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Doc Halladay Taught Me His Cutter and Then I Got Sober

Jim McCormick - November 9, 2017

On a wall that sees nearly infinite sun facing Townsends Inlet hangs a picture of my father and his three sons celebrating the epic no-hitter Roy Halladay threw on October 6, 2010.

One hundred and seventy-seven days after just the second no-no in MLB playoff history, I was covering my first game on the beat with “Doc” once again on the hill.

I’m grinding for an upstart website called Philly Sports Daily and somewhat rightfully placed in the far corner of the press box with the Delco Times and other assorted fringe media members.

I’m following the game on Brooks Baseball, confident I’m the only guy in this packed press box going full nerd. Doc’s sinker topped out at 93.8 MPH with an absurd vertical break.

What startled me was Halladay’s somewhat newfound reliance on the cutter. I was hired by this emergent media company to flex my nerdom via analysis, so the fact that 51 of his 101 of his pitches were cutters intrigued me given his previous assortment of pitch types.

Waiting around for baseball players to shower isn’t so different than waiting for anyone to shower – checking your phone and tapping your feet. Halladay came out and talked to the huddled media crew for his requisite stretch of four or five questions from the two reporters he recognized and then filtered over to his locker where he had a toy helicopter that his son was already playing with.

We were over talking with Jimmy Rollins after a notable two-hit performance and I feel a sting in my calf. It was the ‘copter that Halladay’s son was manning hitting my leg. I try to pick it up and a media employee for the team is already en route, so I just tip my “all good” expression with my fat Irish face to Halladay at his locker and he raises his hand. Continue Reading

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Fantasy Football Week 4: Is Wendell Smallwood a Potential Feature Back for Philly?

Jim McCormick - September 28, 2017

If one tailback on the Eagles could consume a bell-cow share of the touches—meaning a player who is capable of handling around 15 carries and the rich allotment of routes and targets the team dedicates to the position—they’d likely become a fantasy star.

If we had a time machine and mind control over Howie Roseman like Smokey had over Debo, this imaginary back would likely be named Dalvin Cook or Joe Mixon (or hey, maybe don’t draft the 17-pound satellite back in the middle of the fourth round; Jamaal Williams or Marlon Mack would be helpful to this roster).

Since we don’t have these options at our disposal, we can instead focus on what remains in the wake of Darren Sproles’ devastating series of injuries on a single play. Some might even spin Sproles as the archetype for the elite change-of-pace back and one arguably worthy of Canton, but that’s another article.

As for his part in Doug Pederson’s West Coast-ish scheme, Sproles has been immensely involved in the Birds’ passing game, as only David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and DeMarco Murray have run more than the 315 routes the diminutive dynamo has since the start of last season.

With the Olde English tilted in Sproles’ honor, it’s time to move on. Continue Reading

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Going Deep: Carson Wentz Could Become a Statistical Star Before Long, and Other Week 3 Fantasy Football Talk

Jim McCormick - September 22, 2017

The Eagles are 14th in the league in points per drive, revealing a middle-of-the-pack offense. Beyond this macro metric, we find the Birds set with some impressive advanced data. They are second in the league with a third-down conversion clip of 55.2%, well ahead of the league average rate of 40.4% through this small early-season sample. They are also sixth in first downs and have the second-lowest rate of three-and-outs in the league through two weeks.

There’s clearly some evidence of an ascendant offense, yet we must also recognize the sluggish portion of Philly’s portfolio; the Eagles have converted just half of their six red-zone trips into touchdowns (tied for 16th in the league)– they were 24th in the league last season with a red zone efficiency rate of 49.1% (percentage of touchdowns per red zone trip).

The Eagles scored a touchdown on 18% of their drives last season, good for 22nd in the NFL and just ahead of the Bears and Jaguars. They have scored a touchdown on 17.4% of their drives this season. That’s just not good enough to earn a meaningful, upper-echelon points-per-drive rate. I think of per-drive production as the on-base percentage for offensive football success; isolating offensive efficiency with a simple formula.

The sample is entirely tiny this season, but in order for the Eagles’ offense to prove potent, red zone efficiency needs to approach league average (was 55.6% last season). That, or they need to hit more home runs in the vertical passing game. I’m thinking verticality is where the ceiling—or best-case outcome—is with this offense.

The fantasy angle threaded into this discussion of Philly’s scoring efficiency comes from Carson Wentz’s right arm—he’s averaging 11.26 air yards per throw, second only to Jameis Winston. Continue Reading

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Space Jam: The NBA’s Gravity Era Welcomes the 2017-18 Sixers

Jim McCormick - September 20, 2017

The Monstars were well ahead of the analytics curve in that they made all nine of their three-point attempts against Michael Jordan’s Tune Squad back in 1996. Even though they lost, the Monstars merit some credit for the modernity of their approach to the game. (Yes, someone from Harvard charted the game from Space Jam.)

Gravity – in basketball terms – wasn’t really a factor in Space Jam, as Jordan’s team didn’t attempt a single shot beyond the arc and still somehow beat a gang of efficient aliens with a crew of cartoons. The Monstars also jumped like 40 feet in the air, so even the Isaac Newton version of gravity wasn’t a factor in the premise. Continue Reading

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It’s in the Air (Yards): Alshon Jeffery Is Due for Some Big Plays, And Other Fantasy Football Notes for Week 2

Jim McCormick - September 14, 2017

Air yards are the new version of the target in fantasy football analytics. Years back, tracking targets as an opportunity rate seemed revolutionary; no longer were we simply relying on the results from a given game, but the potential a given pass-catcher’s usage rate revealed. A decade back when I was cranking out content for ESPN, the fantasy community often chased receptions and yardage—the raw sum of production—when evaluating a player, without much regard to how those receptions were compiled.

