, today’s fighters don’t end fights like they used to.In the MMA of the past, fights were most likely to end when a fighter knocked another unconscious or twisted an opponent’s limb until he said “uncle” — but those days are over. Instead, MMA fights increasingly end with both fighters standing, which forces judges to make the call. There are essentially three ways a fight can end: a decision, a knockout (KO) or technical knockout (TKO), or a submission, which is when a fighter verbally or physically “taps out,” usually by being in a vulnerable position such as a chokehold.This is what’s happened to those three outcomes over the past 15 years:Submissions are down from about 45 percent of all fights in 2000 to 25 percent in 2015.5Each year, about 1 percent of fights have an “other” ending — usually a disqualification or a “no contest” (such as when a fighter does an illegal move that ends the fight). Those have been removed from this chart. That more fights end with a decision explains the longer fights, and could be a reflection of improving competitive parity in the sport. There are fewer instances of pros quickly pummeling their opponent.But Rousey is an exception. She has won all her fights by a submission or KO. Rousey has won nine of her 11 fights with the “armbar” submission — a move where Rousey hyperextends her opponent’s elbow, causing excruciating pain and sometimes gruesome results.And, interestingly, among fights ending in a submission, fewer are done with an armbar.Rousey’s favored armbar technique made up more than 35 percent of submissions in 2000. But now the armbar is used in less than 15 percent of submissions. Replacing it are choking moves such as the “guillotine” and “rear naked choke.”Although Rousey’s ways of winning are increasingly at odds with MMA trends, bettors seem to be confident she will continue winning. The betting odds from the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook put Rousey as a -1700 favorite against Correia (as of July 27). So one must bet $1,700 on Rousey to net $100 if she wins. She’s still a huge favorite. But Correia is also undefeated (9-0) and has beaten two of Rousey’s training partners.Rousey’s dominance has been a boon for MMA — and for female athletes more broadly. There’s no use resisting it. Just submit.Hank Gargiulo and Andrew Davis from ESPN’s Stats and Information Group contributed data analysis. Data is provided by FightMetric LLC. Ronda Rousey is the rare athlete who dominates her sport while transcending it. You might recognize her from a cameo in the recent “Entourage” movie, or maybe you read about her in The New Yorker. Or maybe you saw clips of her last fight — all 14 seconds of it.But in case you’ve been living in a pacifist commune, know this much: Rousey is the best female mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter in the world. Top male fighters are wary of facing her. With an 11-0 record going into her much-publicized fight against Bethe Correia on Saturday, she’s arguably the biggest draw — man or woman — in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the biggest MMA promotion league.Beyond being simply “the best,” the former Olympian in judo — who, in the 2008 games in Beijing, became the first American woman to medal in the sport — is known for winning astonishingly fast. Her previous two fights lasted 30 seconds. Combined.Plotted below is the winning percentage of 2,135 MMA fighters (men and women) who have won at least three fights.1Fights from several promotion companies, such as Bellator and Strikeforce, are included in addition to UFC. On the x-axis is what I’m calling a fighter’s “fight speed score” — a measure of how much time is left in the fights they won versus how much is remaining in the bouts they lost.2The weighted average works like this: Take a fighter who has six wins and four losses. In her six wins, on average, 50 percent of the scheduled fight time was remaining; but in her losses, on average, 80 percent of the time was remaining. So her fight speed score is (6*0.5) – (4*0.8) = -0.2. This fighter tends to lose faster than she wins, even though she has a winning record. On average, Rousey has won her 11 fights with 90 percent of the scheduled fight time remaining; only three of her fights took more than 66 seconds.3The typical MMA fight is three scheduled five-minute rounds, except for championship bouts, which are five scheduled five-minute rounds. Other round and minute variations exist and were accounted for in the time-remaining calculation, which is a percentage. Combined with her undefeated record, this blazing-fast track record makes her a Lionel Messi-like outlier.Rousey’s quick fights are totally counter to the MMA trend overall. In the early 2000s, the average fight in the three-round, five-minute format lasted about 400 seconds for men and less than that for women. But in 2015, the typical fight went nearly two rounds (or about 600 seconds).4The trend lines in this chart represent the three-round, five-minute format. Rousey’s data points include fights in both formats. UPDATE (Nov. 13, 1:00 p.m.): Ronda Rousey defends her bantamweight title against Holly Holm this weekend in Australia. We wrote the story below before Rousey knocked out Bethe Correia in 34 seconds in August.
