Wanna win the World Series? Don’t strike out.

Sports is a copycat business. For this very reason, the Sabermetrics movement in Major League Baseball is in full swing and has completely overtaken America’s national pastime, with seemingly every organization in professional baseball adopting some variation of the same blueprint. Young, spry, Ivy League grad front office executives fully delving into analytics, a youth movement in the managerial position, and an on-field philosophy of taking pitches at the plate, working counts, and walking. If you strike out, that’s fine. It’s just another out. These are the permeating centerpieces of the new-school template across the MLB, trickling down now to all levels of competitive baseball. The ideas, in all likelihood, stemmed from the successes of Theo Epstein and the Billy Beane/Paul DePodesta dynamic duo, but they have spread like wildfire, as now almost every single franchise is attempting to unearth the next whiz kid general manager to engineer a team destined for the Promised Land. A few of these hires have enjoyed immediate success, such as David Stearns in Milwaukee. Others, not so much (I’m talking to you, A.J. Preller). Nonetheless, baseball overall is undeniably being revolutionized by the number-crunchers, the white collar geniuses, and, in the most complimentary manner possible, the nerds.

If it wasn’t obvious already, I’m kind of one of those nerds, but even as a Sabermetrics disciple, I don’t need to follow these principles religiously. Never should one stray away from the old adage, the three fundamental ingredients of winning in the game of baseball: pitching, defense, and timely hitting. Come October, pitching oftentimes receives the publicity and is the primary focus in determining a team’s potential postseason success or failure, and rightfully so. Pitching, however, is merely one piece of the pie. Here, we are about to prove why the latter category, timely hitting, is just as, if not more, essential to a baseball team, especially once the postseason hits. Timely hitting and the manufacturing of runs, clearly, entails avoiding the K and putting the ball in play. Of course, logically speaking, this goes without being said, but when examining past World Series winners, the significance of the findings is actually astonishing. Here is a snapshot of the strikeout rates of the World Series winner each year since the turn of the millennium in relation to the league strikeout rate of that respective season, brought to you by R Studio:

k-rates

Strikeout rate is a simple calculation: the percentage of plate appearances of a particular team or player that result in a strikeout. This graph, for one, can serve as a visual representation of Sabermetrics at play, as the league strikeout rate has increased every season since 2005 and has grown at an alarming rate over that span. Digging deeper, we discover a common thread among the majority of the data. We see that 12 of the past 16 World Series Champions struck out at a lower rate than the league average. In fact, 11 of those 12 World Series winners found themselves in the bottom third in strikeout rate in all of baseball in that specific season. The 2011 Fall Classic pitted the eventual champion St. Louis Cardinals, owning the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball, against the Texas Rangers, the team that struck out on the fewest occasions in baseball that year. The Kansas City Royals of the past two campaigns could very well be considered the poster children of this statistical revelation, as their rise to prominence was a direct result of their model centered on contact and athleticism. One win away in 2014 from being in the rarefied air of back-to-back titles, the Royals terminated a 30-year title drought in 2015. In both 2014 and 2015, Kansas City owned the lowest strikeout rate in the game, punching out at a rate approximately 5% lower than the remainder of baseball, and their identity took the MLB by storm in subsequent Octobers. An Alcides Escobar first pitch inside-the-park home run was the most Royals way possible to lead off a World Series last fall. Let’s not be too quick to forget how they knifed through the Angels and Orioles two seasons ago, exquisitely manufacturing runs and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. Prior, they single-handedly defeated Oakland in the Wild Card Game on the basepaths. That Royals run, in the end, epitomized the vast rewards of merely putting the ball in play. A modest starting rotation devoid of an ace was ameliorated by a dynamite bullpen and the lineup’s ability to pepper opponents’ to death with seeing-eye singles, gappers, productive outs, and blinding speed.

