Olympic sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross didn’t have much trouble beating the competition on the track in London.The American 400-meter dash gold medalist has put the International Olympic Committee in her sights next.Richards-Ross wants to help bring an end to Rule 40, an IOC statute that limits how athletes can promote their sponsors.The rule prohibits Olympians from specifically mentioning their sponsors by name or adding additional logos to their apparel when they compete. The Olympics offer no prize money for athletes reaching a final, and makes sure athlete even restrict their Twitter posts during competition to avoid mentioning the brand names of their corporate supporters.Richards-Ross, whose husband is Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Aaron Ross, said the rule is antiquated and in need of changing.“If more athletes would speak up about it,” she said, “there would be more attention put on it. At the end of the day, it’s exploitation, and when people hear the facts, they’ll be outraged just like we athletes are. I think every movement needs a couple of people to stand up for it.“The Olympic reality has changed.”Olympic officials have long contended that their exclusive partnerships with sponsors have helped support the Games and allowed them to finance programs that give money to athletes in need worldwide.“It’s certainly something the vast majority of athletes tell us they appreciate,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.But athletes like Ross-Richards argue that the days of Olympic athletes being amateurs has past, and that profits from the Games have not trickled down to all athletes. The costs of training are high, the athletes insist, and the rules restrict their opportunities to cultivate private sponsorships to finance their profession.“It’s absurd,” said American middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds, one of the earliest critics of Rule 40 who counts Nike among his sponsors.“I understand that the IOC needs revenue, but I don’t see how an athlete having a sponsor detracts from that. I want to share the space.”Ross-Richards, who also anchored the American gold medal-winning 4×400 relay team, is the most high-profile athlete yet to speak out about the issue.But U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky said that 40 percent of his organization’s budget came from its corporate sponsors. He predicted a decline in that support if the USOC could no longer provide exclusive rights to those companies.Supporter say opposition to Rule 40 stems from agents who have a financial interest in securing more deals for their clients.Richards-Ross balked at the suggestion.“This is athlete-driven,” she said.
Soledad O’Brien‘s congratulatory tweet to Haitian-Japanese tennis champ Naomi Osaka left critics reeling after the journalist pointed out that there are now TWO Black women competing in the 2018 US Open finals.Osaka, who advanced to the finals after defeating American Madison Keys on Thursday, will now face off against 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams. According to the BBC, the 21-year-old, who is of Haitian and Japanese descent, is the first ever Japanese or Haitian woman to reach a grand slam final.Twitter screenshot.“Message to Serena: ‘I love you,’” O’Brien wrote. “Naomi Osaka is so awesome … and now we’ve got 2 Black ladies in the final.”Her tweet drew backlash from conservatives who refused to see the significance of two Black women, or women of color in general, competing for the grand slam title.“This comment is so racist,” one critic wrote. “Blacks r racist than whites, I keep saying. Imagine a white person celebrating an all white final …”“Why does it have to be 2 ‘black’ ladies,” another chimed in. “Why can’t it be 2 great tennis players?”Others chided O’Brien for excluding the fact that Osaka is also Japanese.“If you want to put importance on race cool that’s you, but please be all inclusive and accurate,” someone tweeted.Meanwhile, another critic warned, “Be careful, we don’t know if Osaka identifies a Black. Remember Madison Keys (who’s biracial) didn’t like that distinction … lol. I’m just saying, we have to let people identify how they want to. But if she does, then yes, we have two Black ladies in the finals! YAY!”Osaka and Williams will compete for the 2018 Grand Slam title in New York on Sunday.When asked how she felt during her match with Keys, Osaka replied, “This is going to sound really bad … but I was just thinking – I really wanted to play Serena…Because she’s Serena.”
