The Premier League season is barely halfway over, but the title basically could be decided this week. Right now, Liverpool has a 7-point lead over Manchester City at the top of the table.1 The two teams face off Thursday at Etihad Stadium in Manchester, and a Liverpool victory would result in a likely insurmountable 10-point gap.
Only two weeks ago, Liverpool’s lead was just 1 point, 45 to 44. And at the beginning of December, it was Manchester City in front, with a 2-point cushion. But the holidays were a nightmare for City. Manager Pep Guardiola saw his team lose easily winnable matches at home to Crystal Palace and away to Leicester City, while Liverpool swept its holiday fixtures. If you had watched these events from the perch of FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index projections, you would have experienced severe whiplash. Not only did Liverpool open up a lead out of nowhere, but the projections remained extremely bullish on City’s chances right until the bottom fell out.
Before City went into a slump, what made the team such a dominant title contender? And what happened to drop its chances so dramatically?
Through October and into November, Manchester City’s underlying statistics were otherworldly good — they had analysts wondering whether this might be the best team in Premier League history. The Soccer Power Index projections are based on precisely these underlying numbers, and they reacted proportionately. The expected goals differential — the difference between expected goals for and against — shows Manchester City more than plus-2.5 per match in October and solidly more than plus-2.0 right until mid-December, based on data from analytics firm Opta Sports.
This slowdown appears to be driven by two related factors: a decline in performance by the team’s aging midfield stars and injuries to key players.
During Manchester City’s record-breaking title season in 2017-18, the team’s preferred midfield used Fernandinho as the defensive midfielder at the base and David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne as “free eights,” more advanced midfielders with the freedom to make runs in and around the penalty area but who are ready to lead the press should possession be turned over. The trio played together for more than 50 percent of City’s minutes in the league, and at least two were featured in more than 90 percent of the team’s minutes.
De Bruyne has been unavailable most of the year because of two successive knee injuries. He has not fully recovered, missing the Southampton match this weekend. With the Belgian playmaker out, Man City has been able to play its first-choice midfield for only 35 total minutes this season, compared with more than 1,800 last season. And Silva and Fernandinho, as important as they are to City’s chances, are 32 and 33 years old respectively. Both have needed rest, and both suffered muscle injuries in late December. In Man City’s losses against Crystal Palace and Leicester City, neither Silva nor Fernandinho made the starting lineup.
Man City’s biggest problems, then, seem to boil down to personnel. The heavy workload already had strained Fernandinho in his difficult role as the lone defensive midfielder, and then injuries left Guardiola with almost none of his preferred midfielders. Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva are good players, but they have not been able to properly replace Fernandinho and David Silva.
This is good news for City fans: Fernandinho and David Silva are back, and they dominated Southampton en route to a 3-1 win. De Bruyne may even be ready to join them Thursday. We should expect a Manchester City with a fit midfield to be more than good enough to win a home match against Liverpool and keep the title race going.
At the same time, Man City fans still have cause for concern. Given the ages of David Silva and Fernandinho, another slowdown or injury is hardly unlikely. And with City looking at a deep run in the Champions League,2 the team’s performance level cannot be expected, on average, to remain in its early season stratosphere. Expected goals differential still shows City as the best team in the league, but the margin of its advantage over Liverpool from October is unlikely to return.
This gives Liverpool every chance at its first league title in decades. And the Reds are here because they have become the smartest-run team in England. Liverpool lost a key creative midfielder, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to a serious knee injury at the end of last season. But high-level replacements were already lined up. The club had reached an agreement with RB Leipzig the previous summer for the transfer of creative dynamo Naby Keita, and over the summer Liverpool added another creator in Xherdan Shaqiri as well as Fabinho for defensive midfield depth. Keita has struggled with his fitness; for a player who was clearly the best dribbler in Germany, his 0.2 progressive runs per 90 minutes show that Liverpool still hasn’t seen his best. But the Reds’ clever business strategy means they could weather a slow start. Shaqiri has been revelatory — with six goals, two assists and a team-leading 4.1 progressive passes per 90 minutes — and Fabinho has settled in solidly at defensive midfielder.
Liverpool has made steady improvements as the season has gone on. The Reds continued a trend I noticed last year, in which the team has gradually pulled back on its high press while improving defensively. This year, while the team’s mere eight goals conceded reflects some good fortune, its average of 0.81 expected goals conceded per match (about 16 expected goals allowed total) is the best of manager Jurgen Klopp’s tenure. And Liverpool has done it with its least aggressive midfield press of the last four seasons, breaking up less than 49 percent of new opposition open-play possessions within three passes.
Klopp has acknowledged this somewhat more pragmatic style as a tactical choice to get the most out of his team over a full season. Against Manchester City away, coming off a full slate of holiday fixtures, Liverpool will need to draw on this newfound defensive pragmatism. City should look to dominate possession, but Klopp’s tactical developments at Liverpool have helped build a team that can control matches without the ball. And if City’s aging midfield makes a misstep or if Fernandinho finds himself isolated or out of position, Liverpool’s devastating forward three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah will make him pay. The quality of Liverpool’s attack, especially in the open field on the counter, is such that even a fully recovered Manchester City could be caught out and defeated.
City is favored on Thursday for good reason. But over the full season, City looks more fragile than Liverpool, which has been built into a deep and tactically variable unit with smart analytics and coaching. If Man City can maintain the fitness of its 30-something midfield stars, it has the advantage, but that’s a big “if.” With just more than four months remaining in the season, another dip in form or fitness from City’s midfield is likely, and that plus a lead of at least 4 points would probably be enough for the Reds. Klopp’s side could put the title to bed Thursday, but even if City gets the win, Liverpool should still be favorites to lift the trophy.
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The NFL’s 2018 regular season is finally in the books. Before the playoffs get rolling, let’s look back on an interesting Week 17 and preview next weekend’s wild-card round. We’ll end with giving our Super Bowl predictions again, just to keep us honest.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): I will have to revise my Saints-Steelers Super Bowl pick.
The AFC had all the drama yesterday, so let’s start with the Ravens/Steelers/Colts/Titans business.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I was very much hoping for that Colts-Titans tie. But alas.
sara.ziegler: If the NFL were scripted, we would have ended the regular season on a tie.
Salfino: What’s interesting to me about the Ravens is that teams are not punishing Lamar Jackson for running.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I’m unclear on why teams don’t force Jackson to beat them with his arm as well. It’s worked in the past against other highly mobile QBs, and there seems to be no great reason why it won’t work again.
neil: That’s part of what makes the Ravens so interesting, that their second-half playoff push basically coincided with the QB change and this rush-heavy identity that seems so different in a league that set new recordsfor passing in 2018.
Salfino: Yes, the Ravens and the Chiefs are the offenses you really can’t prepare for in a week, IMO. I have no idea how a team can prepare for Jackson in one week. But LAC at least just faced him. Is that advantage Chargers? To me this is the most interesting game of the wild-card round.
Salfino: The problem is that it’s so hard to stay disciplined and not chase him. Defenses are taught to be aggressive.
