Sunday, April 17, 2016

Obscure Baseball-Card Find: Walt Dropo, Co-Record Holder for Hits in Consecutive At-Bats (12)

As I wrote about in my book Hot Hand, maintaining some types of streaks is more pressure-packed than maintaining others. In baseball, a streak of getting at least one hit per game, while not an easy task, still allows a batter to make one or more outs per game and still potentially preserve the streak. A streak of getting hits in numerous consecutive at-bats, on the other hand, has no margin for error. You make an out and the streak is over.

As I further noted in the book (page 5), the Major League record for most consecutive at-bats getting a hit each time is 12, co-held by Mike "Pinky" Higgins (1938) and Walt Dropo (1952). Think of that: 12 straight hits without making an out! (Because walks and certain other outcomes do not count as official at-bats, players could have walked during their streaks.)

Shortly after my book came out, Trent McCotter, a leading authority on baseball records and old-time hitting streaks, e-mailed me that, "You can also add Johnny Kling, 1902, to that list [with Higgins and Dropo]. I discovered it a few years back." Trent informed me that the famous Elias Sports Bureau accepted this change, and indeed, recent versions of the Elias record book list Kling with Higgins and Dropo.

I saved Trent's message for the next time I wrote about hit streaks in consecutive at-bats, not exactly knowing when that might be. A few months ago, the topic returned, and I have waited until the start of the new baseball season to write about it.

While browsing in a used record/CD/DVD store, which also had a small section on baseball cards, I came upon a Walt Dropo card, which I promptly purchased. (You may click on the following photo to enlarge it.)

Though Dropo's big league career lasted from 1949-1961, the card was issued in 1990, as part of the "Swell" Baseball Greats retrospective series.

The most recent threat to Kling, Higgins, and Dropo's mark that I could find was a stretch in 2002 by the Yankees' Bernie Williams, during which he produced hits in 11 consecutive at-bats.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Here's the Story, of a Man Named... Story

As of a few days ago, I had never heard of Trevor Story, a 23-year-old rookie shortstop for the Colorado Rockies. With so much else going on in the sports world such as March Madness, the Masters, and the Warriors' quest for 73 wins, I just wasn't following the start of the MLB season that closely.

Something has happened in the young baseball season, however, to make a streaks aficionado such as myself take notice. Namely, Story hit two home runs last Monday in his first-ever major-league game and he's maintained a streak of homering at least once in all four of the Rockies' games! I've created the following chart (which you can click to enlarge) to document all of Story's plate-appearances so far this season. (Each game appears on a new line. The numbers after ground-outs [G] and fly-outs [F] are standard fielding position numbers and other abbreviations are explained at the bottom of the chart.)

As this article from last night's game documents, "Story became the first major leaguer to homer in each of his first four games."

Another article notes that, even throwing non-rookies into the mix, Story is just the "[f]ifth player to homer in four straight games to start a season, joining Baltimore Orioles' Chris Davis (2013), Texas' Nelson Cruz (2011), St. Louis' Mark McGwire (1998) and San Francisco's Willie Mays (1971)." Pretty good company!

As the above chart reveals, Story has entered the big leagues as a free-swinger. He has no walks in his first 19 plate appearances. In addition to his six home runs, he has four strikeouts (three swinging), seven fly-outs (which includes line-drives), one ground-out, and one single.

The Rockies host the Padres again tonight, with the Colorado rookie trying to homer in his fifth straight game. We'll continue to follow the story...

UPDATE -- END OF STORY: No home run for Story on Saturday night, ending his streak.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Has Buddy Hield Regained His Yield?

With the men's NCAA basketball Final Four getting underway tomorrow, the player getting the most attention is Oklahoma's Buddy Hield. His Sooner squad will face Villanova, with North Carolina and Syracuse meeting in the other semifinal.

Hield has been a rare entity this season -- an actual streaky shooter -- going through sizable stretches of hot shooting, as well as of more mediocre marksmanship. In each of OU's final five non-conference games (from December 12-25), Hield shot .500 or better on threes, with at least five attempts in each contest (game-by-game log).

The first graph below shows Hield's game-by-game success from behind the three-point arc beginning with the start of Big 12 conference play (you can click on the graphics to enlarge them). After a rough outing at Iowa State in the opener (2-of-9), the senior guard went on a tear of eight straight games shooting .500 or better from long distance (the sizes of the basketball icons are proportional to the number of shots taken in each game, and the opponents are indicated by two-letter abbreviations, which is all I could fit in).* At roughly the midpoint of conference play, Hield's hot shooting was bringing him a lot of media attention.  

