How well do Vegas futures predict playoff results in each sport?

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Spurs and Heat… again.

On Friday, I wrote a post for FiveThirtyEight discussing the rampant inequality and predictability found in the NBA. I have a few more thoughts on that subject…

While the NBA has successfully suckered tens of millions of fans into believing the 2014 playoffs have been thrilling and unpredictable, with the LA Times even declaring, “March Madness suddenly seems like such a bore by comparison” (this is a pretty odd comparison considering the Final Four concluded with a No. 7 seed beating a No. 8 for the title), I’ve had a much different opinion, and this year’s predictable results simply fall in line with recent history.

While my original post mostly analyzed the odds distribution in each sport, I didn’t much consider the actual results, and it got me wondering… How well do those futures odds predict what actually happens on the court, as well as in other sports?

To analyze this, I ranked all the teams in each sport according to their preseason championship odds* (i.e. for 2014, Miami is No. 1, Bulls No. 2, etc.) I then plotted this rank against their eventual playoff results (0 = missed playoffs, 1 = lost in first round, 2 = made conference semifinals, 3 = made conference finals, 4 = made finals, 5 = won title) over the last four seasons. For comparison, I also included the NHL, a league that also has an 82-game regular season and four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs:

*Because any betting odds will add up to greater than 100 percent, I simply divided all the futures by the sum of all the teams’ odds to scale them down to 100 percent.

nba presason vs results

nhl presason vs results

The NBA has a clear strong correlation between preseason championship probability rank and playoff results, while the NHL is much weaker. Over the last four years, no NBA team ranked lower than fifth in preseason championship odds has made the finals. Compare that to the NHL, which has had six of eight non-top five finals teams in that time.

Here are the NFL and MLB distributions too:

NFL preseason vs results

(0 = missed playoffs, 1 = lost in wild card round, 2 = lost in divisional round, 3 = lost in conference championship game, 4 = lost Super Bowl, 5 = won Super Bowl)

MLB preseason vs results

(0 = missed playoffs, 1 = lost in Wild Card game, 2 = lost in LDS, 3 = lost in LCS, 4 = lost World Series, 5 = won World Series)

It’s easy to see how these other leagues’ plots differ from the NBA’s. Here are the correlations for each graph:

NBA = .647

NHL = .523

NFL = .440

MLB = .371

Clearly, the preseason favorites go further in the playoffs with a much higher frequency in the NBA than in any other sport.

Dominance of Miami

Much of the predictability in the NBA is due to the havoc the Miami Heat have waged on the wagering markets. To put Miami’s sports book dominance during the LeBron-Wade-Bosh era in perspective, here’s a scatter plot of the all the seasons in the MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL over the last four seasons, plotting each team’s championship odds at the start of the season against their odds at the start of the playoffs.

AllOdds2

(Sorry, no pretty graphic with this one—just a screenshot of an R plot. Chartbuilder doesn’t take to kindly to doing scatter plots with multiple series.)

Only once in the last four years have the Heat not been favorites to win the title—the start of the 2011 playoffs, following the Big Three’s underwhelming debut regular season. Now, to really see how Miami’s recent run stands out, here are those odds when the four years for each team are averaged together.

AllCombo2

Over the last four seasons, the Heat have averaged 24.6 percent and 28.4 percent chances of winning the title at the start of the regular season and postseason respectively. Compare that to the Sacramento Kings, which have averaged 0.3 percent and 0.0 percent respectively over that time.

Another interesting takeaway from this chart is that the Patriots have often wildly outperformed preseason expectations during the regular season, accruing more than double the title odds by the time the playoffs start. The Lakers, on the other hand, wildly underperform (or are simply very overvalued at the start of the year), nearly slicing their preseason title odds in half over the course of the regular season.

Odds Distributions

Probably the most striking image from my FiveThirtyEight story was this line chart of the distribution of championship odds at the start of the season in each sport.

Pre line chart

When you zoom in on the bottom two thirds of the chart, you can really see the near-zero odds of the barren bottom 50 percent in the NBA.

Pre line zoom

This NBA inequality is still apparent come playoff time. (I separated the MLB data into the years in which there was only one wild card per league and years in which there were two.)

Play line chart

While the NBA may look like it’s made up some ground here equality-wise, it’s important to note that the NFL and MLB have byes and play-in games, a structural advantage that automatically adds greater disparity in championship odds. The average top NBA playoff team, which has to win four rounds for the championship, still has better title odds than the average top MLB and NFL teams, which only have to win three rounds.