Jackson allows the offense to play 11 on 11, and all of defense is predicated on the defense playing 11 on 10.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Also strange is that we can make legit comps between Jackson and Josh Allen. Bill Belichick kept Allen in the pocket during Week 16 knowing the main danger he poses is from his legs. And New England won.
Salfino: Yes, the Patriots are just taught to be super disciplined so they can counter that probably better than most teams.
sara.ziegler: Did the Browns figure that out a little bit too against Jackson? The Ravens rushed for 8.5 yards per carry in the first half and just 4.5 in the second.
Salfino: Maybe as the game wore on, but by then the damage was done. The Browns were just getting gashed. The Ravens were running on 3rd-and-long and converting. It was like a college game — old-school college before the passing explosion.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Credit as well to the play-calling, I think. It’s a very creative scheme the Ravens are rolling out.
Salfino: Is the Ravens defense overrated? Where are the blue chip players? They are just coached so well. Wink Martindale should get interviews.
neil: And Jackson’s own speed is really something to behold. On that first TD Jackson scored, it looked like he was shot out of a cannon.
Salfino: Jackson also looked like he was playing at video game speed even on the shorter second TD run. He just darted into the end zone like everyone was standing still.
I think the Ravens offense is underrated and their defense is overrated.
sara.ziegler: In the other afternoon AFC game of note, the Steelers came out incredibly flat before rallying for the win, which wasn’t quite enough.
neil: Pittsburgh’s season will go down as one of the all-time collapses, I think?
Salfino: The Steelers have to be the most disappointing team in recent memory. They were top 10 in all the key defensive stats except interception percentage — which is fluky, but man that killed them. They have Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 5,000 yards, two All-Pro WRs, and the running game was fine. Yet they just blew one game after the other.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Antonio Brown has been inefficient this year, but he was missed.
Salfino: The Steelers were sixth in yards per play and sixth in yards allowed per play and didn’t make the playoffs. This is almost impossible. I thought it was impossible.
This will be the defining image of the season for me.
Salfino: Cousins showing Thielen how to run routes was both hilarious and sad.
joshua.hermsmeyer: One silver lining for the Vikings is that the situational football we typically use to judge Cousins as a disappointment is among the least predictive of future performance in all of football: throws under pressure, third-down conversions. Kirk deserves his share of the blame, but the entire offense looked out of sync yesterday and for a lot of the second half of the season.
sara.ziegler: Cousins has his redemption narrative all set for next season, LOL.
Salfino: The Eagles benefit from the Vikings’ struggles. I can’t believe that the Bears are only 6-point favorites.
neil: Particularly with Nick Foles not necessarily 100 percent.
neil: Carson Wentz? Nick Foles? Nate Sudfeld? No problem.
sara.ziegler: Well … Wentz? Some problems.
Everyone else? Fine.
neil: Philly was always a backup QB’s dream city during the McNabb era. Some of that has carried over, I guess.
Salfino: Foles has got to be the most volatile QB in NFL history. We should quantify that. He’s below average for his career and is treated like a franchise QB based on about 16 games, if we include all of 2013.
neil: Yeah, the gap between his best 16 and worst 16 starts has to be one of the biggest ever.
Salfino: I can’t even imagine the Bears losing to the Eagles. They are just going to chew Philly up. The Eagles’ best playmaker is still 100-year-old Darren Sproles, who is amazing, but come on.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I can’t think of Foles without wincing that he lost $1 million because of four snaps.
This is just brutal.
Salfino: Foles is going to get $100 million in about three months, so I will not feel sorry for him.
Salfino: Luck should be in the MVP conversation. I understand it’s Patrick Mahomes. But Luck has done a lot with a lot less than Mahomes. Luck does seemingly have great coaching now though. Frank Reich, who the Colts backed into, was the hire of the offseason. I think better than Matt Nagy even.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Luck truly played himself back into game shape. Early on, his throws were routinely Derek Carr short, and by the end of the season he was mostly back to the old Luck.
Salfino: Colts-Texans is the game of the week to me in terms of having no idea who will win. The Texans are a strange team with great strengths (QB, pass rush) and crippling weaknesses (offensive line, pass coverage).
On paper, the Colts are a terrible matchup for the Texans because Luck led the league in lowest sack rate as he completely transformed his game to protect his health. So smart.
Salfino: If you have Russell Wilson, anything is possible. I will stipulate.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Seattle for my part. Turnovers are wildly unpredictable, and that drove their defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for much of the season, but they are built to win close games like this one where both teams appear to want to “establish the run.”
Salfino: The football story of the week when it comes to the chess aspect of the game and coaching is whether the Chargers having experienced the Ravens offense can now shut it down. But they don’t really do much on defense except play that Seattle, straight-up style. So do they even have a bag of tricks?
sara.ziegler: Seems strange to me that the Ravens are favorites over the Chargers.
Baltimore is hot right now, but L.A. has been solid all season.
Salfino: Well, Baltimore has had the best home-field advantage in football when you factor in road vs. home record. So LAC are up against it.
I still like the Chargers. I’m being obstinate, LOL.
neil: Well, this is a little bit of a counter to the QB Winz debate from above. L.A. clearly has the better QB.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Philip Rivers and the Chargers as well. Particularly if the Chargers keep Jackson in the pocket.
Salfino: No Super Bowl team has won a road game since the 2012 season. But I’ll say that the most likely road winners this week in order are the Colts (they win), Chargers (I can see it but don’t think they adjust defensively), Seattle (Wilson gives them a chance) and Eagles (no chance unless Mitch Trubisky craps the bed).
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Baltimore defense prevents completions, that’s their best skill. But Rivers has completed passes at 1.8 percent over expected this season.
Salfino: New England really gets tested if the Colts win. (They would have to play the winner of Baltimore-LAC.) If the Texans win, Houston is just made for an easy Patriots victory in the divisional round.
Little worried about how Rivers has looked of late. But probably just random variance. There’s not much data on QBs this old late in the season and into the postseason other than Brady.
sara.ziegler: I’m worried about how Rivers looks, too — at least in this Mina Kimes drawing:
I loved that segment on NFL Countdown Sunday, where they talked about Rivers’ trash talk. Which somehow never includes swearing.
sara.ziegler: I’ve always really liked him. A perfect fantasy football QB.
Salfino: Philip Rivers is great. A Hall-of-Famer IMO. But unbelievably he has as many career playoff wins as Mark Sanchez. He needs more pelts on the wall.
sara.ziegler: Very fair.
Is anyone taking the Eagles over the Bears?
neil: I recuse myself.
sara.ziegler: Wait, we can’t make predictions about our favorite teams?
I’ve literally been picking the Vikings to lose all season.
neil: I gotta hand it to you, those were accurate predictions.
neil: As opposed to this one:
Salfino: I think the Bears just crush the Eagles. This spread is all Foles-narrative-driven, and I don’t believe in fairy tales.
sara.ziegler: Wow, Mike.
neil: Anybody picking the Eagles probably does have visions of this being yet another Bears team that got into the playoffs on defense with a weak QB performance
And promptly lost. But that’s not really this team. Trubisky has been progressing.
(The defense is still amazing, of course)
joshua.hermsmeyer: You can dink and dunk on Chicago.