Hield cooled down during the latter part of Big 12 play, however, shooting in the .300s on treys in seven of OU's last 10 regular-season games (and never higher than .462 during this span). The Big 12 tournament did go well either for Hield, as he shot .333 (2-of-6) in a win over Iowa State and .167 (1-of-6) in a loss to West Virginia.

Once NCAA-tournament action got underway, Hield began to reverse his regular-season slump. In OU's first game, against Cal State Bakersfield (abbreviated as "BK" on the horizontal axis), Hield hit 50% of his three-pointers (3-of-6), his first time at the break-even point in his last 13 games. A .429 (6-of-14) outing against VCU was solid, if not spectacular. Then, after regressing to .286 (2-of-7) vs. Texas A&M, Hield broke out with a .615 (8-of-13) performance from downtown in the Sooners' regional-final rout of Oregon.

Hield's March Madness upturn has involved only a few games, however, so whether or not he's really "back" remains open to debate. Using the statistical technique of local (or "loess") regression to discern larger trends, the results are inconclusive. If the analysis is specified to be highly sensitive or reactive to changes occurring over small numbers of games (left graph, below), there does appear to be a modest NCAA-tournament rise for Hield. However, if the analysis is programmed to less sensitivity and reactivity, and greater smoothness (right graph), no recent rise is detectable

So whether Hield has regained his yield is unclear. Until tomorrow...

*For fans of the Big 12, the abbreviations should be interpretable, albeit odd (e.g., "TC" instead of TCU, "KS" for Kansas State). In the midst of conference play, Oklahoma took on LSU ("LS") in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. In the NCAA tournament, BK = Cal State Bakersfield, VC = Virginia Commonwealth, AM = Texas A&M, and OR = Oregon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Explosiveness" of NCAA Men's Basketball High Seeds

With the annual NCAA men's basketball tournament getting underway, I wanted to apply a measure I originally developed for the Golden State Warriors, namely offensive "explosiveness," to the leading teams in March Madness.

Reuters news-agency blogger Chris Taylor contacted me a week ago, as part of his investigation of statistical tools that might inform March Madness predictions. I told him about explosiveness, which he included among his "Seven tips for crunching March Madness math." As Taylor characterized my explanation of why one might want to study explosiveness, "Winning teams need to be able to come back from behind, or pull away [in] close games." It remains to be seen whether explosiveness has any predictive power in this year's NCAA tourney. However, as I told Taylor somewhat flippantly, "It seems to work for Golden State!"  In the remainder of this posting, I discuss explosiveness in greater detail.

The explosiveness statistic measures high-scoring bursts in short stretches of time. Instead of looking at 12-minute quarters in the NBA, I looked at 6-minute "eighths" of games. An explosive burst in NBA play is defined as scoring 18 or more points in 6 minutes (3 points per minute), which if maintained over an entire 48-minute game would yield a whopping 144 points. In the Warriors' first 25 games of the present season, in nearly one-fourth of all their 6-minute blocks did they register an explosive burst.

For the 40-minute length of college-basketball games, I looked at 5-minute blocks (one-eighth of regulation game-length) to see how often teams scored 15 or more points (i.e., 3 points per minute). Due to time constraints, I analyzed only the top eight projected teams in the field (i.e., all the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the bracket) and looked only at each of these teams' final 10 regular-season games. I did not include overtime periods, so each team had a total of 80 5-minute blocks. As shown in the following table (on which you can click to enlarge), the eight teams varied greatly in their explosiveness.

As can be seen, Xavier (Ohio), the No. 2 seed in the East region, was the most explosive team among those studied. Playing in the Big East Conference, the Musketeers recorded 13 explosive (15-point or more) bursts in their 80 5-minute blocks. Here are several examples:
  • In one game alone, vs. Creighton on March 5, the Musketeers pulled off three bursts (play-by-play sheet). Xavier went from having 44 points at halftime to 60 points with 15:00 min remaining; from 66 points with 10:00 left to 82 with 5:00 to go; and 82 with 5:00 left to 98 points at the end. 
  • At Seton Hall on February 28, a game in which the Musketeers trailed 45-26 at the half and ultimately lost 90-81, Xavier rallied feverishly in the second half. XU went from 43 points with 10:00 left to 58 with 5:00 left; and from 58 with 5:00 left to 81 at the final buzzer, a 23-point super-explosion (play-by-play)

Kansas (No. 1 seed in South region) and Oregon (No. 1 in the West) followed with nine explosive bursts each. Oklahoma (No. 2 in West) surprised me with only four bursts, given the excellent three-point shooting this season by the Sooners' Buddy Hield. Virginia (No. 1 in the Midwest) had no explosions in its final 10 regular-season games. 

