Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Alex Ovechkin vs. the former Southeast Division

Alex Ovechkin scored a very impressive four goals against the Tampa Bay Lightning last night. They've been one of his favourite opponents over the years; he's scored 70 points against them in 52 career games, his second-highest total against an opposing franchise.

Now, there's no doubt that Ovechkin is a special player, and one of the best of his generation. But has he had an easier time of it because of the fact that he's spent most of his career to date in the brutally awful Southeast Division, which existed up until 2012-13?

Let's consider Ovechkin's numbers against those teams:

Tampa Bay

To put it mildly, that's a massive beating. If you imagine Ovechkin played only SE division opponents, his average 82-game season would be 51 goals and 59 assists, for 110 points.

 Now, consider this:

Eastern Conference
Non-SE Eastern Teams
Western Conference

Ovechkin's performance against the rest of the league drops off significantly. Against the Eastern Conference as a whole, his numbers still look amazing, but if you cut out the SE division, it drops quite a bit. Against the rest of the East, he's a 96-point player; against the West, he's a 94 point player.

That's not to say that playing in the Southeast division has been worth 14 or 16 extra points a season for Ovi; obviously, he doesn't actually have the luxury of playing all 82 games in-division. In the six-division era, teams played about a third of their games against divisional opponents; that's about 27 games. They'd play about 20 games against each of the other two divisions in their conference.

So, in actual fact, Ovi was only playing about 7 extra games against SE opponents than other Eastern teams. If playing the SE division only is worth 15 extra points over 82 games, that means 7 extra games in-division has been worth about 1.3 extra points per season for Ovi versus, say, Sidney Crosby. Versus a Western Conference player, it's more significant - as much as 4 points.

While we like to say that players in the Southeast had a big lift from regular access to punching bags like the Florida Panthers, it's easy to forget that they all had to play plenty of non-divisional games, and that everyone else gets to play the SE division too.

The big difference, really, has been between the two conferences; for most of the six-division era, teams only played each team in the opposite conference once a year, so Western teams got barely any chance to feast on the weak SE divison. So don't pile on Ovechkin for getting easy pickings down South; in fact, it's been the entire Eastern Conference that enjoyed that advantage.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

JP Arencibia: Blue Jays, foolishly, cut a face of the franchise

It's been a quiet off-season for the Blue Jays thus far. The biggest news to this point is yesterday's announcement that Dioner Navarro will be coming in to replace JP Arencibia as the Jays' starting catcher.

The move is perhaps not a surprise. Arencibia's batting regressed last year, striking out 148 times in 497 at-bats, putting up an ugly .194/.227/.365 line. He was only able to pull himself up to a replacement-level 0.1 WAR thanks to good defensive numbers. He's about to turn 28, and we can no longer assume that he'll sort it out and get better. In fact, the league may have sorted him out. He's now likely to land somewhere as a backup catcher and occasional pinch-hitter.

Navarro, his replacement, isn't really an improvement, however. Navarro had a nice 2013, hitting .300 with 13 homers over 240 at-bats, but that's a serious outlier compared to his career line (.251/.313/.371). His defensive numbers don't help him. For the most part, he's the same slightly-better-than-replacement catcher that Arencibia is. He's 29, so, like Arencibia, we know who he is by now. There's not likely any more upside here.

So what's the point? If you're going to re-arrange deck chairs, why not stick with the devil you know?

I make this point because while JP is an underwhelming asset on the field, he rates very well as a clubhouse guy, and most importantly, as a fan favourite. In particular, he's a huge hit with female fans, because he's undeniably one of the prettiest faces in MLB:

Dioner Navarro isn't a bad-looking guy, but he's not going to draw a crowd in the same way. The Blue Jays saw a big upswing in attendance last year, and a lot of that was driven by young fans up in the 500 level - and of those, a large portion were female.

Female fans are smart, and they know baseball. They want the team to win, and they know that JP's strikeouts hurt the team. But they also like to be entertained, and JP does that. When he does add offensive value, it's through home runs - and all fans love those. Dioner Navarro will put together a few more singles and some walks, but he's not going to create excitement. I daresay he's not going to sell a lot of jerseys, either.

JP puts butts in the seats. He was part of the youthful energy that made the Jays a big draw in 2013, and he became a face of the franchise. For female fans who bought "ARENCIBIA 9" t-shirts, he was a key part of forming that bond between fan and team that keeps people coming back. Any way you slice it, he may not have added much on the field but he did earn a profit for the franchise. The money that you earn on Arencibia can then be spent elsewhere on the roster, upgrading the starting rotation or the second base position. If the best you can do is a sideways step to a similarly mediocre catcher, why not stick with the guy that fans love?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Zach Bogosian and Inflation: why his contract is better than it looks

When the news came out yesterday that Zach Bogosian had signed a 7-year, $36m contract with the Winnipeg Jets, it certainly raised some eyebrows. Long contracts might seem sensible for stars like Erik Karlsson and Shea Weber, but Bogosian is, by most accounts, a solid yet unspectacular player. He plays tough minutes, and at just 23 years old, the contract will span his prime years rather than paying for mid-30s decline years.

Obviously, it's pricing in the possibility that he may establish himself as a reliable, top-pairing guy. The $5.14m AAV seems high for a young defenceman - it's higher, for example, than the salaries guys like Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk and Slava Voynov will earn next year. It's also higher than the salaries of a lot of other top-pairing guys around the league including Alex Edler, Nik Kronwall, and more.

