There’s really only one competitive match on the docket Wednesday, but it’s an intriguing one.Australia vs. Netherlands: 12 p.m. EDTSpain vs. Chile: 3 p.m. EDTCameroon vs. Croatia: 6 p.m. EDTIN BRIEFSee our World Cup predictions for the latest probabilities. IN DEPTHThe best matchup of the day — by far — is La Furia Roja versus La Roja, Spain against Chile, a clash that could have huge implications for the advancement scenarios of Group B. Here’s the big one: If Chile wins and the Netherlands wins or draws against Australia (a 91.5 percent proposition, according to the FiveThirtyEight prediction model), Spain will be eliminated and fail to advance to the knockout round, a shocking fate for the reigning champs and one of the leading pre-tournament favorites.How did we get here? Chile took care of business in its opener against Australia, beating the Socceroos 3-1 behind a great game from Alexis Sanchez, the best Chilean player according to our Soccer Power Index (SPI) player ratings. Meanwhile, Spain … um, how can we put this? Spain could have had a better second half against the Netherlands. In fact, after being slaughtered by the Dutch, Vicente del Bosque’s side dropped from third in the SPI rankings on Friday morning to eighth on Wednesday — one spot behind Chile.Spain came into the tournament with the best SPI defensive rating of any team in the world, but it must get a vastly improved performance out of goalkeeper Iker Casillas and its back line if it’s to beat Chile, SPI’s fifth-best team on offense. Spain’s World Cup future could depend on it.The next-closest match figures to be Cameroon versus Croatia, in what our numbers predict will be a low-scoring affair. Croatia is coming off a defeat against Brazil that was equal measures frustrating and promising; it conceded three goals, including two to Neymar (one coming after a somewhat questionable penalty call), but also held a lead for 18 minutes and was able to generate chances at the other end of the pitch. If Croatia beats Cameroon on Wednesday, advancement is still a possibility (although Mexico’s tie with Brazil on Tuesday didn’t help the Croatian cause). Meanwhile, Cameroon hung tough against Mexico in its first outing, and a 1-0 loss against a top-25 team wasn’t a bad debut for a side SPI considers one of the worst in the World Cup field. But it’s not going to get much easier for the Indomitable Lions — Croatia is a solid favorite against them here, and, of course, Brazil waits in the wings.Brazil isn’t going to lose a lot of sleep over that one, nor is the heavily favored Netherlands going to fret about Wednesday’s match against Australia. Our model gives the Dutch a 73.6 percent probability of winning, and in concert with Chile’s chances of a win or draw against Spain, that means there’s a 47.5 percent chance the Netherlands cruises into the knockout stage before the day is done.YesterdayBrazil entered Tuesday 6-0-0 all-time in World Cup play against CONCACAF teams. In fact, Costa Rica was the only CONCACAF side ever to score against Brazil in the World Cup (in the 2002 group stage). And Brazil has had particular success against Mexico, winning all three of their previous World Cup matches for a total goal margin of 11-0.Although Mexico didn’t score on Tuesday, El Tri became the first team from outside UEFA/CONMEBOL to take a point from Brazil in the World Cup.Based on the statistics, Mexico’s going scoreless doesn’t appear all that surprising. Mexico had four shots in the first half, all from outside the penalty area, and none was on target. Mexico managed just four touches in the attacking penalty area in the first half; Brazil had 13. Mexico ended the match with an average shot distance of 28.5 yards, the second-longest in a match thus far.Much more surprising was Brazil’s failure to find the back of the net. According to SPI, the odds of Mexico holding Brazil scoreless were just 4.8 percent. The star of the match was Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who has led or tied for the lead in saves in France’s Ligue 1 each of the last three seasons playing for AC Ajaccio. Ochoa ended the match with six saves, tied for the most by a Mexican goalkeeper in any World Cup since 1966.Perhaps Ochoa’s best save was a diving stop of a Neymar header in the 26th minute. Neymar was the driving force for Brazil in the match, leading the team in shots (three) and shots on target (two), as well as chances created (four). Yet it was all for naught.By defying the odds and picking up a precious point, Mexico’s chances of advancing to the knockout round increased from 58.7 percent to 80.2 percent. — Jacob Nitzberg, statistics analyst, ESPNOFF THE PITCHLet’s play a word association game. What country do you think of when you hear about kangaroos? Vegemite? “Mate”? What about tulips? Windmills? Coffee shops?Yes, Australia and the Netherlands both have pretty distinct international identities. But does the two countries’ relationship confirm these stereotypes? OECD data provides some interesting insights. The largest single export from Australia to the Netherlands in 2011 was rapeseed (used for animal feed, vegetable oil and biodiesel) at 24 percent, followed by coal at 22 percent — in case the Dutch get inspired to throw some shrimp on the barbie. The Netherlands’ main exports to Australia were machines and chemical products, but there was also $258 million in tobacco exports and $225 million in flower, bulb, seed and live plant exports in 2011, so it looks like the Dutch are learning from the Aussies, as well. — Hayley MunguiaFURTHER READINGSpain Must Beat Chile If It Hopes to Advance in the World CupThe End of Ghana’s Golden GenerationUSMNT’s Bald Eagle of Glory, John Anthony BrooksCLARIFICATION (June 18, 11:30 a.m.): An earlier version of this post was confusing on the Netherlands’ chances of beating or drawing against Australia. The chance of a Dutch win in Wednesday’s match is 73.6 percent, and the chance of a draw is 17.9 percent. That means the chance of the Netherlands winning or drawing against Australia is 91.5 percent.