Salfino: Remember, Foles was LUCKY to beat the Falcons last year. He had a ball go off a Falcon’s knee, or they probably lose that game. Then he turned into Cinderella, and I have no idea how or why.
sara.ziegler: He did get to face the Vikings last year — that undoubtedly helped.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If Foles can be efficient and healthy, and the Eagles are patient, I can totally imagine a game where Biscuit implodes and the Eagles move on. I think the spread has some of that in it.
Salfino: I do not believe in the Eagles defense at all. But I also don’t like how Nagy hasn’t given Tarik Cohen consistently more touches than Jordan Howard. And the Bears are all banged up now at WR.
I agree with Josh on Trubisky, but the Bears and Nagy can’t put him in a position to lose that game. The Eagles have no playmakers. Dare them to score.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, it could be closer than it seems. Of course, if Foles can’t play, then the Eagles will REALLY need a fairy tale.
All right, let’s wrap this up with our Super Bowl predictions, so we can continue to look ridiculous when our picks all lose.
Salfino: I’m going Saints-Chiefs, but that’s predicated on the Colts beating the Texans and giving the Patriots a nightmare matchup in the divisional round. It’s so public to fade the Chiefs that I’m fading the public. Offense!
Mahomes wins MVP and Brees wins Super Bowl MVP. Seems fair.
neil: I’ve been saying New Orleans over K.C. for these past few chats, and that’s still possible, so I’m sticking with it. (Despite the defensive concerns!)
sara.ziegler: I took the Bears last time, and now having watched them flatten my own team, I probably need to keep them. Bears-Chiefs, Chiefs take it down.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Chiefs-Rams rematch, Chiefs win. Because that would be the best ending to the best offensive season in the NFL probably ever.
neil: What’s the score on that one, Josh? Is it the first Super Bowl whose score will be mistaken for an Arena Bowl?
joshua.hermsmeyer: 36-35 with the game decided on a 2-point conversion.
One year ago, the Oklahoma Sooners fielded the worst defense to ever qualify for the College Football Playoff. Under first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, and behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma took a 17-point lead on Georgia, the eventual national runner-up, before losing in the Rose Bowl semifinal. Twelve months later, Riley has another Heisman-winning quarterback in Kyler Murray and has piloted another one-dimensional Sooners team to a playoff berth.
The reward — a date with Alabama, college football’s lead power broker — seems more like a punishment. The Tide, long a defensive force under coach Nick Saban, now boast what’s likely the best offense in program history. Las Vegas oddsmakers cared not for Oklahoma’s three-game winning streak against the Tide and opened with Alabama as two-touchdown favorites. According to FiveThirtyEight’s college football prediction model, Alabama has a 41 percent probability of winning the national title. Oklahoma faces much taller odds, with an 11 percent probability of winning it all.
Here’s what to look for the when the two programs meet in the Orange Bowl semifinal Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Will Tua Tagovailoa or Kyler Murray win the QB showdown?
Seldom do a Heisman winner and his runner-up meet after the winner is crowned. Even given that rarity, this may be the best postseason clash of college quarterbacks we’ve ever seen. Both are coming off of historic regular seasons, with each in line to trump the record for Total Quarterback Rating, which ESPN has tracked since 2004 and is measured on a scale of 0 to 100.
But it’s not just the quarterbacks. In terms of offensive efficiency, this is the best matchup since the playoff began in 2014. Oddsmakers have taken notice, setting a points over/under total that’s unprecedented in the playoff era.
It seemed logical that the departure of Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft, would abate Oklahoma’s offensive horsepower. That 2017 team had the most efficient offense ever tracked, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group.1 But in Murray’s first full season as a starting college quarterback, the Sooners’ offense has actually improved. “Kyler Murray has accomplished more in one season and had more impact on the Sooners’ tradition in one season than any other player in our history,” former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer told The Athletic. “He’s broke all the damn records.”
The Sooners have gotten better under Murray
Oklahoma’s offensive production in 2018, with Kyler Murray at quarterback, vs. 2017, with Baker Mayfield at quarterback
Offensive points per game
Yards per play
Percentage of first downs or TDs per play
Percentage of first downs or TDs per pass attempt
Percentage of plays for zero or negative yards
As if spring-loaded, Murray’s legs have minced opposing defenses. On a 75-yard touchdown run against Kansas, a broadcaster declared, “You’re not going to catch him,” before Murray had passed the 40-yard line. The junior is the country’s pre-eminent dual-threat wizard, whose 892 rushing yards place him seventh among all Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks this year.
At the same time, Tagovailoa has been the figurehead of the Tide’s offensive ascension since replacing Jalen Hurts in last season’s national championship game. Saban has been in Tuscaloosa since 2007, and this year’s offense has been his best in terms of, well, everything.
This is Saban’s most dominant Alabama offense
Alabama’s offense by season under head coach Nick Saban
Both Murray and Tagovailoa are having little difficulty stretching the field. If they keep up this pace during the playoffs, each would rank in the top three among all QBs since 2004 in single-season passing yards per attempt, with Murray’s current 11.92 mark in line to set the all-time record.
They won’t, however, be competing against equally proficient defensive units. Murray will be staring down a top-flight fortress that spent the past few months razing offensive lines and leveling quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide rank second in defensive efficiency, behind Clemson, and they lead the country in adjusted defensive quarterback rating, which accounts for the strength of the opposing quarterback. The Tide ranks among the 15 best teams in opponent completion percentage (51.8 percent) and yards allowed per pass attempt (5.86).
Tagovailoa will have the luxury of playing against a defense that might seem as though it’s providing Alabama an escort to the end zone. Oklahoma ranks 92nd in defensive efficiency, unseating last year’s squad as the new worst defense to make it to the playoff; the Sooners have allowed 56 touchdowns this year, 13 more than Alabama has allowed since the beginning of the 2017 season. Uninspired performances led to the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. But the unit’s play hasn’t improved. After giving up 39 first downs to Oklahoma State, the most allowed by any FBS team this season, interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill found room to praise his team for making “critical stops.”
Pass defense, in particular, has been ghastly for the Sooners. No FBS team allows more passing yards per game (291.4), and only five allow more completions (22.3). The Sooners love to give up the long play, having allowed 56 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the fourth-most by any team.
It’s unlikely that the turnover margin will favor the Sooners — even though Tagovailoa threw as many interceptions in his last outing as he did the rest of the season total. Oklahoma has generated 11 takeaways all season, the fewest of any qualifying team in the playoff era. Alabama has forced 11 since the beginning of October — and 21 in total.
On the opening drive of the SEC championship game, Tagovailoa suffered a high ankle injury, which required surgery the following day. The sophomore has said that he’ll be unencumbered come game time, and given how little he rushes — generating just the 89th-most rushing yards among QBs — he won’t need much mobility. Even a pocket-locked Tagovailoa can still shred an opposing defense.
Can Oklahoma survive Alabama’s first-half avalanche to win the second half?
Players come and go, and each season carries idiosyncrasies, but the narrative arcs of the Sooners’ two previous playoff appearances were seemingly penned by the same author. In both, a lead evaporated and a dominant first half gave way to a second-half dud.
Rewriting the script, then, will be paramount this time around for Oklahoma.
