Sunday, January 07, 2018

Streaks in the City (1): Believeland Or Grieveland

Happy New Year!

Today, I am introducing a new feature for 2018 on the Hot Hand blog, which I'm calling "Streaks and the City." Each entry will feature a different North American city and discuss famous streaks its teams and athletes have recorded over the years.

The first city to be featured is Cleveland, Ohio, a city associated in many people's minds with misfortune such as municipal bankruptcy, a lake catching on fire, and sports futility. Cleveland sports teams have actually exhibited two types of futility: near misses by pretty good teams when it looked like a title might be within reach, and horrible teams.

One example of the latter is this past season's Cleveland Browns football squad, which went 0-16, prompting yesterday's "perfect season" parade by the stadium.

Yet, on a more uplifting note, we had the May 14, 2016 ESPN documentary "Believeland," chronicling the efforts of Cleveland's teams to win the city's first championship in any major sport since the Browns in 1964, followed about a month later (June 19, 2016) by LeBron James and the Cavaliers bringing the NBA title to Cleveland. Before the Cavs' championship, Cleveland's 52-year title drought (1964-2016) had been the longest active streak of its kind among North American cities. (Milwaukee now tops the leaderboard at 46 years, the Bucks' 1971 NBA title being the city's last in any pro sport.)

It can be said about all three of Cleveland's major pro-sports franchises* (and about many other teams outside of Cleveland, as well) that they have experienced a lot of losing, but have periodically had some title-contenders.


The Cavs were part of the NBA's 1970-71 expansion, going 15-67 that first season (season-by-season log). If a team's nearly 50-year history can be conveyed in a single sentence, Cleveland has alternated every few years between rock-bottom and being a playoff club. The Cavs improved over their first few years to where they made the postseason three straight years (1975-76 to 1977-78). A nine-year dry spell ensued from 1978-79 to 1986-87, in which the team only made the playoffs once, in 1984-85, with a 36-46 record. Other lowlights during this stretch included another 15-67 record in 1981-82, a parade of coaches around this time that included Don Delaney, whose coaching experience included pro softball and small-college basketball, and imposition by the NBA of a rule prohibiting teams from trading away their first-round draft-pick two years in a row, after the Cavs did so to disastrous effect.

A productive era followed from 1987-88 to 1997-98, with nine playoff appearances in 11 years. Early on in this timeframe, the Cavs benefited from up-and-coming players such as Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, and Larry Nance. A 57-25 Cleveland squad was ousted in the first round of the 1988-89 playoffs on what's famously known as "The Shot" by the Bulls' Michael Jordan in the deciding game of a 3-out-of-5 series (YouTube video), but the Cavs were unlikely to make the NBA finals that year, anyway, as Detroit was at the peak of its "Bad Boys" dynasty, winning the title in 1989 and 1990.

Next came seven straight non-playoff years from 1998-99 to 2004-05. A 17-65 record in 2002-03 put the Cavs in a position to draft a local hero from nearby Akron, LeBron James, out of high school. In James's third season, 2005-06, Cleveland was back in the playoffs, and the next year, 2006-07, the Cavs made their first-ever NBA final, losing to San Antonio. James helped Cleveland win the 2007 Eastern Conference finals by scoring the team's last 25 points in a key game of that series.

After three more successful years in Cleveland -- in terms of win-loss records, but without a return to the NBA finals -- James left after the 2009-10 season, famously "tak[ing] my talents to South Beach" via free-agency, to play for the Miami Heat (YouTube video). While James was making the NBA finals with the Heat each of the next four years and capturing two titles, Cleveland averaged 24 wins per season over the same four years.

Almost as stunningly, James returned to Cleveland via free agency for the 2014-15 season. In his three complete seasons back in Ohio, the Cavs have made the NBA finals every year (always against the Golden State Warriors), winning in 2016, but losing in 2015 and 2017.

Now, at age 33, James is still going strong. Earlier in the current 2017-18 season, he led the Cavs to a franchise-record-tying 13-game winning streak. James can't play forever and when he either retires or leaves for another team, the Cavs will probably go through a multiple-year slump, if past is indeed prologue.


