Balls and Sticks Podcast

Podcast Blog

Balls and Sticks

Hannah's WTF List - February 12, 2019
List.JPG

February 12, 2019

The sports world is fucking stupid. We all know it; don’t even bother denying it. Pretty frequently I find myself looking at the news or other random shit that’s happening and all I can say is WHAT. THE. FUCK. Sometimes it’s a good WTF (Carter Hart being the best bean? Good WTF) More often it’s bad WTFs (Phil Housley scratching CJ Smith [again] even though he’s had 2 goals in his first 6 NHL appearances this year while Vlad Sobotka hasn’t had a goal in his last 39 games? WTF).

So here’s WTF happened this week. There are plenty of other WTF moments I’ve left off because I just felt like it OK?

3. Pitchers and Catchers started reporting today. That means baseball season is officially on deck. But, as we saw last off-season, there are still some (read: SO MANY) unsigned free agents. Last year wasn’t an exception, it seems like this is the rule now for baseball free agency and that’s dumb.

The two most coveted free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, are still unsigned and until they put pen to paper, the rest of those average-to-good guys will just have to wait. Sorry pals, blame capitalism.

2. The Canucks are having season that no one expected them to. Elias Pettersson breathed new life into that franchise and now they’re knocking on the door of the western wildcard race, but honestly who isn’t at this point. That brings us to this WTF moment. On Monday night they started emergency call-up  Mikey DiPietro in goal because Jacob Markstrom was stiff (?????????) and Thatcher Demko hurt himself pre game against Philly last week.

So small child, Mikey DiPietro, who just over a month ago was at World Juniors for Canada and just about a week ago was playing in the CHL, got shelled against one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Who’s bright idea was it to give him his first NHL start against the Sharks? Why don’t they have literally any other goalie they could bring up? What the fuck Vancouver. Protect the baby goalies. PROTECT THEM.

1. David Pastrňák, henceforth to be called Pasta in this post, is out for at least 2 weeks after sustaining an injury to his thumb that required surgery. If you’re thinking “an injury to a hockey player isn’t a WTF moment” you’re usually correct, but this one is a little different.

From what we know, Pasta fell while trying to get to his ride after an event late Sunday night. We have no confirmation that this was a drunk incident. As someone who’s prone to falling when both drunk AND sober, I won’t say he was definitely intoxicated, but like, he probably was.

So the Bruins are going to be missing one of their best players for an important stretch of games as the jockey for one of the top 3 spots in the Atlantic or one of the two wild card spots. And it’s not like the race in the East is easy, even if it isn’t as tight as the Western Conference.


Retire the Chief

The year is 1915, Cleveland is coming off of a truly terrible season (no, not Orioles terrible, but still, very bad). That year, they were known as the Cleveland Naps. They had been since 1903 in homage to Nap Lajoie, former player and current Hall of Famer.

They’d gone through a slew of names since landing in Cleveland in 1900. For one season they were the Lake Shores, that one is pretty self-explanatory, since Cleveland is on, you know, a lakeshore. They were still a minor league team at that point and had just moved from Grand Rapid. A name change was needed since Cleveland Rustlers doesn’t have the same ring to is as Grand Rapid Rustlers and you know what, I’m lying, both of those names sound equally dumb. No points for creativity on those names, but they do get points for not being racist.

In 1901 a new name was adopted as Cleveland (and the minor league American League) merged with the National League and Major League Baseball was born. The Cleveland Bluebirds were not great at the baseball thing with a 54-82 record, but hey at least this name wasn’t just a statement of fact?

Then came 1902 and yet another name change to baseball in Cleveland. All of this rebranding must have been really annoying for their graphics departm- oh right, it was 1902, they probably didn’t have a graphics department. 1902 was the year of the Bronco in Cleveland. This is only a little sarcastic, they actually had a winning record in 1902. Sure, it was 69 (nice) - 67, but hey, PROGRESS!

That progress must have meant nothing though because, you guessed it, in 1903 Cleveland baseball yet again changed names. This time they became the Naps, and I already kind of talked about that so I won’t bore you with the details. Well, maybe just one detail. Nap Lajoie was a player and the manager of the Cleveland Naps. Can you imagine playing on a team named after you? The Cleveland Burrys? Oh, you know what. I like that.

So, what happened in 1915 that caused another name change? Well, Nap Lajoie was feuding with the (new) manager and he was getting old and hitting less, so the team sold him back to where he came from, to the Philadelphia Athletics.