Offensively, the Sooners seem to have the first half covered. No team puts up more first-half yardage than Oklahoma, which averages 313.4 yards a game. The team racks up 9.5 yards per first-half play — nearly a first down on each play. Riley’s offense is outscoring opponents by an average of 11.3 points in first halves this season, the eighth-best mark in the country.
Of course, what separates Alabama from Oklahoma is its defense. The Tide allow 7.9 points per game in first halves, 12th-fewest in the nation and 7.9 fewer points than the Sooners. Alabama doesn’t just shut the door on its opponents in the opening 30 minutes — it packs their bags, shuttles them to the airport and ushers them through TSA. Remember when the Tide turned Tiger Stadium into a morgue by the third quarter of November’s top-five showdown with LSU? Or when the Tide took a trip to Oxford, watched Ole Miss score on its opening play and then blitzed the Rebels with 62 unanswered points, including 49 in the first half?4
LSU and Ole Miss aren’t alone. Saban’s squad is outscoring opponents 388 to 103 in first halves this season. On average, the Crimson Tide enter the locker room at halftime with a 21.9-point lead, the second-biggest margin by any team since at least 2004, the first year for which data is available.5 Ninety-three teams have scored fewer total touchdowns than Alabama has scored in first halves. Only four teams in the past 15 seasons have scored more first-half touchdowns than the Tide’s 53.
These lopsided first halves mean that the Tide hardly ever fall behind on the scoreboard. The average college football team this season played 178.6 first-half offensive snaps when trailing. Alabama played 18 — 32 fewer than the next-closest team.
Bama rarely plays from behind
Total first-half snaps when trailing for this year’s playoff participants
Coming into the SEC title game, teams had run a combined 388 first-half plays against the Tide defense. They didn’t have the lead on any of them. Georgia finally broke through in the SEC championship; the Bulldogs ran 43 first-half offensive plays against the Tide and led for 12 of them.
The nightmare doesn’t end for Alabama opponents in second halves: Then they’re outscored by a touchdown and a half, on average. In second halves, teams score 0.92 touchdowns per game against the Tide, tied for the sixth-fewest.
Conversely, Oklahoma’s dominance tapers off considerably in the final two quarters, when it outscores opponents by only 5.2 points, which ranks 24th nationally.
Little if any of that decline is attributable to the offense, which roars from start to finish. But defensively, the bottom seems to fall out for the Sooners after halftime, as they allow an average of 2.23 touchdowns per game in second halves, the most by any team in the Big 12 and tied for the 20th-most nationally. Riley’s defense has allowed 29 second-half touchdowns, the most by an Oklahoma defense since at least 2004.
However, should Oklahoma keep the game close down the stretch, it has a peerless crunch-time quarterback in Murray. The Sooners have played seven games decided by 14 or fewer points, while Alabama has played only one. In the fourth quarter, when the scoring margin is within 14 points, Murray has a nation-leading quarterback rating of 99 — that’s on a 1-to-100 scale, mind you.
There’s an argument to be made that Oklahoma is better equipped — certainly more experienced — to handle high-leverage situations.6 But Alabama has been so dominant that it simply hasn’t mattered.
Another year, another few hundred charts and maps on FiveThirtyEight. (Not to mention our interactive graphics and updating dashboards.) To celebrate the end of the year, our team of visual journalists got together and looked back at some of their favorite graphics. Here are 45, in no particular order. If one really whets your appetite, click on the chart and you’ll be brought to the story from which it sprang.
We’re facing the third government shutdown in less than a year this Friday thanks, in part, to a fight over immigration policy. President Trump wants $5 billion for a border wall — an amount that is unlikely to make it through the Senate. Back in January, a disagreement over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program caused a partial government shutdown.1 So it’s worth taking a step back and asking: Why is immigration such a stumbling block?
But over the past couple of decades — as the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. rose steeply and then began to decline — immigration policy has come to symbolize the two parties’ broader values and electoral coalitions. The battle over immigration policy is about way more than just immigration, in other words, in the same way that the tensions between the two parties on health policy reflect deeper fault lines. The politics of immigration today are notably more divided and partisan than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and there are a few reasons why.
First, there are the party coalitions. Compared to the mid-2000s, the Democratic Party of today includes fewer non-Hispanic white voters: 67 percent people who are or lean toward being Democrats were non-Hispanic whites in 2007, but that number had dropped to 59 percent in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty percent of self-identified Democrats are now nonwhite. Republicans too have grown more racially diverse, but only barely, and they are still overwhelmingly white: 88 percent in 2007, compared to 83 percent in 2017. About 12 percent of Democrats are Hispanic, roughly double the percentage of Republicans who are of Hispanic descent.
So the Democrats have a huge bloc of people in their party who have racial, ethnic and cultural ties to America’s most recent immigrants, who are largely Asian- and Latino-American. And while “minorities” and “people of color” are fraught terms that often ignore differences both between and within racial and ethnic groups, the Democrats are essentially now the home party for Americans who might feel that U.S. society treats them as “other.”
Secondly, while both parties have undergone ideological shifts, Democrats have shifted more dramatically. Pollsters ask a variety of questions to measure public opinion on immigration, but they all show the same thing: Democrats have become far more pro-immigration in recent years.
According to Pew, in 2006, 37 percent of Democrats3 said that legal immigration to the U.S. should be decreased, compared to 20 percent who said it should increase.4 Pew found a huge reversal in those numbers earlier this year: 40 percent of Democrats back higher immigration levels, compared to 16 percent who want them lowered. According to Gallup, 85 percent of Democrats now feel immigration is a “good thing” for America, compared to 69 percent who said the same in 2006. Republicans haven’t actually become more anti-immigration, according to Pew and Gallup. But, per Pew, there are more Republicans5 who want immigration decreased (33 percent) than who want it increased (22 percent).
As a result, the gap between the parties on questions about immigration has become a chasm:
And immigration is indicative of a broader shift: Democratic voters have grown more liberal on issues of race, gender and identity generally. That includes white Democrats.
The voters are not alone. Elites in each party have moved toward the ideological poles on immigration policy. Liberal-leaning activists and Democratic politicians argue that policies like the wall aren’t just bad or ineffective, they are immoral and racist. Trump and other conservatives have suggested that more immigration could both hurt the U.S. economy and lead to more crime.
Let me avoid making this a both-sides story: For the most part, Democrats are more aligned with overall public opinion on immigration. The majority of voters want undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. as children to be protected from deportation, and Democrats’ demand for that provision that led to last winter’s shutdown. Likewise, most voters don’t support a border wall, but Trump is driving toward a shutdown in pursuit of a wall, an idea that many congressional Republicans are fairly lukewarm about.
That said, America did elect a president (in 2016) and a Senate majority (in 2016 and 2018) who belong to the party that is generally less supportive of immigration, so either there is some appetite for a middle ground or immigration is not a deal-breaker issue for many Americans. Either way, it would be logical for the two sides to find a compromise. But the shifts the parties have undergone in the last 10 or so years make such a compromise hard to execute. Democratic leaders can’t easily sign on to any funding for a wall that their base thinks is a physical monument to racism, particularly since the top Democratic leaders are white but much of the party base is not. Trump can’t easily give up on the wall, since he basically campaigned on the idea that America needs a wall to remain a great nation.