Among MLB franchises that have won the World Series at least once -- which Cleveland did in 1948 and 1920 -- the Indians hold the longest currently active drought, 69 straight years, without a World Series title.

Still the Indians have been excellent in recent years -- even record-setting in a good way -- narrowly missing a World Series title in 2016 and compiling an American League-record** 22-game winning streak in 2017. During the latter, a new hashtag appeared on Twitter celebrating the streak: #windians. A run to a slump-ending World Series win seemed likely, especially after Cleveland took a 2-0 lead in games over the Yankees in a 3-out-of-5 series. But then, days later, it was over, as New York went on a three-game winning streak.

A look at the Indians' season-by-season log shows that, in the 11 years following the 1948 championship (1949-1959), Cleveland finished above .500 -- sometimes well above it -- 10 times. This stretch included a 111-43 record in 1954, en route to the World Series, which Cleveland lost to the New York Giants. However, in the 34 years from 1960-1993, the Indians reached or exceeded .500 only seven times.

Things have turned around in the 24 following years (1994-2017), with 16 .500-or-better seasons and three World Series appearances. These occurred in 1995 (a six-game loss to the Braves), 1997 (a seven-game loss to the Marlins, in which the Indians couldn't hold a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7) and 2016 (a seven-game loss to the Cubs).

As good as the Indians have been the last two seasons, it will probably take a drought-ending World Series title to really earn the moniker Windians in many fans' view.


A team named the Cleveland Browns has never appeared in a Super Bowl, the pro-football championship game that launched on January 15, 1967. However, a team that once was the Cleveland Browns has not only made it to, but also won, a Super Bowl. The explanation, of course, is that then-Browns owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season (becoming the Ravens) and the Ravens won the Super after the 2000 season. In some ways, however, the connection between the 1995 Browns and 2000 Ravens is not that strong, as only two players were on both squads. The Ravens also won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season.

Prior to the 1995 move, the Browns, like the Cavaliers and Indians, enjoyed some sporadic success. Cleveland made five straight NFL playoff appearances from 1985-1989, with particularly devastating postseason losses occurring in 1985, 1987, and 1988. These are summarized here.

After the Modell move, the NFL granted Cleveland a replacement franchise, also to be known as the Browns, which would begin play in 1999. The "new" Browns have made the playoffs only once (in 2002) in their 19 years of existence, and have gone a combined 1-31 in 2016 and '17. Since 1999, the Browns have had eight general managers and nine head coaches.

Some may cite the "Cleveland Curse" for the misfortunes of the new Browns. However, as argued by Cleveland Plain-Dealer columnist and prolific book author Terry Pluto, in False Start: How the New Browns Were Set Up to Fail, structural barriers imposed by the NFL are to blame. The team faced a compressed start-up time, a weakened expansion draft, and other hindrances, which they still haven't overcome, approaching 20 years.


Cleveland has had a lot of streaks in the last roughly 70 years, most of them involving losing and droughts. The city has had some nice within-season winning streaks (such as the 2017 Indians), but in our championship-minded society, mere winning streaks aren't enough. I would expect continued shuffling between Believeland and Grieveland in the coming years, with more time spent in the latter. I don't know how much more time remains in the LeBron-led Cavaliers' championship window, especially with the Warriors being so good. The Indians should be good for a while, but the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, and others aren't going anywhere. That leaves the Browns...

If the city's teams all start struggling around the same time, it will not be good for the health of Clevelanders. The 2013 (pre-Cavs' title) book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, by Eric Simons, devotes an entire chapter to Cleveland. One former resident of the city suggests that "the miserable winter weather and the lack of other [cultural, entertainment, or recreational] options" have driven Clevelanders toward an intense fandom of sports (p. 101). Another transplant from Cleveland says, "There is a bitterness, a frustration with Cleveland that cannot be matched anywhere else"  (p. 100).


*The city had an NHL team, the Cleveland Barons, in the 1970s, but it went defunct after only two seasons.

