DJ LeMahieu Is The New Derek Jeter

On the 161st Street subway platform, and massed in and around Yankee Stadium for Games 3 and 4 of the American League Championship Series, plenty of fans were adorned in Yankee jerseys bearing No. 2, the number of franchise icon Derek Jeter. But there was also a new number emblazoned on many jerseys and T-shirts: No. 26, the identifier of DJ LeMahieu. The first-year Yankee star has won over skeptical fans who were initially disappointed that he was the club’s big position player free-agent signee last winter, not Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.

But it shouldn’t be surprising that LeMahieu has won over so many in New York. No player since Jeter has hit more like Jeter than LeMahieu.

Jeter’s trademark inside-out approach to hitting gave him an unusual batted-ball profile and helped him to 3,465 career hits. Of all major league hitters with at least 1,000 at-bats since 2002, the only right-handed batter to hit a higher share of opposite-field balls than Jeter and also come close to hitting his share of ground balls1 — all while batting .300 — is LeMahieu.2 Jeff Sullivan noted the similar profiles last offseason for FanGraphs after the Yankees signed LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million contract. And LeMahieu has only continued to hit more like Jeter.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman told reporters earlier this month that his front-office assistants were pounding the table for signing LeMahieu last winter, and none more so than Jim Hendry, special assistant to Cashman. Hendry, the former Cubs GM, is close friends with LSU’s Paul Mainieri, who coached LeMahieu on the 2009 national championship team. Hendry had followed LeMahieu at LSU and through the minor leagues, and he thought the second baseman’s swing — and his versatile glove — would play anywhere.

“What I loved about him in college was that his natural swing was to right field and dead center, and he did it with a little bit of authority,” Hendry told FiveThirtyEight. “You can teach a guy to pull the ball down the road a lot easier than if you’ve got a pull guy, who isn’t a 40-homer guy, to hit the ball hard the other way. His natural swing was what I loved about him to begin with.”

That natural swing should feel very familiar to Yankee Nation.

While most ground balls are pulled, balls in the air are typically distributed more evenly around the outfield. Yet Jeter and LeMahieu own some of the most prolific opposite-field line-drive and fly-ball seasons on record since 2002, when batted-ball data became available. Among batters with at least 1000 at-bats since 2002, Jeter and LeMahieu rank second and third, respectively, in terms of the share of balls hit in the air to the opposite field. In an age of trying to pull the ball, LeMahieu is doing the opposite — just like Jeter did. Consider the Jeter and LeMahieu spray charts of balls hit in the air, from their five most recent seasons:

In his age-27 to age-30 seasons, Jeter produced a .305/.373/.456 slash line with a 118 OPS+, while LeMahieu compiled a .316/.373/.463 slash line with a 111 OPS+ in those corresponding seasons.

There were concerns that LeMahieu’s stats had been inflated by the thin air in Coors Field, where he spent seven of his first eight years in the big leagues. But LeMahieu’s offensive production has never been dependent on home run totals, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that he has succeeded away from Denver. If anything, the switch to Yankee Stadium and its short right-field porch helped him hit a career-high number of home runs (26) this season. Twelve of those home runs — including 11 at Yankee Stadium — were to right field, which tied for the fourth-greatest total in baseball.

“That’s his natural swing,” Hendry said.

LeMahieu’s batted-ball distance on fly balls to the opposite field also jumped by 22 feet to 324 feet this season, seventh in baseball. He hit a combined nine home runs to the opposite field from 2015 to 2018. Moreover, he has produced the most batted balls — including ground balls — to the opposite field this year. Those batted balls have come with a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 185, meaning that his opposite-field hits are 85 percent above league average in offensive performance.3

LeMahieu’s high-contact approach has made him even less dependent on ballpark environment. That method is perhaps aided by letting pitches travel longer before making contact, explaining his opposite-field tendencies.

LeMahieu’s approach might also be shift-proof, at least when it comes to infield defense. He led baseball this season in terms of plate appearances with a ball put in play when a shift was not in place. But in 2017, his batted-ball profile on balls in the air was so dramatic that teams employed some unusual outfield shifts. Since 2017, he has faced the second-most shifted outfield defenses in baseball.

While he doesn’t run like Jeter did in his prime or play shortstop — New York was drawn to him in part for his defensive versatility — LeMahieu does hit like Jeter. And Hendry also believes that LeMahieu excels in pressure situations. “He’s quiet, but the moment never gets to him,” Hendry said. And with New York trailing the Astros in the ALCS, the Yankees now need that calm under pressure more than ever.

Reports Of The Fullback’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

There was a time when you couldn’t turn on an NFL game without hearing the announcers opine on fullbacks: goliaths of the gridiron who mowed down defenders. Backs like Bronko Nagurski and Larry Csonka played the position with such grit and ruggedness that they are remembered years after their final, bruising 3-yard runs.

Fullbacks are easy to root for. Their ability to both absorb and mete out punishment sometimes seems superhuman. When Csonka, the Miami Dolphins fullback, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1987, his longtime head coach Don Shula gave perhaps the greatest and most apt description of a fullback ever uttered: “He was blood and guts. Dirt all over him. He had 12 broken noses.”

But despite enduring in the sport’s collective memory, the style of football that produced these bruisers was very much of a particular time and place. It’s no exaggeration to say that the modern NFL has all but abandoned the position. According to Over The Cap, a website that tracks player contracts, just 14 of the NFL’s 32 teams currently have a fullback signed to a multi-year deal, and the average yearly salary for the position is just $1.16 million. Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson has admitted that the Eagles don’t invest resources in the position, and the data seems to suggest that much of the league agrees with their approach.

On the field, too, the second back has become an endangered species:

During the 2006 regular season, there were 13,157 total offensive snaps from formations with two running backs.1 By 2018, that number had plummeted to 3,714.

And fullbacks don’t have to look far for a villain to blame: pass-happy offenses. In a league increasingly focused on moving the ball through the air, it turned out that the fullback was the most obvious position to lose importance. Since every NFL offense has to include five linemen, who are ineligible receivers, and a quarterback, there are only so many ways you can mix and match the remaining five eligible players to meet your offensive goals. As NFL teams moved to formations with multiple receivers to support their passing attacks, it was inevitable that some position had to feel the pinch.

Yet, not everyone agrees that fullbacks are obsolete. In fact, some of the NFL’s best teams this season are featuring them. Through Week 6 of the 2019 season, there are six NFL teams who’ve run 100 or more offensive snaps with two backs on the field — and their combined record is an impressive 23-10-1. Even more interesting, the two teams that trot out fullbacks the most — the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers — are the only two undefeated teams left in the league.

