Can Julian Castro Rally Latino Voters?

Latinos became the nation’s largest minority group in the early 2000s. Next year, the country’s pool of eligible voters is expected to include more Latinos than African Americans for the first time. But more than 10 years after black voters proved pivotal in nominating and electing the first African American major party presidential candidate, a Latino candidate has never come particularly close to winning the Democratic or Republican presidential primaries.

Julian Castro, of course, hopes to change that. So far though, he’s polling in the low single digits. Whether it’s Castro or another candidate in another election cycle, will Latino Democrats mobilize behind electing one of their own for president, as black Democrats have in the past?

Before we get to Castro, let’s start with understanding the role of the Latino vote in the Democratic primary process. While the eligible voter pool is expected to include more potential Latino voters then black voters in the 2020 general election, black voters are still likely to outnumber Latino ones in the Democratic primary. That’s true for several reasons, most notably because African Americans tend to vote at higher percentages and because Latinos are more divided between parties (about 25 percent are Republican and about 60 percent are Democrats) than African Americans are (close to 90 percent are Democrats). So part of the reason media coverage of the 2020 Democratic primary, including the coverage at FiveThirtyEight, tends to emphasize the role of black voters more than Latino voters is simply that there will likely be more black voters in the primary. As a rough estimate, I would expect somewhere from 18-25 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2020 to be black and 10-20 percent to be Latino.

But the size of the black vote is not the only reason it’s important in the primary — black Democrats also sometimes vote as a big, unified bloc. In four modern, competitive Democratic primaries, black voters overwhelmingly got behind one candidate — Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — with more than 75 percent of the African American voters backing a single candidate, according to exit polls.

The Latino vote, in contrast, has tended to be less unified, regardless of whether a Latino candidate was on the ballot. The most prominent Latino Democrat to run for president was then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in 2008. He dropped out after lackluster finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, so his campaign didn’t last long enough to compete in states with large Latino populations. The overall Latino vote is much smaller on the GOP side, but neither Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas nor Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida did particularly well in 2016 with Latino voters in any of the three states where we have detailed exit poll results — each won a plurality of the Latino vote in their home states, but President Trump won at least a quarter of Hispanic voters in both Florida and Texas and a plurality in Nevada.

The candidate who has done best with Latino voters in recent primaries is Hillary Clinton, but even her performance was not dominant. In 2008, Clinton won more than 60 percent of the Latino vote in the Democratic primary. In 2016, few exit polls were conducted in states with sizable Latino populations,1 but of the four states where we do have detailed results, Clinton basically split the Latino vote in Illinois and Nevada against Bernie Sanders, while winning about 70 percent in Florida and Texas.

What does all this history mean for Castro’s candidacy? Castro, who served as mayor of San Antonio from 2009 to 2014 and then as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, is not a civil rights leader in the mold of Jackson or an already famous political figure like Clinton. But you could see him taking a path somewhat similar to another Harvard Law School graduate who ran for president in his 40s: Barack Obama.

In 2007, before the voting began, polls suggested that Clinton and Obama were running neck-and-neck among black voters. Then, Obama won Iowa and narrowly lost New Hampshire, two states with very small black populations. Once the primary moved to the South, Obama overwhelmingly won the black vote. It’s impossible to know for sure, but it seems likely that black voters moved decisively toward Obama as they saw that he had a real chance to win. And that black support helped Obama win many Southern states, including a number with heavily black Democratic electorates.

For Castro, then, the ideal scenario is that he is a viable candidate when the primaries start in February, so he can galvanize Latinos behind him in three key states in particular: California, Nevada and Texas. Nevada (where about 20 percent of Democratic primary voters are likely to be Latino) is currently scheduled to be the third state to vote.2 California and Texas, the two states with the largest Latino populations, hold their primaries along with several other states on Super Tuesday, on March 3, but both states allow early voting, so lots of voters in both states will cast ballots in February.3

In short, Castro will have less time, post-Iowa, to show Latino voters he has a real chance. That means he’ll need to use Iowa and New Hampshire as a springboard as much as possible, while also trying to rally Latino voters for strong showings in Nevada, California and Texas regardless of what happens in the first two contests.

And it’s entirely possible that he will succeed in mobilizing Latino voters. Some research has shown Latino voters are more likely to vote if a Latino candidate is on the ballot and more likely to back the Latino candidate than a white one, even in an intra-party race. But that research largely looked at state- and city-level races — we haven’t had a major Latino presidential candidate on the Democratic side, where appeals to shared racial identity are easier to make than in the GOP.

“If Latinos think that Castro has a reasonable chance of winning, they will come out in large numbers to support him,” said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College and an expert on Latino political activism. She suggested having key Latino leaders embracing Castro’s candidacy would be important, with Michelson specifically naming journalist Jorge Ramos as a key potential validator for Castro.

Michelson’s caveat — “a reasonable chance of winning” — is important and goes back to the Obama comparison. Castro is currently polling at 1 percent in many surveys. He is raising significantly less money than some of his rivals, and it will take a lot of money to organize and win in big states like California and Texas. There are few polls that have large samples of Latino Democrats, but the fact that, in the few polls available, he’s not doing much better in California (where 30 percent of eligible voters are Latino) than in Iowa (where 3 percent of eligible voters are Latino) suggests that he is not overwhelmingly popular with that demographic.

For Castro to even test the potential for a Latino candidate to mobilize Latino voters in a Democratic primary, he needs to first do fairly well in contexts where Latino voters are not particularly powerful: fundraising, endorsements and debates.

Castro is an experienced politician, and he seems to know all of this. He is running a campaign not unlike Obama’s in 2008 or Cory Booker’s and Kamala Harris’s this year — some targeted appeals to his racial group but also a traditional campaign aimed at the broader Democratic base. I spent a day on the campaign trail with Castro last month in and around Charleston, South Carolina. Castro started the day visiting a black church, then went to the site where a black history museum is being built and later to a barber shop. In short, the former mayor was campaigning for the black vote, just as all the other presidential candidates do when they go to South Carolina, where African Americans are likely to be the party’s biggest voting bloc. He doesn’t want to be narrowly defined as the Latino candidate and realizes he can’t be defined that way if he wants to win.

At the same time, Castro, who is Mexican American, went to Puerto Rico in January for his first major trip after launching his campaign. His staffers are trying to organize the relatively small (6 percent) Latino population in Iowa and get them excited about Castro. He has called for a “Marshall Plan for Central America,” referring to the aid that the United States offered to help rebuild Europe after World War II. Castro is one of the few Democratic candidates to put out a comprehensive immigration proposal, with a group of proposals that would add up to a total reversal of the aggressive border security regime that has existed not only under Trump but also Obama and George W. Bush. He is not shying away from issues that disproportionately affect Latinos and could cast him as defending Latino interests.

When I asked Castro how he would present himself as “electable” to Democratic voters, he named six states that he felt he could flip: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which Clinton barely lost in 2016, along with Arizona, Florida and Texas. Castro didn’t outright say this, but the implication was obvious: Arizona, Florida and Texas are the three states with the largest Latino electorates that did not vote for Democrats in 2016.

“It’s important to always campaign and to govern for everybody,” Castro said when I asked him about being the only Latino candidate in the race. “And I’ve always done that in public service.”

But, he added: “I recognize that there’s special meaning for the Latino community, especially now, because the community has been so targeted by this president, whether on the issue of immigration or his comments about the Mexican judge or any number of ways that he has scapegoated people. He has tried to paint people of color as the ‘other’ …. So I’m confident that my campaign is going to resonate with people of all different backgrounds, but of course there’s special meaning in the Latino community.”

Castro is doing exactly what he should be doing at this stage — trying to make himself a viable candidate to all Democrats while also laying the groundwork for Latino voters in particular to get behind him. But he probably has to be great at the first part to get a chance at the second part. And so far, the signs are not promising.


From ABC News:
Presidential candidate Julian Castro on his 2020 campaign


Tiger Woods Completes His Staggering Career Comeback

The first time Tiger Woods won the Masters, becoming the youngest to ever do it, he decimated the field and crumbled in his father’s arms. “We made it,” Earl Woods told his then-21-year-old son. Woods is now 43-going-on-60, still donning his trademark Sunday red. He scaled Augusta National this weekend for the fifth time,1 holding off a number of contenders, some of whom grew up watching him transcend the sport, on the back nine. What once seemed inevitable was anything but just a few years ago, as Woods battled surgeries and off-the-course maladies.