I'd say the Jets may have overpaid. They may not have needed to offer quite so much - after all, the long contract protects Bogosian against the risk of a serious or career-ending injury. If he gets multiple concussions, or a broken leg, or simply flops - that $36m is money in the bank.

One saving grace, though, is that the contract price will look better every year thanks to inflation. The 2013-14 salary cap will be $64.3 million, but if the NHL continues to build its revenues, that cap figure is likely to grow by about 5% each year. Consequently, Bogosian's cap hit will represent a smaller portion of the Jets' budget each year. In 2013-13, Bogosian will eat up about 8% of the Jets' cap. By year seven, though, he'll only take 6% of their cap space - equivalent to a $3.84 million dollar salary today.

In effect, giving Bogosian a 7-year deal reverses the cap hits that we would normally expect for a player like him. Many RFA defencemen take cheaper 2-year second contracts (see, for example, PK Subban's $2.875 AAV 2-year deal) knowing that they'll be able to cash in on a bigger deal as an unrestricted free agent afterwards. Bogosian 'reverses' this by taking a bigger effective cap hit at the beginning of his deal (8% of team cap space), but will have a much cheaper cap hit by the end of the deal (6% of team cap space). This arrangement is especially effective for the Jets, who aren't facing a cap crunch for this year, but may find themselves trying to build a high-powered contender once Bogosian is further along in his contract.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Baseball Calculus: Starling Marte and the Hot Start Bias

I have Starling Marte on my fantasy baseball team. I'm happy that I do - he's had a great start to the season, putting up fantastic fantasy baseball numbers: a .304 average, 5 homers, 33 runs, 17 RBI and 10 steals. Over a full season, that projects to a .304/118/18/61/36 line - terrific stuff. The sort of performance you'd expect from a second- or third-round player. Marte is perceived by many as an emerging star.

Here's the problem: Starling Marte is, at this point, probably one of the most overrated players in fantasy baseball.
Don't believe me? I'm convinced Marte is in for a serious reckoning, which has perhaps already hit. Most telling is his 46/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is dangerously close to Jeff Francoeur (35/5 this year) territory. Pitch selection is important in baseball. If you're too free a swinger, pitchers will get you to chase more pitches. You'll get fewer good pitches to hit. When you do make contact on pitches outside the zone, you're more likely to hit weak grounders and pop-ups. Marte's .304 batting average is an illusion created by a .385 BABIP, which places 8th among MLB regulars. He's been lucky.
Marte is overrated because of something I'd call a 'Hot Start Bias'. We tend to form opinions about players over time. If a rookie has a hot week, we'll keep an eye on him, but we're slow to commit to him. If he has two good weeks, we look more closely. If, after a full month, he's hitting .327 (as Marte was) and among the MLB leaders in runs, steals and OBP, we will look at him and say "maybe this kid really is going to be one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball."
Then, we start keeping an eye on him. Every time we check his stats, that batting average is still over .300; he's still among the MLB leaders in runs, and he's got good numbers across the board. And because he's a fun, exciting, emerging star, we check his numbers often. Every check is another data point in the formation of our opinion.
Here's the problem, though: we make the mistake of simply checking his season-to-date stats every time. We don't check his recent numbers, which would show that since the start of May, he's hitting .270/.333/.432 with a 20/2 K/BB.
This problem can be illustrated graphically with some concepts borrowed from basic calculus.
Remember that thing from Calculus I? The 'area under the graph'? I'm suggesting that our opinions of a player like Marte is something that is formed over time. Every time we check his batting average, it's a data point in our minds. In early April, we see those high averages - he stays over .330 until April 18 - we think 'excellent, but it's still early; I'd like to see him sustain it'. Then, for a few more weeks, he maintains an average around .320. Now he's gradually tailing off towards the .300 mark.

You might note above that the graph starts only on April 10, cutting out Marte's first week. This is a bit of a cheat on my part; he hit poorly in his first couple games, keeping his average low until he got hot a few games in. I've left those games out purely for visual effect. While it's statistically dishonest, I don't think it changes the issue.

Back to my argument: very data point further adds to our perception that Starling Marte is a .300 hitter. That he's a good player. That he's one of the league's better leadoff men and an excellent fantasy baseball player.
Here's the amazing thing: what if he is actually only, say, a .260 hitter from here on out? Let's say he hits a steady 1.04 hits in 4 ABs for another 117 games (bringing him to 162 total). Here's how that batting average chart will look:

So here, we see the hot start is a bit compressed, followed by a steady tail-off down to a .272 average at season's end. As you can see, I've kept the original blue shading for days where Marte's average is over .300, and used red shading once he falls below .280. The blue area represents our perception that Starling Marte is an excellent hitter; the red is our perception that he's actually pretty average; sub .280, which is still decent for an MLB regular but not a star. Everything in between is kind of neutral.
As you can see, though, the size of the blue area far exceeds that of the red area; the cumulative effect of this perception will be that, at the end of the season, plenty of people will still be saying things like:
  • "Starling Marte can easily hit .300 in 2014."
  • "Starling Marte is going to win a batting title someday." (don't get me started on this line...)
  • "Starling Marte is going to be a perennial all-star."

All this when he's really a .260 hitter. He's a lot closer to Chris Young than Andrew McCutchen, yet his hot start will continue to skew perceptions of his ability level because of this bias.