So we’re already at two shutdowns involving immigration policy in the Trump era — and I would not rule out a few more.
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,7 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.
Programming note: The Riddler will be taking next week off for the holidays. If you’re jonesing for more puzzles as you snuggle around the fire roasting chestnuts and stuff, might I humbly suggest “The Riddler” book? It makes a great gift, too. Also good kindling for that fire, in a pinch, I imagine. (The publisher only cares that you buy it, not what you do with it.)
From Taylor Firman, dash away, dash away, dash away all:
Santa Claus is getting up there in age, and his memory has begun to falter. (After all, why do you think he keeps a list?) It’s gotten so bad that this year Santa forgot what order to put the reindeer in. Obviously, he remembers that Rudolph goes first because of the red organic light bulb in the middle of his face, but big guy just can’t remember what to do with the other eight.
If he doesn’t get the right order, the aerodynamics of his sleigh will be all wrong and he won’t be able to get all of his deliveries done in time. Yes, Santa has Moneyballed Christmas Eve. Luckily, the reindeer know where they should each be, but since they’re just animals they can only grunt in approval if they are put in the right spot.
Determined to get it right, Santa first creates a list of the reindeer in some random order. He then goes to the first position and harnesses each reindeer one by one, starting at the top of his list. When a reindeer grunts, Santa leaves it in that correct position, moves onto the next position, and works down that same list once again.
If harnessing a reindeer into any spot takes one minute, how long on average would it take Santa to get the correct reindeer placement?
Extra credit: Is there a strategy that Santa could use that does better?
From Steven Pratt, the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear:
In Santa’s workshop, elves make toys during a shift each day. On the overhead radio, Christmas music plays, with a program randomly selecting songs from a large playlist.
During any given shift, the elves hear 100 songs. A cranky elf named Cranky has taken to throwing snowballs at everyone if he hears the same song twice. This has happened during about half of the shifts. One day, a mathematically inclined elf named Mathy tires of Cranky’s sodden outbursts. So Mathy decides to use what he knows to figure out how large Santa’s playlist actually is.
Last week we returned to that timeless classic, tic-tac-toe. The Express challenge was straightforward, but far from trivial: Chess buffs, for example, like to point out that there are more possible chess games than there are atoms in the universe. Big whoop. How many possible games of tic-tac-toe are there?
There are 255,168 — it may not be the number of atoms in the universe, but it’s more than enough to keep you occupied with your families over the holidays. Warning (mostly to my editor): Lots of very specific counting ahead.
How do we get there? Let’s start with a deep breath. And then let’s establish an upper bound on the number we’re looking for. There are nine squares from which the first player can choose, then eight for the second player, then seven for the first, then six for the second and so on. Multiplying those possible moves means that there are at most 9!, or 362,880, possible games. It’s a decent approximation, but it’s overcounting. Some of those “games,” for example, would have ended with a win for one player before all nine moves were made. So let’s begin a more careful accounting by looking at how many possibilities there are for a game to end after each move.
The soonest a game could end is after the fifth move — three moves for one player and two for the other. There are eight places in which the first player could win: the three rows, the three columns and the two diagonals. There are six places and then five places where the second player could play — those places not in the winning locations. So there are 8*3!*6*5 = 1,440 ways the game could end this quickly.
What about after thesixth move? The second player wins in this case, and there are again eight places to do that — and six, five and four places the first player could go that wouldn’t interrupt that win. So that’s 8*3!*6*5*4 = 5,760 possibilities. However, we need to subtract off a few of those in which the first player would have won before the second player could. That is, we need to exclude the cases where there are three Os and three Xs in a row. That can only happen horizontally or vertically (i.e., not diagonally). So the first player could take one of six “winning” locations, leaving one of two “winning” locations for the second player. That’s 6*3!*2*3! = 432 possibilities we need to omit, leaving 5,760 – 432 = 5,328 games that end after the sixth move.
And the seventh? The first player wins in this case, of course. Again, there are eight winning locations, but there’s a wrinkle here: The first player can’t win too soon. That is, one of his plays must not be on the winning line. It must go in one of the six non-winning locations during one of three turns in the game. The second player, meanwhile, has five then four then three spots in which to play fruitlessly. That gives 8*3!*3*6*5*4*3 = 51,840 possibilities. But, again, we have to subtract off those in which both players would have already lined up three in a row by the seventh move. (Accounting is hard!) Just as before, this can’t happen in a diagonal, leaving six winning lines for the first player. The first player’s “wasted” move, which happens at one of three points in the game and in one of six squares, will take out another of those, leaving just one winning line for the second player. So there are 6*3!*1*3!*3*6 = 3,888 ways that might happen, leaving 51,840 – 3,888 = 47,952 games ending on this turn.
And the eighth? (We’re nearly there, I promise.) Here, the second player wins and, once again, there are possible eight winning lines. Similar to before, the first (losing) player can go in five then four then three then two spots, while the second (winning) player fills in his winning line in some order, and “wastes” a move in one of six squares at one of three points. That’s 5*4*3*2*8*3!*6*3 = 103,680 possibilities. But — you guessed it — we have to toss out some of those wherein both players would have lined up their three marks. That can’t happen in a diagonal, so there are six places for one player and two left over for the other, one of which will be taken by that first players “wasted” move, which he can “waste” at one of four points in the game. That’s 3!*2*4*6*3!*6*3 = 31,104 games to toss out, leaving 103,680 – 31,104 = 72,576 games that end on Move 8.
And the ninth? Well, we don’t really need to do this one in full — phew! Rather, because we already calculated the total number of ways to fill in all the boxes over nine moves at the very top of this solution, we can subtract off all the games we just calculated, which end before that. Say the game ended after the fifth move. Then there would be 4! ways to fill in the rest of the boxes for no reason after that. If it ended after six moves, there’d be 3! Ways, and so on, so we have to account for those too. That gives us 362,880 – 4!*(1,440) – 3!*(5,328) – 2!*(47,952) – 1!*(72,576) = 127,872 games that end only after the ninth and last possible move.
Aaaaaand: 1,440 + 5,328 + 47,952 + 72,576 + 127,872 = 255,168. I’ll spare you the details, but, despite real-world experience, only about 18 percent of the possible tic-tac-toe games are draws.
Our winner David wrote: “I wrote a brute force program to find all of them, ran in less than a second.” Damn it, David. That was a really good idea.
And if you’re bored with boring old vanilla tic-tac-toe but have also read this far, might I suggest the fantastically interesting (I’m serious) Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe, instead? Just bring a paper and a pen and you’re sure to be the hit of your office party.
Last week’s Classic tic-tac-toe challenge was less accounting and more strategy. You were playing a game of tic-tac-toe with one advantage (you went first) and one disadvantage (you were blindfolded). The squares on the board were numbered 1 to 9, and you made your move by calling out a number, unaware of what moves your opponent had chosen to make. (If a numbered square you chose was taken, you were told so and could then pick a different number.) Could you develop a strategy that would guarantee you’d never lose a game, despite the blindfold?
Yes, indeed you could! And there was more than one strategy that did the trick.
