Friday, April 19, 2013

Hot and Cold Starts to Current MLB Season

The 2013 Major League Baseball season is a couple of weeks old and we now see which teams have gotten off to the hottest starts: the Atlanta Braves (13-2), the Oakland A's (12-4), and the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies (each 11-4). To some extent, one could say that there always seems to be a team or two starting off with a bang every year. Last year, for example, the Rangers started off 15-4, whereas the Dodgers began with a 12-3 burst.

However, if the Braves, A's, Red Sox, or Rockies can continue to mow down opponents, they may be able to join the pantheon of teams with all-time great starts. This 2011 Yahoo! Sports article lists "Five of the best starts in baseball history." Three of them might be considered fabulous long-term starts: 30-5 by the 1902 Pirates, 33-7 by the 1939 Yankees, and 35-5 by the 1984 Tigers.* The other two great starts were over a shorter term: 13-0 by the 1982 Braves and 17-1 by the 1987 Brewers.

Blogger Jim Mancari identifies the pillars of the Braves' strong start this year:

Justin Upton has already clubbed a league-leading eight home runs, and Evan Gattis — who is supposed to just be a placeholder for the injured Brian McCann — has shown impressive pop at the plate.

[Chipper] Jones’ replacement Chris Johnson is hitting over .400 to start the season — Chipper who? Freddie Freeman is also over the .400 mark to start the year.

It’s a small sample size, but the Braves have the capability to give the [Washington] Nationals fits all season... 

The starting pitching staff has been great so far. Through his first three starts, Paul Maholm has not given up a run — earned or unearned — in 20 1/3 innings. Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor have also looked good early.
Where the Braves definitely have the Nationals beat is in the bullpen. Closer Craig Kimbrel is perfect in save opportunities and has only allowed two hits and two walks (no runs) in 6 2/3 innings of work.

For Oakland, a fast start seems almost out of character, as recent A's squads have tended to be at their best in the second half of the season. The A's had a hot July last year and also did very well in August during several seasons in the 2000s.

We also, of course, have seen some terrible starts to the 2013 season. Not surprising is that of the Miami Marlins (3-13), who undertook an off-season fire sale. More surprising is the start of the superstar-laden Angels (4-10).

*In fact, I have a chapter in a new book about the '84 Detroit squad.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Louisville's Hancock and Michigan's Albrecht Exhibit Hot Hands in First Half of Men's College Hoops Title Game

With 3:02 remaining in the first half of Monday night's NCAA championship game and Michigan leading 35-23, Cardinal coach Rick Pitino called a time-out. Hot shooting from behind the three-point arc -- including four straight shots without a miss by reserve guard Spike Albrecht -- had given the Wolverines their sizable lead at this point. However, in a two-minute stretch that will give Michigan fans nightmares for years to come, Louisville's Luke Hancock hit four straight treys of his own and, next thing you knew, the teams were heading to the locker room with the Wolverines ahead only 38-37 at intermission. So compelling was the first-half three-point duel, it inspired the New York Times to write a human interest story on Hancock and Albrecht.

Based on the play-by-play sheet of the Louisville-Michigan game, I have graphed all three-point attempts of the first half. The chart indicates which player (by last initial) took each shot (UM players depicted in blue and UL players in red), with how much time remaining in the half, and whether the shot was good (bright colors in top row) or a miss (lighter colors in bottom row). You may click on the graphic to enlarge it.

Though Albrecht and Hancock each hit four first-half threes, as can be seen, Hancock's occurred in much quicker succession. Also, until Hancock's shooting outburst, Michigan had made six treys to only one for Louisville.

Louisville dominated the second half except for some brief stretches, with Hancock hitting a fifth three-pointer to put the Cardinals up 76-66 with 3:27 left in the game. The final score was 82-76 for UL.

Hancock went 5-for-5 from downtown in the title game, as well as 3-for-5 on treys vs. Wichita State in the national semifinal, giving him an impressive 8-for-10 three-point shooting percentage in the Final Four (see Hancock's game-by-game log). Such a shooting performance by Hancock in the biggest games of the season would have seemed very unlikely, however, based on his start to the 2012-13 campaign. A transfer from George Mason University whose Louisville career began last fall, Hancock compiled an ugly 9-of-41 (.220) record on three-point attempts in his first eight games.

Though he later had some good three-point shooting games (e.g., 4-of-5 at Syracuse on March 2), Hancock entered the Final Four (including the regular season, Big East tournament, and first four games of the NCAA tournament) hitting only 55-for-148 (.372) from downtown.

One can calculate the probability of a prior .372 shooter hitting 8 (or more) of his next 10 three-point attempts, using what is known as a binomial probability calculator. This probability turns out to be .007, a little less than 1-in-100. Unlikely, but not astronomical.

What about Michigan's Albrecht? As his game-by-game log shows, Albrecht attempted far fewer three-pointers during the season than did Hancock. In fact, until Monday night's championship game, the frosh Albrecht had never attempted more than 2 three-point shots in a single game. For the regular season and Big 10 tournament combined, Albrecht made 9-of-23 (.391) behind the arc.

In the Wolverines' NCAA tournament opener vs. South Dakota State, Albrecht didn't attempt any treys. In each of the next three tournament games -- vs. Virginia Commonwealth, Kansas, and Florida -- Albrecht went 1-for-1 on three-pointers. In the national semifinal vs. Syracuse, Albrecht upped his three-point output to 2-for-2. He then, of course, hit his first 4 shots from beyond the arc in the title game against Louisville, making him 9-of-9 for the entire NCAA tournament at that point. With 11:28 left in the game, Albrecht missed a three-point shot that would have put UM, then trailing 52-54, back in the lead. The miss was the only mar on Albrecht's tournament three-point record, which ended up 9-for-10.

Returning to the binomial probability calculator, we ask in Albrecht's case what the probability is of a prior .391 shooter making 9 (or more) of his next 10 three-point shots. That probability is .001 or 1-in-1,000.

Clearly, two rare performances were on display Monday night!