New England and San Francisco play fullbacks the most

Teams by frequency of offensive snaps with two running backs

Rank Team Record Snaps Yds/ Play Yds/ Att. Yds/ Rush Success%*
1 New England 6-0 178 4.5 6.6 3.0 37.1%
2 San Francisco 5-0 139 7.4 11.8 5.7 54.0%
3 Minnesota 4-2 134 6.4 8.5 5.5 41.8%
4 Detroit 2-2-1 107 5.0 7.2 3.9 37.4%
5 Denver 2-4 106 5.6 7.7 4.2 44.3%
6 Baltimore 4-2 103 4.5 5.9 4.2 41.7%
7 New Orleans 5-1 87 5.7 7.8 4.4 41.4%
8 L.A. Chargers 2-4 79 4.9 8.0 3.0 40.5%
9 Oakland 3-2 74 5.4 9.4 4.2 50.0%
9 Green Bay 5-1 74 5.1 6.9 3.6 45.9%
11 Chicago 3-2 71 3.7 4.7 3.8 36.6%
12 Buffalo 4-1 70 4.2 6.1 3.2 44.3%
13 Carolina 4-2 62 5.5 7.8 4.5 35.5%
14 Atlanta 1-5 60 6.6 10.7 4.1 50.0%
15 N.Y. Giants 2-4 39 5.7 8.2 2.7 46.2%
16 N.Y. Jets 1-4 38 5.0 8.1 2.5 23.7%
17 Dallas 3-3 36 4.1 4.7 3.7 33.3%
18 Kansas City 4-2 29 4.0 8.1 2.2 44.8%
19 Miami 0-5 26 3.9 6.2 1.7 30.8%
20 Houston 4-2 24 2.9 5.0 2.1 37.5%
21 Seattle 5-1 17 1.8 20.0 1.3 35.3%
22 Arizona 2-3-1 16 10.6 15.4 6.0 62.5%
22 Tampa Bay 2-4 16 2.5 5.6 1.1 31.3%
24 Tennessee 2-4 12 1.8 1.6 3.3 41.7%
25 Cincinnati 0-6 9 1.6 5.2 2.0 44.4%
26 Indianapolis 3-2 8 3.0 7.0 0.6 37.5%
26 Washington 1-5 8 1.4 4.3 -0.4 37.5%
26 Philadelphia 3-3 8 2.8 11.5 1.4 37.5%
29 Pittsburgh 2-4 7 2.9 3.4 1.5 57.1%
30 Jacksonville 2-4 5 1.0 0.0 3.7 20.0%
31 Cleveland 2-4 2 10.5 0.0 21.0 50.0%
32 L.A. Rams 3-3 0 0.0 0.0

2019 totals through Week 6.

*Success rate is the share of plays with positive expected points added.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Before we get carried away, the Patriots probably can’t credit two-back sets with too much of their success. Their expected points added per play for the package is actually negative, and they’ve gained just 4.5 yards per play with a fullback on the field.

Still, four of the six teams to feature two-back formations extensively are generating positive EPA on those plays, and none more than Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers. The Niners have run plays with a fullback on 139 of 348 offensive snaps through five games in 2019, and they’re gaining about a quarter of a point per play.

Yet what’s surprising about the 49ers and the rest of the teams utilizing a fullback is that their offensive gains aren’t coming from the obvious play type: the run. Having an added blocker in the backfield hasn’t really made running the ball more effective. Instead, the most successful gains from the package have come from the pass plays when a fullback is present.

Even as the two-running-back personnel package has become more rare, passing from it has become increasingly effective. In all but three seasons2 from 2006-18 we can say with a high degree of confidence3 that passing with two backs was better than rushing with two backs, on average. All told, passing with a fullback on the field has been a winner.

The question is: Why?

The dominant narrative around two-running-back sets is that they benefit rushing, not passing. But there are at least a couple of reasonable explanations for passing’s surprising effectiveness, starting with former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, who extolled the virtues of the fullback in the passing game nearly 40 years ago. He believed the fullback was the “critical part” of the 49ers passing attack because of the matchup difficulties the position presents. (A speedy, athletic fullback can be particularly hard for a middle linebacker to defend in space, but the defense has no choice but to send one out to counter the threat of the run he presents as an added blocker in the backfield.)

And while most teams still run more than they pass with a fullback in the game, there is some evidence that NFL coaches have taken Walsh’s ideas to heart. The gap between the frequency of rush and pass plays called in two-back groupings has narrowed slightly since 2006, and creative play-callers like Shanahan are lining up their top receiving weapons at the fullback with success. The play below from Week 6 shows 49ers tight end George Kittle lined up as the fullback in the offset I-formation. It ends with the Niners gaining 45 yards and setting up a first and goal.

Aside from the matchup difficulties a talented fullback presents, deception is another likely explanation for passing success out of two-back personnel. When teams bring out a fullback, the defense is strongly incentivized to stack the box and defend the run, leaving parts of the field vulnerable to attack with the pass. On the pass to Kittle, the play design called for him to sell to the middle linebacker that he was going to lead block. Kittle does a good job fooling No. 51 Troy Reeder, and then he breaks across the field — away from the linebacker — and is wide open for a big gain.

Still, if deception is so effective, why don’t more teams do it? One explanation is the negative perception it appears to have around the league. Recently, former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was asked for his thoughts on the decline of the fullback. Lewis lamented that defenses resort to trickery to win, and appeared to long for simpler times when the physicality of the game was paramount.

“The game is about men battling men … that’s what the game was. The game was not tricks. Now we tricky. Now everybody’s smart,” Lewis said.

Teams might prefer to win by lining up and punching the other guy in the mouth, but the data supports Walsh’s view of the world. Given the precedent set by Walsh in San Francisco, there’s a certain symmetry to Shanahan and the Niners leading a mini fullback-resurgence, but it’s not just vapid nostalgia. When you combine a consistent matchup advantage with deception, you probably have a recipe for success in the NFL. As a potent passing weapon, perhaps the fullback is back to stay.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The October Democratic Debate In 6 Charts

Last night, 12 candidates duked it out in Westerville, Ohio, in the fourth Democratic debate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren built on her past debate successes, receiving high marks from both voters who care more about defeating President Trump and voters who care more about a candidate whose positions they agree with. But she was not the only winner in the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar had strong performances, too, and used the debate as an opportunity to push back on whether Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s progressive policies are realistic.

We will be keeping an eye on the polls to see if Warren’s solid performance will help her pull ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden, or if Buttigieg and Klobuchar will manage to shore up more support. But for now, here’s a look at how the candidates performed, summed up in six charts:

Which candidates performed the best?

First, we wanted to see which candidates impressed the viewers we surveyed. To do this, we compared each candidate’s pre-debate favorability1 to debate-watchers’ rating of their performance to see if any well-liked candidates disappointed during the debate or if any less-liked candidates received good ratings. By this metric, Klobuchar and Buttigieg were the two candidates who exceeded expectations given their pre-debate favorables, though Warren still received the highest debate grade overall.

Warren performed well among voters who care about defeating Trump

In our poll, about two-thirds of Democratic voters said they value a candidate who has a good chance of beating Trump over someone who agrees with them on the issues — and that didn’t change after the debate. So with “electability” central to the election thus far, we wanted to see whether there was a difference in debate performance evaluations from respondents who said they cared about electability and respondents who said they cared about issues. Differences were small, but there are a few things that stand out.

First, even though Warren has pitched herself as the “issues” candidate — and she did do well among voters who care about the issues — her performance also appealed to respondents who said they prioritized defeating Trump. In fact, they rated her performance higher than that of any other candidate. Sanders also got high ratings from both voters who care more about defeating Trump and voters who care more about the issues, which means candidates making more issued-based appeals can still do well among voters who care about defeating Trump. But it’s a tricky balance. Buttigieg and Biden, for instance, did not do quite as well among voters who cared about the issues, but they did almost as well as Warren among voters who care about beating Trump.

How voters who care about the issues, defeating Trump rated the candidates

How well debate-watchers thought candidates performed in the fourth Democratic debate, by which type of candidate they prefer

Type of candidate preferred
candidate Similar issue positions Able to beat trump
Warren 3.1 3.3
Buttigieg 2.9 3.2
Sanders 3.1 3.1
Biden 2.7 3.1
Klobuchar 2.7 2.9
Booker 2.6 2.9
Harris 2.7 2.9
Yang 2.8 2.7
O’Rourke 2.5 2.7
Steyer 2.4 2.6
Castro 2.5 2.6
Gabbard 2.4 2.3

From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 712 responded to the second wave and said that they watched the debate.