The new name was thrown to the local baseball writers who were probably all middle-aged white dudes with no concept of why a name like ‘Indians’ would be culturally insensitive at best and racist at worst, but it was 1915, that was more than 100 years ago, things have changed. That isn’t still the name of this team that changed its name five times in its first 15 years in Cleveland, that would be absurd. HA… HAHAHAHA. I’m fine.

Anyway, so the owner asks the baseball writers to pick a name and they come up with Indians. Revisionist history will tell you it’s to pay homage to a former player, like with the Naps. Louis Sockalexis was a Native American baseball player for the Cleveland Spiders, a team that has no historical connection to the current Cleveland baseball team. In fact, when the current Cleveland baseball team moved to Cleveland in 1900, the Spiders had just been sold and folded because of some seriously dramatic nonsense that I don’t even have time to get into. Just know that their attendance issues make the 4% decline in attendance across MLB this year look like child’s play.

The Spiders and the Cleveland team now known as the Indians have no affiliation. Their connection is that the Grand Rapids Rustlers moved to Cleveland because there was no professional team in the city after 1899. They are so not connected that Cleveland celebrated 100 years of their team in 2000, not in 1987.

I think you get what I’m saying. Like, you get it right? What I’m saying is that there is no historical context for why the team needs to be the Indians.

So now that I’ve given you a brief (yes, that was me being brief) history of the Cleveland baseball names, I’m going to get into opinions, mostly mine.

Here it is. I know that it’s completely shocking, but I think the Cleveland baseball team should change their name. I think they should burn anything adorned with ‘Chief Wahoo,’ the racist logo with a somehow even more racist name. I think Cleveland fans need to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves why they get so mad when they see someone wearing a ‘Caucasians’ shirt with a caricature of a white person, but they’re fine wearing a red-skinned, big-nosed caricature of a Native American.

I know this is asking a lot of the fans. These fans are loyal. They still call Progressive Field ‘The Jake’ because tradition or whatever. But here’s the thing: people were pissed off about giving women the right to vote and for the most part I think we’re over that anger. They were mad about sharing a drinking fountain. I guess what I’m saying is, white people get mad when the status quo is questioned and when there’s an implication that maybe what they’ve been doing is kind of fucked up. If it’s just Native Americans overreacting then they aren’t complicit in racism.

But they are. I am.

The best way, and what I think the only way, to move forward here is as follows: get rid of Chief Wahoo. Retire him. He’s done enough damage. And before you go off and say he’s already being retired next year and I should shut my mouth and keep my politics out of sports, just listen. He won’t be on the gear that the team wears, but he will still be available for purchase on gear. When the team reveals the new, fresh (probably boring) look on Monday, November 19th, all they’re doing is taking him off the official jersey.

Retire him. Put this chapter in the past.

After we do that we need to apologize to the Native Americans that we’ve been ignoring. Every opening day there are protesters and inevitably, there are white people in red-face yelling back at them. Like the protesters have somehow done something worse than we have.


Then, the final-ish step in this redemption arc is to change the team name. Yes, I know that by now there’s over 100 years of history attached to it, but there’s also centuries of pain attached to the Native American story so I think we can deal with it.

If you listen to my podcast, you know that I’ve posed a list of possible name that we could use instead. I won’t re-list them here, but you can listen here.

If you’ve read this far, you either agree with me or you’re already planning angry comments. Either way, I’d like to hear from you. If you’re of the angry variety, please be advised that I’m as steadfast in my belief as you are so I’m probably just going to screenshot your shit and report you, but feel free to do it anyway.

But if you’re in the first group. If you agree with me, especially if you’re a Cleveland fan, let’s do something about this. Let’s join the protests before opening day. Let’s refuse to buy anything with Chief Wahoo on it. Let’s use our voices to call out this racist bullshit. But most of all, let’s not keep quiet anymore. It’s been over 100 years, isn’t it time we address this head on?

Find me on twitter @hburry92

Hannah BurryComment
A Plea to the Sabres Front Office

To Whom It May Concern:

Preseason is officially underway. There’s a buzz in the air in Buffalo that is so palpable you can smell it over the Cheerios. We’re 16 days away from the first game of regular season; 16 days away from the first season of a new era. (Well, hopefully. It’s September, I’m allowed to be hopeful).

In honor of those 16 days I am going to give you 16 reasons why you need to give Jack Eichel the C. These reasons range from statistical to personal and are in no particular order:

  1. Jack bought a house in Buffalo and is clearly invested in sticking around.

  2. He came back to Buffalo before Labor Day this year, the first time he’s done this.

  3. He make jokes with the media at camp, a sign that instead of being a sassy asshole (a sasshole if you will, he will try to stop being grumpy).

  4. This is the first year of his big contract so the C makes sense.

  5. If you really want to change the culture in the room, adding an official captain can’t hurt.

  6. Statistically, each year that he’s played he’s improved. This is a sign of on ice growth and maturity.

  7. Speaking of growth and maturity, people outside of the Buffalo media bubble have started to notice the change and growth in Jack.

  8. He’s taken the younger guys under his wing (not literally, I’m hoping his wings this year are Skinner and Reinhard, but you get what I’m saying).

  9. Giving him the C would make me happy, and I’m the only one who really matters.

  10. Do you have a good reason not to?

  11. Who else would you give it to anyway? Just admit that he’s the guy so we can all stop talking about it.

  12. Think of all the jerseys you’d sell! I’ll buy one if you grow a pair and give him that damn letter.

  13. You’ll look really silly if you wait until midway through the season.

  14. Putting that letter on his chest would send a message to the rest of the team that if you work your ass off, grow as a person and a player, and step up that you’ll be rewarded.

  15. Don’t you want to be able to make fun memes about ‘Captain Jack’? Think of the media promotions! He could skate onto the ice to the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song! He’d have a built in Halloween costume. I’m not going to give away all my good ideas for free, but you get the idea.

  16. I love him. That should be enough for you.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to seeing that number 9 jersey with a C on the chest really soon.

Warm-ish regards,

Hannah Burry

Hannah Burry
NHL Early Career Progression

The Max Pacioretty trade (1:00), Nate Schmidt's suspension (6:03), Blake Wheeler's extension (8:12), Noah Hanifin's contract (10:00), the biggest question facing each team in the Western Conference (11:26), early career progression (27:42).

(You can listen to us discuss this topic in the episode above.)

Here in early September, hockey optimism is at its zenith. Rookie tournaments are happening, training camps are about to open, and soon we'll get to hear about how every player is "in the best shape of my life, for sure." And a large part of this optimism centers around young players, early in their careers. The refrains are familiar: “he had a tough rookie season, but he’ll be better next year” or “the sophomore slump was rough, but he’ll bounce back.”

But how often is this actually the case? How often do players successfully make the jump and improve throughout the first three years of their career?

The population of players I studied here included the 320 forwards who played their first three full seasons (with a season defined as at least 400 minutes of 5v5 play) between 2007-08 and 2017-18. Their points/60 at 5v5 were ranked via percentile, as compared to the other players in that season (e.g., a player’s first year points/60 was compared to all other players in the cohort in their first season, regardless of when that first season was). Lastly, the players were grouped by quartiles in each year.

(Eternal thanks to Corsica for the raw data.)

r = 0.37

r = 0.37

r = 0.41

r = 0.41

r = 0.45

r = 0.45

The three graphs above show the relationships among points/60 during the seasons.

Overall, there was definitely movement among the quartiles during the first three seasons. Only 17% of players stayed in the same quartile for all three seasons, with the bulk of those coming from players who stayed in the bottom quartile. Just 36% of players stayed in the same quartile from their first season to their second, and 39% stayed in the same quartile from their second season to their third. There was slightly more consistency within the top quartile: 39% of players in the top quartile in their first season stayed there for their second, and 47% of players in the top quartile in their second season stayed there for their third. Only 15 players remained in the top quartile for all three seasons, and the list contains the usual suspects: Connor McDavid, Jamie Benn, Brad Marchand, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews, etc.

Specific player data is available in the linked data visualization (if it’s not showing up at the bottom of this page, refresh or click here), with the ability to search by path and by player. Shown below are a few highlights:

2-3-4.png

Some players are able to make continuous progress, from the second quartile in their first season to the third and then the top. This group of players includes Jack Eichel, Aleksander Barkov, and Sean Monahan. (There’s also a pretty decent group of players who jumped from the second quartile in their first season up to the top and then stayed there: John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, among others.)

4-1-4.png

Shown above is the path of players who experienced the sophomore slump: they spent their first season in the top quartile, dropped to the bottom, and then jumped back up to the top. This group of players includes Anders Lee, Dylan Larkin, and Jason Zucker.

Explore more in the visualization below, and feel free to reach out on Twitter with any questions or comments.

Meghan Hallhockey
Hope Springs Eternal

Our thoughts on fan policing and bandwagon fans (0:58), our experiences as as female sports fans (9:11), the role of suffering and hope in sports (16:30).

The start to any sports season brings many things. It brings analysts’ predictions, it brings new players, and for most fans, it brings hope. Hope is a funny thing. There’s no science behind it, no data to back up the feeling in your gut, but it’s there. Sometimes the hope is so palpable you can taste it.

Hope is feeling in your gut that maybe the 52 year drought will end tonight. Hope is smelling the first bit of something in the air with the game tied and 3:38 still on the clock. Hope is your hands shaking, just a little, as the clock ticks downward and the score hasn’t changed. Hope is seeing the play where momentum could swing away from you, only to have The Block at 1:52. Hope is The Shot going in, giving your team the lead with 53 seconds left on the clock. Hope is watching the clock hit zero and finally, finally the years of waiting have become worth it.

Hope is the promise of rain in a drought. It’s knowing in your gut that winning is possible, even when no one else believes you. It is this special brand of hope that keeps fans going through years of losing seasons; it’s hope that feeds us when wins won’t.

Like all things, hope must be fed. Though it can survive the leanest of times with nothing but the thought of future victory, even hope can wain when left alone for too long. But hope never dies. Look at Houston, at Cleveland, at Buffalo, at Washington. Hope might feel like a scarce resource sometimes, but it’s always there if you look hard enough.

Stories of other cities, of other teams, keep that fountain of hope going. Who can forget the fairytale World Series win of the 2017 Astros who spent the better part of a decade rebuilding into a team that is arguably still the best in baseball. No one was happier than Bills fans when they made it back to the playoffs in 2018, their first trip in nearly two decades. And just a few months ago, the Washington Capitals finally, finally, won a Stanley Cup, bringing a championship to D.C. for the first time since 1991.  

It’s these stories of triumph that keep fans going through the darkest days. It’s getting the number one draft pick after a season that felt like the end, it’s making a shot at the buzzer to bring the championship home, it’s knowing that when victory finally comes, because you know it will, it will be all the sweeter for the suffering you’ve endured.

Hope is what keeps fans going after crushing defeats. If not for hope, we might not make it back from the extra innings loss in the World Series, from the pain of another season without a winning record, from the suffering of yet another year of rebuilding.

Sometimes in sports, all you have is hope. No matter how bad things get, no matter if your team won back-to-back championships or hasn’t won one in nearly a century, hope keeps us going. It’s the most resilient thing in sports, and even when you feel like all hope is lost, the smallest breeze can light that fire all over again.

Full disclosure, my brand of hope is a special brand. It’s the kind of hope that comes only from years of ‘next year’, of missed shots and strikeouts. My brand of hope is of the Cleveland variety, and that kind doesn’t die easily.

If I can survive a literal lifetime of losses that all lead to the greatest moment in Cleveland sports history in 2016, you can survive your sports pain too. My hope is the kind that really, truly believes that next year is here. That if I believe hard enough, my teams can feel it.

So here’s to hope. May you always have it, no matter how dark the road ahead might seem. Because when there’s hope, you know that next year might really be your year.

Hannah Burry
Individual Power Play Units in 17-18

The losers (2:18) and winners (10:40) of the offseason (featuring Vancouver, Washington, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, New York, Buffalo, Toronto, and St. Louis), an analysis of last year’s top power play units (15:28).

#KarlssonWatch is back (1:05), our picks for next year's breakout players (3:53): Andreas Johnsson (4:30), Casey Mittelstadt (5:15), Dylan Strome (5:45), Travis Konecny (8:19), Alex Galchenyuk (10:08), Ty Rattie (11:52), Jordan Eberle (12:52), more on Mittelstadt because we just can't resist (14:22), our excitement over the season starting (16:11), more power play analysis (17:20).

(You can listen to us discuss this topic in these two episodes.)

My interest in looking at power plays initially spawned from a comment on Biscuits, Dave Lozo and Sean McIndoe's podcast, about how it'd be more intuitive to express power play success in terms of time (e.g., this team scored every eight minutes on the PP) than simply success percentage. Success percentage, the standard measure that most hockey media uses to determine the value of a power play, doesn't take into account how long a team actually spent on the power play. Rate stats (e.g., points per 60) are often better than stats that depend on a variable opportunity denominator (e.g., points per game) since they level the playing field, so to speak, and looking at minutes per goal (or seconds per shot) is just a new way of interpreting the standard goals per 60.

Teams.png

This was fairly easy to calculate on a team level (shown above, 5-on-4 regular season play only from 2017-18), and then I went further to identify the top power play units, those who logged at least 20 minutes together and netted at least one goal. That ended up being the top 98 units, and you can see the details of each by looking at the interactive visualization (or see the bottom of this page).

Units.png

The top 10 units, in terms of time on ice, are shown above, sorted by minutes per goal. Toronto’s first power play unit topped this list, which wasn’t particularly surprising as someone who watched a lot of that power play last year.

(Also of interest to note: all of the top units in 2017-18 used four forwards and one defenseman. In fact, of the top 98 units, fewer than 25 percent used the three forwards-two defensemen structure. Matt Cane has written extensively about the benefit of using 4F-1D over 3F-2D. In summary, it's true that those units tend to allow more shots, but they also generate more shots, and have a higher shooting percentage, which puts the differential in their favor. This seems normal now, but it was under 10 years ago that 4F-1D on the power play was relatively rare.)

StructureIndex.png

Speaking of Matt Cane, my next aspect of power play analysis uses his Power Play Structure Index, which is a weighted average of how far each player tends to shoot from their average location. Please read his work to see the full explanation, but in summary, a lower structure index indicates that a power play operates with a tighter formation, in that each player tends to take shots from a specific location. He also found that it’s a repeatable skill and nearly as predictive of future goal scoring as shot generation. He looked at this metric on the team level and found that over the past few years, the Capitals have performed best on this metric (i.e., had the lowest structure index). I calculated this metric for the individual power play units (those with at least 75 shots), and you can see those data in the interactive visualization (or see the bottom of this page).. The top 10 are shown above, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the Capitals rank high on this list as well.

WSH.gif

And thanks to provided shot locations, we can construct shot maps in order to visualize the structure index, like with Washington's top power play above. Carlson’s on the blue line, Oshie’s in front of the net, Backstrom and Kuznetsov are a little bit all over the place, and Ovechkin doesn’t stray far from the Ovechkin Spot™.

TOR.gif

The same is true of Toronto's top power play unit. You can clearly see Reilly along the blue line, Marner and Bozak mostly on the sides, and Kadri and Van Riemsdyk in front of the net.

CAR.gif

Now contrast those first two gifs with Carolina’s second power play unit, which had the highest (and therefore worst) structure index among the qualified units. There’s a little bit of structure, but as you can see from how spread out the shots are, it’s not nearly as clear-cut as the other two units.

(If the visualization isn't showing up below, refresh your page or click here.)

Meghan Hallhockey
Episode 12: The Good, the Bad, and the Injured

Jim Thome's HOF induction (1:30), Meg's reaction to the Osuna trade (3:34), LeBron James' new school (10:15), recent success from Bryce Harper (14:15) and the Red Sox (16:30) and the Oakland A's (18:35), recent impactful injuries (20:05), how Collin McHugh has put together such a successful season as a reliever (22:52) with our stat of the week: BABIP (27:03).

To accompany our discussion on Collin McHugh in this week's episode, check out the visualization below.

(If the visualization isn't showing up, refresh your page or click here.)

 

 

Meghan Hallbaseball
Episode 11: Millennials are Killing Baseball

An update on the divisional races and recent trades (2:01), Mike Trout and Rob Manfred's comments (6:25), declining attendance in baseball (11:50), the new trend of position players pitching (20:23), Meg says something nice about the A's (22:18), our heartwarming story of the week (24:21).

To accompany our discussion on baseball attendance in this week's episode, check out the visualization below. (If the visualization isn't showing up, refresh your page or click here.)

Is baseball attendance really declining? The numbers say yes, the sports pundits say yes, some random guy on the street yelling about how much better baseball was back in his day says yes. At this point it’s a universally accepted fact that baseball is losing fans at the ballpark. What isn’t universally accepted is why. That’s why I’m here; I’m going to wildly speculate on those reasons and maybe offer some solutions.

Here is a non-definitive list of why people think baseball attendance is in decline:

  1. Baseball is too slow to keep people’s attention.
  2. With opening day moving ever earlier and the climate getting more extreme, cold weather has affected attendance in many northern cities (without domes). The start of the 2018 season was particularly frigid.
  3. There are more things going on now that capture people’s attention.
  4. ______ sport is just more interesting.
  5. Baseball players are boring.
  6. The economy really isn’t as good as it looks on paper and not everyone can afford to go to the game. (Or: the economy is booming and people are just choosing to spend their money in other areas.)
  7. More people have access to watching on TV now through things like MLB.TV.
  8. Mike Trout isn’t doing enough to make baseball more popular. Blame Mike Trout.
  9. Baseball may lose a generation of fans because they haven’t kept up with other major sports in terms of fan engagement and social media usage. They’re playing catch-up with the likes of the NBA and NFL.  
  10. The recession that started in 2007 caused a drop in attendance from which teams still haven’t recovered.
  11. Baseball just isn’t the sport that it used to be, back in my day baseball was actually fun to watch. The players had integrity, the world was better, hot dogs tasted better!
  12. People don’t want to go watch a bad team, so when their team isn’t doing as well, they’re less likely to go to games.

Most of those reasons are legit. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons that I didn’t mention, but I want to start with the final reason on my list: people don’t want to watch a bad team. If you look at the scatter plot, you’ll see that attendance is very much related to a team's record, especially the previous season’s record.

This isn’t a baseball thing, this isn’t even a now thing. I’d imagine this has been the case for over 100 years and in almost every sport.

When Cleveland won the World Series in 1920 they played out a park that had capacity for just over 20,000 fans. In order to allow more fans to attend games, the club build Cleveland Municipal Stadium, a park that could fit nearly 4 times the amount of fans.

But then something happened: it was a little bit the juggernaut named the New York Yankees, featuring the duo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; it was a little bit new ownership in Cleveland; it was a little bit the retirement of Tris Speaker; and it was a little bit that even though the team was good on paper, they just weren’t the team they had been in the late 1910s and early 1920s.

No matter how far back you go, no matter what team you look at, attendance has been, at least in part, tied to fielding a winning team. There’s a reason the Marlins have the lowest attendance in MLB, and it isn’t just that Florida fans are historically considered to be the worst fans.

In summary, there is no one factor that accounts for declining attendance. Is it that the recession hit in 2008, leaving people with less expendable income for games? Is it something else along that same line? Is it that people have less money to spend on activities for their kids, so not as many kids are being introduced to baseball and falling in love with it?

Baseball is a timeless game. It’s a game where every team has the same amount of chances. There is no clock counting down, no buzzer that sounds signaling the end of the game. And there’s a magic to a game that is quite literally timeless. It’s a game where even the best team will falter and lose to the very worst team in the league. Baseball has been the same game for over 100 years and I think that’s beautiful, it’s part of the reason I love it, but that might be part of the reason it’s losing fans.

Americans (and the world) are rolling by like an army of steamrollers. Now we have computers in our pockets, eight different version of ESPN at our fingertips, and three other major sports in the U.S. (not even counting soccer and its fast-growing popularity).

The world is moving quickly, but baseball doesn’t. That doesn’t mean that we need to panic over attendance or change baseball dramatically to fit the world now, but it does mean that MLB needs to take a long, hard look at itself and see how it can grow and evolve. If you remember, we talked about the increase in defensive shifts last week. With the increase of the shift, there has been a decrease in offensive action. MLB has been looking into ways to increase offense, and limiting the defensive shift might be one of the solutions.

I’m not here to tell MLB how to fix its problems, I’m not even here to tell you anything you don’t know already. I guess I’m here to tell you that yes, baseball attendance is declining, but the trend can be reversed. It’s not too late.

Is there a one size fits all solution? Of course not. Each market has their own unique set of problems and will have their own unique set of solutions. Some teams are adding standing room only tickets that are a little cheaper, other teams offer kids tickets at a reduced price, and all teams have giveaway nights and promos to draw crowds. It’s a league-wide issue, but the league can’t fix it alone.

But here’s the thing about baseball and about baseball fans. If you’ve read this far you’re probably a loyal one. You’ve probably seen your team through highs and lows, though playoff runs and consecutive sub .500 season. We loyal fans are slow to change, we have a nostalgic love for the teams of our youth and for “the good old days” of baseball.

We can’t let our love of the game turn us into gatekeepers. Baseball fans need to open their arms to a new kind of fan, the kind of fan who doesn’t know what it was like when the Tribe fell to the Braves 1-0 in the ‘95 World Series. The kind of fan who didn’t suffer though the Astros rebuild of the mid-aughts. We can’t let our pride in our teams, in our game, deter the casual fan. The casual fan just might be what saves us, they might be what we need to remind us what baseball could be again.  

Because if there’s one thing that I know for sure about baseball it’s this: “This field, this game—it's a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9XFV4pXRcI

Hannah Burrybaseball
Episode 10.5: Looking Shifty

The trade that bolstered Cleveland's bullpen (1:21), the rapid rise in popularity of the shift (3:30), the arguments for and against the shift (5:50), how hitters are (or aren't) adjusting to the shift (7:09), is the shift on its way to being outlawed? (11:53), our stat of the week: ultimate zone rating (18:56).

To accompany our discussion on shifts in this week's episode, check out the visualization below to see how shifts have increased over time and how hitters are adjusting to the shift.

(If the visualization isn't showing up, refresh your page or click here.)

Meghan Hallbaseball
Episode 10: Hit Me Baby One More Time

(You can hear us talk about this topic in our July 24 episode, at the 11:16 mark.)

When Hannah and I decided that we were going to talk about fighting and physical play on a hockey episode of our podcast, I knew that I wanted to look into “hits” as a statistic. Hits don’t garner much respect (as a statistic, that is—as a style of play, that’s a whole different story, depending on who you're talking to), which is for two main reasons.

  • People often consider hits to be a positive thing (such thoughts are usually accompanied by a lot of vague qualifiers like “physicality!” and “gritty, high-energy play!”), but that’s not really true. Teams often do better when they aren’t hitting as much, since by definition you don’t have possession of the puck if you’re the one doing the hitting. And as far as I’m aware, high hitting rates aren’t particularly associated with strong defense.
  • The definition of a hit is fairly murky, which leads to more subjectivity among the scorers at each NHL arena.

The timing could not have been more perfect because just as I was thinking about this, I was working through my copy of Stat Shot (highly recommended, by the way!) and came across their chapter on hits. I really appreciated their process, as they talked through hits and various ways to make it more useful as a statistic, and I decided to replicate their work for the most recent 17-18 season. Since I’m a hockey analytics beginner, it was a useful exercise!

I’m going to walk through this process at a fairly high level, but to get the most details, you should definitely pick up a copy of Stat Shot. To see the data visualization, explore below or click here. (If it isn't showing up at the bottom of this page, refresh!)

  1. As is customary, we’re looking at even-strength situations only. Power plays and penalty kills are different beasts, so we’re eliminating differences in play in those specialized situations.
  2. The first step is to tackle the possession issue. Some players may hit a lot, but that isn’t as valuable if they have low possession numbers. We can adjust the hit total with Fenwick (also known as unblocked shot attempts), one of the most common proxies for puck possession.
  3. We also need to address the potential sample size problem by taking into account time on ice. The cutoff used here was 800 even-strength minutes: anyone with fewer minutes had their hits adjusted by taking a weighted average of their hits, relative to their time on ice, and the average amount of hits for their position.
  4. In order to (partially) eliminate the subjectivity problem in actually recording the statistic, we can look at the number of hits registered for each team at home versus on the road for the past few years. Using average possession time, we can determine how the actual hits recorded at home correspond to the expected values each year, and then use a weighted average to calculate an overall “bias factor” for each team that’s applied to their player’s hits.
  5. Lastly, we convert the adjusted hits to a per-60 rate.

I was also personally curious as to what the scatterplot looked like between this adjusted hitting rate and points per 60 (which was also adjusted to take into account TOI using the same procedure as above). In the visualization, I added dotted lines to represent the top 20 percent for both adjusted hitting rate and points per 60. It’s fascinating to see who shows up in or near that quadrant (e.g., Evander Kane, Dustin Brown, David Backes).

You can see all of these numbers in the visualization. The first tab shows the scatterplot (with the ability to find a particular player and choose how you want the data to be color-coded), and the second tab shows the summary per team. (I did restrict the games played to 30, just for simplicity’s sake. And due to my time constraints, the underlying data aren’t as accurate as they could be when it comes to players who spent time on multiple teams. Players were assigned to the team for which they played the majority of their games.)

Meghan Hallhockey