LeBron James201214.313.021.914.8✔✔ PLAYERSEASONPTS.REBS.ASST.ALLWONMVP Wilt Chamberlain197010.423.67.413.5 LeBron James201313.013.317.713.7✔✔ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar197113.518.66.614.1✔✔ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar197417.314.111.315.5 Michael Jordan199319.29.812.816.0✔✔ Kobe Bryant201016.110.011.313.8✔✔ Shaquille O’Neal200217.914.88.415.8✔✔ Michael Jordan19922.214.171.1244.4✔✔ Shaquille O’Neal200117.018.011.616.6✔✔ Dwyane Wade2006126.96.36.1995.3✔✔ LeBron James201519.0%13.6%23.0%18.0%–– Hakeem Olajuwon199514.812.910.213.7✔✔ Jerry West1969188.8.131.52.5✔ Tim Duncan2003184.108.40.2065.9✔✔ Tim Duncan199916.617.87.015.8✔✔ Does it get any better than this? The best player in the world, under pressure that would break lesser men, appears to be using it somehow to make himself even better. LeBron James’s NBA Finals performance so far is the kind of thing we like to dream great athletes can do.Unfortunately, he’s probably going to lose.Monday on FiveThirtyEight, my colleague Neil Paine discussed how both James’s basic and advanced stats point to his being one of the all-time great finals series. On the mothersite, Kevin Pelton argues that James should win the MVP based on WARP (wins above replacement player), and it seems that the idea that James should win the MVP even if the Cavs lose is getting popular.So I’d like to look at James’s production from a slightly different angle. Rather than just look at how James’s production stands on its own right, let’s see how much impact James has had on the series relative to everyone else — combined.Through the first five games, James has gathered an incredible 18 percent of all the points scored, assists dished and rebounds collected by anyone in this series. If that stands, it will be 1.1 percentage points higher than the next highest over the past 46 years (since they started having a finals MVP in 1969). Here are the top 20, plus James: Michael Jordan199116.28.824.315.6✔✔ Shaquille O’Neal200018.020.25.416.9✔✔ Michael Jordan199718.58.615.115.3✔✔ Michael Jordan1998220.127.116.114.1✔✔ Kobe Bryant200918.104.22.1684.9✔✔ The player closest to James who didn’t win the MVP was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had a 15.5 percent share in the 1974 finals. Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks lost the finals that year to the Boston Celtics, and the MVP went to John Havlicek. The only person to win the finals MVP in a losing effort was Jerry West in 1969, and he happens to be right around the fringe where players any more dominant almost always get the MVP trophy.Meanwhile, regular-season MVP Stephen Curry — the most likely candidate to deny James (again) — presently has the second-highest share in the finals with 11.5 percent of all points, rebounds and assists. If it holds, this 6.5 percentage point gap between first and second would be the second-largest ever (since 1969):The only player with a greater than 4 percentage point gap who didn’t win the MVP was James last year, when the winner was Spurs breakout star and current Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard.In other words, not only has James been the most dominant player in these finals, he has also been one of the most dominant “most dominant” players in finals history.Of course dominating production isn’t necessarily the same as “value,” and I’ve dabbled in esoteric theories of value myself (like, say, how Dennis Rodman might have been more valuable than Michael Jordan).Still, this gap between James and most other finals MVPs — barring any substantial changes — is so wide that unless you rule out the defeated on principle, it will be hard to argue that he doesn’t belong in their company.
Multiple people sent me this question as Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon is once again hitting his pitcher eighth in the batting order. Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell is reportedly considering doing the same, and many other managers have dabbled with the strategy over the years. Maddon picked it up from fabled lineup-tinkerer Tony La Russa, but does it work? Does it even matter?A lot of interesting research has been conducted on the subject. Most notably, co-authors Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin examined the question in their great sabermetric manual “The Book,” where they used a markov chain-based lineup simulator to measure the effect of slotting a pitcher-caliber (i.e., terrible) hitter into various lineup spots. Although it hurts the offense to give more plate appearances to such a poor hitter, Tango and co. found that the damage was offset by the benefit of giving the nine hole to a “second leadoff hitter”: a reasonably competent hitter (often with similar skills to a traditional leadoff man) who would often come up before the top of the order, setting the table for those hitters far more frequently than the pitcher would.One of my longtime favorites, Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton, performed some follow-up research several years later. Carleton used a markov simulator similar to the one used in “The Book,” but he also tried to account for the way hitting the pitcher eighth increases the likelihood that a manager will have to make a tough pinch-hitting decision when the starter’s spot comes up in the mid-to-late innings of a close game. And in Carleton’s final analysis, the problems that decision causes cancel out the benefit of the second leadoff man, making it basically a wash. Hitting the pitcher eighth is different, and maybe even a little cool, Carleton wrote, but the research shows it doesn’t add (or subtract) much in the grand scheme of things. POSPLAYERAGE2017 WARPREV. CAREER WAR CFJacoby Ellsbury330.729.7 SPLuis Severino230.61.5 RFAaron Judge252.4-0.4 RPAdam Warren290.53.8 LFAaron Hicks270.81.4 WAR here is an average of the wins above replacement systems found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com. 2017 data current through May 3.Sources: Fangraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, Seamheads.com DHMatt Holliday370.747.3 2BStarlin Castro271.012.1 SPMichael Pineda280.610.1 RPAroldis Chapman290.513.9 Weighted by each player’s contributions to New York’s bottom line,4For this, I used WAR but also added in wins generated below the replacement level — yielding a total “wins added” for each player. (This was necessary because some teams — such as the 1979 A’s and 2003 Tigers — nearly finished an entire season with subzero WAR totals, which would have thrown off their averages.) the typical member of the 2017 Yankees went into the season with 13.2 lifetime WAR — a pretty ordinary total, considering the age of their roster. (Since