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Just The Sports: 2010-07-18

Just The Sports

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Giving Louis Oosthuizen His Due

While South African Louis Oosthuizen was winning the 139th edition of the Open Championship in runaway fashion, numerous storylines about him emerged. A few of them were the correct pronunciation of his last name, that Shrek is his nickname, and that even though he hailed from a nation that from 1948 to 1994 was run of a system of legal racial segregation, he elected to use a black man for his caddy. Those storylines may have impressed the more superficial sports follower, but they left out the most important fact about Oosthuizen's seven stroke victory.

Since 1892, when the Open Championship changed its format to a four-round, seventy- two hole tournament, Oosthuizen turned in the second most dominant performance ever seen by a winner. I judged the level of dominance in victories by calculating how many standard deviations below average the winners were because golf is a sport where the lowest score is the best. Using this metric allowed me to correct for dilution where the tournament fields might have been weaker and the data set would be more spread out, thus making the wins not as noteworthy since the champion would have been defeating weaker overall competition. Since the more standard deviations away from the average a number is, the more unlikely it is to have been reached, we can see with certainty that the four rounds turned in by Oosthuizen deserve to be remembered with special favor.

Oosthuizen's four-round score of 272 was 3.5 standard deviations below the 2010 Open Championship four-round average of 287.1. Only Tiger Woods' otherwordly 2005 Open Championship win when he was 5.4 standard deviations below the average score tops Oosthuizen. By not giving Oosthuizen the credit he deserves for such a tremendous victory, we are committing a great injustice against him. Unless the Open Championship win signifies a turning point in his career, it may be the only time he wins a major so he should receive adulation enough to comfort him during his fade into obscurity. For four incredible days, Oosthuizen was more dominant at the Open than some of the best golfers to ever live.

In the 108 tournaments since 1892, minus the ten years the Open Championship was not held due to World Wars I and II, there were nine other tournaments than the two I have already mentioned where the victor was at least 3.0 standard deviations below the average scores: Padraig Harrington in 2008 (3.5); Tiger Woods in 2000 (3.3); Nick Faldo in 1990 (3.1); Bill Rogers in 1981 (3.0); Tom Watson in 1980 (3.3); Tom Watson in 1977 (3.4); Johnny Miller in 1976 (3.1); Arnold Palmer in 1962 (3.2); Henry Cotton in 1934 (3.1).

As you might have noticed, the majority of these extremely dominant performances have come within the past fifty years. Consistently, the farther you go back in history, especially preceding 1970, the larger the standard deviations become, which makes it more difficult for someone to have shot a score that can truly be seen as an extremely unlikely and more impressive one. Such a phenomenon is indicative of the fact that overall, golfers are better today. During a tournament, there are more golfers now that are likely to shoot scores closer to the average score than golfers in decades long past. Then, when a golfer distances himself nowadays by the kind of large margin Oosthuizen did, the feat becomes even more spectacular because it is more difficult to break away from the pack with the talent level of golfers being so close to each other excepting a few notable golfers.

Although Louis Oosthuizen's 2010 Open Championship places him in rarefied air, it is highly unlikely he will be recognized for his tremendous feat as long as sports continue to be covered in the manner they usually are. The only reason Louis Oosthuizen's name is even known to as many people as it is now is because he won a major tournament and any talk about him should start with discussing his performance in said tournament. No matter his nickname or who his caddy is, Oosthuizen should be remembered as the golfer with the second most dominant win at the Open. It is a shame he will not be remembered that way at all since most people will never even possess such knowledge.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Three First Round Running Backs

Three running backs, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, and Jahvid Best, were drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, meaning the Buffalo Bills, the San Diego Chargers, and the Detroit Lions all think they now possess a franchise running back for the future. Whether or not they are right remains to be seen, but based on these running back's college numbers, we can get an idea of the type of running back each player is. In order to gauge the profile of the running backs, I used Football Outsiders' success rate formula for running backs (40% of yardage on 1st down; 60% of yardage on 2nd down; 100% on 3rd and 4th downs) with a minor tweak of my own, which is that when a team goes for it on fourth down, I count a successful run as a run where the running back gains 80% of the necessary yardage. Using the success rate formula, I can get a good idea of how consistent and explosive these players are.

First, let us examine C.J. Spiller. Even before the draft, he was widely acknowledged as the best running back in the draft so it was no surprise when he was selected ninth overall by the Bills. Such a high draft pick indicates the Bills plan to use him in a workhorse running back role or at least expect him to play a large role in their offense, but Spiller has nothing in his background that says he would be able to handle such a heavy load. Actually, Spiller is the running back with the least impressive college resume of the three.

In order to maximize Spiller's abilities, the Bills should be extremely careful how they use him. He is not a running back who can be given the ball twenty times a game and be expected to produce at a very high level. Spiller's success rate of 50.6% makes him the least consistent of the three runners so he will not grind out yards on a consistent basis. Instead, he is just as likely to stifle the offense by only gaining one or two yards when the team needs him to get four or five.

Spiller's low success rate combined with his average of gaining an extra 7.1 yards per successful run and his average of falling short by 3.6 yards per unsuccessful run make Spiller a quintessential boom or bust running back. These running backs are best used in a secondary running back role as they cannot be depended upon game in and game out to gain the necessary yards. For every great game a boom or bust running back has, he will mix it up with a real stinker of one. While Spiller does exhibit above average explosiveness, I fear the Bills are drafting him to be a player he is simply not cut out to be.

Ryan Mathews was the second running back taken, going twelfth overall to the San Diego Chargers after they traded up to draft him. By drafting Mathews, the Chargers have a prototypical workhorse running back who will make Chargers fans forget all about LaDainian Tomlinson. Even though Mathews carried a far heavier load per game (17.2 rush attempts per game compared to Spiller's 11.7 rush attempts per game and Best's 11.7 rush attempts per game), Mathews was still by far the most consistent runner with a success rate of 56.2%. As his 6.5 extra yards per successful run indicate, Mathews is also able to break up a few long runs, too, in addition to being able to churn out the tough yards and keep the Chargers offense in manageable downs and distances. The fact he only comes up short by 3.1 yards per unsuccessful run is another bonus as it shows even when he does not have a successful run, he does not come up short by too much.

Out of this first round stable of running backs, it is the Chargers that got the most complete runner.

With the thirtieth pick in the draft, the Lions acquired the most explosive runner out of these three in Jahvid Best. Best's 9.7 extra yards per successful run is spectacularly sublime and blows away both Mathews and Spiller. His ability to break long runs is without a doubt his greatest attribute, but he is also a pretty consistent runner with a 52.7% success rate on his runs. He comes up 4.1 yards short per successful run, but when taken into context with his successful runs, there is nothing to worry about. If the Lions pair Best with another running back so that the two of them can share the offensive burden equally, he will reward them by being a very productive and exciting player.

Since the Chargers have the most complete running back in Ryan Mathews and the Lions have the most explosive running back in Jahvid Best, it looks like the Buffalo Bills and C.J. Spiller are left out in the cold. Compared to two running backs with superior numbers, Spiller's high draft selection looks as if it is more a result of hype than his true production, hype he may not be able to live up to. The Bills will just have to hope that Spiller can make up for his lack of elite running back ability with great contributions in the kick return game. As for the Chargers and the Lions, they have to be quite pleased with their additions to their backfields.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Learning To Love Matt Leinart

Being the best matters. It matters in educational pursuits, the quality of life one leads, and it especially matters in professional sports that continuously chew up and spit out athletes who cannot perform competently at the highest levels. Each year professional franchises attempt to identify the truly elite, predicting that it is those players who will have the greatest positive impact on their team's future.

Matt Leinart is such a player who can actually be looked at as the best based on his incredible performances at the University of Southern California. That is why it is so hard to understand the backlash Leinart has experienced since winning the Heisman trophy after his junior season. By coming back for his senior season, Leinart seemingly opened himself up to exaggerated criticism where everyone wanted to focus on his minor deficiencies like a perceived lack of arm strength instead of celebrating his numerous strengths. It was those numerous strengths that were on display his senior season where he completed 65.7% of his passes with 8.9 yards per pass attempt, making that season Leinart's best collegiate one. Overall, for his career, Leinart completed 64.9% of his passes on 8.6 yards per pass attempt after throwing 1,245 passes for the Trojans, making him the best USC quarterback to play in recent memory.

As I have previously shown with Aaron Rodgers, added credit should be given to quarterbacks who show they are better than their counterparts in similar college offensive systems. Accomplishing such a feat is usually indicative that their college success will translate to the NFL, which bodes well for Matt Leinart.

Carson Palmer was the first USC quarterback to really have so many accolades heaped upon him, being the first USC quarterback to win the Heisman and the first overall pick of the 2003 NFL draft, and really started the current trend of vaulting the starting quarterback of USC into national prominence. Palmer did this despite only completing 59.9% of his 1,298 passes thrown in games where he either attempted the most passes or throw for the most yards; his passes also netted 7.5 yards per pass attempt. Both of those numbers fall short of his successor Leinart's accomplishments.

On a side note, although Palmer has improved his accuracy numbers in the NFL, completing 63.0% of the passes he threw while playing a significant amount of the game, his completion percentage is still not statistically significantly better than what he did at USC. His lack of a dramatic increase in accuracy gives further credence to the idea that a player's college completion percentage provides a very strong predictive baseline for what one will do in the NFL.

Leinart's successor after he dominated the college football landscape for three seasons was John David Booty. Booty started twenty-three games for the Trojans, threw 782 passes, completed 62.7% of his passes, and had 7.4 yards per pass attempt. All of those numbers are inferior to Leinart's, although they are all above average numbers for a college quarterback. The fact they are decimated by Leinart's demonstrate how great of a quarterback he was.

After John David Booty came Mark Sanchez, who came the closest to matching Matt Leinart. Sanchez completed 64.5% of his passes and threw for 8.1 yards per pass attempt, but he only started sixteen games in college. In contrast, Leinart started thirty-nine games for USC, more than twice as much as Sanchez. There is no evidence to suggest Sanchez would have been able to maintain those numbers for a whole season as Leinart was. There have been plenty of college quarterbacks who have had one great season before falling back to the pack in other ones so Sanchez's statistics cannot be trusted like Leinart's. Leinart will always have the edge over Sanchez because although they have similar numbers, Leinart's performances encompass a larger sample size.

Although these quarterbacks did not play for the same offensive coordinators, they did play in similar pro-style offenses so the comparisons among the quarterbacks are still apt and prove Matt Leinart is perfectly equipped to have a successful NFL career. He may have struggled in his games so far, but it must be remembered that he has only started seventeen games. If every quarterback's career path was to be determined after seventeen games, very few would be given a chance to continue to start. The same patience must be shown Leinart so that he can realize his quarterbacking potential.