However, these hot and cold streaks could have happened in April, May or June, and they’d have had the same effect — we’d just be talking about the arc of each team’s season differently. (Indeed, the Dodgers ran off a ridiculously hot stretch at midseason, during which their Elo rating peaked higher than Cleveland’s is right now, and the Indians spent much of the season’s first half underachieving.) As always, one of the only things that really matters when predicting the playoffs — to the extent that anything helps in that department — is a team’s full-season résumé, including both the red-hot win streaks and ice-cold losing skids, whenever they occur.One other area that can help even out the effects of a late-season Elo change: starting pitching. Based on his stellar Elo pitching rating, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw alone would be enough to neutralize an opponent with as hot a September as Cleveland and to dampen a late-season swoon as bad as L.A. has suffered. Remember that 48 percent mark for L.A. from earlier? That number rises back to 52 percent if Kershaw is taking the hill for the Dodgers against Cleveland — even after accounting for the two teams’ September streaks. In other words, having a great starter can help offset a whole month of poor play, plus a hot month by the opponent. (Granted, the Indians’ No.1 starter, Corey Kluber, can stand toe-to-toe with any pitcher in baseball, including Kershaw, so he could, um, counter-neutralize the Dodgers’ ace — but you get the idea.)Keep that in mind as the postseason rolls around in three weeks. Momentum is nice, and the Indians will probably stand as the best team in baseball heading into the playoffs. But it will be on the strength of their full body of work this season, not just a hot September. (Likewise, the Dodgers will still rank among the handful of top teams in MLB, losing streak be damned.) And in many ways, each team will only be as good as who they’re sending to the mound to start the next ballgame.Check out our latest MLB predictions. We are not even halfway through September, and the fates of two of MLB’s biggest contenders seem to be sealed. The Los Angeles Dodgers — historically dominant for most of the summer — now lie in ruin. The Cleveland Indians, meanwhile, are now an unstoppable juggernaut that is destined to win the franchise’s first World Series title since 1948.That, at least, is what casual baseball fans might think if they’re just checking in to what’s happening in the stretch run of the season. But in truth, what happens in MLB in September tends to stay in September. Although a hot month can add to our understanding of a team’s chances in October, the idea of late-season momentum remains a myth.Of course, it’s easy to get worked up about late-season streaks. Just when it looked like the 2017 MLB regular season might cruise to the finish line, these two playoff-bound teams decided to rattle off double-digit streaks in September — 11 straight losses for the Los Angeles Dodgers and 19 straight wins for the Indians. The pair of runs has reshaped the World Series race and helped resuscitate the old debate about momentum going into the playoffs.When Jonah Keri and I looked at that topic a few years ago, what we found basically reinforced the traditional sabermetric party line — that teams’ late-season winning percentages aren’t overly predictive of their playoff success. Winning percentage, however, is a very broad measure of performance, subject to all kinds of distorting factors. Perhaps if we looked at something like FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings –– which account for a variety of factors, including opponent strength, margin of victory and the starting pitchers in each game — we’d get a different take on the significance of late-season streaks.But unfortunately for the Indians — and fortunately for the Dodgers — Elo basically agrees with the existing research. To set up my test, I looked at all postseason contests in the division series or later1So, no wild card play-in games. since 19962The first full, 162-game season of MLB’s wild-card era. and ran a logistic regression to predict the outcome of each game based on a team’s Elo rating going into September, how many points of Elo it gained in September, the starting-pitching matchup (according to Elo’s pitcher ratings) and which team was at home. What I found is that in terms of forecasting playoff games, a point of Elo gained in September carries essentially the same weight as a point of Elo gained at any other point in the season.3Technically speaking, September Elo hikes carried slightly less weight in the regression than pre-September Elo. For instance, 20 extra points of pre-September Elo would figure to boost a team’s odds of winning a playoff game by 1.9 percentage points; the same gain in September would boost a team’s odds by 1.6 percentage points. (It bears noting, however, that this difference is probably just statistical noise.)On the one hand, this means the Indians’ and Dodgers’ September performances do matter quite a bit. Going into the month, the Dodgers were far and away the best team in baseball; assuming an even starting-pitching matchup, the regression would have given L.A. a 53 percent chance to beat Cleveland in a neutral-site playoff game if neither team’s rating changed in September. Now, that number is down to 48 percent — and falling by the day — as Cleveland has usurped the top slot in our MLB rankings.4Not only are the Dodgers not No. 1 anymore, but they’ve also been passed for No. 2 by the Washington Nationals — and the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox aren’t far behind, either.
