Numlock News: June 12, 2023 • Oklahoma, Miami, Mets
By Neil Paine
I’m on vacation, so today’s edition is brought to you by my friend and former FiveThirtyEight colleague, who recently launched an incredible data-driven sports newsletter that goes by . He’s also a host of the brand new NASCAR podcast .
Greetings, readers! With Walt away, I’m commandeering Numlock to bring you an all-sports version of the newsletter this morning. Play ball (or puck, whatever)!
Statistically speaking, men’s tennis got a new undisputed GOAT on Sunday. When Novak Djokovic defeated an overmatched Casper Ruud in the French Open final, it marked the great Serbian champion’s 23rd career Grand Slam title, breaking his tie with Rafael Nadal for the most in history. That it came at Roland Garros was particularly significant: It gave Djokovic his third French Open win, making him the only men’s player ever to win the career Grand Slam three times over. While the clay courts of France are typically Nadal’s stomping ground — the Spaniard has won there a record 14 times — he withdrew before the tournament with a hip injury, opening up the opportunity for Djokovic to surpass Nadal’s major tally and solidify his claim as the greatest men’s tennis player ever.
Steep Comeback Climbs
Both the NBA’s and NHL’s championship series currently stand at a 3-1 margin, with the Denver Nuggets and Vegas Golden Knights each sitting a game away from their sports’ championships. While that doesn’t mean the South Florida teams they’re facing — the Miami Heat and Florida Panthers, respectively — don’t have any shot at the comeback, it’s going to be a rough road. According to the useful WhoWins.com, teams down 3-1 in best-of-seven championship series across all the major men’s pro sports are 8-112, good for a comeback rate of only 6.7 percent. NBA teams facing a 3-1 deficit in the Finals are just 1-35 (2.8 percent) — the lone win being LeBron James and the Cavs’ 2016 comeback against the Warriors — and while hockey has a reputation for being random, teams down 3-1 going for the Stanley Cup are 1-36 (2.7 percent). So we’re saying there’s a chance… but probably not much of one.
The Most Disappointing Team Money Can Buy
Fresh off a 101-win campaign last year — and armed with an opening-day payroll that set a new MLB record at $353.5 million — the New York Mets had high hopes for the 2023 season. Those hopes, however, have largely fallen flat with the team sitting below .500 and riding a lengthy losing streak as it neared the midpoint of the schedule. Owner Steve Cohen opened his wallet to fund the expensive roster, but in an interview with the New York Post, he vowed not to go full George Steinbrenner and begin a scorched-earth campaign on his manager and players. “When things get really bad, I’m not going to blow up,” Cohen said. “I don’t think that’s the proper response. I don’t think it solves anything, other than it gives people a one-day story.” OK, but given previous allegations about how he treated people while running his hedge fund, we’ll see how long Cohen can maintain his zen-like approach to the Mets’ struggles.
Bienvenidos a Miami
Lionel Messi’s reported move from Paris Saint-Germain to Inter Miami CF of the MLS is already having wide-ranging consequences, including hiking ticket prices to his first game (on July 21) by 1,034 percent. But the biggest long-term effect might be to help MLS level up in popularity among American fans. Messi won’t be the first foreign superstar tasked with that goal, however; I found that more than half of modern soccer’s 500-goal scorers were lured to play in the U.S. at some point in their careers. And like Messi, those players were mostly done by the time they came stateside: By one measure, the average member of that club had played 88 percent of all the high-level games they would ever play before setting foot on an American pitch for the first time.
Oklahoma, Where the Wins Come Sweepin' Down the Plain
The most dominant team in all of sports right now might just be the University of Oklahoma’s softball team, which put the finishing touches on their third straight national title by sweeping Florida State in the Women's College World Series. Along the way, the Sooners absolutely demolished everyone in their path: Overall, they had a near-perfect record of 61 wins and only one loss, beating opponents by an average of +7.2 runs per game. (No other team had a better margin per game than Tennessee at +5.0.) And at the end of the season, they closed out the championship run on an unbelievable tear of 53 consecutive wins, breaking the longest winning streak in NCAA Division-I softball history. Nobody really could even keep things close with OU during the streak — they had more wins by 14 or more runs (five) than they did by one run (four).
As of the middle of last week, Miami Marlins second baseman Luis Arráez was leading MLB with a .403 batting average — the seventh-highest by a batter in his team’s first 63 games of a season since 1941. What’s the significance of 1941? That was the most recent season in which a qualified American or National League hitter finished the year with a .400 batting average, when Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox hit .406. Will Arráez match that feat? None of the other post-Williams players on the list finished with an average better than Andrés Galarraga’s .370 in 1993, and by Sunday evening Arráez was already down to .397, so it’s going to be tough. But Arráez won a batting title last season and he is easily MLB’s active leader in batting average — so if any current player is going to do it, Arráez is probably the guy for the job.
Spare the Shift, Spoil the Whiffer
One of the overriding goals of MLB’s sweeping rule changes before the 2023 season was to restore the game back to an earlier, more entertaining version of itself: More pace; more speed on the basepaths; less influence from those annoying analytics trends. So far, most of the new rules do seem to be working. But as Lewie Pollis points out, an unintended consequence of banning the infield shift has been an increase in strikeouts — from 8.4 per game last year to 8.6 this year. Why? Because the players that tend to benefit the most from removing the shift are also players that strike out the most. With those players becoming more valuable again, the share of leaguewide plate appearances by hitters with worse-than-average strikeout rates is currently up to a record-high 48.4 percent — evidence that not all of the rule changes are bringing back a more dynamic, old-school version of the sport.