For example, of the 24 wild-card-round veterans who made it to the conference championships since 1994, eight have gone on to win the Super Bowl (including seven of 20 who faced a top-2 seed in every round). For a road team, having a 1-3 chance of winning the Super Bowl with two games to go is ridiculous: Road teams in the playoffs normally have only about a 1-3 chance of winning their next game.After two solid victories against strong teams (beating the Cincinnati Bengals — a fellow five-loss team — and the heavily favored Peyton-Manning-led Broncos in Denver, each by double digits), the Colts’ stats suddenly look a lot better than they did when they were getting thrashed by the Dallas Cowboys a few weeks ago.You can see how those wins have changed the Colts’ fortunes in the chart below. I plotted winning efficiency vs. scoring efficiency — generally the two main modes of statistical analysis in football.3Using expected wins added per game from offense and defense (similar to “WPA,” calculated using ESPN’s expected win percentage model) against the net expected points per drive (from “EPA” of offense and defense). I’ve then compared where each playoff team stood at the start of the playoffs to where they stand now (upper right is better):As you can see, the Colts have made the biggest positive move by a long shot. This is what the “trial by fire” phenomenon is all about: Since the Colts have taken the hardest road to get where they are, we’ve learned more about them.And what’s crazy is that this movement may underestimate what we’ve really learned. Unlike Elo ratings or SRS, these EPA and WPA metrics don’t account for strength of opponent (though ESPN’s model does account for playing on the road). It also treats the Colts’ playoff games as being just as important as their regular-season games, which empirically doesn’t seem to be the case (as I mentioned last week, we’re going on at least 20-plus years now where playoff games have been between two and five times as important as regular-season ones, depending on your assumptions).Of course, the other remaining playoff teams have won to get where they are as well. But think of it like this: If the chart underestimates each team’s movement, each arrow could be twice as long, and then we’d see a very different picture — the Colts might even leapfrog the Patriots. As it stands, the Colts have closed much of the gap between themselves and the favorites anyway, and may very well deserve to be right there with them.But are they good enough to win a Super Bowl? Here’s a plot of every team that had positive WPA and EPA stats entering the playoffs since 1994. I’ve marked Super Bowl winners in dark gray and present-year (eliminated) teams with empty circles:The Colts are well within “contender” range, and the teams ahead of them aren’t historically dominant.And the Green Bay Packers, tops in each metric, shouldn’t get complacent. Only three of 14 teams with better EPA have won championships, and two of 16 teams with higher WPA have won, and just one of the unlucky nine teams that were better on both axes won. Now, obviously the Packers are already into the third round of the playoffs, so we’d probably expect their chances to be a bit better than other teams in their neighborhood — but even accounting for that, a team of their strength at this stage hasn’t done any better than the average “trial by fire” team in the same spot.So things are looking up for Luck and crew: They’re a stronger-than-normal wild-card-round veteran playing against slightly weaker-than-normal dominant teams. Great.And now for the bad newsThe bad news is that the Colts have to play the Patriots, who eliminated them from the playoffs in last year’s divisional round, 43-22, and then dropped another 40 points on the Colts in their 42-20 Week 11 victory in Indianapolis (to add insult, the Colts were also coming off of a bye).So in the past year, in one home and one away game, the Patriots have won twice and outscored the Colts 85-42.But does this matter? Figuring out just how predictive “prequel” games can be (relative to other metrics) is a surprisingly thorny issue. Here are a few of the difficulties:The home team in the playoffs generally has the better record or holds tiebreakers against a team it has already played. This means it’s more likely to have won any regular-season matchup.We know that home-field advantage in the playoffs is generally stronger than it is in the regular season, and a big part of that is due to the fact that stronger teams tend to host playoff games. But part of the effect may also be because a team that can regularly beat another team it plays will also be more likely to play that team in the playoffs at home.Because of the aforementioned “trial by fire” effect, away teams in later rounds of the playoffs may be stronger than we would expect. This may actually mean that the home-field effect is stronger than it appears — such as if the home team won a regular amount of the time against teams that were stronger than average.The Super Bowl is weird. Again perhaps partly because of “trial by fire,” teams that lost to their Super Bowl opponents in the regular season actually have a winning record in the championship game. The possible causal link here4This is only 13 Super Bowls, and so, speculative.: A team that won the matchup in the regular season is more likely to have the easier road to get to the rematch.I tried to run some regressions, but because there are so many distinct scenarios that are very different from each other, the samples are too small to detect persistent trends, much less statistically significant ones.That said, there are a few things that we can probably extrapolate — at least as being supported by the data, if not proved by it — from looking at the equivalent scenarios. So let’s start with teams that played each other twice in the regular season vs. teams that didn’t play each other at all:Cases where the home team in the playoffs lost both regular-season games are too rare to give them any weight (though they do favor the regular-season victor). The most salient point is that playoff home teams that beat their opponents twice (as opposed to just once) in the regular season win about 9 percentage points more often (68.8 percent vs. 59.5 percent). This also doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the relative strength of the teams, because the sweeping teams have had a lower difference in margin of victory.5Why don’t teams that beat their opponents twice win more often than teams that haven’t played their opponent at all? I don’t know — perhaps some of the reasons above, or maybe there’s truth to the idea that divisional rivalries are different. In the baseline category — a game between teams that never played in the regular season — the home team has won in the playoffs 68 percent of the time.This