Why be part of a breakaway in the Tour de France?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do cyclists in the Tour de France bother going out on breakaways? They always get caught!! What is the point?

Thanks,
Lester


Dear Lester,

It’s one of the most common and most heartbreaking sights of the Tour de France — a small group of riders, or even a single rider, have led the race for fifty miles or more, over mountains and through valleys, across bridges and through forests. Then, with the finish line metaphorically or sometimes even literally in sight, they are caught by the big pack of riders called the peloton. How does the peloton always seem to catch them at just the right time? Why can they go faster than the breakaway? And, as you put it, why bother going out on breakaways if you’re always going to get caught?

First they physics of it —  the peloton is always able to go faster than a single rider or small group of riders because they have more riders to rotate through the painful position of being at the head of the pack. The person in front “breaks the wind” for all the riders behind them. This is an exhausting position, and even the superhuman (implication intended) athletes of the Tour de France can only do it at full effort for so long. In a solo breakaway, a rider must always fight the wind, in a small breakaway, even when the riders cooperate, each person’s share of the effort is bigger than in the peloton. Race radios, allowing team coaches to communicate with the riders on the course, help the peloton time its effort so that it catches the breakaway at just the right moment.

Luckily for viewers of the Tour, there are still a bunch of legitimate reasons for cyclists to go out on breakaways. A tour with nothing but a single pack of riders would make for boring viewing!

Like in many European sports, there is more than just one prize to shoot for in the Tour. Aside from the yellow jersey, which goes to the rider that completes the stage and eventually the race in the least amount of time, there are two other cumulative jerseys to race for. The green jersey goes to the best sprinter in the race and the red polka-dot jersey on a white background goes to the King of the Mountains. In order to win either of these jerseys (and the money that comes along with the prestige) you have to accrue the largest number of mountain or sprint points during the tour. Although many of the biggest sprints (and a few of the biggest mountain summits) are at the end of stages, most of them are intermediate or during the race. A rider in a breakaway has a good shot at winning an intermediate sprint or being the first over a summit. This helps if they are in contention for the green jersey or the King of the Mountain competition or it can help a teammate of theirs if it denies someone on another team those points. And, these intermediate sprints and summits come with cash prizes.

A third, less visible secondary prize may even be more directly affected by participating in a valiant but eventually unsuccessful breakaway — the Combativity Award. Unlike all the other competitions we’ve discussed before, this award is subjective. A panel of judges watches and votes on the rider for each stage and for the tour as a whole (the one for the tour as a whole is called the “super-combativity award… I’m guessing there may be some slight transliteration issues here…) who is most aggressive. Although this award does not come with a jersey, it does come with cash and some amount of notice in the cycling world.

If you’ve been watching the Tour, you no doubt noticed that each rider wears a jersey with their team’s sponsor emblazoned all over it. The brand name of the sponsor IS the team name. It’s not the “Amazon Bowstrings,” it’s just “Amazon.” Although this may feel foreign to American sports fans who quiver just at the thought of putting an advertisement on their favorite team’s jersey, it’s an integral part of cycling. A rider who can make it into a small group at the head of the race and stay there for three or four hours has successfully captured free advertising for their sponsor for the same amount of time on television. And that rider knows the team sponsor will notice it and remember when the time comes to renew contracts.

So far we’ve been describing only rationales for taking part in a breakaway that don’t have to do with winning the race, either that day or the whole tour. Well, here’s a tactical reason that does have to do with winning. A team that has a rider in contention for winning the whole race (called general classification or GC) may sometimes want to hide one or two of that rider’s teammates in a doomed breakaway. That way, if the GC rider feels like they have an edge on some of their GC competitors and is able to break away from the peleton, they will have teammates ahead of them who can fall back and help their GC teammate extend his lead over the other GC riders.

If all of these reasons are still not good enough, there is this: sometimes it does work. Sometimes the peloton, even with the advantage of physics and race radios, mis-times their charge and can’t catch up in time. Or, sometimes the team tacticians may decide it’s simply not worth expending the energy to catch the breakaway. Cycling is a relatively predictable sport after the first five to ten riders. If no one in the breakaway group is in the top ten, they probably pose no threat to the GC riders who feel they have a chance at winning the whole race. So, those GC riders and their teams may decide it’s more important to save their energy or try to make a late move on another GC rider than to organize the peloton for a long chase.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is an audible in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is an audible in football?