the dawn of the expansion era in 1961, the average WAR for a team with the same age as the Yankees is 12.9.) That makes this group especially abnormal for New York, where there’s always an enormous budget for importing accomplished talent. By this measure, this is the least-pedigreed Yankee team in 25 years: This is also the youngest Yankee squad since the 1992 edition. That team only won 76 games, however, while this year’s version is conservatively on track for 88 wins with a solid chance at the postseason.The Yankees tend to exceed expectations a little anyway, winning about five more games per season on average over the past decade than would be predicted from the ages and credentials of their players alone. (Such are the benefits of a stingy bullpen and good pitching-staff management, along with having the payroll to fill gaps midseason.) But if this year’s team keeps playing to its early-season form, it would find itself punching above its weight class more than any Yankees team since the 1998 version that exploded for 114 wins and kicked off a dynasty.With 18 former or future All-Stars, though, those Yankees weren’t exactly lacking in star power. They’d already won the World Series two seasons before, and 1998 was the third straight year that the team posted 90 or more wins. By contrast, it’s been five years since the current Yankees cracked that threshold. There’s still plenty we don’t know about this year’s team, but it’s safe to say they’re not the reincarnation of the ’98 Yankees.And history tells us that while any team has the potential to catch lightning in a bottle, those that lack the underlying talent to back it up will almost certainly enjoy only fleeting success. Since 1961, the average team who outplayed their track records as much as the Yankees have thus far crashed back to earth the following season.5If the Yankees maintain their current winning percentage for the rest of the season, they’d finish with 106 wins, but we’d expect them to play like a 92-win team next year. And that’s looking at teams who elevated their play over an entire season, whereas the Yanks have only run hot for a month. That’s why projection systems still see New York as playing only a little better than .500 ball the rest of the season, despite the scorching start.All of which is to say, the Yankees still probably haven’t arrived quite yet, but it’s only a matter of time before they do. Even if New York’s less-pedigreed contingent cools off over the rest of the 2017 season, they should get a boost from hard-hitting catcher Gary Sanchez, who is scheduled to return from injury soon. And the team’s combination of the No. 2-ranked farm system and the No. 2-ranked payroll in baseball could easily have the Yankees cracking 90 or even 95 wins within a couple seasons. According to Matt Swartz’s research on the relationship between farm rankings, payroll and wins, the second-ranked farm system is worth four wins above average two years into the future and the second-ranked payroll is worth 11 wins, which would add up to a 96-win season.That Yankee squad will probably be headlined by current pinstripers like Judge and Sanchez, but also prospects like Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and James Kaprielian, none of whom have made the majors yet. By banking that gaudy April record, though, the Yankees have placed themselves squarely in the early-season playoff discussion, which is a conversation they should be a big part of for the foreseeable future.Too many eggs in the pitching basket?The New York Mets’ ongoing spate of pitching injuries this season — culminating Sunday with Noah Syndergaard’s torn right latissimus muscle, which will keep the flamethrower out indefinitely — had me wondering whether it was possible for a team to lean too heavily on the fragile arms of major league hurlers. (After all, how does a team go from being lauded for its pitching depth to relying on a catcher to chew innings in a month?)In other words: Is building a team around pitching value inherently riskier than banking on hitters? I looked at this a couple of ways. First, I measured the year-to-year correlation in a team’s batting/fielding WAR and its pitching WAR6Per 162 games. going back to 1961. The verdict: Pitching WAR (with a correlation of 0.48) was slightly less reliable than position-player WAR (0.53) — though it’s a small difference at best.The other thing I did was check to see if pitching-heavy teams were more prone to collapse — which I defined using several thresholds for declining records — in the following season. (Specifically, I ran a series of logit regressions testing whether the percentage of a team’s WAR that came from pitching was associated with an increased risk of declining by at least five, seven or 10 wins the next year.) It turns out there was no significant relationship between how much a team relied on its pitching staff and how likely it was to go down in flames in the future.There are certainly other ways to look at this, but my quick-and-dirty research suggests that the Mets’ policy of relying on pitching wasn’t necessarily a flawed one. They just appear to have picked the wrong group of pitchers to count on.Juiced-ball watchLast year, our own Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh noticed that balls had been flying out of ballparks at a ridiculous clip since late in the 2015 season, and they found evidence that changes to the baseball itself could be responsible. Here, Ben notes that we could be in for even more dingers this season: CAustin Romine280.5-0.9 SPMasahiro Tanaka280.410.8 RPDellin Betances290.48.5 SSRonald Torreyes240.40.6 3BChase Headley331.125.9 These aren’t your typical star-studded Yankees Give pitchers a chance (to hit eighth) LFBrett Gardner331.028.4 Welcome to Full Count, our new(!) weekly baseball column. Have anything you want me to write about? Email or tweet me at [email protected] or @Neil_Paine.The summer of 2017 was supposed to be one of the last opportunities for New York Yankees haters to bask in pinstriped mediocrity. Although the Bronx Bombers went into the season with baseball’s second-best farm system and an intriguing mix of veterans and kids at the big-league level, they were also sellers at last year’s trade deadline — for the first time in ages. General manager Brian Cashman had even sold management on the idea of a long-term rebuilding plan (at least, long-term by Yankees standards). New York was going to be dominant again in the near future, the thinking went, but probably not this year.Fast-forward to a month into the season, however, and the next great Yankees team appears to have arrived ahead of schedule. At 17-9, New York has the third-best record in the majors, and its