As a reminder, the game squares were labeled like so:\(\)
Solver Justin submitted the following diagrammatic solution where you start with 5 (the center square) and keep trying to move down the left-most branch. If you can’t move down that branch because that square is already taken, you try the square on the next branch to the right, and so on. Green circles mean you won, and blue circles mean you tied. (Cat’s game, we used to call it.) You never lose!
Solver Barry King submitted another solution, in which you start with a corner square. Same rules (go down the left branch whenever possible) apply:
Finally, solver Kenny Long submitted a solution where you start with a non-corner, non-center square. Start with 2 and then move right, if you can, or else move down.
Another cool party trick. Boy, you’re really gonna win friends and influence people with these tic-tac-toe skills!
Have a great holiday — see you in 2019.
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! Consider your holiday shopping done.
With the 2018 midterms (mostly) behind us, focushasshiftedto the 2020 presidential election. The Iowa caucuses are usually the start of the presidential nomination process, and as of right now, they’re scheduled for Feb. 3, 2020 — just over 400 days from now. While we’re still more than a year out, two new polls found former Vice President Joe Biden in the lead in the race for the Democratic nomination. At least 30 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa listed him as their top choice for president.
The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll from Selzer & Co.14found Biden at 32 percent while a survey from David Binder Research on behalf of Focus on Rural America found Biden at 30 percent.15 In both polls, no other candidate cracked 20 percent. In an even earlier poll Biden led the field with 37 percent listing him as their No. 1 pick.16
Even though we’re still a ways from the caucus, these numbers could be read as a good sign for Biden. In the last four presidential elections where there was no Democratic incumbent running, the Iowa caucus winner went on to become the party’s nominee: Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Moreover, Biden has never polled this well in Iowa. In both his 1988 and 2008 presidential bids, Biden failed to hit the double-digits, and even when it seemed possible that Biden might run in 2016, his best Iowa marks were in the low 20s against Clinton and Sanders.
A good poll in Iowa doesn’t mean much … yet
Presidential aspirants that polled 30 percent or more at least one year prior to the Iowa caucuses
No. of Polls ≥30%
Best poll result
But according to FiveThirtyEight’s database of Iowa polls,17 most candidates who polled at roughly 30 percent more than one year before the caucuses have not won the caucuses or the nomination. From 1980 to 2016, eight different candidates hit the 30 percent mark in a survey taken at least one year out. Only three went on to win the Iowa caucuses: Walter Mondale in 1984, Bob Dole in 1988 and Clinton in 2016. Mondale and Clinton later won their party’s nomination, but Dole came up short against George H.W. Bush.
And some candidates polling at 30 percent or more withdrew or didn’t end up running. For instance, Gary Hart was the front-runner for the 1988 Democratic nomination and two surveys more than a year out found him polling in the high 50s, but after Hart got caught in an extramarital affair, he dropped out of the race, eventually re-entered and finished with less than one percent of the caucus vote. About a month after the Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore to decide the 2000 election, a poll looking at the 2004 Iowa caucuses found Gore at 39 percent. Gore decided against another bid in late 2002.
Three others ran but failed to win the Iowa caucuses or their party’s nomination in the 2008 cycle. Clinton and John Edwards each hit the 30 percent mark in at least one poll more than a year out but both lost to Obama in Iowa. Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani polled at 30 percent once but skipped the caucuses, instead opting for a Florida-first campaign strategy that completely failed.
We are a long way from the Iowa caucuses, and there will be myriad twists and turns and developments, such as debate performances and candidate announcements. Heck, Biden — who will be 77 years old on Election Day 2020 — might not even run, though he sure is acting like a potential candidate. We also know that early-state surveys aren’t very predictive until about two weeks after Thanksgiving in the year prior to the presidential election — or roughly two months before the 2020 Iowa caucuses. So as we speculate about the meaning of presidential polls more than a year out, know that they don’t necessarily tell us much other than which candidates have name recognition — and on that front, Biden seems to be doing just fine.
Other polling nuggets
30 percent of Americans said in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that 2018 was either “one of the best” or an “above average” year for the United States compared with other years. That’s the most optimism the poll has recorded since at least 1991, the earliest data point provided in the poll.
Approximately two-thirds of voters oppose shutting down the government over funding for the border wall, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
29 percent of Americans say that high medical costs stopped them from seeking treatment in the past year according to a Gallup poll; 19 percent say they avoided treatment for a serious condition or illness because of the price tag.
According to a Fox News poll, 39 percent of voters think President Trump will be re-elected in 2020, 52 percent do not.
Melania Trump’s approval rating has fallen 11 points from 54 percent in October to 43 percent this month according to a CNN poll. The first lady’s approval is down by 5 points among Republicans and 13 points among Democrats.
In a Gallup poll last month, 21 percent of Americans listed immigration as the most important problem facing the U.S.; this month only 16 percent did. The poll, which was conducted from December 3-12, was the first Gallup poll conducted on this topic since the November elections.
A HuffPost/YouGov poll found that the share of Americans who say that newcomers threaten “traditional American customs and values” declined by 12 percentage points from when the question was last asked in June 2016. The poll reported a decline among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
61 percent of Americans who say they did not vote on Election Day wish they had according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center immediately after the election.
To understand whether the public believes President Trump when he makes misleading claims, The Washington Post and NORC at the University of Chicago created a poll that asked respondents to choose the true statement in each of 18 pairs of statements, where one was true and one was false. Eleven of the pairs included a false claim President Trump had made, and respondents mistook one of those falsehoods for the true statement 25 percent of the time, on average. Rates varied by party — Democrats chose the false statement 20 percent of the time and Republicans did so 35 percent of the time. .
84 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas said in a Economist/YouGov poll that they think that Santa Claus would rate them as “nice”; 16 percent expected to be rated as “naughty.” FiveThirtyEight has not yet developed a model to predict how Santa will rate you.
People in the Democratic Republic of Congo are supposed to go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president and national assembly, though the destruction of electronic voting machines in a suspected arson attack might postpone that. An opinion poll conducted by New York University and the polling firm BERCI in October showed incumbent party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary winning 16 percent of the vote, trailing behind opposition candidates Felix Tshisekedi who had 36 percent support and Vital Kamerhe who had 17 percent support. (Tshisekedi and Kamerhe have since joined forces). There have been concerns about election integrity, but if the opposition wins without incident, the DRC would see its first peaceful transition of power since its independence in 1960.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.1 percent approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.5 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.4 points). At this time last week, 42.5 percent approved and 51.6 percent disapproved, for a net approval rating of -9.1 points. One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.9 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.3 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.4 points.
CORRECTION (Dec. 21, 1:45 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described the 1988 Democratic caucus results in Iowa. Gary Hart dropped out of the race after news broke that he had had an extramarital affair, but he later re-entered the campaign.
Winners of five straight games, the Houston Rockets nudged their record back up to their season-high mark of two games over .500 (16-14) with a blowout win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night, during which they set an NBA record by making 26 3-pointers. Despite this hot streak, however, it’s still fair to say that the Rockets have not performed as expected thus far this season. When searching for reasons why that might be the case, the focus has often been on their inability to replicate last season’s switch-happy defense or the early-season injuries and suspensions they had to weather or their general offensive malaise. (If ranking fifth in offensive efficiency can be described as a malaise.) But the root of Houston’s issues may actually just be that the rest of the league is increasingly subscribing to Houston’s core beliefs, which has eaten into the team’s math advantage.
To fully understand what that means and how that’s happened, we need to back up a bit. Daryl Morey has been the general manager of the Rockets since 2007, but it wasn’t until the 2012-13 season that the purest form of Morey’s basketball philosophies truly began to shine through on the floor.
Coming off three consecutive non-playoff seasons and having just traded for James Harden, the Rockets re-engineered their offense to play not only to their new star’s strengths, but also to The Math. It was during that season that the Rockets began their maniacal pursuit of the most efficient shot on every single possession, turning their collective backs on years of NBA tradition by eschewing the lost art of the mid-range jumper whenever possible in favor of attempts either at the rim or behind the three-point line.
It’s easy to see the benefits of that offensive strategy now — six years after the Rockets took it to what then seemed like its logical extreme — but at the time, it was not yet really accepted that this was a healthy way to construct an offense. Not everybody believed in The Math. The Rockets did, however, and they did to a degree that was then unheard of in league history.
By attempting so many more of their shots from the most efficient areas of the floor than any other team, the Rockets created for themselves a healthy math advantage. Through shot selection alone, they essentially began each game with a small lead that their opponents needed to erase in addition to out-scoring them over the course of 48 minutes in order to win the game.
For the nextthreeseasons under Kevin McHale, however, the Rockets’ Moreyball Rate stayed fairly stagnant. They still led the NBA in Moreyball Rate during each of those seasons, but they did so with rates that hovered between 72.6 and 73.8 percent. At the same time, the league average Moreyball Rate crept upward, eating into the Rockets’ math advantage and, by extension, that small de facto lead with which they began every game.
This is perhaps best exemplified by scaling their Moreyball Rate against the league average. Fans familiar with baseball statistics like OPS+ will recognize this formula: The NBA average Moreyball Rate is given a score of 100, while a team whose Moreyball Rate is 10 percent better than league average receives a Morey+ score of 110, and a team whose Moreyball Rate is 10 percent worse than league average receives a Morey+ score of 90. So, in a world where the league average Moreyball Rate is 50 percent, a team with a 55 percent Moreyball Rate has a Morey+ of 110, while a team with a 45 percent Moreyball Rate has a Morey+ of 90.
Using the same formula, we can calculate that during the 2012-13 season when the Rockets had a Moreyball Rate of 73.6 percent against a league average of 57.1 percent, they had a Morey+ of 129.1, meaning they attempted shots in the restricted area or from three-point territory at a rate 29.1 percent higher than that of the average NBA team. That is a ridiculously high mark. But it was also essentially the high-water mark for the McHale-era Rockets, whose Morey+ plummeted over the next few seasons, though not through any offensive fault of their own.
The decline of the Rockets’ math advantage during that time looks even starker when pitting their offense and defense against each other. At the same time as they were shooting 29.1 percent more often from Moreyball areas than the average team in 2012-13, they were forcing opponents to shoot from those areas 3.2 percent less often than the average squad. Add those two numbers up, and the Rockets had a Moreyball Advantage of 32.2 points during that season. By the time they got to the 2015-16 campaign, however, their Moreyball Advantage had been cut by more than half (to 13.8 points).
During those four years, the Rockets were the only team to have a Moreyball Rate above 68.8 percent, but the average team still gained steadily gained on them, and their ability to prevent their own opponents from getting to Moreyball areas declined as well. And it was then that Morey decided to hire Mike D’Antoni. Because if the Rockets couldn’t stop the rest of the league from following their lead in following The Math, then the next-best option was for them to take The Math to new heights.
In D’Antoni’s first season, the Rockets had a Moreyball Rate of 81.8 percent, blasting the previous league highs they’d set over the prior few seasons. That 81.8 percent figure was, obviously, the highest in the NBA by far, making it the fifth consecutive season during which the Rockets led the league. Crucially, that rate bumped their Morey+ all the way back up to 128.8 — almost all the way back to where it was during that 2012-13 campaign, when the Rockets first began truly orienting their offense around The Math.
Morey+ score* for the Houston Rockets
During that 2016-17 season, though, five other teams exceeded the Moreyball Rate of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who had the highest non-Rockets Moreyball Rate of any team from 2012 through 2016. That incredible jump from one-sixth of the league foreshadowed what has happened since: The league’s Moreyball Rate has been rising far faster than it did during the McHale years, meaning that the Rockets’ math advantage is once again shrinking, through no fault of their own offensive priorities.
While the average Moreyball Rate jumped only 3.7 percentage points from 2012 (58.1 percent) through 2016 (60.8 percent), it has rocketed (pun very much intended) all the way up to 68.3 percent in 2019. That’s a jump of 7.5 percentage points in just three seasons, compared with the four it took to erase a smaller advantage for the previous incarnation of the Rockets. And at the same time that the NBA’s average Moreyball Rate has shot through the roof, the Rockets themselves have once again stalled out. They appear to have hit a ceiling in terms of how many of their shots can really be taken from the most efficient areas of the floor.
Houston’s sky-high Moreyball Rates during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons helped them to two of the most efficient offensive seasons in NBA history. During that 2016-17 campaign, the Rockets registered the 10th-best offensive efficiency in NBA history, per Basketball-Reference. During the 2017-18 season, they posted the 11th-best offensive efficiency in history. And during both seasons, the Rockets led the NBA in Moreyball Rate by a healthy margin, even while the league as a whole was catching up.
This year, however, they don’t even lead the league in Moreyball Rate, marking the first time since the 2011-12 campaign that they’ve fallen out of first place. (They’ve been passed by Mike Budenholzer’s Milwaukee Bucks, who are at 82.6 percent, the highest figure that can be gleaned from the shot location data in NBA.com’s database, which reaches back to the 1996-97 season.) Amazingly, Houston’s Morey+ this season has already dropped below where it was during the 2015-16 season that inspired Morey to bring in D’Antoni in the first place. And even while they’ve cleaned up their defense a bit these past two years, the rate at which leaguewide Moreyball Rates are spiking has left their Moreyball Advantage at the lowest point it’s been in years.
It seems unlikely that other NBA teams will simply stop pursuing shots from the Moreyball areas of the floor, so the league average will presumably continue to rise — if not necessarily at quite the rate it has these past few years. And with the Rockets having seemingly maxed out their own Moreyball Rates in the low 80s, it looks like the best way for them to regain the sky-high Moreyball Advantage they had in the early 2010s is by engineering their defense so that opponents simply can’t access the most efficient areas of the floor. But that’s also what every other team in the league has been trying to do to the Rockets for years, and as they’ve been showing us for quite some time now, it’s easier said than done.
LAS VEGAS — The Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino was, in some ways, the most appropriate host for baseball’s winter meetings: After all, this offseason was once expected to be punctuated by announcements of record-setting, high-dollar free-agency deals. Bryce Harper, a premier free agent, is a Las Vegas native. But away from the din of the casino floor, a podium set up for press conferences in a vast ballroom was largely quiet last week. After last winter marked the slowest signing period in at least the previous 18 years, this offseason is starting even more slowly, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of free-agent data.