Tyrone Lockhart, who played for Georgetown in the 1980s, is CEO of the Advocates for Athletic Equity.In a matter of months, Black college basketball coaches went from not having an organization to support their cause and chime the bell for a change in hiring practices to two bodies that will take different paths to achieve the same mission.The National Association for Coaching Equity and Development was formed to address the lack of African-American coaches in Division I college basketball. It has 40 coaches on board, including Tubby Smith, John Thompson III, Shaka Smart, Paul Hewitt and others.In Indianapolis, in the NCAA headquarters building, is the Advocates for Athletic Equity, an organization headed by former Georgetown player Tyrone Lockhart. Its mission is to increase the dismal number of minority coaches, focusing on all ethnic groups.Both organizations say they are picking up where the now-defunct Black Coaches Association left off. Once a force in fighting causes for African-Americans in the profession, the BCA faded with a lack of funding and, not coincidentally, so did the number of Black coaches.Blacks now make up less than 17 percent of head coaches in college basketball’s 330 or so Division I teams while African-American players represent 60 percent of the athletes. It’s the lowest percentage in 20 years.Smith and others see their organization as totally independent and seemed to indirectly convey that the Advocates for Athletic Equity, because it is housed in the NCAA offices in Indianapolis and has received some start-up money from the governing body, will be less aggressive or compromised in its efforts.Lockhart, in an exclusive interview with Atlanta Blackstar, refuted that notion while outlining his and the organization’s plans for change.ABS: How do you look at the National Association for Coaching Equity and its mission?Lockhart: The two organizations have talked. We’re supportive of each other. They may have to do things a little more drastic, whether that’s lawsuits, whether that’s protests … We understand that. We’re supportive. We both have the mission of increasing the number of (Black) head coaches. Tactics and strategy achieving those goals may be a little different. Hopefully, we will be able to partner on one of the key elements that we both agree on, which is professional development. … It’s like the Civil Rights movement in that the NAACP and the Urban League were separate entities working for the same cause.ABS: How will you go about business with the Advocates for Athletic Equity?Lockhart: Because BCA was dormant for a while, we’re housed at NCAA. Housed there, but separate computer system, separate phone lines. The NCAA believes that this organization is extremely important to be successful with what’s going on in college athletics right now. They are, in fact, providing some seed money in order to revive it and make some progress. But I report directly to the (AAE’s) board. Yes, there will be some things that we decide that will be opposed to what the NCAA stands for or believes in. But we will decide as an organization what will be effective for our mission (not the NCAA).ABS: How alarming is the 17 percent Black coaches in the NCAA to you and the organization?Lockhart: The numbers are low, and we know that they are low. My job to work with the membership and strategize on how to attack that. Our No. 1 priority is to promote our coaches for positions of leadership. The one thing, too, with the organization is that we’re focusing on coaches and coaches only. In the past, Floyd Keith had done an excellent job at bringing the organization to prominence and having some growth. But I think the organization took on too many things: athletic administrators, etc. My marching orders are to focus in on coaches and coaches only: African-American, Hispanic, Latino, Asian and so forth. That’s our charge.ABS: Does a variation of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires Black candidates get an interview before any teams hire, have a place in your approach to change in the NCAA?Lockhart: We would favor any role or program that favors ethic minority coaches. The NCAA does not do the hiring; it’s the member institutes and the conferences. So, in working with our coaches, we have to ask: Do we partner with the NCAA or do we go directly to the conferences or the member institutions? We need to make sure we’re targeting the right group to make the most impact.ABS: How do you tackle athletic directors, 80 percent whom are white who over the years hired people who look like them, who they know or are comfortable with?Lockhart: The part in your piece about colleges hiring search firms and “Good ‘Ole Boy Network” is true, and one of the things we have to do is infiltrate that and establish networking opportunities, social interactions where we can get our top coaches a part of this deal and be able to highlight our coaches and the good things that they have been doing. For years, part of (athletic directors’) stories has been, “Well, we don’t know these coaches. We don’t know where they are. They’re kinda hiding out.” But we want to establish relationships and events where our coaches are featured and highlighted and can change mindsets … show they can handle crises, etc. There is no doubt that Black coaches are talented and can coach. No doubt. We have to show … they can handle the off-the-court stuff so a president or A.D. can be comfortable with those leaders on the court and off the court in the community. We have a great opportunity. We know the task is uphill. But we’re taking it on.
PLAYERWAR Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout is widely acknowledged to be the best player in baseball and has been for quite some time. But for all his gifts, awards recognition has been hard for Trout to come by. Although Trout has led the American League in wins above replacement (WAR) for each of the past five seasons,1Ever since he first became a full-time player in 2012. he had only won MVP honors once going into Thursday night’s award announcement — and victory there was far from assured.Unlike in the past, though, when Trout’s horrid teammates were held against him in favor of some lesser player on a winning team, the voters broke with tradition and went for the player with stellar individual numbers. In winning the MVP, Trout became just the sixth player from a losing team to take home the hardware. It was a victory for the new ways of player evaluation and a more modern take on what the “valuable” part of MVP really means.But even if Trout hadn’t won the award, he could have taken the same solace he could last year: MVP or not, but he’s still tracking to be the G.O.A.T.Through every single age in which he played a full season,2Not including his age-19 season in 2011, when he logged only 40 games after a July call-up. Trout has been the all-time career leader in Baseball-Reference.com’s WAR for position players. It was true through age 20, age 21, age 22, age 23 and — after posting 10.6 WAR in 2016, a performance that basically matched his previous single-season peak — age 24. No player has ever started his career on this kind of tear — not Ruth, not Cobb, not Mantle, nobody. PLAYERWAR 5Ken Griffey Jr.37.0 Most career WAR through each age since 1901, among position players.Source: Baseball-Reference.com 2Mel Ott11.42Mel Ott17.9 5Al Kaline8.95Al Kaline15.4 WAR Through Age 24 Mike Trout is (still!) the G.O.A.T. at any age 2Ty Cobb25.52Ty Cobb36.0 As a result — and in concert with MLB labor mechanisms that force young stars to either play for peanuts through their arbitration years or lock themselves into long, below-market extensions (as Trout did in 2014, re-signing with the Angels through 2020) — Trout has produced a ton of surplus value for the Angels, relative to what he’s been paid. According to FanGraphs.com, Trout’s production would have been worth about $357 million on the open market since his MLB debut, a span over which he was paid only about $24 million.That’s why speculation that the Yankees are loading up for a Trout trade breaks down upon examination. At a glance, why not ship Trout away from a rebuilding team where his WAR is being wasted (aside, of course, from Angels fans who like to watch him play) to a huge market that has the prospects for a blockbuster deal? The answer: It would take a monster package of young talent to justify trading away a player who so outperforms his contract and probably will continue to do so for the next several years.If we apply Tom Tango’s simple WAR projection system with an average future value of $8.6 million per win,3Starting with a rough cost-estimate of $8 million per WAR next season, with 5 percent annual growth until 2020. the final four seasons of Trout’s contract figure to see him generate 32.5 WAR, for a market value of $282 million,4Including the yearly minimum salary of about $500,000. and be paid $122 million. So it probably won’t be until Trout’s next contract that the cost-benefit tradeoff of having him around begins to make a trade realistic for either the Angels or the team they’re negotiating with.At that point, the math gets a little silly. Even in the first year of his next deal, Trout’s WAR projects to be worth so much on the open market (roughly $75 million) that he’d need a truly paradigm-shifting contract — one that would basically double the highest annual salary of anybody in the game right now — to not be underpaid. With superstar free-agent deals, the question often isn’t whether they’ll be paid more than they’re worth, but by how much. Trout, however, is so good that it might be hard for him to earn fair market value even in his big post-prime payday.For now, that means Trout is probably stuck carrying the Angels. In the past, that would have also meant his chances of contending for the MVP were slim, despite his incredible individual numbers. But perhaps Trout’s win Thursday also signals a change in the way voting will be conducted going forward. The MVP electorate has been skewing more progressive for a while, in terms of its willingness to use sabermetric tools, and there’s nothing more open-minded than giving the MVP to the leader of a 74-88 team.But maybe it was also about Trout’s own particular greatness. No player has ever been so good at such a young age; it was likely that future generations would have looked at his repeated MVP snubs and wondered what the hell the voters were thinking to deny him the AL’s top individual award, over and over. 4Mel Ott23.54Mel Ott31.4 1Mike Trout48.5 WAR Through Age 20WAR Through Age 21 a 3Ty Cobb9.53Ty Cobb15.7 1Mike Trout28.61Mike Trout37.9 5Alex Rodriguez22.95Ken Griffey Jr.30.1 3Mickey Mantle40.9 2Ty Cobb46.7 1Mike Trout11.41Mike Trout20.7 WAR Through Age 22WAR Through Age 23 3Ted Williams23.63Ted Williams34.2 a 4Bryce Harper8.94Ken Griffey Jr.15.5 4Alex Rodriguez38.0
