Tuesday, October 25, 2016

2016 World Series Preview

            The Chicago Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. They last played in the World Series in 1945.  The Cleveland Indians, meanwhile, last took home baseball’s championship trophy in 1948. These World Series droughts of 107 and 67 years are the two current longest in baseball.  And in a little more than a week, one of them will be over. In light of this historic World Series that will salve the souls of one of baseball’s formerly moribund franchises, let’s take a quick look how these two teams match up.

Win-Loss Record
Runs Scored
Runs Allowed
Run Differential
BaseRuns Record
808 (3)
556 (1)
777 (5)
676 (7)

The Cubs had the best record in baseball this season and finished 3rd in runs scored and first in runs allowed. Cleveland won the AL Central division title before easily dispatching the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays in the divisional and league championship rounds. They finished 5th and 7th in runs scored and runs allowed respectively. The telling statistic here is each team’s BaseRuns record, suggesting that Chicago underperformed relative to its record, while Cleveland overperformed.  BaseRuns records are based on a metric known as BaseRuns. BaseRuns estimate how many runs a team would be expected to score (or allow) based on their underlying performance. Because of factors out of a team’s control like luck, the number of runs a team scores isn’t always indicative of their true talent level, so BaseRuns tries to remove these factors. Looking at BaseRuns, Chicago was even more impressive than their 103 wins would indicate.


4.99 (3)
.333 (3)
106 (3)
4.83 (4)
.326 (7)
102 (6)

A simple comparison of each team’s batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage suggests that they’re pretty evenly matched.  Chicago and Cleveland even finished 3rd and 4th in runs per game. A look at some of the advanced metrics like wOBA and wRC+, however, reveals that Chicago has the better offense. wOBA (weighted on-base average) is based on a simple idea—that not all hits are created equal. A home run is worth more than a single for instance. The formula uses linear weights to weigh the value of each hit and in this case, it reveals that Chicago has a bigger edge than it first seems.  wRC+ is a measure of offensive production that is weighted to league average of 100 and any digit above or below 100 is equal to 1% above or below league average. The Cubs with a wRC+ of 106 are 6% above league average, while Cleveland is only 2%, a small, but significant advantage.


3.15 (1)
3.77 (5)
128 (1)
3.86 (7)
3.91 (8)
122 (2)

As we look closer at each team’s pitching staff, Chicago, again, has the advantage over Cleveland.  Overall, Chicago has held its opponents to much lower batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage than Cleveland.  A simple look at these numbers is misleading, however, as Chicago plays in the weaker offensive league (no designated hitter) and as we will discuss below benefits from a better defense. Chicago also holds a significant edge in earned run average, but while ERA is one of the longstanding measures of pitching effectiveness, it’s too noisy to tell us much on its own. FIP (or fielding independent pitching) attempts to strip out the noise by taking out all of the things that pitchers can’t control (like defense) and focusing on those they can—like strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. A FIP based comparison suggests that Chicago and Cleveland are a little closer together than it seems. Looking at ERA+ (a similar statistic to wRC+, in that it takes ERA, adjusts it to league average of 100), the Cubs have the best pitching staff in the league, while Cleveland is second. Overall, the Cubs have the better pitching staff.


82 (1)
73 (1)
.728 (1)
17 (9)
35.6 (4)
.696 (6)

Finally, we’ll briefly cover the defenses of both teams. Defensive statistics have only recently come into their own thanks to the introduction MLB Statcast and better ball tracking software.  Nonetheless, there remains a wide disparity between advanced defense statistics, so it’s best to take a sample of a few different ones. DRS (defensive runs saved), an estimate of the number of runs saved by defenders over the whole season, has the Cubs rated significantly higher than Cleveland. In general, ten runs is the equivalent of one win, meaning the Cubs added about eight wins just by their defense. UZR (ultimate zone rating) similarly has the Cubs with the best defense in baseball by a significant margin. Finally, defensive efficiency (simply the percentage of balls put into play that the team turned into outs) has the Cubs as the best defense in baseball. 

PREDICTION: Given their advantages on offense, defense, and pitching, Chicago is the favorite to bring home its first World Series title since 1908. CUBS in 5.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


If the other night you looked out at the moon, surely you noticed that something was a little bit different. The moon seemed bigger and brighter in the night’s sky. That wasn’t some optical illusion, but rather a phenomenon known as a supermoon.  While the term has become more popular in recent years, it originally referred to a full or new moon that occurred when the moon was within 90% of its closest approach to Earth. Now it refers to a full moon that is simply closer to Earth than average.