Thanks,
Ruben


Dear Ruben,

One of the things that separates football from most other sports is the degree to which its coaches control the action. Football stops and starts all the time, and each time it does, coaches on both sides have the opportunity to tell their players what to do. In the NFL, coaches are actually able to talk between plays through a microphone to one offensive player on their team and one defensive player. These players are identified by having a small green dot on their helmets. These messages from the coaches to their players are simple codes that refer to plays which the players have learned in practice. Each one is complex enough to tell each of the eleven players on offense or defense what to do during the upcoming play. All of this happens quickly, in ten to fifteen seconds, and then the two teams run to the line of scrimmage and set up opposite each other. Here’s where things get interesting and where the audibles come into play.

Once the two teams set up to run their plays, as pre-determined by their coaches, a new and vast array of information is available. The offense can see where the defense has lined up. The defense may be able to guess what the offense is going to do. The problem for football coaches is, at this point, they are no longer able to talk to anyone on the field. Some coaches, usually in college football, get around this by having their players set up, pause, and then look to the sidelines where the coach will be signaling a new play to them through some large visual code that is easily understood by them but complex enough to mean nothing to their opponents. Most coaches, especially at the professional level, simply trust a player on the field to decide whether to change the play or go with the original one. If a player on the field (always the quarterback on offense and often a linebacker on defense) decides to go with a new play, that play and the process of deciding to change the original call and communicate that decision is called an audible.

One common example of an audible that television commentators often talk about looks at the number of defensive players “in the box” or set up to defend a run. If there are a lot of defensive players “in the box” and the original play was a run, the quarterback may decide to audible to a pass play. If there are only a few and the original play was a pass, the quarterback may audible to a run. Usually the relevant numbers are five and eight. Five men in the box is an open invitation to run the ball. Eight players guarding the run is a tempting situation to audible to a pass play.

As you may have guessed from the word, audible, which also means something you can hear, the change to the original play call is usually accomplished by SHOUTING! The quarterback on offense or the designated player on defense will scream a new instruction to their teammates. This instruction, like the original play call, will be in code so the other team can’t figure out what it is. Screaming is the easiest way to perform an audible but it’s not always possible. Football crowds are wise to the advantages easy audibling gives an offense, so when the opposing team’s offense is on the field, especially during important third downs or at the end of games, the crowd will scream as loud as they can to make audible audibles impossible. When this happens, a team will revert to hand signals to communicate. Audibles are still possible but the chance of miscommunication is greater.

One amusing element of audibles is that quarterbacks will often scream fake audibles just to make the defense wonder whether the quarterback has seen something nifty and is changing the play to take advantage of it. This adds some of the chatter we often hear from quarterbacks, like Peyton Manning’s famous “OMAHA!” What’s a real audible call one game or series may be a fake one the next. If all this sounds confusing, it is! It’s just one of the small things that makes playing football such an intellectually as well as physically challenging feat. You can understand how football players might want to pause the game and just ask whether an audible is real or not. They don’t do that though, at least… almost never. A microphone at a recent NFL football game caught a Carolina Panther asking quarterback Cam Newton if the audible, “Even Janitor” was a real thing. This is what it sounded like:

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is icing the kicker? Why do football coaches do it?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is icing the kicker? Why do football coaches do it? I saw a game the other day where the coach took two time-outs right before a field goal by the opposing team. They made it anyway! What gives?

Thanks,
Terry


Dear Terry,

Close football games often come down to a last-minute or last second field goal kick. If the team attempting the kick makes it, they win. If they miss it, they lose. The defending team has very few options in this situation. Their ideal tactic would be to block the kick but unless you’ve got Jamie Collins on your team (and he gets pretty lucky,) blocking a field goal is virtually impossible. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any other options the defense has. Either the field goal kicker is going to make the kick or he’s not. Without any realistic options, many football coaches are left grasping at straws. And that’s when they ice the kicker.

Icing the kicker is when a coach takes a time-out right before the opposing team’s kicker attempts a field goal. The theory is that this will unnerve the kicker, particularly when the kick is very important, like in the scenario we set up above. The kicker, left to think about nothing but the kick at hand (or should it be at foot?) will start to think about the criticism he’ll face if he misses — will he be lambasted in the media? will he still have a job if he misses? will his teammates hate him? — and, because of that, he’ll panic and miss the kick. It doesn’t work. No, really, it doesn’t work. I promise. And really, why would it work? Professional field goal kickers already spend all game and all week and all year thinking about kicking field goals. Another 30 seconds isn’t going to matter. They know they’re always a missed kick from losing their jobs. The 32 who have made it into the NFL are the ones who thrive under those circumstances.