suggests that matchups matter, at least in cases where a team goes 2/2 against their opponents. But what about cases where they only played one game? These have the added wrinkle that someone (almost always) had home-field advantage in that game. So the scenarios look like this:The differences here are smaller — as we would expect, and they comport pretty closely with the relative overall strengths of the teams in question — though there’s still some causal complexity (a single road win vs. a home loss can pretty much account for the observed difference in strength). You can contemplate the road/home performance and its relationship to margin of victory in the playoffs and ensuing results all day (I’ve spun my head around it plenty). But the bottom line is that playoff home teams that won their regular-season matchups against their playoff opponents on the road have won close to 75 percent of the time in the playoffs — the highest of any of these scenarios.tl;dr: The Patriots beat the Colts 42-20 in Indianapolis this year. That’s not good news for Indianapolis.But I’ll offer the same point I made about Carolina last week: While the situation looks bad, it will be especially meaningful if the Colts manage to win. If they pull off the upset against New England, not only will they have taken out the top two seeds in the AFC on the road to the Super Bowl, but they’ll have done it by avenging two losses from earlier in the year.Charts by Reuben Fischer-Baum. The NFL is down to its final four Super Bowl contenders, and it’s quite a group. All of them are division winners, and each has 13 wins on the ledger. Picking a favorite is tricky. The New England Patriots are a tempting choice, having led the NFL in SRS (“Simple Rating System,” or margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule), as well as having been one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history. Yet the other three teams have all won championships more recently. The AFC championship game features an old rivalry with a new face. And the NFC championship arguably features the league’s best offense against the league’s best defense. So, you know, this weekend should be boring.According to bookmakers, the weakest of these teams — by a healthy margin — is the Indianapolis Colts. Futures markets give them about 15-2 odds to win it all. After accounting for house advantage, that implies that gamblers thinks the Colts have about a 10 percent chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 1.It’s fitting that the biggest underdogs left in the playoffs are led by Andrew Luck — the Hacker Gods’ vicar on Earth — who seems to be on a mission to prove that you have to be willing to lose to win.Last week, Luck even made the interceptions he threw while in the lead (normally a big no-no) look good, throwing deep on third-and-longs — 43 yards downfield on third-and-12 in the second quarter, and then 37 yards downfield on third-and-13 in the third. No one throws deep interceptions quite like Luck, and after he casually shrugged them off on Sunday, even old-guard commentators noted how downfield interceptions are really just like punts.1But with more upside!Whether Luck’s relentless approach will translate into playoff glory remains to be seen. But in the meantime, there’s good news and bad news for the Colts.The good newsThe Colts have faced the toughest road of the teams left standing. Last week in this column, I examined the “trial by fire” effect in the NFL playoffs — the phenomenon by which wild-card-round veterans appear to get stronger and stronger the deeper they go into the playoffs.2Note, this doesn’t mean they are actually getting stronger; it means that only the strongest of them survive the trials.
LeBron James won a championship and nothing changed.Sure, there were a few events. The obligatory champagne shower at his stall in the Miami Heat locker room. The parade before an estimated 400,000 fans. A pep rally at his high school. And Tuesday night brings the ultimate capper, the ring-and-banner ceremony just minutes before the start of a new season.Then it begins again, another year, another quest for a title.Having one title is not completely satisfying for James, who put the he-can’t-win notion to rest when the Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games for last season’s NBA crown. It was a perfect run for the perennial All-Star: Besides getting engaged and winning his second Olympic gold, James walked away with the NBA’s three most coveted trophies: MVP, Finals MVP and the championship.For an encore, he wants more.“I want to be the best of all-time,” James said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s that simple.”He expressed similar sentiment last year, and the year before that, and probably all the way back to high school in Akron, Ohio. He always wondered if a championship would change that perspective.He now has his answer.“Not really, honestly,” James said. “I haven’t had much time to really just think about what actually happened. At the end of the day, there’s still going to be people that say, well, he’s not going to be able to win two. He’s not going to be able to do it again.”Time will tell.At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds and blessed with a speed-and-strength combination — “he’s a freak,” Detroit coach Lawrence Frank said — James is widely considered the best player in the game today. He has won three MVP awards and some opposing coaches say he might keep winning those until voters get tired of selecting him.But the best of all time, that title will obviously take some work.Read the rest of this story on the Bostonherald.com
Throughout the tennis pro’s year, Ohanian has been her biggest supporter, frequently posting messages of support online. When Williams tied Steffi Graff’s Grand Slam record at Wimbledon this past summer, Ohanian shared how proud he was on Instagram. Ohanian, 33, also commented on the Reddit post, which was accompanied by a graphic showing the proposal. He wrote, “And you made me the happiest man on the planet.” Additionally, he confirmed the news on his Facebook page by sharing his fiancée’s post and commenting, “She said yes.”The newly engaged couple, who began dating in Oct. 2015, are notoriously private, but Williams has occasionally mentioned Ohanian on social media. Most recently, the Olympian shared an image of the couple in costume on Nov. 28. Serena Wiliams and Alexis Ohanian (@serenawilliams Instagram/@alexisohanian Twitter)Tennis star Serena Williams is engaged to her boyfriend of a year, Alexis Ohanian. The 22-time Grand Slam champion announced the news on her official Reddit page, marking a very public showing for the very private couple.Williams, 35, detailed the story on Thursday, Dec. 29, explaining that she and the Reddit co-founder took a trip to Rome, where they first met.
