Baseball

It’s probably a good idea to point out a portion of the appeal of being a baseball fan is yelling at clouds. It’s the one sport where part of the fabric is that you can look at clouds while watching it. So occasionally you’re going to yell at them. Now that that’s out of the way…

It seems every season, especially of late, once or twice a week some major writer or publication or site is producing something where it’s just some former player–perhaps incontinent, perhaps not, but I’m betting on the former–bitching about how the game has changed and it wasn’t his way in his day and this game sucks and they can’t watch it. Funny enough, they seem to watch it enough to get quoted in these stories, don’t they. Just in the past couple days, Pete Rose, who is a rapist it needs to be pointed out, got a platform to bemoan the status of the game.

Not even hockey has the regularity of aged yahoos and and shitheads come out of whatever forest hut they’ve been inhabiting to proclaim the game was better back when their brains were spilling out over the red line. You get them, but not as often, and also they’re kind of laughed out of the building because of how much faster and more skilled the game is now and people enjoy it. Also, maybe it’s because older hockey players have a much harder time locating three sentences and assembling them than old baseball players do.

Baseball does have a problem in that no sport is more beholden to its past, or traditions. Which might be why it’s falling behind, although it remains to see how that will play out over years as less and less kids play football and look elsewhere. I suppose one of the fascinations of baseball is that it’s the one sport where we can, somewhat, compare players across eras. Like, we know that Dick Butkus would have been killed by second down in today’s game, given the size and speed of players now versus when he played. Baseball doesn’t, or didn’t, have that.

But baseball also seems to refuse to acknowledge that its players have changed. No longer do you see a guy who is, “just a ballplayer.” John Kruk isn’t around, and try and find someone who looked like Aaron Judge in 1975. They throw harder, they swing harder, they’re in better condition, they do everything better. This is hardly a bad thing.

While I may frown upon the messenger, the idea that the game today is a tougher watch, or not as enjoyable, has at least a little merit. But it also shows no patience, because sports and games change and evolve and it’s usually hard to see what things will look like five or ten years down the road.

But my favorite card to be played by the particularly-addled is something like this:

 

Like, if every team in baseball were simply to throw away their analytics department, we’d simply forget what it all said and how it was better to go about winning baseball games. Why is it that more and better information is only scary to old white guys?

Do you ever hear this shit in the NBA? Ok, when it comes to the Houston Rockets, you do, because James Harden can be hard to watch even though he’s a phenomenal player. But the Rockets are hardly the only team that stress threes and layups, and only want a mid-range jumper in certainly situations. And there’s far more movement in NBA offenses now than there was before. Maybe I don’t pay close enough attention, but does the press roll out Jack Sikma every so often to tell us how much he misses a solid bounce-pass?

Certainly no one complains about the greater offense in the NFL now. The only complaint you get about football is that the refs don’t have much idea what they’re doing, but with all the tweaks to the rulebook and replay, it’s a wonder why we think they should.

Whenever something is wrong in baseball, it’s the eggheads’ fault. Always. They fouled up something beautiful, by merely trying to improve it. And if we took them all out to some island and had them all shot, baseball would return to its glorious roots. Because if there wasn’t some nerd in the front office, Bryce Harper would just try and punch a single over the head of the shortstop every AB?

Nightengale’s tweet is utterly hilarious, as pretty much anything that leaps to undeserved freedom out of his gaping maw, because it’s always crusty old baseball men bemoaning they don’t have a job anymore. It reminds me of seeing Lita Ford complaining about how Nirvana ruined her career and wondering when anyone would want the empty-headed rock she specialized in back (that has nothing to do with The Runaways, mind). First off, Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichik are constantly reinventing their teams and styles to stay on top. Fuck, the Pats have had like eight different offenses in this run, and generally are on the cutting edge of innovation. Even when they go retro, as they did in last season’s Super Bowl, it’s to counteract something innovative on the other side.

Coach K doesn’t count because college sports are rigged, evil, and creepy. All he has to do is open the door, watch the best athletes in the country roll through, and then spend the season trying to fuck that up as best he can (and he usually succeeds at that. Coach K sucks and if he were the coach everyone thinks he is he’d have like, 12 national titles).