underlying metrics are even more striking — according to wins above replacement,1Using an average of Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs.com’s WAR metrics. the Yankees have played at a 117-win pace (!) in the early going.2A team WAR of 11.2 in 26 games works out to about 70 over a full season; since the replacement level is set at 47 wins per 162 games (a .294 winning percentage), that adds up to 117 wins.But the fact that the Yankees are winning baseball games is not as fascinating as who they’ve been winning with. The players driving New York’s early run are either middling veterans (Aaron Hicks) or unproven youngsters (Aaron Judge). When you sort the roster by how much each player has contributed so far this season,3According to WAR. only two of their top five players (third baseman Chase Headley and left fielder Brett Gardner) had even a baker’s dozen of career WAR to their names before this year. The Yankees’ lack of pedigree is highly unusual for a franchise that famously seeks out (and overpays for) pedigree. It also suggests that the team probably won’t be able to sustain this breakneck pace. But whether their early 2017 results are real or not, they’re providing a preview of things to come for the franchise — even if that future might eventually involve a different supporting cast.For most teams, you can make a pretty good guess about how they’ll do simply by looking at the track records of the talent on hand. The Detroit Tigers, for instance, are a moderately old team whose WAR have come from moderately accomplished players, so it’s no surprise that they’re hovering around .500. But the Yankees are bucking that trend so far. For every Headley (25.9 career WAR before 2017) and Gardner (28.4 WAR), the Yanks are powered by many more players like Judge, the breakout second-year slugger who had -0.4 WAR while hitting .179 last year. In fairness, Judge was a well-regarded prospect despite his slow career start — he cracked the Baseball America Top 100 list in preseason — but that wasn’t true of other team leaders such as Hicks, Luis Severino, Starlin Castro, Michael Pineda, Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes. Not old, but not exactly babies either, none had done much to suggest that greatness was around the corner.
The worst fears of the WNBA and its fans were officially confirmed Wednesday: Reigning league and finals MVP Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm tore her right Achilles tendon — an injury that will sideline her for the season and at least temporarily shift the WNBA’s balance of power.She sustained the rupture over the weekend when she rose for a jump shot and landed on the foot of fellow WNBA star Brittney Griner during the EuroLeague championship game. Stewart and scores of other American players use their offseasons to play in leagues overseas while the WNBA is off, as those opportunities often pay far more than their salaries here in the states. This injury is likely to intensify the debate over WNBA pay.But for the Storm, the loss of the 24-year-old is devastating, and it figures to totally alter the WNBA’s landscape for the time being.1It’s also worth noting that fellow WNBA star Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx has said she plans to sit out this upcoming season to focus on ministry work. At 26-8 last season, the Storm finished with the league’s best record and went on to sweep the Washington Mystics in three games for the championship — with Stewart a catalyst of both efforts.The former UConn star made her presence felt on offense (she led the league in total points and offensive win shares and ranked as the most-efficient offensive player in the league on a per-possession basis, per Synergy Sports) and on defense (second in defensive win shares). Her game had expanded considerably in her third year, in which she streamlined her shot profile and became a more prolific 3-point shooter while also developing into one of the WNBA’s three most-efficient offensive players in the post. (Star scorer Liz Cambage and Griner are the others, according to data from Synergy Sports.)2Among players who get at least two post-ups per game There’s almost certainly no way the Storm can replace Stewart’s all-around impact — something that few players in the world, if any, can make on a night-to-night basis. She was averaging almost 22 points (shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc) and eight rebounds while collecting more than two assists, one block and one steal per game. But the Storm does still have a talented roster without Stewart.Even at 38, as the WNBA’s oldest player, point guard Sue Bird has shown that she may have plenty left in the tank. In 2018, she logged career-best marks in virtually all her shooting metrics, while also assisting at the best rate she ever has. Fellow guard Jewell Loyd, a former No. 1 overall pick, is more aggressive and finished second on the team in scoring, with almost 16 points per game. She attacks the basket regularly and gets frequent trips to the line as a result. Natasha Howard was far and away the team’s best offensive rebounder — a skill that, without Stewart’s stellar shooting, will become even more important.Yet the team’s best bet offensively without Stewart may be to use more of an up-tempo style. The Storm were the WNBA’s most efficient team in transition last season, with players like Loyd and Jordin Canada in particular excelling when they played with improved pace. Playing faster might be a bit tough at times on the aging Bird. But the alternative — playing more slowly and being more deliberate about finding shot attempts — may not work all that well. Seattle was solid when the shot clock ticked under the four-second mark last year (ranking second in efficiency when that was the case, per Synergy). But Stewart was a primary reason for that, scoring on 43 percent of her plays that went late into the clock.3Stewart had 47 such plays, or about 1.4 per game.Assuming that the Storm take a considerable step back, the door figures to open for the semifinalist Phoenix Mercury — led by Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Griner — to win their first title since 2014, when they set a record for wins in a season.Last season, Phoenix pushed Seattle to a fifth and deciding game for the right to play in the WNBA Finals, even entering the fourth quarter with the lead, despite being on the road in front of a raucous Storm crowd. It took arguably the best showing of Bird’s life in that last period to eliminate the Mercury.But now, without a superstar like Stewart, several Herculean efforts from a number of her teammates may be necessary to get Seattle anywhere close to the promised land again this year.