And that's why I'm trying to sell high on him in my fantasy baseball league. People think he's this awesome, budding superstar, based on seven weeks of BABIP-fuelled good luck. He's not. He's going to be overrated and over-drafted by fantasy players for some time before we all clue in to the fact that he's actually pretty average. We fall prone to this Hot Start Bias all the time, yet seem to be surprised every time we get caught by it. It also runs in the opposite direction: if a talented player starts badly in April, we'll miss it when he tears it up in May and June because we've got it in our heads that he's "not having a good year." There's no reason to get caught in this trap if we think carefully about how our perceptions operate.

Follow Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mark Buehrle: now with more groundouts!

Mark Buehrle put up another strong start for the Blue Jays today, (7 IP, 4H, 2 ER, 6/2 K/BB) and though he didn't get the win, it's another positive sign that he's getting back on track after a tough start.

His improving ERA and K/BB are easy to notice, but what you may have missed is that he now hasn't given up a home run in three straight starts. This isn't just luck; he's done it by getting more ground outs. He's gotten more ground outs than air outs in each of those three starts (11/5 today) after being on the wrong side of that ledger for the three preceding starts, where he allowed 8 HR in 18 innings.

Buehrle's been a pitch-to-contact guy for some time, and has always given up a fair number of home runs. As his stuff ages, he's going to have to keep the ball down to stay out of trouble, and it looks like he's been able to do that lately. Getting ground outs will speed up his innings and allow him to be the innings-eater the team needs (especially after days like yesterday, where Ramon Ortiz got knocked out in the third inning). He'll likely be facing Atlanta's high-power offence on Monday so he'll definitely want to make sure he keeps the ball on the ground.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jose Bautista is batting 2nd, and that's good news

Batting your best hitter second in the lineup has been a pet theory among sabermetricians for a number of years, but it's getting increasing interest around baseball this year, and the Blue Jays are joining the bandwagon, moving Jose Bautista into the second spot in their batting order. Does it make sense? Or is Jose's power wasted there?

The injury to Jose Reyes robbed the Jays of a natural leadoff man, and they've struggled to find an appropriate fill-in. Emilio Bonifacio and Rajai Davis got long looks there, as their speed looks good atop the order. Also getting time were guys like Brett Lawrie and Munenori Kawasaki. That whole group was a failure, though; your leadoff hitter must be able to get on base, and all those players feature below-average OBPs. The natural solution, I felt, was Melky Cabrera, and indeed the Jays have finally put him there. Melky had been batting 2nd or 5th most of April, as the Jays really wanted to mix his switch-hitting abilities among all the right-handed power bats. Now that Adam Lind has turned it on, they've been able to use Melky to lead off. He's not especially fast - indeed, he remains in the leadoff spot right now despite hamstring issues - but he's one of the team's best OBP guys.

When your lineup features as much power as the Jays have (it's not just Bautista and Edwin Encarnacaion; JP Arencibia and Colby Rasmus are piling up HRs too), you need to get as many guys on base in front of them as possible. Sending Davis and Bonifacio up there to make outs did nothing to set the table for them - it just burned outs and stopped the offence before it could get started.

Further, batting Melky 5th was similarly wasteful. Bautista and Encarnacion are two of the team's better OBP guys. They'll often get on via a walk, and if they're on base that often, you need a guy with some power to bring them in. Arencibia and Rasmus are perfectly suited to do that; their OBP isn't great, but they can cash in men on base. Melky, on the other hand, has a good chance to hit a single, but can't drive in runners en masse.

So with Melky in the leadoff spot, who bats second? As I've said above, the Jays have plenty of power guys but few OBP men. In that regard, Bautista is a perfect solution. With Edwin hitting 3rd and Arencibia 4th, the Jays have enough power in the middle of the lineup that Bautista can be deployed elsewhere.

A further advantage is that Bautista is less likely to come to the plate with 2 out. Batting 3rd - especially behind Davis and Bonifacio - teams could pitch around him, knowing that a walk with 2 out was a lesser risk. With none or one out, walking Bautista is a greater risk, because the Jays will have more chances to drive him in. So teams have to pitch to him, and he's able to get fastballs that can become home runs. How much better is Jose with less than 2 outs? His career BA/OBP/SLG splits:
  • none out: .279/.366/.559
  • one out: .250/.358/.459
  • two out: .229/.363/.443
The difference is undeniable. With two out, Jose gets a lot of walks, but doesn't get pitches to hit. The fewer outs, the more pressure teams face to pitch to him. You could easily make an argument, based on these splits, that Jose should be leading off. Yes, he'd be hitting a lot of solo home runs, but he'll do that anyway (just with 2 outs) if the Jays can't put decent OBP men on in front of him. Batting him 2nd behind Cabrera is a good compromise, and will continue to help the Jays. Bravo to John Gibbons for being willing to work outside the conventional wisdom.

Follow Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter:

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Frazer McLaren NHL Suspension Video

Leafs tough guy Frazer McLaren, right,  drops the Senators' Dave Dziurzynski with a hard right hand during a fight 26 seconds into Wednesday night's game at the Air Canada Centre. Dziurzynski suffered a concussion and did not return.
Photo courtesy

Last night in Toronto, an incident occurred in a game between the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Early in the first period, Frazer McLaren of the Maple Leafs and Dave Dziurzynski of the Senators dropped their gloves and exchanged blows, and before too long, McLaren struck Dziurzynski flush on the cheek, knocking the Senators player out.