“Maybe the son of golf has returned,” broadcaster and former Masters champion Nick Faldo said as Woods left the 17th green.

It had been 3,954 days since Woods last won a major. Somehow, it felt even longer. Winning a major is an accomplishment reserved for a select few, but for a 10-year span beginning in the late 1990s, it was as synonymous with Woods as audacious drives and timely putts.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. Bettors knew there were signs that he was putting it all back together. But it was also known that this might have been the best remaining shot he had at summiting Augusta.

Suddenly a man who went five years without a win on tour has two in the past seven months. His turn-back-the-clock performance materialized when it mattered most. He now has three top-10s in his past four majors.

He did it by playing Amen Corner at one-under on the final day, while the other two members of the final pairing played it oneover.

Just as he has previously, Woods bashed the par-5s (-8), going three-under on them over the final round. He approached the 15th hole in a three-way tie with Xander Schauffele and Francesco Molinari, detonated his tee shot and immediately began walking toward the hole as it soared through the sky. He two-putted his way to a birdie and an outright lead and never looked back.

The last time Woods won the Masters, his chip-in on the No. 16 green provided the signature highlight of his career. Playing the same hole 14 years later, Woods added to his legend. He struck an 8-iron to the center of the green, spinning it back down the hill where it stopped 4 feet from the pin. As pandemonium played around Woods at the tee box, a replay showed him at-ease cooing “come on” to his ball at it inched closer to history.

That wasn’t the only time precision paid off for Woods on par-3s, which he played four-under for the tournament, the best four-round score among his five wins. When Molinari and Tony Finau found the water on No. 12, it was Woods who found the green and two-putted his way to par.

Nine players entered the weekend within a shot of the lead, the most in Masters history. That historically congested scoreboard continued Sunday, as each hole seemed to carry implications for the top 15 in the standings. The win marked the first time Woods came from behind in the final round to win a major.

Most unbelievable was the winding path Woods had to take just to get back to Butler Cabin. His career first began to go off the rails with a knee injury that cost him half of the 2008 season, and although he played well in 2009 (leading the PGA Tour in money won), he also blew a Sunday major lead for the first time ever when Y.E. Yang overtook him at the PGA Championship.

Then came The Accident, which brought to light an ongoing pattern of behavior that tore apart Woods’s personal life. Even that may not have been the low point, however. Woods only dropped to 52nd in the World during his post-scandal struggles — and eventually fought back to reclaim the No. 1 ranking in 2013, winning five events and once again taking the money title. But in the years that followed, Woods would play so poorly and infrequently that he dropped to 674th in the world in early 2017.

Such a pronounced valley in performance (particularly relative to the rest of his career) led plenty of pundits to write off Woods’s chances of ever winning another major. Those takes look scorching hot in retrospect, but it’s difficult to find an established veteran player whose ranking dropped outside the top 600 and who managed to claw back to win a major. Then again, Woods is one of the greatest pure talents in golf history — if anyone was going to rewrite that record book and make such an astonishing comeback, it would be him.

Age comes for everyone, of course. And the aging curve for golfers heads south well before 45, which will be here for Woods in no time. But even as younger players increasingly dominate the sport, there’s still room for perhaps the greatest golfer of all time to enhance his legacy.

It was Woods’s first Masters victory in 14 years, snapping Gary Player’s all-time record of 13 years between wins, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The win is Woods’s 81st on the PGA Tour, one shy of Sam Snead’s all-time record. It’s also his 15th major championship, three shy of Jack Nicklaus’s record. When asked about Woods’s rekindled pursuit of history on Sunday, Nicklaus said, “he’s got me shaking in my boots.”

Golf’s prodigal son has officially returned, and what happens next is not known. But no one will again underestimate what Tiger Woods is capable of on a golf course.

What’s Behind MLB’s Bizarre Spike In Contract Extensions?

On Feb. 13, 25-year-old ace Aaron Nola agreed to a four-year contract extension with the Phillies. A day later, 26-year-old Max Kepler and 25-year-old Jorge Polanco agreed to five-year extensions with the Twins. The following day, Yankees ace Luis Severino, who turned 25 a few days later, signed a pact with the Yankees. The deals marked the beginning of a historic spree of extensions.

From mid-February through Thursday, 27 players had agreed to extensions worth a total of 132 years and $2.045 billion, according to data from the MLBTradeRumors.com extension database analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. There has never been a flurry of activity like this: March represented the most dollars ($1.126 billion) and years (58) awarded in contract extensions in a one-month period that we’ve seen.

While veteran stars including Nolan Arenado, Chris Sale and Mike Trout all signed massive extensions this spring, players with little major league experience made up the majority of the deals. Fourteen of the players — including reigning NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna, who signed a $100 million extension last week, and fellow Brave Ozzie Albies, who signed a much-discussed extension Thursday — were so early in their careers that they were not yet eligible for salary arbitration, which generally requires a player to accrue three years of major league experience before becoming eligible to negotiate for significant raises. Eight others were at least a year shy of six years of service time, the amount required to become a free agent. In 2019 to date, players signing extensions have forfeited 51 combined arbitration-eligible seasons and 69 future free-agent years. The deals also include club options covering 25 seasons.

Buying out the arbitration and free agency years of younger stars for the purpose of controlling and reducing payroll costs was a practice pioneered in the early 1990s by John Hart, then general manager of the Cleveland Indians, who watched great Pittsburgh Pirates teams broken up prematurely because of escalating player costs. While extensions had since become common practice, the activity had slowed in recent seasons as young stars like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado seemed intent on hitting the open market as soon as possible.

So what’s behind the extension surge this spring? Why are MLB teams intent on avoiding arbitration and locking up young stars? It may be because arbitration wasn’t working to begin with — at least from the perspective of the teams.

Under arbitration, a player and a team each puts forth a salary amount to a panel of arbitrators, who then must decide on one of the two figures. In the past two offseasons, players have totaled more wins than losses in arbitration cases against the owners — the first time that’s happened in back-to-back years since 1989-90. Through 2015, owners had won 58 percent of all arbitration cases, according to Forbes.

This winter, Gerrit Cole ($13.5 million) and Trevor Bauer ($13 million) were among the six players to win their cases against their clubs. Arenado and the Rockies avoided a hearing, which is common practice, by signing a one-year, $26 million deal — a record for a player eligible for arbitration.

“We’re going to be seeing $20 [million] and $30 million salaries regularly in arbitration,” one agent told us. “They [MLB teams] are going to try and push back on that. How do you do it? You pull those guys out of the system.

“Every time the teams see a seam in the defense, they exploit the shit out of it and they are really good at it,” the agent said. “They are capitalizing on good players they have been watching through the draft, through the minor leagues, and who are represented largely by unqualified or under-qualified agents. The teams have scouting reports on agents the very same way they have on opposing hitters and pitchers. They have heat maps. They know our tendencies, they know who will go to arbitration, who won’t, whose business is failing and they need to vest their fees.”

The agent noted that teams look at arbitration as an important battleground and have scores of analysts that compile data for these cases. By taking players out of the arbitration system, the teams not only cap earning potential for those players, but they also reduce salary comps for other players. Agent Scott Boras described the MLB’s aggressive approach with young players and extensions this spring as “snuff contracts” — or an attempt to snuff out future markets.

Greg Dreyfuss, an associate general counsel for the union and the MLBPA’s director of analytics and baseball operations, also sees a link between the wave of extensions and players’ recent arbitration wins. The union and players have closed the data gap between clubs in making their cases. Dreyfuss says agents and players are educated on the market. While MLB payrolls remain stagnant, the records for largest arbitration salaries have been set in the past two years. The average salary of an arbitration-eligible player in 2011 was $2.73 million; that increased to $3.97 million this year, a 45 percent jump, according to analysis of MLBTradeRumors.com data.

The total dollars and players in the arbitration system has jumped from $393.6 million and 144 players in 2011 to $789.6 million spread among 199 players this last offseason, growth in part due to the game trending younger — meaning that there will be more 20-somethings entering arbitration.

“Nine of the 10 largest one-year contracts in the history of salary arbitration have come in the past two years, and overall, arbitration salaries have kept pace with the rise in industry revenue over a 10-year period,” Dreyfuss told FiveThirtyEight. “Recently a lot of really good players in that process have stood up and said, ‘No, I’m not just going to take what you give me,’ and they’ve fought for what they consider a fair salary. So, I do think there’s some correlation between players succeeding in arbitration and clubs wanting to take players out of that process.”

