Mike D’Antoni beat out 11-time championship coach Phil Jackson for the Los Angeles Lakers’ job, replacing fired Mike Brown. And it was quite surprise.Most everyone believed Jackson would make his third stint with the team he won five NBA titles. Reports indicated Jackson would accept the job on Monday pending negotiations. But it never got to that point.“We signed Mike D’Antoni to a multi-year deal,” Lakers spokesman John Black said, mentioning the team’s owner and top two executives. “Dr. (Jerry) Buss, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak were unanimous that Mike D’Antoni was the best coach for the team at this time.”D’Antoni, 61, coached the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns, but neither to a championship. His style of play promotes a frenetic, speedy tempo with shots going up from all over the court, with no emphasis on defense. His teams in New York were last in the NBA in points allowed and field goal percentage against in all his three seasons with the Knicks.Questions about how such an up-tempo pace would work with the aging Lakers: Steve Nash is 38, Kobe Bryant 34, Pau Gasol 32. And his system calls for sound perimeter shooting, and L.A. does not fashion a lot of long-range marksmen.Still, the Lakers took him over Jackson. D’Antoni, with a three-year, $12-million contract, will officially take over the Lakers within two weeks, depending how quickly he recovers from knee-replacement surgery.The Lakers will introduce their new coach at a news conference as early as Tuesday but more likely later in the week. Bernie Bickerstaff will remain the team’s interim coach for now.Jackson was the overwhelming favorite to return to the Lakers until they heard his informal demands, which included a stake in team ownership, according to a person familiar with the situation.“He was asking for the moon,” said the person, who also declined to be identified because they are not authorized to discuss the situation.The Lakers then moved quickly to sign D’Antoni. He replaces Brown, who was fired Friday after the Lakers began the season 1-4, their worst start since 1993.Earlier Sunday, Lakers guard Steve Nash said it would “be a coup” for the Lakers to bring back Jackson, but he also had kind words for D’Antoni.“Obviously, I think everyone knows how much I love Mike,” said Nash, who played four seasons and won two MVP awards under D’Antoni in Phoenix. “If he were the coach, it would be seamless and terrific for me, and I think the team as well.”Kobe Bryant, who said he “loves” Jackson, was on board with the hiring of D’Antoni. “They know how I feel about Phil. They know how I feel about D’Antoni,” Bryant said Sunday. “I like them both.”D’Antoni’s coaching staff with the Lakers likely will start with two longtime assistants — his brother, Dan D’Antoni, and Phil Weber.The new Lakers coach has a 388-339 coaching record in the NBA. He led the Suns to the Western Conference finals in 2005 and 2006 with Nash running the show.Bryant became familiar as a boy with D’Antoni, who was a star in the Italian league in the 1980s, when Bryant’s father also played in Italy. D’Antoni helped Olimpia Milano win five league titles and two European club titles. D’Antoni also worked with Bryant on the U.S. national team as an assistant.
