Want To Confuse An NBA Defense? Have A Guard Set A Ball Screen.

Picture a pick and roll in your mind’s eye. What do you see?

If you’re of a certain age, you probably see grainy images of John Stockton working his way around a screen from Karl Malone, sizing up the defense and waiting until exactly the right moment before delivering a pinpoint pass to The Mailman. If you’re a bit younger, maybe you see Steve Nash threading the needle between multiple defenders to find a rolling Amar’e Stoudemire, who powerfully slams the ball through the rim; or perhaps Tony Parker veering away from his defender and ducking behind a Tim Duncan screen, wrong-footing his man as he pulls up for a midrange jumper. If your basketball memory doesn’t extend far beyond the past few years, maybe you see Stephen Curry luring a double-team out to half-court while Draymond Green rolls to the nail, catches a pass and coolly navigates a four-on-three opportunity.

If you’ve been playing close attention in recent seasons, however, what you’ve been seeing more of looks something like this.

In each of those clips, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard receives a screen from one of Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams or Landry Shamet. Aside from being Leonard’s Clipper teammates, those players have an interesting thing in common: They’re all guards.

Through Nov. 10, 9.3 percent of all plays involving on-ball screens during the 2019-20 NBA season have been set by guards, according to Second Spectrum tracking data. While that number might not sound enormous, it’s the continuation of a trend that has seen the share of plays involving ball screens set by guards approximately double over the past six years.

Even a cursory glance at slightly more granular data offers an explanation as to why this is happening: Pick and rolls with a guard as the screener have been more efficient than those with a forward or center as the screener in five of the past six seasons.3 The difference in per-possession efficiency between pick and rolls working off of guard-set screens (1.14 points per possession) and those using forwards or centers as the screener (1.05 points per possession) has also never been wider over this period than it is right now.

Throughout NBA history, pick and rolls have almost always seen a forward or center screening for a guard, so forwards and centers, in turn, have far more experience defending screeners. Using a guard in that role can therefore put opposing guards in unfamiliar and often uncomfortable situations. Defensive players put in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations are more likely to make mistakes, which may present the offense with better scoring opportunities.

NBA defenses have been far more willing to switch defenders on pick and rolls involving a screen set by a guard than they have those with a screen set by a forward or center.4 The switch rate on plays involving guard-set screens has ranged between 32 and 42 percent over the past six seasons, while the high-water mark for switching on plays with forward- or center-set screens during the same time period is just under 15 percent. Overall, over the past six seasons, pick and rolls where a guard sets the screen have been switched nearly 3.5 times as often (39.1 percent vs. 11.5 percent) as those that used a forward or center as the screener.

Despite that increased willingness to switch, offenses have still managed a greater level of per-possession efficiency on guard-screened pick and rolls than the more traditional kind. Why might that be the case? At first glance, nothing really stands out as the reason such plays have been more efficient. But there’s an obvious through-line here. Pick and rolls using guard-set screens over the past six seasons have resulted in turnovers slightly less often than those with forwards or centers doing the screening. Guard-screened pick and rolls have also yielded shooting fouls slightly more often than the forward- or center-screened plays. And the leaguewide shooting percentages on both 2-point and 3-point shots have been slightly better on plays where a guard sets the screen, while those plays have also yielded 3-point looks slightly more often than those where a forward or center did the screening.

It’s good to have guards screen in pick and rolls

Rates of turnovers, shooting fouls and 3-pointers, plus shooting percentages on 2- and 3-pointers, for types of pick and rolls since 2014-15

As the screener in a pick and roll
Guard Forward/center
Turnover rate 11.2% 11.3%
Rate of drawing a shooting foul 6.4 5.7
Shooting percentage on 2-pointers 47.9 46.8
Shooting percentage on 3-pointers 35.3 35.1
3-point attempt rate 35.6 32.2

Source: Second Spectrum

None of those gaps alone can explain the observed difference in efficiency. But a bunch of small advantages stacked on top of each other will do the trick — and that appears to be what’s happening here for the guards involved in such plays.

The frequency of these plays also warrants a deeper dive into which teams and players are taking advantage of them most often. On the team level, it’s clear that the Houston Rockets are at the top of the league. No team has run more pick and rolls with a guard as the screener over the past six seasons than Houston. Of the 19 teams that have run at least 1,500 of them during that time period, none has been more efficient on a per-possession basis than the Rockets, who have scored 1.12 points per possession.

That the Rockets are at the forefront of this movement shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who closely follows the league; Daryl Morey, Mike D’Antoni and Co. orient their offense around The Math in many ways, and this is just another. Predictably, given the Rockets’ heavy usage of these plays, James Harden is among the league leaders in being screened for by guards. This season, Harden has been screened for by a guard in the pick and roll 112 times. That’s nearly as many as the next two closest players (Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving) combined. His 12.44 guard-screened pick and rolls per game this year is on track to be the most any player has run in the past six seasons, as it would dwarf the 8.43 per game LeBron James averaged during the 2016-17 campaign.

Harden has been incredibly efficient on those plays this season — producing 1.28 points per possession, which would be the sixth-best mark among the 158 individual seasons in which a player has received at least 100 guard-set screens in the pick and roll over the past six years. Zooming out over the full sample, however, reveals who the real masters of these types of plays are. The table below shows the number of players who have run a given amount of guard-screened pick and rolls over the past six seasons as well as the points per possession leader among that group of players. There’s a familiar name among the high-volume orchestrators.

LeBron is a master of guard-screened pick and rolls

Leaders in points per possession by number of guard-screened pick and rolls run alongside number of players at each level, since 2014-15 season

No. of screens received No. of Players Points per possession leader at that level
2,000 1 LeBron James
1,000 8 LeBron James
500 21 Stephen Curry, LeBron James
400 37 Lou Williams
300 57 Lou Williams
200 84 Luka Doncic
100 138 J.J. Redick

Source: Second Spectrum

LeBron James sitting atop this list seems quite appropriate. It could be argued that the Cavaliers’ relentless targeting of Curry during the 2016 NBA Finals — with J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova repeatedly screening for James in order to involve Curry in the action — led to the subsequent spike we’ve seen in these types of plays. We saw the Rockets pursue the same strategy during their playoff series against the Warriors last season, and we saw Golden State’s opponents target Curry with seven screens in 3.5 games this season before he broke his wrist.

Given how well these plays seem to work, we shouldn’t expect that teams will stop running them anytime soon. If anything, we should get ready to see more and more guards setting screens in the pick and roll, until opposing defenses figure out a better way to stop it.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

CORRECTION (Nov. 12, 2019, 4:38 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described the recent injury to Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry as a broken wrist. Curry broke his hand.

The Good, The Bad And The Weird Of NFL Week 10

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 10 is just about in the books, with one very good matchup coming still tonight. It was a week of surprise wins, including a Vikings victory that I 100 percent did not think was going to happen. In East Rutherford, someone had to win — and the Jets did!

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I like how the Jets wore the black unis a week after that black cat ran on the field.

New mascot!

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Transparent pandering to the football gods.

The Giants are dead last in yards per play and EPA per play against zone defense this season. The Jets gave them a heavy dose, and Week 10 they were again at the bottom of the league in yards per play.

neil: Every year, I’m like, “Hmm, I’d better write that story about how long it’s been since both the Jets and Giants were this bad at once.”

And it somehow is never too late.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m trying to mentally block out this entire Jets season. But 13 Saquon Barkley carries for 1 yard is one of the weirdest stats ever.

neil: One yard!

Amazing.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Inches per carry is my new advanced metric.

neil: That’s 2.8 inches per carry.

LOL

Salfino: Is that really the math? Hilarious.

The Jets are great at stuff that doesn’t matter, like run defense.

sara.ziegler: I was all ready for that game to be unwatchable, but the thing about two bad teams playing each other is that it can be pretty entertaining.

Salfino: Daniel Jones’s passing was top-shelf, but you have to think his inexperience is causing issues with Barkley’s running, as it relates to just getting into good looks and out of bad ones, pre-snap. But I’m speculating.

neil: Just to close the loop on Saquon: In 1974, Benny Malone lost 3 rushing yards on 14 carries. That’s the fewest ever by somebody with at least 13 carries in a game.

But Barkley’s performance is up (down?) there too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If I were also speculating, I’d say that there’s a real lack of creativity in the running game. Saquon is clearly #good, and if he was in a system that wasn’t so “2019 vanilla,” I think they’d have more success in the run game, especially against defenses missing all their linebackers like the Jets.

neil: Yeah. Gotta stop running those “1974 Benny Malone” plays.

Salfino: That’s funny because Malone had arguably the greatest run in postseason history.

neil: Wow. Some shades of Marshawn Lynch, who had the other GOAT playoff run, in there.

sara.ziegler: That’s an interesting point, Josh, and I think it brings up something people don’t understand about running backs.

It’s not that the running game doesn’t matter. It does!

joshua.hermsmeyer: The running game matters very much, Sara.

sara.ziegler: I think people miss that when we talk about individual running backs being less important to the game overall.

neil: Although sometimes that is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the average run creates negative expected points added.

Salfino: Does the running game matter, though? Look at San Francisco, with their defense giving up almost 5 yards per carry. I mean, everything matters and everything at the extreme matters more, but if I were building a team, Job 1 is passing and Job 2 is stopping the pass. I don’t care about Job 3.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, the points can get conflated. The other misunderstanding I see regarding the argument for RB replaceability is that it’s not a negative assessment of talent. It’s really about overall excellence and talent evaluation at the position. Finding good backs is a solved problem at the NFL level.

Salfino: Yet we must endure Kalen Ballage.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

neil: And even Ballage averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season, his rookie year. Running backs, smh.

sara.ziegler: Speaking of Ballage, how about those tanking Dolphins!

Salfino: The only RB in the post-merger NFL with fewer yards per carry than Ballage through nine games, with a minimum 50 carries, is Ron Johnson of the 1974 Giants. See, 1974 is a theme today. Like it!

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Did the Dolphins forget that losing is a key component to tanking?

neil: The Dolphins really blew their shot at the No. 1 pick. Now they have to leapfrog three other teams! According to ESPN’s model, Miami has only a 17 percent chance of picking first next year.

Salfino: Brian Hoyer thought he was tanking.

sara.ziegler: Easy mistake to make when you’ve played for as many teams as Hoyer has.

Salfino: Maybe Jacoby Brissett isn’t bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: He’s slightly above average!

I think the issue with the Colts heading into the season was that they risked the 8-8 prison of mediocrity. It seemed like perhaps they would escape it with Brissett, but Hoyer may drag them back down.

neil: The past few weeks have been really rough for Indy’s playoff odds.

The Colts were 67 percent to make it and 47 percent to win the division two weeks ago. Now those numbers are 32 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Whew.

Salfino: What are the Steelers’ playoff odds? What an amazing turnaround. I never saw that coming without Ben Roethlisberger. I really have no idea how they’re doing it.

neil: Yeah, somehow they are now more likely to make it than not! We have the Steelers at 56 percent.

sara.ziegler: And then there’s Pittsburgh’s opponent on Sunday, the Rams. Eek.

Salfino: Jared Goff has a lower QBR than Sam Darnold, and Jets fans are checking the return policy on Darnold. But Goff’s offensive line is banged up and has been bad all year. No catches for Cooper Kupp on Sunday? That’s almost as shocking as Barkley’s day. What is the problem here? Are the Rams just dead now?

neil: But I thought Sean McVay was a generational talent! Shouldn’t he be able to scheme out of this?

Salfino: I would think so, if he were worthy of his hype, yes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that when the scheme experts break down the Rams’ season the conclusion will be that Bill Belichick (and Matt Patricia’s scheme) broke McVay.

And while analytics types like me sometimes say the league is inefficient, this is clearly an example of it being wildly so.

Salfino: Is there an RBs-are-not-fungible thing going on with Todd Gurley? They can’t find anyone to replace what he’s lost.

neil: So it turns out CJ Anderson’s playoff success didn’t prove that Gurley was just a cog in the machine after all?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Aren’t they running OK?

neil: Ehhhhh … they’re 23rd in rushing EPA per game, 22nd in yards per carry.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, bottom third. But ahead of the Patriots.

Salfino: Plus zero explosion in the running game.

neil: Somehow they are actually tied for 13th in net yards per passing attempt.

Salfino: But Goff’s QBR is trash.

neil: His TD-to-INT ratio sucks.

sara.ziegler: He looks lost out there.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Ah, I found the stat showing the Rams aren’t horrible at running: eighth in success rate, which relates to plays that generate a positive EPA.

That said, without the explosive plays, as Mike mentioned, that’s not a really fearsome part of their offense.

Salfino: Bigger disappointment: the Rams or the Cowboys?

sara.ziegler: Well, the Rams are down to just 25 percent to make the playoffs, and the Cowboys still have a 50 percent shot.

Salfino: Dak Prescott looked so unstoppable that I’m shocked the Cowboys lost. Jerry Jones has put up with a lot, but this might be a new standard. Dallas is just 5-4 with all this talent on both sides of the ball: They lead the NFL in yards per play and overall offense, they’re seventh in overall defense and they’re third in net yards per pass play gained minus those allowed (the two teams above them in that measure have combined for one loss). Has any coach ever won less with more than Jason Garrett this year?

Would you fire Garrett?

joshua.hermsmeyer: No, I don’t think you can. But I would certainly tell him to not meddle in offensive play calling.

Salfino: Cowboys are plus-81 in points. Yet 5-4. Do we give the coaching credit for all the stats or crush it for the meh record?

sara.ziegler: I think that as long as they make the playoffs, it won’t matter.

Salfino: Getting to Josh’s point, Dallas should abandon the run more because Ezekiel Elliott seems to have lost a little, and Dak and the passing game has passed him by. This should be Dak’s team now.

neil: For the record, Dak continues to have an amazing season. He ranks third in our Elo QB metric, behind only Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

(Then again, both Mahomes and Dak played great and lost this week. Go figure.)

Also, the Cowboys lost to a GOOD TEAM.

aka Sara’s VIKINGS.

Salfino: Sara won’t admit it, but correct.

joshua.hermsmeyer: With a QB in the MVP discussion!

sara.ziegler: They’re FINE.

neil: Hahaha

Sara has an adjusted scale for the Vikings.

“Bad” = Average

“OK” = Pretty good!

“FINE” = Great

joshua.hermsmeyer: That scale is uniquely Minnesota.

Salfino: I think the Vikings have problems in the defensive backfield, but they somehow get away with it. Not just yesterday but more generally, too.

sara.ziegler: This game went a long way toward me getting my hopes up way too high before they are eventually dashed. So that’s fun.

neil: The thing I worry about for them is that they’re still not favored to win the division. We only give them a 34 percent shot.

So that means a wild card date and … probably some kind of season-ending kicking mishap.

😬

sara.ziegler: LOL, sigh.

neil: Trouble is, those darned Packers keep winning.

sara.ziegler: Green Bay impressed me on Sunday with one of those classic, snow-in-Lambeau wins.

neil: I love the snow at Lambeau. Is there anything more “football” than that?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nope. There’s something very backyard football about it. It’s awesome.

Salfino: The Vikings are better than the Packers, but that may not matter in winning the division.

sara.ziegler: The Vikes get another shot at the Packers — and another shot at losing inexplicably to the Bears.

neil: Yeah, I think we said at the time that earlier Bears loss could haunt them.

sara.ziegler: ^^^ evergreen

Salfino: Can’t get excited by the Packers notching a home win against Kyle Allen.

neil: At least you can get excited about them stopping Christian McCaffrey in a game-deciding situation!

Salfino: Well, you want to put the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

neil: The Panthers certainly were determined to do that.

sara.ziegler: The game that confused me the most on Sunday was Saints-Falcons. Atlanta’s defense looked … good? How?

neil: That was basically the Falcons team that has been MIA all year. Or, like, two years.

Salfino: Drew Brees was sacked a Saints-high six times for the third time in his career, and they’re 0-3 in those games. He’s been sacked five or more times seven times, and they’re 1-6 in those. We all know sacks are bad, but few understand how truly terrible they are. They are like mini-turnovers.

neil: That was also the biggest upset of the entire season per Elo. It gave ATL only a 12 percent chance to win. (And that was knowing Matt Ryan would play.)

In fact, two of 2019’s five biggest upsets happened yesterday: The Falcons over the Saints (12 percent), and the Dolphins over the Colts (20 percent).

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, it’s become increasingly hard to accuse Miami of in-game tanking.

neil: The funniest thing in the Falcons’ win was that Ryan didn’t even play very well. He only had a 78.5 passer rating.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Boo passer rating!

neil: I mean, it’s shorthand.

His adjusted yards per attempt was 5.06. Still subpar by his standards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, that’s not great.

Salfino: Yes, Atlanta’s offense was generally underwhelming. They won the game on defense. Alvin Kamara did not look like himself off the leg injuries, and while Michael Thomas is super efficient, he does not produce a lot of points with big plays/touchdowns. The longest of his 13 catches was 18 yards.

neil: The Falcons have lost games where Ryan had passer ratings (I know, I know) of 145, 121 and 103 this year.

They win the one where he has a 79.

Salfino: Passer rating generally correlates pretty well to winning, FWIW.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Gase said recently that the Jets were sacrificing stats to try and win. Perhaps Matty Ice sacrificed his for the Falcons.

neil: Certainly he was having one of the all-time “great stats, no wins” seasons up to this point. Maybe he took on a Costanza Strategy?

Salfino: The 2019 Cowboys are one of the all-time stats teams without the winning.

neil: Nothing will ever top the 2010 Chargers, but we’ll see how close they can get.

sara.ziegler: To Josh’s point about the Dolphins and their lack of tanking, why are they starting Ryan Fitzpatrick over Josh Rosen? It’s bad on every level: You’re not giving Rosen the chance to develop, and you’re not actually losing games to get the top pick to replace Rosen next year.

Salfino: But who even is the top pick? I think that’s the problem with tanking in the NFL. I know Josh says it’s about draft capital throughout the draft, but then why does it matter that much if you pick first or fourth overall? Unless you want to trade the QB pick, then you clean up.

neil: Yeah, is Tua Tagovailoa really the clear-cut home run guy you tank for?

Salfino: And Joe Burrow is very old for a QB prospect. He’s older than Darnold, for example.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve seen arguments that the Dolphins could still trade up, and perhaps that explains why they are less concerned with a smattering of wins this season. But I think there’s a simpler explanation: It sucks to be on a team that’s losing. I was talking to a guy with a team over the weekend and he said, “Man I get the tanking argument, but do you know how terrible it is to spend a year losing?” So living through that hell in the hyper-competitive NFL can take its toll. These two wins might be beneficial despite the loss of draft capital.

Salfino: Plus the coaches want to win. You tank and your career is probably over. The fans will demand it.

neil: I could see that. Baseball and basketball offer up more total losses for tankers, but the physical and emotional toll of playing football — destroying your body and losing — is on another level from those other sports.

Salfino: The Bengals are probably unintentionally executing the perfect tank. They snuck up on us.

Benching Andy Dalton was a master stroke. The Bengals are bageling for Burrow?

neil: Dalton currently has a higher QB Elo than Mitch Trubisky. LOL

sara.ziegler: Oooh, that Bengals game. At least it gave us a Lamar Jackson spin move for the ages.

neil: I loved this moment in the postgame presser:

Salfino: Ironically, the people who said Jackson is a great running back were right. He just also happens to be a quarterback.

joshua.hermsmeyer: * WR

Salfino: Oh, that makes zero sense.

neil: The lines between QB and RB are blurring in Baltimore. They used RGIII at RB yesterday.

Salfino: That’s going to mess up game logs forever, Neil.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean they said he was everything other than what he is: a great QB. Since we talked about passer rating, Lamar is the first QB since 2007 to have two perfect passer rating games in one season on his resume.

neil: At one point, they had three Heisman winners — Jackson, Griffin and Mark Ingram — in the backfield at once.

That has to be a record.

Salfino: Love that stat.

joshua.hermsmeyer: My only comment — and the only comment needed, really.

sara.ziegler: 😎

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

How Seriously Should We Take Michael Bloomberg’s Potential 2020 Run?

Like any self-respecting election nerd, I keep a spreadsheet of prospective 2020 presidential candidates, which includes a column called “Odds They Run.” When a candidate declares, I move it to 100 percent; when a candidate passes on the race, I move it to 1 percent.

The reason I move it to 1 percent and not 0 percent is people like Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg announced in March that he would not run for president, but on Friday, he is expected to file paperwork to become a candidate in the Democratic primary in Alabama, as today is the state’s filing deadline. This move doesn’t mean Bloomberg is definitely running, however. At this point he’s just keeping his options open, although Bloomberg advisers told The New York Times on Thursday that he would decide for sure whether to run within a matter of days, not weeks.

Even so, Bloomberg’s move is a big surprise given just how late it is in the electoral calendar. (Since 1976, the latest an eventual nominee has launched his or her presidential campaign was August of the year before the election.) Now there are fewer than three months before the Iowa caucuses, and if Bloomberg does end up running, he’ll have to scramble to make the debate stage, let alone get himself in a position to win any states.

The reason, though, why Bloomberg is considering a last-minute bid is that he is reportedly worried about the way the Democratic primary is unfolding, as one adviser told the Times. Back in March, Bloomberg said he believed that it was essential that the Democratic nominee be able to defeat President Trump, and last month it was reported that he would reconsider his decision not to run if former Vice President Joe Biden continued to struggle. Presumably, Bloomberg has now changed his mind after seeing Sen. Elizabeth Warren — whose ideas, especially the wealth tax, he has lambasted as socialism — gain ground in the polls and Biden struggle with fundraising.

But there is arguably very little appetite among Democratic voters — donors may be a different story — for yet another presidential candidate. In October, a YouGov/HuffPost poll found that 83 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters were either enthusiastic or satisfied with their presidential choices. And it looks like there is even less appetite for Bloomberg specifically. According to last week’s Fox News poll, just 6 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they would definitely vote for Bloomberg should he enter the race. And a hypothetical Harvard-Harris Poll of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Bloomberg mixed in with the rest of the Democratic field gave Bloomberg the same 6 percent of the vote.

And those polls would probably qualify as good news for Bloomberg, given that he was generally registering around 2 or 3 percent in national primary polls before first taking his name out of consideration in March (which is also when pollsters largely stopped asking about him).

In a field this crowded, entering the race in the high single digits wouldn’t even necessarily be a bad thing, but the problem is that it might be harder for Bloomberg to build on that support than it would be for other candidates. In an average of polls from January and early February, I found that 62 percent of Democrats knew enough about Bloomberg to form an opinion (which was pretty high), but his net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) was only +11 (which was pretty low). As you can see in the chart below, Bloomberg was a real outlier — for as well known as he is, we would have expected him to be much better-liked, with a net favorability of about +35, not +11.

And history suggests Bloomberg’s low favorability ratings would be a major obstacle to winning the nomination. Our past research indicates that people who win presidential primaries tend to either be (a) already well known and well liked or (b) relative unknowns to start off the campaign. Only one nominee since at least 1980 has been in Bloomberg’s position (well known but not well liked), and that’s Trump himself.

Assuming Bloomberg does decide to run, where would he fit into the race? Well, as the former Republican-turned-independent mayor of New York City (he reregistered as a Democrat last year), he would be running as a moderate alternative in the Democratic primary. He favors liberal but not progressive solutions to issues like health care and climate change, and he can be downright libertarian on fiscal issues, like the regulation of banks and, of course, taxes. (It’s little wonder that he has denounced Warren for years.) That said, he has become a progressive leader on the issue of gun control, founding and investing millions in the group Everytown for Gun Safety, which has emerged as a powerful political counterweight to the National Rifle Association. Unfortunately for Bloomberg, though, candidates from the more moderate end of the party (other than Biden) have struggled to gain traction in the polls, so there’s a real question of how much support he can reasonably expect to attract. His candidacy may depend on eating into Biden’s support (which, ironically, could make it likelier that someone like Warren wins the nomination).

Thanks to his successful financial services and media company, Bloomberg will at least have money at his disposal (he has a net worth of $52 billion) to help him overcome his late start. It’s not hard to imagine Bloomberg doing what fellow billionaire-turned-presidential-candidate Tom Steyer has done — use his own money to saturate the early states with advertising and augment his state-level polling numbers just enough to qualify for the debates. However, as we noted when Steyer entered the race, wealthy self-funders don’t actually have an electoral advantage. For example, in 2018, we found that self-funders1 in congressional and gubernatorial races won Democratic primaries at about the same rate as non-self-funders did. And getting 4 percent in four individual polls (the polling threshold for the December debate) is a far cry from being in legitimate contention to win the nomination.

Instead, it seems likelier that Bloomberg will affect the race primarily because of the effect he will have on other candidates. For example, he could cause Biden to slip in the polls by chipping away at his moderate base or throw cold water on the ascent of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He could also turn voters away from Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders by becoming the designated attack dog against progressive policies. Or he could fail to make much of an impact at all, leaving the current state of the race unchanged. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though; it’s still possible he won’t run at all. Either way, there’s a long way to go before Bloomberg is a factor in this race.

Championships Aren’t Won On Paper. But What If They Were?

You probably missed this as baseball’s postseason was coming to an end last week — but congratulations are in order to the Houston Astros. Why? Because Houston finished the 2019 MLB season with the No. 1 Elo rating in Major League Baseball, of course.

The Astros were No. 1 in 2019 … on paper

Top 10 MLB teams in 2019 according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rating*

Reg. Season
Team Wins Losses Playoffs Elo Rating
1 Astros 107 55 Lost WS 1595
2 Dodgers 106 56 Lost LDS 1590
3 Nationals 93 69 Won WS 1589
4 Yankees 103 59 Lost LCS 1585
5 Athletics 97 65 Lost WC 1570
6 Rays 96 66 Lost LDS 1554
7 Cardinals 91 71 Lost LCS 1543
8 Braves 97 65 Lost LDS 1541
9 Indians 93 69 None 1538
10 Twins 101 61 Lost LDS 1537

*Using the version of Elo found in our “Complete History of MLB” interactive, which does not adjust for the quality of pitchers.

I mean, sure, the Washington Nationals just beat the Astros to win the World Series in seven games. But still, the Astros were your official Elo champs for the 2019 season. (Somehow I doubt the Astros will throw a parade or put up a banner for the honor.)

Because Elo takes a long view of the entire season, being the best in it is a pretty good proxy for being the best team in the league “on paper.” And it’s actually not uncommon for Elo’s Paper Champion and the team that wins the World Series not to be one and the same. Including Houston this year, it’s happened 28 times — or in a whopping 52 percent of seasons — since the late 1960s, when MLB expanded to a division-based playoff format. Simply put, baseball is a sport in which the best team doesn’t always win. (Or even if it does, maybe we don’t always know who the best team is anyway.)

Take a tour through MLB’s Hall of (Paper) Champions

Actual World Series champions and end-of-season MLB Elo champions* (for years where they were not the same team), 1966-2019

Paper Champ Actual Champ Paper Champ Actual Champ
Year Team Elo Team Elo Year Team Elo Team Elo
2019 HOU 1595 WAS 1589 1995 CLE 1596 ATL 1580
2017 CLE 1596 HOU 1572 1993 ATL 1588 TOR 1565
2015 TOR 1562 KC 1561 1992 MIL 1558 TOR 1555
2014 BAL 1559 SF 1542 1990 OAK 1567 CIN 1544
2012 TB 1566 SF 1561 1988 NYM 1569 LAD 1555
2011 NYY 1575 STL 1555 1987 TOR 1562 MIN 1521
2010 PHI 1570 SF 1563 1985 NYY 1571 KC 1544
2008 BOS 1567 PHI 1564 1982 MIL 1555 STL 1552
2006 NYY 1551 STL 1531 1980 BAL 1577 PHI 1545
2003 NYY 1567 FLA 1547 1974 LAD 1569 OAK 1559
2001 OAK 1596 ARI 1567 1973 BAL 1569 OAK 1556
2000 SF 1559 NYY 1542 1972 PIT 1560 OAK 1557
1997 ATL 1572 FLA 1538 1971 BAL 1591 PIT 1568
1996 CLE 1568 NYY 1547 1969 BAL 1576 NYM 1567

*Using the version of Elo found in our “Complete History of MLB” interactive, which does not adjust for the quality of pitchers.

Ratings include results from all regular-season and postseason games.

Other sports have their own Paper Champs. (Although none happen anywhere near as frequently as in MLB.) I went back to the start of the Super Bowl era in 19662 and looked at the other sports for which we keep Elo — the NFL, NBA, college football, and men’s and women’s college basketball. Using the versions of our Elo that contain no adjustments for trades or players being in and out of the lineup,3 I found each case where the champion at the end of the season4 was not the team that finished atop the Elo leaderboard. Across all of these sports, these Paper Champs come up more frequently than you might think:

Since 1966, all but seven seasons5 (2013, 2009, 2005, 1998, 1989, 1979 and 1967) contained at least one Paper Champion across these five sports. Some years featured a lot more: In 2011, for instance, there were four Paper Champs — the Yankees in MLB, the Patriots in the NFL, and Ohio State (men’s) and UConn (women’s) in college basketball. (The only champs that actually led in Elo were the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA and Alabama in college football.)

In general, there is about a 50-50 chance that a given baseball season would produce a Paper Champ and somewhere between a 20 and 30 percent probability each of the other sports will as well.

How each sport’s Paper Championship rate compares

Frequency of Elo “Paper Champions” (and rate of the real champion being decided head-to-head) by sport, 1966-2019

Sport
MLB NFL NBA CFB MBB WBB*
No. of Paper Champs 28 11 15 14 14 4
Share of seasons 51.9% 20.4% 27.8% 25.9% 25.9% 22.2%
% of Paper Champs lost H2H** 46.4% 90.9% 60.0% 14.3% 78.6% 25.0%

* Women’s NCAA basketball data only goes back to 2001-02.

** This is the share of seasons with a Paper Champ that saw the actual champ beat them head-to-head in the postseason (or, in college football, the entire season).

Source: Sports-Reference.com

What does all of this mean? Well, it could be that Elo is broken. Even though it is calibrated to be the best predictor for a team’s next game — given its recent form, long-term expectations, wins and losses, scoring margin, opponent quality and game locations — maybe there are certain aspects of each sport’s postseason that aren’t captured by the algorithm. (This is the “Billy Beane’s Shit Doesn’t Work In The Playoffs” theory.)

A fundamental challenge of forecasting is the balancing act between considering a large amount of information — some of which may be of less relevance than others — and a more specific one that is more relevant, but also more prone to factors such as random variance in a small sample. Our Elo models attempt to straddle this divide, but it’s impossible to find the perfect mix of information that works in every single case.

Then again, maybe the real issue is that playoff systems are too small of a sample to determine the best team. Perhaps the best we can do is be content believing the champion was simply one of the top teams in a given season, nothing more.

Still another way of reconciling Paper Champs to postseason reality, though, is to consider that most of these actual champions vanquished their on-paper rivals head-to-head along the way. When there was a Paper Champ in baseball, for instance, 46 percent of the time that team lost directly to the eventual champion in a postseason game or series. (See: Nationals over Astros.) In the NBA, that number was 60 percent; in men’s college basketball, 79 percent; and in the NFL, a whopping 91 percent. Although Elo still wasn’t convinced that the matter was settled afterward, the Paper Champ at least had a chance to make its case on the field or court.

And in most of the cases where things weren’t settled head-to-head, you only have to zoom out a little to find a path of head-to-head superiority between the actual champ and the paper one. Like in the 2017 NCAA Women’s Tournament, when UConn finished as Paper Champ … but lost in the national semis to Mississippi State, which then lost to South Carolina in the title game. Almost every disagreement between Elo and the official championship can be settled either directly head-to-head or in this manner — with the exceptions of a few pre-wild-card MLB seasons (in which the Paper Champ didn’t even make the postseason at all) and a number of older college football campaigns that underscored just how broken the sport’s pre-playoff system truly was.

In 2007, famously one of the weirdest college football seasons ever, USC was Elo’s choice, while LSU prevailed in the BCS. To find a head-to-head path that put LSU over USC, even if you open up the possibilities to include the regular season,6 you needed to follow a trail of four games: LSU beat Ohio State, which beat Washington, which beat Stanford, which beat … USC.

But at least the BCS existed by then. Before it came along, the 1970s and ’80s often required even more ludicrous daisy-chaining of head-to-head results to reconcile the championship. In 1976, the path from actual champ Pitt to Paper Champ USC required a string of five games. And in 1983, the chain went like this: Actual champ Miami beat Notre Dame, which beat Boston College, which beat Clemson, which tied Georgia, which beat Texas, which beat Auburn, Elo’s Paper Champion. No wonder college football fans clamored for a proper playoff (even if the one they have now could also probably stand to be expanded).

But even with the perfect playoff system, you can never really avoid Paper Champs. Random variance and matchups — plus a million other factors — will always cause teams to play better or worse than they look on paper. And would we really want it any other way? If we look at who would have benefited most over the past half-century if Elo perfectly aligned with actual championships, the rich would mostly have gotten richer:

Who has beaten their on-paper odds most (and least) often?

MLB, NFL, NBA, college basketball (women’s* and men’s) and college football teams with the biggest positive — and negative — differentials between their actual championships, 1966-2019

Biggest gainers No. of championships
Team Sport Actual Elo Diff
Notre Dame Fighting Irish CFB 4 0 +4
Los Angeles Lakers NBA 11 7 +4
New York Giants NFL 4 1 +3
St. Louis Cardinals MLB 4 1 +3
Miami/Florida Marlins MLB 2 0 +2
Houston Rockets NBA 2 0 +2
Kansas City Royals MLB 2 0 +2
LSU Tigers CFB 2 0 +2
Clemson Tigers CFB 3 1 +2
Miami Heat NBA 3 1 +2
San Francisco Giants MLB 3 1 +2
Connecticut Huskies MBB 4 2 +2
Ohio State Buckeyes CFB 4 2 +2
Boston Celtics NBA 9 7 +2
Biggest losers No. of championships
Team Sport Actual Elo Diff
Baltimore Orioles MLB 3 8 -5
Cleveland Indians MLB 0 3 -3
Oklahoma Sooners CFB 4 7 -3
San Antonio Spurs NBA 5 8 -3
Connecticut Huskies WBB 9 12 -3
Milwaukee Brewers MLB 0 2 -2
Philadelphia 76ers NBA 2 4 -2
Kentucky Wildcats MBB 4 6 -2
North Carolina Tar Heels MBB 5 7 -2
New England Patriots NFL 6 8 -2
New York Yankees MLB 7 9 -2
Alabama Crimson Tide CFB 9 11 -2

*Women’s NCAA basketball data only goes back to 2001-02.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

Although I feel bad for the Orioles and Indians, who would have won multiple extra championships if Elo had been perfectly predictive, other teams that have won plenty of real titles — Alabama football, UConn women’s basketball, the Patriots, the Yankees, the Spurs, etc. — “should” have even more under Elo.

Oftentimes, it’s the unpredictability of sports that make them great — just ask the Nationals. So we’re sorry, Astros. Although the first-ever Elo Championship pennant would be something to behold.

Icing The Play-Caller Really Doesn’t Work

With four seconds left until halftime, trailing the San Francisco 49ers in a 14-7 game, the Arizona Cardinals defense had forced a fourth and goal at the 1-yard line. In what turned out to be a pivotal moment in the game, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo handed off to Jeff Wilson Jr. for a run up the middle that was stuffed for no gain. But what should have been cause for celebration for the Cardinals defense quickly turned into disappointment. The refs waived off the result; Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury had called a timeout before the play began.

San Francisco made Kingsbury pay on the next play, with Garoppolo tossing an easy touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders as time expired. After the game (which the Cardinals ended up losing 28-25), Kingsbury explained his reasoning behind the timeout, saying that the stoppage was to get a better look at what the 49ers might be planning offensively and that he “wanted them to hopefully burn their best play.”

Unfamiliar with the concept of burning a play, I reached out to a handful of coaches and experts to understand what Kingsbury might have meant. I was told that teams will often carry just three or four 2-point conversion plays into a game because of the rarity of the situation. Since the inventory of available plays is limited, a coach will usually call his favorite one first. Once a team lines up, some of the surprise is lost, so calling a timeout could force the play-caller to abandon the best play in favor of one the defense hasn’t yet seen.

One obvious problem with this explanation is that goal-line stands aren’t 2-point conversions. A play run on fourth and 1 at the goal line has some similarities with a 2-point conversion attempt — they’re both near the end zone, after all — but I was told that teams won’t necessarily limit themselves to their 2-point playsheets in goal-to-go situations. And if that was true of the 49ers, a timeout wouldn’t exhaust play inventory in the way Kingsbury might have assumed. For the gambit to work, it seems that a coach would need to have fairly detailed information about how an opponent organizes and prepares its game plan.

This made me wonder: Is there any evidence to suggest that icing the play-caller is a successful tactic? Do defenses tend to fare better following a timeout on fourth and goal at the 1-yard line? To find out, using data from Armchair Analysis, I looked at every play run on that down and distance from 2000 to 2018 in both the regular season and playoffs. I separated timeouts called by the offense from those called by the defense and compared the touchdown rate on plays with timeouts to plays with no timeouts called. The results were surprising.

On goal-line stands after the defense calls a timeout, offenses score a touchdown about 17 percentage points more often than when no timeout is called, on average. Defenses have called timeouts in these situations just 46 times in the past 18 years, so there is still uncertainty about the true difference in touchdown rates, but there’s also no evidence that the touchdown rate after those timeouts is lower. In other words, the benefits of icing the play-caller appear to not exist — and the call may backfire more often than not, just as we saw with Kingsbury against the 49ers.

Perhaps this result shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve known for a while that icing the kicker is likely ineffective. In their book “Scorecasting,” Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim found that when they adjusted for distance, field goals attempted in high-pressure situations weren’t affected by defensive timeouts. If athletes aren’t affected, why would we think coaches would be rattled by a little gamesmanship? A play-caller’s job is to choose plays, and a timeout probably just gives him more time than usual to do it.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Are Some Democratic Voters Reluctant To Support A Gay Candidate?

There’s nothing like a national election to illuminate the complex and slippery nature of bias at work in the country today. Just ask Pete Buttigieg. Always something of an underdog in the Democratic primary, Buttigieg has started to poll well in Iowa and New Hampshire relative to his national numbers and has proved to be a formidable fundraiser. But as his profile has risen, murmurs about how his sexual orientation might affect his bid have gotten louder and louder.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, why Buttigieg might struggle to gain traction among more voters. His lack of statewide or national political experience is one potential stumbling block. Voters of all races may also balk because he has faced criticism for his handling of the predominantly white police force in South Bend, where a white officer recently shot and killed a black man, and for implementing economic policies that some feel ignore or harm communities of color. And another scapegoat has emerged: Last month, a leaked memo described the results of a focus group conducted by Buttigieg’s own campaign in July, which found that some black voters in South Carolina were uncomfortable with his sexual orientation.

It’s hard to know how much that discomfort truly matters — even a number of the skeptical focus group voters were still open to supporting Buttigieg — and to the extent that it exists, it’s certainly not confined to one group. But regardless of the reasons behind his depressed support, Buttigieg’s candidacy is a case study in the dilemma facing gay and lesbian candidates running at all levels of office today. It’s remarkable, in one sense, how little Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has come up in the primary so far, considering that only 10 years ago, the election of a lesbian woman as Houston’s mayor was enough to make national headlines. Voters’ willingness to support gay and lesbian candidates is at an all-time high, and multiple studies by political scientists have suggested that Democrats are especially unlikely to discriminate against candidates like Buttigieg. “If anything, there are some subgroups of Democrats who would be more likely to vote for a gay candidate,” said Gabriele Magni, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University.

Stop there, and you’d have a pretty rosy electoral prognosis for Buttigieg — focus group skepticism notwithstanding. But it also isn’t the full story. Some Democrats haven’t moved as quickly to the left as others on gay rights issues. And a substantial chunk of Republicans are still comfortable saying they wouldn’t support a gay candidate. As ever, it’s difficult to know what actually keeps a voter for pulling the lever for a particular candidate, but Buttigieg’s sexuality could be a sticking point for some. Experts like Magni said Buttigieg might find it tough to draw support from the most conservative or religious corners of the Democratic primary electorate, not to mention Republicans in the general election. And in a primary driven by voters’ concerns about how electable the candidates are, the perception that a significant slice of voters would never support a gay candidate might be an even bigger hurdle than the reluctant voters themselves.

Just a few election cycles ago, a debate about the electoral impact of a gay candidate’s sexual orientation would have had a clear answer — because being gay was a dealbreaker for almost half the country. As recently as 2007, only 55 percent of Americans said they would vote for a gay or lesbian candidate for president, which is only slightly higher than the share who currently say they would vote for a socialist. But many voters’ qualms about the prospect of a gay or lesbian president evaporated over the following decade, and 76 percent of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — now say they wouldn’t have a problem supporting a gay candidate for president. That’s still not the near-uniform level of hypothetical support the same polls show for a female or black candidate, but it’s also not obviously disqualifying. After all, only 63 percent of Americans say they’d vote for a candidate over the age of 70, which describes the three top-polling candidates in the Democratic primary.

There are plenty of signs, too, that a Democratic primary is particularly friendly terrain for a gay candidate. Political scientists have found in studies and interviews with candidates that gay and lesbian candidates overwhelmingly run as Democrats, in part because Democratic voters don’t seem to penalize candidates for their sexual orientation. A recent experimental study co-authored by Magni found that voters who identify as very liberal and nonreligious were more likely to support a gay candidate over a straight candidate.

The impulse to size up the electoral landscape and run where their support is strongest can partially help explain why gay and lesbian candidates often don’t find their sexuality to be a serious barrier. “When you talk to gay and lesbian candidates, they’ll generally tell you their sexual orientation didn’t matter much in their race, and that’s in part a function of the fact that they tend to run in more liberal areas, like cities,” said Donald Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas and the author of “Out and Running: Gay and Lesbian Candidates, Elections, and Policy Representation.”

But there are still pockets of the Democratic electorate where voters’ views of gay people aren’t as liberal. And that poses a few potential problems for Buttigieg, who has to run a national campaign. A significant chunk of his base is composed of white college-educated Democrats; this is also a subset of voters where his sexual orientation is highly unlikely to be a roadblock, given that several decades of data from the General Social Survey shows that people in this group are especially likely to say that homosexual relationships are never wrong.

But as my colleague Nathaniel Rakich wrote recently, Buttigieg has some fierce competition from Elizabeth Warren for white college-educated voters. And while the groups with whom he might be hoping to expand his support — like religious voters or whites with lower levels of education — are certainly not uniformly opposed to gay candidates, they are groups where his sexual orientation might be more of an issue. People who attend church frequently are much less likely than non-churchgoers to believe same-sex marriage should be legal, according to the Pew Research Center. Likewise, lower levels of education tend to come with lower levels of support for gay marriage.

Voters’ feelings about gay candidates could show up in more nuanced ways as well. The specter of electability, for example, could turn out to be a bigger roadblock for Buttigieg than outright hostility toward gay people. For instance, a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that voters were basically split on whether the country was ready for a gay or lesbian president, and only 26 percent said that their neighbors were ready.

To be clear, several experts told me these electability concerns don’t have a lot of evidence to support them, although that may be partially because there hasn’t been a lot of research on how gay candidates perform in real-life elections, and candidates may also avoid contests — like Republican primaries — where they’re all but destined to lose. But discomfort with gay marriage or homosexual relationships won’t necessarily stop voters from ultimately supporting a gay candidate. And Haider-Markel pointed out that the people with the strongest prejudices against gay people are also highly unlikely to vote for any Democrat, which means that in a general election, Buttigieg’s sexuality would probably matter less than the “D” next to his name. Dislodging gut-level intuitions about electability can be tricky business for a candidate, though. That’s particularly true when significant chunks of the electorate — including almost 40 percent of Republicans — are still perfectly comfortable telling a pollster they wouldn’t vote for a gay candidate. It’s hard not to assume that a neighbor’s stubborn opposition to gay marriage will shape their vote in some way — even though in reality, the forces that influence our choice of candidate are far more complex.

This complexity makes it nearly impossible to say for certain whether it’s Buttigieg’s sexual orientation — rather than his age, or his political inexperience, or his policy positions, or some ineffable combination of factors — that has kept him from rising further in the polls. And that will also make it hard to assess, when all the ballots are cast and the Democratic nominee is chosen, just how much Buttigieg’s electoral chances were affected by his sexuality.

But it also means that even if some voters are being held back by Buttigieg’s sexual orientation now, other parts of his biography, like his military service or Christian faith, could still change the way they think about him. The good news for Buttigieg is that there are months to go before the primaries begin, and he has plenty of cash to spend on introducing himself to voters who might currently know next to nothing about him. “At a very basic level, Buttigieg could reduce some bias just by getting voters to see him as a gay man who was also in Afghanistan and goes to church on Sunday,” Magni said. “Sexual orientation is less likely to play a role in vote choice when people move past the stereotypes they have in their mind about who gay people are supposed to be.”

The Nationals Went All In On Just A Few Great Pitchers. Will Others Do The Same?

The Nationals ended a 95-year World Series drought in Washington, D.C., by employing a different type of road map than that of most MLB champions this century. The blueprint? Consolidate dollars and postseason innings into the best pitchers you can sign.

As free agency gets underway, there are elite arms available, including two main cogs of the World Series rotations: Gerrit Cole, most recently of the Houston Astros, and postseason star Stephen Strasburg, who opted out of his contract with the Nationals. Rival clubs could easily copy Washington’s plan this winter — it would just be expensive.

While most World Series winners this century committed between 10 and 16 percent of total payroll to their top-paid player, the Nationals spent 19.4 percent of their $197 million payroll (the league’s fifth largest) on Strasburg ($38.33 million).2 This is the highest share of dollars spent on one player by a World Series-winning club since the 2003 Miami Marlins gave 22.2 percent of its payroll to Iván Rodríguez, according to FiveThirtyEight analysis of Cot’s Baseball Contracts database.

The Nats’ second highest-paid player, another ace in Max Scherzer, was signed to a then-record free agent deal in 2015. He isn’t far behind Strasburg, earning $37.4 million this year. In total, the $75.7 million the Nats spent on their two aces represents 38.4 percent of the team’s payroll. Add in Game 7-winning pitcher Patrick Corbin ($12.9 million), whom the team turned to last winter after being spurned by Bryce Harper, and the Nationals spent 44.9 percent of their payroll on three pitchers.

The lucrative deals paid off in October. Strasburg had a postseason for the ages, winning two World Series games and accumulating a 5-0 record in the playoffs. Scherzer won Game 1 of the World Series and allowed just two runs in Game 7 against the vaunted Astros offense. Corbin contributed three scoreless innings in the series clincher.

The nature of play changes in baseball’s postseason. With more off days and more urgency, teams can spread work around by going to the bullpen or electing to concentrate more innings in fewer arms. The five Nationals pitchers with the heaviest workloads, in terms of innings pitched this season, accounted for 57.5 percent of regular-season innings and 70.3 percent of Washington’s postseason innings — the greatest share among teams in the postseason, and way beyond the MLB average in recent years. That group included rotation stalwarts in Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez.

Many teams have moved away from concentrating significant portions of payroll in one player, perhaps because of injury risks or the decline in performance often witnessed in 30-something free agents. But the Nationals bet on consolidating their resources in established, experienced players — the pitching staff is tied as the second-oldest in baseball — and it paid off. (Though it obviously helped to have a young star like Juan Soto delivering 4.8 wins above replacement on a salary of just $578,300.)

So will other teams follow Washington’s lead and pay more for top players? Those that are serious about winning may be ready to reconsider spending more. The correlation between payroll and winning this season was the seventh strongest since 1984, according to salary data from Baseball-Reference.com.

Notable pitchers who will hit the market this offseason include Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Zack Wheeler. But the biggest by far is Cole, who seems ready to test the open market. Instead of wearing a Houston Astros cap after the Game 7 loss, Cole spoke to reporters while sporting a hat from the Boras Corporation, which represents him.

There could actually be a bidding war for Cole’s services, something that has been lacking in recent offseasons. Cole, 29, developed into an ace in Houston, coming off a season of 326 strikeouts and 7.4 WAR. He figures to have a chance to set the record for a free agent pitching contract, potentially besting the $217 million contract David Price received from the Boston Red Sox after the 2015 season. Scherzer and Zack Greinke, Houston’s Game 7 starter, are the only other pitchers to have exceeded $200 million deals in free agency.3

Strasburg could be close behind Cole in terms of top-dollar contracts. The San Diego Padres are reportedly considering making an offer to the Southern California native, who has been the eighth most valuable pitcher in baseball since his debut in 2010.

It remains to be seen if clubs like the pitching-needy Padres will try to follow the Nats’ consolidation plan. It can work — but it could cost them.

Neil Paine contributed research.

Minnesota Is Finally A Program To Reckon With

The storied history of the Minnesota Golden Gophers football program is perhaps best exhibited by its claim to the origins of cheerleading. With Minnesota in the midst of a three-game losing streak in 1898,1 an editorial ran in the school paper that said, in part, “Any plan that would stir up enthusiasm for athletics would be helpful.”

More than a century later, Head Coach P.J. Fleck’s methodology, which calls for an unconventional supply of energy, has whisked up plenty in the Twin Cities, having transformed a contemporary doormat into the most surprising unbeaten team remaining.2 After Minnesota’s most recent win, Fleck all but begged ESPN’s “College GameDay” to visit Minneapolis for the upcoming matchup with Penn State.3

But prime-time consideration or not, one thing is certain: Fleck has his players rowingand rowing, and rowing, and rowing — toward the spotlight. Though the Gophers aren’t national title contenders yet, according to Vegas oddsmakers and most efficiency metrics, it’s nearly impossible to argue they aren’t at least contender-adjacent.

Minnesota is 8-0 for the first time since 19414 and has won 12 of its last 14 games. It’s instructive to recall that as recently as 2007, this was the worst Power Five team in the country by some metrics. Fan support isn’t exactly robust, either: Despite opening TCF Bank Stadium in 2009, the team has drawn such minimal attendance that the university’s official website can only boast that it has “the largest home locker room in college or professional football,” noting that someone could run a 60-yard dash inside it.5 All of which, of course, only adds to the strange reclamation project that has taken place in Fleck’s third season at the helm. Suddenly a program that went a combined 12-13 in Fleck’s first two seasons is on its way to a potential berth in the Big Ten championship game.

Like many seasoned programs, the Gophers have filled a trophy case over the decades, but college football’s Energizer Bunny might soon be unlocking it for the first time in the modern era.

Fleck’s is a mostly balanced operation. Minnesota’s offense and defense each ranks in the top 20 in expected points added,6 while the special-teams unit is abominable, ranking 124th out of 130 teams. “I think the teams that can be balanced at any moment, and can control and sustain the balance, are going to be the most dangerous teams,” Fleck has noted this season.

With top-tier quarterback Tanner Morgan and the school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yardage, Rodney Smith, in the backfield, the Gophers drink heavily from the value spigot that is play-action, generating the 25th most expected points added of any team via the play type. Minnesota piles up 9.67 net yards per pass attempt,7 which leads the Big Ten. The Gophers convert third downs at the eighth-highest clip, maintain drives and roast defenses upon reaching the red zone. On defense, the Gophers are on the hunt, specifically in the passing game. Only 10 teams have garnered more expected points added on pass defense — and only eight teams have compiled more interceptions.

In conference play, the Gophers are boat-racing the opposition. Only Clemson and Alabama have outscored conference opponents by a wider margin, and no team has held the lead longer in conference play than the Gophers, who have led for 28 minutes and 49 seconds through five games. They’ve outscored the last three opponents 128-24.

Additionally, the way in which Fleck has built the program portends to future success. By diligently recruiting, Minnesota has inked the highest-ranked consecutive recruiting classes in school history, according to Fleck. Just as he proved at Western Michigan, Fleck can attract marquee talent.

This analysis would prove hollow if strength of schedule weren’t noted. Unblemished record aside, Minnesota touts a body of work generously described as tepid. Minnesota won its first three games by a total of 13 points, needing a touchdown with less than 30 seconds remaining to beat Georgia Southern at home. The team’s best win is probably a double-overtime nail-biter over Fresno State, a program that ranks outside the top 60 in total efficiency. Opponents have a combined win percentage of .481, which ranks 98th nationally. But there will be no shortage of tests over the upcoming month: The Gophers play three ranked opponents over the next four weeks, two of which rank in the top 10 on ESPN’s Football Power Index. This week’s matchup against Penn State is considered by some to be the program’s biggest in a half-century.

With the subtlety of a flash grenade, Fleck has turned a fledgling football team into one closing in on its second 10-win campaign since the early 20th century. He brought an identity to a forgotten wasteland in a marquee conference. Regardless of how nauseating his sayings may seem to outsiders, Fleck brought oars to the Land of 10,000 Lakes and taught a community to embrace a shared mantra. “We’re as good as we are right now, that’s all I know,” Fleck said last month in certified coach-speak. What the Gophers are right now is pretty damn good — and that’s something they haven’t been in a while.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Happy Week 9 To The Ravens, The Chargers … And Maybe The Dolphins?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It was another wild week in the NFL. The nearly completed Week 9 saw a win for the Dolphins, a loss for the Patriots and FOUR losses for the NFC North.

Let’s dive right in: Anyone surprised that Baltimore took down New England?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): A little bit. There was a stat floating around that Bill Belichick had won 21 straight games against QBs in their rookie or second NFL seasons.

And yet, Lamar Jackson had the best game of the week according to our QB Elo! His development this season continues to be incredible.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I was not surprised. The Ravens are a unicorn team that’s tough to prepare for and impossible to tailor a roster to stop. Most teams can’t replicate the Chargers’ plan during the playoffs last year, borne out of injury desperation, to play seven defensive backs on base downs. Plus you have a very vanilla Patriots offense in terms of skill talent with a QB who is playing well for a 42 year old, but, let’s be real, is having quantifiably his worst season since at least 2006 (in terms of QBR).

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I don’t think the Ravens feared the Patriots offense, and as Mike said, they have a scheme and roster that can give a defense fits — even a defense as outrageously good as New England’s has been. They also executed their plan perfectly. One play sticks out to me: the Marquise “Hollywood” Brown jet motion pitch play:

It had all the components of the offensive strategy: Make New England account for Lamar, use misdirection and really lean on some great blocking

Salfino: Lamar — with two rushing TDs and 61 yards rushing on Sunday — continues after Week 1 to score more fantasy points with his legs than with his arm, which is extremely unusual. He did it last year, too. Only Bobby Douglass of the Bears (1972, 1973) has repeated this feat since the AFL-NFL merger was completed in 1970, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

I do think that it’s a bad break for the Ravens that they had to face the Patriots in the regular season. You wanted this to be the playoff game.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens got off to such a strong start that it seemed to shell-shock the Pats a little. I was still surprised New England didn’t make it all the way back.

neil: Especially once the Ravens gifted the Pats the ball on that muffed punt — that felt like a here we go moment, where the Pats would start their climb back. And NE got within 4 points, but the Ravens kept answering in the second half.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Fumble luck regression really helped.

Salfino: That kind of stuff never happens to New England. The Patriots have committed only 13 turnovers that resulted in the opposing defense returning the ball for a TD since 2010.

sara.ziegler: It was also interesting to me that Belichick was faced with a fourth down on the opponent’s side of the field and chose to punt, and he had a fourth-and-goal from the one and kicked a field goal.

The Ravens went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter, got the first down and then a touchdown on that drive, and that put it away.

Salfino: Well, Belichick doesn’t believe in analytics, Sara.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Less than zero

sara.ziegler: Just more evidence we can add to the pile!

Salfino: Belichick uses Bret Easton Ellis’s analytics. Or Elvis Costello’s, if you prefer.

neil: And his aim is usually so true!

sara.ziegler: 🤣🤣🤣

Salfino: Awesome, Neil.

sara.ziegler: From one analytics move to another, what did you all think about the Chargers **taking points off the board** against the Packers?? Green Bay stopped Los Angeles on the 2-yard line but jumped offsides on the field goal attempt, giving the Chargers another fourth down. L.A. coach Anthony Lynn pulled the field goal unit off the field, sent his offense back out and Melvin Gordon ran it in for a TD.

Salfino: The game was over, so I like the macho move to make a point.

Lynn can build a whole narrative around that now, and it was not going to cost him anything. So, worth it.

sara.ziegler: But … giving Aaron Rodgers an opening?!?!?!?

Salfino: Rodgers was hopeless before the “home crowd” in Los Angeles.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s not always “correct” to be aggressive, but you’ll be right far more often than wrong if it’s your default mentality. For that reason alone, I liked the call.

Salfino: But wasn’t that free money, Josh?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I haven’t looked it up, but my intuition is yes, it was a no-brainer.

sara.ziegler: I liked the call too, though up just two touchdowns with 10 minutes to go against Rodgers doesn’t seem like a situation where the game is put away.

neil: Maybe given the Chargers’ difficulty actually closing out opponents, though, you’d think they’d be skittish about giving somebody like Rodgers a potential opening.

Salfino: Yes, but Neil, you are forgetting the Chargers rules. They shock us by falling out of the playoff race and then shock us again by charging back into it (almost). This is part two of their annual metamorphosis. I refuse to be played again.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I am fairly sure based on discussions with analytics people around the league that the Chargers are not a team that has a chart and uses it. So I think the touchdown call was all gut, and on those terms I agree with it.

Salfino: It’s good that the Chargers reject analytics, otherwise they would be mentally crushed by all the win probability they have frittered away.

sara.ziegler: If the Chargers don’t get the TD there, and the Packers answer with a touchdown, you can see things falling apart fast!

This is why these questions are interesting, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d look at it as if it had been a great punt instead and just get after Rodgers at his own 1 yard line.

neil: Maybe you can trick him into pulling a Ryan Fitzpatrick and kneeling down in his own end zone.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Rodgers was already on the slab, IMO. Toe tag in place for Week 9. He will rise again, I guess, but the Packers are not a good team.

sara.ziegler: You know who else in the NFC North isn’t a good team?

Trick question.

NO ONE in the NFC North is a good team.

Salfino: The Vikings are good, Sara. Sorry to get your hopes up. They just ran into Matt Moore!

Seriously, the Adam Thielen injury was crippling. Without him, they are pretty easy for even the Chiefs to defend.

sara.ziegler: I’m sorry.

You can’t say “They just ran into Matt Moore” about a good team.

Them’s the rules.

neil: “They just ran into Matt Moore” 🤣

Salfino: Moore is showing that playing QB in KC is very good for your stats. Also, seriously, the Vikings lost on a fluke 91-yard TD run by a guy who usually takes 45 runs to string together 90 yards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, if the QB drives the bus in terms of what makes a good team, then Sara is right. By total QBR, the Packers are 12th and the Vikings are 14th.

sara.ziegler: (BRB, pinning “Sara is right” to this conversation.)

I always think Kirk Cousins will do something amazing at the end of a game, and he never, ever, ever does.

Salfino: I agree on Cousins at the end of games. He’s like Matt Ryan in that regard: He can be relied on to not get it done. I know Ryan has a lot of fourth-quarter comebacks, but we need the batting average, not just the hits. And it turns out he’s lost 81 games by a TD or less in the period.

neil: Sheesh, you lose ONE Super Bowl after leading 28-3 …

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

Salfino: As for the other NFC North QBRs, the Lions — and Matthew Stafford — are sixth. We won’t talk about Mitch Trubisky.

neil: Sara probably has a lot to say about ol’ Mitchie!

But can we print it?

sara.ziegler: Trubisky, ugh. Can’t believe I had to start him in my fantasy football matchup against Neil. Let this be a lesson not to let jokes interfere with good fantasy football decisions.

Salfino: Just burn money in the street if you’re starting Trubisky in fantasy, Sara.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Or Allen Robinson, it turns out.

Salfino: Well, I believe in a QB-centric WR-ranking system. (And air yards :))

joshua.hermsmeyer: My man.

neil: And I started Cousins! (Because we traded them for each other.)

He may have lost the game, but he had a pretty good fantasy performance. Which, as you know, is all that matters.

sara.ziegler: Neil

joshua.hermsmeyer: oh noes

sara.ziegler: Shut up

neil: Lol.

Salfino: Sara gets the Price Is Wrong sounder.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

ANYWAY

One more game we must discuss, and that’s the incredible, amazing, UNBELIEVABLE first win of the season for the Miami Dolphins.

Mike … can you speak for Jets Nation and express your feelings at this one?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, please.

I have a feeling this will be a treatise

sara.ziegler: “Salfino is typing”

Salfino: The most alarming thing for the Jets right now is Sam Darnold. But this is the product of so many losing drafts. The Jets have not had a hit in the first round of the draft, never mind the other rounds, since Darrelle Revis in 2007. And we’re talking a lot of draft capital. Another top-10 overall pick has just walked out the door in Leonard Williams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sixth overall selection for a third- and fifth-round pick. Yikes.

Salfino: The sad thing is that was a good trade for the Jets.

I mean, the Giants were insane to offer it. Now we have the Jets vs. Giants on Sunday in East Rutherford, which should temporarily be declared a toxic dump.

neil: Is it time to wonder whether Darnold is going to be any good? He had his moments but was mostly bad as a rookie and has been much worse this year. Maybe it’s still too early, but we’re 18 starts in and only five have been above average, according to our QB Elo.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought the game was really really interesting. There was another pretty glaring example (or two?) of Miami perhaps attempting to tank in-game, and yet Adam Gase and the Jets foiled them at every turn. The announcers even commented on it!

Salfino: It’s reasonable to wonder if Darnold is going to be any good, for certain. But if football is environment, and I think much of it is, he’s got a lot to overcome. Plus, who knows how long mono really lasts.

sara.ziegler: It’s really too bad when you can’t do the thing you’re trying to do … especially when that thing appears to be “losing.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: So frustrating!

neil: Well, idk why Miami continues to insist on starting Fitzy. They have a tank-ready QB right there in Josh Rosen.

sara.ziegler: Really not following the Tanking Playbook.

neil: TankBook?

sara.ziegler: Haha

neil: Either way, Fitzy has turned in above-average Elo games in two of his past three starts since being reinstated as starter. Rosen never came within 150 Elo points of being average in any of his starts.

And you know that Fitzpatrick runs hot and cold — so he has upside potential that really hurts your tankability when he plays well.

sara.ziegler: Need a new QB rating that ranks them by tankability. Just as a helpful service for tanking teams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d like to go on the record that having a team or two tanking each season adds a bunch of entertainment value. Situations like this with the unexpected win, the team drama — all of it is good for the game IMO.

neil: Josh coming in with the pro-tanking take!

sara.ziegler: “Tanking = Good” was not the take I was expecting today.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The haughty anti-tankers reek of the folks that offer takes about amateurism in college football.

This is my fire for the week.

Salfino: I don’t think tanking can be leveraged in football because we don’t know if the QBs are going to be good or even what order to take them in.

neil: Right. First you Suck For Sam, then you just Suck Because Of Sam.

Salfino: My joke about the Jets, Sara, is the Jets lost to Glass Joe.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Why Beto O’Rourke’s Campaign Failed

Beto O’Rourke has played games with the media before, but he got a last laugh of sorts — at least a wistful chuckle — by dropping out of the presidential race on Friday afternoon, sending political writers into a tizzy right before the weekend. And although his candidacy once had great promise, O’Rourke’s exit from the race came down to his weak poll numbers and reduced fundraising numbers, as well as the fact that he may never have had the base of support he needed to truly compete for the Democratic nomination.

Coming off a close loss in Texas’s 2018 Senate race against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke entered the presidential race with great fanfare in March, though some wondered if he had waited too long to fully capitalize on the national notoriety he gained from his 2018 performance. Still, O’Rourke’s initial polling numbers suggested he might really be in the mix to compete for the nomination — he was polling at 10 percent or more in some national polls not long after he announced. However, his survey numbers quickly deteriorated as the race moved along, and he spent the past four months mostly polling below 5 percent even after he tried to revive his campaign in August by tacking left on some issues and focusing more on President Trump.

O’Rourke’s tumble in the polls was also accompanied by fundraising difficulties. Having been a prodigious fundraiser in 2018, he seemed capable of attracting the resources to run a top-level presidential campaign, and he showed early promise by raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign, the second best opening day after only former Vice President Joe Biden. But fundraising dollars started drying up shortly thereafter. He had raised only $13 million by the end of the second quarter, and added just another $4.5 million in the third quarter.

His debate performances didn’t help him recover either; in fact, his most recent performance seemed to have hurt him. After the October debate, O’Rourke’s net favorability among Democratic primary voters fell by about 6 points in our post-debate poll with Ipsos, the biggest decline for any of the 12 candidates on stage. His place at future debates was in serious jeopardy, too. O’Rourke was two qualifying polls shy of making the November debate and had yet to register a single qualifying survey for the December debate.

But O’Rourke might always have struggled to attract a large enough base of support in the primary given the makeup of the Democratic electorate. As a moderate three-term congressman, he won over many suburban white voters in his Texas Senate bid, but as editor-in-chief Nate Silver wrote back in July, a base of white moderates, particularly younger ones, wasn’t enough. As you can see in the table below, only about 12 percent of 2016 Democratic primary voters fit all three descriptors — young, white, moderate — based on data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.1

There aren’t many young, white, moderate Democrats

Share of 2016 Democratic primary and caucus voters, grouped by age, race and ideology

Share of Democratic primary electorate
Group If age, race and IDEOLOGY were uncorrelated Actual
Young, white, liberal 16.9% 19.2%
Old, white, moderate 14.3 16.8
Old, white, liberal 13.6 14.2
Young, nonwhite, moderate 10.6 13.8
Young, white, moderate 17.8 12.4
Young, nonwhite, liberal 10.1 10.1
Old, nonwhite, moderate 8.5 8.4
Old, nonwhite, liberal 8.1 5.1

Source: Cooperative Congressional Election StUDY

This meant O’Rourke needed to make inroads with other groups to build a broader coalition, which might explain his leftward pivot on issues, particularly gun control. He made headlines in the September debate by calling for a mandatory gun buy-back program. It’s also possible that he shifted left because of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s rise in the race, as the mayor has also tried to play to the middle. (Buttigieg’s surge in the polls in March and April also happened to coincide with O’Rourke’s decline.)

But the polls don’t lie: The pivot didn’t work. For a young politician who might be mentioned as a possible candidate in future elections, his leftward turn may have also damaged his ability to run for statewide office in Texas again, as it’s still a Republican-leaning state. Who knows where we might see O’Rourke next, but his exit shows that sometimes early campaign strength doesn’t pan out.