**The MLB-record winning streak is usually credited at 26, by the 1916 New York Giants. However, a tie in a darkness-shortened game has led to a controversy over the Giants' streak.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Major Article on Three-Pt Shooting Hot Hand

Today on, there's a big article on hot-hand research. The article is written primarily through the lens of Klay Thompson and his deep-launching Golden State Warriors teammates, but also discusses the 2015 research of Joshua Miller and Adam Sanjurjo, claiming a "substantial" hot-hand effect in the NBA All-Star three-point shooting contest.

In addition, Tom Gilovich, lead author on the 1985 study claiming no support for a hot hand, shares his thoughts in the ESPN article on how the Miller-Sanjurjo research may (or may not) have revolutionized how we should think about hot-hand effects. Gilovich, a longtime Cornell University psychology professor, notes that he has shared the Miller-Sanjurjo research with some Cornell mathematicians and that, "People with tremendous math skills are all over the map on this one."

My own take on the Miller-Sanjurjo research, from back in 2015, is available here. Be sure to see Miller's comments on my piece and my reply.

One side note on today's article is that, where author Tom Haberstroh alludes to the fact that, "The legendary Bobby Knight wasn't a fan of the so-called fallacy [claimed by Gilovich and colleagues], either," the embedded hyperlink leads to my book!


As I note at the top of the blog, nearly all of my recent tracking of sports streaks has taken place via my Twitter feed, rather than this blog. My last blog posting before today, in fact, was all the way back on February 13. Just to update things, here are a couple of prominent hot-hand developments of the past four months:
  • As virtually all readers of this blog would know, the UConn women's basketball team had its latest gargantuan winning streak, one that had reached 111 games, snapped in the Final Four national semifinals by Mississippi State. Shortly afterward, I tweeted a graphic I created to show how Mississippi State milked the shot-clock to shorten the game against UConn.
  • Back in April, Guy Molyneux wrote in to Andrew Gelman's blog, arguing that, "the hot hand likely has a negligible impact on game outcomes." In the comments section below Molyneux's piece, Miller and several other discussants debate the argument.

Monday, February 13, 2017

UConn Women Go for 100 Straight Wins

The University of Connecticut women's basketball team goes for its 100th straight win tonight, hosting South Carolina in a nonconference match-up. The 100-game mark seems mainly about symbolism, as the Huskies have already had a 90-game winning streak (snapped in 2010) and a 70-game victory stretch (ended in 2003). The John Wooden-coached UCLA men's basketball program pulled off an 88-game winning streak, which ended in 1974.

The following chart shows UConn's margin of victory in its last 99 games (arranged chronologically from left to right). Exact margins are shown up to 40 points, but if the Huskies won by more than 40, there's just a ">40" box on top. You can click on the graphic to enlarge it.

UConn used to be in the Big East, along with, at various times, such top women's hoop programs as Villanova, Notre Dame, and Louisville. However, after the big conference-realignment shake-out of the 2010s, the Huskies ended up in the American Athletic Conference (AAC), which at the moment doesn't have any real competitors for UConn.

UConn Margin of Victory in Last 99 Games

As seen in the light-blue columns above, UConn has won every AAC game (regular-season and conference-tournament), except two, by 20 or more points (games 51 and 31 in this list). The Huskies have won nearly 40 AAC games by 40 or more points. (Game 86, vs. Nebraska, has a typo; it should be 84-41.)

The royal-blue columns represent nonconference games (both in the regular season and in the NCAA tournament). To UConn's credit, it schedules many games against elite nonconference opposition, including Tennessee (until 2007), Notre Dame, Duke, Baylor, Maryland, Florida State, and tonight's opponent, South Carolina (curently ranked No. 6 in the nation). As can be seen, the heights of the royal-blue bars are much lower than the light-blue ones. In fact, twice this season UConn won by two and six points, against Florida State and Maryland, respectively.

The early 1970s UCLA men had a lot more close calls during its 88-game winning streak. According to this retrospective article, “Two games were one-point victories. Three more were by two points.” Another 11 wins by 4-9 points. Of course, the college game had neither a shot-clock nor a three-point shot at that time, Teams could hold the ball on UCLA and the lack of a three would have kept the scoring down.*

I would think UConn would be a heavy favorite tonight, but if there's any chance for the game to be competitive, having a strong nonconference opponent makes it more likely.