12Evan Longoria3B876188.8.131.52——— Seasonal WAR is pro-rated to a 162-game schedule for shortened seasons.Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, The Baseball Gauge —David Wright3B100042.65.92.20.70.20.0 In a narrow sense, the recent announcement that New York Mets captain David Wright needed surgery — thus ending his latest rehab stint — was just another line item in what was already an absurdly injury-wrecked, grossly disappointing Mets season.Wright’s setback, however, was more a symbolic blow for the Mets than anything else. The once-great third baseman hadn’t played a game since May 2016 and turns 35 in December, so he probably wasn’t going to add much production on the field, at least not anytime soon. But Wright is also the top position player in franchise history according to wins above replacement (WAR),1Averaging together the Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs versions of WAR. and the Mets’ second-best player ever, period (behind Tom Seaver). He’s just the fourth captain in club history and was once on the shortlist of the most popular players in the game.As difficult as it is to remember now, a healthy Wright was among baseball’s upper echelon of players for a very long time. He was also easily on track to become a Hall of Famer — the rare member to spend his entire career with the Mets, who have a tendency to either pick up HOFers mid-career or jettison them too soon.2Only one of the 14 Hall of Famers to suit up for New York (Seaver) produced more than half of his career WAR in a Mets uniform. This is not how the future was supposed to look for both Wright and the Mets.In the decade from 2005 (Wright’s first full MLB season) to 2014 (his last full season), only four position players — Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre — put up more WAR than Wright. Looking at primary third basemen since 1901,3The first season of MLB’s modern, two-league era. Wright also ranked ninth in total WAR through age 31 (Wright’s age in 2014). Even more so than his longtime infield partner Jose Reyes, Wright was widely viewed as the kind of ballplayer that a franchise could build around for years to come.Certainly that’s what the Mets were thinking when they extended Wright’s contract by eight years and $138 million in November 2012.4Meanwhile, the Mets let Reyes bolt for the Miami Marlins when his contract was up after the 2011 season. At the time, it was the 17th-biggest contract in baseball history, but Wright’s future appeared to warrant the investment. Here’s a list of Wright’s most similar historical players through 2012, according to The Baseball Gauge, along with how many WAR each ended up producing over the following five seasons: 7Gary SheffieldRF896184.108.40.206.54.67.1 1Scott Rolen3B937220.127.116.11.13.04.7 15Shawn GreenRF87318.104.22.168.1-0.80.2 18Del EnnisLF86730.73.8-0.7-0.3-1.1-1.0 4Chipper Jones3B9022.214.171.124.64.53.7 11Robinson Cano2B885126.96.36.199.86.63.4 20Travis Fryman3B86330.00.64.7-1.0-0.70.0 All newsletters RKPLAYERPOSSIM SCORETHRU 293031323334 13Adrian Beltre3B875188.8.131.52.76.95.3 Perhaps Zimmerman’s rebirth can provide hope of a similar renaissance for Wright and the Mets. Just last Thursday, Wright told reporters that he still hopes to return to the major leagues, perhaps as soon as next season. But if Wright wants to contribute anything going forward, he’ll have to contend with history: Since 1901, only three position players — Ken Griffey Jr., Arky Vaughan and Richie Ashburn — produced at least 40 WAR through age 31, fewer than 1.0 WAR per season from ages 32 to 34, and still came back to generate at least 2.0 WAR from age 35 onward. (For his part, Wright had 50.7 WAR through age 31 and 0.3 WAR per season over the next three years.)Even if Wright does buck that trend, he’ll be a long way from the path that once seemed so certain for him and for the Mets. More likely, he’ll serve as a cautionary tale that even the most probable of future Hall of Famers can get derailed on the path to Cooperstown.Check out our latest MLB predictions. A good number of Wright’s top comparables lived up to their lofty expectations as franchise cornerstones. For instance, the longtime Phillies and Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen — Wright’s most similar player through age 29 — wound up producing excellent seasons well into his 30s, basically matching the career benchmarks for Hall of Fame third basemen (Rolen has 70.2 WAR; Hall members at the position average 71 WAR). And Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves — Wright’s fourth-most similar player through 29 — had an even more impressive run in his 30s. From age 30 to 36, Jones never produced fewer than 3.5 WAR in a season, and from age 37 onward, he never had fewer than 2.2 WAR.5For the sake of context, Baseball-Reference.com lists 2.0 WAR as the threshold for a viable starter, and 5.0 WAR as the mark of an All-Star season.And then there’s the still-active legend on Wright’s list of comparables: Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers. Beltre, who recently collected his 3,000th career hit, has remained extremely productive deep into his second major-league decade, helping power Texas to four playoff appearances in the last seven seasons. Speaking of active players, even 31-year-old Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria has started his thirties in a way that suggests he could join Beltre, Rolen and Jones in Cooperstown someday.Wright, however, has seen his stardom put on hold ever since he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2015. After that and several more injuries, Wright finds himself pushed significantly off of the HOF path:6In the chart, Wright’s future performance is projected by the “Favorite Toy,” a Bill James invention that uses a player’s age and recent level of performance to project how much more of a statistic — in this case, WAR — a player has left in his career. Most David Wright types hit their mid-30s in strideSeasonal WAR totals for David Wright’s most similar historical players through age 29, and year-by-year WAR through age 34 Wright isn’t the only recent third baseman who appeared to be on a HOF trajectory, but then fell off quickly heading into his 30s. Like Wright, Eric Chavez was supposed to anchor the Oakland Athletics’ infield for years to come — and like the Mets, the A’s chose to extend their star third baseman over their star shortstop (with Miguel Tejada playing the role of Reyes). But in the middle of his prime, Chavez started battling a seemingly endless procession of neck, shoulder and back ailments. Shockingly, he ended up generating just 3.5 WAR from age 29 on.Some star third basemen even begin to drop off like Wright and Chavez, but then manage to recover their form. Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals was an All-Star with multiple Silver Slugger Awards early in his career, but suffered from injuries and mediocre play as he neared age 30. After a miserable 2016 performance that rated below the replacement level, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Zimmerman’s days of being a productive major leaguer were over. And yet, Zimmerman bounced back this season with a vintage performance, particularly at the plate. We’re launching a sports newsletter. 🏆 Join the squad. Subscribe 14Harlond Clift3B87338.21.1-0.41.80.00.0 9Andrew McCutchenCF88939.12.9———— 16Dick Allen3B87043.48.73.14.0-0.11.1 8Aramis Ramirez3B895184.108.40.206-0.43.05.6 17Greg LuzinskiLF86821.94.02.72.5-0.20.0 3Eric Chavez3B90334.50.1-0.5-0.50.41.6 6Carlos BeltranCF897220.127.116.11.20.74.5 5Carl YastrzemskiLF89818.104.22.168.75.53.6 2Ryan Zimmerman3B91534.10.7-1.22.9—— WAR BY AGE 10George Brett3B88622.214.171.124.33.92.9 19Dale MurphyCF867126.96.36.199.91.51.2
Assuming the point does not end on an ace or double-fault, serving players essentially have two choices: serve and move forward or serve and stay at the baseline. Since the 2000s, players who prefer to remain mainly at the baseline have taken over tennis, despite the unshakably consistent success rates for serve-and-volley over the years. But the difference between the strategies has been stark at this year’s U.S. Open: Through the quarterfinals, women have won just 48 percent of points at the baseline — 28 percentage points less than the share of points won on serve-and-volley.All sports go through trends. As the games change, different approaches fall in and out of vogue. The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl last year on the strength of the RPO — run/pass option — in which backup quarterback Nick Foles had the option of handing off or passing. But the play wasn’t new. The option has been around in college football since the 1960s. But it’s taken a backseat as more teams have gone to pro-style offenses.This happens all the time in sports: What’s old becomes new again. Tennis is no different. Strategies experience revivals.Women in tennis have been relegating themselves mostly to the baseline. But perhaps Williams’s use of the serve-and-volley Thursday will spark a new trend. Women at this year’s U.S. Open have displayed incredible athleticism and shrewd strategy. We’ve seen blistering serves and masterful groundstrokes in the nearly two weeks of play. But we’ve been missing a powerful, ancient weapon: the serve-and-volley. The tactic is all but extinct from women’s tennis, despite still being incredibly effective.Through the quarterfinals in Flushing Meadows, on points in which women followed their serve by rushing to the net for a volley, they won a remarkable 76 percent of the time, according to U.S. Open data from IBM. But confoundingly, the strategy was deployed only 84 times — less than 1 percent of all points played.Serena Williams, for her part, flashed the potential of the serve-and-volley in her semifinal win Thursday over Anastasija Sevastova. Williams came to the net five times immediately after serving, taking four of those points.After the match, Williams said she usually approaches the net “only to shake hands,” but she wanted to try something different against Sevastova. It was a reminder of just how potent the tactic can be.The serve-and-volley appears to be used more on the men’s side of late. At this year’s U.S. Open, men served and volleyed 488 times through the quarterfinals, for just less than 3 percent of all points played. Though they couldn’t quite equal the gaudy success rate of the women, they still did very well with the tactic, winning 66 percent of the time. No matter who’s doing it, statistically, the serve-and-volley is an effective way to win points.Why this play is underutilized has long been a topic of discussion in tennis. Some have chalked up the change in tactics to advanced racquets and strings that improve passing shots, while others have blamed slower courts at Wimbledon and this year’s U.S. Open.1Theoretically, slower courts allow players more time to tee off on returns, blowing by net rushers. But there’s no doubt that women have been giving serve-and-volley the cold shoulder.During the late 1970s and ’80s, Martina Navratilova dominated the sport using an attacking serve-and-volley style with monsterous success, propelling her to 18 Grand Slam Championships. Even in the 1990s, serve-and-volley was still in a heyday in the women’s game. To illustrate, look at Wimbledon. It’s a place where serve-and-volley has historically been a favorite tactic because of the ability of the server to dominate on grass, where the ball bounces are low. Returners must put loft on their shots to ensure they clear the net. That’s a feast for a volleyer.Wimbledon first released serve-and-volley data in 1997, and it included tournament totals for the first time in 2002. Jana Novotna served and volleyed her way to the final that year, losing to Martina Hingis. For the tournament, Novotna employed the serve-and-volley 339 times, winning 213 of those points. In the final against Hingis, she used it 76 times — almost as often as the entire women’s field through five rounds at this year’s U.S. Open. It’s an astounding drop of a tactic and a big shift in the way women play tennis.Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam that releases historical data, but we can look at its last 17 tournaments to track the decline of serve-and-volley as a strategy in the women’s game:
From the moment they dealt for elite scorer Liz Cambage, the Las Vegas Aces became perhaps the WNBA’s most compelling team — not necessarily the best team, but certainly one with enough upside to make that claim by year’s end.1Particularly with a handful of clubs missing their stars as the league prepares for its homestretch.Headlined by three All-Stars — Cambage, A’ja Wilson and Kayla McBride — the Aces’ top-five offense understandably gets a ton of attention. Yet because of that firepower, the Las Vegas defense, one of the WNBA’s worst a year ago, has been overlooked. But the Aces’ defense has made an about-face, becoming one of the more rugged units en route to putting up league-best numbers this season.Vegas is almost 1.5 points per 100 possessions better on D than the next closest team, and have managed to be stingy on that end despite playing at the second-fastest pace in the league. Opposing teams take, on average, almost 16 seconds per possession to get off shot against the Aces, the longest average in the WNBA. And once the shots actually go up, the most likely outcome is a miss (Vegas has the best effective field goal percentage defense) and an Aces’ rebound (they also have the best defensive-rebounding percentage).Aces coach Bill Laimbeer told me before a recent game that he challenged a pair of returning wing players, McBride and former No. 1 overall pick Kelsey Plum, to push up farther on ball-handlers this season. Aside from forcing the action, doing so would tempt teams to either drive or throw the ball into the paint, where both Wilson and the 6-foot-8 Cambage combine for three blocks per contest. Indeed, teams have had limited success inside against the Aces this season, scoring a league-low .971 points per possession around the basket, according to Synergy Sports.On some level, Vegas’s almost-overnight shift into a top-tier defensive unit was by design. If the defense can keep opponents off the board for stretches, Laimbeer’s thinking went, it would allow more time for the Aces’ offensive pieces to jell, and for the team’s talent advantage to take over. “Defense is much easier than offense — it’s just hard work and structure,” Laimbeer said. “You simply put the structure in, and demand that the players work hard.”McBride said the team has bought into adopting a grittier, more prideful identity since last season. One example: If Las Vegas goes a couple possessions in a row without scoring — which often discourages players who thrive on their offense — coaches often shout from the sidelines, “If we don’t score, they don’t score,” to remind the Aces not to let off the pedal on the defensive end.“I think a lot of it comes from [Laimbeer],” McBride said of developing a far greater intensity on defense. “We embrace it, and I think we kind of like the idea of becoming the villains of the league.”While the Aces have been solid defensively all year,2That said, the team as a whole is in the midst of a two-game skid, and just fell to second place in the Western Conference with Sunday’s loss. untangling the offense has been more of a challenge. The Aces recently clinched their first playoff berth since 2014,3The last time the franchise made the playoffs, it was as the San Antonio Stars. The team was sold in 2017 and moved to Las Vegas prior to the 2018 season. but getting there has required pretty considerable sacrifices on offense from just about everyone on the roster. Earlier this month, we wrote that virtually every veteran on the team has gotten fewer shot attempts than she did last season, the price of playing on the lone WNBA team with three All-Stars. A decent comparison for this club is the first season of the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Miami Heat run. The offense — with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade taking turns holding the reins — wasn’t ideal at first. But the Heat’s defense was far better than expected, and helped lift the team to a Finals appearance during the trio’s first season together.In an effort to avoid those getting-to-know-you pitfalls,4Like figuring out who will handle the ball and when, where players’ sweet spots are on the court and how to avoid bumping into each other if there is considerable overlap with those two things. Las Vegas has been trying to push the ball when it can. Aside from the addition of Cambage, the quick-strike mentality also stems from trying to simplify things for rookie and No. 1 overall pick Jackie Young, who’s adjusting to playing the lead guard position full-time as Plum, the NCAA women’s all-time leading scorer, adjusts to playing off-ball more. (There’s a steep dropoff in true-shooting percentage from Cambage, Wilson and McBride to Young and Plum, highlighting how top-heavy the frontcourt is.)“When you have nights where the whole starting five is in double figures, you don’t have to worry about the offense,” Cambage said. “Clearly we’re doing something right. For us, it’s more about defense.”This isn’t to suggest that the Vegas defense doesn’t have some shortcomings. Some were on display in Minnesota on Sunday, when the Aces surrendered 98 points in a loss to the Lynx. Napheesa Collier slipped undetected behind the Aces’ D multiple times in the third quarter (Las Vegas ranks dead last out of 12 teams in defending cuts to the basket, per Synergy). And Minnesota took advantage of Vegas not getting back in transition, where the Aces rank just ninth. Put another way: The Aces get caught sleeping from time to time.But what makes the Aces intriguing is that, less than two weeks out from the playoffs, they’re still getting on the same page. Cambage joined the team eight days before the season started, giving her almost no opportunity to get acclimated, while Wilson recently missed a month with an injury. Young and Plum have had months to work off each other at this point, and even if the youth in the backcourt is a concern, it’s a safe bet that far more of the offense — particularly with 1-on-1 play, where the Aces rank best in the league, per Synergy — will go through Cambage and Wilson.Also important to remember: This is just Year One for this relatively young team. Cambage, who turned 28 last week, is the oldest core player on the team. McBride is 27. Plum is 25, as is Sixth Woman of the Year candidate Dearica Hamby. Wilson is 23. Young is still just 21.It could all come together quickly for this youthful club. But even if it takes beyond this season, the logic in tightening up the defense to buy more time for the already-solid offense was sound. Finishing at or near the top of the league on D in the first year together sets a new standard, and shows there’s no reason the Aces can’t be elite on both ends as long as this core stays together.