22Ezekiel ElliottDallas450.003 5Alvin KamaraNew Orleans330.007 4James ConnerPittsburgh170.45 1Royce FreemanDenver120.012 14Phillip LindsayDenver110.43 12Kapri BibbsWashington50.45 Expanding the sample to Elliott’s entire career doesn’t help his case either. Over his three years as a starter, Zeke led the league in rushing attempts in closeout situations with 158. But among running backs with 20 such attempts, he ranks just 26th in win probability added per play. For perspective, former teammate Alfred Morris ranks 13th in win probability added per play for the period — and he was running behind the same offensive line in Dallas for two of those three seasons.Closing out games is important, but it appears that draft pedigree really isn’t necessary to be effective in that role. Those critical runs can be performed by a reasonably priced specialist taken later in the draft or acquired in free agency. And if you need further proof, just feast your eyes on the 2018 win probability added of undrafted free agent Gus Edwards and quietly contemplate the abyss.Short-yardage running in the red zoneEffective running in the red zone, and especially at the goal line, is particularly valuable because this is the part of the field where passing is most difficult. As teams move downfield and get closer to the end zone, the field compresses and completion percentage drops. While the effect begins a little before the 30-yard line, leaguewide completion percentage drops from 57 percent to 48 percent2Based on data from 2009-2016. as teams move from their opponent’s 20 to the 3-yard line. This decrease in passing effectiveness puts a premium on being able to run successfully. Teams that can consistently move the ball on short-yardage runs in the red zone — or runs on which a first down or touchdown is no more than 3 yards away3Again excluding kneel-downs. — give themselves the opportunity to score touchdowns more often, and they tend to win more games.Last season, the Dallas Cowboys ranked 10th in red zone expected points added (EPA) per play on short-yardage runs in the red zone and 22nd in short-yardage success rate.4The rate of plays with a positive EPA. For a team that boasts one of the league’s better rushing attacks, these are far from elite numbers. For his part, Elliott ranked 16th in EPA per play and 28th in success rate among running backs with at least five short red zone rushes. Need to close out a game? Any running back will do.Win probability added (WPA) per rush for running backs with a minimum of five rushes to close out a game* in the 2018 regular season 5Aaron JonesGreen Bay60.70 2Isaiah CrowellNew York Jets70.010 12Devontae BookerDenver80.14 15Elijah McGuireN.Y. Jets110.09 RankplayerTeamrusheswpa 24Marlon MackIndianapolis130.08 3Nick ChubbCleveland250.010 21James ConnerPittsburgh170.25 25Doug MartinOakland120.04 13Derrick HenryTennessee150.44 16Derrick HenryTennessee230.005 25Jordan WilkinsIndianapolis120.002 19Jordan HowardChicago320.03 7C.J. AndersonLos Angeles Rams60.36 18David JohnsonArizona240.05 11Wendell SmallwoodPhiladelphia50.49 10Ty MontgomeryBaltimore70.006 Like we saw with runs to close out the game, Elliott again failed to distinguish himself from his lesser-drafted peers. Despite having nearly 40 pounds on Phillip Lindsay, Elliott was outpaced by the undrafted and diminutive Broncos back in both success rate and EPA per play on short red zone carries in 2018. And while the sample sizes here are small, Zeke’s career numbers aren’t much better. From 2016 to 2018, Zeke ranks 10th among qualifying5Ten or more carries to qualify. backs in success rate and 11th in EPA per play.Short-yardage runs in the open fieldFinally, we’ll look at plays that extend drives and help to break the opposing team’s spirit: short yardage runs in the open field, or outside the red zone. These plays represent situations in which the offense needs no more than 3 yards to convert a new set of downs. Based on historical averages, these are running battles that you would expect the offense to win — after all, 29 of 32 teams averaged more than 4 yards per attempt last year. And in fact that’s what we find: In 2018, NFL teams were successful on short runs in the open field 53 percent of the time. Last season the Cowboys were particularly adept at short yardage plays, ranking fourth in the league with a 62 percent success rate on 53 attempts. Zeke was responsible for 43 of those attempts — most in the NFL — and was successful 67 percent of the time, but that success rate was good for just 11th in the league. 24Kerryon JohnsonDetroit100.002 1Jordan WilkinsIndianapolis80.67 rankplayerteamrushesepa per play 3Alfred MorrisSan Francisco100.47 6Kenyan DrakeMiami110.007 RankPlayerTeamRushesepa per play 21Zach ZennerDetroit Lions180.004 23Tarik CohenChicago15-0.05 7James WhiteNew England250.007 1Melvin GordonLos Angeles Chargers51.35 4Adrian PetersonWashington70.71 17Adrian PetersonWashington470.005 In what is becoming an annual event, a high-profile running back is threatening a preseason holdout. On Monday, reports surfaced that Ezekiel Elliott will sit out training camp unless he gets a new contract from the Dallas Cowboys. Two days earlier, Melvin Gordon had announced a holdout from the Los Angeles Chargers and cited Elliott as an example of why running backs should command higher pay. Perhaps Zeke and his agent read Gordon’s comments and decided to strike while the iron is hot. Perhaps a holdout was always planned. Whatever the case, Elliott has made clear that he believes he’s underpaid and wants a new contract sooner rather than later.The holdout threat may have taken Dallas a bit by surprise. It’s not as if Zeke isn’t in line for competitive compensation. Dallas picked up Elliott’s fifth-year option in April, guaranteeing him nearly $9.1 million in 2020 — money that will make Elliott the fourth-highest-paid running back in the league that year. But Zeke’s focus is on 2019, not 2020. According to reports, Elliott believes that the Cowboys plan to use him heavily this season, and he wants a long-term deal in place as an insurance policy against injury.For their part, Dallas appears to want to keep Elliott around. Stephen Jones, Dallas director of player personnel, has indicated that signing Eliott to an extension is a team priority. In an odd bit of negotiating, Jones even set the floor for a deal at Todd Gurley’s recent contract — a contract that is currently the highest in the league at the position. Still, Elliott’s camp is betting they can leverage Zeke’s absence into an early deal, and based on their previous maneuvering, I’m betting that the Cowboys will cave.The question is: Why?In a league that is steadily paying less for running back production, capitulating to an Elliott holdout and making him the highest-paid ball carrier in the league would be a deeply contrarian move. According to data from Overthecap, the share of average team salary allocated to all rostered running backs has fallen