Solutions

The day after my FiveThirtyEight story ran, the NY Times published a story that touched on very similar topics. Most interestingly came a quote from former Stanford professor Roger Noll, discussing one of my most despised regulations in sports:

“If you didn’t have an individual cap,” Noll said in a telephone interview, “if LeBron James was in a position to sell himself to the highest bidder, his salary would be much higher and you wouldn’t have a small number of top teams with more than half the superstars in the league.”

“It’s a big mistake, and the N.B.A. hasn’t adjusted. So if you have as many as 25 teams that know before the first game is played that they probably won’t even be in the conference finals, doesn’t that make the regular season seem almost meaningless, more of an exhibition than a pathway to a consequential championship?”

I couldn’t agree more (and plan to write more on this in the NBA off-season).

In previous posts, I’ve argued against the randomness and extreme parity of college basketball, much of which is due to the 68-team single elimination playoff format—a huge contrast to the NBA’s best-of-seven series. If that sounds like the complete opposite of my above criticism of the NBA, then you’re right. The NCAA lies too far toward the extreme randomness/parity end of the spectrum, while the NBA goes too far to the extreme predictability/inequality end.

You don’t want seasons to feel like they’re extremely predictable like the NBA, but at the same time, you want the true best team to win with a relatively high frequency so that it feels like teams are justly rewarded. It’s critical to have a good balance between the two, and finding that equilibrium is something sports leagues have wrestled with—and will continue to wrestle with—for decades.

 

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Why doesn’t the NFL stagger games every hour on Sundays like March Madness?

There's a better way to do this.

There’s a better way to do this.

Realistic rating: 8.0

After being transfixed by the first two days of the NCAA tournament, in which games are starting/ending every hour all day (a scheduling format that somehow wasn’t implemented until only a few years ago), my first thought was, “Hmm, what other sports league has 16 games to broadcast each week, pretty much all on the same day…”

I’ve long had many issues with the NFL’s weekly schedule. I’ve never understood why every Sunday the league always dumps a whopping 8-10 games at 1 p.m. and only three at 4 p.m. (four if we’re lucky). After 10-game chaos during the early slate, which makes it impossible to keep track of everything around the league, RedZone abruptly screeches to a halt around 4:15. Plus, there’s a giant vortex of nothing from 7:30-8:30 between the late games and Sunday Night Football (not to mention the vortexes at 2:30 and 5:30 when each slate of games’ halftimes align).

The NFL could certainly stand to spread out its games a bit more. Now ideally, this would include Fridays and Saturdays, but because of an anti-trust agreement, the NFL isn’t allowed to broadcast games those days, a measure in place to prevent the pro ranks’ cannibalization of high school and college football. (This rule seems pretty dumb. The NFL is only one of thousands of entertainment options that compete with high school and college football viewership. It’s not like they prohibit movies from being shown on Saturday afternoons. Imagine how much NBC’s already low ratings would plummet if they prevented The Voice from airing on certain nights to protect other shows. But I digress…)

However, if we must operate under the (dumb) limit of only having NFL games on Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays, here’s how each week could be scheduled…

(All times EST)

Thursday

Game 1: 8:00 p.m.

Sunday

Game 2: 11:00 a.m.

Game 3: 12:00 p.m.

Game 4: 1:00 p.m.

Game 5: 2: 00 p.m.

Game 6: 3:00 p.m.

Game 7: 4: 00 p.m.

Game 8: 5:00 p.m.

Game 9: 6:00 p.m.

Game 10: 7:00 p.m.

Game 11: 8:00 p.m.

Game 12: 9:00 p.m.

Game 13: 10:00 p.m.

Monday

Game 14: 7:00 p.m.

Game 15: 8:00 p.m.

Game 16: 9:00 p.m.

That’s right, a MNF triple header! And this is only for the eight weeks in which all 32 teams are playing. For bye weeks, you could easily take out the 8 p.m. MNF game, the late 10 p.m. Sunday, and/or the early 11 a.m. Sunday games.

Now, this might seem so obvious that there surely has to be a reason the NFL hasn’t done it already, right? One reason might be that the primetime deals with NBC, ESPN, and now CBS are far more lucrative when they’re stand-alone games, but surely the price the NFL charges for these rights wouldn’t be cut by more than half if it came with the caveat that there was another game at that time on a different channel. Plus, as the NFL learned from some unspeakably dreadful MNF match-ups this season—and even one SNF one despite flex scheduling (Giants-Redskins), it’s probably a good idea to have some backup in case there are some clunkers.

I suppose the FOX and CBS might also want a designated time to synchronously broadcast halftime shows, but are Jimmy, Terry, Howie, and the gang really so invaluable to prevent implementation of PERPETUAL Sunday football?