This was a violation of Rule 46 - Fighting. McLaren was assessed a major penalty on the play.

Dziurzynski was injured on the play, suffering a serious concussion. McLaren targeted Dziurzynski's head on the play, striking him with a closed fist in a clear attempt to injure his opponent.

McLaren has a history as a repeat offender. Though he has not been suspended or fined during his NHL career, he has been assessed fighting majors on five other occasions this season.

The NHL Department of Player Safety has decided to suspend Frazer McLaren for zero games.

You won't be seeing Brendan Shanahan reading from this script today, or anytime soon. My apologies if you clicked on this link and actually thought this might be for real - and yes, the title of this post is intentionally deceptive.

But ask yourself: why is it that the NHL calls fighting a 'penalty' prohibited by the rules if it comes with special exemptions for supplementary discipline? Imagine you were told that a player on the Leafs had taken a major penalty on a play last night and knocked an opponent out cold. You'd immediately assume a suspension would be forthcoming. Why is it that the league says it's getting serious about 'player safety' when it has harsh penalties for hits that were formerly 'hockey plays' but allows carte blanche for fighting?

Like most fans, I enjoy seeing fights. It's thrilling, and even though I know staged fights (as last night's was) are a bit silly, I still find them entertaining the way I enjoyed watching pro wrestling when I was thirteen. But it's time to grow up. It's amazing that the NHL has made no moves to address this after what happened to Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, and what will happen to other players to come. Even if it's not another death, there will be plenty more players with brain damage in the coming years.

I realize, too, that fighting is important to the players, who like having tough guys on their team to discourage players on other teams from making cheap hits. I get that - and I realize eliminating fighting outright would be very hard to do.

But the NHL ought to do something, and the obvious step is to end the staged fights. If one arises naturally after a big hit, that's one thing. But when McLaren and Dziurzynski square off 26 seconds into a game to fight for little more than entertainment, that's a fight no one needs. The NHL should realize that these incidents are embarrassing - McLaren certainly did. After the fight, he didn't raise his arms, didn't salute the crowd, didn't pantomime as if he were putting on the prizefighter's belt. He looked ashamed of what he had done, embarrassed that he had hurt someone just so people could cheer. You can bet that's not what he imagined growing up with dreams of playing in the NHL.

You know, we ain't hockey players. We've been clowns.
We've been goons! We're the freaks in a fuckin' sideshow. We're nothing but a bunch of criminals. We oughta be in jail, that's all there is.... Yeah. Really ashamed of myself. See, Ned was right. Violence is killin' this sport. It's draggin' it through the mud. If things keep up the way they are, hockey players'll be nothing but actors, punks.
Well, I'm not playin' my last game that way.  ...Yeah. It's my last game, and I wanna play it straight. No more "Nail 'em." No more "Fuck with 'em." That's finished. I wanna win that championship tonight, but I wanna win it clean. Old-time hockey, like when I got started, you know? Jeez. Toe Blake, Dit Clapper, Eddie Shore, those guys were the greats.
I don't know what to say. Christ, it's up to you.

Follow Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter:

Monday, March 4, 2013

5 games for Patrick Kaleta: does it set a precedent?

Patrick Kaleta might not fear the NHL's discipline system after a 5-game suspension (photo courtesy

Patrick Kaleta's hit on Brad Richards earned him a 5-game suspension, as announced this afternoon by Brendan Shanahan. The NHL elected to carry out Kaleta's hearing over the phone, meaning 5 games was the maximum suspension that could be imposed. More serious suspensions can only be imposed in an in-person hearing.

If the league does impose a suspension of six games or more, the new CBA will allow players the right of an appeal to a 'neutral arbitrator', whose "standard of review will be whether the League's finding of violation of the League Playing Rules and the penalty imposed were both supported by substantial evidence."

It's not entirely clear what 'substantial evidence' will mean. Must suspensions be based on the precedents of other suspensions? For example, if another repeat offender makes the same hit tomorrow night, is the league forced to give him the same penalty? Or do they just need to show that they have some evidence? It's not clear from this whether arbitrators will have the mandate to show seference to the NHL's decisions, or whether they'll regularly pick apart the reasoning for the suspension imposed.

This leaves open the question: what would be sufficient to warrant a 6-plus game suspension? The answer, clearly, would be a serious injury. Kaleta's history as a repeat offender (two-game suspension in 2009, a fine and a four-gamer in 2011), and the seriousness of the hit (Shanahan described it as being in an "extremely dangerous" position near the boards) both supported a serious suspension, and the NHL's tendency has been to rapidly escalate suspensions for repeat offenders.

Now that the decision has been made to cap a hit like Kaleta's at five games, the league could face a test when hand out longer suspensions. If players can argue that other hits are no worse than Kaleta's (including, for example, a hit that results in a serious injury but comes from a first-time offender), imposing a longer suspension could prove impossible.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Offer sheets: there's no point

Though Jamie Benn and PK Subban have signed, Ryan O'Reilly remains unsigned and discussion remains as to why no one has dropped an offer sheet on him yet.

It's important to think back to a quote from last week's 30 Thoughts column by Elliotte Friedman:

As one GM (not one quoted elsewhere in this blog) said: "If Nashville is going to match that offer to Shea Weber, what the [bleep's] the point of  doing one?"