So, why do coaches persist in doing something that doesn’t work? It’s not because they’re stupid. I think it’s because there’s a strong human preference for action over inaction and also for delaying the inevitable. In our last second field goal scenario, taking a time-out doesn’t help the defending team, but it doesn’t hurt them either. So, perhaps the better question is, why not do it? Especially if no one thinks it’s going to win, they’re not going to criticize a coach for trying. It’s like the old joke about the scientist with a horseshoe on his door who answers a colleagues question about why he bothers hanging it there since he obviously doesn’t believe in superstition. The scientist replies, “well, it can’t hurt.” If you ice the kicker and it doesn’t work, well, we all know it doesn’t work — there’s no regrets. If you don’t ice the kicker and he makes the kick, maybe you wonder if the tactic would have worked, if only in that specific setting. Even if a coach truly doesn’t believe in icing the kicker, he probably doesn’t want to lose more than he doesn’t want to ice the kicker. For the next thirty seconds, at least, icing the kicker is a way to avoid losing.

Thanks for your question — and one last note. In the NFL, coaches aren’t allowed to take two time-outs before the same play. Maybe the coach took a time out, then a play was run, and then he took another time-out right before the kick?

Ezra Fischer

What is a shift in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a shift in baseball?

Thanks,
Darrel


Dear Darrel,

If you’ve watched a baseball game on TV lately, there’s a good chance you looked up at your television screen at some point and were surprised by the location of the players on the fielding team. Perhaps the short stop was on the first base side of second base instead of in his normal position on the third base side. Or the first and third basemen were on the home plate side of their bases and creeping in as the pitcher readied to pitch. What you were seeing was a shift – a tactic whereby the fielding team adjusts its positioning before the ball is put in play. A team may choose to shift its outfield, its infield, or both for situational or personnel reasons. We’ll run through a few examples of each scenario in this post.

The shift is a compelling element of baseball because it is simultaneously so obvious and so revolutionary. If you’ve ever played in the outfield of a baseball or softball game, you probably automatically shifted based on who was at bat; that dude with biceps the size of watermelons who hit the ball way past you last time is up to bat? You move back. That’s an example of a shift based on personnel. You see who is up to bat and adjust based on what you think they might do. In the example we gave, it doesn’t feel revolutionary. The personnel shifts you see in Major League Baseball (MLB) games today are the product of a similar type of analysis, just formalized and backed by big amounts of data. By the time a player has been in the league for three years, they will have played in close to 450 games and been up to bat over 1,250 times. This gives opposing teams a lot of information about where they usually hit the ball. Virtually every player has patterns that will reveal themselves over time and with study. A player who has a strong tendency to hit the ball in one direction or location is more vulnerable to a defensive shift.

Other times, it’s not the player who is up to bat but the situation that dictates a defensive shift. For example, if the batting team is down a run, has a player on first base, and is likely to try to bunt the ball to advance the runner to second, the first and third basemen may move toward home plate so that they are prepared to field the bunt they believe is coming. If it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, the batting team has a player on third base, and the game is tied, then the fielding team knows that they will lose if they allow that player to reach home. If the batter hits a long fly ball to the back of the outfield, the base runner will stay on third base until the ball is caught but then have plenty of time to run home safely before any throw could reach home plate. In this case, the fielding team knows for sure that any ball hit to the back of the outfield will result in them losing. So why even have outfielders back there? Isn’t it better to have them move in, so a ground ball hit through the infield may be able to be fielded quickly enough to prevent the runner from scoring? It is! The outfielders moving in in cases like that are another classic scenario that calls for a situational shift.

 

Defensive shifts have become much more common and more extreme in recent years. As of this year, they have doubled in frequency every year since 2011. It’s now quite regular for teams to shift all or almost all of their defensive players to one side but it still looks weird. One wonders how professional baseball players, people who are paid millions of dollars to be good at hitting a ball, cannot simply hit the ball in an unexpected direction. Apparently, it’s harder than it looks! Shifts are all part of the greater statistical revolution in baseball. The gloriously large and discreet data that baseball creates have offered numerous opportunities for teams to identify exactly what each opposing player and team does best… and do everything in their power to take that away from their opponents. Shifts are an integral part of the tactical game of cat and mouse that makes baseball a compelling sport to watch.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra

How can I get better at making trades in fantasy football?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve been playing fantasy football for a few years now and I think I’m pretty good at it. One thing I can’t do though is get people to trade with me. Either they don’t want to trade or what they’re offering doesn’t seem like anything I would want to do. How can I get better at making trades in fantasy football?

Thanks,
Rosalie


Dear Rosalie,

There’s an art to trading in fantasy football. In this post, I’ll describe some of the basic principles and tactics I use to trade when I play fantasy football.