Velocity is still certainly at play in these nastier breaking balls: Increased velocity generally leads to an increase in spin rate. (The average curveball spin rate this year is 2,536 rpms, up from 2,315 rpms in 2015). More spin (specifically, transverse spin) creates more of the phenomenon known as Magnus Effect, which plays a key role in determining a pitch’s movement.But velocity hasn’t surged as dramatically as pitch movement has in recent seasons. And it isn’t just that fresh faces with killer breaking balls have replaced older, craftier pitchers: 86 pitchers who threw at least 50 curves in 2017 and 2019 averaged an increase of 1.4 inches of greater vertical break, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. Something else must be at work.One possibility is that new methods of training, and new technologies, are playing a role in creating better breaking balls. For example, when Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer revamped his slider in the 2017-18 offseason, he wanted a pitch with zero inches of vertical movement and an elite level of horizontal movement. At Driveline Baseball, a data-based training center, he used new pitch-tracking technology, allowing for improved feedback of the pitch-in-progress. Specifically, he wanted to create a certain spin axis, which determines the direction the ball moves, while spin rate determines how much the pitch can move. Breaking balls typically have greater whiff rates than fastballs, and breaking balls are being thrown more frequently.On sliders, pitchers are often looking for more horizontal break — and less vertical movement — than on a curveball. They’re getting both this season: Major League Baseball seems to be on an unstoppable pathway to more and more strikeouts. After a record share of plate appearances ended in a strikeout last season (22.3 percent), this season is winding up to set another record: If the to-date strikeout rate of 23 percent holds or increases over the season, it would mark the 12th straight year of a record set for strikeout rate.Fastball velocity is often cited as the source of the strikeout surge, along with hitters willing to trade contact for power. The constantly increasing fastball velocities of recent years are such a concern that MLB is partnering with the independent Atlantic League next year to move the mound back by 2 feet — to 62 feet, 6 inches from home plate. Still, there may be another culprit behind all of the K’s: Breaking balls have never moved more. According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of PITCHf/x and Statcast data at Baseball Prospectus, sliders and curveballs this season are darting away from bats at their greatest levels in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008). White Sox left-handed reliever Aaron Bummer became yet another pitcher to look into designing a pitch this winter. In a Driveline-like facility called Dynamic Velocity in Omaha, Nebraska, he created a cut fastball to better combat right-handed hitters. After righties hit .338 against him last year, they are batting .095 this season. Bummer has allowed only one earned run in his first 11⅓ innings this season. His cutter and fastball rank among the best in the game.“It’s actual proof that your ball is moving, not someone sitting behind you and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a great pitch. That looks really good,’” Bummer said of the tech-aided pitch development. “You have instant feedback that tells you, ‘Did that pitch do what it’s supposed to do?’ To me that was a huge deal. The belief behind it.”While the effort to create better pitches began with curious (and/or motivated) players going outside the game to independent facilities, teams are hiring more and more outsiders to pitch-design roles within their organizations. Over the offseason, the San Francisco Giants hired former Driveline pitch-design guru Matt Daniels, and the Philadelphia Phillies hired another design specialist in Eric Jagers. The industry is so interested in pitch design that the Edgertronic SC1, the most common high-speed camera, is selling more quickly than Sanstreak can produce it. This year, the Edgetronic and Rapsodo devices were seen in spring training bullpen mounds all over Arizona and Florida. The Orioles held “mandatory group spin axis seminars” this spring.Pitchers’ pitches will likely keep getting better, moving faster and with more movement. There is seemingly no end to the increasing frequency of strikeouts. While the home run surge has masked other areas of offensive decline, technology and training is giving pitchers a new edge.Check out our latest MLB predictions. Detroit Tigers starter Matt Boyd, who also designed a slider at Driveline, has quietly become one of the top pitchers in baseball. His slider ranks as the game’s seventh best since 2018, in terms of runs saved compared to the major league average per pitch type. “I’ve worked on it at Driveline a ton in recent years,” Boyd told FanGraphs. “At Driveline, we were on the Rapsodo [pitch-tracking tech] and the Edgertronic [high-speed camera] a lot. … Again, we were working that thing, working that thing.” The technology allowed him to monitor the spin rate and spin axis of the pitch. High-speed cameras showed him how his grip was imparting spin on the ball. The work paid off: In 2017, Bauer saw just 2.83 inches of horizontal movement on his slider, which ranked him 131st in baseball. But this season, he’s up to 11.1 inches, putting him third.
OSU quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett (16) and redshirt junior Cardale Jones (12), and redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller (1) participate in pregame warmups before OSU played Rutgers on Oct. 24 in Piscataway, New Jersey. OSU won, 49-7. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo EditorComing off a bye week, No. 3 Ohio State is set to get back in action against the visiting Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-4, 1-3) on Saturday. Here are five things The Lantern’s sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz will be on the lookout for when the Buckeyes and Golden Gophers square off at 8 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.Will Cardale Jones take advantage?The entire college football universe will have its eyes fixated on OSU’s quarterback Cardale Jones on Saturday night. The redshirt junior is back in the starting role he occupied for the Buckeyes’ first seven games following a one-week hiatus after being benched for redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett.But Barrett is suspended after being cited for operating a motor vehicle while being impaired on Halloween morning, so Jones, whose performance so far in 2015 has been more unpredictable than Ohio’s weather, has the reins to OSU’s offense for at least one more time.OSU coach Urban Meyer — who said a little tinkering with the offensive gameplan now that Jones is back at the helm has occurred — has reiterated his confidence in the Cleveland native all week long. Jones’ teammates have done so as well.However, the type of performance from Jones that emerges under the lights at Ohio Stadium against Minnesota remains to be seen. The last time Jones, who still boasts an unblemished 10-0 mark as OSU’s starter, played in primetime at the ‘Shoe, against Penn State, he was benched in the third quarter for Barrett, ultimately losing his job after Barrett played well.Jones’ season has not been a complete struggle — he threw for a career-high 291 yards against Maryland — but