FASTBALL VELOCITY (MPH) Luis SeverinoNYY97.798.0+0.3🔥 PITCHERTEAMAVERAGELAST FIVE FASTBALLSDIFF.PREDICTED STREAK Who’s hot and who’s not as the playoffs beginAmong expected playoff starters, predictions of five hot and five cold streaks based on how each pitcher finished his last start John LackeyCHC91.492.7+1.3🔥 Most hurlers tend to lose velocity in October, whether because of colder temperatures or just the accumulated fatigue of six months of throwing baseballs.7We didn’t have pitch classifications for the postseason, so we compared the velocities of pitches in the 99th percentile for speed in both the postseason and regular season. All pitchers lost an average of 0.29 mph per fastball in the postseason. But a starter who finishes his last game hot tends to see his fastball drop by 0.55 mph less than one who ends the year on a cold streak. Over the last three seasons, there has been a significant correlation between a pitcher’s streak at the end of the regular season and his October velocity loss.8The correlation was 0.25, with a p-value of 0.02.The list of pitchers who were running hot going into the postseason reads like a who’s who of great recent playoff performances. The aforementioned Bumgarner makes two appearances, once in 2016 and again just before his overpowering 2014 run. Last year’s Kluber performance was there, alongside somewhat unexpected performances like the 2015 Blue Jays’ Marco Estrada and 2014 Cardinals’ Lance Lynn.And just as the hot starters often excelled, the cold ones often flopped. Nobody expected Clayton Kershaw to get shelled in the 2016 postseason, but sure enough, his fastball velocity had dropped enough to trigger a cold streak just before October. The same goes for other aces who underperformed in the postseason, like James Shields in 2014. (You may have forgotten, but Shields was actually good back then.)This year, there’s no shortage of starters riding hot streaks into the playoffs.9An important caveat is that pitch-tracking technologies that MLB uses switched from Pitchf/x to Statcast this year, so the results from the last three years may not match up as well with what happens this season. In fact, the Cubs (John Lackey), Yankees (Luis Severino), Red Sox (Chris Sale) and Astros (Dallas Keuchel) all enter the playoffs with a pitcher boasting higher than average velocities — and each one of these guys has the potential to take over a series. Rich HillLAD89.388.5-0.7❄️ One team does stand to lose more than any other, and that’s the Dodgers. With Kershaw and Rich Hill both on cold streaks, two of L.A.’s best starters might struggle this October.10The Dodgers’ Alex Wood is also on a cold streak, but it’s less clear whether he will make the playoff rotation. Kershaw’s struggles are nothing new, but the persistent loss of velocity he seems to have experienced each of the last three years suggests that he’s not a choker — he’s probably just tired.To measure the possible impact of these streaks in the upcoming playoffs, we re-ran FiveThirtyEight’s Elo-based prediction system for the last three years’ regular seasons, adding the hotness of each pitcher in a matchup to the analysis. Across 1,621 games, when one starting pitcher was hot and his opponent was cold, his team was eight percent more likely to win the game than it would be if both pitchers were hot or both were cold, which is roughly twice the benefit of having home field advantage compared to playing at a neutral site. If two otherwise evenly matched teams go head-to-head and one has a hot starter and one has a cold one, the hot starter’s team will win at about the same clip as the 2017 Red Sox did.Of course, knowing that a pitcher is hot isn’t a secret sauce for predicting the playoffs. October is so random that an ice-cold hurler could muddle his way to victory, and all it takes is one misplaced pitch to turn an ace’s fiery start into a blowout. For example, last year, every pitcher in the Chicago Cubs’ rotation entered the playoffs in cold mode and throwing more softly than normal. That didn’t stop the Cubs from claiming the title, although it was arguably a little more difficult than the projections expected. So although the Dodgers have some reason to worry, they might still be able to claim the trophy.CORRECTION (Oct. 2, 8:10 p.m.): A previous version of the table in this article reversed the numbers in two columns — average fastball velocity and velocity of last five fastballs — for Kyle Hendricks and Drew Pomeranz. The table has been updated. Ervin SantanaMIN93.392.8-0.5❄️ Kyle HendricksCHC86.487.2+0.8🔥 Source: PitchInfo Almost every year, one or two pitchers seem to take over October and almost single-handedly spur their teams to victory. In 2014, Giants starter Madison Bumgarner capped one of the best postseason performances in history with an unforgettable World Series Game 7 relief appearance. Last year, the Indians’ Corey Kluber led the way, allowing only seven runs across more than 34 innings.A few weeks ago, we showed that hot streaks like these can arise from pitchers throwing harder than normal. Add a couple ticks to an ace’s fastball, and he can go from normal, everyday excellence to almost superhuman levels of greatness. But the effect goes beyond mere velocity: Hot streaks can tell us when to expect a significant boost to a pitcher’s entire statistical profile, which can come in especially handy during the notorious crapshoot that is the MLB postseason.A lack of reliable metrics stymied many previous efforts to study the hot hand in baseball. Noisy measures of performance like ERA and on-base percentage can have just as much to do with the team a pitcher is facing or the fielders behind him as