There is basically no point. Though there are plenty of teams that would like to add a guy like O'Reilly, even if you offer him a multi-year deal at $5m per - I've gotta think Colorado matches. How high would you have to go to get Colorado to let him go? $6m? More? At that point, you're giving up a stack of first-rounders for a guy who's certainly an excellent player, but I don't think anyone's confusing him with Anze Kopitar. He's not a superstar.

I advocated for someone signing Michael Del Zotto to an offer sheet on this blog a couple weeks ago, and now I'm pulling back off that opinion. Yes, these guys should be getting paid more. But there's no GM who's going to want to stick his hand in that beehive because he's not going to come out with the player. Instead, he's just going to force the player's team to match.

What's worse, he then faces the problem of a 'revenge' offer sheet from the other side. Where this is a real threat or not is a question, but you can bet it's going to cause a lot of stress when it comes time to re-sign his own RFAs. Much more real is the fact that he's going to have his own players asking "you think Player X is worth $Y; why are you offering me this shit contract?" It's all a lot of headache for a very small chance of reward.

If GMs aren't colluding (and I really don't think they are), they're going to worry about their own team first. If Ryan O'Reilly is getting lowballed in Colorado - that isn't Dave Nonis or Mike Gillis or anyone else's problem. Their job is not to set a market rate, or force other teams to pay up; they're worrying about their own team first, and if Colorado is losing games in the meantime without a top-line player, all the better.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Insurance A-Fraud?

Fox's Ken Rosenthal reported this morning that the Yankees might be hoping that they can get out from under Alex Rodriguez' contract with an insurance payout. On its face, it's a fair point; they took out a sizeable insurance policy on the contract in case A-Rod suffered a career-ending injury. The plan, as Rosenthal explains, would be to find a doctor willing to call Rodriguez' hip injury "career-ending", file some paperwork, and presto, insurance payout covers 85 percent of the $114 million remaining on the deal.

Simple? Not so much. Ken probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that insurance companies are reluctant to pay out claims if they can avoid it. In particular, they (rightly) are especially reluctant to pay out where there's a whiff of fraud. You may have also heard that Alex Rodriguez doesn't have the best reputation as a truth-teller.

Furthermore, the fact that this strategy is being publicly discussed (Rosenthal reports that a 'high-ranking executive explained the same plan to him) will raise the insurer's suspicions even more. You can bet that they wouldn't simply take the opinion of a single doctor cherry-picked by Rodriguez and the Yankees.

Here's what would actually happen: the claim would get denied, and the Yankees and the insurer would end up in court. The insurer would insist on a second opinion, and demand the reports of every other doctor that checked on Rodriguez. If A-Rod had 'shopped around' until he got a favourable opinion, it's game over. The insurer could point to the conflicting opinions and show that Rodriguez can play. If that fails, they might still be able to insist that 'their' doctor examine hime, or they could send up a slew of expert witnesses to say he should be playing, or that the Yankees failed to mitigate his injuries, or that they allowed him to use PEDs, perhaps voiding the policy because of increased injury risks and so on...

You get the picture. You can't just fill out a form and magically get an insurance payout. Any insurance claim that approaches $100m - whether it's for a baseball contract or a construction project - will not be handled the same way as a car insurance claim for a fender-bender. There's too much money at stake, and any insurance company will fight tooth and nail to avoid paying out illegitimate claims. Unless his injury is worse than reported, you can bet on A-Rod being on the field in 2014.

Follow sports law and business nerd Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Power plays up 38% in NHL's opening weekend, but we've seen this before

Through two days and 17 games, the 2013 NHL season has seen a lot of disorganization and choppy game play (and I'm not just referring to NHL's Gamecentre, which has led to numerous reports of bad streaming quality and unexpected blackouts). It's apparent that the short training camp has meant that teams aren't fully back in game shape, both in terms of fitness and familiarity. Of particular note is that penalties are up significantly through the first two days: we've seen an average of 9.1 power plays per game, which is a 38% increase over last season's average of 6.6.

Unsurprisingly, this has also coincided with an increase in scoring overall: goals are up 9%. So far in 2013, we're getting 5.79 goals per game compared to last year's 5.32.

Is this indicative of anything? Well, yes - we've seen much tighter calls on hooking in particular, with refs blowing the whistle on even a slight tap into the hands. There are a few factors at work here; players are a little undisciplined early, making lazy plays, and many are not at a mid-season fitness level yet. Playing in the AHL or the Swiss league is certainly helpful, but there's no way those leagues can replicate the speed they're now dealing with in NHL play. What's more, it seems the referees are erring on the side of making the call to 'set the tone' early on.

Will it last? Definitely not. Last season's opening weekend featured 8.6 power plays per game, and it seems like an opening week penalty-fest has become standard in the NHL. The referees seem to have been given the usual edict to 'call it tight' for the first few games. Things should return to normal in short order.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Waiving Tim Connolly is Shooting the Hostage

Harry: "Alright, pop quiz: The airport. Gunman with one hostage, he's using her for cover, he's almost to the plane. You're a hundred feet away. (Long pause) Jack?"
Jack: "Shoot the hostage.""
Harry: "What?"
Jack: "Take her out of the equation. Go for the good wound and he can't get to the plane with her. Clear shot"
Harry: "You are deeply nuts, you know that? 'Shoot the hostage'... jeez..."

In negotiations for the Roberto Luongo, Mike Gillis has been holding firm: he wants real value, and his rumoured recent asking price was along the lines of Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, and a 2nd-round pick. Dave Nonis thus far hasn't seemed interested in giving up that much; Gillis has insisted he won't trade Luongo unless he gets the right return.