now, facing off against an inspired Minnesota team coming off a narrow loss against Michigan and the Golden Gophers’ No. 16 pass defense, he will have his hands full.The added fluidity that exists with Barrett in the lineup is noticeable, but for OSU to fend off Minnesota on Saturday, Jones will need to do his best replication of it.Braxton playing quarterbackMeyer said earlier in the week that redshirt senior quarterback-turned-H-back Braxton Miller will back up Jones on Saturday. The depth chart confirmed as much, as Miller was listed as the starter at H-back as well as the backup signal-caller.It will be interesting to see if the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year gets to relive his former days calling plays for any stretch of time.While Miller has lined up behind center in every game this season, it has been in running packages. The only throw Miller has attempted this season was a pitch only about a foot in front of him.Miller has said that this arm strength is back following last year’s shoulder surgery, and senior left tackle Taylor Decker said the same on Monday. If a game exists for Miller to showcase his abilities to throw the ball downfield, it could be Saturday’s.It is also possible that Meyer continues to only use Miller’s legs, but in an increased role, which brings up…Red zone efficiencyIn the seven games that Jones started before Barrett retook the job, one of his main shortcomings was his struggle to lead the offense in the red zone.In OSU’s sixth game, Meyer made the decision to use a two-quarterback system in which Barrett came off the bench to take over the offense near the 20-yard line.Meyer said Barrett’s skill set better suits the offense inside the red zone than Jones’ because of Barrett’s running ability. He said Jones’ 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame made it harder to find space to operate on the shrunken field.With Barrett sidelined for the game, it is very possible that it is Miller leading the offense in the red zone.Redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller (1) carries the ball during a game against Maryland on Oct. 10 at Ohio Stadium. OSU won 49-28.Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo EditorMeyer said on Monday that the coaches were “having those conversations now” about the possibility of using Miller in short-field situations, but no decision had been made at the time.If the ability to scramble is as important in Meyer’s red zone sets as he has said, it would make sense for the speedy Miller to take over with Jones watching from the sideline.Can Jack Willoughby be trusted?For the first time this season, redshirt senior kicker Jack Willoughby was listed as the sole starter on the depth chart. Up until this point, the transfer from Duke had an “or” behind his name, essentially listing him as the co-starter with sophomore Sean Nuernberger.Meyer said earlier in the year the player who kicked better during the week in practice would be the guy getting the nod come gameday. But with the depth charts being announced early in the week on Tuesday, the decision to drop the “or” this week must mean that Meyer has seen enough out of Willoughby to mint him the sole starter. Despite Meyer’s move, Willoughby has been far from a sure-fire kicker this season. The former kickoff specialist for Duke has not missed an extra point through eight games (41-of-41) but it’s on field goals that the redshirt senior has been struggling. Willoughby has split the uprights on seven of his 10 attempts for a .700 clip, which ranks in the bottom half of the country. All three of his misses have come from at least 40 yards out. But last season, Nuernberger wasn’t much better, converting on just 13 of his 20 attempts.Fortunately for the Buckeyes, they often find themselves getting into the end zone, which takes a little emphasis off the placekicker. But as the season progresses and the meat of the schedule arrives, it will be interesting to watch Willoughby’s success rate on field goals, namely those outside of chipshot range.If OSU would ever need a game-winning field goal, could it trust Willoughby knock it through?Can Webb rescue the depleted secondary?OSU’s secondary is in the cream of the crop nationally, sitting at No. 2 in the country behind San Jose State, allowing just 149 per game. The injury bug, however, has infiltrated the unit as of late. Two safeties — junior Cam Burrows and sophomore Erick Smith — are now lost for the season. But seemingly on cue, one of the secondary’s key contributors will be back in action on Saturday against Minnesota. Meyer announced on Tuesday that sophomore cornerback Damon Webb is back practicing with the team after a six-game absence for a foggy reason. Following fall camp, Webb was the team’s starting nickel corner and played well in the role against Virginia Tech and Hawaii, registering eight tackles. The defensive backfield was able to make due without the Detroit native during the six games he was out due to the play from Burrows and Smith. But now with the said duo sidelined, Webb should slide back into his old role, helping the secondary’s smothering season continue. Webb might not get that many snaps against the Golden Gophers because Meyer will probably want the 5-foot-11 sophomore to ease his way back into the flow of things, but also because Minnesota’s passing attack is nothing to write home about. Nevertheless, Webb will prove to be a boost for Meyer’s Buckeyes over course of the final four regular-season games.
OSU then-sophomore forward Maddy Humphrey (23) during a game against California on Oct. 25 at Buckeye Varsity Field. OSU won 6-3. Credit: Lantern File PhotoA late rally by Ohio State (2-1) in the second half wasn’t enough to make up for early missed opportunities as the Buckeyes suffered their first loss of the season Tuesday to Kent State (2-4), 2-1.Coming into the match, both teams had faced Louisville in their last respective matches. Ohio State beat the Cardinals 2-0, while Kent State was blown out in a 5-1 loss.Ohio State got off to a quick start, dominating possession by forcing turnovers and connecting on several challenging passes.Early in the first half, the Buckeyes defended Kent State’s breakaway opportunity well, but it still helped the Golden Flashes gain momentum for the first time in the game.That surge in momentum led to Kent State’s first score as back Jamie Fries was able to find the back of the net with 16:02 left in the half.Senior forward Maddy Humphrey tied the game at one goal apiece as she scored, knocking the ball over the head of the goalie nearly five minutes later. As time was expiring, the Buckeyes had a corner opportunity and failed to convert, as they hit the ball off the post.Ohio State began the second half with a breakaway six minutes in but it was well-defended by Kent State to prevent a go-ahead goal. Evenly matched for the first 10 minutes in the second half, the Buckeyes were given a corner opportunity at the 23:50 mark and the Golden Flashes denied Ohio State the opportunity as the ball bounced past the net and out of play.With nine minutes to go, Kent State had a two-on-zero breakaway opportunity, but a pass was just out of the reach of the diving stick from a Golden Flashes player, preventing the potential goal.Kent State drew a pair of corner opportunities with just under five minutes left to take a 2-1 lead, thanks to the goal by senior Ines Delpech. Ohio State came short on three straight corner opportunities late in the second half ultimately giving Kent State the 2-1 victory.