they do with his innate talent. By zeroing in on the one thing a pitcher has absolute control over — his fastball velocity — we could see when he was running hot or cold.Although throwing harder is almost always a boon for pitchers, it’s less important than getting outs. To show that hot streaks matter for more than just radar guns, we gathered the predicted stat line for each start that a pitcher made after June in 2016 (according to the Steamer projection system).1Provided to us courtesy of Rudy Gamble of Razzball. The projections gave us a pitcher’s expected performance in each game, adjusted for opponent, park and home-field advantage. We compared the pitcher’s actual performance to the pitcher’s projected performance. Then we ran an algorithm analyzing every start in the season preceding the start in question, to see whether a pitcher’s hot or cold streak predicted whether he would overperform his projection in the next game.2As in our last article, we analyzed only pitchers who threw at least 800 fastballs in a season. To minimize overfitting, we ran the model for the first two months of the 2016 season and then used the Viterbi algorithm to predict starts beginning in June. (We considered a pitcher hot if the last five fastballs of their previous start were hot and cold if their last five pitches were cold.)3We also tried looking at the last 10 and 20 pitches of the previous start, and we obtained similar results with those methods.Across a wide variety of measures, a pitcher who’s on fire at the end of one start seems to do better than expected in the next. Compared with a cold pitcher, a hot one strikes out 0.39 more batters than predicted per start, while allowing 0.1 fewer walks plus hits per inning pitched. Add it all up, and one pitcher can perform 1.02 earned runs per nine innings better than expected depending on whether he’s fiery or frigid.4After making a Bonferroni adjustment, we found the differences in strikeouts and ERA are significant at the standard 0.05 level (with adjusted p-values of 0.003 and 0.044), while the differences in WHIP are significant at the less stringent 0.10 level (with an adjusted p-value of 0.099).Although we detected hot streaks using fastball velocity, the performance boost doesn’t seem to be solely the result of speedier pitches. For example, when pitchers’ cutters are preceded by a hot pitch, they tend to have more lateral movement. Curveballs drop further, and sliders cut more across the zone. Since breaking balls that move further tend to get more swinging strikes, a hot pitcher’s entire arsenal takes a step forward. And the boost in speed and amount of break doesn’t seem to come at the expense of command, because hot pitchers are more likely to get called strikes than expected.5According to a binomial logistic regression, which used game location, pitcher, catcher, the count, pitcher handedness, pitch position in the strike zone and velocity as predictors.A pitcher’s ups and downs become even more important in October. A 1.02-run drop in a couple of starters’ ERAs can mean the difference between an early wild card exit and making the World Series. And fortunately for playoff-bound aces, when we looked at the last three postseasons’ worth of data,62014-2016 we found that a pitcher who ends the regular season hot is likely to carry that momentum into the playoffs. Max ScherzerWAS94.392.2-2.1❄️ Drew PomeranzBOS91.288.1-3.1❄️ ⋮ Clayton KershawLAD93.192.2-0.9❄️ Chris SaleBOS95.097.7+2.7🔥 Dallas KeuchelHOU88.090.2+2.1🔥
*Includes more than one stint as manager.Source: Baseball Gauge MLB’s 2017 class of departing managers is unusually good On the flip side, there have been 22 Yankee managers since 1903 that lasted fewer than four seasons — some across multiple tenures. And it’s not like these were all losers: Of those 22, 13 managers posted records of .500 or better. Girardi ranked only sixth in manager points among Yankee skippers — behind everyone else who managed 10+ years — but was poised to add to his total considering the franchise’s position.The future looks bright for New York. Between the emerging youngsters, a promising farm system and the capacity to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, the Yankees are on track to contend for years to come. It’s hard to say how much of their success in the past decade belongs to Girardi, but all the available metrics suggest he was an above-average skipper. Now the Yankees will need to find someone else to preside over their bright future, and it may not be as easy as management thinks.Neil Paine contributed research.CLARIFICATION (Oct. 26, 2017, 4:30 p.m.): The source of our data for managers’ postseason success, The Baseball Gauge, credits managers with a World Series win even if they managed only part of the season in question. The story has been updated to clarify Billy Martin’s relationship with the 1978 Yankees, who won the World Series that year.CORRECTION (Oct. 27, 2017, 4:20 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly said Joe Girardi chose to not review a pivotal call in the ALCS. The play in question occurred in the ALDS. 1197162.6 41973111.6 9200061.2 Joe McCarthy1931-46 (16 yrs.).62787107.3 YEARMANAGERS LET GOAVG. MANAGER POINTS THAT YEAR 62011111.5 10199871.1 8199761.2 Source: Baseball Gauge 3201361.7 5200671.6 71978111.3 Yankee skippers have lofty standardsHow the 10 longest-tenured New York managers compare Miller Huggins1918-29 (12).5976370.3 MANAGERTENUREWIN %ALWSTOTAL MANAGER PTS Joe Girardi2008-17 (10).5621139.0 This year has featured an unusual level of managerial turnover. Nationals skipper Dusty Baker and Red Sox head John Farrell were also fired despite leading