from 6.8 percent of spending in 2013 to 4.5 percent in 2019.Even elite backs aren’t immune from feeling the pinch. Le’Veon Bell sat out all of last season expecting to make up his lost wages on the free-agent market. Instead he ended up settling for a contract with less average compensation per year than what he was initially offered by Pittsburgh. It’s been a slow, incremental change, but teams across the league have moved toward an asset allocation model that favors many low-priced specialists over an expensive three-down bell cow.Dallas already bucked the trend of devaluing running backs when they took Elliott with the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft and then proceeded to give him 868 carries over his first three seasons. That, apparently, is just how the Cowboys are built. Jason Garrett is absolutely determined to “run the fucking ball.” But even if the Cowboys have fallen out of step with a league that believes paying “high first-round draft pick” money to a running back is gauche, it still pales in comparison to what will come next. Assuming the cap rises to $200 million in 2020,1The cap has gone up by roughly $10 million a season for the past six seasons. Zeke’s salary alone in his optioned fifth year will represent 4.5 percent of the Cowboy’s salary cap. If Zeke signs an extension before the 2020 season, his cap hit combined with the rest of Dallas’s spend at the running back position will likely be double the league average.Profligate spending and contrarianism aren’t proof of incompetence, of course. Elliott on paper seems to be quite good at his job — and his appeal to Dallas might seem warranted. In 2018, Zeke led the league with 1,434 rushing yards on a league-best 304 carries, over 16 percent more than second-place finisher Saquon Barkley (261). If Elliott is worth twice as many wins to a team as a replacement-level running back would be, he’s probably worth twice the money. The problem is that having Zeke on the field isn’t worth even half a win to the Cowboys. Eric Eager at Pro Football Focus estimates that Zeke’s production in 2018 was worth just 0.2 of a win above a replacement player.We know — and the Cowboys should, too — that rushing is not nearly as important to winning in the NFL as passing. But rushing is still a part of the game, and situational running is still critical. A back who excels in high-leverage spots can be quite valuable. It could be the case that Dallas believes it has an advantage in crucial moments with Zeke on the field that helps justify re-signing him.Examples of situational football are legion, but three in particular stand out as being important in the run game. If the Cowboys are valuing Zeke for the skills that most help the team — and not just for his number of carries over a season — we would expect him to be at or near the top in each of these categories, dominating the plebes drafted rounds after him or those plucked from the NFL scrapyard.Running to close out a gameFirst is the ability to run out the clock when you’re ahead and need to close out a game. Keeping the opposing offense off the field has obvious value when you’re protecting a lead late. In nerd parlance, successful running plays late have a relatively large positive effect on a team’s win probability.With this in mind, to measure a team’s ability to close out a game, we’ll use win probability added. WPA is a good metric for teasing out rushing value late in the game because it takes our best estimate for what a team’s chance of winning the game is on a particular play (based on the down, distance, yard line, score and time remaining) and then quantifies how much the actual outcome of a play either added or subtracted from that expectation. Teams that are good at rushing to close out games will have positive WPA.According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the Cowboys were seventh in win probability added in 2018 on rushing attempts in the fourth quarter while they were ahead, excluding quarterback kneel-downs. Elliott carried the ball on the majority of those plays and had positive win probability added per play, which is good. But he was still just second on the team in average WPA behind quarterback Dak Prescott — and it wasn’t particularly close. Dak’s win probability added per play on 10 attempts was almost five times that of Zeke’s average WPA on 45 carries.When we zoom out and compared Zeke with all running backs across the league, the situation gets bleak. Elliott was 22nd among qualifying backs when running to close out a game, behind the likes of Royce Freeman, Isaiah Crowell and the 35-year-old remnants of Frank Gore. 15Joe MixonCincinnati130.42 17Justin JacksonLos Angeles Chargers80.06 18Kareem HuntKansas City110.27 19Wayne GallmanNew York Giants120.004 10Todd GurleyLos Angeles Rams270.49 4Frank GoreMiami130.007 14Alex CollinsBaltimore100.11 Even outside the red zone, Zeke isn’t elite in short situationsExpected points added (EPA) per play for running backs with a minimum of five open-field short-yardage attempts* during the 2018 season 9Lamar MillerHouston60.49 17Carlos HydeCleveland100.27 8Melvin GordonLos Angeles Chargers250.007 19Royce FreemanDenver110.27 12Spencer WareKansas City140.006 6Damien WilliamsKansas City70.38 9Todd GurleyLos Angeles Rams480.006 Red zone efficiency doesn’t require a big nameExpected points added (EPA) per play for running backs with a minimum of five short-yardage attempts* in the red zone during the 2018 season 11Jaylen SamuelsPittsburgh190.006 2Giovani BernardCincinnati51.28 * Rushes of 3 yards or less to go. Kneel-downs not included.Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group 10Ezekiel ElliottDallas430.16 * Rushes on plays outside the red zone with no more 3 yards to go for a first down. Kneel-downs not included.Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group 21Leonard FournetteJacksonville110.02 25Phillip LindsayDenver19-0.14 23Tarik CohenChicago90.003 3Marshawn LynchOakland51.06 7Chris CarsonSeattle180.59 5Corey ClementPhiladelphia70.44 6Alvin KamaraNew Orleans240.69 16Gus EdwardsBaltimore210.08 8Bilal PowellNew York Jets50.35 20Javorius AllenBaltimore50.26 15Mike DavisSeattle130.005 23Austin EkelerLos Angeles Chargers60.16 16Ezekiel ElliottDallas150.30 13Chris IvoryBuffalo150.13 11Melvin GordonLos Angeles Chargers190.15 24Jaylen SamuelsPittsburgh8-0.06 2Mike DavisSeattle140.48 14Justin JacksonLos Angeles Chargers150.005 20Jamaal WilliamsGreen Bay160.004 If you’re a person who believes running backs matter, this is a leaderboard that makes about as much sense as snake mittens. It’s true that of the three high-leverage rushing situations examined, this is clearly where Zeke shines brightest. But even here he’s outclassed by backs no one would mistake as Elliott’s equals. Former teammate Morris haunted Elliott yet again by leading the league last season with a 90 percent success rate on short-yardage open-field runs. Alf was trailed closely by Niner