Monday, February 13, 2017

The University of Connecticut women's basketball team goes for its 100th straight win tonight, hosting South Carolina in a nonconference match-up. The 100-game mark seems mainly about symbolism, as the Huskies have already had a 90-game winning streak (snapped in 2010) and a 70-game victory stretch (ended in 2003). The John Wooden-coached UCLA men's basketball program pulled off an 88-game winning streak, which ended in 1974.

The following chart shows UConn's margin of victory in its last 99 games (arranged chronologically from left to right). Exact margins are shown up to 40 points, but if the Huskies won by more than 40, there's just a ">40" box on top. You can click on the graphic to enlarge it.

UConn used to be in the Big East, along with, at various times, such top women's hoop programs as Villanova, Notre Dame, and Louisville. However, after the big conference-realignment shake-out of the 2010s, the Huskies ended up in the American Athletic Conference (AAC), which at the moment doesn't have any real competitors for UConn.

UConn Margin of Victory in Last 99 Games

As seen in the light-blue columns above, UConn has won every AAC game (regular-season and conference-tournament), except two, by 20 or more points (games 51 and 31 in this list). The Huskies have won nearly 40 AAC games by 40 or more points. (Game 86, vs. Nebraska, has a typo; it should be 84-41.)

The royal-blue columns represent nonconference games (both in the regular season and in the NCAA tournament). To UConn's credit, it schedules many games against elite nonconference opposition, including Tennessee (until 2007), Notre Dame, Duke, Baylor, Maryland, Florida State, and tonight's opponent, South Carolina (curently ranked No. 6 in the nation). As can be seen, the heights of the royal-blue bars are much lower than the light-blue ones. In fact, twice this season UConn won by two and six points, against Florida State and Maryland, respectively.

The early 1970s UCLA men had a lot more close calls during its 88-game winning streak. According to this retrospective article, “Two games were one-point victories. Three more were by two points.” Another 11 wins by 4-9 points. Of course, the college game had neither a shot-clock nor a three-point shot at that time, Teams could hold the ball on UCLA and the lack of a three would have kept the scoring down.*

I would think UConn would be a heavy favorite tonight, but if there's any chance for the game to be competitive, having a strong nonconference opponent makes it more likely.

*The information on the UCLA men's streak was added later.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Columbus Blue Jackets Seek to Tie NHL Record for Longest Winning Streak

Tonight, in the nation's capital, the Columbus Blue Jackets will try to tie the NHL record of 17 straight wins, held by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins. Here's a chronicle of how the team's 16 wins have unfolded. Many articles have appeared on the Blue Jackets' streak, from analytic (here, here, and here), and even Bayesian statistical perspectives. I was interviewed in this SB Nation article.

Two main issues stand out to me. One, which the SB Nation writer discussed with me but didn't make it into the article, is the likelihood of a team with the Blue Jackets', shall we say, non-illustrious history going on such a long winning streak. As I wrote in my book Hot Hand, "many of the most famous streaks... have been compiled by athletes and teams who are among the all-time greats in their respective sports" (p. 5). Examples cited include Kobe Bryant, Joe DiMaggio, and Tiger Woods. As the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, "Long streaks always are, and must be, a matter of extraordinary luck imposed upon great skill."

The Blue Jackets hardly seem to be the kind of winning franchise, upon which only a little luck would have to be added to produce a long string of victories. Columbus has made only two playoff appearances in the 16 years of franchise history, most recently in 2013-14. At the risk of overstatement, a Blue Jackets' winning streak would be like hearing that a run of 50 consecutive made free throws belonged to Shaq O'Neal rather than Steph Curry.*

The second issue, pertaining to on-the-rink statistics, involves shots on goal. Because goals are rare in hockey, analysts typically focus instead on teams' shot-on-goal totals, which turn out to be a good measure of puck possession (see the new book Stat Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics, by Rob Vollman and colleagues, for further discussion).

As shown here, in games before the streak, Columbus and its opponents were each taking roughly 50% of the shots (see the columns marked Corsi, Fenwick, and Shots For). During the streak, in contrast, the Blue Jackets have around 54% of the shots in their games and their opponents, 46%. Aggregate shot totals can be misleading, however, because of score effects, the phenomenon of a trailing team bombarding the opposing net with desperation shots in an attempt to get back in the game.

I created the following graphic to take game context into account. Using a puck image for each game during the Columbus winning streak, I plotted the Blue Jackets' deficit or lead on the scoreboard on the x-axis (from losing by 2 to winning by 4). On the y-axis, we see differences between the Blue Jackets' and opponents' actual numbers of third-period shots (which may be more intuitive to grasp than the percentage of total shots attributable to each team). The puck in the upper-left corner of the graph, for example, represents the Blue Jackets' December 3 game at Arizona, the third game in Columbus's streak. The Jackets trailed 2-1 after two periods (the only game during the streak in which they entered the third period trailing), but in a feverish attempt to tie the game (which Columbus did with 2:16 remaining), outshot the Coyotes 23-4 in the third (+19). Columbus eventually won 3-2 via shootout.