their teams to the playoffs. Using manager points, a Baseball Gauge metric that sums up record and playoff benchmarks, this group of managers qualifies as the second most accomplished set of unemployed skippers since 1969.1These numbers do not prorate regular season performance or postseason accomplishment for managers fired midseason. And according to Elias Sports, this is the first time three playoff teams switched managers in the same offseason — which is remarkable considering the offseason still hasn’t officially begun.Of the three unemployed skippers, Girardi might have been the best. He didn’t have the pitcher-destroying reputation of Dusty Baker or the tactical problems of John Farrell. Over 10 years as the Yankees’ manager, Girardi racked up 910 wins, earning a winning record each season. He was helped by massive budgets, but he also presided over multiple failed free agent contracts that landed the team in a cycle of rebuilding. This year, the Yankees seemed to be on their way to championship contention, and Girardi took them deep into the ALCS before losing to the Houston Astros.Girardi had his weaknesses. He inexplicably benched star catcher Gary Sanchez toward the end of the season. He made the unwise decision not to review a call in a pivotal game of this year’s ALDS, and it could have cost the Yankees dearly. But overall, Girardi was a good tactician: From his bullpen management to taking advantage of platoon splits, he often put his team in the best position to win.The other knock on Girardi was that he failed to develop young players. This season ought to have disproved that, however: With the emergence of Aaron Judge, Sanchez and Luis Severino, the Yankees have one of the best up-and-coming cores in baseball. By wins above replacement, the Yankees’ age-27-and-under hitters were the fourth most productive in baseball, and their young pitchers were second in the league.As strange as it may seem considering his win percentage, Joe Girardi was actually given a long leash by the standards of the Yankees brass. Six managers in Yankees history maintained their positions for 10 or more years,2Ralph Houk did it across two different stints. and all but Girardi won multiple championships in that time. (The Baseball Gauge credits Billy Martin with winning a World Series with the Yankees in 1978 even though he left the team midseason. He did manage the majority of that team’s games.) Clark Griffith1903-08 (6).531009.3 TITLES Joe Torre1996-2007 (12).6056494.1 2201762.0 Billy Martin1975-88 (8)*.5913235.8 Buck Showalter1992-95 (4).539008.3 After he brought the team to the brink of the World Series, manager Joe Girardi was let go by the Yankees on Thursday. Girardi’s tenure included a championship and 10 years in which the team was usually a playoff contender, but it wasn’t enough to save him from Yankees’ management and their exacting standards. In a postseason full of questionable firings, Girardi’s release will go down as one of the strangest. Casey Stengel1949-60 (12).623107106.1 Bob Lemon1978-82 (4)*.576218.6 Ralph Houk1961-73 (11)*.5393242.0
The field for the first-ever college football playoff was announced Sunday, and Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State have made it — leaving out TCU and Baylor.A quick reflection on the teams the committee chose in a moment; first, let’s look forward to the playoff. Here’s how ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) assesses the national championship odds:Oregon is ranked first in FPI, although just barely over Alabama. FPI also thinks the Ducks are helped slightly by getting to play No. 3 seed Florida State in the semifinals; it has Florida State rated below Alabama’s opponent, No. 4 Ohio State.There is no runaway favorite. Oregon has a 35 percent chance of becoming the national champion, according to FPI, with Alabama at 32 percent, Ohio State at 19 percent and Florida State at 14 percent.As for which teams made the field, one of the big things we were going to learn this weekend was how heavily the committee weighed its previous rankings when deciding on its final ones.Because the playoff committee is new, the FiveThirtyEight playoff model was based on a historical assessment of the Coaches Poll instead. In the Coaches Poll — and the AP poll — the rankings are quite “sticky” from week to week. Voters in those polls rarely engage in top-to-bottom reassessments of the field; instead, they’ll demote teams after they lose and sometimes move them up an extra position or two after a big win. Otherwise, they’re left in about the same order.Based on that assumption, Ohio State had a decent shot to make the playoff after its big win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. But the model had TCU favored to make the playoff because it had been ranked No. 3 by the committee entering the weekend. The model had No. 4 Florida State as the more vulnerable team instead, simply because it had been ranked lower by the committee to begin with and its win Saturday — it beat Georgia Tech 37-35 for the ACC championship — was the narrowest of anyone in the top six.Instead, Florida State moved up to No. 3. And TCU was overtaken not just by Ohio State and Florida State, but also by Baylor (which missed the playoff but was given the committee’s No. 5 ranking for posterity). What the committee did last week — promoting TCU into the No. 3 position ahead of Florida State — proved to be a head fake.In other words, the committee appears to engage in a more thorough reassessment of the teams with its final rankings. For better or worse, it’s more concerned about getting the “right” answer in the end than in being consistent from week to week.