Robinson Cano is currently going through contract negotiations with the New York Yankees and has reportedly asked the organization for $300 million.Cano is looking for a 10-year deal, meaning that he’s pushing to become the top-paid baseball player ever, by making $30 million a year.Alex Rodriguez received a record $275-million deal from the Yankees, so it wasn’t a surprise that Cano would ask for so much.Cano is the top free agent on the market, but the Yankees have not counter-offered in the range that he is looking for, so he will possibly test the free-agent market. It is unknown whether any organization would pay that much for the player.The Chicago Cubs reportedly like Cano, but don’t see themselves in contention to get him.The Yankees have said publicly that they don’t want to negotiate another huge contract. According to a source, the team has already made a “substantial” offer, but it possibly wasn’t enough to close the deal.The Yankees’ made an offer of $140 million for seven years to Cano during spring training, but raised their bid recently. At this time, the information on the exact amount has not been released.
Meanwhile, younger players continue to be productive — and gain more playing time. Position players 26 and younger accounted for 43.2 percent of position-player WAR in 2018, the highest share since 1974, up nearly 20 percentage points from 2001 (23.4 percent). Similarly, this group got 38.4 percent of plate appearances, which was the highest number for them since 1987. This MLB offseason, star players searching for contracts like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are going to be fine. But the majority of free agents in baseball this winter? They might be in store for another long wait as the game continues to trend younger — younger than it’s ever been for position players in the free agency era.Harper and Machado — rare 26-year-old superstar free agents — could break contract records this year. (Harper has already turned down $300 million.) But the rest of the free-agent class of 2018-19, which was once expected to be historically rich in talent, is not as strong as it could have been. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw declined to exercise his opt-out and signed a new three-year, $93 million deal with the Dodgers on Friday without ever becoming a free agent. Josh Donaldson, the 2015 American League MVP, suffered a series of injuries that diminished his value, and A.J. Pollock has a similar recent history. Andrew McCutchen, a former National League MVP, is now 32 and no longer a star-level player.While there is star power at the top, more money to spend and perhaps fewer rebuilding teams, the vast majority of this class’s 250-plus free agents — who became eligible to sign with any team on Saturday — face the same questions that tormented the middle tier of free agents last year: Will any team sign them? And even if they land on major league rosters, how long will they have to wait, and what kind of salary will they have to accept to get there?The overriding issue is that the game is getting younger. Last season was the youngest for position players since the 1970s.To become a free agent, a player must accrue six years of service time.1Players also become free agents when they’re released from their clubs before reaching that threshold. The average age for rookies breaking into the majors last year was 24.4 for position players and 25.3 for pitchers. By the time these players have six years of service time, most will be at least 30 years old. Harper and Machado, who debuted as 19- and 20-year-old wunderkinds, are outliers.According to Spotrac, the 147 free agents to sign at least a one-year deal with guaranteed dollars last season were, on average, 32.6 years old, and the average age of this year’s class is 33.1 years. Last season, position players age 32 and older accounted for 12.9 percent of wins above replacement (WAR)2According to FanGraphs’ version of the metric. and 18.6 percent of plate appearances, which were the lowest numbers that demographic have contributed since 1975 and 1979, respectively. Free agency began in MLB after the 1976 season, so last offseason’s landscape for 30-somethings was about as bleak as it’s ever been in the free agency era. And this past season featured position players who were even younger. Pitchers are also trending younger, though not as dramatically. Pitchers age 32 and older combined for 18.7 percent of WAR and 19.9 percent of innings in 2018, which is down from 2001 levels (27.1 and 24.9 percent) but up from the 21st-century low in 2015 (12.1 and 17.1 percent).David Freese — who hit .296 with a .359 on-base mark last season — was ostensibly so concerned about his prospects this winter that, rather than test the open market, the 35-year-old signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Dodgers last week that was less than his 2019 club option of $6 million. (The Dodgers also paid him the option’s $500,000 buyout.) Some background: Freese waited until March 11, 2016, to sign a one-year, $3 million deal coming off a 2.2-WAR 2015 season. Freese is well-aware of how tough the market can be for a 30-something free agent.When I spoke with free agent infielder Neil Walker in June, he was already concerned about the upcoming offseason. Walker signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the New York Yankees on March 12, nearly a month after spring training camps opened. He had produced seven straight seasons of at least 2 WAR.3Walker hit .219 last year, so perhaps teams saw something that made them rightfully cautious.