But although the Yankees like elite fastballs and Paxton has a good one, New York ranked just 16th in four-seam fastball usage last year. The team often uses velocity to set up breaking balls and changeups, which tend to get more swings and misses than fastballs do. And with this strategy, the 2018 Yankees became just the third staff ever to strike out more than 10 batters per nine innings (10.10), joining the 2017 Cleveland Indians (10.08) and 2018 Astros (10.44).So it won’t be a surprise if the Yankees help Paxton by getting him to rely on his fastball less. Paxton threw it 55.6 percent of the time last season, ranking 26th in usage in the majors.Paxton’s cutter ranked second in the majors, behind Trevor Bauer, in whiffs per swing, at 37.2 percent. The New York Yankees tried to trade last winter for Gerrit Cole, arguably the top starting pitcher available. They were not willing to to meet the Pittsburgh Pirates’ asking price. Cole landed in Houston. Who knows how he might have changed the Yankees’ 2018 season.This offseason, the Yankees again targeted the top pitcher available. This time, they got him.The Yankees acquired left-handed pitcher James Paxton from the Seattle Mariners on Monday evening for a package of three prospects. While he might not be a household name outside the Pacific Northwest, he offers the Yankees the potential for a second legit ace alongside Luis Severino.Paxton ranks near the top of the leaderboard in nearly every rate statistic that indicates pitcher dominance. Since his breakout 2017 season, Paxton ranks sixth in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (11.1) among pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings, sixth in strikeout percentage minus walk percentage (23.8 percent) and eighth in wins above replacement per 200 innings (5.7) — a rough measure of what a healthy starting pitcher might provide over a full season — trailing starters Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard and Severino, plus reliever Blake Treinen, who got a lot of work in last year. In other words, the elite of the elite. He ranks seventh since 2017 in fielding-independent pitching (2.95), which is scaled like ERA but factors out how the defense affects pitchers’ stats, and 34th by a more traditional measure, ERA (3.40).Is it enough to close the gap with the reigning World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox?Yankees GM Brian Cashman said adding Paxton may be just a start.“We’ve got one in the fold,” Cashman said. “And at the very worst we’re looking to add another.”And the same way Cole improved with the Astros last season, the Yankees might also be acquiring a pitcher who could get better in his new home. Even a home as hitter-friendly as Yankee Stadium.The Yankees prize velocity. They led the majors with an average fastball of 95.3 mph last season, and the three hardest-throwing staffs of the pitch-tracking era (since 2007) have played in pinstripes. Paxton’s fastball averaged 95.9 mph last season, ranking 15th among pitchers that had thrown at least 100 innings (Severino was second at 97.9 mph).Paxton has one of the game’s top whiff rates (26.1 percent on pitches that drew a swing) on his fastball and he also allows some of the weakest contact in the game. The average exit velocity of balls batters made contact with against him (89.4 mph) ranked in the lowest 4 percent. Here’s an elevated 97 mph fastball that Paxton threw for his 15th strikeout in a May game against the Oakland A’s: He could benefit from using those offspeed and breaking pitches more often, and he might have a fourth pitch if he keeps to his plan to incorporate a changeup.“Oh, I’ve seen it,” Mariners starter Wade LeBlanc told The Athletic in September. “If he were to throw that pitch in games, it would be the best [changeup] on the team.”The problem with Paxton is less quality than quantity. The ace, who is under club control through 2020, doesn’t always contribute volume, as he’s often on the disabled list.He has never thrown 200 innings in major league season, and his 160.1 innings last season were a career high. He’s dealt with an assortment of injuries, including a forearm bruise this past season. So for the Yankees, he’s not without risk, but the asking price wasn’t as steep as it was Cole.The Yankees did part with left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield, their No. 1-ranked prospect, according to Baseball America and FanGraphs. Sheffield was acquired in the 2016 midsummer trade that sent reliever Andrew Miller to Cleveland.But Sheffield isn’t the same quality of prospect that Yankees infielders Gleyber Torres or Miguel Andujar were a year ago, according to some analysts, when the Pittsburgh Pirates demanded one of them in exchange for Cole. Some evaluators believe Sheffield might end up becoming a bullpen arm. Others see him as a mid-rotation starter. Sheffield has talent but his command issues continued in 2018. The Mariners might see more potential to work with in Sheffield, and the team also received powerful righty Erik Swanson and outfielder Don Thompson-Williams.After selling his most valuable asset, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto told reporters that the team plans to take a “step back” in 2019 and then take “two steps forward” later, with a focus on 2020 and 2021.That’s an optimistic assessment.The Mariners faded from playoff contention last season, and their average hitter last year was 29.8 years old, tying them with the San Francisco Giants for the oldest position players in the majors. (Their pitching staff was the 10th oldest at 29.0 years). By some measures, they have the game’s weakest farm system. The Mariners depleted their farm in recent years to upgrade the major league roster, but they have not advanced to the postseason since 2001, the longest drought in the majors. They might be waiting a while longer. As for the Yankees, who won 100 games last season but finished eight games behind Boston, a healthy Paxton will help them close the gap in the AL East.The Yankees starters were fifth in WAR last season and tied for ninth in ERA-, which accounts for park effects and the league run environment. Paxton provides a massive upgrade from New York’s weakest link in Sonny Gray (5.26 ERA). The Yankees’ staff was already good, and now it might be great. Opponents hit .145 versus Paxton’s cutter and .235 against his curveball, including this whiff against Josh Donaldson during a no-hitter Paxton threw against the Toronto Blue Jays in Canada, where he grew up:
The 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes haven’t played a game yet, but they’re off to a historic start. Not only does the team rank first in the Associated Press’s preseason poll, but it also garnered all 61 possible first-place votes — making it the first time in the 66-year history of the preseason rankings that a team was unanimously voted No. 1.There’s no question that the Buckeyes are bursting with talent, having retained 14 starters (including three All-Americans) from last year’s 14-1 squad that won the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship. The metrics are fond of them as well: The Buckeyes rank No. 1 in ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index (FPI), with a 31 percent probability of finishing the season without a loss. (No other team has more than an 11 percent chance of going undefeated.)But as great as Ohio State figures to be, the share of No. 1 votes that a top-ranked team receives hasn’t historically been a reliable indicator of how strong it will be at season’s end.Among top-ranked teams in the preseason since 1992, there’s a passable relationship between the percentage of available No. 1 votes gathered and the team’s eventual end-of-season power rating.1As measured by the Elo-like estimated version of FPI we used here. But that’s almost entirely because voters (sensibly) tend to hand their No. 1 votes to teams that were already good in the first place. If we look at whether the share of No. 1 votes a top-ranked team receives in the preseason predicts the change in its rating from the preseason to the end of the year, there’s essentially no relationship at all.In fact, Ohio State’s accomplishment might actually be more indicative of an overall trend toward consolidation atop the preseason poll. In the five polls between 1992 and 1996, for instance, the No. 1 team accumulated 56 percent of all top votes on average. In the most recent five years, that average was 79 percent, with each of the past three preseason No. 1 teams garnering at least 95 percent of the vote.This year’s Buckeyes should be a treat to watch. But their unanimous No. 1 ranking doesn’t make them any more likely to dominate the season than a team with the same FPI but a less-impressive vote tally.
Yunel Escobar2.320.3 Ian Desmond1.52.8-1.3 How Takedown on the Nationals’ collapseSubscribe to the full podcast on iTunes. We also can’t dismiss the impact of chemistry, even if it can’t yet be measured in any rigorous way. Sabermetricians are normally hesitant to entertain such explanations, but there’s some evidence that things were getting tense in the Nationals’ clubhouse. There was a midseason trade for a notorious veteran (closer Jonathan Papelbon), which preceded a stretch of poor performance. Over and above correlation, however, Papelbon has blown several saves and literally tried to choke the team’s best player in the dugout.A similarly undetermined factor is the team’s coaching, in particular manager Matt Williams. Anecdotally, Williams has seen a number of poor strategic decisions cost his team wins, but we lack a definitive stat to measure managerial performance, even at a basic level.Even in a worst-case scenario, the Nationals should have had enough talent to qualify for a wild card spot. Instead, they’ll be watching the Mets compete for the World Series, and they don’t have any one person to blame. Whether by bad luck, injuries, mismanagement or poor chemistry, the Nationals let a chance at contention slip through their fingers in an unparalleled breakdown. NAMEWARPROJECTED WARDIFFERENCE Where to begin with the Washington Nationals? How does a team that was projected to win 95 games finish so far from the playoffs? How does a team with Max Scherzer and two of the best young players in baseball, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, muddle