castoff and backup Seattle running back Mike Davis. Todd Gurley injury fill-in C.J. Anderson, displaced Jets starter Bilal Powell and Le’Veon Bell usurper James Conner round out the top five.What about the rest?Situationally, Zeke is profoundly average, but some perspective here is probably needed. Situational running, while important, is relatively rare. Around 5 percent of Elliott’s carries came in the red zone in 2018. Fifteen percent came in situations when the Cowboys were trying to close out the game, and 14 percent came on short-yardage runs in the open field. The majority of Zeke’s carries — about 65 percent — occurred in other situations. The problem is that those other situations turn out to be awful times to run the football.Zeke ran 182 times in the first three quarters of games in 2018 on first and second down with at least 4 yards to go — situations when teams shouldn’t be running very often to begin with. Probably the clearest illustration of this folly is shown using an analysis I stole from Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus. On early downs when the outcome of the game is still in doubt, winning teams pass more often than the eventual losers. 20Derrick HenryTennessee140.03 * In the fourth quarter while ahead. Kneel-downs not included.Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group 22Chris CarsonSeattle27-0.01 8Corey ClementPhiladelphia50.53 9Kerryon JohnsonDetroit110.22 13Gus EdwardsBaltimore320.005 22Matt BreidaSan Francisco 49ers80.19 18Jacquizz RodgersTampa Bay50.005 It sounds strange, but commanding bad rushing volume is really the only aspect of Elliott’s game that is truly elite. The Cowboys could believe that they have a generational talent at the running back position, and because of this faith, they overuse him.It’s that overuse that’s the problem. Extending Elliott is the manifestation of an objectively poor offensive strategy. It isn’t just a terrible idea because the valuable portion of Elliott’s production — the situational part — is easily replaced by nearly any back talented enough to make a Week 1 NFL roster. And an early extension isn’t just poor risk management because between 20 to 33 percent of high-volume running backs will incur a serious injury in a given year, though that is also certainly true.6Elliott was also suspended in 2017 for six games for domestic violence, and he would receive a mandatory ban if he violated the league policy again.The primary reason an investment in an overpriced, risky asset is truly awful is because it can impact play calling in the worst possible way. In an attempt to justify the overspend at the position, a team may be encouraged to run more and pass less. It’s the worst kind of curse, and the Cowboys seem eager to cast the hex on themselves.
Embed Code By Neil Paine, Chris Herring and Kyle Wagner More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed Welcome to The Lab, FiveThirtyEight’s basketball podcast. On this week’s show (Nov. 22, 2017), Neil, Chris and Kyle take a look at how the recent injury to Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap will affect the team. Millsap will reportedly have surgery on his wrist and could miss three months. Next, the crew discusses why the Thunder haven’t clicked yet. After bringing Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City last summer, the Thunder were anticipated to be a contender in the West. But it hasn’t all come together so far. We investigate what’s going right, what’s going wrong and how they might turn the season around. Plus, a small-sample-size segment on Lonzo Ball.Here are links to what we discussed this week:Keep an eye on our 2017-18 NBA predictions, updated after every game.Chris Herring wrote that the Thunder aren’t far from being good.ESPN’s Royce Young took a look at the still-developing chemistry between Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
At times last year, the Ohio State men’s basketball team seemed to have one plan: get the ball to Evan Turner and get out of the way. This season, however, the Buckeyes appear to have discovered an alternative. The early emergence of David Lighty and Jon Diebler as viable scoring options has given OSU some much-needed versatility. “I’ve been saying all along we have the greatest wings in the country,” center Dallas Lauderdale said.While Lauderdale’s claim might be slightly hyperbolic, there is no denying the Buckeyes have ability on the perimeter.Lighty, who in his first two years at OSU was known more for his defensive prowess rather than his ability to score, is averaging 12.3 points per game this season and scored a career-high 22 in last week’s win over Lipscomb.Diebler is scoring nearly 16 points a game and leads the Big Ten in three-pointers made per game. If they continue to score at their current pace, it will remove a lot of pressure from Turner, who has been double, triple and even quadruple-teamed by opponents at times this season. With the Buckeyes’ hot shooting, Turner said the defense will have more to worry about.“Once I get past the three-point line, there was a second man coming and once I get in the paint there were three men coming,” Turner said. “If they’re going to do that, they’ll pick their poison.”Turner said he will simply take whatever the defense will give him.“If I’m open I’m going to take the shot; if I’m not I’m going to dish it off,” Turner said. “I just want to play and make sure my team wins.”However, the Buckeyes have already seen what can happen on a night when their shooters are struggling. In the first half of OSU’s loss to North Carolina on Nov. 19, the Buckeyes shot only 29 percent from the field, leaving them in an insurmountable 14-point hole at halftime. Diebler and sophomore William Buford headlined the shooting woes, going a combined 7-29 from the field. Though Diebler seems to have successfully escaped any potential slump, Buford is still struggling to find his shot. Buford is shooting 38 percent from the field, something that coach Thad Matta said needs to change in order for his team to be successful. “Will is a guy that, he obviously wants to play well,” Matta said. “But by the same token, Will likes to win and we need Will to play well in order for us to win.”Regardless of how much Buford or any of the other Buckeyes are contributing, the onus will fall on Turner to lead the way on the offensive end. Fortunately for OSU, Turner has had no trouble carrying the load. The Buckeye point guard is third in the Big Ten in scoring, and leads the conference in rebounds and assists — gaudy numbers that have earned him conference Player of the Week honors in each of the last three weeks.Turner knows that as he goes, so go the Buckeyes.“When the coach calls my number I try to do my best with it,” Turner said. “If my team needs a boost, I’m confident enough to give them a boost. If the game is close and we need scores, I’ve been doing that in the past and I plan on doing that in the future.”