“You hope this trend with middle-tier guys doesn’t continue through this collective bargaining agreement [which ends in 2021], because there are going to be many, many more guys that are affected,” said the 33-year-old Walker, a former player representative for the union. “It’s not the top top-tier guys. … It’s the guys in between. There are a lot more guys in between. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know there are teams out there that didn’t spend a dime. There are teams out there that sold off most of their assets. That’s something, when you look around the league, it makes it pretty top-heavy and bottom-heavy. That’s alarming. That’s not the greatest situation, in my opinion, for baseball.”There was a time not long ago when a player with Walker’s resume wouldn’t have to worry about finding work. Not now, though. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Walker’s former club, proved you could achieve mediocrity without spending a single dollar on a major league free agent last offseason. The players union went as far as filing a grievance against the Pirates — along with the Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s — for spending very little on their major league payrolls while also being among the clubs receiving revenue sharing.There are a number of other issues contributing to the game’s youth movement, including testing for performance-enhancing drugs and teams’ growing desire to manage budgets more efficiently. The average position player age reached this century’s peak — 29.3 years — in 2004, when PED usage had become so rampant that the league finally enacted penalties for testing positive. That age has been declining ever since and fell to 28.1 last season, suggesting that PEDs may have been artificially extending the productive lifespan of a significant number of older players. Furthermore, last season position players age 32 and up saw their plate appearances decline by 36 percent compared with 2001, but their WAR production dropped by 54 percent. In other words, older players have become less effective in the playing time they get.Younger players are also usually cheaper — until they reach arbitration after three seasons in the majors, players make at or near the league minimum salary. Players who haven’t yet hit free agency also don’t come with the kind of high-risk long-term contracts that teams seem increasingly leery of — and not without reason. For instance, Eric Hosmer was a relatively young free agent last winter, entering his age 28 season, when he signed an eight-year, $144 million deal with the San Diego Padres. Hosmer proceeded to turn in a below-replacement-level performance for the year (-0.1 WAR). FanGraphs’ top 10 free agents last winter included some successes — J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain — and some failures in Hosmer and Yu Darvish.4Granted, this was just the first year of the players’ multi-year deals, so these assessments may change by the time the contracts end. Overall, the top 10 FanGraphs free agents combined to produce 20.5 WAR at $179 million in earnings in 2018. That’s $8.7 million per WAR for a club, which is not particularly efficient.Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer also believes that younger players have another advantage: They are better adapted to recent technology advances and have benefited from improved player-development practices.“Older players, generally, haven’t kept up with how the league is changing and evolving,” Bauer said. “They do what they did to get there.”But while more older players are aging out of the game and teams are avoiding risky, big-ticket contracts, free agency is also being pinched on the front end. Teams have increasingly manipulated players’ service time, delaying their entry into free agency. Kris Bryant filed a grievance against the Chicago Cubs in 2015 over this. Last year, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit .402 in Double-A and .336 in Triple-A, but the Blue Jays didn’t bring up the 19-year-old because they claimed that he needed to work on his defense, and the son of a Hall of Famer has yet to debut. Guerrero and the MLBPA filed a grievance.“Now it’s almost getting chopped on both sides,” Walker said. “The window [for player earnings] is much smaller than it used to be.”Moreover, teams have had success at hanging on to many young stars by offering club-friendly extensions before they reach free agency, buying out those first years when a player can test the open market. And in recent offseasons, an unusual number of teams have been mired in dramatic rebuilds, with no interest in adding to their payroll. In September, things had gotten so dire for the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals that we questioned whether they could even beat Triple-A teams.Said a MLB Players Association spokesperson to FiveThirtyEight: “If 30 clubs are competing for a pennant, the free agent market for players will be robust. We’ll closely monitor developments.”And while baseball officially has no salary limits, MLB’s strengthened luxury tax acted as a soft cap last winter. Only the Red Sox and Nationals exceeded the $197 million threshold in 2018, according to numbers obtained from the commissioner’s office by The Associated Press. The Yankees stayed under the luxury tax for the first time since it was implemented, and the Los Angeles Dodgers spent just $4 million on free agents last winter. Perhaps that was done with an eye on this year’s class and on courting Harper, Machado or other stars. Time will tell.At a time when baseball revenues have increased dramatically — the average franchise valuation increased from $295 million in 2004 to $1.6 billion in 2018, according to Forbes — total money spent on player salaries increased by just 1.86 percent from 2017 ($4.638 billion) to 2018 ($4.724 billion). Some have wondered whether baseball players would actually benefit from a salary cap if it also came with a salary floor that guaranteed players a share of the sport’s revenues. After briefly instituting a salary cap and replacing arbitration with restricted free agency during the 1994-95 strike, owners would likely reject such a proposal today.Tinkerers have put forward other ideas to help improve free agency for players, including declaring all players free agents when they reach a certain age, which would also address the way clubs have been manipulating service time. For now, they are just ideas.“As we approach the next round of collective bargaining, we’re going to be considering all aspects of the system, as we always do,” the MLBPA spokesperson said.But there are several actual developments that could help players this winter.The Marlins spent last offseason trading off significant assets like Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna, which had the trickle-down effect of allowing several teams to fill the holes in their roster without resorting to the free-agent market. This time around, the Marlins don’t have many assets to shed, though catcher J.T. Realmuto could be dealt. There don’t appear to be many teams with major assets to sell, though the Seattle Mariners might rebuild.In addition, large-market clubs like the Yankees and Dodgers reset their tax status last winter, which means that the next time they exceed the threshold, their tax rate will be lower. Since so many teams were rebuilding last year, maybe some of them will be past the teardown stage and more interested in upgrading their rosters this year.The Chicago White Sox and Atlanta Braves, for example, may begin to spend more significantly and build on their cores. The Philadelphia Phillies are rumored to be interested in Harper and Machado. The Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants and even the Tampa Bay Rays are projected to enjoy considerable payroll space.The stars will certainly get paid this offseason, but the game also continues to trend younger. That means it could be another long winter for the majority of free agents.
3. 1995 ALCS: Seattle Mariners (90.0) vs. Cleveland Indians (87.2); harmonic mean 88.6. If I were ranking the series subjectively instead of by a formula, this one would stand out along with Royals-Orioles. The 1995 ALCS fits the template of two notoriously terrible franchises hitting their stride at the same time. The Indians had a winning record just once from 1982 to 1993, and 1995 was their first postseason appearance since 1954. The Mariners had posted a winning record just twice in franchise history and had never made the playoffs before. 9. 1982 ALCS: California Angels (85.1) vs. Milwaukee Brewers (83.7); harmonic mean 84.4. The Angels had been mediocre rather than awful for most of the 1960s and 1970s; they’d reached the ALCS only once before (in 1979) but also never lost more than 95 games in a season. The Brewers were terrible from 1969 (when they began as the Seattle Pilots) to 1977 but were due for a breakthrough by 1982, having posted winning records in each year from 1978 to 1981. 7. 2002 ALCS: Minnesota Twins (86.7) vs. Anaheim Angels (83.7); harmonic mean 85.2. The Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, but they were terrible for most of the intervening seasons before making the playoffs again in 2002. The Angels had been following their usual Atlanta Hawks-esque pattern of being slightly below .500 and never making an impact in the playoffs. In fact, 2002 was their first postseason appearance since their classic series against the Red Sox in 1986. 8. 1989 NLCS: San Francisco Giants (86.3) vs. Chicago Cubs (83.0); harmonic mean 84.6. The Cubs have appeared in the NLCS three times — in 1984, 1989 and 2003 — and all three of those cases appear on this list. However, the 1970s and 1980s, what gets factored into their 1989 WALT score, weren’t quite as bad as some other eras for the franchise. The Giants had reached the NLCS in 1987, but that had come after awful play in the early 1980s. 6. 1991 NLCS: Atlanta Braves (91.0) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (81.0); harmonic mean 85.7. Atlanta and Pittsburgh would meet in the NLCS again in 1992, which is remembered for Francisco Cabrera’s walk-off single. But their 1991 series also went to seven games and featured four games decided by one run. It ranks slightly higher according to WALT since the Braves made the playoffs for just the second time since 1969 — and after having averaged 96 losses per season from 1985 through 1990. 2. 1984 NLCS: San Diego Padres (91.7) vs. Chicago Cubs (87.2); harmonic mean 89.4. This has been a painful list for Cubs fans. The ball that went through Leon Durham’s legs in the decisive fifth game of the 1984 NLCS is not remembered as well as a similar play by Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series (or the Steve Bartman incident in 2003). But it was every bit as consequential; the error improved the Padres’ probability of winning the series by 20 percent — about as much as Buckner’s play did given that the Mets and Red Sox still had a seventh game to play. However, the Padres rank as the slightly worse team by WALT: 1984 was their first playoff appearance and just the second time they finished with a winning record.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuOauPWip_8?t=1h51m30s1. 2014 ALCS: Kansas City Royals (92.1) vs. Baltimore Orioles (87.7); harmonic mean 89.8. It’s almost certainly just a coincidence, but the other series on this list have given us more than their fair share of extraordinary moments. Here’s hoping the Orioles and Royals will give us a few more. 4. 1969 NLCS: New York Mets (104.5) vs. Atlanta Braves (75.1); harmonic mean 87.4. Before 1969, the Braves hadn’t made the postseason since 1958, when they did so in Milwaukee. But they had been a winning team for most of the 1960s — the high rank of this series is despite them rather than because of them. Instead it was the “miracle” Mets, who had averaged a record of 56-105 between their inaugural year in 1962 and 1968, who went on to win the NLCS and the World Series. 5. 2003 NLCS: Florida Marlins (88.1) vs. Chicago Cubs (85.6); harmonic mean 86.8. Between 1909 and 2002, the Marlins and Cubs won only one World Series between them, and that went, in 1997, to Florida, who had come into existence as an expansion franchise only four years earlier. But the Marlins blew up their roster a year later and had a losing record for the next five seasons before winning the World Series again in 2003. The Cubs, meanwhile, missed their moment in 2003 in about the most painful way imaginable. But don’t worry, bleacher bums: Your team is going to win the World Series in 2015, according to “Back To the Future Part II.” The Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals meet Friday night in Baltimore for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, and they’re no strangers to the ALCS. The Orioles will be making their 10th ALCS appearance — only the New York Yankees (15 appearances) and the Oakland A’s (11) have made it more often. Kansas City will be appearing for the seventh time.But both franchises’ glory days came long ago. The Orioles last made the ALCS in 1997 and averaged a 73-89 record between 1998 and last season. The Royals last made the ALCS in 1985 and were respectable for the next few years, but Kansas City had an average record of 68-94 from 1996 to 2013.How unusual is it for two such moribund franchises to get their act together and meet in the League Championship Series?In baseball, there’s a precedent for pretty much everything — so there are some other examples like this, such as the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians in 1995. Still, the Orioles-Royals series qualifies as being as underdog-y as any other since the ALCS and NLCS began in 1969.To identify cases in which two franchises with long losing track records met in the LCS, I took a weighted average of each team’s loss totals for the 20 seasons prior to the year it appeared in the championship series. We can call this figure WALT, for Weighted Average Loss Total. In calculating WALT, the most recent prior season is given a weight of 20, while a season from 20 years ago is given a weight of one. (Loss totals are prorated to a 162-game schedule.)Then I took the harmonic mean of the WALT score for the two teams to appear together in each LCS. The harmonic mean places more emphasis on the lower of the two values. What this means is that a series will rank higher if both teams have been bad, as in the case of the Orioles and Royals, rather than if one has been awful while the other has been OK.Here are the 10 most underdog-y championship series as rated by this measure:10. 2007 NLCS: Colorado Rockies (87.8 WALT) vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (81.8 WALT); harmonic mean 84.4. The 2007 NLCS featured the novelty of two 1990s expansion teams facing each other. But the Diamondbacks had gotten off to a quick start, winning the World Series in 2001. The Rockies had struggled more, having reached the playoffs just once before 2007.
It’s been almost seven months since the Major League Baseball season started, and here we are, finally ready to determine a champion. We’ve been tracking — and forecasting — each team’s chances all season long, so we wanted to look back at the paths to the World Series taken by Boston and Los Angeles. Our final predictions give the Red Sox the edge over the Dodgers in the series, 60 percent to 40 percent — but as we know, anything can happen when the players take the field.Check out our latest MLB predictions.
OSU junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan (5) encourages Buckeyes fans to make noise during the second half against Indiana on Oct. 8. The Buckeyes won 38-17. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo EditorFew players have such a profound impact from the moment they walk on the field as junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan has had for Ohio State. The unquestioned leader at the helm of the “Silver Bullets,” OSU’s defensive nickname, McMillan has been named as a semifinalist for the Butkis Award, the top award for linebackers at the collegiate level.Playing middle linebacker is an already daunting task for any team, but at OSU it is a key to the success for the Buckeyes. On Saturday’s game against Northwestern, McMillan reacted to a play action fake pass, which ultimately led to a turnover.That relatively simple play might have seemed pedestrian to the outside eye, but the junior said otherwise to the media on Monday.“I had the B-gap,” McMillan said. “So if the quarterback would have handed the ball to the running back in that situation, I would have had to tackle the running back in that gap. But it’s a mesh point, so the quarterback pulled the ball when he saw me come up. He’s kind of reading me the whole play to see if I’m going to be in my zone.”McMillan said once he read the play, he reacted to Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson going back to pass and jumped in the way, causing the deflection that ended in an easy interception for redshirt freshman cornerback Damon Arnette.Before every play, there is anywhere from a few moments to 25 seconds for the ball to be snapped, although most college teams put an emphasis on getting the ball snapped quickly. For a player like McMillan, those few moments before the play begins are vital in his role as the man in the middle.About five seconds before the snap, McMillan is responsible for reading the offensive formation, among many other duties. To start, he has to get the call from co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, and relay that message to his unit and the defensive line in front of him to set them up in the proper stance. He also said from there, he is usually directing the strongside linebacker as well as the “backside safety.”“Once I’ve communicated to them, that’s when I go through the eyes, feet and body positioning with their line and see if I can get some keys on the play they’re going to run,” McMillan said. “Once I get that, then I’m in a different mode. It’s time to lock in, it’s time to go make the play.”That list of responsibilities could easily result in the occasional slip-up. McMillan received scrutiny during and following the Wisconsin game after Badgers’ wide receiver Jazz Peavy ripped-up the Buckeyes defense in the first half with an end-around.According to McMillan, he was just doing his job.“When Wisconsin was running the jet-sweep, and everybody was saying I was getting misreads, like I clearly had the A-gap,” McMillan said through a smile. If he were to bust off his trajectory and try to take out the sweep, he said he would not be doing his job. The commitment to staying true to his role and his assignment has caught the eye of his teammates.Junior defensive end Jalyn Holmes, who came in the 2014 recruiting class with McMillan, looks up to him as a friend and as a leader.“What do I do pre-snap?” he said when asked about his routine before a play. “Wait for Raekwon to tell me to do.”McMillan has earned 51 total tackles so far this season, which is technically a “down” year for the Georgia native. Last season he had 74 tackles through eight games, as well as a sack. With some outside criticism being thrown his way, it would be easy for him to start worrying about his level of play.Instead, McMillan plays it off with a grin and a joke.“If I ask y’all, I’m having the worst season in the world,” he said.
The Ohio State football team is the 2009 BCS National Champion.This phrase strikes even the most avid fans as impossible, but it is much more probable than it seems.The BCS rankings are comprised of the USA Today Coaches Poll, The Harris Interactive Poll and a combination of computer rankings that are each worth one-third of the overall rankings. The USA Today and Harris Interactive polls consist of human voters casting ballots every week while the computer rankings crunch numbers, such as strength of schedule and outcomes of games versus shared opponents.The system can be quite confusing and its existence is always a hot topic in college football, but it typically favors teams with fewer losses and teams from big conferences, such as the Big Ten.This was evident during the 2007 season, when the Buckeyes lost to Illinois in Week 12, but still managed to crawl their way into the championship game after only playing one game during the season’s final four weeks.The rankings make the current situation, and peculiar ranking, similar to 2007. The 2007 Buckeyes were ranked No. 7 following their loss to Illinois, and the 2009 team is ranked No. 7 in the polls this week.The 2007 team had one game and four weeks left in the season to make up ground. This year’s team has six games and nine weeks of football to make it to the top of the standings.In 2007, all six teams ranked ahead of OSU in Week 12 lost during the last four weeks of the season. Oklahoma and Oregon both lost in Week 12, Kansas and LSU lost in week 13 and Missouri and West