MONDAY JULY 9, 2018 SPORTS REVIEW, TROUT, RAIDERS, LEBRON, COLLEGE FOOTBALL

L.A.’s Mike Trout and Boston’s Mookie Betts are having historic seasons. But how they’ve solved the strikeout era diverges in one remarkable way. Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Something has been gnawing at me about Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. Both are practically perfect hitters, and in practically identical ways. It’s not just that they both hit the ball hard and far, but that they control the construction of each plate appearance:

  • Los Angeles Angels center fielder Trout has a phenomenal batting eye — his chase rate is in the third percentile of qualified hitters. (Which means 97 percent of hitters swing at more pitches out of the zone.) Boston Red Sox right fielder Betts’ chase rate is in the first percentile, basically indistinguishable.
  • Both are also patient when the pitch is in the strike zone: Betts is in the first percentile for swing rate, Trout in the third. The same.
  • Both rarely swing and miss. Betts’ contact rate is in the league’s 91st percentile, and Trout’s in the 83rd.
  • And, according to FanGraphs, they’ve seen the exact same percentage of pitches in the strike zone. They, in fact, hover right around the league’s median for zone percentage.
  • Put it together, and 56.6 percent of pitches Betts sees end up being strikes (or put in play), the third-lowest rate in baseball. And Trout: 57.6 percent, the fifth lowest.

So, they get the same number of pitches in the zone; they swing at the same number of pitches in the zone, and they chase the same number of pitches out of the zone; and when they swing, they make contact at the same rates. You’ll identify those as the basic building blocks of a strikeout or a walk.

And yet, Trout has the highest unintentional walk rate in baseball; Betts ranks around 40th. (Intentional walks are excluded from all stats in this article.) And Betts has the 12th-lowest strikeout rate in baseball, while Trout is around 75th. Despite getting the same number of strikes, swinging at the same number of pitches, and making contact on the same number of swings, Trout walks 50 percent more often than Betts and strikes out 50 percent more often. What in the world?

The answers to this mystery show some of the nuances of how each player approaches a count, and how each player’s count rhythm (to make up a phrase) can defy the broad generalities we draw about a player’s approach from their overall plate discipline stats. (Trout takes more pitches with two strikes, for example; Betts chases more often with three balls.) More significantly, they show how much foul balls, of all dumb things, matter.

We don’t pay much attention to foul balls. They’re not a whiff, but they’re also not a ball in play. In most counts they’re bad (but not too bad), but in two-strike counts they’re good (but not too good). Some travel 500 feet; some are detectable only by sound. You can stare at a foul ball percentage leaderboard and struggle to find any pattern.

But Trout is a major foul ball hitter. Of all qualified hitters this year, only two have fouled off a higher percentage of pitches per swing. Betts is a major foul ball avoider, down around the 25th percentile of fouls per swing. In the case of these two elite hitters, these foul balls create a huge shift in outcomes. Trout and Betts are just as likely to swing at, for example, any 1-0 pitch, but Betts is 60 percent more likely to put the pitch in play, because Trout fouls off so many of those pitches.

It’s hard to say whether these different rates represent a deliberate approach by each hitter or merely the subtle differences in their hitting skills and styles. The “deliberate approach” hypothesis draws some evidence from foul ball rates per count: Trout’s foul ball “edge” over Betts is especially high in early hitter’s counts, like 1-0, 2-0 and 2-1. Betts’ foul ball rates go way up with two strikes, when a foul ball gets the batter a new pitch, while Trout’s stays steady throughout the count.

But regardless of whether these rates show intent, they do illustrate two different philosophies about count leverage.

The Betts philosophy (again, whether or not intentional) is that, in this era and with the strength of these hitters, there’s a tremendous value to simply putting a fair ball in play, and a tremendous penalty to reaching two strikes.

We can see this striking trend in a stat called tOPS+, which measures the league’s performance in one split relative to its performance overall. The league’s tOPS+ with two strikes is 43 this year, which is a way of saying that its OPS with two strikes is just 43 percent of its OPS in all counts.

That 43 figure is the lowest since at least 1988, when count data began to be recorded. The second-lowest tOPS+ on two strikes came in 2017. The third lowest came in 2016, and the fourth lowest came the year before that. Modern pitchers are pitching for strikeouts, and they’re really good at getting strikeouts, and so there has never been a worse time to hit with two strikes.