Now that the MLB All-Star Game is over — with hometown favorite Shane Bieber winning MVP (despite not even being the most valuable pitcher on his own team) — the baseball world can finally turn its attention toward the stretch run of the season, in games that actually count. 2019 has given us some interesting twists already: For all the division races that have gone mostly according to expectations, there are several others that definitely haven’t, and the same goes for unexpected breakout players cropping up among the old standbys. So with a little help from our MLB Elo ratings and probabilities, let’s take a look at the important questions that will be answered in the second half:Can Cody Bellinger hold off Mike Trout?A healthy Mike Trout is usually a strong pick to lead the majors in WAR. From the Los Angeles Angels outfielder’s first full MLB season in 2012 through 2018, Trout finished first among hitters in WAR four times in seven chances. The only exceptions were 2015 (when Bryce Harper rattled off what looks like one of the all-time fluke seasons), 2017 (when Trout was injured for a big part of the season) and 2018 (when both happened — Trout was hurt and Mookie Betts also had an all-time great campaign). The 27-year-old Trout has already passed numerous Hall of Famers in career WAR, so it makes sense that it would take either an injury or a historic rival season to dethrone him from his customary spot atop the league leaderboard.This year, Trout is healthy, which is a big part of the equation. He’s also having one of his best-ever seasons at the plate. But this time, the rival performance is an all-time great one being served up by Dodgers right fielder Cody Bellinger, who is on pace for 10.8 WAR by season’s end (which would rank among the top 30 or so seasons by a batter in MLB history). Bellinger streaked ahead of Trout relatively early in the season and hasn’t looked back — though maybe he should start checking the rearview mirror. With a .476 weighted on-base average to Bellinger’s .303 over the past 14 days, Trout has now pulled within 0.07 WAR of his Dodger counterpart on the season. And on top of his stellar numbers, Trout is also one of the most consistent players in baseball history, so he’s likely to get to his usual (astronomical) WAR level by the end of the year. The real question is whether Bellinger can continue to keep pace with this crazy career year of his own.Can the Twins hang on to the AL Central?The Minnesota Twins have easily been the most surprising team of the season thus far, staking themselves to the majors’ third-best record (56-33) and a 5½-game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. Before the season, our model thought Cleveland had the edge in talent over Minnesota, even if the Tribe had allowed their gap over the rest of the division to narrow since 2018. But that gap ended up being much smaller than anyone imagined — perhaps even nonexistent! In addition to its superior record, Minnesota has vastly outperformed Cleveland in terms of run differential (+116 to +27) and total wins above replacement1Averaging together the two versions found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. (31.3 to 19.6).Even so, our Elo ratings think the Indians are gaining on the Twins recently, especially after Cleveland trimmed Minnesota’s division lead from 11 games on June 15 to half that in a little over three weeks. Our model still gives Minnesota a 78 percent chance of resisting a Cleveland surge, and some of the Tribe’s problems aren’t going away soon. Injured ace Corey Kluber hasn’t pitched in months, and fellow starter Carlos Carrasco recently announced that he had been diagnosed with leukemia. But it’s also fair to wonder whether third baseman Jose Ramirez — an MVP candidate in 2018 — will continue to be one of baseball’s most disappointing players in the second half, as well as if some of the most unexpectedly good Twins (Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver, Jake Odorizzi, etc.) will stay as hot going forward. If the teams play more to the form our model had originally predicted, this could be a very intriguing battle.Who will win the National League Central?At the All-Star break, the NL Central is baseball’s only division with a leader up by five games or fewer. (It’s only the second case since the six-division era started in 1994 where just one division was within five games at the break .) The FiveThirtyEight predictions make it even clearer how tight this division is: the Chicago Cubs lead with just a 42 percent probability of winning the Central — making them the only current division favorite with less than a 70 percent chance to win — and four teams have a double-digit probability, including Chicago, the Milwaukee Brewers (26 percent), St. Louis Cardinals (14 percent) and Pittsburgh Pirates (11 percent). (Even the cellar-dwelling Cincinnati Reds still have a 7 percent shot at the division title.)The Cubs would seem to have the edge in the second half, however. They have a +55 run differential, while two of their four division rivals have actually been outscored this season. (The Brewers have a -17 scoring margin, and the Pirates have one of -36; the closest competitor to Chicago is actually Cincinnati at +27, even though the Reds have the worst record of all four Cub rivals.) The Brewers have the best individual player of the division in right fielder Christian Yelich (on pace for 8.8 WAR), and they sent five players to the All-Star Game, tied for the second-most of any MLB team. But they’ve also seen their share of letdowns, headlined by Lorenzo Cain and Travis Shaw. Whichever NL Central teams lose out on the playoffs, one thing’s for sure: they will be disappointed, given how close they were with two and a half months left in the regular season.How wrong was I about Washington?About a month ago, I wrote that the NL East race — which once looked like a four-team battle between the Washington Nationals, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies — had been winnowed down to just the Braves and Phillies. Well, one of those teams has kept winning: Atlanta is 11-6 since June 18. But Philadelphia promptly went 8-11 over that same span, while Washington has gone 14-4 and increased its Elo rating by 8.4 points, sixth-most in baseball behind the Pirates, Giants, Athletics, Yankees and Orioles.As a result, the NL East race has shifted — if slightly.It still looks like a two-team race, and the Braves are still at the top. In fact, Atlanta’s odds of winning the division have only gotten even better over the past month, rising from 59 percent to 72 percent. But the Nationals now have the second-best chance of winning the East, at 19 percent, with the Phillies dropping down to 9 percent. Washington is also now likely to make the playoffs (58 percent), while Philly has just a 38 percent chance of getting into the postseason. The teams are separated by just a half-game in the standings, but there’s no question Bryce Harper’s old team has played better than his new one in the first half of 2019.2Washington has the superior run differential and WAR tally, in addition to a 16-point edge in Elo. The degree to which Washington can threaten the Braves depends on how much they keep proving me wrong.How top-heavy can baseball get?Our model currently predicts that four teams — the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros and Twins — will finish with at least 98 wins (with three of those cracking triple-digits). If that happens, it would be the most 98-win teams in a single season since 2002, when five teams broke that barrier. At the same time, five teams are projected for 98 or more losses (including four tracking for triple-digit defeats). If that holds up, it would tie last season for the most such teams since 1977.This kind of thing is nothing new in the modern world of MLB, where the tanking trend has led to a bunch of bottom-feeders waving the white flag while a bunch of powerhouses destroy them. But even by those recent standards, the 2019 season could break new ground in top-heaviness. It might make for some less-than-compelling regular season contests down the stretch, particularly once rosters expand in September — but it could also lead to multiple titanic postseason matchups between teams with gaudy records, particularly in the AL.Will the home runs ever let up?If the 2019 season is remembered for anything, it seems likely that it will go down as the Year of the Home Run. (Until the next Year of the Home Run, that is.) So far this season, 1.37 balls have left the yard on average every game, which would shatter the all-time record (set in 2017) by nearly 9 percent if it holds up in the second half. 25 of 30 teams have hit at least 100 homers before the All-Star break, while 35 different players hit at least 20 bombs, and nine have hit at least 25. Overall, the 3,691 home runs smashed so far are, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the most in a first half in baseball history. (The previous record was 3,343 in 2017.)With August, traditionally one of the most homer-heavy months, still remaining to be played, it seems likely that the all-time record for most dingers in a single MLB season will be obliterated. Love or hate the homer-centric style of baseball being played in today’s game — let’s ask Justin Verlander what he thinks — the long ball is more fundamental to the fabric of the sport than it’s ever been, and it shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.Will the champs even make the playoffs?The Boston Red Sox have turned things around some since their abysmal start to the season, winning 18 of their past 30 games (a 97-win pace per 162 games). Although staff ace Chris Sale continues to struggle (5.96 ERA in the last month), the 2019 Sox have at least mostly begun to resemble the fearsome team that dominated MLB essentially from wire to wire a season ago. But is it too little, too late?According to the FiveThirtyEight model, Boston has less than a coin flip’s chance (47 percent) to make the playoffs heading into the season’s home stretch. That number includes almost no chance of winning the AL East (6 percent), both because the rival New York Yankees have played so well and because the Tampa Bay Rays have exceeded expectations (again) and are on pace to win 92 games according to our model. That leaves the Red Sox in a numbers game for the AL’s other Wild Card slot, which is looking like it will go to the Indians — who themselves have been squeezed by the upstart Twins. In other words, some quality AL team will be left out of the postseason, and right now that team is looking like the defending champs, thanks to their early season World Series hangover.Check out our latest MLB predictions.
