West Of Fenway Working Theories

The things I think about sports – subject to change over time or on a whim. These will be confirmed or retracted with “proofs” as they present themselves over time.

Working Theories On Sports

Working Theory No. 1: Win The Offseason, Lose The Regular Season

Someday, when I get the time, I’m going to do this study for real. Analyze every MLB offseason for the previous 10 years, rank the teams based on spending and the overall splashy-ness of their moves and then compare those numbers with their finish in the standings the following season … and even the season after,  for that matter.

Bottom line, it never seems to work. Go out and get the biggest names — spend the next three years floundering in standings obscurity.

Working Theory No 2.: “… But We Led The League In Everything …”

or, “Relative Stats Are More Important Than Stat Rankings.”

This is true at every level in every sport, but most easy to process in championship games or series with a full season’s worth of data to work with.

Relative stats? It’s the (somewhat painstaking) idea that a team’s statistics don’t matter as much as what those stats look like when you place them against what every other team was able to do against the same opponents.

The idea sprung out of the annual love fest for the defensive prowess of schools in the Southeastern Conference, when the offenses of the same schools were clearly not on par with the top offenses around the country. When Alabama and LSU would meet up in drawn-out defensive slugfests where the punters would suddenly emerge as the most significant figures in the game, it tended to be trumpeted as old-school, throwback football — and almost never analyzed as simply sub-par offensive displays.

My question became, how did the non-SEC defenses perform on average against the largely woeful SEC offenses? Obviously, SEC defenses are good. But, rarely, does one see an SEC offense shine against another power conference defense.

A definitive answer to such questions can be found in relative statistics.

Continuing with football for example, take a given team’s per-game passing offense. Then take each opponents’ per-game passing defense. Let’s just arbitrarily say State University averages 300 yards passing per game. Pretty good, right?  But what if they played against terrible pass defenses? Or even average pass defenses? Say, the combined average pass defense of their opponents was 280 yards per game.  That tells me State University was an average of 20 yards better per game passing than every other school that played the schools State played during the season.

Now, let’s say State has a big bowl game coming up against Tech University. Tech averaged 200  yards pass defense per game against a slate of opponents that averaged a combined 280 yards of passing offense per game. So, in effect, Tech was 80 yards better defending the pass than the average opponent facing the same schools.

So, while some might look at State’s 300 yards passing offense, and Tech’s 200 yards passing defense and figure they’d split the 100-yard difference somewhere around 250, my approach generally is to say Tech would hold a 60-yard edge in the category, shaving State’s projection to 240 passing yards in the matchup.

Now, for the one category, that works out to be somewhat inconsequential. But when you evaluate passing and rushing for both teams on both sides of the ball, the overall picture becomes clearer.

The adjusted values provide an inelegant, though surprisingly effective, predictor of how a given matchup would play out in real life. It takes the on-field performance of the teams in question and holds it accountable with a built-in, quantifiable strength-of-schedule variable.  It’s the process, especially applicable in college football, of taking a bunch of apples and oranges and making them all grapes — as closely as possible.

I’ve used it in the past several College Football National Championship Games and, if not for a heck of a call from Nick Saban on an onside kick in the 2015-16 national title game, been fairly successful.


Working Theory No. 3: You won’t win the national title, but at least you’ll look great while you’re losing it

The ‘kids these days’ might like the neon socks, chrome-y helmets and 40 costume changes, but at the end of the day, the program that makes this a foundational block has to come to terms with the idea that their recruits are making decisions based on the flashy clothes they get to wear. 

Unavoidable fact:   Every single national college football champion since the berth of the BCS era wore the same helmet design they were wearing at least 23 years  prior to winning their title. And, for whatever it is worth, all except Florida State (’99 & ’14) and Miami (’01) wore traditional block numerals and lettering on their jerseys.



Working Theory No. 4: Sign The Ace, Lose The Race

A theoretical question, though it really should be a practical one: Why do MLB clubs overwhelmingly focus their resources on acquiring a pitcher who, at best – in the astronomically  unlikely event he makes every start for a full season and wins every start for a full season – will win 33 games and leave his club needing 50 more wins to even get within a stone’s throw of the postseason?

Somehow, the ace in baseball has become equivalent in market value to the quarterback in football. There is a big difference there. A quarterback has a hand in half of your total plays during a season. Every single offensive snap.

What would his value be if he shared that responsibility with four other players? That’d be roughly 3 or 4 starts during the season. And that’s not even considering the potential for relief quarterbacks.

Silly, right?

Aces are not quarterbacks.

The idea of the “Stopper” — the guy you can count on to bring home a ‘W’ every five days —  sounds great. But it’s just an idea, popularized through repetition.

The statistics of the game are the actual “Stopper,” and they don’t cost anything in and of themselves.

The inherent constructs of Major League Baseball  dictate that no matter what players and what pitchers you trot out there, you’ll win one out of every three games over the course of a season. The wins and losses might clump themselves together in different sizes, but the point holds as things average out through 162 games.

It’s a better clip than the ‘guaranteed win every five’  premium on the ace will bring you. Even the 1962 New York Mets, the worst team of the last 100 years, won one out of every four of its games.

To do it right, you have to build on those probabilities, and not on hiring outside talent.

When you look at baseball’s current elite — San Francisco, Kansas City & St. Louis — and the up-and-comers such as Pittsburgh, the Mets and Houston, they build the front of their rotation through the farm system and subsidize the No. 3, 4 and 5 spots with value signings or the trade market.

The shift in recent years toward focusing spending on the bullpen (and not necessarily on closers) is the right one.

The bullpen guys –  the guys you see every other day or so – they mean a lot more to the fabric of a regular season. They build the bridges to those wins. For the moment at least, they’re also a better deal.

I don’t exhale during the MLB offseason until the last “ace” has exited the market. They’re great to watch. There’s no questioning their ability. I’d just rather see another team pay their salary.

Working Theory No. 5: Defense Wins Championships, But You’re Going To Hate Watching It Happen

The thing about watching an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object is that at some point you realize you’ve been staring at a pair of brick walls leaning on each other for the past three hours.

That’s not sports.

It’s masonry.

That being said, I always – always – lean on the stouter defense (see above: relative stats, not stat rankings) in determining who wins title games. And it is almost always – always – correct.