While spending efficiently is always a goal for teams, how these clubs have handled free agency in recent winters may be a motivating factor in some players’ decision-making. Even Trout, the game’s best player, expressed reservations about entering the open market when he signed a record extension (which is also a bargain for the Angels) this spring.

“I kind of saw what Bryce and Manny went through and it drew a red flag for me,” Trout said. “I talked to Manny and Bryce. It was a tough couple months in the offseason. They put it perspective in my mind.”

Not all extensions are club-friendly. Drefyuss notes that there have also been a number of veteran players who have agreed to extensions that will pay them lucratively into their mid-30s.

“Players agree to extensions for a variety of valid reasons, and there are any number of factors involved in their decisions,” he said

One key decision a player must make when considering an extension is how much financial upside to concede for the sake of job and financial security. In dealing with future risk, teams face less downside than individual players do. While a team can absorb a poor contract, a player is one injury or decline in performance away from having his career trajectory significantly altered.

Acuna and Albies look like future superstars, yet they signed deals that could potentially cost them nine figures in future earnings. White Sox top prospect Eloy Jimenez signed a six-year deal with two club options before he ever took a major league at-bat, limiting his financial upside. Those are the types of club-friendly deals that some on the players’ side have criticized. There is also an argument that individual players ought to consider not just themselves but their peers and future major leaguers when considering a long-term deal — and that they should wait until they are at least arbitration-eligible.

“If guys aren’t going through the system, if all the young [stars] are signing before they get there, then we are not going to have those posts to hold on to,” the agent said of salary comps. “I don’t think this is teams trying to screw with the free agent market. They are trying to take the best young players out of the arbitration system.”

Toronto outfielder Randal Grichuk, 27, said the Blue Jays began negotiating with him last month during spring training in the midst of the extension spree. He eventually signed a five-year, $52 million extension.

“The way I looked at it was taking guaranteed money, setting my family up for life, it’s hard to turn down,” Grichuk said. “If I leave a few dollars on the table now, I’m going to just be finishing my 31 season [after his deal expires] going into free agency. If I produce well, I’m going to be young enough to make some more. And if I’m not able to, whether due to injuries, failures, anything happens, I’m still set for life.”

Grichuk was into his arbitration years when he signed his extension, but he didn’t take issue with young stars like Acuna opting for financial security earlier along in the process.

“He could have probably waited and got more, but it’s tough to talk negatively about a guy who just got $100 million and is set for life,” Grichuk said. “What’s the difference between $100 [million] and $200 [million]? His kids’ kids’ kids won’t have to work? … I think it’s one of those things where his life changes completely.”

Neil Paine contributed research

How Many Times A Day Is A Broken Clock Right?

Welcome to The Riddler. Every week, I offer up problems related to the things we hold dear around here: math, logic and probability. There are two types: Riddler Express for those of you who want something bite-size and Riddler Classic for those of you in the slow-puzzle movement. Submit a correct answer for either,1 and you may get a shoutout in next week’s column. If you need a hint or have a favorite puzzle collecting dust in your attic, find me on Twitter.

Riddler Express

From Keith Wynroe, what time is it? Puzzle time!

You purchase a new clock but are dismayed to realize that both of its hands are identical. At first, it seems it’s going to be impossible to tell the time because you don’t know which hand is for the minutes and which is for the hours.

However, you realize you don’t need to know which is which for every time — for example, when it’s 12:30, the minute hand will be exactly on the 6 and the hour hand will be halfway between the 12 and the 1. It can’t be the other way around because if the hour hand were exactly on 6, the minute hand would have to exactly on 12, which it’s not. So you know what time it is.

How many times during the day will you not be able to tell the time?

Submit your answer

Riddler Classic

On Sunday, the Baylor Lady Bears won the 2019 NCAA women’s basketball championship, and on Monday, the Virginia Cavaliers did the same on the men’s side.

But what about all of the unsung transitive champions? For example, earlier in the season, Florida State beat Virginia, thereby laying claim to a transitive championship for the Seminoles. And Boston College beat Florida State, claiming one for the Eagles. And IUPUI beat Boston College, and Ball State beat IUPUI, and so on and so on.

Baylor, meanwhile, only lost once, to Stanford, who lost to five teams, and so on.

How many transitive national champions were there this season in the women’s and men’s games? Or, maybe more descriptively, how many teams weren’t transitive national champions? You should include tournament losses in your calculations. All of this season’s women’s results are here and all of the men’s results are here.

Submit your answer

Solution to last week’s Riddler Express

Congratulations to 👏 Joseph Kusko 👏 of Katy, Texas, winner of last week’s Riddler Express!

Last week brought a mysterious sequence of letters, and you were meant to figure out what letter belonged in the blank space with the hint that you’d do well to think outside the box.

In fact, you’d do well to think outside the alphabet entirely. The missing letter was Θ, the Greek capital letter theta.

The letters in the sequence look like capital letters in the English alphabet, but they also look like capital letters in the Greek alphabet — iota, beta, tau, mu and so on. The trick to the sequence is that it hops through the Greek alphabet in such a way that there are no dead giveaways as to its Hellenic origins, such as Ω or Γ. Specifically, the sequence starts at I and goes backward seven letters with each step, wrapping around back to the end of the alphabet when necessary. Seven letters before O (that’s omicron), or after A (that’s alpha), is Θ (that’s theta).

Solution to last week’s Riddler Classic

Congratulations to 👏 Charlie Koudsi 👏 of Los Angeles, winner of last week’s Riddler Classic!

Last week, lucky you had won two gift cards to your favorite coffee shop, Riddler Caffei-Nation. The cards looked identical and each was initially loaded with 50 free drinks. You were interested more in the drinks and less in record keeping, so each time you redeemed a beverage you simply presented the cashier with one of the cards at random. One sad and fateful day, however, the cashier told you he couldn’t accept the card you presented him because it was out of drinks. What was the probability that the other card still had free drinks on it? How many free drinks could you expect were still available?

Praise the Coffee Gods, there was a 92 percent chance that your other card was still valid, containing at least one drink credit. What’s more, you could expect that there were about seven drinks left on that card.

So how do we get to those answers? Suppose, for the sake of generality, that each card started with \(n\) drinks. What we want to know are how many drinks, \(k\) (which could be anything from zero to \(n\)), remain on the other card when one card zeros out.

Call the cards A and B. As solver Jason Ash explained, there are two possibilities: 1) Card A runs out of drinks first and Card B has \(k\) drinks remaining or 2) Card B runs out of drinks first and Card A has \(k\) drinks remaining. Since the cards are identical and we pick which to use randomly, these outcomes are equally likely, so we only need to analyze one of them, and then we can double the probabilities that result from that analysis.

So suppose it is A that runs out and there are \(k\) drinks left on B. For this to happen, Jason explained, we must have purchased \(n\) drinks on the first card, \(n – k\) drinks on the second card and attempted one more purchase on the first card, for a total number of visits to the coffee counter of \(2n – k + 1\). Of those purchases, \(n\) must have occurred on a single card. This suggests an “X choose Y” binomial formula. Specifically, the chances of there being \(k\) drinks left on Card B are

\begin{equation*}{{2n-k} \choose {n}}\left(\frac{1}{2}\right)^{2n-k+1}\end{equation*}

We then multiply this by two — to account for the fact that it might have been Card B that exhausted first. That gives

\begin{equation*}{{2n-k} \choose {n}}\left(\frac{1}{2}\right)^{2n-k}\end{equation*}

If we plug in 50 for \(n\) and zero for \(k\), we find the chance that both cards are actually exhausted — that chance is about 8 percent, so the chance that the other card does have at least a coffee left is about 92 percent — our first answer.

To find the expected value of the number of coffees that remain on the other card (\(k\)), we can sum the expression above by all of the coffee possibilities. Specifically,

\begin{equation*}\sum_{k=0}^{n} k \times {{2n-k} \choose {n}}\left(\frac{1}{2}\right)^{2n-k}\end{equation*}

Plug in \(n=50\) and that equals just over seven, our second answer. And we’re done.

Curious about specifically what numbers of free coffees are likely left for you? Solver Laurent Lessard plotted the probabilities of all of the specific numbers of drinks that might remain on the other card when one card gets maxed out:

Want more riddles?