The more things change in the NFL, the more they stay the same. Fresh off of their sixth Super Bowl win with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at the helm, the defending champion New England Patriots open the 2019 season as our favorite to win again. The rest of the top contenders are similar to last season’s as well: the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles round out the top five in Super Bowl odds, according to our predictions.But our NFL Elo model has changed in a somewhat significant way. You can read more about how it all works here, but in a nutshell, we have added a number of wrinkles to make our football picks more accurate:Quarterback adjustments. We hinted at this over the summer, but we now track rolling performance ratings1Based on a regression between Total QBR yards above replacement and basic box score numbers (including rushing stats) from a given game, adjusted for the quality of opposing defenses. for each QB in the league, which can then be compared with a team’s own rolling QB rating to adjust its Elo in games with a different quarterback starting.2This is very similar to the way we handle starting-pitcher adjustments in our MLB Elo model. (Related to this, we have a new interactive page that shows the relative quality of every quarterback in the league.)3Initial ratings for rookies are based on draft position, ranging from a 0 for an undrafted free agent to a +113 for a No. 1 overall pick like Arizona’s Kyler Murray. JacksonvilleN. Foles+914987.835242 ClevelandB. Mayfield+915168.441252 How we’re predicting the AFC North race Chance To… TeamStarting QBvs. avgElo RatingProj. WinsMake PlayoffsWin DivisionWin Super Bowl TeamStarting QBvs. avgElo RatingProj. WinsMake PlayoffsWin DivisionWin Super Bowl Chance To… MinnesotaK. Cousins+1215408.543273 N.Y. JetsS. Darnold-4814527.124111 TeamStarting QBvs. avgElo RatingProj. WinsMake PlayoffsWin DivisionWin Super Bowl Last year, the defending champion Eagles suffered a historic hangover to start their 2018 season, but eventually righted the ship to make the playoffs and even win a first-round game. Armed with Elo’s eighth-ranked QB (Carson Wentz), a talented supporting cast and one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, our model thinks Philadelphia should be division favorites in 2019 — particularly if the Eagles have better injury luck. The defending East champ Cowboys might have something to say about the Eagles being favorites, however, regardless of the holdout of RB Ezekiel Elliott. We rank QB Dak Prescott ninth in Elo, right behind Wentz. Once again trailing in the division are the Giants and Redskins; Washington has the better Elo rating but is slightly less likely to make the playoffs because of a tougher schedule than that of New York. Fittingly, both teams have mediocre veteran QBs (Eli Manning and Case Keenum) trying to fend off highly drafted rookies (Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins). PhiladelphiaC. Wentz+2015869.863%49%7% The playoffs are different. We found that differences in talent between opposing teams tend to be amplified in the NFL postseason, so now Elo differentials are multiplied by 1.2 before computing the expected win probabilities and point spreads for playoff games.Altogether, these changes improved our historical predictions by quite a bit in backtesting, so we’re feeling confident that our 2019 picks will be better than ever before.6You might notice that we don’t have a dedicated factor for defense included in the model. For one thing, defense would implicitly be part of a team’s non-quarterback Elo rating; for another thing, it was difficult to find specific defensive variables (such as coordinators) which improved predictive accuracy — perhaps because defense is notoriously difficult to predict between seasons. For cases below where we do need to refer to a team’s projected defensive quality, we used ESPN’s Football Power Index projections for the upcoming season.And what are those picks, exactly? Let’s run down what our Elo model thinks of each division in the NFL, starting with… AtlantaM. Ryan+6715338.339233 The AFC South experienced a dramatic shakeup when Andrew Luck retired two weeks ago, giving the division a whole new favorite: the Texans. Now, Houston is in somewhat tenuous possession of that distinction, with No. 6-ranked QB Deshaun Watson leading the way — despite last weekend’s bombshell trade that shipped star pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle. The Titans aren’t far behind Houston, although QB Marcus Mariota has regressed over the past few years: In Week 12 of the 2016 season, his Elo adjustment would have been 61 points higher than an average quarterback; now it’s 34 points below average. The Jaguars are right in the mix as well, thanks in part to the acquisition of former Eagles backup Nick Foles; Foles adds 14 points of Elo compared with the team’s long-term historical QB rating (i.e., Blake Bortles). Finally, the Colts went from first to last in Elo’s division prediction — literally overnight — after Luck retired. Backup Jacoby Brissett is worth about 90 fewer Elo points by himself than Luck would have been — a huge blow to Indy’s chances of making a return trip to the playoffs. Even so, this is the most uncertain division race in the league. How we’re predicting the NFC East race L.A. RamsJ. Goff-915889.660%46%7% How we’re predicting the AFC East race How we’re predicting the NFC West race Chance To… L.A. ChargersP. Rivers+415809.659366 Quarterback ratings are relative to the average NFL team’s long-term rolling QB performance and are included in the listed Elo ratings. Simulations are updated as of Sept. 3, 2019.Source: ESPN N.Y. GiantsE. Manning-2714246.4179<1 What would Vegas do? In the past, our preseason ratings would simply be each team’s final rating from the previous season, reverted to the league’s average Elo rating by one-third. But our new system also incorporates ratings derived from a team’s over/under win total according to the Las Vegas sportsbooks, giving those twice the weight of mean-reverted Elo when setting a team’s preseason rating. HoustonD. Watson+2915338.443%32%3% TeamStarting QBvs. avgElo RatingProj. WinsMake PlayoffsWin DivisionWin Super Bowl The Chiefs are the second-most-likely team to win the Super Bowl, trailing only the Patriots. One of the biggest reasons: Elo ranks Patrick Mahomes as the fourth-most-valuable QB in the league behind Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. Although K.C. will probably regress some after last year’s breakout (we think the Chiefs’ point differential will fall from +144 to +79), and the defense is no better than average (it ranks 16th in ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index), we think this is the team most likely to dethrone New England. The Chargers aren’t running very far behind, either, ranking sixth in overall Elo. L.A. didn’t do much over the offseason — and its trademark injury problems are already cropping up — but this remains one of the most talented rosters in the game. The gap between this division’s top two and bottom two is vast. The Broncos upgraded under center with former Ravens QB Joe Flacco, but he’s still mediocre at best. Late summer for the Raiders has been a circus even by the standards of a “Hard Knocks” team; maybe Brown will improve QB Derek Carr’s numbers, but the team has plenty of other question marks. Oakland and Denver won’t be helped by playing the two toughest schedules in the league, either. BaltimoreL. Jackson-4015278.441263 Chance To… DetroitM. Stafford-2214586.922121 ChicagoM. Trubisky+1215669.152%37%5% BuffaloJ. Allen-1214757.630151 Kansas CityP. Mahomes+59161510.369%50%9% Quarterback ratings are relative to the average NFL team’s long-term rolling QB performance and are included in the listed Elo ratings. Simulations are updated as of Sept. 3, 2019.Source: ESPN MiamiR. Fitzpatrick-213895.5104<1 Green BayA. Rodgers+2815228.238243 How we’re predicting the NFC South race TeamStarting QBvs. avgElo RatingProj. WinsMake PlayoffsWin DivisionWin Super Bowl Quarterback ratings are relative to the average NFL team’s long-term rolling QB performance and are included in the listed Elo ratings. Simulations are updated as of Sept. 29, 2019.Source: ESPN At the top of the NFC South, we have Drew Brees and the Saints coming in as favorites to win the division for a third straight year. Elo rates Brees as the league’s third-best QB, even