Now compare that to every other count:

  • With the batter ahead in the count, the league’s tOPS+ this year is the highest on record. The next two highest were last year and 2016.
  • On the first pitch, the league’s tOPS+ this year is the highest on record. The next highest seasons were last year, 2016 and 2012.
  • On 1-1, the three best seasons are the past three.
  • On 0-1, three of the four highest came in the past three years.

And on balls hit fair — anywhere fair, from a bunt to a dinger — the league’s three best seasons have come in the past three years. (Betts hits .395 when he hits a ball fair, and slugs .780; Trout hits .410 and slugs .828.) To the degree that offense has survived the strikeout era, it’s because batters today do a ton of damage when they hit it. To the degree that pitching has survived the new juiced ball era, it’s because pitchers dominate when they get to two strikes.

So Betts’ ability to avoid foul balls — to actually put the ball in play, especially earlier in counts — is really about his ability to avoid reaching that point in the at-bat when he gets to two strikes. Only 22 percent of Betts’ plate appearances have ended in pitchers’ counts, the lowest rate in baseball. (Trout: 27 percent.) And 50 percent have ended in hitters’ counts, the highest rate in baseball. (Trout: 42 percent.)

By putting the ball in play, he’s avoiding strikeouts. He’s also not chasing walks: On 3-2 counts, Betts swings at almost 80 percent of pitches, compared to 54 percent for Trout. He does still walk a fair amount — walks are always positive — but the relative value of a walk is diminished when the ball is flying out to left field.

So the Betts foul ball philosophy is simple: Two strikes are bad, so don’t get two strikes; hit balls are good, so hit the ball.

The other philosophy, though, sees that Trout (like Betts) is not a normal hitter. Pitchers are dominating the league with two strikes like never before, but that’s because mostbatters swing and miss a lot. Trout and Betts don’t. Trout and Betts don’t swing through pitches in the strike zone like normal hitters, and they don’t chase pitches out of the strike zone like normal hitters.

Indeed, Betts and Trout this year have been two of the best two-strike hitters we’ve ever seen. Trout is hitting .232/.338/.554 after reaching an 0-2 count — that’s basically Bryce Harper‘s career OPS overall. Trout’s OPS in all two-strike counts is 227 points higher than the league average with two strikes, and the 34th best (minimum 150 two-strike plate appearances) since 1988. Betts’ two-strike numbers are otherworldly: This year he has been arguably the best two-strike hitter in history, with a .328/.401/.634 slash line that is better (relative to the league) than anybody on record. It’s a dead certainty Betts won’t keep that slash line up forever, but both hitters’ performances demonstrate the obvious point that good contact rates and exceptional eyes blunt the pitchers’ two-strike advantage.

Trout (and even Betts) would prefer not to get to two strikes — a foul ball really does put him in less advantageous counts — but the reward for a deep count is a potential walk. Strikeouts are up across baseball, but so too are walks. Because Trout doesn’t chase pitches out of the strike zone, he’s much more likely to cash in those deep counts for free passes. And you can’t make an out on a walk.

Imagine it this way: Say a pitcher throws a first-pitch fastball just off the edge of the strike zone. One hitter takes it for ball one, and another swings and misses for strike one. We know that makes a big difference: The league has a .381 on-base percentage after getting ahead 1-0, and a .261 OBP after falling behind 0-1.

But the stakes of a single pitch go up the deeper you get into a count, the closer to the sport’s three-strikes/four-balls endpoints. The same pitch on 1-1 would change the expected OBPs to .388 and .225; the same pitch on 3-2 would change the expected OBPs to 1.000 and .000. In a deep count era, the man who controls the strike zone is king.

The net result: Betts’ ability to avoid foul balls helps him avoid two strikes, the perfect strategy for this era. Trout’s ability to hit foul balls helps him work deep counts, during which his ability to avoid strikes has the highest payoff, also the perfect strategy for this era.

Which hitter’s foul ball philosophy is better? I’m not sure either one. The thing is, when you don’t swing at pitches outside the zone, when you rarely swing and miss at anything, and when everything you hit goes far, there’s not really a wrong way to make offense. Each of these hitters has found a way that works for him. The difference is subtle, but it’s personal, and it’s producing two historic seasons. By Sam Miller


Breitbart

When Johnny Manziel agreed to sign a two-year contract with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the natural presumption was the former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round pick would end up playing a significant role for the Canadian Football League team. Jeremiah Masoli has decided to snuff out that possibility.

Masoli, the former Oregon and Mississippi quarterback who went undrafted in the 2011 NFL Draft, has now tied a record for most consecutive 300-yard passing games in CFL history with nine.

Through four games, Masoli is second in the CFL in passing yards (1,378) along with four touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s also completing 65.8 percent of his passes and averages 9.2 yards per attempt. Masoli’s worst game this season, yardage wise, is a 332-yard passing effort, and he compensated for that with three touchdowns.

And as a result, Manziel remains squarely on the bench behind him.

But it shouldn’t be all bad news for Manziel, especially considering Masoli’s circuitous path to becoming a star starting quarterback in the CFL.

Masoli has been in Canada trying to latch on since 2012. He was traded to the Tiger-Cats in a large deal back in 2013, but never really got a chance to prove himself until June Jones took over as coach last year and immediately installed him as the starting quarterback.

That’s when Masoli began ripping off the stretch of 300-yard passing games. Manziel is behind him on the depth chat, but it’s not for anything he’s done wrong. It’s simply because Masoli continues to put up big numbers.

For Manziel, this might actually be considered a good thing. He can sit and learn and study the differences in the game, become acclimated to Jones’ offense, and, rather likely, eventually get a chance at standing under center and putting up some big numbers of his own.

Manziel agreed to sign a contract with the Tiger-Cats back in May, pushing back his dream of returning to the NFL for the foreseeable future. The team had offered him the deal back in January. Manziel revealed he was battling bipolar disorder as well as substance-abuse issues in a recent set of interviews.

And although he was hoping to land a gig in the NFL, it became clear teams needed to see more than just his performance in a Spring League as well as various pro days before signing him to a contract in the NFL. That made the CFL his best option to get actual playing time. Now he needs the cards to fall his way up north. Masoli isn’t helping matters.  By Will Brinson

 

 

It’s known that the Raiders currently play in Oakland. It’s known that they’ll eventually move to Las Vegas, and that they’ll eventually play in a new stadium that is being constructed there.

Beyond that, not much is known. For example, it’s not known whether 2018 will be the team’s last year in Oakland. Which means it’s not known where the team will play in 2019. And it’s not known whether the new stadium will be ready by 2020. Which could force the team either to stay for up to two years longer in Oakland or to make other arrangements.

It’s also not know, as explained by Richard N. Velotta of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, what it will cost to attend games in the new stadium, from single-game tickets to season tickets to the all-important Personal Seat License, a made-up fee that authorizes the customer to actually sit in the chair that corresponds with the ticket that was purchased.

“Let’s just say our sales and marketing people are extremely happy with the response the market has given us,” StadCo COO Don Webb told Velotta. Stad Co, a company owned by the Raiders, has collected $100 PSL deposits from “thousands” of fans.

Given the size of the new stadium, that could be anywhere from 2,000 to 65,000.

It’s also not known whether the deposits are coming from people in Nevada, or from people in California — Northern or Southern. By Mike Florio


Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Apparently not everyone in Los Angeles is excited about the arrival of LeBron James after Klutch Sports Group announced the four-time MVP agreed to a four-year deal with the storied franchise.As Basketball Within Borders shared on Instagram, “A LeBron-hating Laker fanatic put out a contract to get this mural of #LeBronJames vandalized today in California. Dude need to get extra security around town. The hate is real.”

Last Word Hoops shared images of the mural and the vandalism, which read in part “we don’t want you” and “3-6” in a reference to James’ record in the NBA Finals. By SCOTT POLACEK

 

Fall camp is less than one month away, and we’re nearly a week away from SEC Media Days.

That means college football is right around the corner, and we can’t wait until things get kicked off.

Bowl projections and season predictions are starting to roll out now, and College Football News is the latest outlet to produce its preseason bowl projections. The outlet has Alabama making it to the College Football Playoff against Washington and advancing to face Clemson yet again in the national championship game.

The outlet also has Georgia and Auburn playing in New Year’s Six bowl games against Oklahoma and Michigan State respectively. The Liberty Bowl would be a regular season rematch between Mississippi State and Kansas State.

Here’s the outlet’s preseason projections, which includes 11 SEC teams:

College Football Playoff National Championship: Alabama vs. Clemson
Cotton Bowl (CFP): Alabama vs. Washington
Sugar Bowl (New Year’s Six): Georgia vs. Oklahoma
Chick-fil-A Bowl (New Year’s Six): Auburn vs. Michigan State
Citrus Bowl: South Carolina vs. Penn State
Outback Bowl: LSU vs. Nebraska
Gator Bowl: Florida vs. Northwestern
Liberty Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Kansas State
Belk Bowl: Missouri vs. Virginia Tech
Music City Bowl: Arkansas vs. FSU
Texas Bowl: Texas A&M vs. TCU
Birmingham Bowl: Tennessee vs. UCF

Not included in the post-season projections: Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. By  SDS Staff


 

ESPN axes its not-so-helpful comment sections

Add ESPN to the list of major websites that are less than thrilled with reader discussions. The sports broadcaster has confirmed to Deadspin that it has dropped its Facebook-linked comment sections across its websites, with no plans to bring them back or archive the results. There are “more touchpoints than ever” for fans to share their opinions, a spokesperson said, and ESPN is creating social media material that “embraces these conversations.” Not that many readers will necessarily mind.

There have been some positive stories to share from the comments, to be clear — we’ve seen an instance of a couple getting married after finding each other in ESPN’s discussions. However, there’s little doubt that many of the comments were less than constructive, including rants that had precious little to do with, well, sports.

ESPN certainly isn’t the first big site to make this move. Popular Science closed its section down in 2013 after expressing concern that it could not only trigger flame wars, but skew people’s interpretation of the articles themselves. It’s hard to blame ESPN for following the trend, especially now that Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are more prominent than they were a few years ago. This could keep readers focused more on the articles themselves while still offering an avenue for those who really, really want to offer their two cents. By Jon Fingas

Free-agent center Brook Lopez has reached an agreement with the Milwaukee Bucks, league sources told ESPN.

Lopez, 30, will sign a one-year deal for the biannual exception of $3.4 million, the sources said. Milwaukee is expected to pencil in the 10-year veteran as its starting center.

The 7-footer played last season for the Los Angeles Lakers, where he averaged 13.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in 74 games. Over the past two years, he has expanded his game to become a 3-point threat.

This will be the third NBA franchise the one-time All-Star has played for. He has a career average of 17.9 points and 6.8 boards. The Bucks still have to deal with the matter of forward Jabari Parker, who is a restricted free agent. By Chris Haynes

His future isn’t riding on a jump shot. He isn’t the ticket to get his family out of a difficult living situation. He can get into a premier college without a scholarship.

Perhaps that’s what makes Cole Anthony’s rise to the top of the prep basketball world all the more impressive. He has reached this point on sheer will and inner drive. Because for those who have seen him play, the impression would be different, as if he needs the game of basketball.

“Coaches and people have told me when you watch him play, you would think he’s the poorest kid on the floor,” his father, former Knicks guard and Turner Sports analyst Greg Anthony, said in a phone interview. “You would think he was the kid whose only way to make it [is basketball].”

The younger Anthony’s explanation for that is simple: He loves basketball. That’s why he plays it. Coming from a comfortable life with two supportive parents, his motivation is from within.

Cole, a 6-foot-3 jumping jack of a lead guard with a strong 3-point shot, doesn’t understand why anyone would spend so much time invested in a sport for any other reason. The 18-year-old rising senior has a tweet pinned on his Twitter profile that reads: “There is nothing more beautiful than getting in the gym and getting better,” with the 100 emoji used as an exclamation mark. It’s why virtually his entire spring and summer is spent on the court. His idea of relaxing is getting up shots.

“All the time he talks about being great,” close friend and AAU teammate Joe Toussaint said. “My thing is I just love to be in the gym,” Cole said.

Supremely confident yet not cocky, he has incredibly lofty goals. He doesn’t just want to reach the NBA — he wants to be a star there.

“My drive is just to be one of the best players to ever play the game,” Cole said.

He’s come a long way already, the most highly touted New York City point guard in several years. Some experts would go all the way back to Stephon Marbury for the last time the city had a point guard prospect so skilled, while others say Sebastian Telfair or Kemba Walker. Anthony is a consensus top-three-ranked prospect in the country with offers from almost every top Division I program in the country from North Carolina to Villanova to Duke, and so many others. He won a gold medal recently with Team USA’s U-18 team in the FIBA Americas, was part of the all-tournament team and was just named the regular season MVP of the AAU Nike Elite Youth Basketball League after averaging 26.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists. By Zach Braziller

 

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