Source: Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight

Who made a positive impression?

We also wanted to see how viewers’ opinions of the candidates changed as a result of the debate. So, to see who made a positive (or negative) impression, we calculated the candidates’ net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) before and after the debate.

Although both Buttigieg and Klobuchar were on the attack, their net favorability increased by 2.6 points and 3.2 points, respectively. That said, even with her modest bump, Klobuchar is still not viewed as favorably as candidates like Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris. And not every candidate made a positive impression: former Rep. Beto O’Rourke lost the gains he made in the last debate and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s return to the stage did not impress viewers either.

More people like Klobuchar; O’Rourke took a hit

Change in net favorability for candidates in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll taken before and after the fourth Democratic primary debate

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
Klobuchar +11.8 +15.0 +3.2
Buttigieg +30.9 +33.5 +2.6
Warren +52.1 +54.3 +2.2
Sanders +43.1 +45.2 +2.1
Biden +47.4 +48.6 +1.2
Steyer +0.8 +2.0 +1.2
Yang +14.2 +14.5 +0.3
Booker +26.3 +25.3 -1.0
Harris +30.8 +28.4 -2.4
Castro +11.6 +8.2 -3.3
Gabbard -2.3 -6.8 -4.5
O’Rourke +22.6 +16.9 -5.7

From a survey of 3,360 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The same people were surveyed again from Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 1,761 responded to the second wave.

Who spoke the most?

Warren got her first taste of being the race’s front-runner, and spent much of the debate deflecting other candidates’ attacks. She spoke almost 3,700 words — more than any other candidate and 600 words more than the second-most-prolific talker, Biden. This is a notable change from the September debate, when Warren was third in words spoken behind both Biden and Booker. Impressively, O’Rourke and Klobuchar — who were both near the bottom for words spoken in the last debate — clocked in at third and fourth in words spoken, respectively. They surpassed Booker, who after being second in words spoken last time spoke the fifth-most words last night.

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the fourth Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Elizabeth Warren 3,695
Joe Biden 3,064
Beto O’Rourke 2,584
Amy Klobuchar 2,559
Cory Booker 2,267
Pete Buttigieg 2,266
Kamala Harris 2,256
Bernie Sanders 2,085
Andrew Yang 1,791
Julián Castro 1,666
Tulsi Gabbard 1,497
Tom Steyer 1,318

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

We also compared the number of words candidates spoke to their polling average, to see if higher-polling candidates spoke as much as expected or if lower-tier candidates managed to steal the mic. (The polling average is based on nine debate-qualifying polls released since the third debate on Sept. 12.)

O’Rourke and Klobuchar way outspoke their lower polling averages. Warren, Buttigieg, and Harris also outperformed their averages, but not by as large of a margin. On the other hand, Sanders and Biden held the floor less than we might expect considering their standing in the polls.

Harris led the pack in calling out Trump

In addition to tracking who spoke most, we also counted how many times the candidates mentioned the president by name:

Who talked about Trump?

How often Trump’s name was mentioned by candidates in the fourth Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Kamala Harris 11
Andrew Yang 9
Pete Buttigieg 8
Amy Klobuchar 7
Tulsi Gabbard 6
Elizabeth Warren 5
Cory Booker 4
Bernie Sanders 4
Tom Steyer 4
Joe Biden 3
Julián Castro 3
Beto O’Rourke 3

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

As a group, the candidates mentioned Trump’s name almost twice as often as in the previous debate — perhaps because the first question asked about impeaching the president. Once again, though, Harris mentioned Trump the most. Candidates who barely mentioned the president by name in the last debate — like Klobuchar (0), Buttigieg (1) and Andrew Yang (2) — name-dropped Trump more often, too, trailing only Harris in number of mentions. After saying Trump’s name the second-most number of times in the previous debate, former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro dropped to the bottom of the group. The candidates who held the floor the longest, such as Warren, Biden and O’Rourke, didn’t mention Trump as much as the other candidates who spoke less.

While the September debate — the first one-night event — was watched by about 15.3 million viewers, preliminary ratings indicate that this debate drew just over half of that, a mere 8.3 million people, despite featuring two more candidates. Interest may be dropping, but the debates will go on: The next debate is scheduled for Nov. 20, and so far eight candidates have qualified. We will be here live blogging and analyzing the debate, so stay tuned!

The Nats Are Peaking At The Perfect Time

After sweeping the first two games of the National League Championship Series In St. Louis, the Washington Nationals were hoping to keep things rolling in front of their home fans for Game 3. They got their wish — and then some. The Nats jumped all over Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty for four runs in the third inning and never looked back en route to an 8-1 win and a commanding 3-0 series lead.

Our model now gives Washington a 38 percent chance of winning its first-ever World Series — the best of any team remaining in the field.1 And the Nats have been saving their best baseball for the exact right moment on the calendar. Here’s a plot of Washington’s Elo rating (our power rating for a team at any given moment, where league average is around 1500) by game for the entire season:

Washington was favored to win the NL East before the year, but its Elo quickly plummeted from 1540 to 1511 as the team got out to a rough 19-31 start (causing me to, ahem, kinda write them off at the time). Back on May 21, our model gave the Nats a mere 20 percent chance to make the playoffs, much less reach the World Series. Ever since then, however, it’s basically been a steady climb uphill for the Nats, who closed the regular season on a 74-38 run after those first 50 games — the equivalent of a 107-win pace per 162 games. Without erstwhile franchise leader Bryce Harper but with a strong cast of remaining talent — including precocious outfielder Juan Soto — Washington was better this year (seventh in total wins above replacement)2 than it was last year (11th).

Not that there weren’t moments of even more uncertainty along the way. The Nats’ season was on life support late in the NL wild-card game against the Milwaukee Brewers, when they trailed 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning and were facing dominating reliever Josh Hader. According to The Baseball Gauge, Washington had only a 12.9 percent chance of advancing several plays before Soto ripped a bases-loaded single to right that got the go-ahead run home with the help of an error by Brewers outfielder Trent Grisham.

After that early brush with doom, Washington also had a mere 10.7 percent chance of winning their Division Series matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers, when the Nats trailed 3-1 in the middle of the seventh inning of Game 5, before staging another massive comeback. Other teams have made the Series after even bigger scares than those — the Kansas City Royals had a 99.2 percent chance of being eliminated in the 2015 ALDS against Houston before mounting a comeback, and even more famously, the Boston Red Sox had a 98.1 percent chance of elimination against the Yankees in 2004 — but only the 2012 San Francisco Giants would have come closer to elimination on two separate occasions and still won:

How close to elimination did the eventual champs get?

Lowest series win probability by a World Series champion (plus the 2019 Washington Nationals) at any point in the postseason, 1995-2019

Season Team Series Opponent Lowest Win Prob.
2015 Kansas City Royals ALDS Houston Astros 0.8%
2002 Anaheim Angels WS San Francisco Giants 1.7
2004 Boston Red Sox ALCS New York Yankees 1.9
2003 Florida Marlins NLCS Chicago Cubs 2.0
2011 St. Louis Cardinals WS Texas Rangers 2.4
2012 San Francisco Giants NLDS Cincinnati Reds 6.6
2012 San Francisco Giants NLCS St. Louis Cardinals 8.2
2016 Chicago Cubs WS Cleveland Indians 8.7
2019* Washington Nationals NLDS Los Angeles Dodgers 10.7
2007 Boston Red Sox ALCS Cleveland Indians 11.6
2019* Washington Nationals NLWC Milwaukee Brewers 12.9

* The Nationals are listed for context; they’ll play Game 4 of the NLCS Tuesday night.