though he sputtered down the stretch of last season and will turn 41 in January. Fortunately for New Orleans, its supporting cast appears to be good enough to help ease Brees into old age, ranking eighth in QB-independent Elo.9I.e., the team’s adjusted Elo rating if Brees were to be replaced with an average starter at quarterback. As for the Falcons, Matt Ryan is No. 2 in our QB rankings, but the rest of the team ranks 25th in QB-independent Elo. That’s more an indictment of a defense that ranks 23rd in preseason projected FPI than an offense that still includes hyper-productive WR Julio Jones, but Atlanta is hoping that a coaching staff of all new coordinators can help Ryan. The Panthers are still only three seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance, but they’ve gone exactly 24-24 since then. Elo calls for more of the same this season, with an 8-8 projected record, although Carolina does have the No. 10 QB in our rankings (Cam Newton) and a respectable 38 percent chance of getting back to the playoffs. Finally, the Buccaneers are hoping to end the franchise’s postseason drought at 11 seasons — but they need to improve on last year’s horrid defensive performance and get more consistency from both Jameis Winston and a passing attack that had the third-highest game-to-game QB Elo variance10Trailing only the Rams and the Nathan Peterman-led Bills. of any team in 2018. CincinnatiA. Dalton-4014146.2158<1 This is the tightest division race in the NFC. The Bears are favored to win again, though Mitchell Trubisky is Elo’s second-lowest rated QB in the North. (He’s 13th overall, so it mainly speaks to the quality of passers in this division.) On the other side of the ball, the amount of talent on Chicago’s defense is impressive, a necessary component as the Bears are hoping to repeat as last year’s stingiest defense in terms of points allowed. The Vikings come in slightly lower but are still 13th overall by the Elo rankings. So should we blame QB Kirk Cousins for Minnesota’s disappointing 2018 season? Probably not. Although his Elo rating wasn’t as high as during his 2016 or 2017 campaigns, Cousins was good for most of last year, and he enters 2019 as our 12th-ranked quarterback. But the best QB Elo in the division belongs to Aaron Rodgers of the Packers. Even if former coach Mike McCarthy didn’t always put him in the best position to succeed, Rodgers still had solid numbers last season and is currently ranked seventh in QB Elo. (It’s the rest of the roster that’s holding Green Bay back from a division probability better than that 24 percent.) Last, we have the Lions. They project to finish fourth, with QB Matthew Stafford coming off his worst season in years and a second-year coach already on the hot seat. But we do call for Detroit to return to its rightful place in the NFL standings, with roughly a 7-9 record, after last season’s 6-10 hiatus. DenverJ. Flacco-1614626.82091 DallasD. Prescott+1815478.949334 TennesseeM. Mariota-3415027.836252 WashingtonC. Keenum-2414276.31691 San FranciscoJ. Garoppolo-2114807.428171 Travel distance and rest matter. We used to give a blanket home-field advantage of 65 Elo points for every game that wasn’t at a neutral site. Now, we modify our home-field effect4Which is worth a flat adjustment of 55 Elo points. using the distance the visiting team needed to travel to get to the game, docking a team by 4 points of Elo for every 1,000 miles traveled.5This effect is not applied to international games, though it is used for the Super Bowl. Teams also perform better after a bye week (including teams that don’t play during the opening week of the playoffs), so we now give a bonus of 25 Elo points whenever a team is coming into a game fresh and extra-rested. PittsburghB. Roethlisberger+8715699.558%41%5% OaklandD. Carr-2614135.8125<1 Chance To… New EnglandT. Brady+52164011.180%69%14% IndianapolisJ. Brissett-5514797.328191 TeamStarting QBvs. avgElo RatingProj. WinsMake PlayoffsWin DivisionWin Super Bowl As we said above, the Patriots are not only the division favorites (for what feels like the millionth consecutive season) but are also the model’s top Super Bowl pick. Their fate is tied to Tom Brady continuing to play well at an age when basically no other QB has done that, of course, and he’ll have to do it without favorite security blanket Rob Gronkowski, who retired in March. But Brady hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down yet, and he’ll get to face the NFL’s easiest schedule7According to the average Elo ratings of New England’s regular-season opponents, adjusted for expected starting QBs and home-field advantage. in 2019. Perhaps surprisingly, Elo gives the Bills a slight edge over the Jets for second place in the East. Both teams’ sophomore QBs (Josh Allen and Sam Darnold) played well down the stretch last season, though our model likes Allen a bit more. New York had the more eventful offseason, signing Le’Veon Bell and abruptly firing GM Mike Maccagnan, but the Bills might have made steadier progress. And the Dolphins bring up the rear, though they have the division’s second-highest rated Elo QB in newcomer Ryan Fitzpatrick. (Amid questions of Miami tanking, Vegas gives the Phins 500-to-1 Super Bowl odds, the worst in football.) Quarterback ratings are relative to the average NFL team’s long-term rolling QB performance and are included in the listed Elo ratings. Simulations are updated as of Sept. 3, 2019.Source: ESPN TeamStarting QBvs. avgElo RatingProj. WinsMake PlayoffsWin DivisionWin Super Bowl New OrleansD. Brees+61160410.063%46%8% How we’re predicting the AFC West race CarolinaC. Newton+1415158.338223 Chance To… Tampa BayJ. Winston+714466.61791 Quarterback ratings are relative to the average NFL team’s long-term rolling QB performance and are included in the listed Elo ratings. Simulations are updated as of Sept. 3, 2019.Source: ESPN SeattleR. Wilson+1415458.746314 Quarterback ratings are relative to the average NFL team’s long-term rolling QB performance and are included in the listed Elo ratings. Simulations are updated as of Sept. 3, 2019.Source: ESPN Chance To… TeamStarting QBvs. avgElo RatingProj. WinsMake PlayoffsWin DivisionWin Super Bowl Quarterback ratings are relative to the average NFL team’s long-term rolling QB performance and are included in the listed Elo ratings. Simulations are updated as of Sept. 3, 2019.Source: ESPN How we’re predicting the NFC North race Quarterback ratings are relative to the average NFL team’s long-term rolling QB performance and are included in the listed Elo ratings. Simulations are updated as of Sept. 3, 2019.Source: ESPN Chance To… Rumors of the Steelers’ demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Despite a tumultuous offseason that involved officially losing Bell8The running back sat out all of last season as part of a contractual dispute. and also shipping receiver Antonio Brown to the Raiders, Pittsburgh remains the top-ranked team in the North. Part of that is thanks to Ben Roethlisberger, who checks in as Elo’s No. 1 overall QB, and part of it is because the Steelers have one of the league’s easiest schedules. The Ravens and Browns are neck-and-neck behind them; Elo is skeptical about Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson after he posted not-so-great numbers as a rookie, but it thinks his supporting cast is superior to Baker Mayfield’s in Cleveland — despite the Browns’ big offseason (hi, Odell) and general hype level heading into 2019. Meanwhile, the Bengals are a distant No. 4, as QB Andy Dalton has seen better days, and the team is breaking in a first-time head coach (Zac Taylor). ArizonaK. Murray-5013895.5106<1 The Rams are coming off a Super Bowl run, and there were times last season when they looked unbeatable, not least because of a GOAT-level performance by defensive lineman Aaron Donald. But with questions remaining about QB Jared Goff and RB Todd Gurley — to say that neither were major factors in the playoffs would be an understatement — L.A. might be due for a regression, even if Elo does still consider the Rams division favorites. A number of signs point to a decline, from L.A.’s 6-1 record in close games last year and favorable bounces in recovering fumbles, to a more difficult schedule and even the possibility of adverse effects due to more injuries. Elo thinks the Rams’ point differential will drop from +143 to +58 this season. Behind them, the Seahawks have the division’s best (slash only above-average) Elo QB in Russell Wilson, and they did some offseason shuffling — Clowney and Ziggy Ansah will replace Frank Clark on the pass rush, for example. But Seattle mostly looks like the same good-but-not-great team it was last season. The 49ers will get a do-over with Jimmy Garoppolo after the QB was injured three games into the 2018 season. But is Jimmy G. any good? Elo’s still not sure. It ranks Garoppolo 22nd among starters heading into 2019, despite his hefty price tag. All three of those teams could potentially contend for the division, though. For the Cardinals, that looks like a long shot at best with the tandem of rookie QB Kyler Murray and first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Elo gives Arizona the worst rating and tied for the lowest playoff odds of any team in the NFL this season. How we’re predicting the AFC South race