If a game is close (i.e., tied or within one goal either way) heading into the third period, we should find Columbus dominating the shots-on-goal totals in the third period during the winning streak. If the Blue Jackets are relatively comfortably ahead, on the other hand, we would expect their opponents to be dominating the shots. This is exactly what we find.

For those with some statistical training, the correlation between size of Columbus's lead on the scoreboard (with a deficit scored with a negative sign) and their edge or deficit in third-period shots was a statistically significant (r = -.58; see blade of the hockey stick in the graphic). The less favorable the Blue Jackets' situation after two periods (trailing or tied), the more they outshot their opponents.

So, if you're a Blue Jackets fan or simply like to see long streaks, don't worry if Columbus is not leading after the second period. In that event, a Blue Jacket barrage on the Capitals' net seems almost certain!

UPDATE: It was not to be for the Blue Jackets, as the Washington Capitals routed them 5-0, ending Columbus's winning streak at 16 games.

*That's not to say that amazing turnarounds don't occur. Baseball's Atlanta Braves went from a 65-97 record in 1990 to 14 straight divisional titles (excluding the incomplete, strike-shortened 1994 season). Also, football's San Francisco 49ers went 2-14 and 6-10 under Bill Walsh in 1979 and 1980, respectively, before winning the Super Bowl after the 1981 season. The team would win three more Super Bowls in the decade.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Gotta "Love" It -- 34 Points, 8-of-10 on Treys, in First Quarter Alone

As most NBA fans have probably heard by now, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love scored 34 points in the first quarter last night in leading his team to a 137-125 victory over visiting Portland. It was a record for most points in the first quarter, but not for any quarter.

Golden State's Klay Thompson once scored 37 points in the third quarter of a game. Although Love's single-quarter point total last night (34) approached Thompson's record, Thompson's is truly one of a kind, in my view, for another reason. Whereas Love missed a few shots last night in the first quarter, going 3-of-4 on two-point attempts, 8-of-10 on shots from behind the arc, and 4-of-4 on free-throws, Thompson didn't miss a single shot of any kind in his big quarter.

Love's 8-of-10 performance on first-quarter threes is nothing to sneeze at, however, and it is the aspect of his record night that I'd like to focus on. Love is a career .363 three-point shooter in a little over eight years in the NBA and his season-specific three-point shooting-percentages have been very consistent in recent years (.376 in 2013-14; .367 in 2014-15; .360 in 2015-16). Thus far in the current season, before last night's game, Love was hitting on .316 (18-of-57) of his treys.

Using Love's career .363 baseline success-rate, we can ask what is the probability that he would make 8 (or more) three-pointers in a 10-attempt sequence. Using a binomial calculator, the answer is .006 or 6-in-1,000.

In one sense, Love's scoring outburst might be considered more impressive than Thompson's. Compared to Thompson's .417 career NBA three-point shooting-percentage (and .444 for the season coming into his record-setting game), Love's career and season-to-date baseline success-rates were several percentage-points lower. It is, of course, harder for someone with a lower baseline success-rate to enter a stretch of hitting at a torrid pace.

Love scored only 6 more points after the first quarter last night, finishing with 40. Cleveland led comfortably for most of the game, entering the fourth quarter up 112-92, so was able to rest its starters.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Michael Phelps Looks to Extend Olympic-Gold Streaks

With the opening ceremonies for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics getting underway tomorrow, swimming enthusiasts are anticipating whether -- and to what degree -- Michael Phelps will be able to extend his career-total medal haul. He currently owns 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold, 2 silver, and 2 bronze.

In terms of Olympic streaks, Phelps has ongoing runs of three straight golds in the 100-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley. He will attempt to extend each of these streaks to four in a row. Before Phelps won the two aforementioned events in 2012, no male swimmer had won the same event at more than two straight Olympiad.  He will swim a third individual event in Rio, namely the 200 butterfly, in which he narrowly missed a third straight gold in 2012.

The following chart (which you can click to enlarge) shows Phelps's medal performances not just at the past three Olympiad, but also at the World Championships and Pan-Pacific Championships. The chart includes only the three individual events he will swim in Rio. Phelps did not compete in 2013 due to his brief retirement, plus USA Swimming kept him off the team for the 2015 Worlds for his drunk-driving offenses.

Sports Illustrated's pre-Olympic issue picks Phelps to win one gold -- in the 100-meter butterfly, just ahead of Hungary's Laszlo Cseh. Within 2016, Cseh (50.86) has actually swum this race faster than Phelps (51.00), but we don't know that all circumstances (e.g., amount of rest; pool conditions) were comparable. (You can look up the world rankings in any event, based on fastest times, at the international federation's website.) SI tabs Cseh over Phelps in the 200 fly, and Japan's Kosuke Hagino over Phelps in the 200 IM.

Friday, July 15, 2016

What’s Up (Or In This Case, Down) With the Cubs?