Of course there are anomalies in the data. 2004 sticks out like a sore thumb, with the “Reverse the Curse” Boston Red Sox hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy after amassing the third highest strikeout rate in baseball during the regular season (18.25%). Attached to that historic Red Sox team are the images: the Bloody Sock, the Big Papi clutch gene, critical home runs from freakin’ Mark Bellhorn…the list goes on. We will remember the broken curse and ALCS comeback against the New York Yankees as miracles on Earth, but the true miracle that occurred has been hidden from us. The 2004 Red Sox cut their strikeout rate by an astronomical amount in the playoffs in comparison to their first 162 games. After being the most strikeout-prone team in the American League for the entirety of the regular season, somehow, someway, Boston reduced their strikeout rate to 15.81% during the postseason, an unheard of and almost inexplicable transformation. This included a microscopic rate below 12% in their four-game sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series. Red Sox fans can thank whatever sparked the change in approach at the plate of their team’s lineup for at last tasting victory rather than divine intervention.

The modern-day Oakland Athletics, sadly, do not fall under the category of “World Series Champion” during this timeframe. Billy Beane’s demesne has, however, been one of Major League Baseball’s models of consistency in this period. They are brought up because the revolution begins with them. The A’s were the first organization to fully adopt the computerization of the game from the top-down, treating players as their own separate entities and reforming how a player’s value is appraised. A new on-field philosophy was engendered, where we first see the full-scale implementation and encouragement of working counts and drawing walks.

getonbase

Oakland’s ability to instantly recover from the departures of superstars Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi and immediately return to October baseball with a collection of no-names replacing them caught the eye of the rest of the league. Just as analytics has evolved the game, analytics itself has evolved, so a difference needs to be clarified between what the A’s had and the pervasiveness of numbers today. Analytics has spun out of control and has created a feast-or-famine mess. Today’s Sabermetricians maintain that the strikeout is no more costly than any other way, shape, or form of an out. Ballclubs, simply put, have been geared towards walks, strikeouts, and hitting bombs. The A’s, ironically on the contrary, have finished below the league’s strikeout rate EVERY YEAR since 2001, accumulating 7 postseason appearances in that span on a tight budget with a revolving door of cast-aways year after year. This is a far cry from the analytical approach of 2016. Yes, getting on base is fine and dandy and is the first step of the equation, but the notion that a strikeout is on the same level as, say, a productive out is pure nonsense, and the Royals’ October dominance has irrefutably debunked this myth. There are numerous ways to score a runner at third with less than 2 outs, but the ball has to be put in play for that to be accomplished. In any situation, a strikeout is the worst possible result as a hitter, because you are losing an opportunity to pressurize the defense or find a hole. Placing the ball in fair territory, you have done your job. You have controlled what you can control. Now the onus is on the defense to do the same. This probably sounds just about as rudimentary as it gets, but enough with the overanalysis. Back to the basics. I wish there was an intricate and exact formula to solve the forecasting puzzle, but it’s sports, whose variability and volatility offer little to no predictability, especially when home teams only win 56% of the time. In an era where the strikeout propensity continues to balloon, the team whose style more resembles that of a college baseball team has been the darling of the past two seasons. Also hitting the fewest home runs in baseball each of the past two years, Kansas City has avoided the cold, dense air of October nights, where home runs go to die. Small ball is in, but I guess everyone missed the memo.

Enough of the past. Playoff baseball is nearly upon us, so we must study how the historical commonality in World Series Champs stacks up with 2016’s contenders. Here are their strikeout rates (again, the lower the better):

Team

Strikeout Rate

Toronto Blue Jays

22.03

Baltimore Orioles

21.66

New York Mets

21.60

Los Angeles Dodgers

21.57

Chicago Cubs

21.24

St. Louis Cardinals

21.12

Detroit Tigers

21.11

LEAGUE AVERAGE

21.06

Seattle Mariners

20.54

Cleveland Indians

20.24

Washington Nationals

19.92

Texas Rangers

19.91

New York Yankees

19.63

Boston Red Sox

18.33

San Francisco Giants

17.75

Seven contenders lie both above and below the league average line. The Cubs, who led baseball in strikeouts a season ago, have drastically cut down on their punchout rate, attributed to the addition of Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant decreasing his personal rate by more than eight percentage points. Chicago was diced up by the New York Mets’ flamethrowers last fall, but a higher contact percentage and neither Matt Harvey nor Jacob deGrom in the fold bodes well for the Cubbies in a possible rematch. The American League comes across as a complete and utter crapshoot. Likely filled with high-powered offenses fueled by the long ball, we may see the strikeout rate principle rise to a head in the AL. The Red Sox lineup thrives from gap-to-gap, and their ability to play the merry-go-round, hit parade game will be conducive to shivering October nights in the Northeast.