That seems archaic now, as targets have become common nomenclature for the fantasy fiend. The thing is, the target is a somewhat obtuse number in that it only suggests a pass was sent to a specific player during a game. How far was that target down the field? If big gains—”splash plays” as the cool kids are now saying—are the coin we covet in fantasy football, it helps to know how aggressive and potentially rewarding a player’s target distribution proves.

Enter air yards, which are exactly what they sound like: the yardage the ball spends in the air en route to a targeted receiver. Thanks to increased quality in-game charting by proxy of sites like Pro Football Focus, the NFL’s Next Gen brand and some of ESPN’s proprietary tracking data, we can discuss not just how many targets Alshon Jeffery had in his regular-season debut with the Eagles this past Sunday in Washington (seven), but the depth of such targets (16.7 air yards). Continue Reading

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This Is The Year Zach Ertz Actually Breaks Out, and Other Fantasy Values for Week 1

Jim McCormick - September 7, 2017

Jim McCormick has covered fantasy football for ESPN for over 10 years. Each week, he’ll go over the best daily fantasy values and waiver wire pickups. This week, he focuses on Zach Ertz, who is poised for a breakout season in both fantasy and real-life. The numbers say so.

Baseball front offices got infinitely sharper when it became clear amid the Moneyball era that a range of outcomes for each player could be compared against the huge database of previous performance.

For instance, it wouldn’t take a very sophisticated statistical model to map out the very likely demise of aging power hitters. If age, injury history, and diversity of skills—such as defense and plate discipline—were factored in, you’d assume no competent general manager would have allocated Ryan Howard the money and years Ruben Amaro Jr. did in April of 2010.

It’s not that it was impossible for Howard to live up to the massive pact, it’s that doing so would have required bucking a massive sample size of Cecil Fielders before him. Amaro was betting a 34-year-old Howard would still be mashing instead of just cashing. There is an alternative outcome, likely one that would only occur with a probability of five or six percent, where Howard carried the Phillies’ power production into his mid-30s. In the end, the most likely outcome unfolded.

Banking on outliers isn’t always an awful practice, as there are undoubtedly human elements to a player and/or team that no spreadsheet can consider. Data shouldn’t define the decision process, but it should be part of it. Systemic dismissal of clear trends is often managerial malpractice in professional sports.

To pivot to fantasy football, Amaro definitely drafted Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore on all of his teams this season.

We’ll allow that incredibly overwritten intro to segue into a discussion of the upcoming NFL season through the lens of fantasy football and nerdy numbers. Football doesn’t translate nearly as well to predictive analytics as baseball, the ultimate Excel sport, but we do have an increasingly rich base of data to consider.

The Amaro example serves as precedent to consider how established trends should earn our attention when analyzing sports, particularly at the fantasy level. (I also used to cover the Phillies, and Amaro would have a separate presser at 3 PM most days, like 90 minutes before Charlie and the players were available for BP. All so he could tell the 11 disheveled reporters Utley’s knee was doing better. Thus, I’ll take shots when I can.)

Viewing the Eagles as a fantasy portfolio, I’m finally buying Zach Ertz as a breakout fantasy commodity after years of fading him. Rotoviz posts similarity comps for each skill position to help us get an idea of which previous seasons are viable future outcomes for a given player. We find Ertz in some strong company in regards to his career arc.

What have tight ends with similar age, experience, physical measurables and production to Ertz accomplished in past seasons? Continue Reading

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Brett Brown Could Unleash His Young Talent To Play at a Historic Pace

Jim McCormick - September 1, 2017

There was a time when James Harden and Tony Wroten were statistical peers.

During his second year with the Houston Rockets, Harden sported a usage rate of 27.6%, good for 22nd in the NBA. This was 2013-14, also the first season of The Process in Philly, which saw the 76ers’ 21-year-old Wroten finish fractionally behind the Rockets’ bearded one with a usage rate of 27.5%. Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, meanwhile, claimed a higher usage rate than Portland’s prolific Dame Lillard that season.

Usage rate gets thrown around casually by hoops nerds and NBA writers as a measure of offensive responsibility. Usage is determined by a simple formula that weighs minutes, shot attempts from both the field and the stripe, along with turnovers within the context of a team. It’s essentially a path to identifying which players are heavily influencing possessions for each team. For some historical context, Allen Iverson led the league in usage rate in 2000-2001 in addition to pacing the planet in TGI Friday’s expenditure and illegal usage of handicap parking spaces.

During the 2014-15 campaign—Harden scaled to seventh in the league in usage rate, just behind LeBron James. Amid an 18-win season in South Philly, Wroten likewise vaulted into the top tier of ball-dominant playmakers, finishing ninth in usage rate that season. Such unique autonomy saw Carter-Williams finish fifth in the league in drives to the basket per game as a rookie, and both he and Wroten rated in the top six in drives per game in 2014-15, both finishing just ahead of Russell Westbrook. We can keep going if you want (you don’t want); Ish Smith was somehow fifth in the entire league in drives per game with the Sixers and touched the ball more times per game than either of Kyrie Irving or James in 2015-16.

I’m pretty sure there is a point to this statistical bloviating, which is to frame the incredible offensive responsibilities coach Brett Brown has afforded his lead ball-handlers, even when they’ve been objectively terrible at assuming said duties.

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