“ACRE would be opposed to any dilution of the accessibility criteria for rural post office provision. Rural post offices play a crucial role in providing access to services whilst also offering a vital social function.”Postal unions plan to deliver up to 100,000 signed postcards to Mr Clark’s office protesting against any dilution of the criteria on December 19, two days before the consultation closes.Dave Ward, the Communication and Workers’ Union’s general secretary, said the possible closure programme “represents the biggest ever threat to the future of both High Street and rural Post Offices.“Almost 50,000 people across the UK have already backed this position through our postcard campaign and these numbers are rising by the day.”Labour also attacked the plans. Gill Furniss, the shadow postal affairs minister, said: “The Government’s consultation could precipitate the loss of over half of all rural post offices.“This would be nothing short of a disaster for rural communities which are already treated as second class when it comes to service provision.“Post offices are often the only local contact point for elderly, disabled and vulnerable people in rural areas.”George Thomson, the head of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters which represents small post offices, said he had told Margot James, the Post Office minister, that a “degree of subsidy was essential”.But he said: “None of the country wants a significant reduction in the rural post office network and that would happen if the subsidy was not continued.”He said that the current criteria “is roughly right” in terms of difference and believed that the size of the network was sustainable.A Business, Energy and Industrial department spokesman said: “Our consultation has nothing to do with closing branches.“We recognise the importance of the Post Office in the community, which is why 93 per cent of the population live within a mile of a branch.“Between 2010 and 2018 we will have invested nearly £2billion in modernising and maintaining the network.”Sources said that the investment “had led to an extra 200,000 opening hours a week across the network with nearly 4,000 branches open on Sundays”.Annual losses had been cut from £119million in 2012 to £25million last year while the network’s subsidy fell from £210million in 2012 to £80million last year.A Post Office spokesman said that consultation was part of the Government’s application to the European Union to continue the state aid to the network.He said: “The Post Office has a long term strategy to secure the post office network for the next generation and for generations to come.“Not only are we transforming that network with 7,000 branches transformed in the past four years we are reducing the burden on the taxpayer and will become a profitable business.“The company has a central commitment that businesses in every part of the country are served by post offices where they are needed.“We have an absolute commitment to serve customers in the places where they are and where they want post office services.” This would be nothing short of a disaster for rural communities which are already treated as second class when it comes to service provisionGeorge Thomson The Post Office and village stores in the Cotswold village of Coln St Aldwyns, GloucestershireCredit:Alamy Stock Photo Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “Post offices are pillars of rural life. They are popular with many, and vital for even more. They keep villages busy and maintain their sense of community.“The Government has pledged to protect less than half of existing rural post offices, so any change in criteria leaves more than 3,000 rural post offices with an uncertain future.“Ministers must endeavour to protect the bricks and mortar of our rural services alongside any innovation, and support a service that is indispensable to a thriving, living countryside.”Richard Quallington, the interim chief executive of Action with Communities in Rural England, added: “Rural post offices provide a lifeline for the elderly and those isolated by lack of transport.“Any government proposals must be ‘rural proofed’ to ensure that people, and especially those in greatest need, are not disadvantaged by any changes in provision. A typical village Post Office in Grassington, North YorkshireCredit: Ian Dagnall / Alamy The 2015 Conservative manifesto committed the party to “secure the future of 3,000 rural Post Offices”, leaving a question-mark over the remaining branches, including 3,300 in the countryside.The Post Office is required by the Government to guarantee that 95 per cent of the rural population must be within three miles of a branch.However ministers have now ordered a review to help them “to understand consumers’ and businesses’ expectations for what the network should look like and how it should be operated”.They said that while they do not “propose changing the criteria that define what a nationwide network of post offices should look like” they want to understand whether the criteria “remain relevant” and whether “a different approach should be considered”.The review, which closes next week on December 21, has sparked alarm among rural campaigners and unions who are concerned that the criteria could be amended to close more branches.Greg Clark, the Business secretary, could be quizzed about the plans when he appears in front of an influential committee of MPs this week. Thousands of rural post offices are under threat after ministers said they wanted to review strict rules that require the majority of those living in the countryside to have a branch within three miles.Ministers said they are examining whether the vital criteria which determine which villages have post offices are “relevant” just 18 months before an £80million a year subsidy could be cut.The Government’s existing subsidy for the 11,500-strong network ends in March 2018 which means there is uncertainty about unprofitable areas of the network. Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings.