UPDATE (June 6, 5:27 p.m.): The Belmont Stakes is today, so we’re unearthing this article about American Pharoah’s chances, and why the Belmont always seems to snag Triple Crown aspirants. On Saturday, American Pharoah (yes, it’s really spelled that way) won a muddy Preakness Stakes by an impressive seven lengths, leaving only the Belmont Stakes between him and becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Commentators and oddsmakers both like his chances. But you should be wary.Though official pari-mutuel odds won’t be available for another two weeks, offshore sportsbooks immediately installed Pharoah as a two-to-three favorite (the equivalent of about a 60 percent chance of winning). If it feels like we’ve been here before, it’s because we have: Just last year, California Chrome (pride of Fresno County) was the Superhorse-du-jour before finishing fourth in New York.For the past 30-plus years, the Belmont has been unconquerable for Crown contenders. But that hasn’t always been the case. Prior to Spectacular Bid’s spectacular upset in 1979, horses that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness won 11 of 19 Belmonts they raced (58 percent). Since then, they’ve won 0 of 12 (zero percent). Though the Belmont has been over 1.5 miles (12 furlongs) since 1926, its longer distance usually gets the blame. (The Derby and Preakness are raced at 10 and 9.5 furlongs, respectively.)That there has been some kind of paradigm shift seems evident. The 1.5 mile distance has become very rare in the U.S., and American horses have little to no experience with it. The 3-year-olds just aren’t very good at winning both distances anymore:Perhaps even more amazing: If you break out Triple Crown contenders, horses that won exactly one of the shorter races went on to win Belmont 21.2 percent of the time before 1979 (compared to 50.0 percent if they won both), and 15.2 percent of the time since 1979 (compared to zero percent when they won both). In other words: Horses that have won one precursor have gotten a little worse, but horses that won both shorter races went from having the best chances at Belmont to the worst:Part of this may just be a matter of specialization: Horses capable of winning both short races may be more likely to be calibrated to the shorter distance. It reminds me a little bit of the 200 and 400 meter sprints in human racing. There are a lot of sprinters who run both of these distances, but Michael Johnson is the only man ever to win both at the Olympics.Also, Belmont entrants and winners that raced in both the Preakness and the Derby are becoming rarer and rarer—the last nine Belmont winners have skipped one or more of the precursors. This has led to some speculation that fresher horses have an unfair advantage in the Belmont. But even if so, this is another variety of the idea that horses that win the Belmont probably do so because they’re more targeted to it.While this seems plausible, it doesn’t really explain why there has been such a dramatic shift: The Belmont has always been the grueling final leg — the “Test of Champions.”If horses who won the precursors were at a big disadvantage in the Belmont, you’d think that horse-bettors would have picked up on it at some point. But the market has remained pretty bullish on Triple Crown contenders. You can see the chances of winning for each based on its final racebook odds to the left of this paragraph.Of the 12 Triple Crown potentials that raced, there were some big favorites, no big underdogs, and eight were better than even money against the field.Say you took $2 in 1979 and used it to bet against Spectacular Bid winning the Belmont at racebook odds, and then just “let it ride” — betting it all against every horse that won the Derby and Preakness. Assuming you gave up 15 percent to the “takeout” (horse racing’s equivalent of the rake) each year, you’d have over $15,000 today (with no takeout, you’d have over $100,000).While technically it’s possible that this has all been one big fluke, it seems pretty likely that the market has been botching this consistently. But the tricky thing about markets is that when you identify that they’re doing something wrong, betting on it requires presuming that the rest of the market hasn’t identified the same thing.We’ve seen an impressive horse before and thought: “Wow, the market sure screwed this up in the past. But it must have gotten wise by now and [insert superhorse here] must be the real deal.” But by the end of the Belmont, not so much.
In a heart-felt gesture, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed to a contract Rutgers’ Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed when he broke two vertebrae and suffered a serious spinal cord injury on Oct. 16, 2010, during a kickoff return against Army.It was the act of new Bucs coach Greg Schiano, who was LeGrand’s coach at the time of his injury.‘It came out of nowhere,” LeGrand said Wednesday to the Associated Press. Schiano called it a ”small gesture” that recognizes LeGrand’s ”character, spirit and perseverance.””It’s a symbolic gesture,” LeGrand added. “They can’t give me any money with the salary cap and all that kind of stuff. It’s symbolic, something Coach wanted to do and I appreciate that. It just shows the man that he is.”LeGrand remains in rehab. He fought hard to be able to stand upright with the help of a metal frame.When Chiano told his former player of his intentions, LeGrand was stunned. ”I said, ‘Are you serious? You want to do this?’ He said: ‘It’s the least we could do,”’ LeGrand said during a conference call from the apartment he shares with his mother in New Jersey. ”I said, ‘I don’t even know what to say to you right now, Coach. This is amazing.”’Part of this gesture is a No. 52 Bucs jersey, Bucs helmet and contract.”It’s something I always dreamed about, go to the NFL and retire and become a sportscaster,” LeGrand said. ”Dreams do come true if you really believe. You do the right things in life, good things happen to you. He really just did this out of the kindness of his heart. It’s really what he wanted to do. I had no idea this was going to happen.”
Atlanta’s Spelman College has begun to recruit 16-year-old Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, the first African American to win all-around gold in Olympic gymnastics.Spelman president Dr. Beverly Tatum reportedly has flown out to London to get a head start on recruiting.According to an unnamed source, Spelman would love to have Gabby attend the college, and have made the gymnastics superstar the school’s number one recruit.Earlier this week a photo was taken of Douglas and her mother holding a gift bag from Spelman. The bag, presented by Coca Cola exec and Spelman alum Helen Smith Price, contained a congratulatory note, school t-shirt and a CD containing a song produced by the college.In a statement released to TMZ, Tatum makes no mention of recruiting the 16-year-old star but does admit the school would love for her to attend.“A young woman who has demonstrated the drive and discipline needed to achieve world-class excellence is likely to have what it takes to be successful at Spelman, and we would welcome her interest in the college,” the statement said.Spelman College is an all-female historically black liberal art’s college located in Atlanta, Georgia. Spelman is consistently ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts colleges by Forbes and the U.S. News and World Reports, and once again was named the #1 HBCU in the country this year.The college also ranks among the nation’s top 50 four-year colleges and universities for producing Fulbright Scholars, while also being the second largest producer of African-American college graduates who attend medical school.Some of the school’s notable alumni include the Executive VP of Walmart Rosalind Brewer, Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Alice Walker and actress Keshia Knight Pulliam.There has been no word from Douglas or her family concerning her interest in the College.
So, Stephon Marbury had a mistress and wanted to keep it a secret from his wife. To do so, he offered to pay the side chick $900,000 — and he put it in writing. That was Mistake No. 2.After paying Thurayyah Mitchell $600,000 to maintain the secret, Marbury stopped distributing the hush money. Mistake No. 3.Mitchell, once a chef, wanted all they had agreed to, and so she sued Marbury for the remaining $331,584.50, making public their 2006 affair. And so, the intent to keep his transgression a secret was compromised because he did not fully pay to keep his transgression a secret. All this according to TMZ, which got ahold of the suit.So, the question begs that Marbury has not answered: Why in the name of Tiger Woods would the former NBA star put in play a legal, signed document that would reveal his affair? Marbury’s signature on the agreement gave Mitchell the pathway to a lawsuit to collect the remaining agreed-to balance.Marbury still refused, claiming that filing her claim was a breach of the confidentially deal. Did not work.On Feb. 1 a judge sided with Mitchell and ordered Marbury to pay the remaining $331,584.50 he owes plus interest. And so, it is all there for public consumption — including Marbury’s wife. Seems he defeated the whole purpose in making the deal in the first place, you know?
South Africa23.758.2 Japan98.389.3 Brazil96.089.7 Australia95.390.2 Cameroon24.957.7 Argentina14.732.9 Group avg.—65.1 ANorway66.879.7 Jamaica22.053.3 Germany95.292.6 ENew Zealand69.779.5 Group avg.—78.6 Group avg.—78.9 CItaly58.368.2 Group avg.—80.7 Chile22.343.8 United States99.896.4 Despite underperforming at the youth level, the U.S. still boasts the best senior-level women’s soccer team on the planet.2Both our SPI and FIFA put the Americans in the top spot. The Americans have won the most World Cups (three), and they’ve played in the past two finals, but they’ve never repeated as champions.3Only Germany has done so — it won the championship in 2003 and 2007. That could change this year, as they’ve been drawn into Group F with Sweden, Thailand and Chile. According to our SPI, it’s the second-easiest of the six groups. At 99.8 percent, the Americans have the highest chance of advancing to the Round of 16 of any of the 24 teams in the tournament.The Swedes are always strong at the World Cup — they’ve finished in third place twice and were runners-up in 2003 — but the same cannot be said for the other two teams: Thailand didn’t advance out of the group stage in its first World Cup appearance at Canada 2015, and Chile is making its first ever World Cup appearance. If U.S. stars like captain Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe bring their goal-scoring boots to France next summer, fledgling teams like Thailand and Chile will be in a world of trouble.The weakest group in terms of average SPI is Group D, which contains England, Japan, Scotland and Argentina. England and Japan are two of the best teams in the tournament,4According to both our SPI and FIFA’s rankings. but Scotland and Argentina5Unlike their male counterparts, the Argentina women’s team is without a Lionel Messi. are two of the weakest. SPI has them ranked as the third-worst and worst teams in the tournament, respectively.That said, Group D still promises to be interesting: England will get the chance to avenge its semifinal loss to Japan at Canada 2015, and Scotland will get the chance to spoil the plans of its neighbors to the south. If the feelings of the England squad reflect those of its star winger Karen Carney, they won’t be looking forward to playing their rivals.“I wouldn’t want them,” Carney told BBC Radio 5. “It’s good to have the rivalry, but you want to win the group. They’d have a lot of fans coming over, and the rivalry can be a leveler.”The Scots better hope that’s true — the last time they played England in a major tournament, they lost 6-0. But even if they do get shellacked again, Scottish women will be able to say something Scottish men haven’t been able to say for two decades: They played at the World Cup. England98.787.9 groupteamMAKE ROUND OF 16SPI Rating Group avg.—75.3 BSpain74.380.3 FThailand38.053.8 DScotland45.250.1 The hardest (and easiest) groups in the Women’s World CupEach team’s chance of advancing to the Round of 16 and each group’s average Soccer Power Index* rating Netherlands89.488.7 Canada91.289.5 France94.9%93.4 Nigeria37.767.7 China78.283.2 Sweden93.283.1 It was fitting that Didier Deschamps drew the first lottery ball for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, which placed France in Group A. He’s lifted the FIFA World Cup trophy for France on two occasions, as team captain in 1998 and as team manager of France’s men’s team in 2018. But what first felt poetic felt anything but by the time the rest of Group A had been fleshed out: He couldn’t have known it ahead of time, but Deschamps had doomed his beloved French to the dreaded group of death.Joining the French in Group A are Norway and South Korea — each ranked in the FIFA top 15 — and Nigeria, three-time defending champion of the Africa Women Cup of Nations. According to our Soccer Power Index (SPI), the French are the second best team in the world at the moment,1FIFA has them ranked third. ranked behind tournament favorites the United States.Host nations have never failed to advance to the knockout stages of the Women’s World Cup, and the French roster, led by creative midfielder Eugenie Le Sommer, will be full of class. The French will almost certainly make it out of the group stage and challenge for the hardware next summer. Our projections give them a 94.9 percent chance of advancing past the group stage, which is the second lowest number of any top team in a group. (Only Canada at 91.2 percent is lower.) Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg’s absence from the Norwegian team will make it less a threat to France’s chances of finishing at the top of the group — but playing in the group of death will ensure France’s path isn’t an easy one. * FiveThirtyEight’s measure of team strength on a scale of 0-100. Group avg.—69.3 South Korea72.181.9
These are gaudy numbers. Lynch is clearly an unstoppable force going up against an extremely moveable object. Why wouldn’t Carroll give him the ball?First, some amount of passing is, at least theoretically, probably necessary. It’s unlikely that the optimal strategy is to run 100 percent of the time because if a team did that, the opponent would adjust accordingly. But for the purposes of this analysis, I’m going to assume that, for any given play from the 1-yard line, running was Seattle’s best option.An NFL head coach’s goal isn’t to maximize his team’s chances of scoring a touchdown on a given play; it’s to maximize its chances of winning the game. That distinction seems to have gotten lost in all the rancor and rush to condemn Carroll.Second, the fateful play didn’t take place as time expired. There were 26 seconds left. Let’s see what Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had to say:“We were conscious of how much time was on the clock, and we wanted to use it all.”But why would that lead to a pass? That takes less time off the clock than rushing. Let’s see what Carroll had to say:“We were going to run the ball in to win the game, but not on that play,” he said. “I didn’t want to waste a run play on their goal-line guys. It was a clear thought, but it didn’t work out right.”Defiant! Basically, he thought the Seahawks were going to score regardless, so he was willing to waste a play on a pass. If they scored, fine. But if they didn’t, at least they would’ve run a few seconds off the clock.Sounds crazy, but he’s right: With 26 seconds left and only one timeout, the Seahawks couldn’t run Lynch three times in a row. If they rushed on second down, didn’t make it in, called timeout, rushed again, and still didn’t make it in, they’d probably be out of time before they could get off another play. So, the Seahawks had three downs to work with, but they could only run Lynch twice at most.Thus the question isn’t whether the Seahawks should’ve called a run — we’ve already stipulated that. The question is when they should’ve called a run.And this is where the logic of those Harvard tweets undoes itself. If Lynch were a sure thing, the Seahawks definitely wouldn’t run on second down. They’d want to run time off the clock. The scenario would be the same as when a team can win with a short field goal. Because the field goal is a sure thing, the team is willing to wait.But as great as Lynch is, he isn’t the same a kicker attempting a 20-yard field goal. For this analysis, I’m going to assume he’s about 80 percent. If that sounds high or low, it doesn’t really matter: It’s not the most important factor in the calculation. The most important thing is the odds of the Patriots coming back to win if the Seahawks score too quickly.Based on Advanced Football Analytics’ Win Probability Calculator, a team starting at the 25-yard line and down three points with 20 seconds left in the game will win about 5 percent of the time. However, there are a few problems with this:AFA’s model may broadly underestimate the ability of modern kickers.Even if it is generally right relative to the league today, it is still calibrated to the average NFL kicker, whereas Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best long-range kickers in the league. Over his career, he has made 14 of 18 kicks from over 50 yards (78 percent), including eight of nine in the past three years.The Patriots’ offense is not typical. It’s Tom Brady’s. Brady eats pieces of game-winning drives for breakfast.Let’s spot the Pats some yards, then, and assume the Patriots win1Probably in overtime. about as often as a typical team in the AFA model would2In overtime or regulation. if they started on the 40-yard line. That would give them a 14 percent chance. Maybe that’s generous, but we’re looking for an upper bound.A secondary factor, noted by Brian Burke of AFA, is that stopping the clock by passing on second down also forces the defense to defend both the pass and run on third down (because the Seahawks still had a timeout). That would make Carroll’s decision better, so I’ll give him a 5 percent bonus in the “pro-passing” scenario and none in the pro-run scenario.The main objection to this thinking seems to be: “But the risk of throwing an interception was too great.” As evidenced by, you know, the fact that Wilson threw an interception.For this, I’ll turn first to Mike Sando, who had this to tweet: Everyone knew it was coming. Second-and-1 on the 1-yard line. Marshawn Lynch was waiting in the backfield, poised to do what he was put on this Earth to do: Get a touchdown — this touchdown. The football gods had telegraphed how they wanted the game to end, directing a floating ball straight into Jermaine Kearse’s hands. Beast Mode was going to drag the New England team kicking and screaming into the end zone if he had to. But the play call came in, Russell Wilson attempted a doomed pass that Malcolm Butler intercepted, and it was Seattle that punched and screamed its way off the field.The Web erupted in outrage that Beast Mode never got his moment. For Seahawks fans, calling a pass was essentially Pete Carroll denying his team’s fate. For many others, it seemed like an inexplicable miscue.“Pete Carroll botches the Super Bowl,” wrote Ian O’Connor, simply stating what most people were thinking.The first wave of stats to roll in wasn’t particularly favorable either: As noted by my colleague Neil Paine, the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective laid out the damning facts: That’s right. On the 1-yard line, QBs threw 66 touchdowns with no interceptions prior to Wilson’s errant toss.3This season’s goal-line interception rate is fairly low though. Since 2001, on second-and-1s on the goal line, quarterbacks have thrown interceptions on about 2 percent of passes. Not mentioned: They also scored four touchdowns on scrambles (which Wilson is pretty good at last I checked). That’s a 60.9 percent success rate.Just for comparison’s sake, here’s how more than 200 runs fared this year in the same situation:125 led to touchdowns.94 failed to score.Of those, 23 were for loss of yardage.Two resulted in lost fumbles.So overall, runs do a bit worse than passes (57.1 percent vs. 60.9 percent).But the Seahawks don’t have an average rusher; they have Beast Mode. As I said, we’re stipulating that he’s way more likely to score than a pass is, so his exact number doesn’t matter very much for our calculations. It does matter that he isn’t particularly fumble-prone — but he has still fumbled about 1 percent of the time in his career, which means passing carries an extra 1 percentage point of risk.On the other hand, due to the peculiar scenario, it behooves a QB to play extremely carefully. Throwing an incomplete pass only moves the needle a tiny bit, whereas throwing an interception is devastating. Thus a coach might believe that his QB will throw a pick even less often than normal. So, we’ll try favorable and unfavorable assumptions about that as well.Putting these various factors together, we can assign probabilities to various outcomes like so:This isn’t about passions, and it isn’t about statistical mumbo-jumbo. It’s about arithmetic.Under the most pro-Beast set of assumptions, rushing may have been the better play but by the slimmest of margins (0.3 percentage points). Under a more pro-Gostkowski set of assumptions, passing may have been the best play by up to 3 percentage points.But we’re still discussing marginal improvements in odds. Pick which assumptions you like; it doesn’t really matter. Carroll’s decision wasn’t the epically bad call many have made it out to be.On the other handMeanwhile, the coach on the other sideline had a mildly controversial call that history will forget because A) it was more than one play before the decisive play (people tend to have a short memory for these things), and B) the Patriots won, so who cares.After Lynch ran 4 yards to set up second-and-goal at the 1, most people expected the Patriots to call a timeout. After all, there was a million percent chance that Beast Mode was going to score, so why not save as much time on the clock as possible?Yet the Pats let the clock run, as if head coach Bill Belichick psychically knew the Seahawks would muck it up.Of course, normally, the leading team wants to shorten the game to give its opponent the fewest number of opportunities to catch up as possible.In this case, however, the Seahawks were going to get three shots at the end zone regardless.That isn’t to say there is no benefit to letting the clock wind down. As already discussed, leaving only 26 seconds doesn’t leave Seattle enough time to attempt three rushes (which we’re stipulating are better plays for them).So, when the Patriots had to decide whether to call a timeout, there were essentially three paths to victory for them:Seattle turns the ball over on either second or third down. Letting the clock run slightly increases the chances of this, assuming the odds of a turnover are higher on a pass than a run (we’ll take it as about 2.5 percent combined instead of 2 percent).Seattle fails to score on all three plays. Again, leaving the Seahawks a little less time probably increases the chances of this happening because it forces them to pass at least once. And we’ve seen how that worked out.Seattle scores. New England gets the ball back and then goes on to win the game (most likely by kicking a field goal and then winning in overtime).But the smaller amount of time the Patriots would have under scenario No. 3 easily dwarfs the other considerations. Belichick should have called a timeout. Here’s how the math looks under some assumptions that are fairly charitable to Belichick:Note again that if we take the assumptions that are most unfavorable to Carroll, his mistake would have cost Seattle only 0.3 percentage points, while under the assumptions most favorable to Belichick, his error cost the Patriots 2.1 percent.4And that’s not even counting the possibility that the Patriots may have avoided this whole situation if they had intentionally missed the extra point one drive earlier, therefore not encouraging the Seahawks to go for a touchdown.But winning erases all sins.