Source: The Baseball Gauge

So the Nats could go down as one of history’s most resilient champs if they do reach the World Series and win it. And with a 7-2 postseason record, few teams have ever peaked at a more appropriate time than these Nats. While most World Series teams are, by definition, playing well going into the Fall Classic, only two since the postseason expanded in 1995 — the 2007 Colorado Rockies and 2013 Boston Red Sox — came back from a lower Elo rating at their low point3 than the Nats will have done this year.

The Nats would be one of best comeback teams

Biggest Elo rating gains from season’s low point (min. 40 games in) for World Series teams and the 2019 Washington Nationals, since 1995

Low Point
Season Team Game No. Rating Pre-WS Rating Gain
2007 Rockies 45 1470 1567 +97.0
2013 Red Sox 40 1497 1576 79.4
2019 Nationals* 50 1511 1579 67.9
2002 Angels 40 1520 1587 67.7
2004 Cardinals 45 1519 1585 66.5
2003 Marlins 48 1483 1549 65.2
2008 Rays 40 1504 1565 60.9
2011 Rangers 85 1527 1586 58.8
2005 Astros 54 1501 1558 57.8
2009 Yankees 44 1532 1589 57.3

* Pre-World Series rating is estimated conditional on beating the Cardinals in the NLCS.

Source: ESPN, Retrosheet

Do postseason hot streaks carry over into the Series itself? Perhaps. The team with the superior pre-World Series postseason record does tend to win the championship more often than not, with a 62 percent success rate since 1995. So Washington is hoping it can keep its red-hot form going through the NLCS and beyond.

Of course, the Nats still need one more win against a tough Cardinals team to punch their World Series ticket. And no matter who prevails in the American League, the Nats would be underdogs; we give them a 40 percent shot at the title conditional on making the World Series. Then again, our model has been counting Washington out all season long — and it keeps beating those odds.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Starting Pitchers Are Getting More Work This Postseason. They Deserve It.

Bullpens have eroded the workload of starting pitchers for years. By keeping a close watch on pitch counts and increasingly specializing their pitching staffs, teams have consistently reduced how long starting pitchers work into games. This regular season, bullpens accounted for the greatest share of workload in MLB history: 42.1 percent of innings pitched, up from last year’s record of 40.1 percent.

The leash has tightened even more in the playoffs, as October became bullpen season. Only three outings last postseason exceeded 100 pitches. But perhaps the game is on the cusp of a pushback against this trend: Through Oct. 13, there have already been 12 outings of at least 101 pitches in this year’s playoffs. The starting pitcher appears to be making a comeback, as Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs wrote.

While pitchers typically fare worse the deeper they pitch into regular season games, in some recent postseasons — 2014, 2016, 2017 and early this October — pitchers were actually better the third time through the lineup than the first, according to weighted on-base average data from Baseball Savant. (Last October, pitchers were better the second time through the order than the first.) Whether in the regular season or in October, could it be that starting pitchers are getting better deeper into the game?

This season, pitchers permitted to go deeper into games, by some measures, have never performed better.1 According to data from Baseball-Reference.com, starting pitchers have been more effective as the game goes during outings of at least 101 pitches — based on opposing on-base plus slugging.

The number of pitchers allowed to go that deep into games has certainly shrunk over the years — there were only 1,028 starts in the regular season this year that went at least 101 pitches, compared with 1,082 in 2018, 1,390 in 2017 and 2,023 a decade earlier in 2009. So it may be that teams are only giving the chance to go deeper into games to the pitchers best equipped to pitch later into games — or at least the pitchers already having strong outings.

But those select pitchers and their performances raise another question: Can starting pitchers begin to take back some of the total share of pitches thrown? More teams are focusing on player development, and many of the pitchers at the center of those development efforts are having success throwing more pitches. Could this lead to a rebalancing of the pitching workload?

In the majors as a whole, pitchers have added velocity and are throwing breaking pitches with more movement. Within games this season, pitchers with a minimum of 1,500 pitches thrown averaged 93.1 mph in the first inning with their four-seam fastball but 93.8 mph in the seventh inning. And while relievers have long performed better than starting pitchers on a per-inning basis, starting pitchers shrunk the performance gap this season.

“I think where we are headed next is, ‘How do you figure out how to lengthen use of your starter?’” said Derek Falvey, chief of baseball operations for the Minnesota Twins. “The more teams think about development at the major league level, I think the more you’ll see these conversations popping up like, ‘How do you get pitchers to go deeper into games?’”

While Astros manager A.J. Hinch said this spring that he planned to be more like the Tampa Bay Rays in limiting starting pitchers’ workloads, there was no dramatic change, as Astros starters threw the fourth-most pitches in baseball. Astros co-aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander have continued to dominate late into starts so far this postseason. They have now combined for three of the 12 postseason starts that have matched or exceeded 101 pitches this postseason, accounting for 22 1/3 innings in those outings while striking out 32 batters and allowing just 11 hits, three runs and five walks.

Caleb Cotham, an assistant pitching coach and director of pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, said that pitchers who are “intentional in how they train and diligent in putting in the work on the right things” can use technology to work toward dramatic improvement in their skills. Cotham, who joined the Reds before this season, trained at Driveline Baseball beginning in 2014 and will be working again with Driveline’s Kyle Boddy, who was hired this month to lead the Reds’ pitching development efforts. Cotham believes that pitching stamina is another attribute that can be trained.

“Baseball is getting better at measuring more things,” Cotham said. “Having more information to then apply to individual, such as, ‘This guy’s [elbow and shoulder] internal rotation goes down significantly after 85 pitches. This other guy has lower arm speed but he maintains it. He can sustain this.’ It will be very interesting moving forward.”

“The game will probably get pretty weird, pretty soon.”

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

It Was Always Going To Be Astros-Yankees, Wasn’t It?

MLB’s 2019 postseason has had more than its share of surprises, from Washington’s amazing comebacks — and the Dodgers’ meltdowns — to St. Louis’s 10-run first inning in a do-or-die game against Atlanta. Even the Tampa Bay Rays extended their plucky season by pushing the Houston Astros to the brink of elimination, before losing Game 5. All that chaos has left the National League in particular with a championship-series matchup (Cardinals-Nationals) that was tough to see coming just a week and a half ago.

But after the division-series dust settled, the powerhouse Yankees and Astros are the teams left standing in the American League. In addition to being one of the best league championship series matchups ever on paper, it’s the titanic showdown that baseball fans have been anticipating all year — literally so.

As of Thursday night’s ALDS clincher in Houston, the Astros and Yankees rank Nos. 1 and 2 among remaining teams in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, 3 points of Elo apart from each other but 18 points clear of the other two contenders. They are also the two most likely champions left in the field, with a combined 65 percent chance that the winner of the ALCS will also win the title. In many ways, Yankees-Astros will be this year’s de facto World Series.