their way through the second half of the season? How does a team allow an inside-the-park grand slam? How does a team watch its imported closer attack its best player and then send the closer back onto the field to finish the game?The Nationals were a consensus pick to win the National League East, both by experts and by statistical analysis. Only 27 other teams since 2003 have had a better win-total projection than the Nationals’ 90.8 this year, according to my calculations.1To calculate this, I used a measure of preseason team strength that my FiveThirtyEight colleague Neil Paine built from a combination of Vegas odds, regressed Pythagorean records from the two prior years, and PECOTA projections. The Dodgers were the only team with a better projected win total than the Nats this season. When you consider that baseball currently lives in an era of unprecedented parity,2In an earlier article, Neil and I found that the spread in team strengths was growing smaller over time, possibly related to the change in playoff structure. the Nationals’ dominance becomes even more pronounced: The Nationals, who were projected to be 1.81 standard deviations better than average, were supposed to be a juggernaut at a time when such teams have become extinct.And yet on Saturday, the Nationals were eliminated from playoff contention. If you examine only teams with preseason win projections as high as the Nationals’ since 2003, just two teams have imploded as much: the 2009 Chicago Cubs and the 2004 New York Mets.3Since this season has not concluded yet, I used the FanGraphs projected full season standings for the actual win totals for the 2015 Nationals and Dodgers. The Nationals are forecast to win 83 games. After adjusting for the smaller spread in team talent in recent years, no team has been projected so high and fallen so far as these 2015 Nationals. But we don’t know exactly why it happened. The breakdown came in a weak division,4All the teams in the NL East combined scored two fewer runs than their opponent per game, easily the worst of any division in the game. and over the second half of the season, the Nationals had the second-easiest schedule in baseball and still managed to run a sub-.500 record.Don’t blame the pitchers, though. The Nationals built a formidable rotation and an adequate bullpen that tallied 20.0 wins above replacement, good for sixth in all of baseball. (All WAR stats in this piece were current as of Monday.) One could argue that even this excellent performance is underwhelming, given preseason hopes. But at least for the starting rotation, the pitching has matched the projections almost exactly.5Using the projection system Steamer, the top five starters were predicted to achieve 15.7 WAR and have managed to get 16.4. Wilson Ramos0.52.8-2.3 Danny Espinosa22.214.171.124 Jayson Werth02.8-2.8 Michael Taylor1-0.11.1 Clint Robinson0.100.1 Anthony Rendon0.93.9-3 Bryce Harper126.96.36.199 Ryan Zimmerman0.63-2.4 Blame the hitters instead. The Nationals’ position players have accrued 19.0 WAR, placing them 15th in MLB, sandwiched between the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays. Of this total, more than half has been provided by likely-MVP Harper alone. Arguably the most disappointing years belong to second baseman Anthony Rendon (0.9 WAR), shortstop Ian Desmond (1.5), and outfielder Jayson Werth (0). The trio was predicted to produce almost one Bryce Harper’s worth of value (9.5 WAR) but have thus far combined for only 2.4 wins. Close the deficit between their projections and actual production, and it would be like adding another MVP candidate to the team.
Share on Facebook You’re reading Back of the Envelope, an experiment that aims to bring shorter, quicker content to FiveThirtyEight. Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian chess grandmaster and No. 1-ranked chess player in the world, is just over two weeks away from defending his world championship in New York City. It’ll be a grueling test, with hours-long games spread out over 19 days, but Carlsen will be the heavy favorite. But rather than poring over potential opening moves or studying the intricacies of endgames, he’s heading to the internet to play some speed chess.Thursday, Carlsen will play Hikaru Nakamura, the four-time U.S. chess champion, in Chess.com’s online Grandmaster Blitz Battle final, which the site is billing as the Ali vs. Frazier of online chess. In the world championship for chess with “classical” time controls, each player gets at least 100 minutes for all his or her moves. But Thursday’s blitz battle will feature a series of games wherein the players get just 5 minutes, 3 minutes and, finally, 1 minute per side.According to the latest FIDE list, a ranking that uses Elo ratings and in-person results, Carlsen and Nakamura are the second- and third-best blitz players in the world, respectively. (China’s Liren Ding is No. 1.) But according to Chess.com’s newly developed Computer Accuracy & Precision Score (or CAPS), Nakamura may have a slight edge in speed games over the world champion. CAPS is based on a comparison between the humans’ actual moves and the moves deemed best by a computer.You can watch the match, starting at 1 p.m. Eastern, on Chess.com and Twitch. And if you can’t wait, here’s an appetizer — the two grandmasters playing a private speed game in a hotel room a few years ago:
Oct. 21, 1973Sun1 (WS Game 7)1235 NUMBER OF GAMES Oct. 30, 2016Sun1 (WS Game 5)1178 Nov. 1, 2010Mon1 (WS Game 5)133 Oct. 17, 1971Sun1 (WS Game 7)1236 Oct. 12, 1980Sun1 (NLCS Game 5)1348 Nov. 1, 2009Sun1 (WS Game 4)1274 Oct. 27, 1985Sun1 (WS Game 7)1315 Oct. 14, 1973Sun1 (WS Game 2)1235 Another sports equinox is in the booksDates on which all four major U.S. sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL) had at least one game Oct. 14, 1979Sun1 (WS Game 5)1337 With nine NHL games, three NBA games, an NFL game and an MLB playoff game — made possible by the Chicago Cubs’ victory in Game 4 of the NLCS on Wednesday — Thursday is your (first) sports equinox of 2017.What’s a sports equinox? As my former colleague Reuben Fischer-Baum wrote on a couple of occasions, it’s when all four major U.S. sports leagues — the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB — play at least one game on the same day. Historically speaking, it doesn’t happen often. There have only been 17 sports equinoxes in history, including Thursday: Oct. 19, 1980Sun1 (WS Game 5)1336 DATEDAYMLBNFLNBANHL Oct. 15, 1978Sun1 (WS Game 5)1355 Oct. 15, 1972Sun1 (WS Game 2)1236 Oct. 22, 1972Sun1 (WS Game 7)1235 Nov. 2, 2009Mon1 (WS Game 5)153 Nov. 1, 2015Sun1 (WS Game 5)1275 Amazingly, there was a 15-year period without a single sports equinox, between 1985 and 2001. And after 2001, seven more years passed without it happening. But sports equinoxes have occurred much more frequently in recent years — six have happened in the nine years since 2008. They might become even more common in the future, thanks to Thursday-night NFL becoming a fixture, the World Series often running later than usual, and a new NBA scheduling policy this season that moved the season’s opening night up by a week and a half.If the Cubs can force Game 7 in the NLCS, Sunday will be another sports equinox. As will Oct. 29, if Game 5 of the World Series takes place. But even if those do happen, Thursday’s equinox will be the only one this season with the added bonus of college football — there are two FBS games tonight, including No. 25-ranked Memphis at Houston (A “Super Equinox”?). Good luck finding enough screens to watch it all! Oct. 19, 2017Thu1 (NLCS Game 5)139 Nov. 4, 2001Sun1 (WS Game 7)1374
All newsletters Things That Caught My EyeDraft Day!It’s the first day of the NFL draft, meaning that enormous financial concerns are about to publicly gamble in prime time television, which is always pretty cool. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is the top running back prospect in this year’s draft and will likely go very early in the evening. But a team betting on a workhorse running back isn’t always the sure bet it was once considered. From 2006 to 2015, there were only three running backs drafted in the top five, and to some extent they never really panned out for their teams. Since then, we’ve had the phenomenal Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott going each at 4th. Barkley could join them if he joins the Giants at No. 2 or Browns at No. 4. [FiveThirtyEight]‘The Blind Side’ is overIn the aftermath of “The Blind Side,” which extolled the virtues of the left tackle position and lead to a commensurate skyrocketing to the value of those players, teams appeared to undervalue guards compared to tackles. In the 32-team era, 62 tackles were drafted in the first round of the draft compared to 14 guards. That may be changing, since 2013 the total value of draft picks for left tackles has been essentially in free fall since the post-2006 highs. [FiveThirtyEight]Oldest sport adapts to new realitiesThe International Association of Athletics Federations, which governs the world of track and field, will implement new regulations regarding testosterone levels for elite female athletes. Most women have testosterone levels ranging from 0.12 to 1.79 nanomoles per liter, while most men have 7.7 to 29.4 nanomoles per liter. The regulations — which will undoubtably fuel controversy from literally every angle, and that’s okay — will impact women who have testosterone levels above 5.0 nanomoles per liter, and would require them to choose between hormone therapy, not competing internationally, or competing against men. [The New York Times]Try out our interactive, Which World Cup Team Should You Root For?Winnipeg, city of miseryA new calculation for the quantified metropolitan sports misery score that counts not only the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL but also the MLS and Canadian Football League puts the Canadian city of Winnipeg over perennial sports drought cities like Cincinnati and Buffalo to have the most yearning-for-a-win fans. [The 10 and 3]Tsunami of corruptionA draft report published Wednesday by the Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis follows up on earlier investigations from the BBC and BuzzFeed to find evidence of match-fixing in the sport, particularly at lower levels. The report found 20 unnamed high-level