I next inquired into what other skills and styles of play might contribute to a team's explosiveness (or lack thereof). The first things that occurred to me were that an explosive team was likely to play at a fast tempo (i.e., shooting early in the shot clock, generating many possessions per game) and be good at shooting the three. Results only partially supported these hypotheses (see the grey columns in the chart above). Note, however, that whereas explosiveness was only measured in teams' final 10 regular-season games (because combing through play-by-play sheets is time-consuming), all the other statistics are based on teams' full seasons.

Xavier indeed plays at the fastest pace  (74.5 possessions per game) among the No. 1 and 2 seeds, corresponding to the Musketeers' explosiveness. However, Oklahoma plays nearly as fast (73.7 possessions per game), but had low explosiveness. Virginia plays at a very slow pace (62.4 possessions per game, dead last among the 351 Division I men's teams), which seems to go a long way toward explaining the Cavaliers' lack of explosiveness. (Tempo/possession statistics are available here.)

Kansas, with nine explosive bursts, thrives on the three-pointer. Not only do the Jayhawks have one of the nation's highest shooting percentages from behind the arc; they also are attempting more treys than they have in the past. (All shooting, rebounding, and defensive statistics cited here are from the NCAA statistics webpage.)

Michigan State, with seven explosive bursts, is first in the nation in two categories: three-point shooting percentage and defensive rebounds per game. Limiting opponents to one shot and making shots yourself should contribute to explosiveness. However, the Spartans are quite low in turnovers forced per game, which presumably works against MSU being able to score quickly.

Oklahoma, which shoots well, cleans the defensive glass, and plays relatively fast, remains an enigma.

Keep an eye out for whether the eight teams seeded No. 1 or 2 make it to the Final Four. Either the explosiveness statistic will go out with a bang or be a dud.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Decade of UConn Women's Basketball Wins and Losses, At a Glance

Last Friday, ran a piece documenting the best 100-game stretches in U.S. college sports and major pro leagues such as the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB. At the time the article appeared, the University of Connecticut (UConn) women's basketball program had won 99 of its last 100 games (now 101 of its last 102). The legendary UCLA men's basketball program under coach John Wooden also had recorded a 99-1 stretch, from 1971-74.

The UConn women under coach Geno Auriemma have been dominant since winning the first of their 10 NCAA national times (and compiling the first of their five undefeated seasons) in 1995. I, therefore, wanted to look at the Huskies' long-term success beyond their past 100 games.

I decided to examine UConn's last 400 games, representing roughly the past decade of play. The Huskies' past 400 games span from the opening game of the 2005-06 season all the way to last night, when UConn routed Central Florida, 106-51. In these games, the Huskies are 377-23 (.942).

This record appears more compelling, in my view, when viewed in graphic form. I've thus created a diagram that shows 400 dots (one for each game), with wins depicted in blue and losses in red. The games are arranged in chronological sequence, from the first contest in the upper-left corner, advancing across each row of dots, until the 400th game in the lower-right corner. Here's the diagram:

Pretty blue, huh? I can't think of a way to convey the Huskies' dominance any more dramatically. The picture includes both a 90-game winning streak (the NCAA Division I record among men or women) and the current 101-1 stretch, as indicated by the side annotations. To help with interpretation of the diagram, I also created the following legend:

(You can click on the graphics to enlarge them.)

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Importance of Six-Minute Scoring Spurts in the Warriors’ Winning Streak

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

As part of the NBA's package of Christmas telecasts, the champion Golden State Warriors (27-1) will host Cleveland (19-7) in a rematch of last season's finals. The Warriors have been the big story of the 2015-16 season, starting out 24-0 (a 28-game regular-season winning streak if one includes the last four games of the previous season) to threaten the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers' record 33-game winning streak. After a December 12 loss at Milwaukee to end the streak, Golden State has won three in a row.