Both sides should “win” the trade

The driving principle of being a good trading partner is to want the person you’re trading with to succeed. This may seem silly in a zero sum game like fantasy football — after all, if your trading partner succeeds, won’t they threaten your team — but it’s actually the most important part of making a trade. A good trade should benefit both teams and you should want it to be that way. There are a few reasons why this is important. First, fantasy football is a long game. It’s played over the course of 13-17 weeks and in many leagues, over years or even decades. Most leagues have 10 or 12 teams, each run by a friend or colleague of yours. You want to make trades that are good for your trading partners so that they want to deal with you in the future. Even if you could trick someone into making an incredibly lopsided trade, you probably shouldn’t. They’ll never trade with you again and the rest of your league-mates will notice too.

Don’t just target the weak. The overflowing team is ripe for the picking too!

Conventional wisdom suggests that a team at the top of the standings will be difficult to trade with. That’s not always the case. Often, teams at the top have been successful because of surprisingly good performances from unexpected places. If a team’s fifth running back turned out to be one of the best in the league, this may mean that they find themselves with more good running backs than they are able to make use of on a week-to-week basis. If you can offer a team overflowing with high performing players in one position a slight improvement in another position, they might be willing to trade one of their many successes to you. One of the most agonizing parts of fantasy football is making start/sit decisions each week. Fantasy owners who have a surfeit of talented players at one position may want to trade a player away just so they don’t have to drive themselves crazy each weekend trying to guess who is going to be better between two or more good options. Lastly, success is not an antidote to anxiety in fantasy football. Some owners will interpret their own success as a harbinger of doom and want to “sell high” on high performing players because they are scared of a fall from grace.

Identify unlucky players

Touchdowns are worth much more than yards in most fantasy football leagues. The most standard scoring system makes touchdowns worth 6 times more than ten yard gained for running backs, receivers, and tight ends, and 15 times more for quarterbacks. Fantasy points, the clearest and most meaningful measure of a player’s worth to a fantasy team, are therefore highly dependent on touchdowns. In reality though, touchdowns are much more random than yards. The average NFL team scored between two and three touchdowns a game. That’s a much smaller sample size, even over the course of several games, than the 50 or so yard-gaining plays that happen each game. Although there are some players whose style or abilities make them less likely to score touchdowns than others, there are more out there whose lack of touchdowns are simply bad luck. Find these players by sorting a list of players by yards gained as opposed to fantasy points and target them for a trade. Their owner may be fed up with their inability to score touchdowns and therefore generate fantasy points.

Help people heal their bye week blues

Every NFL team takes a single week off during the NFL season. On most weeks during the middle of the season, four teams will not be playing. Less common is the two-team or six-team bye weeks, but they do happen too. Most of the time, fantasy teams will have enough players on their bench to fill a starting lineup without any problem. There’s usually one team per week whose players happen to have byes that line up in an unfortunate way for that owner. Maybe they have five wide receivers on their roster but four of them have Week Seven bye weeks. They won’t want to drop the players, because they might not be able to get them back, but they also won’t want to go a week without enough players in that position to field a starting lineup. If you can offer roster flexibility in a trade, they may be willing to make a trade that even they think would otherwise be slightly (just slightly, don’t get crazy) slanted in your favor.

Deep? Get shallow. Shallow? Get deep.

There’s a kind of platonic ideal for fantasy football teams: a few star players, very good players at every other position in the starting lineup, lower-performing players with high potential on the bench. In reality, few teams match that ideal exactly. Most teams are either deeper, meaning they have more good players but perhaps not any true stars, or shallower, meaning they have a few stars but then there’s a steep drop-off in terms of talent on the rest of their roster. Owners generally want to shift their teams toward the ideal. If you have a shallow team, find a deep team and see if you can construct a trade to help both of your teams get closer to the ideal. In this example, that would mean trading one of your stars for two or three very good players. These types of two or three for one trades are a common gambit in fantasy football. The trick is to suggest them strategically. A shallow team won’t want to trade you two or three players for another star. A deep team won’t trade you their star player for two or three of your very good players. Find a team whose shape you can improve.