And sure, the NFL likes its “Game of the Week” at 4 p.m., but it already has a Thursday, Sunday, and Monday national game (and under my proposal, would have multiple Monday night games). Plus, it’s not like the NFL can’t designate the 4 p.m. game as the “Game of the Week” and nationally broadcast it for all the markets who don’t have a local game at that time.

And while a staggered slate might be more difficult for CBS/FOX to schedule for a national audience, I figure each local area will still get its local game at its designated time, with CBS/FOX filling in the rest of the time as they so choose in each market.

Bottom line: Even if the league did want stand-alone primetime games, there’s no reason the afternoon slate couldn’t be staggered. And the best part? They can still run RedZone, only now all day!
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Is 1st-and-11 really an effective way to curtail offenses?

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Drew Magary had an interesting idea on Deadspin yesterday about how to curtail record-setting NFL offenses: Make 1st downs 11 yards rather than 10.

This got me thinking about our society’s enslavement to base-10 principles (and how if we really wanted to keep with that enslavement, we should just go full metric and switch to 1st-and-10 meters, since 11 yards is roughly 10 meters.)

But is an increased frequency of first downs really the reason offenses are becoming so unstoppable? The data suggests otherwise. Via SportingCharts.com, here’s the data since 1992 on the percentage of drives that go three-and-out plotted against the average drives per season per team. (Admittedly, the three-and-out rate probably isn’t the best statistic to measure this, but it’s the best I could dig up and should pretty well mirror 1st down conversion rates.)

Drives Chart

As you can see, the three-and-out percentage has remained pretty steady the past few years but has dropped about half a percentage point from the early 2000s.

What has steadily risen over the last five years, though, is the total number of drives per team. This leads me to believe that offenses aren’t improving because teams continually pick up first downs but rather because they are scoring more quickly. This increased pace could be due to a few things: more yards per play, more passing plays (so the clock stops), or simply wasting less of the play clock.

I doubt the third reason (clock wasting) has much weight, but it certainly seems the first two (increased pace, more passing plays) play a big role in the increased number of drives.

So with this knowledge, how would I propose fixing this issue?

Probably just lengthen the field to 110 yards rather than change the distance necessary for a first down. Or conversely, I might suggest narrowing the field from 53 yards wide to 50 to combat the effects of spread offenses. (I remember seeing an argument somewhere recently that the spread offense has led to fewer injuries. I’d probably disagree… Sure, more players can find space and avoid contact, but the spread also allows both offensive and defensive players to use that space to gain more momentum and allow for bigger hits.)

So… Is this even an issue that needs fixing? Probably not. As long as there’s a solid balance between scoring drives and non-scoring drives, and it’s not skewed too far in either direction (i.e. making punting irrelevant), then the (slight) rise of offenses is fine by me. Sure, it might skew the data and make simple aggregate yard historical comparisons difficult, but that’s what z-scores are for.

Eliminating NFL Overtime

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Realistic rating: 4.5

After the Week 12 Packers-Vikings game ended in a tie, making 2012-13 the first back-to-back seasons with ties since 1988-89, there was again much consternation about games ending in ties and how THIS IS AMERICA. TIES ARE FOR EUROPEAN PUSSIES.

Emerging from all the noise condemning the NFL’s OT rules was a very reasoned response by AdvancedNFLStats’ Brian Burke, who argued that the NFL’s current rules were poorly structured because they are contradictory to the extra period’s goal of avoiding ties while also prolonging the additional period.

This seems like a bit of a tautology, though. “______ is bad because it doesn’t deter the likelihood of what we’ve defined as bad.” But why are ties or prolonged OT periods something to avoid? (For a much less nuanced take on this debate, the increasingly irrelevant Sporting News offered a #HotSportsTake that basically says, “The current OT rules are bad because ties are bad,” and then goes on for many more paragraphs to basically say, “Ties are bad because teams don’t want to tie.”)

While everyone seems to focus on how to simplify the NFL overtime rules, here’s my proposal for the most simple solution: Not have overtime at all. Just end the game in a tie if it’s deadlocked after 60 minutes.

Because the NFL season is only 16 games (i.e. each game represents 6.25% of the season), it is the only sport that can accommodate (and in my opinion, should welcome) ties without significantly diminishing game-to-game excitement. In the NFL, a large swath of teams routinely miss the playoffs, earn first round playoff byes, are assigned different playoff seeding, or see major shifts in draft position by a difference of a single game, and not all games are created equal. The Cowboys’ Week 8 final possession nail-biter loss to the Lions counts the exact same in the standings as their 49-17 blowout loss to the Saints two weeks later.

The fact is that wins and losses are binary outcomes that are not nearly granular enough to truly determine the better team in a season that only produces 16 such outcomes. (In 82- and 162-game seasons, this binary outcome is not only tolerable, but necessary, as any more granularity would further sap the already-small level of game-to-game excitement.) There’s a reason statisticians don’t really look at wins and losses when analyzing teams. (Sadly, many fans and “experts” don’t even use wins and losses, but something far less granular to evaluate teams: championships.)

Now for those concerned about seeing a standings filled with records like 10-3-3 and 7-5-4, that hysteria is very overblown. Only about 7% of all NFL games go to overtime, or roughly one per season for every team. While relatively rare, ties would have the benefit presenting the standings as a slightly better depiction of a team’s actual body of work for each season.

The other big thing to consider here is injury risk and fatigue. Is it fair for a two teams to have to play an extra period, risking injuries to all their players and also further wearing them out for next weeks’ game? Overtime in a sport as violent as the NFL is almost a prisoner’s dilemma situation in which it would be mutually beneficial for both deadlocked teams to simply agree to a coin flip to determine the winner rather than for each of them to risk incurring negative effects on their respective futures.

So rather than trying to fix the OT rules many people seem to despise so much, let’s just leave them for this weekend’s games and the rest of the postseason.

Bottom line: This likely wouldn’t happen because of the heavily ingrained cultural aversion to dreaded ties. The only foreseeable way the NFL would eliminate OT is if the sport became so dangerous that any additional time playing the game was thought to be reason to avoid it.

Can the best college team really challenge the worst NFL team? Let’s find out!

Case+Keenum+Jacksonville+Jaguars+v+Houston+yimElzqSagkl

 Realistic rating: 2.5

Every year, the question always comes up from talking sports heads, writers, and fans: “Could the [best college football team] beat the [worst NFL team]”? All the questioning is mostly facetious, but it’s become so prevalent, and such a matter of intrigue, that it begs the question… Why not actually do it and once and for all find out?

The biggest reason it wouldn’t happen (or be worthwhile) under current circumstances? The NFL team would have no incentive to play. Why risk injury? Plus, there’s no upside. If they win, they only do what they’re expected in crushing a bunch of college kids. If they lose, they’re eternally humiliated.

These aren’t unfixable problems.

Let’s say the NFL were to propose a rule in the next CBA that the worst team in the league must play the BCS National Champion in a game held the Saturday between the conference championship games and Super Bowl (i.e. the day before the Pro Bowl.)

The game would be held at the recently crowed BCS championship team’s home stadium. This location would be because the college team’s fans would be the ones most willing to come out and cheer for a team to win in such a game (don’t think many Texans fans would be pumped to cheer on their team to avoid a humiliating loss), and it would also give the college fans a kind of de facto homecoming celebration for the returning conquerors, as the BCS National Championship Game could easily have taken place across the country.

Here’s the kicker to incentivize the pro team to win*, though: If the NFL team loses, its No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft moves back five slots and becomes the No. 6. It’s a penalty significant enough for the team to prepare for the game and play hard while really not being draconian, especially considering the somewhat crapshoot nature of the NFL draft and the a recent quantification of draft pick value by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective.

*Players on the NFL team will be paid a pro-rated stipend based on their salary that season for their extra week of work. (Players on the NCAA team will continue to be “paid” with, well, more textbooks and knowledge.)

The NFL and NCAA could split the ticket, merchandising, sponsorship, and TV revenue 50/50. (A bulk of each league’s half would go to each representative in the game.) One could imagine such a game generating quite a lot of viewership, especially compared to the Pro Bowl audience the next day. Given the event-ization and unique nature of such a contest, it’s quite reasonable to suggest its ratings being on par with a typical NBC Sunday Night Football game, which sells ads at a rate of $500,000 per 30 seconds. One of the NFL’s many broadcast partners would probably pony up quite a bit for those kinds of figures.

The other wrinkle in this idea is that, due to the humiliation of playing in such a game and also the risk of downgrading a draft pick, it de-incentivizes NFL teams from tanking to get the No. 1 pick. (Although it should be noted that this side bonus is pretty minimal, as tanking in is nowhere near as prevalent in the NFL as it is in the NBA due to the fact that so many more NFL players are on shorter non-guaranteed contracts, and playing for that next paycheck.)

The thing to remember here is that the NFL team is going to win the vast majority of the time, so the draft pick penalty will come into play only once every couple of decades. (Although we can’t know that for sure since, you know, this game doesn’t exist yet.) Plus, if the NFL team is leading by a few scores early (a very likely possibility), they can just sub out their highly paid starters and minimize their injury potential.

**Addendum: This idea might work better for basketball, where the relative injury risk each game isn’t very high compared to football. All the principles are still in play, though. (Although since high draft picks are much more valuable in the NBA, the penalty for losing would have to be more along the lines of only 2-3 draft spots back.)

Bottom line: This idea will almost certainly never happen due to complaints from the NFL player’s union as well as some hypocritical NCAA stance on having “amateurs” be tainted by playing on the same field as “professionals.” That doesn’t mean this idea wouldn’t work in theory (and also be a profitable investment for the NFL and NCAA), though.

NFL Injury Time Outs

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Realistic rating: 8.5

Throughout the 2013 NFL season, we’ve seen numerous instances of defensive players faking injuries in attempts to give their defense a breather. However, it appears we’ve seen far more instances of injuries that fans mistakenly believe to be fake, provoking a torrential downpour of boos for a guy who’s actually writhing on the ground in 100% legitimate pain. The NFL has literally done the least they could in an attempt to fix this, but sending out a mere memo asking coaches and fans to stop questioning injuries isn’t likely to do much.

Faking injuries is nothing new, but with the growth of no-huddle offenses, it seems to be a growing (and more rewarding) trend. However, this trend has also increased the number of fraudulent booing incidents, which are especially damning for a league trying to emphasize safety.

The NFL already has a rule in place for the officials to call injury time outs. According to Rule 4, Section 5, Article 3 in the rulebook:

When an injury timeout is called, the injured player must leave the game for the completion of one down. The player will be permitted to remain in the game if:

(a) either team calls a charged team timeout;

(b) the injury is the result of a foul by an opponent; or

(c) the period ends or the two-minute warning occurs before the next snap.

However, a single player missing only one down does not seem like enough of a penalty to dissuade teams from the reward of stopping the clock and giving their defense a much-needed breather. I feel like there are a few very simple unobtrusive solutions to this issue:

1. Don’t stop the clock when a player is injured.

Why do the refs stop the clock when a player is injured in the NFL? This doesn’t happen in the NBA or NHL. Teams have to call timeout If one of their players is injured. I don’t see why the NFL should be any different. (And teams wouldn’t necessarily have to use a TO. Unlike basketball and hockey, football is not a free-flowing game, and there is ample time to sub players in and out between plays.)

2. Give each team a certain number of “injury timeouts.”

These can be used any point during the game, allowing the medical staff to stop the clock and aid an injured player. However, during these injury TOs, the coach is not allowed to talk with anyone but the injured player, and the players on the field must remain there and not go to the sidelines to talk with coaches (thus preventing “injury TOs” from being abused as a standard TO.) Also, one facet of these injury TOs could be that if they are used in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, then there is an automatic 10-second run-off (also to prevent abuse of injury TOs as standard TOs.)

3. If teams need to stop the clock to investigate an injured player, then that player must sit out five plays or the rest of the drive.

Here you get the best of both worlds in both dissuading a team from faking injuries and also, in the case of real injury, making the game safer by mandating they have proper time to get checked out and recuperate before re-entering the game.

—-

The problem with the first three proposals is that they put the judgement for injuries into the hands of a biased party—the team itself. However, there are already independent neurological consultants on the sidelines of every NFL game—removed from the incentive to win games—to determine if players have been concussed and need to be taken out. It seems as though an independent general medical practitioner could also be present to make these same assessments on injuries of all types. (However, they would have to make snap medical judgements from the sidelines, which may be impossible.) This goes back to the current rule, which seems that the best solution may be:

4. (A hybrid of the current rule and #3) The referees (or an independent “game doctor”) determine if a player is injured, and he must sit out five plays or the rest of the drive.

Of course, the counter to all of these proposals is that if there is any (however small) “penalty” or opportunity cost to a team needing to sub out an injured player, then injured players will ignore pain rather than seeking medical help, thus adding more danger to an already very dangerous game. However, these minor “injury penalty” policies have always been in existence in just about every sport, as players have to determine if they’re healthy enough to start or re-enter games. I feel like after a year or so of these kinds of policies in football, it wouldn’t be viewed as un-macho or shameful for an injured player to jog off for a sub, ask his team to use one of their “injury time outs,” or volunteer to sit out the rest of a drive to seek proper medical attention. Perhaps I’m putting too much faith in the amenability of modern NFL warrior culture.

Bottom line: The NFL already has this rule 95% of the way implemented. Only a minor tweaking is needed.