Perhaps it’s the Cubs’ historical futility – anyone can have an off-century, paraphrasing former manager Tom Trebelhorn. Or perhaps it’s the reputations of current team executive Theo Epstein and manager Joe Maddon. Whatever the reason, the team’s fast start this season inspired no shortage of superlatives from the media.

On May 15, with the Cubs sitting at 27-9, CBS splashed around words such as “historic,” “remarkable,” and “incredible” in describing the team’s start.

On June 7, with the Cubs having advanced their record to 40-16 the night before, FiveThirtyEight made the stunning comparison of Maddon’s bunch to the 1927 Yankees.

Now, as the season resumes Friday after the All-Star Break, the Northsiders are 53-35. The team’s record has been 26-26 since the CBS Sports article and 13-19 since FiveThirtyEight’s piece.

The Cubs’ slide began on June 20, the opening day of a three-game Wrigley Field series with St. Louis, which the Cardinals swept. Chicago has now lost five of its last six series (plus a one-game make-up game with Atlanta). Using the Cubs’ game-by-game log, I plotted the results of all of their series so far this season, in chronological order. Opponents are shown on the horizontal axis and the outcome of each series is shown on the vertical axis (sweeping a three-game series would be +3, getting swept four would be -4, etc.; see legend below the graph). You may click on the graphics to enlarge them.

[Legend: On the vertical axis, +4, +3, -3, and -4 represent sweeps of 4- or 3-game series; +2 or -2 can result from sweeps of 2-game series or winning or losing 3 in a 4-game series; 0 = split of 2- or 4-game series. The number of games in a series is shown in parentheses after the opponent’s name on the horizontal axis. Asterisk (*) indicates series with 1-game rain postponement until later in season.] ___________________________________________________________________________

Presumably, the Cubs have declined in one or more of the following areas: hitting, pitching, and defense. Hitting does not seem to be the major problem. The team’s two leaders in OPS (On-base Plus Slugging percentages), Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, have maintained a torrid pace. In fact, Rizzo’s two best monthly OPS figures have come in June (1.211) and July (1.178). The same is true for Bryant (June, 1.058; July, 1.222). Addison Russell and Jason Heyward have been steady, if unspectacular, with monthly OPS values in the .700-.800 range of late. That’s not to say that nobody has slumped. Dexter Fowler’s OPS in April, May, and June fell respectively from 1.087 to .879 to .605, and Ben Zobrist has fallen to an OPS of .707 in June and .640 in July, after he had attained a 1.136 in May. Still, there is no universal collapse in hitting among the Cubs.

To evaluate starting pitchers’ individual outings, I use the “game score” statistic developed by Bill James. The scoring system starts a pitcher out with 50 points, then adds points for good pitcher outcomes (e.g., 1 point for each out, plus an additional point for a strikeout) and subtracts points for bad outcomes (-2 for each hit allowed, -4 for each earned-run yielded). Game scores for each and every start by a given pitcher are included among’s pitching statistics. I have plotted game scores for each of the Cubs’ five regular starters, shown in chronological order.

Although the data are noisy, the general trend is that Cubs starters – four of whom are age 30 and older – began declining around their 15th starts. Before that, most outings were in the 50-80 range (highlighted in gray), meaning that pitchers made a net gain in points above the 50 with which they automatically started.

John Lackey recorded a 23 in his 15th start (a 9-6 Cubs loss at Miami), Jason Hammel struggled badly with a 5 in his 16th start (a 10-2 loss at the Mets), and Jon Lester also registered a 5; this came in his 17th start, another blow-out loss (14-3) at Citi Field. Jake Arrieta, though not hitting the low points of some of his teammates, has thrown clearly subpar games in his last three starts (game scores of 38, 38, and 35). Kyle Hendricks has been the even-keel starter, never deviating from a range of 41-80.

According to another FiveThirtyEight article, as of June 19 (right before the Cubs’ spate of losing series), Chicago pitchers appeared to be benefiting from two developments: their “contact-management skills” or “tendency to allow batted balls that do less damage;” and excellent defensive play from the fielders. Getting into the physics of batted balls, “Cubs pitchers [had] depressed exit velocity by 0.4 miles per hour and launch angle by almost 2 degrees, relative to average.” In terms of fielding, free-agent acquisition Heyward has saved 35 runs with his defense in 2015 and 2016 combined, according to one estimate, which is one of the best performances for an outfielder during this time.

One would guess Cub pitchers lately were allowing balls to leave opposing bats with greater exit velocity and launch angle, although I do not have updated statistics on those parameters. The Cubs need some rest, according to Maddon. That’s as good a recommendation as any, especially for the starting pitchers.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Serena Williams Just Keeps Winning Grand Slam Titles

Serena Williams continues to defy the age curve, winning the Wimbledon women's singles title earlier today. At 34 years old (born September 26, 1981), Williams is now the oldest player, woman or man, to win a Wimbledon singles championship, overtaking Martina Navratilova (33 years, 8 months when she captured her final title in 1990). Accordingly, I have updated the age chart of women's tennis greats that I have displayed on this site from time to time.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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