Work at it

My last suggestion is that you do your due diligence every week. Open up each team’s page once a week and look to see what their situation is. Examine their teams for the trade openings we’ve described here. Are they too deep? Too shallow? Are they suffering with the bye week blues? Are they overwhelmingly strong at one position, perhaps to their own detriment? Do they have agonizing start/sit decisions each week? When you’re done doing that, run through a sorted list of each position by fantasy points AND yards gained. Look for unlucky players who you think are likely to play better in the coming weeks. See who their owners are and if there’s potential to make a trade. Send a few offers out every week. You’ll be surprised at what your fellow fantasy players are interested in doing. Don’t send anything patently unfair though – lopsided offers give you a bad reputation and depress counter-offers and negotiation.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

One Thing: Aaron Rodgers meta NFL master

The Green Bay Packers won their game last night against the Kansas City Chiefs 38 to 28. A 10 point victory is not considered a blow-out in the NFL but this game in particular was more conclusive than most 10 point wins. It was the way that the Packers beat the Chiefs that was so impressive. It looked like they were playing football an a whole other level than the Chiefs were — almost like they were playing a different game. They were. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing at such a high level that it sometimes seems like he’s playing at a different level than everyone else. While everyone else is playing football, he’s playing meta-football. There were three plays, when the Packers were on offense, that stuck out as examples of this.


One thing is a series of posts that examine a small part of a sporting event to explain and explore its meaning in a way that’s accessible to sports fans and laypeople alike.


Two of the three meta-plays from last night were offensive plays that resulted in penalties called on the Chiefs for having too many men on the field when the ball was snapped. When the offense snaps the ball, signaling the start of that play, each team is only allowed to have 11 players on the field. This is rarely a problem. Football players are pretty good at counting! The fact that it happened twice yesterday isn’t due to any deficiency on the part of the Chiefs but rather an intentional act of trickery by Rodgers. When the defense makes a substitution, one player runs onto the field while another player runs off to their team’s sideline. This isn’t an inconsiderable distance, especially when the play is starting on the far side of the field from where the defensive team’s bench is. Defensive players have been doing this for most of their lives though, and they have a good internal clock which tells them how much time they have to exit the field before the snap. What they’re not accounting for is Rodgers’ meta game. Rodgers notices when an opposing defensive player, particularly a bigger, slower lineman is substituting, and then rushes his team to the line and tries to snap the ball immediately. He speeds up the offensive process so that he can start the play before that defensive player makes it off the field.

This benefits his team in three ways: one straightforward, one sneaky, and one demoralizing. The straightforward advantage is that the refs will call a penalty on the defensive team, in this case the Chiefs. The penalty moves the ball five yards down the field, after which the Packers get to start their offensive play again. The penalty doesn’t automatically give the Packers a first down, but if moving those five yards would have otherwise, the penalty yardage will. The sneaky benefit is that this foul call doesn’t take effect immediately. The play will continue and at the end of it, the Packers get to choose whether they want the five yard penalty or the result of the play. Because Rodgers knows he can retroactively make that choice, he’s going to use the “free play” to try to advance the ball as far as possible in one play. It gives him the freedom to take a risk he might not ordinarily take, like throwing the ball into the end zone even if his targeted receiver is well covered, because he knows that if the other team does something great, like intercept the ball, the Packers can just choose to accept the penalty and the other team’s great play will be wiped away. (For advanced readers, note that 12 men on the field IS a reviewable call, so even if the refs miss it, the Packers will still have a good chance of backing the play out if they need to.) The third and lasting benefit is to frustrate and demoralize the opposing team. It’s hard enough to play against a team that’s as great as the Packers but it’s even harder to play against a quarterback who is masterfully manipulating the rules of football against you.

The other meta play from last night’s game is a similar trick that Rodgers plays. In this one, he tricks the opposing defense to come across the line of scrimmage before the center snaps the ball. Called “drawing the other team offside,” this is a common tactic that quarterbacks try but few are as good at it as Rodgers is. Check out the video of a touchdown that the Packers scored on the “free play” resulting from Rodgers’ tricky meta-game. The player to watch is number 91 in white and red. His name is Tamba Hali and a he’s one of the most fearsome pass rushers in the league. When he jumps offside, he not only gives the Packers a free play, with which Rodgers is liberated to throw the ball into the end-zone with no possible negative consequences, but, when he realizes he’s been caught offside and bamboozled, he stops briefly. This natural human reaction adds to the benefit of the play to the Packers. Not only do they have a consequence-free play but they get to run it with a half-ineffective Tamba Hali!

Thanks for reading. I’ll keep my eye out for more interesting plays to write about.
Ezra Fischer

How does an onside kick work in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

What are the rules for an onside kick? When do teams try them? What are they trying to gain from it? How does an onside kick work in football?

Thanks,
Jacky


Dear Jacky,

Onside kicks are chaotic, happen rarely, and are often quite confusing, even to football fans. The first step in understanding and making sense out of the onside kick is to categorize it as a tactic, not a special type of play that has special rules. The onside kick is a tactical option during any kickoff play for the team kicking off. A team that chooses to execute an onside kick is hoping to retain (or regain) possession of the ball instead of giving it to the other team as is normal on a kickoff.