Teams already seemed less interested in giving time on the field to players over the age of 30 — the time frame in which many players first become eligible for free agency. But now, early in the offseason, teams also seem increasingly less willing to spend on any free agent.
Consider that through Monday, 50 days after the World Series concluded, only 5.2 percent of available free-agent players23 had signed major league deals for guaranteed money, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of data from The Baseball Cube. Fifty days after the end of the 2017 World Series, 5.5 percent of available free agents had signed. Two years ago that number was 9.2 percent. In the three offseasons prior to that winter — 2015-16, 2014-15 and 2013-14 — it was 9.2, 7.8 and 10.9 percent respectively.
Through Monday, $442.5 million had been spent on free agents. That’s down from $469.8 million at the same point last year, which was down from $976.5 million in the winter of 2016-17, $1.401 billion in 2015-16, $1.173 billion in 2014-15 and $1.229 billion through the middle of December 2013.
“We’ll closely monitor developments,” an MLB Players Association spokesperson said to FiveThirtyEight last month. “If 30 clubs are competing for a pennant, the free-agent market for players will be robust.”
But fewer teams seem interested in competing.
The Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks, 2018 contenders, are retooling. The American League Central champion Cleveland Indians have shed payroll in a weak division they can likely win without spending on free agents.
And teams seem to have learned, collectively, to wait out free agents. Thirty-five free agents signed guaranteed major league deals last year between Feb. 1 and opening day,24 compared with 18 in 2017, 13 in 2016, 10 in 2015 and 13 in 2014. The longer free agents wait, the fewer dollars they’re typically awarded.
Even the star free agents are having to wait.
Consider that in the not-so-distant past, top players had usually signed by now. Just look at the contracts inked before Christmases past: On Dec. 1, 2015, David Price signed the richest deal ever for a starting pitcher (seven years and $217 million) with the Boston Red Sox, and he was followed three days later by Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $206.5 million deal with Arizona. On Dec. 10 of the previous year, Jon Lester signed a $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. And in 2013, Robinson Cano signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 6, just three days after Jacoby Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with the Yankees.
But the five richest contracts of last offseason were awarded after Jan. 24. And only one contract so far this offseason has topped $100 million
There are other factors behind the slow down, said Chaim Bloom, vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. His club reportedly signed pitcher Charlie Morton on Dec.12.
“I’m hesitant to call something a trend before having [enough] information to really say this is a new normal — it might just be a slight shift in the timetable,” Bloom said to FiveThirtyEight last week. “There is a lot more information available. Teams increasingly like to have more and more information before making decisions. That may push some things later in the calendar. I also think — and this offseason is a good example of it — staff movement and staff [hirings] are taking up a larger chunk of offseason. … The more coaching staffs and front offices grow, the more time that is going to take [in early offseason].”
Have teams learned to wait out the market?
“I don’t know if it’s ideal for clubs, necessarily,” Bloom said of the slower markes. “You want to go into spring training knowing who you have.”
Regardless of whether free-agent superstars Harper and Manny Machado set contract records, they are expected to receive guaranteed dollars well into nine figures. The greater concern for the union is what another slow-to-develop market means for the middle class of free agents — which represents the vast majority of players.
A slow-to-develop market forced unsigned players to create their own spring training camp last year in Bradenton, Florida. David Freese knows this trend well. After the former World Series MVP finished the 2015 season with 2.2 wins above replacement, he sought a lucrative, multiple-year contract. But he had to settle in March for a one-year, $3 million deal with the Pirates.
“It was a tough situation to handle,” Freese said in 2016. “The waiting, it challenges your heart. Sitting around while guys are out playing [in spring training] … seeing games, seeing guys in the field.”
Rather than test free agency this winter after the Dodgers were likely to turn down his $6 million club option, he re-signed with the club on a one-year, $4.5 million deal.
Freese isn’t the only player to take that approach. Josh Donaldson — the 2015 A.L. MVP — agreed to a one-year, $23 million deal with Atlanta on Nov. 26. He was joined by 18 other free agents signing contracts for just one year, making up 67.9 percent of the 28 signings so far through Monday. That’s the greatest share of one-year contracts signed through the first 50 days of the offseason over the past six winters. (The next closest was 52 percent in 2016-17.)
Some of these players may have decided to bet on themselves on shorter-term deals in the hopes of maximizing their future earning potential. Or perhaps they are responding to seeing players with hopes of signing lucrative multi-year deals last offseason, like Mike Moustakas and Neil Walker, languish on the market until spring training had started.
Free agents across the game appear to be in store for another longer wait. Perhaps this is the new normal.
If at first you lose a Senate race … hope for an appointment! Despite a narrow defeat in Arizona’s 2018 U.S. Senate race, Republican Rep. Martha McSally will still be headed to Congress’s upper chamber next year. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced on Tuesday that he is appointing McSally to fill the state’s other Senate seat, formerly held by the late Sen. John McCain and currently held by Jon Kyl, who Ducey initially appointed to the seat; Kyl announced last week that he will resign on Dec. 31.
So what might we expect from Sen. McSally? Well, perhaps she won’t be too different from McCain. According to data from Voteview, a system that measures the political ideology of all senators and representatives based on their voting records, both McCain and McSally were more moderate than most other Republicans in the 115th Congress.1 In fact, less than a third of congressional Republicans were more moderate than McSally (29 percent) and McCain (30 percent). Both were squarely in the left wing of their party. However, despite having a relatively more moderate ideology score, McSally voted in line with President Trump in most cases, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score.
During her two terms in the House, McSally represented the Arizona 2nd, a R+1 battleground district that Democrats won in November. That purple electorate probably influenced her moderate approach. If we just look at McSally’s first term, she had an even less conservative voting record, so she has shifted a bit further to the right during her tenure, perhaps in anticipation of her Senate bid and the fact that she needed to beat staunch conservative challengers like Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio to win the Republican nomination. Still, Arizona looks likely to be a politically competitive state going forward, so if McSally mimics McCain’s record as a “maverick”, a less-than-hardline voting record might work out for her, electorally-speaking. He did win six Senate elections from 1986 to 2016, all by margins greater than 10 percentage points.
Then again, members of Congress sometimes shift ideologically when they move from the House to the Senate. Take Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, for example. She went from being one of the most moderate Democrats in the House to one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate. That shift can be partly explained by the leftward shift of the Democratic Party overall, as well as Gillibrand’s potential presidential ambitions. But it’s also reflective of her switch from representing a competitive Upstate New York district to serving a very liberal state. McSally might find herself subject to a similar pull, just in the opposite direction, moving from an R+1 district to an R+9 state. Electoral concerns certainly won’t be far from her mind. Provided McSally stays in the position, she faces a re-election bid in a 2020 special election, and if she wins that, she would then have to run in the seat’s regularly-scheduled election in 2022. McSally’s next primary could also be a real challenge given the dissatisfaction among some Arizona Republicans over how she handled her 2018 Senate campaign and subsequent defeat against Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
McSally’s record in the next Congress will be an important factor in that primary, as it could encourage or discourage a significant challenger.