If we look at the harmonic mean of preseries Elo ratings for Houston (1590) and New York (1587),1 this year’s ALCS is the second-most impressive league championship series matchup in the entire history of baseball (or, at least, since the LCS began in 1969). The only LCS with a better matchup on paper was last year’s ALCS between the Boston Red Sox — who were in the midst of a historic season — and the Astros:

Elo’s most epic League Championship Series clashes ever

MLB league championship matchups with the highest combined preseries Elo ratings (according to the harmonic mean), 1969-2019

Winner/Favorite Loser/Underdog
Year League Team Rating Team Rating Harmonic Mean
2018 AL Red Sox 1590 Astros 1609 1599.3
2019 AL Astros* 1590 Yankees* 1587 1589.0
2009 AL Yankees 1581 Angels 1570 1575.7
1999 NL Braves 1585 Mets 1566 1575.5
2002 NL Giants 1569 Cardinals 1581 1574.8
2004 NL Cardinals 1584 Astros 1560 1572.2
1975 NL Reds 1593 Pirates 1551 1571.8
2018 NL Dodgers 1584 Brewers 1560 1571.5
2017 AL Astros 1572 Yankees 1570 1571.2
1970 AL Orioles 1595 Twins 1546 1570.4

*The Astros are currently favorites, with a 54 percent chance of making the World Series according to Elo.

Source: ESPN, Retrosheet

Baseball has been trending toward more superteams for a while now, so it’s not overly surprising that the past two seasons have seen the top two LCS matchups ever. In fact, according to Elo, the American League since 2017 has played host to three of history’s nine best LCS showdowns — and the Astros have been involved in all of them (winning in 2017, losing in 2018 and … well, we don’t know yet in 2019).

But perhaps more noteworthy about this year’s ALCS is simply how long baseball has had to keep an eye on this particular matchup. Although some other AL teams had great years — including the Twins, Rays and A’s, all of whom won at least 96 ballgames — the Astros and Yankees stood out as the cream of the league’s crop for essentially the entire season. There wasn’t a single week during the regular season that Houston and New York were not the AL’s top two teams according to our Elo ratings:

Yep, in the 26 weeks of the regular season, the Yankees and Astros topped the AL … 26 times. Then they eventually met up in the ALCS. That’s only the second time in history (again, since 1969) that two teams ranked 1-2 in their league every single week of the regular season, then ended up meeting in the league championship series:

Few LCS matchups have been brewing for so long

Eventual league championship matchups with the highest share of regular-season weeks with the teams at Nos. 1-2 in league Elo rankings, 1969-2019

Year League Teams in LCS Weeks as 1-2 Share of Possible
2019 AL Astros Yankees 26 100%
1970 AL Orioles Twins 25 100
1978 NL Dodgers Phillies 24 96
2009 NL Dodgers Phillies 24 92
1971 AL Orioles Athletics 23 92
1992 NL Braves Pirates 21 84
1973 AL Orioles Athletics 20 83
1976 AL Yankees Royals 17 68
1972 NL Pirates Reds 16 64
1976 NL Reds Phillies 16 64
1986 NL Mets Astros 16 64

Source: Retrosheet, ESPN

The only other LCS in which both teams finished every week of the regular season as Nos. 1 and 2 in league Elo came in 1970, when the Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins dominated their respective divisions all season long, putting themselves on an ALCS collision course. The Orioles ended up sweeping that one, but they also went into the series with a sizable 49-point Elo edge over Minnesota despite the two teams’ favorite status being solidified for so much of the season.

The Astros, by contrast, lead the Yankees by only 3 points of Elo right now, and New York is much better rested after sweeping the Twins in the ALDS. We still give the Astros an edge, with a 54 percent probability of going to the World Series, but there’s every chance this terrific on-paper battle lives up to the hype that’s been building up every single week of the entire season.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

The Democratic Primary Looks Pretty Different In Each Of The Early States

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

Earlier this week, I looked at national surveys to see what’s behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s rise in the polls, but now let’s zoom in on the early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — to see what’s happening there.

This week we have a new Fox News poll of South Carolina that shows former Vice President Joe Biden still retains a formidable lead there at 41 percent (Warren was in second at 12 percent) despite Warren’s gains at the national level. In Iowa and New Hampshire, recent surveys more closely mirror the overall national picture — Warren has gained while Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders have slipped. But there’s also evidence that someone like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg may be underestimated in national polls.

To see what’s happened in the early states since August, I averaged all state-level polls taken between the second debate (July 30-31) and the third debate (Sept. 12) and compared that to an average of all state polls fielded since the third debate for the five candidates currently sitting at the top of the polls: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris.

And in some states, there weren’t a ton of polls during these two time periods, but we did have at least two polls for each state before and after the third debate.

First up, in Iowa, you can see a real change in the nature of the race — Biden previously led by about 3 percentage points, but now Warren has moved ahead. Sanders also slipped about 5 points, so instead of rivaling Warren for second place as he did before the third debate, he’s now in a race for third. He’s about on par with Buttigieg, who now has double-digit support in the state, although the mayor enjoyed a pretty strong standing there before the debate, too. Harris slipped in Iowa, dropping 3 points, which is similar to her performance in the three other early states.

Warren has edged ahead of Biden in Iowa

Average of Iowa polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Elizabeth Warren 21.3 23.0 +1.7
Joe Biden 24.7 20.3 -4.3
Bernie Sanders 17.3 12.0 -5.3
Pete Buttigieg 9.3 11.3 +2.0
Kamala Harris 8.3 5.3 -3.0

Our “before third debate” average includes three polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average also includes three polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

Next up, in New Hampshire, the story is pretty similar to what we saw in Iowa: Warren’s numbers improved, giving her a narrow lead. In fact, she’s gone up nearly 10 points, far more than in Iowa. However, unlike in Iowa, Biden’s numbers have gone up, too. They didn’t rise as dramatically as Warren’s, but the jump has helped him stay close to Warren in the nation’s first primary state. Meanwhile, Sanders’s slide in New Hampshire has been particularly large, going from a near-tie for first with Biden to 15 points behind Warren. And as in Iowa, Buttigieg is now closer to Sanders than Sanders is to Warren or Biden, while Harris has fallen to the low single digits.

Warren surged in New Hampshire, but Biden gained too

Average of New Hampshire polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Elizabeth Warren 17.6 27.0 +9.5
Joe Biden 21.6 24.3 +2.7
Bernie Sanders 20.9 12.0 -8.9
Pete Buttigieg 7.0 9.7 +2.7
Kamala Harris 6.9 4.0 -2.9

Our “before third debate” average includes six polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average includes three polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

To some extent, Warren’s uptick in Iowa and New Hampshire isn’t that surprising given her strength with white college-educated voters and, as I wrote on Monday, her increasing support from whites without a college degree. After all, 85 to 90 percent of Iowans and New Hampshirites are white. A lot of this can explain why Buttigieg is doing so well there, too, as he also mainly attracts support from white voters, particularly college-educated ones. That said, his performance in these two early states still stands out in comparison to his mid-single-digit standing in the national polls. And this could be a promising sign for Buttigieg given the influence these two states can have on the presidential primary process — once voting begins, he could be positioned for a strong start that could take his campaign to the next level, especially in light of his prodigious fundraising.

But in our next two early-voting states — Nevada and South Carolina — the picture gets a little fuzzier because we don’t have as many polls. Biden continues to lead the pack in both states (although in Nevada, the race looks more like a three-way tie), but there just hasn’t been as much consistent polling in either state. And that’s a problem, because even though both states come later in the calendar, they are much more racially and ethnically diverse than either Iowa or New Hampshire. So these states could offer important insight as to how other more-diverse states may be leaning, as New Hampshire and Iowa look less and less like the Democratic Party.

For Nevada, we had three surveys prior to the third debate and two after, and they showed a tight three-way race among Biden, Warren and Sanders that got even closer after the third debate. Both Biden and Sanders lost some support, but Warren didn’t emerge as the beneficiary.

It’s a three-way race in Nevada

Average of Nevada polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Joe Biden 26.0 22.6 -3.4
Elizabeth Warren 18.7 18.7 0.0
Bernie Sanders 20.3 18.1 -2.2
Kamala Harris 8.3 4.4 -3.9
Pete Buttigieg 5.3 3.7 -1.6

Our “before third debate” average includes three polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average includes two polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

And in South Carolina, where we had two polls before the third debate and four polls after, it seems as if no one has been able to make a serious dent into Biden’s support, although he did see a slight dip in his numbers. Biden’s continued strength among black voters in the state has made South Carolina a crucial firewall for his campaign, especially if things go poorly for him in the earlier contests. Sanders’s decline in South Carolina has also helped make Warren a clear second-place contender (even though she, like Biden, saw a slight dip in her numbers after the third debate).

Biden continues to dominate in South Carolina

Average of South Carolina polls for the five leading Democratic presidential candidates, before and after the third debate

Poll Average
Candidate Before Third Debate After Third Debate Change
Joe Biden 39.5 37.8 -1.8
Elizabeth Warren 15.5 14.8 -0.8
Bernie Sanders 17.0 9.0 -8.0
Kamala Harris 9.5 4.5 -5.0
Pete Buttigieg 4.5 3.3 -1.3

Our “before third debate” average includes two polls taken from Aug. 1 to Sept. 11; the “after third debate” average includes four polls. We excluded head-to-head and open-ended polling questions.

Source: Polls

As always, though, things could shift in the coming weeks. After all, we’ve got the fourth debate coming up on Oct. 15, which could help Sanders or Harris recover to some extent, though we don’t know yet what the polling fallout may be from Sanders’s recent heart attack. But for the moment, what we do know is that the early-state polls in New Hampshire and Iowa look favorable for Warren, while Biden still holds the lead in South Carolina and Nevada. We shouldn’t sleep on Buttigieg, either — although both he and Warren have a lot of work to do to win over more voters of color.

Other polling bites

  • It’s still too soon to know whether Sanders’s heart attack has affected his standing in the polls, but a YouGov poll found that 69 percent of Americans think his health is “a legitimate issue.” Additionally, views were mixed about whether his campaign had been transparent about the event, with 33 percent saying it was transparent and 27 percent saying it wasn’t, while a plurality (39 percent) weren’t sure one way or the other.
  • The share of Americans who identify as either a Republican or a Democrat remained relatively stable during the third quarter of 2019, according to a new Gallup report, with Democrats maintaining a slight edge. Forty-seven percent of adult Americans identified as a Democrat or a Democratic-leaning independent, whereas 42 percent identified as a Republican or a Republican-leaning independent.
  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up about 6 percent of all Americans, and AAPI Data and the Public Religion Research Institute have released a new survey of AAPI voters in California, which is both the country’s most populous state and home to the largest number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. The survey found that 56 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of President Trump, while 33 percent had a favorable view of him. And among the leading Democratic presidential contenders, Biden, Sanders and Harris (who is from California) had the highest favorability ratings.
  • New polling from Ipsos and C-SPAN found that Americans are skeptical the 2020 election will be “open and fair.” Just 53 percent said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence that the presidential election will be “open and fair,” while 46 percent said they did not have much confidence or “no confidence at all.” There were notable differences between Republicans and Democrats, however, with 72 percent of Republicans expressing some degree of confidence contrasted with just 39 percent of Democrats.
  • Of the four states holding state legislative elections in 2019, Virginia is the only one where there’s a real chance that party control of a chamber could flip. (Republicans have solid majorities in Louisiana and Mississippi while Democrats have overwhelming majorities in New Jersey.) And two new generic ballot polls suggest that Democrats are currently favored to capture both chambers in the Virginia General Assembly, which the GOP currently controls. A late-September survey from the Washington Post and the Schar School at George Mason University found Democrats 7 points ahead of Republicans among registered voters and up 52 percent to 41 percent among registered voters who said they were “certain to vote.” A September poll from the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University was even more bullish for Democrats, finding them ahead of the GOP by 13 points among likely voters, 49 percent to 36 percent.
  • Canada will vote for a new parliament on Oct. 21, and the race is unusually tight. CBC News’s poll tracker shows the Liberals (the governing party) and the Conservatives (the main opposition) running neck-and-neck at 33 percent nationally.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.0 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.7 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.7 points). At this time last week, 41.2 percent approved and 53.9 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -12.7 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 41.0 percent and a disapproval rating of 54.1 percent, for a net approval rating of -13.1 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.1 percentage points (46.2 percent to 40.1 percent). At this time last week, Democrats led by 6.9 percentage points (46.9 percent to 40.0 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.5 points (46.3 percent to 39.8 percent).

How Impeachment Is Being Spun

Welcome to The Spin Cycle, a semi-regular look at how the impeachment inquiry is being sold to the American public by Washington-types — both those who are looking to oust the president and those looking to save him.


The most marked quality of the last three years of American political life is the sheer number of news-making events that have occurred. Those events and their aftermath can be near-impossible to keep track of.

Impeachment has only complicated things, which is impressive, since the facts of the Democrats’ inquiry into President Trump’s pressuring of Ukraine seem relatively straightforward. But of course, impeachment is a political process, not a criminal one — the founding fathers were vague about what “high crimes and misdemeanors” meant, perhaps so that generations of lawyers could earn their nut figuring it all out.

Impeachment, as it turns out, is really about politicians selling the public on the facts as they’d like them interpreted; it’s a public relations operation as much as a constitutionally-allotted power. We decided it makes sense not just to keep track of the inquiry’s pile of evidence, but to also track how politicians are interpreting that evidence and how the public responds to their spin. We are interested, in other words, in how the facts get laundered.

The facts are themselves crucially important, of course. But finding the truth in politics often means wading through ankle-deep, barnyard-sweet bullshit. The spin. The grandstanding. The press conferences in front of helicopters and flags.

So let’s be organized about this and lay things out as they are on October 11, from facts to spin to public opinion.

The inquiry’s central facts

If the Ukraine impeachment scandal was a dish of Chicken Kiev, think of these facts as the chicken breast, pounded thin under the pressure of high-wattage political scandal: On July 25, President Trump had a call with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. During the call, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Text message exchanges between Trump officials and advisors to Zelensky later revealed that the Trump administration was in negotiations to secure the investigation — the Americans dangled a visit to the White House as bait. Around the same time, the White House blocked $400 million in aid to Ukraine, suggesting that the Ukrainians may have faced additional pressure to comply with Trump’s request.

An ever-expanding cast of characters animates those central facts. There’s the CIA whistleblower whose formal complaint about Trump’s call with Zelensky allowed all of these facts to be spilled out into public view — he’s the herbed butter of the Chicken Kiev, bursting with flavorful information. (Ok, I’ll stop.) He has been followed in recent days by a new whistleblower, who reportedly has first-hand knowledge of Trump’s Ukraine interactions.

And just this week, two associates of the president’s lawyer and America’s (former) mayor, Rudy Giuliani, were arrested and indicted for violating campaign finance law. The indictment says they helped funnel foreign money to candidates for office. The men, American citizens born in eastern Europe, appeared to be part of a pressure campaign to remove the American ambassador to Ukraine — reportedly at the behest of Giuliani — from her post.

The political spin

The Democrats

The Democrats are waging a two-front war of sorts: one in the hearing rooms of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the other on the 2020 campaign trail.

On the Congressional front: In her September 24 speech opening up the impeachment inquiry, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “The president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically. The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable facts of betrayal of his oath of office and betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.” She was saying the president has already committed an impeachable offense and that we already have the evidence of him doing so. No spin needed.

Of course, “no spin needed, just the facts” is a spin of its own. “Every new piece of information has corroborated the basic facts, which are devastating for the president,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney told the Times, in a perfect demonstration of the restrained (for now) party line.

To reinforce their fact-gathering mode, on October 4, Democrats sent a subpoena notice to the White House for documents relating to the Ukraine dealings. Failure to comply, the letter said, “shall constitute evidence of obstruction.” Other administration officials have since received subpoenas, as well.

On the campaign front: Democrats running for president have caught onto the idea that the de rigueur line on impeachment is “the facts speak for themselves.” Speaking at a campaign event on October 5, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has run a campaign based on what she’d have you believe is a core Midwestern ethos of not rocking the boat, said, “I think that all of us believe that the evidence is there.”

Joe Biden has been slow to stir up big news when it comes to the impeachment drama, perhaps because it’s his family’s name being dragged through the scandal. But on October 9, Biden called clearly for the president to be impeached, not just to be investigated, which was further than he’d gone in his previous comments on the matter.

The Republicans

There’s a lot going on here. It started out a little messy but a couple of weeks in, the party line on the impeachment inquiry seems to have coalesced into, “It’s a partisan witch hunt!” and stall, stall, stall.

On October 8, the White House counsel wrote back to congressional Democrats’ document subpoenas with an elaborate, eight-page long “hell no.”

Calling the inquiry “constitutionally illegitimate,” the White House is refusing to cooperate. On the substance of the call with the Ukrainian president, the letter concludes, “The record clearly established that the call was completely appropriate and that there is no basis for your inquiry.” The State Department also prevented Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key player in the text message exchanges, from testifying before congress.

Trump, for his part, has spent the past few days trying to normalize the call with Ukraine and his requests to a foreign government to interfere in a U.S, election by investigating one of his political rivals. Trump’s 2020 campaign has released an ad that spins the phone call as innocent and the impeachment inquiry as an effort to overturn the results of the 2016 election. His Twitter timeline is a litany of tweets about the supposedly partisan nature of the whistleblower’s complaint, making liberal use of the phrase, the “Do Nothing Democrats,” and calling for Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to be impeached.

Perhaps the most interesting twist, though, is the mixed response of Fox News. Tucker Carlson, a fanatical Trump supporter, co-wrote a column in which he said, “Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent … there’s no way to spin this as a good idea.” On Oct. 10, the New York Times reported that Attorney General Bill Barr had a private meeting on October 9 with Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox’s parent company. (“Succession” writers, take note.) The morning after the meeting, Trump tweeted angrily in a response to a Fox poll that found 51 percent of Americans think he should be impeached and removed from office. So, all is not well in the right’s political-media nexis; the inquiry is setting teeth on edge, not least the president’s.

How’s it all playing?

All in all, there’s more noise coming from the Republican side of things. For now, though, they’re not winning the public opinion battle. According to our impeachment tracker, support for impeachment has only strengthened over the past couple of weeks. At this writing, 49.3 percent of Americans support it and 43.5 percent oppose.

So for now, the Democrats’ arguments are convincing more voters than Republicans’. But I’ll be interested to see whether the White House efforts to stall and delay will create the impression that Democrats are unfairly persecuting the president. Even Republicans’ and independents’ support of impeachment has increased in recent days, though, according to the polls.

Given a Democratic debate coming up next week, it’s unlikely that Trump will have any reprieve from the talk of his impeachment. We’ll be keeping our eyes glued to his Twitter, and our ears perked for the emerging talking points.


FiveThirtyEight: The history of impeachment


How Gerrit Cole Went From So-So To Unhittable

Gerrit Cole was always supposed to make hitters swing and miss. But there was a time when the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, with a 100 mph fastball in his arsenal, failed to meet expectations.

In his five years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cole hovered around average in strikeout performance. By FanGraphs’ strikeout rate “plus” (K%+) metric, which sets the strikeout ability baseline at 100 and adjusts for yearly strikeout environment, Cole’s first five years in the majors ranged from slightly below to slightly above average. Between 2013 and 2017, his K%+ rate fell between 91 and 118 percent.

But after the Houston Astros acquired Cole, his adjusted strikeout performance jumped to 156 in 2018, meaning he was 56 percent above the major league average. This year? His 176 mark is the best adjusted performance since Erik Bedard’s 2007 season. By raw totals, Cole’s 326 total strikeouts this season are the 14th most in a single season and the most since Randy Johnson’s 334 in 2002. He has continued to dominate into October, and will pitch in an elimination Game 5 on Thursday versus Tampa Bay.

So how did Cole go from being an unexceptional strikeout pitcher to the game’s best K artist, and perhaps a favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award? It’s a story about his fastball, a pitch that has transformed from a middling offering to the game’s best, according to FanGraphs run values.

“He’s essentially throwing laser beams, or as close to it as I’ve ever seen from a human,” said one MLB front office official.

The game has changed since Cole debuted in 2013. Back then, the Pirates were teaching pitchers to pitch to contact and were producing record ground-ball rates. But strikeouts have the benefit of keeping the ball out of play and out of the air, and those qualities have become more and more important as home run levels have risen and risen.

When the Astros sat Cole down for a meeting in February 2018, they outlined how they believed Cole could be a more dominant pitcher. Aided by heat maps, data and video, team officials explained that much of their plan was dependent upon Cole’s fastball.

The Astros showed Cole that his upper-90s, four-seam fastball was harder to hit up in the zone. They recommended that he scrap his two-seam fastball, typically thrown lower in the zone to try to create ground balls, and a pitch type that has been crushed recently.

He listened. Cole reduced the share of two-seam fastballs he threw — from 18.1 percent of offerings in 2017 to 0.4 percent this year — and targeted the upper portions of the strike zone, a move designed to stay above hitters’ swing planes.

Cole has generated 220 swings and misses on his fastball in the top third or above the strike zone this year, which is the most of the Statcast era. (Justin Verlander’s 185 last season is second.) In 2017, Cole produced 66.

Another enhancement to his fastball was more curious: his dramatic spike in spin rate, which created controversy last season. Spin is important because more spin (transverse spin specifically) increases the Magnus effect, thus creating more movement — a larger rise on a fastball or break on a curveball. Spin and velocity lead to more swing and misses. While spin rate generally increases with velocity, Cole’s velocity has increased only slightly in Houston. It’s thought to be difficult to change spin-to-velocity ratio without using foreign substance, and some people believe that the use of sticky substances is widespread in baseball.

When I asked Cole last summer about his change in spin rate, he explained that Verlander had taught him how to get more “true rotation and hop” on his fastball. He has raised his vertical release point, and the spin axis of his fastball has changed slightly from 222 degrees in 2017 to 216 degrees with the Astros.

In 2017, Cole’s fastball averaged 8.79 inches of vertical movement, ranking 191st out of 295 starting pitchers, according to BaseballProspectus.com PITCHf/x leaderboards. This year, Cole’s fastball had 9.95 inches of vertical movement, ranking 32nd among 395 starting pitchers. He’s gained an inch of “rise” and 1 mph on his fastball. That might not sound like a lot, but even small gains can have large effects.

In 2017, Cole’s fastball ranked 41st among qualifying pitchers1 in whiff-per-swing rate at 21.6 percent, and he finished with a 4.26 ERA on the season. In his first year in Houston, Cole’s four-seam, whiff-per-swing rate jumped to 12th, at 29.3 percent, and his ERA dropped to 2.88. And this season, he led the majors in four-seam fastball whiff rate (36.9 percent) and finished with a 2.50 ERA. Batters have hit .171 against his four-seam fastball. He can now dominate batters in the strike zone with his fastball, not just with his swing-and-miss slider below it.

Cole, a free-agent-to-be, could lead the Astros to a second title in three years thanks in part to arguably the best pitch in the majors: a fastball that has become a laser beam.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

What Would Happen If American Voters All Got Together And Talked Politics?

There is a story that Stanford University political science professor Jim Fishkin likes to tell about George Gallup, the man who helped popularize public opinion polling in America.

After the 1936 presidential election — which Gallup’s polling correctly called for Franklin D. Roosevelt — Gallup delivered a lecture at Princeton in which he argued that polling could allow voters from across America to come together, like in a New England town meeting, to debate and decide on important issues facing the country. As he saw it, newspapers and the radio would broadcast the debate, and polls would capture what people thought after having heard from all sides. It would be, to quote Gallup, as if “the nation is literally in one great room.”

Eighty-some years later, Fishkin says Gallup’s vision hasn’t quite held up: “He was right in that there could be a shared discussion and polling about it, but wrong in that the room was so big that nobody was really paying attention.”

But what if you could get the whole country into a more manageably sized room?

That is — quite literally — what Fishkin and his Stanford colleague, Larry Diamond, tried to do. Over the course of four days in September, in partnership with Helena, a nonpartisan institute that funded the event, and NORC at the University of Chicago, they gathered a nationally representative sample of 526 registered voters3 in a suburb of Dallas to talk about issues that Americans have said are important to them in 2020: immigration, health care, the economy, the environment and foreign policy. They called it “America in One Room.”

The aims of the project were lofty. If you gather all of America in one room and provide them with facts and a set of arguments from both sides of the political aisle, can respectful, moderated discussion change people’s minds?

The answer: Sort of.

In September, a nationally representative group of registered voters gathered to talk over some of the big issues driving the 2020 election.

Helena

There was some movement on the event’s five issues, as captured in the pre- and post-event surveys conducted by NORC, though how much movement differed depending on the question. Fishkin and Diamond found, for instance, that support grew among Republicans for proposals like increasing the number of visas for skilled workers and for less-skilled workers in industries that need them. And support for proposals like a $15 minimum wage and issuing $1,000 per month to all adults (a universal basic income) fell among Democrats.

But it’s unclear how lasting these changes will be, or even whether these types of events are the best way to encourage real political change. They’re not very practical, for one. Moreover, for people for whom these political issues hit close to home — those struggling to pay for health insurance, for example, or worried about family members being deported — the idea of engaging with the other side might seem overly idealistic, daunting or even useless. Some issues just don’t have much of a middle ground when you get down to the level of individual people.

Still, Diamond told FiveThirtyEight that if they could raise the money, they planned to survey the participants again in six or nine months to find out what, if any, changes had endured.

Many of the participants FiveThirtyEight spoke with, though, seemed to think that the emphasis on people changing their minds might be missing the larger purpose of an event like this.

“I don’t think people’s minds are changing,” said Susan Bosco, a retiree living in Fairfax, Virginia. “I think what we’re doing is respecting other people’s opinions more and not seeing them as ogres.” Robert Granger from Bristol, Tennessee, and Jamie Andersen, from Portland, Oregon, who were in Bosco’s group for the event, agreed, saying they had decided to attend so that they could better understand what makes people hold the opinions they do. “We all want to see our country succeed, regardless of race, gender or what part of the country you’re from. But we all have different ideas of how to get there,” Granger said.

One of the discussion groups talking about the economy and taxes.

Helena

And the survey results back them up. Pre- and post-event surveys found most people who came as Democrats left as Democrats, and the same with Republicans. But while the experiment didn’t make people change how they identify politically, it did seem to make them more understanding of those who hold a different view. As London Robinson of Chicago told FiveThirtyEight, many people in her discussion group made arguments that she expected given where they were from or their political party, but she was also surprised that people from different parties “think just like I do.” “I didn’t think they would think that way,” Robinson said. “It was breathtaking to see that.”

That’s something. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most Americans don’t watch and read only partisan news outlets. But the country is largely segregated by politics — most people live near and work with like-minded souls, and many dislike their counterparts from across the political aisle. So the America in One Room gathering was designed to give people a low-stakes environment to debate politics, because as Diamond said, “These are dangerous conversations out there in the real world.” For instance, a 2016 Pew Research Center study on partisanship found that 55 percent of Democrats said the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49 percent of Republicans said the same about the Democratic Party.

In a convention hall outside Dallas, though, getting everyone into the same room seemed to change that some:

Participants didn’t identify as more politically moderate after the event, but there is evidence that they viewed those on the other side of the political aisle more positively. When asked to rate their feelings toward the other party on a scale of 0 to 100 — with higher numbers meaning warmer feelings — Democrats’ views of Republicans improved by nearly 12 points on average. For Republicans, the jump was even larger, almost 16 points.4

Before the event, people were also more likely to say that the other side was “not thinking clearly.” On a scale of 0 to 10 — where 10 was strongly agreeing with the statement that your political opponents are not thinking clearly and 0 was strongly disagreeing with the statement — the average response dropped from 6.2 to 4.7, indicating that even if participants didn’t agree with each other more, they had more respect for those they disagreed with.

Participants also left the event with a better opinion of democracy and their place in it. They were asked to rate how well they thought democracy was working on a 10-point scale, with 0 meaning that democracy was working “extremely poorly” and 10 being “extremely well.” On average, respondents’ ratings increased by 1.6 points. There were also increases in the number of respondents who agreed that public officials care a lot about what “people like me” think, and in those who felt they have a say in what government does or who thought that their opinions about politics were “worth listening to.”

Take Rob Snyder of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, one of the participants FiveThirtyEight talked to. He emailed after the event to say that while he’d always considered politics as something “better left for someone else to worry about,” his experience had made him feel like he was no longer just “one person with one voice and one vote.”

And finally, the event may have gotten us one step closer to Gallup’s vision of a more informed and empowered electorate. In the post-event survey, respondents were asked seven multiple-choice questions testing their political knowledge about things like which political party holds the majority in the House and Senate, and what the major provisions of the Affordable Care Act are. And on average, participants answered one more question correctly after the event. Participants also skipped5 about one fewer question on average, suggesting they knew (or thought they knew) the answer to more questions.

For some respondents, like Veronica Munoz of Los Angeles, the event sparked an interest in being better informed. Munoz said that while she was familiar with some of the proposals being discussed, there was a lot she didn’t know, so she was glad she had come. “Now I’m more interested in reading the newspaper to find out what’s going on with our politics and our economy and policies than I was before,” she said.

Granted, the real-world implications of these findings are limited at best. Most people don’t have the opportunity to spend their weekends debating big political issues with a group that’s carefully selected to be representative of their fellow Americans — and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. But in an era in which we’re increasingly polarized as a country and even facts are under fire, the idea that an event devoted to political debate can increase knowledge, decrease skepticism of the other side, and bolster participants’ faith in democracy — and their place in it — certainly seems like good news.