A kickoff happens at the start of the game, the start of the second half, and after any scoring play — although touchdowns are followed by an extra point or two-point conversion attempt and then a kickoff. All kickoffs have the same rules. The team kicking off must line up with no less than four players on either side of the ball and with all its players behind or even with the ball when it is kicked. The receiving team must line up on their side of where the ball is. Once the ball is kicked, it is free for either team to take possession of once it has traveled 10 yards down the field OR been touched by a member of the receiving team. If the ball goes out of bounds on the sidelines, the receiving team automatically takes possession of the ball at their own 30 yard line or wherever the ball went out of bounds; whichever is best for the receiving team. If the ball goes out the back of the end zone or is taken by a player on the receiving team in the end zone who subsequently kneels, this is called a touchback and the receiving team gets the ball on its own 20 yard line.

An onside kick is a tactic that tries to manipulate the situation of the kickoff so that the team kicking the ball ends up with possession of the ball. The most common approach to an onside kick is for the kicker to try to kick the ball to one side of the field so that it’s about eight feet above the ground and ten to twelve yards down the field from where it was kicked at exactly the time that six players on the kicking team who are sprinting up the field reach that spot. If all that happens as planned, the sprinting players on the kicking team can leap into the air and try to catch the ball or smash into the receiving team’s players and hope to cause enough fear, uncertainty, and doubt that one of them tries to catch the ball but isn’t able to secure it. This can be a spectacularly violent play with players throwing themselves at each other and at the ball. A more subtle approach is to kick the ball on the ground either at a receiving player with the hope that it might bounce off of them and be free for the kicking team to corral or at an empty spot between receiving players with the hope that a quick player on the kicking team can reach that spot before the receiving team responds.

The kicking team only successfully regained the ball on only 36% of attempts in the NFL in 2014. The reason why we don’t see them happen more frequently is that when the kicking team doesn’t get the ball back, the receiving team gets to start their offensive possession wherever they got the ball, which, since onside kicks generally only travel about 10 to 15 yards, is quite advantageous to the receiving team. A 36% chance of getting the ball back simply isn’t worth a 64% chance of giving the other team the ball on your side of the field. At least, an onside kick isn’t worth it most of the time. At the end of games, when one team is trailing, it could be quite worth it, in fact, it’s often the only chance a trailing team has. The reason why the logic tilts so much is that once a team has possession of the ball, it is able to run time off the game clock by running plays (or kneeling, which is kind of a simulation of a play) that keep the clock moving. It’s often the case that a trailing team knows that it will lose if the leading team gets possession of the ball. In this case, since it doesn’t matter where the other team gets the ball, trying an onside kick becomes an obvious choice.

The downside of attempting to retain the ball on a kickoff in that situation is that the other team knows what’s coming. The receiving team reacts by putting a “hands team” of players out there, all of whom practice receiving onside kicks as a unit. The rate of success for onside kicks when the other team knows its coming is less than 20%. The overall success rate of 36% includes times when a team decides to try an onside kick in a non-obvious situation. These surprise onside kicks – executed at a time when the other team is not expecting it and does not have their hands team on the field – are successful 60% of the time! It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy that’s most often used by teams that feel they are out-matched and need to find some edge to get ahead.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does "the play is to" 1st, 2nd, or 3rd base mean in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean for “the play to be to” first, second, or third base in baseball?

Thanks,
Lora


Dear Lora,

One of the most important rules in baseball is the force play. I wrote a post explaining how it works a few days ago which would be a good post to read before this one. To summarize, a force play is when the defending team can get a runner out by the touching the base he is running to (usually with a foot) while holding the ball (usually in a hand). This ability is predicated on a rule that states that no two players may occupy a base at the same time. Whenever the batter hits the ball, she must run to first base. This forces anyone on first to run to second, which pushes a player on second to third, and so on. When someone says “the play is to” first, second, or third base, or even home plate, they are identifying the most forward force play available to be made. To run us through each of the most common force plays, I asked my friend Al Murray to help explain.

The play is to first base

Assume that there are no base runners. As always, the batter must try to reach first base. A ball hit in the infield or short outfield that isn’t caught in the air (hits the ground) must be picked up “fielded” and thrown to the first baseman. The first baseman does not have to tag the runner, simply stepping on the base while demonstrating command of the ball will record the runner as out. If the runner reaches the base first, or the ball is thrown away from the first baseman (throwing error), or the first baseman (even in female sports the position makes seem to be x-baseman) drops the ball (catching error) then the runner is safe.