Well, aren’t you lucky? There’s a whole book full of the best puzzles from this column and some never-before-seen head-scratchers. It’s called “The Riddler,” and it’s in stores now!

Want to submit a riddle?

Email me at [email protected]

The NBA Playoffs Are Here. And We Have Thoughts.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Now that every NBA team has played Game 82 of the regular season, we can finally get to the real business at hand: The playoffs. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference, where the Milwaukee Bucks earned the franchise’s first top seed since the league adopted the 16-team playoff format in 1984.

What do we think about the big picture in the East? The No. 1 Bucks and No. 2 Raptors were the most dominant during the regular season, but seeds 3 and 4 (Philadelphia and Boston) have as much talent as anybody in the conference on paper. Who do you think should have the edge and why?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I’m going to go ahead and agree with our algorithm that there’s a big gap between the top two (Milwaukee and Toronto) and No. 3 and 4 (Philly and Boston). Milwaukee and Toronto were a LOT better in the regular season. I agree that Philly might have as much talent on paper, but they didn’t really get it together. I’m not sure you can say that about Boston, especially with Marcus Smart out.

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Yeah. I spent some time around the Sixers over the past week, and Brett Brown admits what Nate just said: That the Sixers have an enormous amount of talent on paper, but he almost would’ve preferred to have less rest if it meant having more cohesion with that group.

The Marcus Smart injury could end up being really problematic for the Celtics for a couple reasons, too — we don’t know exactly how much time he’ll miss, but it could even be a bad sign in this series vs. Indiana.

Smart would have been the guy guarding Bojan Bogdanovic, who’s essentially taken over as the Pacers’ top gun since Victor Oladipo went down with injury.

Bogdanovic struggled against Smart all season, and his worst numbers of the year were against Boston because of it. But now, I assume they’ll go to Jaylen Brown to defend him, and that hasn’t worked well at all in those instances.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Our predictions give the Celtics a 79 percent chance to advance. Even with the Oladipo injury for the Pacers, that still seems … high?

chris.herring: Probably a little high, yeah. Especially now, without Smart.

natesilver: I mean, I think people tend to underestimate how little luck there is in a seven-game series. The better team tends to win out, especially if it has home-court advantage.

chris.herring: I tend to think the Pacers are The Little Engine That Could. They play very hard … but that will probably only get them so far.

natesilver: For what it’s worth, our algorithm is giving Boston some credit for being more talented “on paper” than they played like during the regular season. Jayson Tatum is probably a better player going forward than what he showed this season, for instance. Gordon Hayward is obviously in a different category, but maybe him, too. Boston also had the point differential that you’d associate with a 52-win team instead of a 49-win team, which is not huge, but it’s something.

chris.herring: Yeah. Hayward has come on really nicely as of late, including a 9-of-9 game vs. Indiana last week. If he’s getting back to his old self, it could be tough for Indiana.

natesilver: It does seem, though, that it’s a team with only one real star-level talent right now, and Kyrie Irving seems pretty checked out. That’s subjective, I know, but they have a pretty big hill to climb — having to win three road series against three VERY good teams (likely Milwaukee, Toronto and Golden State, in that order) even if they get past Indiana.

chris.herring: I’ll be honest: I’m not very amped about the East’s first round at all. But that second round will probably be eons better than the West’s conference final.

neil: Yeah, it sounds from this like Boston-Indiana is the first-round series that has caught your attention the most. But that might be by default.

chris.herring: I think Philly-Brooklyn could be somewhat interesting. It doesn’t sound like an absolute given that Joel Embiid will play Game 1. The Nets are essentially playing with house money, and though they’ve struggled as of late, they had a harder end-of-season schedule than the other teams fighting their way into the playoffs.

natesilver: The Nets are kind of a buzzy team. But Philly, maybe in contrast to a Marcus Smart-less Boston, has enough talent that maybe they can be slightly subpar and still win fairly easily.

chris.herring: Yeah. I don’t expect much from Brooklyn, but I could see them making things interesting because of the limited time the Sixers have had together. Other than that — and some slight interest in how Boston looks without Smart/what it means for Indiana — I wish I could just simulate the East’s first round like a video game or something

neil: Haha. Let’s just play it out in NBA 2K.

chris.herring: Maybe that isn’t fair to Orlando, though. They’ve been good for a decent amount of time now.

neil: They’ve been on fire (11-2) since mid-March.

chris.herring: I just feel like it ultimately won’t matter against a club like Toronto.

natesilver: I also think Philly has more flip-the-switch potential than Boston. Maybe Jimmy Butler accepts his role as what’s essentially a third fiddle on offense and plays dominant defense and starts hitting 3s again. Maybe they treat the playoffs as a fun eight-week road trip instead of worrying too much about how the team is constructed in the future.

tchow: Just tell me what needs to happen to get Sixers vs. Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.

neil: Well, the Raptors would have to lose in the second round AGAIN. How soul crushing would that be for that franchise? This was sorta supposed to be their year after LeBron left the East. (Especially after adding Kawhi Leonard.)

chris.herring: I don’t know how I feel yet about the Sixers-Raptors series, assuming it happens. But I think the Bucks should be favored against everyone, honestly. I think everybody has downplayed them, even as they’ve had this unbelievable season, with the likely MVP and coach of the year.

natesilver: The Raptors somehow won 58 games with Kawhi only playing 60. That’s seriously impressive.

chris.herring: I don’t know if it’s a small-market thing. Or if it’s just that people seem to be a year late on everything. It is impressive!

At the same time, they won 59 last year without him. So I’m more impressed by the Bucks essentially having the same cast and transforming into what they are now. I don’t know. Maybe it’s simply Milwaukee’s newness that I’m taken by.

neil: Are we also maybe holding Toronto’s playoff track record against them? (Even if it’s a relatively new version of that team this season?)

chris.herring: Nah. I’m not. Kawhi is such a different player than DeMar DeRozan, who had a game that didn’t translate all that well to postseason. Also, Pascal Siakam has improved by leaps and bounds. You could ignore him before on defense, and now that’s tantamount to having a death wish.

natesilver: They also have one of the two real stars in the East that’s won a ring before (Kawhi, with Kyrie being the other). Which I know sounds like boilerplate sports radio talk, but our research has found that playoff experience is actually fairly predictive.

chris.herring: I think Toronto fans have wanted to believe their team was different for a couple years now. Almost like that “Shawshank Redemption” scene where Red keeps going to the parole hearing and saying he’s a changed man, ready to rejoin society. But this time, the Raptors are different. Kawhi alone would have made them that way, but Siakam is a different player. As is Lowry, who hasn’t quite looked himself at all times. But has the experience, and has a better roster around him.

natesilver: Our algorithm also thinks that all six of their top rotation guys are above-average defensively. So that’s likely to keep them in every game unless they get mentally checked out.

Which, I don’t know. I wouldn’t totally rule out the possibility that they take a rough loss in a Game 1 or 2 somewhere and start panicking, and Kawhi starts thinking about how nice the Clippers could look next year with him in L.A.

But on balance, I think I’m on the side that says people are reading too much into the Raptors’ past playoff failures. It’s a different team this year, and there’s no LeBron.

chris.herring: Like the Munchkins when they realize the Wicked Witch is dead. Why do I keep using these movie references? What is wrong with me?

neil: LOL.

tchow: As of right now though, our model actually favors Toronto (slightly) over the Bucks to make the Finals (46 percent vs. 42 percent). Toronto fans have to be happy to see that.

neil: Do you guys agree?

natesilver: Yeah, that surprised me a bit. But Toronto has more playoff experience and Milwaukee has some injury issues.

tchow: I guess it’ll go a long way in the “playoff experience” argument to see how far a team like the Bucks go this year after that seven-game series last season against Boston. I have a hard time betting against them in the East though.

natesilver: On the flip side, Giannis Antetokounmpo is presumably going to start playing 37-38 minutes a game now after only playing 32.8 minutes in the regular season. That actually makes a pretty big difference.

chris.herring: That surprises me, but only a little. Their records aren’t that far off. The Raptors have played Kawhi a lot fewer games than Giannis.