*The information on the UCLA men's streak was added later.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Columbus Blue Jackets Seek to Tie NHL Record for Longest Winning Streak

Tonight, in the nation's capital, the Columbus Blue Jackets will try to tie the NHL record of 17 straight wins, held by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins. Here's a chronicle of how the team's 16 wins have unfolded. Many articles have appeared on the Blue Jackets' streak, from analytic (here, here, and here), and even Bayesian statistical perspectives. I was interviewed in this SB Nation article.

Two main issues stand out to me. One, which the SB Nation writer discussed with me but didn't make it into the article, is the likelihood of a team with the Blue Jackets', shall we say, non-illustrious history going on such a long winning streak. As I wrote in my book Hot Hand, "many of the most famous streaks... have been compiled by athletes and teams who are among the all-time greats in their respective sports" (p. 5). Examples cited include Kobe Bryant, Joe DiMaggio, and Tiger Woods. As the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, "Long streaks always are, and must be, a matter of extraordinary luck imposed upon great skill."

The Blue Jackets hardly seem to be the kind of winning franchise, upon which only a little luck would have to be added to produce a long string of victories. Columbus has made only two playoff appearances in the 16 years of franchise history, most recently in 2013-14. At the risk of overstatement, a Blue Jackets' winning streak would be like hearing that a run of 50 consecutive made free throws belonged to Shaq O'Neal rather than Steph Curry.*

The second issue, pertaining to on-the-rink statistics, involves shots on goal. Because goals are rare in hockey, analysts typically focus instead on teams' shot-on-goal totals, which turn out to be a good measure of puck possession (see the new book Stat Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics, by Rob Vollman and colleagues, for further discussion).

As shown here, in games before the streak, Columbus and its opponents were each taking roughly 50% of the shots (see the columns marked Corsi, Fenwick, and Shots For). During the streak, in contrast, the Blue Jackets have around 54% of the shots in their games and their opponents, 46%. Aggregate shot totals can be misleading, however, because of score effects, the phenomenon of a trailing team bombarding the opposing net with desperation shots in an attempt to get back in the game.

I created the following graphic to take game context into account. Using a puck image for each game during the Columbus winning streak, I plotted the Blue Jackets' deficit or lead on the scoreboard on the x-axis (from losing by 2 to winning by 4). On the y-axis, we see differences between the Blue Jackets' and opponents' actual numbers of third-period shots (which may be more intuitive to grasp than the percentage of total shots attributable to each team). The puck in the upper-left corner of the graph, for example, represents the Blue Jackets' December 3 game at Arizona, the third game in Columbus's streak. The Jackets trailed 2-1 after two periods (the only game during the streak in which they entered the third period trailing), but in a feverish attempt to tie the game (which Columbus did with 2:16 remaining), outshot the Coyotes 23-4 in the third (+19). Columbus eventually won 3-2 via shootout.

If a game is close (i.e., tied or within one goal either way) heading into the third period, we should find Columbus dominating the shots-on-goal totals in the third period during the winning streak. If the Blue Jackets are relatively comfortably ahead, on the other hand, we would expect their opponents to be dominating the shots. This is exactly what we find.

For those with some statistical training, the correlation between size of Columbus's lead on the scoreboard (with a deficit scored with a negative sign) and their edge or deficit in third-period shots was a statistically significant (r = -.58; see blade of the hockey stick in the graphic). The less favorable the Blue Jackets' situation after two periods (trailing or tied), the more they outshot their opponents.

So, if you're a Blue Jackets fan or simply like to see long streaks, don't worry if Columbus is not leading after the second period. In that event, a Blue Jacket barrage on the Capitals' net seems almost certain!

UPDATE: It was not to be for the Blue Jackets, as the Washington Capitals routed them 5-0, ending Columbus's winning streak at 16 games.