It was announced this morning that the Leafs will be waiving Tim Connolly just a day after sending Matthew Lombardi to the Coyotes in the first 'retained salary' trade under the new CBA. By saying goodbye to two candidates for centre spots, Nonis has made it impossible to trade Bozak and Kadri. The move has changed the negotiation: now, that trade structure is off the table. Nonis has effectively 'shot the hostage'; it may be that he had a different package in mind (maybe he would rather move a winger? MacArthur?). Now, that's the only option available.

Nonis may have wanted to call Gillis' bluff that other teams would offer more. Nonis has altered the negotiation by eliminating some of his own options - he shot the hostage. Now that Bozak and Kadri have become genuinely unavailable, Gillis may have negotiate on Nonis' terms.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why someone - anyone - should sign Michael Del Zotto to an offer sheet

As we wait for the NHLPA to announce ratification of the Memorandum of Understanding, news is coming out of New York that the Rangers' RFA Michael Del Zotto may not get signed before training camp.

Reportedly, the two sides are talking about a 2-year deal and are about half a million dollars apart. The Rangers are looking to pay about $2.4m or maybe less; Del Zotto is apparently asking for as much as $3m.

Last season, Del Zotto was a valuable powerplay fixture, putting up 41 points in 77 games, and was was third on the team in ice time (behind Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh). This isn't a guy the Rangers should be nickel-and-diming with; he's an important part of the team and a valuable player. What's more, he's just 22 years old.

It seems like this would be a prime chance for any number of NHL teams (Detroit? Toronto? the Kings?) to add a top-four defenceman at a reasonable price. Del Zotto might jump at an offer sheet like the one Niklas Hjalmarsson signed in 2010 (4 years, $14m) as he's clearly worth more than $2.5 million a year.

We are, of course, yet to see any finalized CBA details but under the previous deal, such an offer (if signed) would cost a first-, second- and third-round pick. Significant, yes, but if you're a playoff team (and we can assume Detroit certainly is), that's a late first-rounder. If you wanted to trade for Del Zotto, I doubt you could get him for those three picks. It would be a sensible move to make.

Even if the Rangers match the offer sheet, you can at least screw up the budget of a powerhouse rival. While that has less value to Detroit or LA, the Leafs might be happy to knock the Rangers down a notch. Recall the aftermath of the Hjalmarsson offer sheet: the Blackhawks couldn't fix their cap situation, so had to say goodbye to Antti Niemi and had to go with an unproven Corey Crawford, who has had mixed results since.

The team that might be most interested in screwing the Rangers, actually, might be the Penguins. The Pens have abundant cap space and could use another defender (though they would probably prefer more of a shutdown guy), as their third pairing going into camp looks to be Ben Lovejoy and Derek Engelland. Their depth beyond that isn't substantial if there's an injury.

GMs may be gun-shy about dropping an offer sheet at this stage of the season, but this is one of those situations where it may be fully warranted. The Rangers, meanwhile, would do well to stop dithering around and meet Del Zotto's demands before it's too late.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Brian Burke: Autonomy doesn't mean No Accountability

Brian Burke didn't have to make excuses. Explaining himself would've been enough.

According to James Mirtle's excellent Globe and Mail write-up this morning on the Burke firing, MLSE's new bosses found Burke "difficult to work with" as soon as they met him. They wanted to know about the team's direction; they wanted to know why they should trust him after the Leafs had done nothing but lose during his tenure.

Burke could have explained that. A lot of people could. The cupboard was bare when he arrived: from 2003 to 2007, the Leafs had two first-round picks; the other three were traded away. The two picks that were kept were used to get Tuukka Rask and Jiri Tlusty; Burke's predecessor, John Ferguson Jr., let Rask go in a trade to get Andrew Raycroft, who had been a pretty mediocre OHL and AHL goalie before having a great rookie year in Boston.

Yet Burke did himself in by refusing to account to the MLSE board. I had the chance to hear Burke speak this time last year while the Leafs were visiting Vancouver. Burke talked about the importance of autonomy. He needed to be the one driving the bus - no meddling from above. He had seen the problems the Leafs had had before his arrival and didn't want the higher-ups meddling with hockey decisions.

In this conviction, Burke was right. He knew team-building better than an executive board. Happily for him, the bosses agreed. Burke would have final authority on all hockey decisions. It was the right way to run the team, given his wealth of experience.

Yet Burke forgot that autonomy doesn't mean that there is no accountability. He reacted brusquely when questioned by media on his decisions; he refused to explain himself but was more than happy to explain how hard his job was. According to the accounts coming out the last few days, he had a similar approach to the MLSE board. Despite the fact that he could have explained his decisions, he saw the questions from above as intrusive.

Burke had insisted that the team was capable of making the playoffs in the near term, despite the fact that its core players were past their prime and the youngsters were nothing to write home about. Burke stuck to his guns.

Burke made moves to add pieces to the team; in need of first-line scoring, he traded two first-round picks and a second-rounder for Phil Kessel, who delivered as promised, scoring 30 goals every year since his arrival. Last season, he scored 37 goals and 82 points overall, sixth-best in the NHL. Yet despite Kessel's success, the trade has been seen as a failure for Burke: the Bruins used the picks to get future stars Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.

Yet at the time the trade was made, it seemed more like an acceptable risk. The picks weren't expected to be high in the first round; the Leafs expected to make the playoffs and so the pick used to get Seguin wasn't going to be a second-overall; it was going to be a 20th overall. The Hamilton pick was supposed to be similarly late. A surprise collapse by the Leafs in 2009-10 caused the trade to go bad, not bad judgment by Burke.

Analysis of the Kessel trade at the time was favourable to Burke - it seemed like a reasonable risk to take. We shouldn't confuse the outcome with the decision: at the time, no one foresaw how valuable the picks would turn out to be. It's not fair to blame Burke with revisionist history.

And then there were injuries. Burke continued to build rosters that, on paper, had a shot at the playoffs. He started the 2011-12 season counting on James Reimer to backstop a winning team, but then Reimer got concussed. The team again missed the playoffs, though perhaps Burke could have done more to replace his goaltender and make a playoff push, or could have cleared the lineup for the first-round picks that were supposedly on offer via trade. Instead, Burke chose the middle route: stay the course, and build around the current group.

Burke could have explained all these things to his MLSE overlords. The Kessel trade, the Reimer injury - most people understand these events as containing a lot more luck than they do bad judgment on Burke's part. Yet Burke felt no need to account to anyone, because he needed to be autonomous.

I find it hard to blame Burke: he has had a lot of success as a GM in his career and shouldn't have to take a lot of the abuse he gets. He might've done well to insulate himself with someone in the 'Team President' role - the role Paul Godfrey played for a long time with the Blue Jays. The man who is best at making the hockey decisions might not be the best person to answer the questions from the corporate guys. Godfrey took on the role of translator and mediator in his role; Burke and the Leafs needed someone to do the same. Perhaps this whole mess could have been avoided if they had the foresight to do that, to have someone to stick up for Burke without disenchanting the Board.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why the Vancouver Canucks need a 'Team Mom' (seriously)

Deadspin put out an article today profiling the mess that was Tyler Seguin's bachelor apartment while he was in Germany for the lockout. Needless to say, it wasn't pretty:
"Coca-cola bottles, garbage and dirty linen lay scattered across the floor, while rotten bananas were left on a table...Blick said the hockey player was "not versed in appliances" and as a result tried to wash his clothes in the dryer.
"He also did not know how to operate the dishwasher . . . when he ran out of clean plates, glasses and cutlery, he bought plastic tableware."
Disgusting, yes - but we shouldn't be too hard on Seguin. He's 20 years old, and frankly, sounds like a lot of roommates I've had. When I was an undergraduate at UBC, I had a roommate who left - I kid you not - a full glass of milk on his desk over the winter holidays. His bedroom door was locked for that time, and when he came back, some mutated science experiment was waiting for him when he opened the door. I had been suspecting something worse, given the smell of lactic death emanating from the room, but yeah, newsflash: young men are slobs. Some are worse than others.

This creates a host of problems. One, they're going to get sick. Having rotting food strewn about your living space and dirty laundry piling up invites all manner of germs to attack the people that live in these places.

If you're paying these guys multi-millions, would it kill you to spend a few bucks on helping them around the house? We've seen the Canucks smartly giving players access to a 'team chef', who provides players with take-home meals with real nutrition. There's room to expand on this concept, by setting up a full-on service that does housecleaning, laundry, even grocery shopping for the players. This could be the sort of thing that the team could provide as an added benefit that might elude cap-circumvention scrutiny. The 'Team Mom' could also provide a little coaching on household skills, too.

In-house moms are common in college fraternities; they help to ease the transition from living at home to moving out, which is a drastic change for a young male. Given that many young hockey players live like frat boys, they could really benefit from a little help around the house. Anything a team can do to keep the players healthy, fresh, and happy will help on the ice and will make Vancouver an even more attractive destination for free agents. This strikes me as the sort of thing that could provide a useful payoff.

Follow Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter:

Monday, January 7, 2013

One more way Tim Raines is underrated

It's no secret that Tim Raines is a baseball stathead favourite. He gets a lot of ink for being underrated, which he is. His OBP and stolen base % made him one of the finest leadoff men of all time, but he had only modest power and didn't drive in many runs in an era where RBI was valued perhaps above all else. Unlike many other top leadoff men, Raines only had 2605 career hits and fell short in most other counting stats. He had a lot of good seasons but never hit 20 homers, and never put up more than 71 RBI.

We've since seen past all that, noting his career .385 OBP and consistent production into his late 30s that made him an always-valuable leadoff man.

But there's one more thing we've missed: Raines' career numbers suffer considerably because he was used mostly as a leadoff man. No, I'm not talking about his RBI totals; those obviously would have been higher.

Like just about every hitter in history, Raines' numbers were better with men on base than with the bases empty:

Bases Empty 6358 0.289 0.369 0.424
Runners on 4001 0.301 0.411 0.427
Raines came to bat with men on base only 38.6% of the time.

Let's compare Tim with another recent inductee, Jim Rice.

Bases Empty 4429 0.291 0.344 0.495
Runners on 4629 0.305 0.359 0.509

Like Raines (and most players), Rice sees a nice boost in his numbers with men on base. There's a number of things at work there. Both players got a decent number of intentional walks (148 for Raines, 77 for Rice) with men on base; neither player was ever intentionally walked with the bases empty. This boosts OBP (about 3.7 points for Raines; 1.7 points for Rice).