What I do think will be key at some point, which we haven’t talked about yet, is the Bucks’ need to get back to full strength. They’ve been without Malcolm Brogdon, and Tony Snell has missed time, too. It doesn’t matter in a round 1 matchup. But it comes into play in a very big way in the following two rounds, should they get that far.

natesilver: I do wonder if Milwaukee’s whole floor spacing thing will work slightly less well in the playoffs. If you can contain Giannis — obviously not at all easy — there really isn’t a second iso-ball scorer on the whole roster. Maybe Eric Bledsoe, I guess.

chris.herring: I just don’t know how it’s done

natesilver: Containing Giannis you mean?

chris.herring: Before, there wasn’t much trust or belief. But now, you kind of either have to help in the paint against him, or leave open someone like Brook Lopez, who will gladly shoot a triple.

There were screenshots last postseason of four Celtics standing in the paint at one time to stop him, because Milwaukee wasn’t trained to score outside of his drives to the basket.

Now, even Giannis will pull 3s every now and then, just to keep defenses honest. Bledsoe’s had a nice year. Lopez is there, but wasn’t before.

natesilver: I guess I’m saying a team like Toronto that is quick (at least with certain lineups) and can switch a lot, maybe they can contest that Lopez 3.

Or get a few steals when the Bucks telegraph their intentions too much.

tchow: Nikola Mirotic also may be back in time for Game 1. So yeah, the Bucks will have shooters.

neil: And for what it’s worth (maybe something?), Milwaukee beat Toronto in three of their four regular season matchups. Those games were also before all the little upgrades Milwaukee made around the trade deadline. But we’ll have to see how the Bucks look at full strength and if they and the Raptors can even make it all the way to the Conference Finals to face each other.

Let’s move on to the West, where — here’s a surprise — the Golden State Warriors are the No. 1 seed, for the fourth time in five years. Our model currently gives the Warriors a commanding 78 percent chance of winning the conference (and a 60 percent chance of winning the NBA title). On the one hand, that is amazingly high, but does it sound right to you guys?

natesilver: The West playoffs feel a lot less climactic to me now that the Rockets wound up on the same side of the bracket as Golden State.

chris.herring: It sounds about right to me. The one side of the West bracket is the equivalent of Michigan State and Duke being in the same region.

natesilver: Utah is also a pretty rough first-round matchup for Houston. Rudy Gobert is going to make it much harder for James Harden to get to the rim.

neil: Well, Chris, we were talking the other day this idea that the Rockets may have actually wanted the No. 4 seed so that they’d face the Warriors sooner. Can you explain a little about what you meant there?

chris.herring: I fully believe the Rockets may be happy with this setup. At this point, they’re probably of the opinion that they can beat anyone other than GSW (and maybe them, too).

Utah isn’t a pushover at all. It’s kind of an amazing first-round matchup that, in most years would be at least a second-round matchup, and in a post-Warriors universe, maybe even a conference finals.

But that said, Houston beat Utah last year. And they did it by neutralizing what the Jazz do best: Take away threes and the rim. They forced the Rockets to take midrange shots, which they basically view as evil. But the Rockets did that — Chris Paul is a midrange specialist and went off for 40 points one game — and were able to win. So if the Rockets can get by Utah again, having the Warriors in round 2 instead of the Western Conference finals might be beneficial. Just so Paul and Harden aren’t exhausted or injured like they were by round 3 last season, when they played the Warriors.

natesilver: Yeah, I think Chris Paul is key in that series. Utah’s pretty optimally designed to curb Harden as much as you can curb him, but CP3 is a big problem for them.

natesilver: Overall, though, I think if I’m Houston, I’d rather have a hope-and-a-prayer that someone else knocks Golden State out before they reach the finals. Or that someone on the Warriors gets hurt.

chris.herring: Yeah. They’d never admit it out loud, but the potential theory that they want GSW early is fascinating to me. If your line of thought is that you’re almost certainly gonna have to go through them anyway, might as well do it before you’re too spent to have a chance.

neil: Right, because fatigue seemed like a big issue for them by the Western Conference finals last year.

chris.herring: Golden State doesn’t fear anyone, but I think they would privately acknowledge that they see Houston as the only team that, in optimal circumstances, could beat them

natesilver: It could make the Western Conference finals pretty boring though. Our model says there’s a 93 percent chance the Warriors win the WCF (!) conditional on reaching them.

chris.herring: Yeah. That’s why I keep saying the semifinals are gonna be the best round this year. Especially if Houston-Golden State is the matchup, along with those East series.

tchow: Hey kudos to Oklahoma City for avoiding Golden State AND Denver AND Houston. Actually, OKC vs. Portland is the only series in the entire playoffs where the lower seed is favored according to our model. We give the Thunder a 78 percent chance of advancing.

natesilver: OKC and Denver saw their championship odds improve when Houston wound up in the No. 4 seed, and it’s mostly because of the parlay that Houston beats Golden State (possible) and then THEY beat Houston (also possible). I’m not sure that Denver would have any chance against Golden State in a seven-game series, however.

chris.herring: I feel bad that I don’t believe in Denver, given how well they played all year, with injuries, and with so many young guys on that roster.

neil: Is Denver the weirdest No. 2 seed we’ve seen in recent memory? They didn’t even make the playoffs last year, albeit with 46 wins.

chris.herring: Also, every single time Denver plays Golden State, it feels very much like GSW goes out of its way to show how easily they can dominate the Nuggets when they want to. Basically to show that a playoff series could get embarrassing if Golden State felt like imposing its will.

natesilver: The Nuggets benefited a lot from their depth in the regular season — that’s why they battled so well through injuries — but depth doesn’t mean much in the playoffs.

chris.herring: Their relative inexperience in the playoffs concerns me maybe more than it should.

natesilver: It’s a pretty weird roster, and I think the Nuggets have some offseason work to do to turn a couple of their many, many league-average players into another really good player, especially someone who can play out on the wing.

chris.herring: Part of me feels like they simply may not have another gear. Almost like those Tom Thibodeau teams. Because they’re young, perhaps they don’t know to pace themselves. And how could they? They missed the playoffs in the final game of the season last year.

But the fact that Golden State just runs them out of the building whenever they play very much feels like an experienced team versus one that isn’t and needs some playoff seasoning so that they’re ready for the next time.

neil: They feel destined to become another poster child for the difference between what wins in the regular season and the playoffs, for all the reasons you guys mentioned. But at least they do have a legit star in Nikola Jokic.

natesilver: Denver does have a pretty big home-court advantage because of the altitude. So that they got the No. 2 seed is actually pretty relevant.

chris.herring: That’s true. I at least like that they aren’t reliant on the altitude anymore to win games. (Although those teams that played at a breakneck pace under George Karl — and Doug Moe before that — were pretty fun to watch.)

neil: Good point. They were an NBA-best 34-7 at home this season, and they are in that relatively lesser bottom section of the bracket.

natesilver: I mean, we have the Nuggets with a 53 percent chance of reaching the Western Conference finals … and a 6 percent chance of reaching the NBA Finals. That tells you a lot right there.

chris.herring: What else are you all interested to see in the West? Any hope whatsoever for Portland, despite the injury to Jusuf Nurkic?

neil: Portland is another team with a lot to prove after that unexpected first-round sweep vs. the Pelicans (remember THEM?) last year. But OKC is a very tough draw.

chris.herring: Portland got swept this year by OKC. Our projection model is right to not trust them. And Nurkic not being there is a killer. They had put together a really, really nice run before his injury, and perhaps could have made things interesting.

tchow: I really feel for Portland fans. So many “what ifs” due to injury, and they always seem to happen when it looks like they’re on the cusp of putting it all together.

natesilver: Pretty unusual to have a No. 6 seed be better than a 3 to 1 favorite (OKC is 78 percent to win the series, according to our model), but I think I agree, too.

chris.herring: Yeah. There’s isn’t much to love about Portland’s chances

natesilver: The Thunder are also the team that I’d fear the most if I were Golden State after Houston.

chris.herring: Damian Lillard went nuts during the regular season against the Thunder. Had a 50-point game and averaged better than 30 a night against them, yet they dropped all four meetings.

tchow: Is CJ McCollum going to be back for this first round?

chris.herring: Yeah. McCollum is back. But he had a true shooting percentage of 46 against OKC, his worst mark of any opponent out West that he played at least three times.

natesilver: Tenacious defense + Paul George (especially if he can get back to his midseason form) is a formula that gives you a puncher’s chance against any opponent.

chris.herring: I don’t trust OKC yet. Some of that is Russell Westbrook’s tendencies being all over the place at times. Some of it is George not having played the way he was playing earlier in the year (still not sure his shoulder is completely right at times).

Their defense, which is one of the best in the league, has been merely average since the break. They don’t have enough shooting. But their top-level talent is better than anybody else’s, outside of Houston and GSW. And that ultimately matters. And their side of the bracket is amazing.

natesilver: Jerami Grant shot 39 percent from three this year, although that’s likely a fluke (he’s 33 percent careerwise).

chris.herring: He’s been a big bright spot for them.

natesilver: If they had another wing that was a true 39-40 percent 3-point shooter, that would make a ton of difference.

neil: OK, so to wrap things up, let’s look at the big picture for the title as it runs through Golden State (like always). If we each had to put together a short list of teams — from either conference — who could beat the Warriors in these playoffs, how many teams would be on it and who are they?

Mine might be two: Rockets and Bucks.

natesilver: Our algorithm feels strongly that the list is EXACTLY three teams long: Milwaukee, Toronto and Houston.

tchow: Bucks

natesilver: I guess people — or Neil and Tony, anyway — have trouble envisioning the Raptors doing it.

tchow: Sorry, Toronto.

natesilver: And to be clear, the Raptors would be big underdogs. Like 3:1 underdogs, per our model, despite having home-court advantage.

tchow: Another way to ask that question, Nate, as a fan of gambling, Warriors have a 60 percent chance of winning another title. Would you bet on the field?

natesilver: No. I think that’s a pretty fair price. And it’s pretty close to the Vegas odds, I think.

chris.herring: Yeah. I feel much better about Milwaukee, just based off their season, analytics and star power than anyone else. But I don’t think Toronto would match up poorly at all with Golden State. They’d have guys who could credibly guard Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and have enough offense of their own to make things interesting.

Boston seemed like a good bet to get there in preseason, but I don’t trust them to accomplish that without Smart being healthy., a And without them putting together a solid string of performances, I still ultimately think it’s the Warriors winning it all again. But I hope someone at least gives them a competitive series, be it Houston, Milwaukee (Toronto?) or both.

tchow: That’s all folks!


We used math to help LeBron cast 'Space Jam 2'


The Lightning’s Historic Dominance Won’t Matter Without A Cup

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin today, with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lighting entering as heavy betting favorites. And for good reason: Their regular season resume is impeccable. They earned 128 points by winning 62 games, placing them in a tie with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most regular-season wins in league history.

En route to all those wins, the Bolts led the NHL in goals scored, powerplay goals scored, shooting percentage and penalty kill percentage1 and finished third in save percentage. Nikita Kucherov became the first player in more than a decade to register 120 or more points, and Steven Stamkos had the most productive season of his already immensely productive career.

Tampa is a balanced juggernaut, and every other team should be very afraid of it.

With all that said, it must be noted that regular-season dominance hardly guarantees postseason glory in the NHL. Of the 13 teams that have won the Presidents’ Trophy since the lockout of 2004-05, just two have gone on to lift the Stanley Cup. And of the 10 regular-season winners to earn 120 or more regular-season points in league history, just four have gone on to win professional hockey’s ultimate prize.2

Still, NHL favorites3 haven’t had it all that bad since the lockout, especially when compared with the other three major North American men’s leagues. Only NBA favorites have had better championship odds going into the playoffs over the past 13 years.

Hockey favorites don’t have it too bad

For each of the four major North American men’s leagues, playoff field size and average pre-playoff title probability* for favorites, 2006-2018

League Playoff Teams per Year Favorite’s Average Championship Probability
National Basketball Association 16 36.1%
National Hockey League 16 23.5
Major League Baseball 8/10 21.4
National Football League 12 18.7

* Based on a logit regression between per-game scoring differential and championships won for each league.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

While it might not be as inevitable as, say, the Golden State Warriors winning the NBA title in 2018 (or 2017 or 2015), Tampa’s regular-season dominance suggests that it’s poised to continue this trend. The Bolts scored 103 more goals than they conceded during the regular season; the next best mark was set by the Calgary Flames, who posted a +62 goal differential. The gulf between best and second-best is immense, and it underscores Tampa’s historic regular-season greatness. And indeed, Tampa may be the NHL’s best team since the lockout.

Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which estimates the strength of every team in the NHL,4 reiterates just how special this Bolts group is. From 2005-06 to 2017-18, just three teams finished the regular season with an SRS better than 1, and no team eclipsed 1.2. The most recent team to do so — the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks — won the Stanley Cup. Tampa finished the 2018-19 regular season with an SRS of 1.21. All signs are pointing to late-spring celebrations on the Gulf Coast.

Tampa’s only real concern at the moment is the health of Victor Hedman, the reigning Norris Trophy winner for the top defenseman. The Swede missed Tampa’s final three games with an “upper-body injury.” Hedman has a history of concussions, and “upper-body injury” is often NHL front-office code for concussion. The slick-skating defenseman is Tampa’s fourth-highest scorer, its power-play quarterback and the leader of a rearguard partially responsible for that gaudy goal differential. The Bolts can probably survive a first-round tilt against a slightly better-than-average Blue Jackets team without Hedman, but things might not be as easy against subsequent teams.

If there’s a cautionary tale for this iteration of the Bolts, it’s that Red Wings team from 1995-96: Detroit earned the second-most regular-season points in NHL history and boasted two of the league’s best offensive players (Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman) and the league’s reigning Norris Trophy winner (Paul Coffey) and yet failed to advance beyond the Western Conference finals. In the NHL, history is written between April and June, not October and April. Tampa is on top of the hockey world at the moment. But that world could change significantly in a matter of weeks.

For One Former All-Star, The Hits Stopped Coming

You have to feel for Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis. Yes, Davis is being paid handsomely ($23 million) this season, and he’s had a solid 12-year major league career. But he currently finds himself mired in one of the most inglorious streaks in baseball history: zero hits in his past 49 at-bats, a new MLB record for futility.

Davis broke the nearly 8-year-old mark set by former Dodgers infielder Eugenio Vélez, who went 0-for-46 over a 30-game span that lasted more than a calendar year. Vélez himself “surpassed” a record (45 at-bats) that Craig Counsell had tied earlier the same summer; the original 45-at-bat mark was set by Bill Bergen in 1909 and matched by Dave Campbell in 1973. Here’s a progression of all hitless streaks (among nonpitchers) that lasted 40 or more at-bats over time since 1908, the earliest season in Baseball-Reference.com’s game-level data:1

Before the season, FanGraphs’ depth chart projections called for Davis to hit just .200 this year, largely by virtue of the awful .168 mark he posted last season — already tied for 34th-worst ever by a hitter in a season that qualified for the batting crown. After Davis’s 0-for-28 start in 2019, FanGraphs now see him with a .193 projected batting average over the rest of the season, implying that they believe his true batting-average talent to be 7 points below the Mendoza Line. (Most of the time, players with extremely low batting averages have substantially higher true talent but are also very unlucky.) Combining that with the at-bats he’s already banked, Davis projects to finish the season with a .181 average, which would once again give him one of the 75 or so worst batting-average seasons in MLB history — for the second time in as many years. (So much for reversion to the mean!)

But the irony is that Davis is actually hitting the ball better this season, at least according to MLB’s Statcast tracking system. Davis’s average exit velocity of 91.3 miles per hour is higher than it was in 2016 (90.8), when he hit 38 home runs and was a meaningful contributor to plenty of Oriole victories. The big problem is that Davis strikes out so much that he doesn’t have a chance to make use of those powerful swings. So far this season, he has struck out in 47 percent of his plate appearances, more than double the MLB average rate. (Last year, he struck out 37 percent of the time.)

Although Davis ought to have broken out of his hitless streak by now — Statcast reports an expected batting average of .119 for Davis this season, based on the quality of his batted balls — his strikeout totals have made it impossible for him to be a functional hitter. The only real question is how much longer the Orioles will continue to pencil him into the lineup and give him more chances to extend the now-record streak of ineffective hitting.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

CORRECTION (April 9, 2019, 7 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the hitless record tied by Craig Counsell. The record was 45 at-bats, not 45 games.

Tiger Woods May Not Get A Better Shot At Another Green Jacket

As the world’s greatest golfers convene in Augusta, Georgia, this week for the Masters, it’s time for every sports fan’s annual rite of spring: wild speculation about whether Tiger Woods can add a fifth green jacket to his closet. Picking Woods used to be a trendy bet; then it began to feel like a totally futile exercise. Well after he last won the event in 2005, there was a period when Woods was in the news constantly for everything except golf success. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that Woods’s relevance as a winning golfer seemed finished, along with his bid to chase down Jack Nicklaus’s record for all-time majors won.

But that all changed last season, when Woods put everything back together again to finish eighth on the PGA Tour money list and win the season-ending Tour Championship in September. Now Woods is back, in his best position in years to win another Masters. According to VegasInsider, Woods has the third-best odds of any player to win this weekend; he’s also playing even more inspired golf than he did during last year’s comeback campaign. But at age 43, will this be one of Woods’s last chances to win at Augusta before his days of being a viable champion are over?

Certainly, Tiger has been outplaying many of his much younger rivals these past few seasons. Since the end of his lost 2017 campaign, Woods ranks sixth among qualified5 PGA Tour players in total strokes gained per round, trailing only Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood. He’s mostly regained his old mastery of irons on approach shots and still has some of the game’s best feel for shots around the green. In terms of strokes gained, Woods is picking up 1.67 shots (relative to the average player) per round so far in 2019, an even better mark than the 1.60 he posted last season — which itself was easily his best performance in five years.

One of the most impressive aspects of Woods’s early play this season has been improved accuracy off the tee. According to the PGA Tour, Woods has hit 65.2 percent of possible fairways on his drives this season, which ranks 54th out of 214 qualified players. That might not sound amazing, but by Woods’s standards, it is ultraprecise accuracy. Last year, he hit only 59.4 percent of fairways, which ranked him 127th, and he struggled to break 55 percent over the four injury-plagued seasons before that. (Even during his really great pre-scandal/injury seasons, hitting fairways was an Achilles’ heel. In 2007, when he made the most money playing golf of his career, Woods ranked 152nd in driving accuracy and failed to hit 60 percent of fairways.) When Woods is scuffling, the first indication is often a wayward drive that requires subsequent artistry just to make par.

With the help of that improved accuracy, Woods now ranks 72nd in strokes gained on drives this year — he was 100th last year — and ninth in strokes gained from the tee to the green, picking up 1.48 shots per round before ever setting his spikes on the putting surface. Classic Tiger was always a tee-to-green monster, ranking either first or second in the category every healthy season from 2006 to 2013, so his strong performance in that category this year is another signal that Woods is returning to vintage form.

It’s also a very good sign for his chances at Augusta. That’s because, as Todd Schneider wrote about for FiveThirtyEight a few years ago, the Masters often comes down to a player’s skills with the long clubs — contrary to the tournament’s reputation for being a putting contest.

Great PGA Tour players generally assert themselves most on approach shots and drives anyway, gaining about 4 strokes relative to average from tee to green for every extra shot they pick up on putts. But the recent history of Masters winners also suggests that a great long game is the true prerequisite for winning the green jacket. The average winner since strokes gained was first tracked in 2004 (excluding the 2016 and 2017 winners, Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia, because they lacked enough PGA Tour rounds to qualify for official leaderboards) ranked only about 86th in putting performance per round but 35th in strokes gained off the tee, 32nd in strokes gained on approach shots and 18th in total strokes gained from tee to green.

Masters winners do their best work from tee to green

Strokes gained rankings by category for Masters Tournament winners during the seasons they won, 2004-18

PGA Tour Rank
Year Masters Winner Off Tee Approach Around Green Tee to Green Putting Total
2018 Patrick Reed 104 74 2 29 72 24
2017 Sergio García
2016 Danny Willett
2015 Jordan Spieth 15 11 7 4 9 2
2014 Bubba Watson 2 47 63 7 109 8
2013 Adam Scott 2 16 77 5 108 11
2012 Bubba Watson 1 59 84 3 160 6
2011 Charl Schwartzel 22 45 64 19 96 20
2010 Phil Mickelson 66 5 32 5 133 12
2009 Ángel Cabrera 37 48 169 63 63 51
2008 Trevor Immelman 116 50 11 31 191 113
2007 Zach Johnson 61 30 164 60 5 13
2006 Phil Mickelson 12 4 66 4 40 5
2005 Tiger Woods 4 4 128 4 5 1
2004 Phil Mickelson 7 22 43 5 128 9
Average 34.5 31.9 70.0 18.4 86.1 21.2

Garcia and Willett didn’t play enough rounds to qualify for the PGA Tour’s rankings during their Masters-winning seasons.

Source: PGAtour.com

Strokes gained tee-to-green was the top category (or tied for the top) for 46 percent of the Masters winners over that span,6 and 62 percent of winners ranked among the Top 10 in the statistic — like Woods does this year. (This is consistent with my previous research that driving distance and approach accuracy are the two secret weapons players can possess at Augusta, causing them to play better in the Masters than their overall scoring average would predict.)

I haven’t mentioned Tiger’s putting numbers yet, and with good reason. Woods used to be the greatest putter in the world, but so far this season he ranks just 74th in strokes gained with the flatstick, adding only 0.19 shots above average per round. Last year, he was better — 48th on tour — though he still wasn’t the putting maestro who once showed me and countless others the fundamentals of a great stroke. However, Augusta has frequently seen putters who rank far worse than Woods win during the era of detailed PGA Tour tracking data. (In fact, more than half of qualified Masters winners since 2004 have ranked worse than 78th in putting.) Putting performance is so random from year to year — much less from tournament to tournament or even round to round — that it’s a lot easier for a good tee-to-green player to get hot on the green for a weekend than for a good putter to suddenly have an uncharacteristically amazing weekend off the tee.

Because of all this, it’s not hard to understand why Woods is a strong 12-to-1 bet to win the Masters. But it’s also not hard to imagine that this could be the 43-year-old’s last, best chance to win another green jacket. Using our research on historical major winners from a few years ago, here’s what the aging curve for championship golfers looks like:

That spike in wins for players in their early 40s came from 42-year-olds Ernie Els, Darren Clarke, Payne Stewart, Tom Kite and Gary Player, and it was the last actual uptick on the chart — and Woods is now on the wrong side of it. Jack Nicklaus famously won his final major at age 46, but most great golfers are largely done winning by their early to mid-40s. And the game has only gotten younger in the twilight of Woods’s career; while the average major-winner in our data set above (through 2014) was 31.9, that number is just 29.6 in the years since. With his own early career dominance and popularity, Woods has inspired a younger generation of gifted golfers that he now must do battle with.

Woods is a special talent and in the conversation for the greatest golfer ever.7 He’s playing as well heading into Augusta as he has in a long time and excelling in exactly the right categories. But between aging effects and his own injury history, he may never have a better shot at winning another Masters than he does right now. Once upon a time, Tiger was legendary for pouncing on every opportunity left in front of him. We’ll just have to see if he can summon that ability yet again.

Willians Astudillo Is A Baseball Enigma

Willians Astudillo was already something of a cult hero before he made this year’s opening day roster of the Minnesota Twins. He earned a video shoutout on MLB.com shortly after his major league debut last year when his first-to-home sprint left him gasping. And ESPN tweeted that he “may have broken every single one of baseball’s unwritten rules” after he kneeled in the batter’s box to watch a winter ball home run. (The kneel was “a natural reaction,” Astudillo told us. “I thought it was going to be foul.”)

But there’s another thing that makes the 27-year-old rookie nicknamed La Tortuga is perhaps the most interesting man in baseball: his bat. No one in pro baseball hits quite like he does.

Among all major league hitters in history to record at least 100 plate appearances, Astudillo ranks first in batting average (.382). While he looks something like Bartolo Colon, he’s hitting like Ty Cobb.

With the Twins and Diamondbacks Triple-A teams in 2018 and 2017, Astudillo posted the lowest strikeout rate each season among all Double-A and Triple-A batters with at least 100 plate appearances. In the farm systems of the Braves and Phillies in 2016 and 2015, he had the lowest K-rates in all of the minors. Across his entire minor league career, he struck out just 81 times in 2,461 plate appearances (3.3 percent). With velocity and strikeouts at record levels across the majors, it’s never been more difficult to make contact with a pitch. But in an age when walks and on-base percentage are prized, Astudillo has shown little interest in watching pitches go by. He walked on just 85 occasions (a 3.5 percent walk rate) across nine seasons in the minors.1

In his brief major league career, he’s striking out at a 2.8 percent rate. Two players have had lower K rates for a season since 1989: Tony Gwynn (1995) and Felix Fermin (1993 and 1995).

