Uncommon Sports Knowledge

Football
2008 Arkansas 5A high school football state champion Pulaski Academy never punted. Their coach, Kevin Kelley, ran the numbers and realized punting was a net negative! The 30-yard difference in field position between a punt and a failed 4th down didn’t make a big enough difference to justify giving up an extra play that could extend the drive. Opposing coaches told Kelley they wished his team would punt, because it gave Pulaski’s team more freedom in its playbook, particularly on 3rd down, and all the 4th down conversions exhausted and demoralized defenses who were used to thinking they could take a break after three good plays in a row.

As for the professional league, where punters and defenses are better, The 4th Down Study should be the new rule of thumb for NFL teams. This study, too, shows that coaches punt too much. It’s ironic that the conventionally safe option is actually less safe than the risky one. I think coaches prefer losing the usual way to losing after taking risks. Bill Belichick took a lot of heat for his failed 4th down try from deep in his own territory against the Colts in ’09, and less accomplished coaches wouldn’t have survived a visible failure like that.

Baseball
The Age of the Setup Man is a nice critique of relief pitching.

1. As mentioned, the ninth inning is predictable and has been going back at least to 1950. A hot closer can give you a bit of a boost, but if you are a good team you are not going to blow ninth inning leads very often.

2. Because of the save statistic and current group-think, the closer is pretty much immovable. You have to start him in the ninth inning with the three-run-or-less lead. Every now and again, a manager will go against convention, bring in the closer to finish off the eighth, or start off the ninth with a lefty-lefty match-up before bringing in the closer. But almost every time the closer is used in only one way, and that’s stifling for managers.

But the setup role is not as settled, and so managers can use their setup men in many different ways. They can bring them into the game in the seventh. They can wait until runners are on base in the eighth. They can use the setup man for one out, for four outs, for six outs, when the team is in trouble in the sixth inning, it’s an open canvas.

And, yes, I think some teams (like the Chicago White Sox with Matt Thornton) are making their best relievers setup men instead of closers.

History Lessons With Bud examines the myth that Civil War general Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York.  The story was fishy from the beginning, but everyone wanted to believe it because it was so idyllic and American. (In truth, baseball evolved from cricket, as anyone who’s watched British sports can see.)

Basketball
How 1964 UCLA Bruins made John Wooden – This is a great long piece about Coach Wooden’s undefeated 1964 team, his first champions, which didn’t have any Hall of Fame players but did have great teammates and a fantastic full-court press.

When I want to understand what’s happening in the NBA, I go to the The Wages of Wins Journal. Economist Dave Berri has created a player evaluation model based on individual box score statistics that explains 95% of team wins and makes it relatively easy to predict outcomes over the course of a season. Here’s a longer explanation and a shorter one of the method. The big insight is that NBA coaches and executives overvalue scoring and undervalue everything else, like accuracy, rebounding, and turnovers. This hurts the game because it creates an incentive for players to shoot more; whether players are good shooters or not, higher scoring totals increase their minutes, salaries, and popularity.

My second-favorite basketball source is The Point Forward, in which Zach Lowe analyzes teams’ strategies and players’ habits to explain what’s happening in the box score. When he wanted to know why the Celtics commit so many turnovers, for example, Lowe watched all 197 of their turnovers in transition from the year before.

Explore posts in the same categories: Sports, USA

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