FiveThirtyEight Welcome to the latest episode of Hot Takedown, FiveThirtyEight’s sports podcast. On this week’s show (Feb. 28, 2017), we’re joined by New York magazine’s Reeves Wiedeman, who dropped by to discuss his article on recent political activism by athletes. Next, Michael Caley of ESPN FC and “The Double Pivot” podcast helps us break down Claudio Ranieri’s firing from Leicester City — not even a full year after the soccer team’s Premier League title win. Finally, ESPN baseball writer Sam Miller helps us imagine who the best baseball player would be in a world without stats. Plus, a significant digit on women’s basketball.Links to what we discussed this week:Reeves Wiedeman’s article on the rise of athlete activism.Firing Claudio Ranieri won’t fix Leicester City’s problems, writes Tim Wigmore for FiveThirtyEight.Catch more of Michael Caley’s soccer observations over on the “The Double Pivot” podcast.How do you determine baseball’s greatest player in a world without stats? Sam Miller lays out his theories.Significant Digit: 3,397, the number of career points that University of Washington senior Kelsey Plum has scored in her career for the Huskies. She broke the all-time NCAA women’s record on Saturday, with a 57-point game. Embed Code More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed
3Slovakia34.0– 22Turkey16.0– 28Switzerland14.0– 25Germany14.0– 19Luxembourg16.0– 12Denmark18.0– Randall’s Finnish peer Aino-Kaisa Saarinen had a child around the same time that Randall did, and she told me that her country has a mandatory four-month paid leave for mothers, which she started a month before her due date. After the baby was born, she and her partner received further benefits, including leave that they could split as they chose between the parents. “In our case, the dad took all that,” Saarinen said. (Not to mention the paid leave that fathers are entitled to.)Randall has competed in the predominantly Europe-based World Cup without that kind of paid leave but with Breck in tow for the past two seasons. It hasn’t always been easy. Although she emerged from childbirth without any serious complications (not all women do, as tennis star Serena Williams’s story demonstrates), the snap in her muscles didn’t return right away. And during her time off, the U.S. team “had gotten so strong,” Randall said. She sat out the second World Cup weekend after her return because she wasn’t skiing as well as her teammates.There have been many men who’ve continued competing after adding a child to their family, said Chris Grover, head coach of the U.S. cross-country ski team, but very few women. “Many of these guys are not primary caregivers and tend to come to the races Thursday and head back home on Sunday night or Monday,” Grover said. And while fathers may experience sleepless nights just like mothers do, they don’t need to physically recover after childbirth.Randall and her husband have built their work and family life around her job. Ellis secured a job as a media coordinator for the ski federation, which allowed him to travel the World Cup circuit with her. “He got the job so that we could see each other in the winter,” Randall said.Randall breast-fed her son until about a month into the racing season. Realizing that there would be at least four mothers coming to the World Cup with babies, the ski federation worked with the athlete commission, national ski federations and organizing committees to make formal recommendations encouraging race venues to provide a “baby room” with appropriate provisions so that moms can breast-feed and care for their infants as needed. Randall thinks she used these rooms much more than others in her cohort of new mothers. She said that may be because the others live in Europe, where most of the races take place, and can travel back and forth between home and races on a weekly basis.In Finland, Saarinen benefits from laws that guarantee child care facilities will be available. “The government also pays for most of it,” she said. That’s not all. “We also get child money from the government, which is about 200€ per month, a baby box with 48 items, and free and mandatory monthly health checks for baby and for the mom.”Things are different in the U.S. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of parents of infant or preschool-age children report difficulty finding affordable, high-quality child care in their community, regardless of their income.Because Randall and Ellis are both working while on the race circuit, their parents and some friends have stepped in to provide child care, but paying travel and accomodations for these helpers isn’t cheap. In part because of the cost, Breck won’t be accompanying his parents to Pyeongchang. After calculating that it would run something like $15,000 to $20,000 for them to bring him and a caretaker along, they decided to send him to his grandparents’ house in Canada instead.As well as things are working out for her now, Randall acknowledges that her current situation is not sustainable. And it probably wouldn’t be scalable to the whole workplace either. Grover acknowledged that it’s difficult to imagine a ski team traveling around Europe with all the coaching staff’s kids, in addition to the team athletes.Randall plans to retire from racing after this season but will remain in the sport. She is president of the U.S. branch of Fast and Female, a group that encourages girls to participate in sports, and she’s running for election as an athlete representative on the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission. After two decades of competition, it feels right, she said. Success in a career like sports requires giving it your all, and that means family life can’t always come first. For a parent who wants to substantially take part in parenting, eventually something must give. 5Ireland26.0– 24Slovenia15.0– 23Belgium15.0– 6Hungary24.0– 16Austria16.0– 10Australia18.0– CountryLength of paid maternity leave, in weeks 20Netherlands16.0– 27Japan14.0– 7Italy21.7– 11Chile18.0– 29Iceland13.0– 2United Kingdom39.0– Source: OECD Family Database 15Canada17.0– 21Spain16.0– 35United States0.0 34Portugal6.0– 4Czech Republic28.0– 8Estonia20.0– 32Sweden12.9– 17France16.0– 13New Zealand18.0– 18Latvia16.0– 30Norway13.0– 1Greece43.0– 31South Korea12.9– Paid maternal leave policies around the worldAmong countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2016 33Mexico12.0– 14Finland17.5– 26Israel14.0– 9Poland20.0– Team USA has sent 20 fathers to Pyeongchang, but only one mother: Kikkan Randall. A three-time winner of cross-country skiing’s World Cup sprint title, Randall was part