It’s likely no coincidence that Toronto’s opponents are scoring at a rate of nearly 4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lowry on the court than they did a season ago. In fact, Lowry’s rehabilitation has been so complete that the Raptors now rank among the league’s top 10 teams at both ends of the floor and he has risen to full-blown MVP candidate status.You’re only as good as your best playerIt’s no secret that there’s a distinct relationship between a team’s championship probability and the quality of its best player, but it takes a truly exceptional player to make a run at a title. In the past, Lowry hasn’t been good enough to move that needle, but this season’s version is inching into the territory where small individual improvements can drastically upgrade a team’s chances of winning a championship.We’d expect a team being led by Lowry at his previous career-high BPM of +5.9 to win the title about 5 percent of the time; at this season’s +7.2 mark, those odds are doubled, to 10 percent. (Not even Carter in his prime led Toronto with a BPM so high.) Add in a decent supporting cast — and it’s debatable as to whether Toronto has one of those, particularly with DeMarre Carroll on ice, but let’s entertain the notion anyway — and suddenly the idea of a championship parade down Bay Street doesn’t seem quite so pie-in-the-sky. By just about any measure, the last three seasons have been the best time to root for the Toronto Raptors in their 20-year history. The Vince Carter era was thrilling but brief, and Chris Bosh’s dinos never quite realized their potential. Since 2013-14, however, the Raptors’ winning percentage has hovered around 60 percent, and their efficiency differential has been roughly 3.5 points per 100 possessions — numbers that those previous runs only approached in spurts.For all that success, however, Toronto has had trouble making any kind of dent come playoff time. As my ESPN colleague Zach Lowe wrote about Tuesday, each of the team’s past two postseasons ended with a first-round exit, and although the Raptors were upset both times — implying they had the talent to potentially go further — 49-win teams don’t typically vie for NBA championships anyway.1There are rare exceptions, but even conditional on making it past the first round of the playoffs, only 13 percent of teams that won 48 to 50 games in a season went on to the NBA Finals. If this season’s version of the club is basically the same, expecting different results would be irrational.These Raptors, however, have a secret weapon that their predecessors lacked: skinny Kyle Lowry.Technically speaking, this is Lowry’s fourth season with Toronto; he even logged the second-most minutes of any Raptor during the failed playoff runs of 2014 and 2015. But that version of Lowry was — how can we say it? — less svelte, and far less productive. By Box Plus/Minus (BPM), Lowry’s 2014-15 season was the worst he’d had in four years. This season, though, Lowry profiles like a top-five player according to the advanced metrics. And his sudden improvement could finally give Toronto the star power necessary to truly compete for a championship.Lowry’s evolving gameBefore this season, Lowry appeared to be on an evolutionary arc many players go through, trading a higher usage rate for less efficient scoring. In his rise as one of the game’s best guards, he’d once ranked in at least the 70th percentile of NBA players in both true shooting percentage and usage. That isn’t an easy thing to do. But last season, Lowry seemed to have surpassed the workload at which he could maintain a reasonable level of efficiency — a situation exacerbated by the banged-up state he found himself in as the season progressed. As a result, his offensive numbers dipped: He settled for more midrange shots and drew fewer fouls; he ran the pick-and-roll less often (and less efficiently); and over the course of the season, he struggled with his jump shot in a way he hadn’t for years.Although Lowry was pretty clearly not being himself, the Raptors won the Atlantic Division and locked up the No. 4 seed in the East. But the team was also unceremoniously swept by Washington, a series in which Lowry kept a high usage but saw his efficiency completely collapse. This seemed like a bad sign.Perhaps even more troubling, it was getting harder to find evidence that Lowry — a player with a good two-way reputation — was still among the league’s best defensive guards. Going into last season, he’d ranked up around the 80th percentile of NBA guards in defensive BPM over his career — a ranking corroborated by play-by-play plus/minus metrics and tracking data from Synergy Sports Technology — numbers underpinned by smart, bruising pick-and-roll defense. But in 2014-15, Lowry’s defensive indicators offered mixed messages. Although he still gave the Raptors’ defense a boost while on the floor, the team was also significantly worse defensively than it had been the previous season, and Lowry often looked slow, clunky and, at times, indifferent when trying to fight through ball screens. This season, Lowry has made course corrections at both ends of the floor. Although his usage continues to grow, his scoring efficiency has bounced back, in part because of smarter shot selection. He’s once again devoting fewer shots to the midrange, allowing his rates of taking threes and drawing fouls to return to their historical norms, and he’s been faster and more aggressive in the transition game as well. On defense, you can really see the effects of Lowry’s offseason weight loss. Last season, Lowry frequently failed when trying to use his strength to fight through screens (both on the ball and off), ceded too many easy buckets on pick-and-rolls and was generally slow to recover when he guessed wrong or his gambles didn’t pay off.2014-15: So this season should be encouraging for Raptors fans, at least by this metric. But after years of watching Chris Paul-led teams underachieve in the playoffs, it’s fair to ask whether this algorithm oversells the title chances for a point guard-driven squad. And as it happens, controlling for the entire skill set of a team’s best player, we found a slight tendency for teams led by players with a lot of value tied up in passing to perform worse in the postseason than we’d expect from their BPM. This could be due to any number of causes — from defenses keying in on passing patterns in a long playoff series to the way a playmaker’s value is only maximized when complemented by other skills (or perhaps it’s just random noise) — but it’s one (albeit minor) reason to consider lowering expectations for Lowry.Except that this season, Lowry’s game has been extremely well-rounded — he ranks in at least the 78th percentile of all NBA players in scoring efficiency, possession usage, assist rate and defensive BPM. Historically, teams whose best players excel in the first and last of those categories tend to exceed expectations in the playoffs at a rate far greater than any penalty that’s levied against passers.Of course, all of this presumes that Lowry’s overhauled game is legit. He’s currently 29 years old, an age at which NBA players are typically already on the downside of their careers, not metamorphosing into championship-caliber stars. Also, there was little in Lowry’s preseason CARMELO projection (our statistical crystal ball for NBA careers) to suggest an imminent breakout, aside from the late-blooming presence of Steve Nash on the fringe of his comparables list. An optimistic look at his strongest CARMELO comps suggested that he might pull a Rod Strickland and stay productive into his mid-30s; a less rosy one saw the possibility of flaming out far sooner, like Michael Adams and Derek Harper. So it’s entirely possible that Lowry will regress toward his previous career norms in the season’s second half.But given the particulars of Lowry’s skill set, and the ways in which he’s corrected his deficiencies of a season ago, it’s also very possible that if his caloric intake doesn’t regress, neither will his output.The question of whether Lowry’s teammates are good enough to support a championship run is still very much open. And even if they are, Lowry may have timed his improvement poorly, elevating his play during a season with two abnormally dominant teams that are soaking up all the league’s title odds. But Lowry’s sudden upgrade to the NBA’s elite class of players gives the Raptors a superstar the likes of which they’ve never had before. At the very least, they now possess a crucial element that was missing from the team’s recent string of good-but-not-good-enough campaigns. The new, slimmed-down version of Lowry has been quicker afoot and more focused in his pursuit of ballhandlers around and through screens, forcing more turnovers and fouling less as a result.2015-16:
The 2018 World Cup final didn’t disappoint (though this website predicted that it might). France beat Croatia 4-2 in a match that yielded more goals than the previous three finals combined. For Croatia’s golden generation, this might have been the last hurrah. Their best players — Golden Ball winner Luka Modric and midfield genius Ivan Rakitic — are both on the wrong side of 30, and this was probably their last shot at winning the thing. The same is hardly true for this incarnation of Les Bleus: They’re very young, and they might just be getting started.With an average age of 25.4 years (weighted by minutes played), this was the youngest World Cup-winning team since at least 1966, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. And although it sounded a little odd to hear from the Fox commentators after the match, it was true that France hardly scratched the surface of its potential during the tournament. Relative to other Cup winners, it had the fourth-lowest goal differential per 90 minutes and the second-worst possession rate of any victor since 1966: 1974Germany27.14301.80.6+1.356.0 Antoine Griezmann27118.8 2014Germany27.06012.20.5+1.760.0 * Ages are as of the opening date of the World Cup, weighted by minutes played for the team during the tournament.Source: ESPN Stats & Information Raphaël Varane2583.2 1966England26.65011.70.5+1.246.2% 2010Spain27.06101.00.3+0.865.3 2006Italy28.75021.50.3+1.248.7 2018France25.46011.80.8+1.148.6 1978Argentina25.54122.00.5+1.552.8 Thomas Lemar2277.2 1982Italy28.63131.70.8+0.848.8 1990Germany28.04121.90.7+1.357.8 2002Brazil27.17002.40.5+1.948.9 YearTeamweighted Avg. Age*WLTforagainstdiff.Poss% Corentin Tolisso2347.5 PlayerAgeMarket Value Nabil Fekir2471.3 Luckily for Les Bleus, Best Young Player Award recipient Kylian Mbappé, who became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since 1958 when some guy named Pelé did so for Brazil, will be just 23 when the next World Cup rolls around (and he’ll be just 21 at Euro 2020). And he’s not the only world-beating young forward on France’s roster: Nabil Fekir, Ousmane Dembélé and Thomas Lemar are all 24 years old or younger. It may sound odd, but the current holders of the FIFA World Cup probably aren’t the best version of themselves yet.Despite being set up to defer possession and withstand opposition attack after opposition attack, this French group still outperformed offensive expectations: They scored 1.84 goals per 90 minutes, 0.64 goals per 90 more than their expected goals rate of 1.20. All that while relying on a forward (Olivier Giroud) who plays much of the game with his back to the goal, more subdued and defensive-minded versions of Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba that hardly resemble their club selves, and a teenager.As France’s attacking players enter their respective primes — and if Deschamps allows them to play more beautifully — the goal tallies are just going to increase. Les Bleus ought to be scary in two years at Euro 2020, and they ought to be downright devastating in the fall of 2022 in Qatar. France may have just claimed its second ever World Cup trophy, but its best ever team may well exist in the future. Samuel Umtiti2471.3 goals Per 90 Min. Source: transfermarkt.com But, boy, does this team ever have room to grow. Of France’s top 13 most valuable players according to TransferMarkt.com, just two are over the age of 25. And many of them haven’t even cracked the starting lineup yet. Didier Deschamps’s group won in Russia by playing pragmatic — if boring — soccer. Deschamps asked his players to park the bus more often than he gave them the keys to drive it. But the French roster is brimming with attacking talent — and if Deschamps wants to keep his job,1Cue Zidane and Wenger rumors. he’ll probably be asked to employ a more offensive style of play going forward. Benjamin Mendy2347.5 Ousmane Dembélé2195.0 1986Argentina26.56012.00.7+1.352.0 N’Golo Kanté2771.3 Lucas Hernández2241.6 1998France27.96011.80.2+1.653.6 1970Brazil25.96003.11.1+2.054.8 Florian Thauvin2559.4 France didn’t control the ball much in victoryWorld Cup winners with the lowest possession rates, 1966-2018 France isn’t going away soonAge and market value (according to TransferMarkt) for top players on the 2018 French national team Paul Pogba25106.9 Kylian Mbappé19$142.6m 1994Brazil28.15021.40.4+1.059.4
The Ohio State men’s hockey team (2-4-0) stays on the road to compete against the No. 11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3-3-0) in a two game series Friday and Saturday. The Irish are the defending CCHA regular season and tournament champions.After losing the first game of a two-game series against Lake Superior State last weekend by a score of 3-2, OSU had to find a way to rally back in the second contest.The Buckeyes were trailing 2-0 in the first period, but tied the game after goals by Matt Bartkowski and Sergio Somma. After Lake Superior State put another puck in the net, Peter Boyd and Patrick Schafer responded with goals of their own to give the Buckeyes their second victory of the season.The Buckeyes hope to ride Saturday’s 4-3 comeback victory over Lake Superior State into South Bend, Ind. The Irish, however, have been one of the most dominant teams in college hockey in the past three seasons. Since 2006, they have posted 90-29-10 overall record and a nation-best .742 winning percentage. Notre Dame won the CCHA regular season titles in the 2006-07 and 2008-09 seasons. The team also competed in the 2008 national title game, but fell to Boston College.The team has gotten off to a disappointing start compared to last season as the Irish are currently sitting at a .500 winning percentage. Notre Dame’s most notable win this season was a 3-0 victory at Boston University, its only away game of the premature season.Notre Dame had to replace six seniors who were vital parts of its team last season, but brought back a crop of athletes to fill in the holes left by the graduating senior class.Junior defenseman Ian Cole was a first team All-American last season and senior right wing Erick Condra was a second team All-American. Senior left wing Ryan Thang will wear the captain stitching for the 2009-2010 season. Thang is tied for first all-time with 13 game-winning goals.Jeff Jackson is in his fifth season on the bench as the Irish’s coach. During his Irish career, he has compiled a 103-48-14 record. Jackson was the 2006-07 Coach of the Year, leading Notre Dame to the first Frozen Four appearance in school history.OSU split the series versus Notre Dame last season, winning, 4-1, and losing, 4-3, in overtime at the Schottenstein Center. It does not look as if Buckeyes coach John Markell has selected a true starting goalie for his team yet. Cal Heeter and Dustin Carlson each started one of the games in the past series versus Lake Superior State. Heeter has been in goal when the Buckeyes have won both of their contests, but Markell still has not made the decision if there will be one starting goalie this season.The coach has insisted that for his team to be successful he does not need just one starting goalie, just someone to fill in the spot between the posts and help his team win.The Buckeyes will play the Irish at 7:35 p.m. Friday and at 5:05 p.m. Saturday at Joyce Center Rink.
Redshirt freshman right-hander Adam Niemeyer (43) delivers a pitch against Louisville on April 14. OSU won, 2-0.Credit: Ryan Cooper / Sports EditorAdam Niemeyer was making the second appearance of his collegiate career last season when he knew something was wrong.“I threw a curveball and I just knew it wasn’t good when I threw that pitch. I tried to throw again in another game, but it just kept getting worse and worse, so I got an MRI and found out that I had to have surgery,” the Ohio State redshirt freshman right-hander said.The procedure that Niemeyer had to undergo was ulnar collateral reconstruction surgery, commonly known as Tommy John surgery. It is an operation where a damaged ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body, and it is becoming almost commonplace for pitchers.Last season, more than 25 major league pitchers required the operation. This year, over 10 have already gone under the knife.For Niemeyer, the elbow problems began during his junior year of high school. After a summer to rest it, however, he felt no discomfort — that is until a game at Oregon on March 7, 2014, when the pain returned.He made one more appearance six days later against Siena after the fateful one in Oregon. In that outing, he gave up four unearned runs. After that night, he was shut down before undergoing the procedure on April 9, 2014.“It was pretty disappointing, just because I was coming off my best outing of the year, really felt like I was contributing to the team, and then hearing that news was just really devastating,” Niemeyer said.Jason Good, the athletic trainer for the OSU baseball team, was tasked with bringing Niemeyer back to full strength.“It’s a pretty long process, as you can imagine,” Good said. “Prior to the ‘80s, you were done, but now we’ve kind of developed a rehab progression where we start off with just range of motion, just moving the joints to get them going, to strengthening the shoulder, elbow, wrist flexors, and now really we’re starting to get even further, to where we’re working from the ground up, and almost rebuilding an athlete.”Good said the timetable to return is set at 12 months from the date of surgery, with a couple of months on either side depending on the success of the rehab.For Niemeyer, it was on the quicker side, as he made his return to the diamond with a scoreless inning against Pittsburgh on Feb. 15 — just over 10 months after the surgery.“I could tell he was down a little bit, because I knew he wanted to be out there with us, especially after a good outing against Oregon, and then he finds out he can’t pitch the rest of the year,” sophomore outfielder Ronnie Dawson, who was roommates with Niemeyer last year, said. “But he handled it really well. He wanted to get the surgery right away, start the rehab and now he’s back here.”Niemeyer said the support of fellow Tommy John recipients — junior infielder Jacob Bosiokovic and sophomore right-hander Yianni Pavlopoulos — a select group they call “The Zipper Club,” helped him cope with his rehab and recovery.But more than anything, it was the Minster, Ohio, product’s hunger to return to the mound and help his team toward its goal of making the NCAA tournament that drove him.“It’s good to go out there and contribute to the team, help the team win,” Niemeyer said. “That was the hardest part last year, just watching from the sidelines, not really being able to go out there and help the guys.”After six appearances out of the bullpen to start the season, OSU coach Greg Beals handed Niemeyer the ball for his first collegiate start — a start that just so happened to come against a team that was ranked No. 4 in the nation at the time in Louisville on April 14.Niemeyer responded masterfully, tossing five shutout innings and only allowing two hits to guide OSU’s 2-0 upset victory.He then made another start a week later, a 6-3 victory over Morehead State, before returning to the bullpen to toss three scoreless innings of relief against Illinois last weekend.Good said he was not surprised to see the right-hander come back with a vengeance based on his work to get back following the surgery.“Adam’s doing really well. He was a good foundation,” Good said. “He’s kind of the model of, ‘All right, if you have somebody who’s going to get hurt, this is the foundation that you want to work with,’ because he has a good structure, he works hard and he’s driven to want to be back.”While Good said that it usually takes about two years for a pitcher to feel like they did before the surgery, Niemeyer, just over a year removed from the operation, said he feels he is already at that point.“I think I am (100 percent). I feel pretty good,” Niemeyer said. “I still have things I have to work on. I think my control is what I have to focus on to get that back to where it was, but arm-wise, I feel pretty good.”Niemeyer and the Buckeyes are set to close out their home schedule with a three-game series against Maryland from May 8-10. First pitch is set for 6:35 p.m., 3:05 p.m. and 1:05 p.m. for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann talks to sophomore center Micah Potter (0) during a timeout in the first half of the game against Iowa on Feb. 10 in the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo EditorNo. 8 Ohio State just had to win its remaining four games to become outright Big Ten regular-season champions. But going into State College, Pennsylvania, to face off against Penn State, the only conference team that had beaten Ohio State this season, the road was not going to be easy.The Buckeyes left Happy Valley anything but happy after getting mauled by the Nittany Lions 79-56, bringing Ohio State to a tie for first place in the conference with No. 2 Michigan State. Ohio State still holds the tiebreaker for seeding in the Big Ten tournament.The Buckeyes (22-6, 13-2 Big Ten) shot just 39 percent overall and 13 percent from 3-point range, while the Nittany Lions (19-9, 9-6 Big Ten) shot 48 percent from the field, and were commanding from beyond the arc, shooting 45 percent.In the head-to-head matchup between Ohio State redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop and Penn State sophomore guard Tony Carr, the conference’s scoring leaders, Carr finished with the upper hand, scoring 30 points off 9-for-15 shooting, including 50 percent from 3. Bates-Diop had just 10 points and five rebounds.Penn State went on a near-four-minute scoring drought, but went on a 15-3 run with 1:30 left in the first half to go up 40-19. The first half came to an end with a full-court pass that was caught by Carr on the baseline, who made the layup and the subsequent and-1 to give Penn State the 45-21 halftime lead. It was the largest first-half deficit Ohio State has faced all season.Ohio State began to show some life around the middle of the second half. Trailing by 30 points, the Buckeyes went on an 18-4 run to bring the game to 58-42 with 10:37 left to play. The game got off to a rough start for Ohio State. The Buckeyes had four points from freshman center Kaleb Wesson, but he landed awkwardly on his ankle trying to grab a defensive rebound and was forced to leave the game. Wesson returned with 10:50 left in the first half.After the injury, Penn State sprinted to a 12-0 run that included Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann getting hit for a technical foul for arguing with the referees. Wesson’s four points were the Buckeyes’ only points until junior guard C.J. Jackson made a layup with 13:31 left in the first half. Penn State guard Tony Carr responded immediately with a 3 to bring the Nittany Lion lead to 17-6.