On this holiday occasion, I'd like to look back on the Warriors' winning streak, using an unusual lens. Offense is the team's forte, as seen in the NBA team-scoring rankings. Some basketball analysts look at statistics such as teams’ points per game or points per 100 possessions. To understand the Golden State Warriors’ success over the past season and a half, in my view, we have to look at smaller segments of play. Not halves, not quarters, but six-minute “eighths” of games. When the first-quarter clock runs down from 12:00 to 6:01, that would be the first eighth; from 6:00 to 0:00, the second. The eighth and final eighth would run from 6:00 to 0:00 of the fourth quarter.

In the 2015 playoffs, the Warriors played 21 games and thus 168 eighths of basketball (overtimes are not counted within my analyses). In 22 of these 168 eighths (13%), Golden State scored 18 or more points, which translates into 3 or more points per minute. If a team maintained a 3-points/minute pace for a full 48-minute game, it would score 144 points. Thus, I use 18+ point eighths as a marker of offensive explosiveness. The 22 eighths in which the Dubs scored 18+ points during these playoffs included three of 24 points (4 points per minute) and one of 25 points.

Through the Warriors’ first 25 games of the 2015-16 season – 24 wins followed by a loss – they have recorded 46 eighths of 18+ points in the 200 eighths they’ve played (23%). (Given that opposition is stronger in the playoffs than in the regular season, it’s not surprising that Golden State’s percentage of eighths with 18+ points is higher in the latter.)

The Warriors’ best eighth of the current season, as far as I can tell, occurred in the last six minutes of the first quarter on December 8 at Indiana. After scoring 17 points in the first 6:00 of the quarter, the Dubs added 27 points in the latter half of the first quarter (the second eighth of the game). This explosion included four treys (plus Klay Thompson making all three free throws after being fouled behind the arc).

After the Warriors’ 114-98 win at Brooklyn to go 22-0, acting coach Luke Walton was quoted as saying that, "It's one of our biggest strengths, is that we're never out of a game and we're always one little run away from putting a game away."

The following graph plots Golden State's points scored in the final 6:00 (the eighth eighth) of their first 25 games this season, as a function the number of points by which they were leading or trailing with 6:00 minutes left in regulation, We see that the Warriors’ greatest scoring outbursts in the final eighth have occurred when they have trailed or been tied heading into them. (For those with some statistical training, the correlation between Warriors’ margin entering the final eighth and their points scored in the final eighth is r = -.52, p < .01.)

In some ways, this finding is totally intuitive. Trailing or being tied should motivate a team (especially one, such as the Warriors, who were trying to maintain a long winning streak) to play extra hard; conversely, when a team is way ahead, it likely will put reserves in the game and run time off the clock, both resulting in lower offensive output. In another way, however, the finding is not so intuitive. If you’re trailing or tied late in the game, it could mean you are playing a tough opponent and/or having an off-night, which are not conducive to big scoring runs.

The above graph also shows that failure to respond as expected is what put the Warriors’ winning streak in jeopardy in Game 24 at Boston (a double-overtime Golden State win) and helped end it the next night in Milwaukee. According to the trend-line projection, the Dubs would have been expected to score 17 or 18 points in the final eighth of the Celtics game, but instead scored only 12 (this discrepancy is depicted by the red dashed vertical line). Trailing by 13 at Milwaukee, Golden State would have been expected to put up 20 in the final six minutes, but instead scored only 15.* Given that the Boston and Milwaukee games were the sixth and seventh of a seven-game road trip, the late-game loss of the Warriors’ explosiveness doesn’t seem surprising.

I don’t expect media outlets to replace the standard quarter-based line-score with one organized by eighths. For highly explosive teams such as the Warriors, however, I do believe eighths are a useful lens for statistical analysis.


 *The Warriors lost to Milwaukee by 13 (108-95), so strictly speaking, even if Golden State had scored the extra five points predicted by the correlational analysis, it still would have lost. Had the Warriors shown more offensive prowess in the final 6:00, however, the Bucks might have begun to feel pressure and perhaps the ending would have unfolded differently.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

It's Over! Warriors Lose to Bucks 108-95

Living members and fans of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers can rest easy, as that team's 33-game winning streak will remain the NBA record for the foreseeable future. Whether you counted the Golden State Warriors' current win streak at 24 or 28 games (including the last four of the 2014-15 regular season), it doesn't matter. The Warriors' streak is now over, as moments ago, they fell at Milwaukee, 108-95. The Bucks held a double-digit lead for much of the contest. A few times late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, Golden State cut the deficit to three points or fewer, but never could tie the game or take the lead (play-by-play sheet). Playing the final game of a seven-game road-trip, just one night after a double-overtime win in Boston, the Warriors appeared spent.