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With Herro commitment, Wisconsin has officially escalated to powerhouse status

March 27, 2005. The East Regional Final in Syracuse pitted a traditional power against a 6-seed with party-crashing aspirations. Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Marvin Williams were never required to attend class and would all be lottery picks in the ensuing June’s NBA Draft. On the other side, Mike Wilkinson, the underdogs’ senior leader, honed his skill on a hoop nailed to his family’s barn in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. The Badgers’ 3-star wonders went toe-to-toe with the blue-chippers, holding multiple leads in the second half, but the Tar Heels’ athletic superiority proved to be far too much in the end in an 88-82 barnburner. For the longest time during the Bo Ryan era, that was the nearest the Badger program ever was to the seemingly foreign land known as the Final Four, and the ubiquitous blockade surrounding the grandest stage in collegiate basketball haunted Ryan as he attended the event each year in the audience rather than squatting on the sideline. McDonald’s All-Americans vs. high-major afterthoughts. That 2005 Elite Eight matchup epitomized the same narrative that has followed Wisconsin throughout its David vs. Goliath successes since the turn of the millennium. Said narrative still persisted as the media’s storyline when Wisconsin at last knocked down the Final Four barrier in consecutive years, playing their three games against the high school mixtape deities of Kentucky and Duke.

Wisconsin has been forever kindly described as one of college basketball’s “models of consistency.” The methodical system, the personnel fit, the four-year player development, and the March omnipresence were the major aspects of this program’s highest national compliment. With each passing season, however, the recruiting trail remained relatively constant. They developed an overlooked 3-star point guard from Bloomington, MN into a first team All-American. Josh Gasser went from his lone high-major offer being from Northwestern to Captain America. Same goes for Frank Kaminsky, and we know what happened there. The recruiting pitch was all pieced together. Second-to-none player development, a winning brand of Big Ten Basketball, and a prestigious academic institution could sell itself. Nonetheless, it was still Wisconsin, still having the same perception construed by whatever the national media had to say, and more importantly, no Final Four exposure, a recruiting pitch in and of itself. The lack of top-flight prospects even considering the Badgers was certainly partially due to the program’s targeting of what many characterize as “Wisconsin guys,” but Ryan, Greg Gard, and company had never passed up an opportunity to woo the uppermost talent, especially if in-state. The staff simply had to live with swings and misses, fully adopting the Wisconsin Basketball motto of “Next.” In 2014 and 2015, as Wisconsin twice cut down the nets in Southern California, many were apprehensive about the careers of the likes of Gasser and Kaminsky coming to a close in the Badgers’ route to becoming America’s team. The farewell was heartfelt, principally with the manner in which the ending took place, but the idea that this was only the beginning was no joke. Wisconsin basketball was just getting started. The uptick began with Sam Dekker. He committed to Wisconsin as a sophomore in high school prior to his explosion, and by the time his senior year rolled around, he’d become the highest rated recruit in Badger history. As he and an island of misfit toys captivated the nation’s hearts with flawless offense, unprecedented looseness, and pursuit of dreamy stenographers, that assemblage of Badgers made it cool to play for Wisconsin. The program has since reaped the colossal benefits, and it has two Final Fours to thank.