Astudillo has always hit. So why did it take him 10 years to make the major leagues? It’s probably that the sport didn’t know what to do with him. No one has looked, or hit, quite like the 5-foot-9, 225-pound catcher/utility man.

The Twins’ scouts were perplexed by Astudillo, said Derek Falvey, the chief baseball officer for Minnesota.

“They weren’t necessarily projecting the power or the on-base skill because of the lack of walks,” Falvey said. “I’d say [the scouts’ grade on his bat] was probably fringe-average, in that range, toward average. It wasn’t anything that stood out.”

He was such an outlier that Minnesota’s own projection system struggled to find comps when the Twins were scouring minor league free agents after the 2017 season.2

“He’s an interesting guy because he’s not someone projection systems would easily pick out,” Falvey said. “It’s a simple reason: Projection systems are based upon history. Take a random player, like Jonathan Schoop. You know what his track record was through the minor leagues. If you have a similar batted-ball profile, strikeout rate, swing-and-miss rate, all those things, there’s a chance you might become someone like him over time. That’s the way projection systems are built. They look at history to then look at the future.

“Willians is kind of his own breed.”

Astudillo is interesting for another reason, too: He’s getting better.


Astudillo’s grandfather and father were obsessed with baseball. His father had played professionally in Venezuela. Astudillo remembers a drill in which his father would kneel a few feet away and flick corn kernels toward him in their backyard in the coastal city of Barcelona, Venezuela. Astudillo’s objective was to hit the knuckling projectiles with a broomstick. He thinks his rare contact ability is part nature and part nurture.

“I think it’s just who I’ve been since the beginning, practicing with my dad and my grandfather. That close nucleus back home, just practicing,” Astudillo told FiveThirtyEight through an interpreter. “It’s something that I have. I don’t know how to explain it exactly.”

But low-strikeout, high-contact hitters are increasingly interesting for another reason beyond their scarcity: They’ve shown a knack for developing power.

The average launch angle has increased every year since Statcast began measuring balls in play in 2015, from 10.1 degrees in 2015 to 11.7 degrees last season and to what would be a record rate of 13.2 degrees as it stands early this season. (Astudillo’s average launch angle was 12.2 degrees last season.) That trend suggests that more hitters are trying to hit balls above infield shifts and out of the ballpark.

Hitters with excellent contact rates but unlikely power-hitting builds — like Jose Ramirez, Jose Altuve, Justin Turner, Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor — have become sluggers in recent seasons. As more batters are adjusting their swing planes, elite contact hitters have made the greatest offensive gains — measured in one way by isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average.

Astudillo has also gained power in recent years without having to sacrifice his contact ability. No projection system or scout saw that coming. Falvey, who had worked in the Cleveland front office before taking the Twins job, noted that Ramirez was also a high-contact hitter before he had an unlikely power breakout.

“Did anyone see Jose Ramirez turning into that kind of power hitter?” he said. “If anyone tells you they believed that at the outset — I worked there — I can tell you that’s not true. We did believe he had some interesting profile traits. Same thing with Willians.”

While Astudillo was limited to 128 Triple-A plate appearances with the Diamondbacks in 2017, his isolated power jumped to a career-best .217, up from .065 the previous year. His previous best ISO mark had been .101. (The MLB average ISO was .161 in 2018.) With the Twins last year, he followed up with a .192 ISO mark in 307 plate appearances in Triple-A and a .161 mark in 97 plate appearances with the major league club.

His power has been present early this season, too. Within his first three major league swings of 2019 on Sunday, he doubled twice. In his second start Wednesday, Astudillo went 3-for-5 with another double.

“I think it’s the experience from playing more often,” Astudillo said of his power surge. “Yes, I made contact (early in my career), but it was mostly weak contact. I was swinging at pitches a little out of the zone. Now I am not swinging at those pitches. I am being more selective.”

Astudillo ranks 35th in the frequency of swinging at pitches out of the zone among major league hitters to have recorded at least 100 plate appearances since last season, and he ranks 17th in swing percentage. But Falvey noted that Astudillo doesn’t dramatically expand his zone and offer at pitches far outside the strike zone.

“It’s not like he’s trying to chase balls over his head or out of the strike zone,” Falvey said. “He just constantly attacks strikes. He has a unique ability that when he attacks a strike, he usually doesn’t miss.”

Baseball Savant

When Astudillo goes outside the zone, he’s not going that far out of the zone. And when he swings — either in or out of the zone — he doesn’t miss. Astudillo leads baseball in contact rate (91.9 percent) and out-of-zone contact rate (83.3) among batters with at least 100 plate appearances since last season. That’s well above the MLB averages for both last season, with contact rate at 76.9 percent and out-of-zone contact at 60.1 percent.


While Astudillo’s bat is fascinating, it’s not the reason the Twins signed him in November 2017 to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. They were intrigued by his glove.

During their organizational meetings last spring, Twins officials went through the scouting reports on players in their camp. As they looked at Astudillo, they thought he could play second, third, left field and catcher — important versatility in a sport that increasingly requires roster flexibility. A Twins evaluator in the room then spoke up.

“‘He can play center, too, just ask him,’” Falvey recalled.

The club officials were amused. Center field didn’t seem like a natural fit for the stout player. But Astudillo showed them the proof: video of himself robbing a home run in a 2014 Venezuelan winter league playoff game.

Months later, after several Twins went down with heat exhaustion during a game on a sweltering afternoon last June, Astudillo trotted out to center field in Wrigley Field. He became the first player 5-foot-9 or shorter weighing more than 220 pounds to play center in a major league baseball game, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

But even given his versatility, the Twins thought he was best suited to play catcher, according to Falvey. Astudillo rated as an above-average pitch framer throughout his minor league career, according to Baseball Prospectus defensive metrics — and pitch framing has been a focus of Falvey’s since he took the reins of the Twins after the 2016 season.

While the Twins initially brought in Astudillo for his interesting glove, it’s his bat that will ultimately determine how much he plays and whether he’s a short-lived curiosity or becomes a useful major leaguer.

Even the Twins admit that they didn’t see this player emerging. But as is so often the case with Astudillo, what you expect is not what you get.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Significant Digits For Friday, April 5, 2019

You’re reading Significant Digits, a daily digest of the numbers tucked inside the news.


2 open seats

There are two open seats on the seven-seat Federal Reserve board of governors. President Trump has been hoping to fill one of them with Stephen Moore, the author of “Trumponomics” and who the IRS has said owes tens of thousands in back taxes. Now, Trump is hoping to fill the second seat with Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, promoter of the “9-9-9” tax plan, and accused sexual harasser of multiple women. [The Washington Post]


More than 280 people

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested more than 280 people at a phone equipment repair company in the Dallas suburbs, in what BuzzFeed News reports is the largest such sweep in more than a decade. ICE officials said they’d received a tip that the company, CVE Technology Group, “may have knowingly hired workers with fake documents.” ICE agents made almost 10 times as many immigration arrests at workplaces last fiscal year than the fiscal year before. [BuzzFeed News]


$549,300

That was the appraised value of the house belonging to Peter Brand, Harvard’s fencing coach. Two years ago, however, the house sold to a wealthy businessman for nearly $1 million. The buyer’s son later matriculated at Harvard and joined the fencing team, and the buyer sold the house, having never lived in it, for a $324,500 loss. [The Boston Globe]


4th richest woman

Following her divorce settlement with Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Bezos is now the fourth-richest woman in the world. She retains a 4 percent stake in Amazon worth some $36 billion. She is behind a L’Oreal heiress, a member of Walmart’s Walton family, and a member of the Mars family of confectioners. [Bloomberg]


“70 percent”

When we say it, we mean it. My colleagues recently published an exhaustive look at thousands of forecasts that FiveThirtyEight has made in the past, testing them for calibration — do events occur about as often as we say they’re going to occur — and discrimination — can we distinguish relatively more likely events from relatively less likely ones. The results of this self-analysis were good. For one thing, the events we said had a 70 percent chance of happening happened 71 percent of the time. [FiveThirtyEight]


7 agencies

Before yesterday, the spacecrafts of six agencies — the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency — had orbited the moon. Israel has become the seventh with its Beresheet craft, which will attempt to land on the lunar surface on April 11. If successful, it would become the first privately funded craft to do so. [The New York Times]


From ABC News:
It's Morning, America: Friday, April 5, 2019


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