*That's not to say that amazing turnarounds don't occur. Baseball's Atlanta Braves went from a 65-97 record in 1990 to 14 straight divisional titles (excluding the incomplete, strike-shortened 1994 season). Also, football's San Francisco 49ers went 2-14 and 6-10 under Bill Walsh in 1979 and 1980, respectively, before winning the Super Bowl after the 1981 season. The team would win three more Super Bowls in the decade.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Gotta "Love" It -- 34 Points, 8-of-10 on Treys, in First Quarter Alone

As most NBA fans have probably heard by now, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love scored 34 points in the first quarter last night in leading his team to a 137-125 victory over visiting Portland. It was a record for most points in the first quarter, but not for any quarter.

Golden State's Klay Thompson once scored 37 points in the third quarter of a game. Although Love's single-quarter point total last night (34) approached Thompson's record, Thompson's is truly one of a kind, in my view, for another reason. Whereas Love missed a few shots last night in the first quarter, going 3-of-4 on two-point attempts, 8-of-10 on shots from behind the arc, and 4-of-4 on free-throws, Thompson didn't miss a single shot of any kind in his big quarter.

Love's 8-of-10 performance on first-quarter threes is nothing to sneeze at, however, and it is the aspect of his record night that I'd like to focus on. Love is a career .363 three-point shooter in a little over eight years in the NBA and his season-specific three-point shooting-percentages have been very consistent in recent years (.376 in 2013-14; .367 in 2014-15; .360 in 2015-16). Thus far in the current season, before last night's game, Love was hitting on .316 (18-of-57) of his treys.

Using Love's career .363 baseline success-rate, we can ask what is the probability that he would make 8 (or more) three-pointers in a 10-attempt sequence. Using a binomial calculator, the answer is .006 or 6-in-1,000.

In one sense, Love's scoring outburst might be considered more impressive than Thompson's. Compared to Thompson's .417 career NBA three-point shooting-percentage (and .444 for the season coming into his record-setting game), Love's career and season-to-date baseline success-rates were several percentage-points lower. It is, of course, harder for someone with a lower baseline success-rate to enter a stretch of hitting at a torrid pace.

Love scored only 6 more points after the first quarter last night, finishing with 40. Cleveland led comfortably for most of the game, entering the fourth quarter up 112-92, so was able to rest its starters.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Michael Phelps Looks to Extend Olympic-Gold Streaks

With the opening ceremonies for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics getting underway tomorrow, swimming enthusiasts are anticipating whether -- and to what degree -- Michael Phelps will be able to extend his career-total medal haul. He currently owns 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold, 2 silver, and 2 bronze.

In terms of Olympic streaks, Phelps has ongoing runs of three straight golds in the 100-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley. He will attempt to extend each of these streaks to four in a row. Before Phelps won the two aforementioned events in 2012, no male swimmer had won the same event at more than two straight Olympiad.  He will swim a third individual event in Rio, namely the 200 butterfly, in which he narrowly missed a third straight gold in 2012.

The following chart (which you can click to enlarge) shows Phelps's medal performances not just at the past three Olympiad, but also at the World Championships and Pan-Pacific Championships. The chart includes only the three individual events he will swim in Rio. Phelps did not compete in 2013 due to his brief retirement, plus USA Swimming kept him off the team for the 2015 Worlds for his drunk-driving offenses.

Sports Illustrated's pre-Olympic issue picks Phelps to win one gold -- in the 100-meter butterfly, just ahead of Hungary's Laszlo Cseh. Within 2016, Cseh (50.86) has actually swum this race faster than Phelps (51.00), but we don't know that all circumstances (e.g., amount of rest; pool conditions) were comparable. (You can look up the world rankings in any event, based on fastest times, at the international federation's website.) SI tabs Cseh over Phelps in the 200 fly, and Japan's Kosuke Hagino over Phelps in the 200 IM.

Friday, July 15, 2016

What’s Up (Or In This Case, Down) With the Cubs?

Perhaps it’s the Cubs’ historical futility – anyone can have an off-century, paraphrasing former manager Tom Trebelhorn. Or perhaps it’s the reputations of current team executive Theo Epstein and manager Joe Maddon. Whatever the reason, the team’s fast start this season inspired no shortage of superlatives from the media.

On May 15, with the Cubs sitting at 27-9, CBS splashed around words such as “historic,” “remarkable,” and “incredible” in describing the team’s start.