The Supermoon peering above the horizon 

The moon has an elliptical orbit around the Earth, meaning that it is not always the same distance away from our friendly little planet. One side of the orbit, known as perigee, is about 30,000 miles closer to Earth than the other side, known as apogee.  As the Earth, moon, and sun perform their astrological dance around one another, at a certain point in the movement of all three an event known as a syzygy occurs.  It’s the scientific name for when the Earth, moon, and sun line up as the moon orbits Earth.  Syzygy occurs when the moon is in perigee (closer to the Earth) and in apogee (farther away). The supermoon occurs when the moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun and is in perigee.

The latest supermoon was just the other night on October 16, 2016 and there will be two more over the next two months on November 14 and December 14.  November 14 will be a special supermoon as moon will be at its closest point of perigee. It will be the closest of the three and the closest the moon has come to the Earth in the 21st century. It won’t come this close again until November 25, 2034.  Not be left out, the supermoon on December 14 will block out the Geminid meteor shower set to occur that evening. Normally the falling pieces of rock illuminate the night sky, but thanks to the increased brightness of the moon, they’ll disappear from sight.

A supermoon can be as much as 14% bigger and 30% brighter than a regular full moon. Sometimes though, it’s hard to tell the difference. A 30% difference in brightness can easily be masked by clouds or lights from homes or streetlights. When the moon is high in the sky, it can be hard to tell the size difference without a reference point to provide some measure of scale.  When the moon is low in the sky, it can create a ““moon illusion.” Near the horizon, it can appear larger when viewed through trees, buildings, or other objects in the foreground. The effect is an optical illusion, but it’s still impressive.

So if you missed the supermoon this week, don’t worry there’s still two more chances this year to observe this astronomical treat. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Saints Quarter Season Check-In

            Coming off their bye this week, the New Orleans Saints currently sit third in the NFC South with a record of 1-3. They’re a half game ahead of the 1-4 Panthers and two back in the loss column behind the division leading Atlanta Falcons. As is our tradition, let’s check in on the Saints season so far. New Orleans has scored 114 points and allowed 130, good for a point differential of -16. Based on their Pythagorean win expectation (a modified version of the Pythagorean theorem based on points scored and points allowed that is better at predicting win-loss totals than actual win-loss totals), we would expect that the Saints would have a record of 1.7 wins versus 2.3 losses. While the four game sample size is rather small, this figure suggests that they’re a little bit closer to a 2-2 team than their 1-3 record suggests.

Wait, I thought there wouldn't be any math! 

            After Week 4, New Orleans ranked 18th in Football Outsiders DVOA metric (defense-adjusted value over average compares the result of every play against league average and turns it into a percentage 0= league average). Their offensive DVOA of 10.3% is sixth in the NFL and their defensive DVOA of 13.8% (on defense positive percentages indicate below league average) is 27th in the league.  Their special teams, meanwhile, sport a DVOA of -3.2%, 23nd in the NFL. In other words, the Saints have a really good offense, bad defense, and bad special teams. If you’ve heard this story before, it’s because this is the story of the Saints the last few seasons. Now let’s take a closer look at the New Orleans offense and defense.


Total DVOA
Passing DVOA
Rushing DVOA
10.3% (6)
18.8% (14)
3.0% (8)
10.5 (7)
30.1% (7)
-7.1% (15)

Comparing the Saints offense through four games this year, we see that overall they’re doing about the same compared to 2015, but the way they’re getting there is different. Through four games the Saints passing attack is less effective than in 2015, but their running game behind Mark Ingram and the offensive line is much stronger. Much of that improvement has come from two specific areas of play. The Saints rank first in the NFL Power Success according to Football Outsiders. Power is the percentage of runs on 3rd or 4th down with 2 or fewer yards to go that resulted in a first down or a touchdown. Saints running backs have similarly been stuffed—tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage—the fewest times in the NFL. This means more first downs, longer drives, and generally more points.

Let’s go a little bit deeper and look at the Saints stats per drive this season and see how they compare to last year.