Between the record-smashing rookie campaign of Aaron Judge, the Cleveland Indians’ win streak and the Houston Astros’ ridiculous feats of offense, the National League has felt like a bit of an afterthought this season. (A huge amount of NL attention went to a player who isn’t even in the playoffs.) But in any other season, elite contenders like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals wouldn’t be flying under the radar. As we did with the American League earlier this week, we picked out each National League team’s most important strength, plus the one weakness that might trip them up en route to the World Series.Los Angeles Dodgers (17 percent chance of winning the World Series) Strength: Power, speed and pitching.As they showcased in the wild-card game against the Colorado Rockies — crushing two home runs and legging out three triples — the D-Backs can beat you in a variety of different ways. During the regular season, they ranked second among all MLB teams in isolated power (trailing only the hard-hitting Astros), first in baserunning value over average1Averaging together the baserunning metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com. and first in Bill James’s Speed Score (a composite that indexes a bunch of speed-related stats). Before Arizona did it this year, no team since 2001 had posted a .190 slugging and a 5.0 Speed Score in the same season. Add in a pitching staff that ranked second overall by WAR, and the Diamondbacks might have the most unique combination of strengths in this playoff field.Weakness: Hitting for average.Despite playing in a ballpark that boosts batting average the second-most of any team’s home digs (only Coors Field is better to hit in), the Diamondbacks hit just .254 this season, 18 points lower than we’d expect of an average team in the same park. Only three teams — the Blue Jays, Rangers and Padres — hit for a lower average relative to expectations, and all three of those teams had below-average offenses. Arizona managed to make things work anyway because of their rare combination of power and speed, but the D-Backs’s lousy average meant they were mediocre at plating base runners with two outs, and generally subpar in the clutch. On Wednesday night, Arizona’s lineup showed everyone how it can erupt in big offensive outbursts, but it still needs to prove it can do some of the situational hitting the playoffs will inevitably require.Washington Nationals(11 percent chance of winning the World Series) Strength: Ace-level starters.The Nationals have long been led by a superb starting rotation, but Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez put up some of their best career performances this year. According to The Baseball Gauge’s wins above replacement meta-metric,2The metric takes Baseball Gauge’s own WAR metric and averages it with aspects from two other versions of WAR — Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs’. Specifically, for this article, I set the meta-metric to average together every option equally in each category, with no regression for fielding metrics and the positional adjustment not included in offensive and defensive WAR. To see the leaderboards I saw while writing this piece, click through to the Baseball Gauge links and make sure the filters are set correctly. the Nationals ranked third in the majors in total WAR from their starting pitchers, and the Scherzer-Strasburg-Gonzalez trio was especially great — each ranked among baseball’s 10 best starters by WAR.3Cleveland, with Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, is the only other team that can even claim two of the top 10. For Strasburg and Gonzalez, the 2017 season was somewhat out of line with their recent track records, but Scherzer has been dominant forever — only LA’s Clayton Kershaw has been a more valuable starter over the past five seasons. In the postseason, when top-of-the-rotation pitching is paramount, Washington’s aces give them an enviable advantage against just about anybody.Weakness: Their best might not be enough.There aren’t many holes in Washington’s roster, especially now that two of its top players — shortstop Trea Turner and, more recently, right fielder Bryce Harper — are back after missing large portions of the season with injuries. But even with all their stars, it’s fair to ask where the Nationals stand relative to what might be the most stacked postseason field ever. Our Elo ratings currently place Washington seventh in MLB.4Behind the Indians, Astros, Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers and Red Sox. Most years, a team as good as Washington would rank third or fourth,5Since the wild-card era began in 1995, the average MLB ranking for teams who finished the regular season with an Elo between 1550 and 1560 was 3.48. but this is no ordinary season. And as much as MLB’s playoffs have earned their reputation as a crapshoot, there’s a definite relationship between a team’s talent and its World Series chances.Chicago Cubs(10 percent chance of winning the World Series) Strength: Completeness.The defending-champion Cubs were nowhere near as dominant in 2017 as they were in 2016, dropping from No. 1 in WAR (by far) to a lowly seventh. But one area where the club still had that