Baseball has the most amount of people who can’t let go of what was, which is why it has a real problem looking forward and trying to project where the game will go and how it can steer that correctly. It’s constantly trying to claw back what it had, even though that time is gone. It needs to face forward and decide where it wants to go and how to get there. And it can’t do that by giving such voice to those who have been left behind.

“Adapt or die.” MLB would be wise to use those words from a movie about just how in fact it began to move forward once.

Hockey

Y’know, I thought we were done with this kind of story about the Hawks. It had at least been a while since the Hawks came out to proclaim they’re ahead of the curve when it comes to analytics, even though I’m fairly sure they can’t even spell “analytics.” And then everyone would lap that up while they continue to run their team in almost purposeful spite of what analytics would say. And then we would spend the season screaming until your eyes bled about how what they’re doing makes no sense. Then they would come out and say they’re ahead of the curve on analytics and just trust them, and the whole cycle would start again.

I guess I missed it.

First of all, if you were so “ahead of the curve,” you would boast about how big your analytics department is. That you had a team of people working on this and presenting it to the GM and coach. You would show off your computer room or something. Fuck, look at the Cubs and all the bleating and boasting they did about their “pitching lab,” which still has produced dick when it comes to pitchers but hey, they’re at least showing you they’re working on it.

The best part of this article, a deep focus on the Hawks trying to blow themselves, is that the counterpoint to it is right in the goddamn middle. The Hawks have one guy, ONE, listed under “Hockey Analytics” on their website. Their department that’s so fucking cutting edge has one dude, and like, maybe an intern or two. Al MacIsaac, who’s basically been a fucking plague in this front office for a decade, mentions “young people.” You know what that means, right? Kids they don’t pay who also get lunch and help the marketing people stuff the blimps that drop t-shirts or whatever. This is not a department. It’s a dude in a dark room with some students sentenced to go visit him once a week for credit.

“Everybody is at a certain place right now,” MacIsaac said, “but they don’t know if they’re in front or they’re way behind.”

They sure don’t, Al.

If the Hawks paid any attention to analytics, they wouldn’t have traded for Olli Maatta. They wouldn’t have thrown in Teuvo Teravainen merely to get Bryan Bickell off the books. They wouldn’t have traded for Andrew Ladd. As mentioned in the article, they wouldn’t have given Brent Seabrook a million years on a contract. They wouldn’t have spiked Q with Brandon Manning (well, knowing the dysfunction in this front office, that still might have happened). They wouldn’t have traded Henri Jokiharju. Good god do you know how long this list could go on? I’m not going to do that you with so little summer left.

Still, the Hawks were one of the worst expected goal teams in the league last year, and the year before that, and yet all they’ve tried to do to turn that around is acquire road-graters on the blue line to block more shots. They just traded one of their d-men who can, supposedly, transition the team from defense to offense, which is what they don’t do well at all and the analytics tell you that. Their hopes to turn that around are pinned to Adam Boqvist and basically Adam Boqvist alone. They will try and sell you that Duncan Keith can still do it, even though he has been declining in possession for a while now. And you expect us to believe they actually pay attention this?

Of course, all this is topped by MacIsaac pretty much dismissing player-tracking. Now, he can get away with this, barely, for now because no one is quite sure when player tracking is actually going to be ready. And when it does roll out, it of course will have some kinks.

But if you’re so far ahead of the game, as the Hawks want you to believe without actually doing anything to back it up, why wouldn’t you gobble up all the data you can? Try and get out ahead and figure out where the kinks are first, but more importantly glean what is viable from it before anyone else? Wouldn’t that be your attitude instead of waving your grandpappy hand and dismissing it at gobbledygook, as MacIsaac does here? How can you be that advanced when you’re not even paying attention?

Once again, the best thing the Hawks front office does is telling you how great they are at something, without actually doing it. They’ve been doing Trump’s act longer than he has. “Oh we’re the best at this, you can’t believe how good we are at it and we really are the envy of the league when it comes to this.” And then you don’t actually do that thing.

McDonough is going to be president in like 2024.

 

Everything Else

You’ll call me the height of an analyst, and maybe even possibly a genius, when I tell you the Hawks season has been really weird. Five straight games into overtime, none to a shootout. The Hawks can’t play defense, but they’ve somehow suckered every team they’ve played into not playing defense either. It’s made for mindless, senseless fun.

When you dig into the analytics, not only do you cause some of Eddie Olczyk’s hair to shift back down toward his neck where it came from, but you see that the Hawks are only weirded. And probably tiptoeing on a high wire with very high winds that’s not going to work out well.

For instance, the Hawks only have eight skaters that are below water in Corsi-percentage. And three of them have only played one or two games in John Hayden, Andreas Martinsen, and SuckBag Johnson. The Hawks boast seven players who are above 55%, which is a mark of dominance (the top line, the top pairing, and Artem Anisimov and Chris Kunitz and no I don’t understand either but that’s kind of the point of all this).

And yet when it comes to expected-goal percentage, the Hawks only have three players above water (Marcus Kruger, Artem Anisimov, and David Kampf). So much like last year, the Hawks spend a good portion of the time in the right end. They generate more attempts than their opponents most of the time. But when the play gets into their defensive zone, suddenly it’s Freeswim For The Ritalin Crowd and they give up far better chances in less time than they get with more time in the offensive zone.

Brandon Saad’s 39% xGF% sticks out, but Nick Schmaltz is right down there with him at 41% and Saad’s replacement on that line, Alexandre Fortin, is at 42%. We’ve known that Schmaltz’s line tends to get run over in the d-zone, despite however good he might be at stealing pucks. Keep in mind that Schmaltz is getting blasted in terms of chances and types of chances despite starting 82% of his shifts in the offensive zone. That’s…a problem.

Meanwhile, Marcus Kruger continues to be a unicorn in usage and production, and is going totally French hipster by being the opposite of his team.

“Marcus Kruger you must do this!”

“Well I’m not gonna. I’m gonna have a sandwich.”

Kruger has started 5% of his shifts in the offensive zone. I think that’s probably like one or two so far this season. He has a shitty Corsi of 41%, which isn’t hard to understand given where he’s starting. And yet he has an expected-goals percentage of 52.1%. So even though he’s starting in his own end, and even though he’s spending a majority of his time there, the chances the Hawks get when he’s out there are far better than the ones they’re surrendering when he’s out there. Which makes it curious that he’s not getting even 20% of the ice-time at even-strength. But again, nothing about the Hawks really makes sense.

As a whole team, it’s kind of the same story as last year. They’ve got the ninth-best team-Corsi, and the seventh-worst expected goals percentage. They’re shooting 9%, which is just a shade north of average, and they’re getting a .916 save-percentage at evens, which is a touch below average. All of that flattens out to a 100.6 PDO, meaning the Hawks really haven’t been lucky or unlucky in those terms. Which probably explains why they have five glorified ties to their name.

Going a little further into it, the Hawks xGA/60 is 2.88, one of the worst marks in the league. They’ve actually only surrendered 2.71 GA/60, so they’re getting by there. Their xGF/60 is 2.34, but their actual GF/60 is 3.2. Now, that’s not all luck, as we’ve discussed the idea of “bad shot-makers” on this team for a while. At least Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat can score from places that are less likely than most, Toews is capable, and so is Schmaltz. But that doesn’t account for all of that.

However, fear not, as the Hawks’ difference between their expected goals and actual goals is only fifth-biggest in the league. So they won’t be alone when that bill comes due.

Or maybe hockey’s weird and they’ll just be like this for a while because sometimes that happens. It’s what we have to hope for.

Everything Else

While it’s hard to do, the following is going to do its best to ignore the off-ice story of Brian Boyle this year. Which isn’t fair, because it is a good story for what everyone agrees is a pretty good guy. Boyle was diagnosed with leukemia before the season, and is playing through the treatments, essentially. We’ll put that to the side.

Boyle signed as a free agent with the Devils this summer, after stops in LA, New York, Tampa, and a rental for the Maple Leafs last year. When you think of a checking center, or a center who coaches love because they simply win draws, kill penalties, and play reasonable defense, Brian Boyle is probably near the top of the list.

One of the reasons that hockey analytics has failed to catch on in the mainstream, or at least embraced by teams wholly (and they haven’t) is that there really is no way to evaluate a player like Boyle. Yes, he wins a lot of draws and you can measure that, but we also know that winning a lot of faceoffs doesn’t really connect to winning, or even being a good possession team. Individual draws can be important in a game, and it’s certainly a plus to have Boyle around for those, but overall they’re massively overrated. But given the nature of hockey coaches, try and tell them that a defensive zone draw with a one-goal lead and 80 seconds to go isn’t important. That’s where Boyle’s value is seen.

Boyle’s metrics have always been subpar. He’s only had a Corsi-percentage above the team rate once in the past six year. Same as his expected goals, and some are really below the surface of whatever team he was on. But is that fair to him? Boyle has never gotten good zone starts, and some years saw less than 30% of his shifts start in the offensive zone. Given that he’s pretty much a clydesdale when it comes to mobility, it’s asking a lot for him to turn the ice over. It’s doubly hard when he’s usually facing the toughest competition, as he’s tended to take on first and second lines with the Rangers, Lightning, and now the Devils. There are only a very few players who can do all that, and it’s basically Marcus Kruger.

So even winning all those draws, as he does, doesn’t really ever get Boyle out of his own zone that much. Then again, imagine what these numbers would look like if he didn’t win a lot of draws.

We can try and get to the bottom of it by seeing what Boyle’s teams surrender when he’s on the ice, as he’s always been placed to play defense. The past three years has seen Boyle’s Corsi-against per 60 minutes at 41 consistently, which is very good. For frame of  reference your leader in that category this year is Adam Lowry at 38.09, and a mark of 41 would be top ten in the league. Sadly for the Devils, Boyle’s mark this year is 52.8, though obviously some of that is the possession problems overall for the Devils, including a creaking defense.

Boyle’s expected goals-against per 60 over the years has been very good as well, in the 15.-1.7 range the past three years before this one. That mark would be top ten in the league again, except this year Boyle’s at 2.46. Again, some of that is the Devils as a whole, but some of it is that Boyle is A. 33 and B. having to play himself back into shape.

Not all of this matters when you’re shooting 22% as Boyle is at the moment, and he is getting into more offensive areas as the Devils ask more of him than previous teams and coaches have. But we can safely say that while Boyle was a pretty handy 3rd or 4th center, age and health have caught up to him. And he probably can’t outshoot those problems for too much longer.

Game #35 Preview

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Other than injuries, the sloppiness of the first month of the season, the new rookies around the league, you’d have to say last night’s firing of Gerrard Gallant by the Florida Panthers has caught the most eyes from around the league. On a personal level, I still remember Gallant as a World Class giblet on the 80’s and early 90’s Wings, so anything bad happening to him is always going to bring something of a smile to my face. And yet I can’t get my arms around this one fully.

What we know is that the Panthers have not had much luck with injuries. Huberdeau is still out, Bjugstad has only played five games, and Jussi Jokinen has only played about half the season. That’s half the top six, so no team without elite depth is going to be able to survive that. The Panthers don’t have elite depth (I’m not sure anyone does anymore as the slowing of cap-growth has kneecapped just about everyone). This is nothing new to anyone.

The Panthers have also been bitten by the fact that James Reimer has been terrible, and they really wanted to cede more starts to him from Roberto Luongo due to Bob’s age. That wasn’t the worst idea, but it just hasn’t worked so far in the nine starts he’s gotten.

Everything Else

Wednesday will kick off our ninth season doing this, and in that time it feels like we’ve gone from one side of the statistical debate to the other. I know we were one of the first to start using Corsi and zone starts and whatever else to try and get to the truth of what we were seeing. And now it feels like we spend a lot of time trying to convince people that yes, Mark Arcobello does indeed suck and stop trying to get us to believe otherwise.

When trying to explain this to my non-hockey inclined friends, I used to try and tell them that hockey was anywhere from five to ten years behind baseball in its statistical revolution. That seems pretty silly now, and there’s a big reason why. If only it were that close.