On June 7, with the Cubs having advanced their record to 40-16 the night before, FiveThirtyEight made the stunning comparison of Maddon’s bunch to the 1927 Yankees.

Now, as the season resumes Friday after the All-Star Break, the Northsiders are 53-35. The team’s record has been 26-26 since the CBS Sports article and 13-19 since FiveThirtyEight’s piece.

The Cubs’ slide began on June 20, the opening day of a three-game Wrigley Field series with St. Louis, which the Cardinals swept. Chicago has now lost five of its last six series (plus a one-game make-up game with Atlanta). Using the Cubs’ game-by-game log, I plotted the results of all of their series so far this season, in chronological order. Opponents are shown on the horizontal axis and the outcome of each series is shown on the vertical axis (sweeping a three-game series would be +3, getting swept four would be -4, etc.; see legend below the graph). You may click on the graphics to enlarge them.

[Legend: On the vertical axis, +4, +3, -3, and -4 represent sweeps of 4- or 3-game series; +2 or -2 can result from sweeps of 2-game series or winning or losing 3 in a 4-game series; 0 = split of 2- or 4-game series. The number of games in a series is shown in parentheses after the opponent’s name on the horizontal axis. Asterisk (*) indicates series with 1-game rain postponement until later in season.] ___________________________________________________________________________

Presumably, the Cubs have declined in one or more of the following areas: hitting, pitching, and defense. Hitting does not seem to be the major problem. The team’s two leaders in OPS (On-base Plus Slugging percentages), Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, have maintained a torrid pace. In fact, Rizzo’s two best monthly OPS figures have come in June (1.211) and July (1.178). The same is true for Bryant (June, 1.058; July, 1.222). Addison Russell and Jason Heyward have been steady, if unspectacular, with monthly OPS values in the .700-.800 range of late. That’s not to say that nobody has slumped. Dexter Fowler’s OPS in April, May, and June fell respectively from 1.087 to .879 to .605, and Ben Zobrist has fallen to an OPS of .707 in June and .640 in July, after he had attained a 1.136 in May. Still, there is no universal collapse in hitting among the Cubs.

To evaluate starting pitchers’ individual outings, I use the “game score” statistic developed by Bill James. The scoring system starts a pitcher out with 50 points, then adds points for good pitcher outcomes (e.g., 1 point for each out, plus an additional point for a strikeout) and subtracts points for bad outcomes (-2 for each hit allowed, -4 for each earned-run yielded). Game scores for each and every start by a given pitcher are included among’s pitching statistics. I have plotted game scores for each of the Cubs’ five regular starters, shown in chronological order.

Although the data are noisy, the general trend is that Cubs starters – four of whom are age 30 and older – began declining around their 15th starts. Before that, most outings were in the 50-80 range (highlighted in gray), meaning that pitchers made a net gain in points above the 50 with which they automatically started.

John Lackey recorded a 23 in his 15th start (a 9-6 Cubs loss at Miami), Jason Hammel struggled badly with a 5 in his 16th start (a 10-2 loss at the Mets), and Jon Lester also registered a 5; this came in his 17th start, another blow-out loss (14-3) at Citi Field. Jake Arrieta, though not hitting the low points of some of his teammates, has thrown clearly subpar games in his last three starts (game scores of 38, 38, and 35). Kyle Hendricks has been the even-keel starter, never deviating from a range of 41-80.

According to another FiveThirtyEight article, as of June 19 (right before the Cubs’ spate of losing series), Chicago pitchers appeared to be benefiting from two developments: their “contact-management skills” or “tendency to allow batted balls that do less damage;” and excellent defensive play from the fielders. Getting into the physics of batted balls, “Cubs pitchers [had] depressed exit velocity by 0.4 miles per hour and launch angle by almost 2 degrees, relative to average.” In terms of fielding, free-agent acquisition Heyward has saved 35 runs with his defense in 2015 and 2016 combined, according to one estimate, which is one of the best performances for an outfielder during this time.

One would guess Cub pitchers lately were allowing balls to leave opposing bats with greater exit velocity and launch angle, although I do not have updated statistics on those parameters. The Cubs need some rest, according to Maddon. That’s as good a recommendation as any, especially for the starting pitchers.