championship feel was in its lack of a glaring weak point. A year removed from sending an absurd number of players to the All-Star Game, Chicago still had one of the best top-to-bottom teams in baseball. According to WAR, the Cubs got the most production in baseball from its catchers, the second-most from its third basemen, the third-most from its first basemen and — most importantly — didn’t rank any lower than 14th at any single position.6Including pitchers but excluding designated hitters, to fairly compare NL and AL teams. Not even the mighty Indians can say their weakest links were so strong. In the playoffs, important contributions often come from unlikely sources. Chicago should be covered.Weakness: Inexplicably mediocre pitching.One of Chicago’s deadliest weapons a year ago was its stellar pitching staff, led by an outstanding crop of starters. The group got a lot of help from a historically sturdy defense, which fell back to earth (though was still excellent) this season, but that doesn’t explain why Chicago’s pitchers declined in fielding-independent measurements. Chicago hurlers fell from 3rd to 8th in strikeout rate this season, from 18th to 24th in walk rate and from 6th to 16th in home run rate — perhaps because their average fastball velocity was among the slowest in baseball. As a result, the Cubs’ top pitchers saw their value drop almost across the board, and as a group they generated about 7 fewer wins this year than last. Without that fearsome rotation, Chicago’s title hopes are a shadow of what they were this time last season. Strength: Best form.Although the Dodgers had baseball’s best Elo rating (FiveThirtyEight’s pet metric for judging a team’s strength at any moment) for a decent chunk of the season, they ultimately finished the year behind the Indians. But when the Dodgers were at their very best, they reached a higher peak than any other team this season — including Cleveland during its 22-game winning streak. In the course of a scorching midseason run — winning 52 times in 61 games — LA’s Elo rating hit a high of 1612, not only the best of any MLB team this year, but also the 19th-best of all time (and the second-best of the last 48 seasons, trailing only the 1998 Yankees). The Dodgers looked totally unbeatable for more than two months, with a lineup full of hot hitters crawling out of the woodwork and an excessively deep pitching staff.Weakness: Recent form.As invincible as the Dodgers seemed during their hot streak, they stumbled badly beginning in late August, losing 16 of 17 games (including 11 straight at one point) before righting the ship with a 12-6 finish to the regular season. In the process, they became the only team in baseball history to have separate 16-game stretches where they both won and lost 15 times. A late-season swoon doesn’t carry any special penalty in terms of “momentum,” but the fact that LA was even capable of such putrid play for a sustained period means there are still some questions to be answered about how reliable a favorite the Dodgers really are.Arizona Diamondbacks (6 percent chance of winning the World Series)
Reggie Jackson feeding Blake Griffin in the post (via @BleacherReport) pic.twitter.com/yx5tmzqwuK— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) February 1, 2019The team has to use an array of handoffs and screens, both on and off the ball, to convince defenders to move and to free up jump-shooters.4The team’s lineups lack two-way balance. So despite Bruce Brown’s valuable defensive contributions, his inability to shoot allows defenders to ignore him along the perimeter, making it tougher to find someone like Luke Kennard or Wayne Ellington. No team scores fewer fast-break points per night than Detroit, and the Pistons are less efficient after forcing a turnover on D than any other NBA club.If there’s been a surprise during the team’s stretch of solid play, it’s that Detroit has shot so well in the aftermath of trading its best shooter, Reggie Bullock — a deal that initially looked suspect and suggested to many that the Pistons were trying to dodge paying the luxury tax. (Signing perimeter threat Wayne Ellington obviously made up for much of that.)But there’s a strong argument to be made that speedy backup guard Ish Smith has been the catalyst in the turnaround. The Pistons were terrible in the time he missed earlier in the season with an injury but looked competent again once he rejoined the lineup. (With Smith out, the only other point guard Detroit had outside of Jackson was 37-year-old Jose Calderon.)Heading into Wednesday night’s games, only four players5Charlotte’s Tony Parker, Golden State’s Alfonzo McKinnie, Utah’s Georges Niang and Boston’s Semi Ojeleye. had helped boost their teams’ winning percentages more than Smith,6Only counting players who’d appeared in at least 30 games while also missing at least 10. according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Pistons have logged a 21-13 record with Smith (61.8 percent) and an 8-18 mark (30.8 percent) without him.Buying stock in the Pistons feels risky because of their shallow depth and their cold spells that feel like arctic blasts straight from Canada. This 11-game stretch hasn’t been tough, featuring just two wins over teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today.Still, Detroit owns an 87 percent playoff probability and a favorable remaining schedule — far easier than that of Brooklyn, Charlotte or Miami.7But slightly tougher than Orlando’s. The Pistons’ defense has been solid all year (Drummond is among the league leaders in steals), and the club limits opponents to a league-low 33.7 percent from the 3-point line.There’s a bizarre universe in which the Pistons could reach the playoffs at below .500 and still be favored in the first round. If the Pistons land at the No. 6 seed, and the Pacers minus star Victor Oladipo hold on to the No. 3, not only would Detroit have the top player in the series, but it would also have a real chance to advance to the second round.Beggars can’t be choosers, and those might be high hopes for now. But for a capped-out franchise that hasn’t reached the second round since 2008, the mere dream itself almost feels like a noteworthy accomplishment.Check out our latest NBA predictions. There’s a natural tendency in the NBA to lavish attention on teams that, with every bad loss, send social media into a tizzy because of what it might mean for the league’s landscape. For instance, if the LeBron-led Lakers don’t reach the postseason — a 80 percent probability at this point — it would seem a foregone conclusion that major changes would take place in L.A. this summer.On the other extreme, then, are the Pistons. Detroit, which has been to the NBA playoffs once in the past nine seasons, desperately craves a postseason berth. But if the Pistons don’t make it, there won’t be headlines in national news outlets criticizing them for it. And even if there were, it would be tough to make big changes within an organization that has a first-year head coach and a top-heavy roster. This is their team for now.The Pistons are clearly an imperfect club. But they can bolster their fortunes by simply continuing to play the way they have in recent weeks, winning eight of their past 11 games. Through Feb. 1, the sputtering Pistons’ offense ranked 29th out of the league’s 30 teams in both effective field goal rate and true shooting percentage. Since Feb. 2, though, the club has jumped into the top five leaguewide in both categories.Unlike earlier stretches in the season, when All-Star forward Blake Griffin was carrying the offense, the Pistons have enjoyed a far more balanced approach over the past month. The team’s share of one-on-one plays — which was the NBA’s second-highest through Feb. 11Behind Houston. — ranked just 12th over the past month of action, according to stat-tracking database Second Spectrum.After coming into the season showing off a jumper that wasn’t quite game-ready, two-time All-Star Andre Drummond has looked better than ever simply by getting back to the basics near the rim. He’s averaging more than 22 points and 17 boards2He’s leading the NBA again in rebounding. over his past seven games and has found considerable success with a nifty little push shot from about 8 feet out. Beyond that, maddeningly inconsistent guard Reggie Jackson has been consistently good for a month now and is shooting a career-best 36 percent from deep.All of this is noteworthy for an offense that sometimes shoots as if the object of the sport is to bruise the backboard with repeated misfires. On Wednesday in San Antonio, for instance, Detroit bricked 14 of its first 15 shots to begin the second quarter. Coach Dwane Casey has acknowledged that the iso-heavy games prior to February were largely a necessity: Griffin trying to break down an entire defense — or simply trying to post up — was often Detroit’s best hope.3With Griffin and others often standing around waiting for things to happen on offense, the Pistons rank third in the NBA in three-second violations.
Turner sustained the injury early in the first half of Ohio State’s 111-60 victory over Eastern Michigan Saturday. Turner landed on his back after a dunk attempt. He left the court under his own power before going to the Ohio State Medical Center for tests. He was released from the facility and is home resting. Turner left the game with four points in seven minutes. After eight games, Turner led Ohio State in scoring (18.5 ppg.), rebounding (11.4 rpg.), assists (47), field goals (62) and free throws made (22). He is shooting 61 percent from the field (62-102) and was the only Big Ten player averaging a double-double. COLUMBUS, Ohio– Ohio State junior guard Evan Turner has been diagnosed with a transverse process fracture on the second and third lumbar vertebra of his spine. He is expected to miss the next eight weeks, Vince O’Brien, athletic trainer for the Buckeyes’ men’s basketball team, said. Here is the press release, from the OSU athletic communications department: Ohio State is off to a 7-1 start, but will be without junior guard Evan Turner for the next eight weeks, the team announced Saturday in a press release. Turner was injured early in the first half of Saturday’s 111-60 win over Eastern Michigan when he was fouled attempting a dunk. Turner leads the Buckeyes in just about every statistical category, including points, rebounds and assists. Ohio State is off the next week for final exams and will resume competition at noon Dec. 12 at Butler.