Presently, another iconic senior class is unquestionably primed for a third Final Four trip in four years (five for Showy), with the first title since 1941 still alluding them. With the Jon Rothstein tracker heating up, we are fully armed with the knowledge of official practice beginning in 17 days. Just ahead of the 2016-17 season, Badger fans received some exhilarating news on Monday afternoon as Wisconsin was able to keep yet another state product at home. Tyler Herro of Whitnall, sitting at #25 in ESPN’s 2018 rankings, committed to the Badgers via Twitter after being blown away on his official campus visit this past weekend. After months of speculation of Herro being lost to a school of perceived greater attractiveness, specifically after Herro stating himself that Arizona was his dream school, Wisconsin achieved yet another victory on the recruiting trail this offseason. The majority of the summer’s energy was spent on the class of 2017, whose story can be traced back to approximately a calendar year prior to now with the commitment of LaCrosse wing Kobe King. Wisconsin owns a top 5 recruiting class in 2017 (for the time being), comprised of King, point guard Brad Davison, and stretch big Nathan Reuvers. The cliché of “almost unheard of” could be applied, but this simply is quite literally unheard of. Wisconsin has attained its stretch of triumphs this millennium while amassing a grand total of one top 25 recruiting class. Landing Herro for 2018 also has auxiliary perks, as this improves Wisconsin’s chances for inking an additional in-state stud, Joey Hauser of Stevens Point. The primary competitors for Hauser will likely be Michigan State and Marquette, for whom his brother Sam will play this season as a freshman. Wisconsin stealing Hauser from the lure of playing with his brother would further cement the new level the Badger program has achieved, and would, not to mention, provide a scary 2018-19 roster. No more backup plans. Wisconsin is a destination, and frankly, it’s about damn time. What the Wisconsin program could accomplish acquiring players with a higher baseline and more tools entering school is only up to our imagination at this stage, but we will see it play out over the next, well, who knows how many, years, and we see it in action now. Nigel Hayes was poached from Ohio State. Bronson Koenig spurned North Carolina and Duke to remain home. How fitting this graduating class is the one with an opportunity for a third Final Four in four years. As this procurement of talent appears to be progressing in almost a linear fashion, we can only expect the sky is the limit. Josh Gasser has paved the way for Brad Davison. Michael Flowers has paved the way for Kobe King. Ben Brust has paved the way for Tyler Herro. Everything is cyclical. This next phase of Wisconsin basketball will transform itself from a “model of consistency” to purely great. Clearly, for this past decade plus, Madison has been basketball’s best kept secret. The irony is, however, it required two trips to the Final Four for the basketball world to realize it was even a secret, which is why a collection of young men who mere addendums in high school to the coaches and programs that Wisconsin trampled can be directly attributed to the fast-emerging epiphany. The bluebloods need to make room for one more, because Wisconsin is here, and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

2016 Wisconsin Football Preview: Reasons to Be Excited

For some time now, the Wisconsin Badgers have been college football’s version of Groundhog’s Day. Similar expectations of the type of product on the field each August and end results nearly mimicking that of the season prior have bogged down the program from the casual fan’s perspective. The Badgers’ ripest chance at national title contention in 2011 was derailed by not one, but two Hail Mary’s, rendering the perfect storm Russell Wilson offered a waste. That season was sandwiched by a pair of Rose Bowl losses. As Kurt Vonnegut so ardently proclaims: so it goes, Wisconsin. The post-Rose Bowl trifecta era of Wisconsin football brings us to present-day, and following a season noted by the program’s worst rushing attack in decades, one would figure things would continue to look south. However, year two of Paul Chryst may rather be one of excelsior, as there’s plenty fresh and engaging to look forward to in 2016.

The Schedule

Badger fans should savor this season’s early spotlight. For the third consecutive year, Wisconsin will initiate its campaign with a bang with tomorrow’s 2:30 kickoff at Lambeau Field, the final marquee Badger non-conference game for the foreseeable future. #5 LSU now enters the state of Wisconsin two years after being on the ropes in Tiger Country against the Badgers. That collapse in Houston in 2014 will surely be in the back of the minds of the Cardinal and White in Green Bay. Yet, tomorrow’s colossal matchup is simply a fraction of the behemoth Wisconsin will face in 2016. An SEC-like 5 matchups with preseason top 15 teams forms perhaps the most difficult schedule in the program’s history and a plethora of opportunities to make statements and be heard. Largely saddled with bland conference slates since the inception of the Big Ten’s East/West format, Wisconsin fans will finally be able to see their team be subject to a national barometer on a weekly basis. While luck of the draw may prevent the Badgers from winning the Big Ten West at the end of the day, the gauntlet from September 24 through November 5, highlighted by a pair of home primetime games, will undoubtedly maintain anticipation and optimism.

Old Faces

The 2016 edition of Wisconsin football still contains plenty of carryover. After a tumultuous and injury-plagued 2015, Corey Clement appears healthy and primed to finally seize the role of feature back. Judging from his spring game performance, Clement’s groin issues give the impression of being a thing of the past, as he showed great burst and quickness. His partners in crime, change-of-pace man Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal, combine to compose one of the nation’s better backfields. The absence of Clement for much of 2015 certainly contributed to a dip in the production of the ground game, but a youthful and inexperienced offensive line was also to blame. As a combination was settled on in the latter half of the season, one could see the running game methodically improve, culminating in terrific performances against Minnesota and USC. While the loss of Dan Voltz is certainly a blow, continuity is key, and the sophomore quartet of Micah Kapoi, Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel, and Jacob Maxwell has had an opportunity to grow together for an entire year and will be a major factor in the Wisconsin run game returning to its formidable self. Several returnees in the front seven defensively should be able to account for the departure of one of the nation’s premier pass rushers last season in Joe Schobert. High-profile NFL prospect and team captain Vince Biegel is the cream of the crop and could enjoy a season similar to Schobert’s 2015. Wisconsin’s playmaker up the middle and most reliable tackler in T.J. Edwards will surely be missed Week 1 against Leonard Fournette and the Tigers, but the sophomore has a bright future. Three-Sack Jack Cichy, Chris Orr, and T.J. Watt complete the five-linebacker rotation for new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, probably the Badgers’ best single position group. On the contrary, much turnover exists in the Wisconsin secondary, but the scrappy Sojourn Shelton returns for his fourth season as a starter to lead the way.

New Faces

Bart

Bart Houston threw two touchdown passes in relief of a concussed Joel Stave in a come-from-behind-win at Illinois last year.

The winningest quarterback in Wisconsin football history truly owns one of the most curious legacies in sports today. The reality concerning the much-maligned, and apparent threat to make the Minnesota Vikings’ 53-man cut, Joel Stave is the post-Rose Bowl rut is indubitably on his behalf. After only improving marginally, if anything, over his four seasons as a starting quarterback in school, his college career arc, or lack thereof, is one that would even make Wayne Blackshear cringe. The reality of 2016, however, is that Wisconsin fans no longer have to endure Stave being under center. Bart Houston isn’t exactly a new face, but the fifth year senior will, at last, be making his first career start tomorrow afternoon. The “newness,” so to speak, surrounding the California native and former 5-star recruit is not necessarily simply his presence, but Houston brings something entirely different to the table than most of his predecessors. Equipped with a cannon of an arm and a fearless gunslinger’s mentality, Houston will be able to make throws and squeeze through windows that rival Russell Wilson’s dazzling lone season in Madison. Houston, in the end, makes the Badger offense far more dynamic while not exactly conforming to the Jim Sorgi/John Stocco/Scott Tolzien mold. Look for him to hit on a few deep balls with speedster George Rushing, whose first true chance at being a pass-catcher arrives this season after a sensational fall camp. A pair of true freshman, while they may not appear on Wisconsin’s two-deep, are also threatening to see snaps at wide receiver as early as tomorrow. A Quintez Cephus YouTube search would be littered with videos of the high-flying high school dunks of the former Furman basketball commit, and an A.J. Taylor YouTube search would warrant highlight videos of him as a high school running back. Yet, undeniable athleticism and quick playbook comprehension have both in position to play a significant role in their first year on campus.

Prognosis

The three-year run of kicking off the season pitted against an SEC power concludes with tomorrow’s get-together in Titletown. Dave Aranda on the opposing sideline may grant the Badgers a tactical advantage. Bart Houston, Corey Clement, and co. will be staring across at 10 returning starters on an LSU defense. Without hesitation, this game will be won at the line of scrimmage, and Wisconsin’s continuity on the line combined with a stellar, but still under-the-radar, front seven power the Badgers to grinding victory in front of a de facto home crowd. Saturday, along with the remainder of the schedule, will be difficult to navigate, as aforementioned. My 2016 prediction:

9-3, (6-3 B1G), with losses coming in East Lansing, at Michigan, and at Ryan Field against Northwestern, a place where the Badgers never seem to win. I may be a bit overzealous. The presence of a home night game against Ohio State may deceive me into believing David Gilreath will return the opening kickoff. But if the first 1000+ words weren’t an indication, I’m optimistic. On, Wisconsin.