Virginia lost during their conference championships. Compared to 2007, this year’s Buckeyes actually have a better chance of making it to the national championship.No. 6 USC plays two ranked opponents, No. 25 Notre Dame and No. 14 Oregon, and has lost to an unranked conference opponent this season. That loss could hurt the Trojans when the BCS rankings are released on Oct. 18, because the computer rankings consider the quality of the opponents a team loses to.The No. 5 Boise State Broncos will face only two teams in the remaining season with winning records. The computer rankings will hurt the Broncos since their strength of schedule is low. OSU should pass them in the rankings before the season’s end.Virginia Tech, ranked fourth, plays only one currently ranked opponent the rest of the season — No. 20 Georgia Tech, who they face this weekend. The Hokies will play a conference championship game if they win out, but conference championship games took down two teams ahead of OSU in 2007.No. 3 Texas plays the toughest remaining schedule, facing three currently ranked teams in No. 20 Oklahoma, No. 16 Oklahoma State and No. 17 Kansas. This does not include the conference championship they would play if they won the rest of their regular season contests. No. 2 Alabama plays two currently ranked teams, No. 22 South Carolina this weekend and No. 9 LSU in two weeks, and has a conference championship at the end of the year.Top-ranked Florida has an easy schedule to finish the season, playing only two teams with winning records and only one ranked team, but they must play a conference championship.Because OSU is likely to pass USC and Boise State, and the possibility of Texas losing one game in a tough schedule, only three teams would pose major threats to OSU.The other three teams all play a conference championship, likely against ranked opponents, and Alabama and Florida will play each other in the conference championship if they both win their remaining regular season games. That leaves two teams ahead of OSU.The Buckeyes must win every remaining game this year for a hope at the championship.In 2007, the Buckeyes played only one ranked opponent after Week 15 of the season, No. 18 Wisconsin, which left their strength of schedule lower than desired.This season, OSU has a possibility to play two Top 15-ranked teams in Iowa and Penn State. If OSU beats two top 15 teams, they would stay ahead of other one-loss teams in the top 10 because of their quality of wins.
The first night home game of the baseball season did nothing to deter the sizzling offense of the Ohio State baseball team.Every Buckeye hitter had a base hit in their 12-7 win over the Xavier Musketeers (7-22, 3-3 in the Atlantic 10) Wednesday at Bill Davis Stadium.Left fielder Zach Hurley went 2-for-5 with 3 RBI, and first baseman Ryan Dew added a home run and four RBIs for Ohio State (17-8, 2-1).“Tonight, we did some things well, and it was particularly true with our seniors,” said coach Bob Todd. “I mean, Hurley and Dew, and Dew had some big hits, Kovanda’s always been a spark plug for us. And that’s the kind of stuff you’ve got to have.”Hurley hit his sixth home run of the season on the first pitch of the bottom of the fourth to tie the game at 6-6.“I got a good pitch to hit, and I just went with it,” Hurley said.Ohio State grabbed a 7-6 lead on Michael Stephens’ RBI single later in the inning.Hurley delivered again in the bottom of the fifth with a two-out, two-run double to give OSU a 9-6 lead.Second baseman Cory Kovanda’s RBI single, a bases-loaded walk to Dew and a sacrifice fly from shortstop Tyler Engle later in the fifth gave them a 12-6 lead.“We were clicking offensively, and this is what I’ve been waiting for all year out of this team,” Hurley said. “I knew it was just a matter of time before we got everyone in the lineup, all one through nine, clicking.” Starting pitcher Eric Best lasted only two innings for Ohio State, giving up five runs (two earned) on six hits.His counterpart, Xavier’s Zac Richard, went only three innings, allowing five runs and seven hits.Brett McKinney came on in relief of Best and threw four shutout innings, which was key to the Buckeyes seizing the lead.“I was more focused on throwing strikes than anything else, and I felt I did a pretty good job of that,” McKinney said. “You have to take advantage of every inning you get, whether it’s in mid-week or weekend, and especially when you’re a freshman, you don’t know when you’re going to get another shot. So you’ve got to take advantage of them.”McKinney gave up only four hits in four innings, and shut down the Musketeers’ lineup that had scored in all three prior innings.“We were counting on that and we kind of thought that McKinney was a key to us if he could give us some strong innings in the middle,” Todd said.Xavier scored four runs in the second inning, and another in the third, as an error by Engle helped hand the Musketeers a 6-3 lead.Engle made up for his mistake and hit his first home run of the season in the bottom of the second, and designated hitter Matt Streng had an RBI single in the third to cut the deficit to 6-5.After Xavier scored in the top of the first inning, Ohio State took a 3-1 lead in the bottom half of the inning when Dew delivered a two-out, three-run home run, his third of the season.The Buckeyes will have a three-game series in Big Ten play against the Indiana Hoosiers beginning Friday at 6:35 p.m. at Bill Davis Stadium.