of a baby boom that happened after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when four of the sport’s top athletes took time off from racing to give birth.1The others were Marit Bjoergen of Norway (whose silver medal in Saturday’s skiathlon earned her the title of most-decorated woman at the Olympic Winter Games), five-time Olympic medalist Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland and Katja Visnar of Slovenia.These women didn’t just return to work — they came back to the highest level of a demanding sport, and all four are expected to compete in Pyeongchang. But Randall is doing so without the same safety net that her European colleagues have. And that’s left her facing the same challenge that many other American women experience: how to balance a grueling career with the demands of new motherhood. A job as arduous as being a professional athlete (or, say, director of policy planning at the State Department) has little room for compromise or scaling back, and that means that much of the parenting must fall to a spouse or outside help.The 2018 Games will be the fifth Olympic appearance for Randall, a 35-year-old cross-country skier from Alaska.2When I was an elite skier in the 2000s, Randall was an up-and-coming star. I never skied fast enough to make the Olympic team, and the U.S. women’s teams in 2002 and 2006 were unlikely contenders for medals. But since then, thanks in large part to Randall’s performance and leadership, the American women have become a force to reckon with — earning both World Cup and world championship titles. Minnesota native Jessie Diggins won the final World Cup race before Pyeongchang. In 2008, Randall, nicknamed Kikkanimal, made history by becoming the first American woman to win a World Cup in cross-country skiing. And in Pyeongchang, she has a legitimate shot at a medal.Mothers-to-be in most professions take time off after childbirth, but Randall’s situation was different: “I was on my maternity leave while I was pregnant,” she said. Because she remained on the U.S. ski team roster, she retained access to her health insurance, and most of her sponsors continued their support, in exchange for appearances, social media plugs and other publicity. She resumed training about three weeks after her son, Breck, was born in April 2016, with the support of her husband, Jeff Ellis, who parented while she trained. Having a husband who is willing to take on parental duties and, most importantly, to do so “unbegrudgingly” has been “a huge piece of the puzzle,” Randall said.There’s no such thing as a part-time return to work in elite sports, which usually require multiple training sessions each day, along with naps, massages, full nights of sleep and other recovery rituals. Of course, sleepless nights are almost a given for the first years of a child’s life. And Randall said that knowing Ellis will “take care of those night-time wakings before a race really helps.”She noted that her peers in Scandinavian countries have the benefit of paid time off for fathers as well as mothers. (Of the 35 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is the only one without paid maternal leave.)
The No. 9-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes hit the road for the fourth and final time this season on Saturday as they travel to Iowa. Following a slow start to last week’s contest against Penn State, OSU coach Jim Tressel and his players said they look to fix mistakes heading into Iowa. “I think for us it’s just important that we come out ready to go and not flat like Wisconsin or this last weekend,” senior kicker Devin Barclay said. “I think we do our best when we come out ready to play and we set the tone right away.” Tressel said the Buckeyes know exactly what to expect from the Hawkeyes. “They do what they do and they do it so well,” Tressel said. “They’re very, very physical at what they do, and the schemes back that.” Revenge for the Hawkeyes Last year, with a trip to the 2010 Rose Bowl on the line for both squads, the Buckeyes escaped with a 27-24 overtime victory. OSU wide receiver DeVier Posey said he expects Iowa to come out eager for revenge. “I know those guys don’t have amnesia. They remember the last time we went against them,” Posey said. “They probably felt like we slipped away with an easy one, slipped away with a win because Ricky Stanzi got hurt the week before we played them, and the running back got hurt as well, so they … probably feel like they can beat us on their home turf.” New experience This will be the Buckeyes’ first time playing in Iowa since 2006. Although OSU is familiar with this Iowa team from last year’s game, Tressel said his team will face a tough task in Kinnick Stadium. “The veterans know what lies ahead because they have played against Iowa,” Tressel said. “I don’t know if any of our guys have played at Iowa City. I don’t know if any of those fifth-year seniors were playing as true freshmen that particular year, but they’re in for a heck of an experience and a heck of a challenge.” Barclay said he knows little about the atmosphere at Kinnick Stadium, but the game will be challenging, like all road games in the Big Ten. Special teams key to road success The Buckeyes have struggled on the road at times this season, with a 2-1 record away from the Horseshoe. “When you’re on the road, you better play solid in your special teams to give yourselves a chance,” Tressel said. “Now, that doesn’t guarantee anything, but you can almost guarantee that if you play poorly in the special teams that you’re not going to be successful on the road.” The OSU special teams unit has had its share of ups and downs, but Barclay said he believes the unit is moving in the right direction. “The kicks were deeper, higher, better,” Barclay said of last week’s special teams performance against Penn State. Buckeye line vs. Adrian Clayborn OSU will face one of the premier defensive lines in the nation Saturday in the Hawkeyes, including 2009 first team all-Big Ten performer Adrian Clayborn. “They’re just very, very powerful and very consistent. In games where you might have a 7-yard run, against them it’s 3,” Tressel said. Tressel said he has been impressed with his offensive line’s play as of late, but Saturday will be yet another challenge. He said there are two factors for an effective offense Saturday. “One is if you can rush the ball effectively and, two, if you end the day and there aren’t sacks, that’s a big deal,” Tressel said. “And to have both of those things come true on Saturday will be a tremendous challenge because these folks get after the passer and they play the run.”
“Maurice showed up and everybody knew who he was, but he was completely humble and he knew that he was just beginning,” McClatchy said. “He was a voracious learner — he was willing to try anything.” Hall had taken a theatre class at OSU when he was fairly new to campus and really enjoyed it. But he was concerned that his demanding football schedule wouldn’t allow him to participate in theatre. McClatchy, who’s currently teaching at OSU while pursuing his master’s in acting and performance, said Hall had a certain amount of poise that carried over from his football career. “He had the confidence that comes from accomplishments. He was uncertain about how to go about doing things, but he was confident that he’d (be) able to figure it out,” McClatchy said. “That gave him a little bit of a leg up.” Hall also believed his football career, particularly the season the Buckeyes won the National Championship, helped to ease his transition to acting. “In 2002, the practice, the work ethic, the faith and development, all of the things I learned while playing at Ohio State, and understanding what it takes to dive in and start from scratch really helped me out,” Hall said. Hall acted in a few plays and filmed the movie “Best Supporting Daddy” in Columbus. Still, Hall knew that, in order to pursue an acting career, he’d have to move to L.A. Hall quickly recognized the stark contrast between the protective blanket of Buckeye Nation and the fame-driven L.A. society. “Even though I did some independent films and some plays in Columbus, the reason I was picked for the roles was because I was a name that people knew,” Hall said. “People would come see the movie or the play because I was in it, not necessarily because I was a good actor. And that was one of the big differences in coming out to L.A.” Suddenly, it no longer mattered what Hall had accomplished on the football field. “Everybody in L.A. is some kind of actor, singer or other entertainer. It’s one of those things where you’re not going to get a role because you played football for Ohio State,” Hall said. “You have to actually be a good actor. So, from that aspect, it’s persuaded me to really pursue the craft and learn as much as I can and get better.” Charley Boon, Hall’s acting teacher at the Joanne Baron / D.W. Brown Studio in Santa Monica, Calif., said Hall has improved by “leaps and bounds.” “There are people who go out into the workforce and they have my name on them. Sometimes that can be a scary thing,” Boon said, “but the wonderful thing about Maurice is, I would not hesitate to recommend him for a job at all.” Hall recently made appearances on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House.” “I had the opportunity to be on the show ‘House,’ where you get a chance to see Hugh Laurie, Omar Epps, you know, these great actors,” Hall said. “I see what they do as far as preparation, and being in that atmosphere drives you to want to be better.” There’s an old saying that to be a successful actor, you have to be able to deal with rejection. Hall admits he’s faced his fair share of it. He’s currently working at Lululemon Athletica, a company that sells exercise and yoga clothing. It’s a supplemental job, helping to pay the bills until the crapshoot that is the auditioning process leads to something more lucrative. “Right now it’s pilot season,” Hall said. “I’m hoping to get some opportunities coming up.” Maurice Hall is familiar with the venomous stereotype that haunts athletes who have made a similar career choice. It followed Hall across the country, from Columbus, Ohio, to Los Angeles. “Initially you hear that ‘Oh, he’s just a football player that wants to get into acting’ kind of thing, and I wanted to really get rid of that stereotype,” Hall said. “So, I applied the work ethic and the practice methods I used playing football, and put it into acting. “Eventually it got (to) the point where my growth as an actor was visible, and more people started to look at me as an actor, versus a football player who just wants to act.” Hall was a running back on the Ohio State football team from 2001-04, winning a National Championship in 2002. The San Diego Chargers signed him in April 2005, but less than a month later he was unemployed. Hall returned to Columbus to pursue his master’s in sports administration, while working as an assistant to OSU athletic director Gene Smith and doing sports television work for NBC. “During football season, I would do sports analysis stuff pertaining to high school football, along with Ohio State football,” Hall said. “The more I did that, the more I got comfortable with being in front of the camera and having fun with it.” His future in acting was starting to take shape. While working on the show “Football Friday Nights,” Hall had an opportunity to perform in skits. “I liked the aspect of coming up with skits,” Hall said, “and performing them on TV really got me motivated to want to do more.” So, Hall searched for an agent. Though there might not be any Ari Emanuels in Columbus, Hall found a commercial agent. “She referred me to do some acting classes to help with my auditioning for things going on in Columbus,” Hall said. “Once I started taking acting classes, I kind of fell in love with it.” Hall began to search Craigslist for acting classes and found an advertisement for an audition at MadLab Theatre, where he landed on the doorstep of acting instructor Kevin McClatchy. McClatchy, who was aware that Hall was a former Buckeye, said Hall was disciplined and worked hard from the start.