There's also sacrifice flies: 76 for Raines, 94 for Rice. With the bases empty, a fly out hits your average, OBP and SLG. When it scores a runner on third, your OBP falls, but not your average or SLG. If sac flies were scored as outs, both Raines and Rice would lose 7 points of average and SLG with men on.

What's different, though? Rice had men on base for 51.1% of his career plate appearances. That's a clear advantage over a leadoff hitter like Raines. Though Rice certainly faced pressure to succeed with men on base, it's a more statistically favourable situation for any major-league hitter. You're going to get more walks and your average and SLG will be protected by sacrifice flies that don't count against you. What's more, you have all the benefits of a pitcher under pressure who is distracted by the men on base, and will probably have to throw you more fastballs.

Here's an experiment: what if Raines had batted more often with men on base? What if he had been used as a middle-order hitter?

Rice's 51.1% of plate appearances with men on base is a high number - typical middle-order guys see more like 48%. Here's a totally non-random sample:

  Bases Empty Runners On % w/ men on
Jim Thome 5347   4966               48.2%
Albert Pujols 4162 3941 48.6%
Carlos Delgado 4430 4227 48.8%
Vernon Wells 3597 3157 46.7%
Bobby Abreu 5301 4625 46.6%

So let's imagine what would happen if Tim Raines had come to bat with men on 48% of the time rather than 38.6%.

Bases Empty
0.289 0.369 0.424
Runners on
0.301 0.411 0.427

Career Total (38.6%) 0.294 0.385 0.425
Career Total (48%) 0.295 0.389 0.425

I know, it doesn't look like much. One measly point of batting average? Four points of OBP? What's that worth?

A lot, in fact. Over a 10000 plate-appearance career, that's worth an extra 41 walks and 41 fewer outs; which is worth 24.6 offensive runs - and about 2.5 extra WAR. No, it's not earth-shattering, but it means Raines would be valued at 68.7 career WAR rather than the 66.2 Baseball-Reference has him at.

That would move Raines up 12 spots on the all-time WAR leaderboard to #85, leapfrogging guys like Reggie Jackson, Johnny Mize, Jim Thome, and Barry Larkin. It doesn't make him inner-circle; but it does help to cement him as a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Raines is typical in this regard. By playing most of his career as a leadoff hitter, his rate stats will underrate him because he took tougher at-bats than middle-order guys. He's not alone: the numbers turn out the same for other leadoff men like Biggio, and basically every modern leadoff man (except Juan Pierre, but that's for another article). OBP is much harder to come by when the bases are empty, and the guys that are tasked with the job - are being underrated for more than just a lack of RBIs.

Follow Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Some quick NHL pensions math

Lots of talk today about a pensions issue that is holding up NHL-NHLPA CBA negotiations. To many on twitter, it seems like this sounds like small pototaoes. It's not. Here's why:

Let's say you run a business with 700 employees. As part of their compensation, you've agreed to set up a pension plan for them.

For the sake of keeping things simple, let's assume the following:

Every single employee will earn $45,000/year in pension starting at age 65.
Every one of those employees will collect that pension until he dies, which will magically be age 80 for all of them.

The contributions to fund the plan come out of the employee's salary until age 35 - so there's a 30 year gap between his 'stop-funding' date and his age 65 pension payout date.

The money paid in until age 35 will grow, thanks to compound interest, such that there is enough money to pay the full pension benefit when the employee is 65.

How much will it grow? It depends on the interest rate the pension plan gets on its investments. Let's say the plan earns a steady interest rate of 5% for the 30 years between ages 35 and 65.

(1.05)^30 = 4.32

So the money paid in will quadruple in that time. If the total paid out per employee is $45k/year * 15 years (again, i'm really fudging numbers here, and cutting actuarial corners for sake of simplicity), the fund will need to pay out $675,000 per employee. A fund worth about $500,000 per employee at age 65 will grow enough in the retirement years (again, at 5%) to meet those obligations.

Here's the problem: what if the plan doesn't grow at 5%? What if it grows at 4%?

(1.04)^30 = 3.24

So with the same initial contribution, you don't have $500k in the plan per employee; you have $375k per employee. Your plan is short by $125,000 per employee - that's $87.5 million for the 700 total employees.

You can see the big risks created by the uncertainty of interest rates. What if the economy continues to stagnate? What if the pension plan makes some bad investments?

Pension plans run into this sort of trouble with alarming frequency. In good scenarios, such failures are backstopped by the company behind the plan (which may be what the NHLPA is asking the NHL to do). In other scenarios, the plan is protected by a large insurer or by purchase of derivatives, but this can be very expensive to cover for such distant future events...or, the plan members suck it up and get 75 cents on the dollar, or whatever it is they end up with.

Who are we to say, though, where the NHL will be in 30 years? Maybe interest in the sport will fade, or a rival league will take over, or the sport will become less profitable, and so on. Maybe massive concussion lawsuits from former players will destroy the league...who knows.

The players, earlier in negotiations, agreed to put up $50 million of the make-whole money towards the pension-shortfall backstop - but that doesn't cover all potential risks. The $87.5m figure I quoted above is from just a 1% shortfall; what if it's 2 or 3%? I only counted 700 pension plan members - granted, all of those 700 will be receiving full pension under my model (in reality, I believe NHLers with short careers get a fraction of the full pension), but what if it's a 10-year CBA and hundreds more players are affected by a shortfall? The potential liabilities are huge.

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