Ohio State coach Luke Fickell has been preparing his team for the No. 15 ranked Wisconsin Badgers, but as of last Saturday, he wasn’t losing any sleep over it. Wisconsin lost to Michigan State on a last second, 44-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of regulation to hand the Badgers their first loss of the season, 37-31. But as the excitement unfolded, Fickell was sound asleep. “I was probably about 45 minutes to an hour into sleep by then,” Fickell said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “I did not stay up. I’ve probably seen it five, six, seven times now. Obviously an unbelievable play. Something you work on each and every week.” Fickell may not have been excited about it, but the Badger’s loss reopens the door for OSU to make the Big Ten Championship. To make the championship game, the Buckeyes would have to win the remainder of their games and hope Penn State loses to another opponent besides the Buckeyes. The road to the conference championship begins Saturday against Wisconsin, who, until their loss against MSU, was firmly in the national championship picture. The Badgers feature a high-powered offense that averages 47.3 points per game and is ranked No. 5 in the nation. Fifth-year senior quarterback Russell Wilson leads the Badgers and is widely considered a Heisman Trophy candidate. The transfer from North Carolina State leads the team and is ranked second nationally in passer efficiency (204.9). He has thrown for 1,780 yards and 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions on the season and with three rushing touchdowns, also poses a threat on the ground. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said Wilson has been impressive from the moment he came to Wisconsin’s program. “He’s a stand-up guy, great character,” Bielema said on July 28 during Big Ten Media Day in Chicago, Ill. “Just a really, really neat kid. Began to evaluate, talk to him. Brought him in on his visit, had him meet with a lot of offensive players, skill and offensive linemen. Everybody after that visit was very encouraging to talk to about the way he handles himself and talks to other players.” Wilson is protected by a physically imposing offensive line that averages 322 lbs. and 6-foot-5-inches tall per player. But Fickell said OSU has to find a way to get past the line and affect Wilson. “You have to find ways to get to him,” Fickell said. “Whether it’s picking a ball off, sacking him, getting hits on him, getting guys in front of his face. There’s all different kind of ways, but most importantly you have to be able to affect the quarterback.” The Badger offense also boasts a ground game led by junior running back Montee Ball that is ranked eighth nationally with 252.1 yards per game. Ball currently leads the nation in scoring at 16.29 points per game and also averages 109.7 rushing yards per game. Fickell said the combination of Wisconsin’s running backs and large offensive line provides a tough challenge. “With them it’s always going to start up front,” Fickell said. “They’re always going to have a couple tailbacks that are very good football players. I think you’ve always noticed them up front, whether they’ve had a first-round draft pick, an Outland Trophy winner. “Obviously, they’re going to be a little bit of a running-focused team. I think you see the consistency over the years of what they’ve been. They haven’t changed a whole lot, which means they believe in what they do. They recruit to it and they do one heck of a job at coaching it.” Fickell and the Buckeyes kick off against the Badgers at 8 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio at Ohio Stadium.
Ohio State redshirt junior center Trevor Thompson catches the ball on the block against Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon on Jan. 22 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Jacob Myers | Assistant Sports EditorIndianapolis Star’s prep sports writer Kyle Neddenriep reported Ohio State redshirt junior center Trevor Thompson would be declaring for the NBA Draft, but other reports are now saying the Buckeyes might still have their big man next season. Although Neddenriep first reported Thompson would leave, the Columbus Dispatch’s Adam Jardy refuted the claim, and said Thompson’s father said the center would wait until after the season to make a decision.OSU could still play in the National Invitational Tournament if selected on Sunday.Former Ben Davis standout and Ohio State junior Trevor Thompson will declare for NBA draft, per his family.— Kyle Neddenriep (@KyleNeddenriep) March 11, 2017Despite the disappointing season for the OSU men’s basketball team had in 2016-17, one of the lone standouts was Thompson.He redshirted his first season in Columbus after transferring from Virginia Tech after his freshman season. In his redshirt sophomore year with the Scarlet and Gray in 2015-16, Thompson averaged just 6.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. This season, Thompson improved to 10.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest, becoming one of the premier centers in the Big Ten.Thompson registered 10 double-doubles and grabbed at least 15 rebounds on four occasions.After last season, Thompson took advantage of a new NCAA rule that allowed draft-eligible players to declare for the draft, but withdraw at any point and retain college eligibility, so long as the player didn’t hire an agent.OSU has two other centers on the roster in freshman Micah Potter and redshirt sophomore Dave Bell, but it’s likely that 2017 incoming freshman Kaleb Wesson will immediately replace Thompson should he not return to OSU.The Lantern is working to independently confirm.Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with conflicting reports. It was initially reported that Thompson had declared for the NBA draft.
Ohio State sophomore catcher Dillon Dingler (10) swings at a ball during the game against Hawaii on March 23. Ohio State won 7-5. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo EditorOhio State, once again, showed its ability to hit for power as the team recorded its fifth multiple-home run game at home this season to bury Toledo. Ohio State (14-11) defeated Toledo (9-13) 9-4. The Buckeyes were able to claim seven of nine games in its homestand and launched 12 home runs in the process. In the previous eight games, Ohio State had hit .327 and scored an average of seven runs a game. The Buckeyes were able to carry their offensive success into Wednesday’s game. Ohio State produced nine hits and two home runs in its win.With two men on base, freshman shortstop Zach Dezenzo battled at the plate with two outs in the second inning. On the eighth pitch of the at bat, Dezenzo hit an opposite-field home run to put Ohio State up four runs. “With every at bat he’s growing as a player,” head coach Greg Beals said. Dezenzo hit four home runs during the homestand, giving him five this season. The nine-game homestand allowed two other Buckeyes to excel at the plate. The outfielder duo of junior right fielder Dominic Canzone and senior left fielder Brady Cherry has been a staple for the Ohio State offense. “Those are the guys we need to be productive for this offense to really be clicking,” Beals said.Canzone hit .345 through the first eight home games this season. He added three hits in five at bats against Toledo. The co-captain finished with four RBI. Cherry has also enjoyed hitting at Bill Davis Stadium. Cherry had hit .469 and recorded nine RBI heading into Wednesday’s contest. He finished with one hit in three at bats against Toledo. Ohio State threatened first after a pair of hits put runners in scoring position in the first inning. After an error at first base and a wild pitch, the Buckeyes took a 2-0 lead. This would end the day for freshman pitcher Jamie Myers, who was only able to record two outs in his second start of the season. Myers has struggled this season with nine walks allowed to only seven strikeouts in 10.2 innings pitched. Beals anticipated the Rockets would use a whole-staff approach to the ball game. “I don’t know how long [Myers] would have gone, but we strung together quality at bats and put pressure on him.” Beals said. Before the conclusion of the game, Toledo would rotate through a total of eight pitchers. A pair of hits and a hit batsman loaded the bases with no outs for the Rockets in the second inning. Junior pitcher Jake Vance was able to respond with two consecutive strikeouts, but a hit to center field by redshirt senior center fielder Brad Boss brought in two runs to tie the game. Vance would go on to have his longest outing of the season with six innings pitched. His previous high came on March 12, where he went 5.1 innings against Wofford. “I needed that,” Vance said. “I’ve been trying to work on getting my innings up a little bit.”Vance finished with six strikeouts, tying his season high, and two earned runs in his second win of the season. Beals emphasized the importance of getting that quality start and how it protected the bullpen moving into this weekend. “The guys that pitched tonight are all guys we wanted to get work in order to be ready for the weekend,” Beals said. “We didn’t tax ourselves at all leading into the weekend.” Canzone’s second hit of the game brought home freshman outfielder Nolan Clegg to give Ohio State the 3-2 lead after two innings. Dezenzo would complete the second-inning scoring with a three-run blast to right field. With the score at 7-2 in the bottom of the fourth inning, Canzone launched a deep home run over the right field wall to add two more runs. This was Canzone’s team-high seventh home run of the season. Toledo was able to add two more runs, but it never threatened to make the game close. “Right now, I think we are clicking on all cylinders, at least for tonight,” Canzone said. Ohio State will hit the road again to open Big Ten play. The Buckeyes will play a three-game series against Rutgers starting at 2 p.m Friday.
“The ride performed exactly as it is designed to do. In line with our well-rehearsed procedures, guests were assisted from the ride.At no point was guest safety compromised.”The incident happened near the Smiler rollercoaster, which crashed two years ago. A total of 16 people were injured on the ride when the carriage hit the one that had come to a halt on the track.Two of those seriously injured – Leah Washington, 17, and 20-year-old Vicky Balch – each had legs amputated following the smash.Last month, passengers were trapped on the ride for as long as 45 minutes after it stopped due to a technical fault. so glad I didn’t go on oblivion, they’re rescuing people off 😩 @altontowers pic.twitter.com/Snr674EQXh— jess (@jssbrry) July 25, 2017 “The passengers were looking around and they were very anxious to step off the ride and onto the stairs because it’s quite a high fall,” he told MailOnline. “The ride was going up the top then it stopped at the top at an angle and then they were sitting there for quite a while.”I could see people in helmets with ropes going up to release them from their seats because the ride was completely stopped. There’s not much space so they were connected to emergency crews by the rope.”An Alton Towers spokesperson said the ride was stopped after a minor technical fault was detected. Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings. More than a dozen passengers were escorted off the Oblivion rollercoaster at its highest point on Tuesday because of a “technical fault”. The incident at the Staffordshire theme park happened one month after a similar stoppage on the nearby Smiler rollercoaster, on which four people were badly injured in a crash two years ago. Staff climbed to where the ride had stopped and attached harnesses to the passengers before leading them to safety.One witness Alex Heasman-Bailey, 16, said he heard a “clunking noise” as the Oblivion ride suddenly came to a halt shortly after 3pm. “This afternoon Oblivion stopped after a sensor on the ride detected a minor technical fault. ‘Oblivion’ rollercoaster at #AltonTowers breaks down mid-ride. Emergency recovery crew having to free people from the ride. pic.twitter.com/pz4F86S9w9— Alex Heasman- Bailey (@AlexHeasmann) July 25, 2017