players who lost at least one suspicious match from 2005 to 2008. [BuzzFeed]World Cup getting called from statesideFox Sports is rolling out details about its play calling teams for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia. Given the lack of an American presence at the cup — the United States failed to qualify — Fox elected to pare back its footprint in Russia proper and will have only one of five announced crews actually in Russia. [World Soccer Talk, The Associated Press]Big Number(s)161.4Looking at a stat called five-year approximate value, the hoarde of valuable draft picks held by the Cleveland Browns is truly formidable. Overall, the Browns have a total draft expected value of 161.4, which is head and shoulders above their nearest competitors, the Bills (124.3), Colts (122.1) and Broncos (116.4). The Browns are poised for a guaranteed consequential couple of days, for better or for worse. [The Washington Post]Leaks from Slack: neil:MLB Now talking about 8 teams currently being on pace for 100+ losses…. wonder how that compares to other seasons via something more rigorous like Elo?natesilver:we have two teams projected for 100+, and 2 more for 99plus one at 97 and one at 95seems like a lot for this early in the seasonneil:TankFest ’18Predictions NBA Oh, and don’t forgetThe past few weeks of the Overwatch League have been outstanding We’re launching a sports newsletter. 🏆 Join the squad. Subscribe See more NBA predictions
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.sara.ziegler: LOLThe 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.neil: Particularly this of all regular seasons.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 records for 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.sara.ziegler: The Ravens nearly let Sunday’s game slip away, though.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.neil: After Week 11, we gave them a 97 percent chance of making the playoffs.sara.ziegler: I was surprised all season that they were as high in Elo as they were.Salfino: Being third in sack rate and 28th in interception rate defies conventional wisdom that pressure creates turnovers. Maybe PIT was super unlucky, too.sara.ziegler: They reeled off six wins in a row, but they never looked dominant.neil: Some of that was probably residual, Sara, from last year, when they had Le’Veon Bell, etc. But the narrative all first half was how they didn’t need Bell.sara.ziegler: Yeah, and James Conner filled in well for them!Salfino: Is MIN more disappointing than PIT? This is going to be a brutal offseason for Kirk Cousins. No player in memory is going to be under more pressure than he will be next year.neil: This is a fraught question for Sara ….sara.ziegler: I can’t even talk about it.neil: Yep.sara.ziegler: Well, Mike, we all know how well Cousins does with pressure.neil: 😬Salfino: I really thought Cousins was a franchise QB. He did pretty well with just garbage offensive talent in 2017 in WAS, and this year he just never really could get it going. He played so tight.neil: Sunday was sort of symbolic of the whole 2018 Vikings.They controlled their destiny at home (granted against the Bears).Cousins goes 4-for-11 for 2.1 yards per attempt and two sacks on third and fourth down.Terrible overall performance.Salfino: It seemed like Cousins averaged about a yard per attempt. If I were the coach of the Vikings, I’d tell him to take chances and not care about INTs. They’re overrated.neil: The Minnesota defense was uncharacteristically bad on third down, too. Allowed 57 percent conversions after giving up only 28 percent all season before Sunday.sara.ziegler: sara.ziegler: 🤣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.LOLneil: 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 performanceAnd 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. 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.sara.ziegler: The Eagles don’t even need Foles, Neil!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.sara.ziegler: Ooof.Salfino: Foles is going to get $100 million in about three months, so I will not feel sorry for him.joshua.hermsmeyer: hahsara.ziegler: LOLThe one other meaningful game yesterday — aside from the games that cost coaches their jobs — was Colts-Titans. Anyone surprised that the Colts dominated that one?neil: I mean, Blaine Gabbert was starting for Tennessee, Sarasara.ziegler: FairSalfino: Titans-Colts is QB wins to me. Luck vs. Gabbert. Come on. Murder. She. Wrote.joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh gawd not QB WinzSalfino: YES!!!Give me the better QB, and I’ll take my chances.joshua.hermsmeyer: smhMarlon Mack outrushed Derrick Henry, so why not RB winz?Salfino: No RB winz because winning yards per carry gets you nothing in win probability.Josh, you and I agree broadly but just quibble about how much credit quarterbacks get in the passing game.joshua.hermsmeyer: This is true.neil: Either way, it’s been great to see Andrew Luck bounce back from the injury and lost season to play well and lead a playoff push.sara.ziegler: I’m still amazed by the Colts’ turnaround.They were at 4 percent to make the playoffs on Oct. 15.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.sara.ziegler: So let’s turn to this weekend’s games.Colts-Texans and Seahawks-Cowboys on Saturday, Chargers-Ravens and Eagles-Bears on Sunday.Which underdog has the best chance?neil: Three of the 4 underdogs are +2.5 per Vegas.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.neil: Indy also also beat Houston in Houston less than a month ago.Salfino: I am going to fade the Seahawks: 25th in yards allowed per play and 31st in sack rate allowed. That’s so bad. I can’t believe they even made the playoffs.neil: Ironically, our Elo gives Seattle the best chance of any wild card weekend team. 😉Elo has a tendency to react strongly to recent hot streaks, for better or worse.Seattle has won six of its past seven, including a win over Kansas City.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.neil: Never underestimate the extra value of home-field advantage in the NFL playoffs, too.sara.ziegler: Yeah, that all makes sense.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).sara.ziegler: 🔥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: joshua.hermsmeyer: looolneil: That’s still accurate.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.LOLsara.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.sara.ziegler: LOLneil: As opposed to this one: 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.neil: Ooh, going low. I like it.Check out our latest NFL predictions.
Pitching. It’s a common denominator in baseball. Everyone from high school coaches around the country to major league managers often claim pitching as the No. 1 reason why they’re succeeding or failing.The Ohio State baseball team is no exception. While the Buckeyes appear to have a strong, balanced lineup and an athletic team in the field, questions surround the pitching staff. OSU returns its top two starters and top setup man, but doubts remain regarding the rest the Buckeye pitchers. Of course, OSU has one pitcher they can rely upon.The numbers junior right-hander Alex Wimmers put up last season were quite remarkable. The 2009 first-team All-American and Big Ten co-Pitcher of the Year went 9-2 and led the Big Ten with 136 strikeouts last season. Wimmers held batters to a .211 batting average and opposing batters hit a measly .193 against him with two outs.Furthermore, on May 2 against Michigan, Wimmers fanned 14 Wolverines and threw the first nine-inning no-hitter in the 125-year history of OSU baseball. Wimmers worked hard in the offseason to prepare to shoulder the load again for the Buckeyes.“Conditioning-wise, I improved my stamina, I worked hard in the weight room,” said Wimmers, a projected first-round pick in June’s MLB draft. “What I like to do is to put a lot of pressure on myself in carrying this team. I do the best I can and try to stay in there as long as I can on Friday nights to set the pitching for the rest of the weekend.”The 2010 preseason All-American and undisputed staff ace has some lofty goals for the upcoming season.“I want to repeat as [Big Ten] Pitcher of Year. I’d like to lead the country in strikeouts if I can,” Wimmers said. “I want to limit my walks and have an ERA under three.”Coach Bob Todd, in his 22nd year coaching the Buckeyes, admits he might have to rely a bit more on Wimmers this season given the pitching staff’s uncertainty.“We’ve talked about that. We’re never going to do anything to hurt him. He’s got too much of a bright future,” Todd said. “If we can nurse an extra inning or so out of him, we’re certainly going to do it. It’s all going to depend on pitch counts, especially earlier in the season.”Anchoring the No. 2 spot in the rotation is junior Dean Wolosiansky. The 6-foot-5-inch, 225 pound right-hander went 11-2 last season with an ERA of 6.04. However, Wolosiansky is 12-2 in his career in conference play and has shown a knack for escaping trouble, as he induced 14 double plays last year.The Buckeyes lost a big piece of their bullpen from last season with the departure of senior closer Jake Hale. A first-team All-American who was drafted in the 27th round of last June’s draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, Hale saved 18 games last year for OSU. Hale also had an ERA of 1.31 and struck out 67 in 55 innings pitched.For now, Hale’s replacement will be right-hander Drew Rucinski. Last season, the junior led OSU with 12 wins and was second in the Big Ten in appearances. Todd thinks Rucinski could contribute in a number of roles.“For the first couple of weeks he is going to be our closer, [however] at some point in time he might be our No.3 starter.” Todd said. “We used him as our setup guy last year, so he’s really been flexible. We feel comfortable wherever we put him.”The team might also have to rely on younger players to eat up innings during the season. Brett McKinney, a freshman right-hander from Hamilton, Ohio, who impressed coaches during last fall’s Scarlet and Gray World Series, might see substantial action early in the season.“McKinney is going to be the key.” Todd said. “You never know what you’re going to get out of freshmen, but what he showed us in the fall is that he is going to have a chance to contribute and contribute quickly.”
The Ohio State wrestling team will have two tough tests this weekend as it faces No. 19 Illinois and No. 4 Minnesota on consecutive days. First up for the Buckeyes is a match at Illinois (3-4-1, 1-3-1 Big Ten) at 8 p.m. Friday. Right after the meet, the team will drive back to Columbus to prepare for the Golden Gophers (13-3, 4-0 Big Ten). The Buckeyes (2-7, 1-3 Big Ten) say they know they’re in for a tough weekend, and they will be looking for upsets throughout it to pull off a victory. “We have to upset a couple of their high-ranked athletes,” coach Tom Ryan said. “We need a couple surprises; the team knows that.” Ryan said he feels his team matches up better with Illinois and feels it has a better chance at victory in the first dual. “If our guys fight,” he said, “we match up fairly well with the rest of the teams.” Peter Capone, a redshirt freshman who wrestles at 197 pounds, said he knows a sweep this weekend would be great for the team. “It would mean a lot,” he said. “It would be huge for the program.” The most difficult part, Capone said, is going to be the travel back from Illinois right after the dual finishes. “It’s going to be hard,” he said. “We’re going to be really tired on the way back.” If the Buckeyes can manage to win both duals this week, Ryan said he believes the team will earn a much-needed confidence boost heading into its final two meets. Redshirt junior captain Sean Nemec, 157 pounds, said the back-to-back duals are different from what he is used to. The team usually will have duals Friday and Sunday, but because of the Super Bowl, Ryan said, this week’s duals are Friday and Saturday. Nemec said the biggest problem for wrestlers is when they aren’t smart about their weight, but to prevent that, OSU will be back in the gym Saturday before it faces Minnesota. “Come back, try and get a little sleep,” Nemec said. “Then come back in, work out a little bit and try to get your weight back down.” While team members say they hope to beat Illinois, they know the odds of pulling out a victory against Minnesota are slim. “You’ve got to have your mind made up before you step on the mat,” Ryan said. “This isn’t something that I’m not going to try to do. I’m going to get this done.” As the 2010–11 season wraps up, the team prepares for the Big Ten Tournament in March. The back-to-back duals will help the team build up its endurance for the tournament, which will have multiple matches in a day. “It’s a good opportunity for our guys to get used to a couple of the key tournaments at the end of the year,” Ryan said. Despite the Minnesota meet being the day after OSU wrestles Illinois, Ryan said, fatigue should not be a factor for his team. “You wrestle for seven minutes,” he said. “We’re not talking about a Hawaiian triathlon. They’ve been training their whole life for this.” Nemec said he believes if his team can manage to pull out victories over the two ranked teams this weekend, it could help the Buckeyes build momentum toward the end of the season. “It’ll be real big,” he said, “especially to get momentum going heading into the end of the season.” OSU will travel to Champaign, Ill., to wrestle Illinois at 8 p.m. Friday; then the team is scheduled to return to Columbus to host Minnesota at 7 p.m. Saturday.