The play is to second base

Assume that our runner gets to first base safely. We now have a runner on first who is obligated to run to second base if the next batter hits the ball. There is some complexity here that’s worth exploring in another post but, at least if the ball is hit onto the ground, there is no choice for the runner on first. Let’s assume a ground ball. The batter becomes a runner and has to go to first base. This pushes the runner on first to run for second. All other things being equal, the defensive team would prefer to start pitching to the next batter with a runner on first than a runner on second. So, even though there are force plays at first and second, the ideal play is to throw the ball to second base.

If there is enough time, the player that just tagged second base will try to throw to first base and force that batter turned runner out there as well. If successful this is called turning a double play. The runner thrown out at second has some opportunities and a tactical goal to prevent the second part of the double play and will try to impede the throw to first, sometimes by sliding into the baseman or by obstructing the line of throw. In the modern game, there are limits as to what the thrown out runner may do, due mostly to rules created for player safety. In the “golden age” games a hard, ‘spikes-high’ slide would sometimes dissuade the thrower from attempting the double play in favor of survival. Nothing quite like the prospect of a 180 pound person sliding into you at 15-20 MPH with 1/2” spikes set to slice open your body to make you reconsider trying to turn a double play.

The play is to third base

Assume that both runners reach successfully and that both 1st and 2nd base are occupied. Now the lead runner must try for 3rd, the runner on first must go to second, and the batter has to run to first. There is a force play on first, second, or third base for the defense, since every runner is obligated to move forward, but the best scenario (aside from a double or triple play) is to get the out at third base because that’s the player who will score first if things go wrong.

The play is to home plate

When there is a runner on every base, then ever runner is obligated to move forward when the batter hits the ball. This is called having the bases loaded. When the bases are loaded, the leading runner will score by running from third to home if the defense does not stop her. So, the ideal play for the defense is to throw the ball home and get the force play there. This is not always easy — home plate is usually the farthest from wherever a fielder corrals the ball — but it’s always the best move if it can be done successfully.

What’s the pattern or general rule?

Whether the play is to first, second, or third base or home plate, the strategy is the same. The defense wants tag the base  the lead runner forced off his base by a following runner is headed to. If they’re able to catch the ball and tag the base before the runner gets there, the defense will register an out and prevent the offense from advancing around the base path.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer and Al Murray

Showing emotion in tennis – a chicken or egg dilemma

If you watched the Wimbledon men’s semifinal today between Roger Federer and Andy Murray, you would have noticed a striking difference in behavior between the two men. Murray was emotional throughout the match, screaming, talking to himself, and banging his racket against the ground or his insteps. Federer barely uttered a word, except a few classic tennis “come ons!” His face registered neither fear nor excitement nor exertion. Federer showed no emotion, Murray showed lots. Murray lost.

Although Federer is an extreme example — he is one of the greatest winners in tennis history and he’s known for his monk-like disposition — the question of how outward displays of emotion effect a player’s chances in tennis is a real one. It’s particularly interesting to consider whether showing emotion is something that a player does when he or she is going to lose or whether it’s something that helps bring about the player’s demise. In other words, does the losing cause the emotional outburst or does the outburst cause the losing? It’s not just Federer. Some of the greatest winners in tennis are reticent. Rafael Nadal is the opposite of Federer when it comes to showing how hard he’s working during a tennis match, but they are similar in their ability to maintain emotional peace or an incredible facsimile of it. Nadal seems sure that he will be able to beat his opponent simply by working harder than them and he never seems to doubt that he can work harder. Take Novak Djokovic, the new reigning number one men’s player in the world. Early in his career, he was prone to losing matches that he seemed to be in control of. How did this happen? Something bad would happen and he’d lose his temper. He’d break rackets and curse at himself in Serbian. He’d hit himself in the head with his racket. Once he got his emotion under control, he started winning tournaments. Or, wait… was it the other way around?

My money is on the emotion being the egg and the winning being the chicken. Tennis is a uniquely psychological game. It’s intensely isolating for its players, who are not allowed to even talk to their coaches during major tournaments. It’s very intimate — when you’re at a tennis match live, even from the very last seat in the biggest tennis stadium (I know, I’ve sat there) you feel as though you can speak directly to the players. Showing yourself to be unflappable through all the ups and downs inherent in a tennis match has to unnerve your opponent. My guess is that players who learn to control their emotions and who develop great poker faces (maybe we should start calling them “Federer faces”) are able to win more than players with equal or similar skill levels.