Starting Field Position
36.51 (6)
2.63 (3)
0.093 (9)
27.44 (18)
37.09 (2)
2.24 (6)
0.109 (13)
26.33 (21)

Again the similarities are pretty clear.  They’re top 10 in yards per drive and points per drive. Despite often playing from behind, they don’t turn the ball over at a debilitating rate—part of that is a function of the fact that they have so many drives in the first place. Unfortunately for New Orleans, their special teams rarely gives their offense great field position, meaning the Saints have farther to go to drive the ball down the field.


Total DVOA
Passing DVOA
Rushing DVOA
13.8% (27)
23.9% (25)
-0.5% (24)
26.1% (32)
48.1% (32)
-2.4% (27)

While the Saints showed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan the door midway through last season, the defense under Dennis Allen hasn’t been that much better.  Going from 48.1% below league average on passing defense to 23.9% below league average is an improvement, I guess, as long as we define improvement from going from historically awful to just plain awful. More likely though it’s just regression to the mean—after all it’s really hard to be 48% worse than league average two years in a row. After last year’s secondary featured veterans Keenan Lewis, Brandon Browner, Jarius Byrd, and Kenny Vaccaro in starting roles, this year the Saints have given playing time to undrafted rookies like Ken Crawley and De’Vante Harris. They signed veteran corners Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb off the street in recent weeks. Second round pick Von Bell has supplanted Byrd, yet another of Mickey Loomis’s failed free agent signings, as the starter. In other words, don’t expect things to get better any time soon.

Starting Field Position
39.40 (28)
2.67 (30)
.140 (12)
28.60 (20)
38.62 (32)
2.64 (32)
.119 (19)
26.75 (11)

A look at the drive stats for the Saints tells a similar story. In 2016, they’re allowing similar numbers of points per drive and yards per drive as they did in 2015. In other words, you’re seeing a 2016 Saints defense that looks a lot like the 2015 one. And if that’s the case, then it’ll be another long season ahead for Saints fans. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Hell or High Water

          This summer there were disappointing franchise sequels (I’m looking at you Independence Day Resurgence and Jason Bourne), whatever DC is doing with its cinematic universe (can Zack Snyder just admit he’s only interested in fascist imagery?), and animated movies about talking animals (hey, they’re really cute). The intelligent, well acted, well written movie designed for adults has mostly fallen by the wayside. Luckily Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie, rescued us from a summer of movie mediocrity. 

            The film stars Ben Foster and Chris Pine as Tanner and Toby Howard, a pair of brothers robbing branches of the same bank across West Texas. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement, and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) pick up their trail. The Howard brothers are only taking small bills and the F.B.I. can’t be bothered to investigate. The rest of the cast is a menagerie of colorful diner waitresses, cowboys, and West Texas men with more handguns than common sense. These secondary characters reveal a West Texas in cultural and economic decline with seemingly no one to blame. The waitresses struggle to pay their mortgages. The cowboys lament being left behind by the 21st century as they try to save their cattle from brush fires. West Texas masculinity is on full display as middle aged white men pull out their trusty handguns and shoot indiscriminately at the Howard brothers. They even form a posse of rundown SUVs and pickup trucks and engage in a car chase across West Texas.

            Sheridan’s script holds back from revealing the Howards’ motive until about halfway into Hell or High Water, allowing the two sets of brotherly relationships to come into focus. Foster and Pine have an easy rapport, conveying years of missing back story in the moments between bank robberies. Pine, an actor who is at his best away from Star Trek, plays Toby with a simmering intensity and intelligence. Pine’s understated acting allows Foster’s Tanner fill up the screen. Foster plays Tanner as arrogant and violent, while also recognizing the consequences of their crimes. When Toby asks why Tanner agreed to participate in the bank robberies, Tanner answers, “Because you asked little brother.” Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton and Birmingham’s Alberto Parker share a similar brotherly bond. They trade casually racist barbs as Marcus makes fun of Alberto’s Mexican heritage. Alberto manages to land a few punches of his own as their dialogue reveals that underneath all of the mocking lies a mutual respect and affection that only emerges after years of camaraderie.  

            When the brothers finally reveal their motive, the plot moves forward briskly and slowly at the same time. Tanner and Toby are working against a ticking clock while Marcus and Alberto wait patiently at what they believe will be the brothers’ next target. By the time they all finally intersect, the audience is left wondering if the brothers are the bad guys after all. And if they’re not the villains then who is? Sheridan’s clever script reveals that the true villain of the film is the one thing that tied together the cops, robbers, diner waitresses, ranchers, and gun-toting white men that everyone else forgot in West Texas.