Serena Williams, who will play in the 2015 Wimbledon finals with a chance to win her fourth straight major tournament in a row and her 21st major singles tournament overall, may be an exception to this rule. She is openly emotional on the court. She does show when she’s angry at herself and when she’s excited. It’s possible that she’s able to win despite giving up the advantage of unflappability because she and her opponents are women and they and our culture in general expect different behavior from women emotionally. It’s also possible that her skill level is so much higher than everyone else’s that she doesn’t need to sweat small advantages like this. A third possibility is that part of her tennis brilliance has come from taking a different path through the emotional forest. Maybe she unnerves people and strengthens herself by doing just the opposite of what works for everyone else.

What is a force play in baseball or softball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a force play in baseball or softball? I’m new to watching and it seems like force is an important concept but I’ve yet to here a good explanation. Can you help?

Thanks,
Caroline


Dear Caroline,

The force play is one of the most integral concepts in baseball and softball. Without an understanding of it, not much in the game will make sense. Unfortunately, because most baseball broadcasts assume that all of their viewers grew up playing or watching baseball or softball, there aren’t commonly explanations of what a force play is or what its implications are. A force play is a kind of short-hand; a convenience that the defense or fielding team gets to use against the team that’s trying to score.  In some situations, instead of having to tag the opposing player with the ball to make an out, a defensive player with the ball can step on a base and immediately create an out. The reason for this convenience is predicated on a single concept – two base runners can never occupy the same base at the same time.

How do we make the leap from two players not being able to be on the same base at the same time to being able to get someone out just by stepping on a base? Let’s run through a scenario where there is no force play available to the defense. Imagine that there is a base runner on second base but not first or third. When the player that is batting hits the ball into the field, he has to run to first. The player on second can either stay on second base or run to third. He starts running and then sees that the opposing team has a chance to throw the ball to third before he can get there. If he keeps running, he’s likely to get tagged by the player with the ball before he can make it safely to third. So, he turns around and runs back to second base. If he can make it back there without being tagged, he’s safe. He has options – second or third base. Either one is a safe haven. There is no possible force out.

Now we’ll take a similar scenario but add in a force play. Imagine everything were the same except that instead of having only a runner on second base, there was also a runner on first base when the batter hit the ball. The batter still has to run to first base. But wait! There’s a runner already there. If he stays put, there will be two runners on first base — and we know that’s not allowed. So, the runner on first base has to run to second. Now our runner on second base faces the same dilemma. He has to run to third or else he and his teammate who started the play on first base will both be occupying the same base. So, he starts running to third. The fielding team makes the same play and throws the ball to the defender on third base. The guy running from second to third sees that he’s in trouble but unlike in our first scenario, he can’t turn around and run back to second base. He has teammates already on first and second base, so he can’t run backwards. He has to run forward.

In an imaginary baseball world without the force play rule, the defender standing on third base with the baseball would wait for the runner to get to him and then step forward to tag him with the ball. This would work close to 100% of the time because the runner has no options other than to run straight into the defender. In effect, the outcome of the play is set by the time the defender gets the ball on third base. The out is fait accompli. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, baseball created the force out rule. If a runner has no option but to run forward to a base, and a defender can get to that base with the ball before the runner does, it’s immediately an out.

This seemingly small convenience has widespread tactical consequences. The double-play, one of the most exciting plays in baseball, when the defense records two outs on a single hit, would be drastically less possible without the force out. The most common double play, one where there is a runner on first when the batter hits the ball and the defense is able to get the ball to second base, step on it, and then throw the ball to first base before the guy who hit the ball can get there, relies entirely on force plays or outs. If the defense had to wait for the runner on first to get to second before being able to get him out, they’d never have enough time to throw the ball to first before the batter got there.

Here are the two scenarios we described above:

Scenario 1: Home plate [•] First base [ ] Second base [•] Third base [ ]

Scenario 2: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [•] Third base [ ]

Can you figure out where the force plays are in these other scenarios?

Scenario 3: Home plate [•] First base [ ] Second base [ ] Third base [•]

Scenario 4: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [ ] Third base [•]

Scenario 5: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [•] Third base [•]

If you answered – first base for scenario three, third base for scenario four, and first, second, and third base and home plate for scenario five, you’re well on your way to being a baseball and softball force play expert! Here are two bonus facts you might also have picked up on. First base is always a force out. It’s not intuitive because there are no runners moving behind the batter, but nonetheless, once he hits the ball, he has to move to first base. He cannot simply stay at home plate and try again next time. The other bonus fact is a pretty advanced tactical one. In terms of force outs, it’s sometimes better defensively to have more players on base. Referring again to our first two scenarios, the defense may not have been able to get anyone out in the first one, but definitely would have been able to in the second. This goes against what seems to be the normal logic of playing defense in baseball — you want fewer people on base not more. In some situations, teams will intentionally walk a batter to get more runners on base so that they create more force play opportunities during the next at bat.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer