Mario Ancic never won a Grand Slam tournament; he never even reached a final. He peaked at No. 7 in the world, with a Davis Cup win and an Olympic bronze medal, before illness and injury cut his tennis career short. This week, the 30-year-old Croatian started his final year at Columbia Law School, where he’s preparing for his next career — even as his old friends and rivals gather elsewhere in New York City to compete for the U.S. Open title.But Ancic earned one distinction that ranks him among only a few boldface names in tennis history: On the sport’s biggest stages, he almost always lost to the very best.In his seven years of Grand Slam play, Ancic lost 21 matches. The list of players who eliminated him is a partial who’s who of tennis greats over the last two decades, with just a few interlopers. Of the 25 men who have been No. 1 in the world in the 41 years of ATP World Tour rankings, seven beat Ancic at a Grand Slam. Andy Roddick beat Ancic twice at Grand Slams. Roger Federer did it four times in a little over two years.Even the 10 non-No. 1s who knocked off Ancic were a pretty impressive bunch. They include four other Grand Slam finalists, plus two others who were ranked in the Top 10 when they knocked him out of a major.The quality of a player’s conquerors is a product both of luck and of the player’s own abilities. Some players are so consistently good that they either win the big tournaments they enter or beat all but the very best. Others suffer from poor luck of the draw — like Ryan Harrison of the U.S., or Amer Delic of Bosnia, who faced one-time No. 1s in five of his 10 Grand Slam losses despite never advancing past the third round. Every time the guy thought he was going to get to kick the football, a Lucy — or Novak — yanked it away. Unlike, say, the orderly NCAA tournament bracket, tennis tournaments distribute their entrants randomly, within the constraints of rules preventing the best players from facing each other too early.A handful of other players have lost mostly to the very best, but for slightly different reasons than Ancic did. Only four men with more than 10 Grand Slam losses were facing former, current or future No. 1s in at least half of the losses, according to data provided by Jeff Sackmann, proprietor of the website Tennis Abstract: Ancic, Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Andre Agassi.Djokovic and del Potro are recent Grand Slam champions who have had the misfortune of playing during the reign of Federer and Rafael Nadal, one-time No. 1s who consistently reach the later stages of majors. Neither Djokovic nor del Potro has lost to as many different No. 1s as Ancic did, despite already having longer careers. Agassi is one of the all-time greats and usually was ranked in the Top 10 when he headed into Grand Slam events, so it’s not surprising that it usually took a top player to knock him out of big tournaments.Ancic’s story is quirkier. He was never ranked above 10th in the world heading into any Grand Slam tournament. But he often rolled in the early rounds, as his aggressive serve-and-volley style overwhelmed opponents. He combined that with a knack for drawing tough opponents in later rounds, and usually losing to them; he was 3-11 at Grand Slams against players who at one point were ranked No. 1. Sometimes he had to play them before their prime: As teenagers ranked outside the Top 75, both Nadal and Djokovic beat Ancic at Grand Slam tournaments. Sometimes he had to play them earlier in the tournament than he could have expected to: Ancic had a 25 percent chance of ending up in Federer’s quarter at any given event, yet he did so in four of five Grand Slams he played between 2006 and 2008. Federer was ranked No. 1 in the world each time. Ancic didn’t win a set in any of the matches.Ancic, who has a law degree from the University of Split in Croatia, sees no injustice in his tough Grand Slam record. He just wishes he could have reaped the benefits of his early losses by reversing some of those results once he reached what should have been his prime.“I saw those losses as a challenge — to improve my game, to improve the things I needed to do,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s part of the fun of being an athlete: challenging yourself against the best of the world. I was never in despair — ‘Oh my God, if I didn’t play Roger in the quarters, if I had a better draw, maybe I’d play in the final of a Slam.’”Ancic felt he was learning from his losses. But then, when he was 22 years old, he battled mononucleosis and other health problems. He came back, several times, but other than one six-month stretch and a later five-month stretch in which he appeared in at least one event each month, his career was stop-and-go. Right when he thought he should be peaking, he was watching his career end. A back injury that would have kept him sidelined for a year convinced him to retire in 2011. Now he occasionally hits with the Columbia team and feels much better physically.Ancic is glad to be at Columbia and creating a new life, but he regrets not realizing his potential. “I’m sure I never achieved my top,” he said. “I still felt my peak was coming later.” He added, “I don’t like to think what would have happened if things were different.”If Ancic really had kept getting better, even more of his losses would have come against top players. And there’s lots of evidence that he was on pace to be one of the best of his generation. He led the under-20 rankings at the end of 2002 and the under-21s in 2004, and was second to Nadal among under-23s in 2006. And more tennis players stay competitive into their late 20s and early 30s these days. Six of the eight U.S. Open men’s quarterfinalists this week were 27 or older; Ancic is 30. Ancic faced each of those quarterfinalists during his career, beating six of them at least once — four at Wimbledon, his best tournament.Ancic remains close to the sport. At his invitation, Djokovic spoke to Columbia law students when in town for an exhibition in March. Ancic attended the U.S. Open on Monday as the tournament’s guest, where he caught up with some old friends who remain on tour. He also continues to follow the game keenly. He predicts Djokovic and Federer will meet in the final this year. If that matchup materializes and Federer wins, Djokovic will have the booby prize of increasing his percentage of Slam losses to one-time No. 1s.Ancic lost to both men at Grand Slams but also beat them both, at Wimbledon — no easy accomplishment against two all-time greats who together have won nine of the last 12 Wimbledons. “We are talking here about a couple of guys who are among the best ever,” Ancic said of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. “It’s an honor to compete with them.”
But that’s not what I see on the tracks. Instead, I see that pulling the lever in favor of testosterone testing sends the trolley down a track that will harm not only women with high testosterone levels, but also every other woman athlete who looks too “manly” or otherwise does not conform to someone else’s notions of what a woman should be. I see the trolley barreling down a track that will crush the culture that I want sport to strive for — one that celebrates women athletes of all shapes, sizes, forms and talents. The Olympic stadium was quiet on Wednesday morning, and spectators in the sparsely filled stands seemed to pay little notice to South African runner Caster Semenya as she cruised to an easy win in her first-round heat of the 800 meters. But on Saturday evening, when Semenya will contest the 800-meter final, she’ll have the world’s eyes on her. “There is no more certain gold medal in the Rio Olympics than Semenya,” wrote Ross Tucker, an exercise scientist in South Africa, on his blog, The Science of Sport. “She could trip and fall, anywhere in the first lap, lose 20m, and still win the race.”If she does indeed dominate, some sports fans will be cheering Semenya, while others will be less inclined to celebrate, believing that she has an unfair advantage over her rivals. Semenya made headlines in 2009 amid rumors that track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, had required her to undergo tests to confirm that she was female. Media accounts have reported that she has hyperandrogenism, a condition that causes higher-than-average testosterone levels — an allegation that neither Semenya nor the IAAF has publicly confirmed.Semenya’s case is the latest saga in sport’s checkered history of sex testing, a task that is purportedly aimed at creating an even playing field but — as I’ve discussed previously — raises serious questions about how athletics organizations treat women. Her muscular build, deep voice and remarkable results had raised suspicions among some of Semenya’s rivals about whether she was really a woman. “Just look at her,” said Mariya Savinova, a Russian runner now tangled in her country’s doping scandal.Savinova’s comment highlights what’s wrong with making competitors in women’s events prove that they’re women: It encourages people to police who looks “feminine enough” and sanctions discriminatory behavior that can have life-threatening consequences. Indian middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan attempted suicide after failing a gender test in 2007 and being shunned by her community.Even if you think sex testing is necessary to ensure that women’s athletics are fair, the rules would need to be enforced uniformly. Testimony presented at a hearing on the IAAF’s sex testing procedures last year showed that “to date, [the testosterone limit] has only been used against women from developing countries” and that the rules created “an inconsistent and unfair patchwork of compliance by different countries around the world.” It’s notable that the women who’ve made the news for being scrutinized under the testosterone rule have been people of color.Sport has a long history of humiliating women deemed “too masculine.” To ensure that men were not masquerading as women in order to compete and win at women’s sports, competitors were subjected to sex tests such as nude body inspections and chromosome testing. Eventually officials realized that these tests couldn’t definitively distinguish between male and female competitors, because sex is not a binary trait but exists along a continuum. For instance, people with androgen insensitivity syndrome are born with XY chromosomes but develop female anatomy, because their bodies don’t respond typically to testosterone. Others are born with female genitalia but have male sex anatomy internally. These are just two examples of the wide range of variations found across the spectrum.After an especially shameful 1980s episode in which Spanish hurdler María José Martínez-Patiño was publicly shunned and outed as having androgen insensitivity syndrome, the blanket tests were dropped, and instead women deemed suspicious could be called in for testing. This is what happened to Semenya. The invasion of privacy and testing she endured created a push for a less ostracizing way to ensure that athletes vying in women’s competitions were women, and in 2011 the IAAF settled on a new approach, which the International Olympic Committee also adopted in 2012.Rather than allow inspections of women’s bodies, the new rule set an upper limit on testosterone. Women could compete only if their testosterone levels were below 10 nanomoles per liter — a cutoff devised by sampling woman athletes with polycystic ovary syndrome (a condition associated with elevated testosterone levels) and adding five standard deviations to it. Tucker wrote on his blog that this limit is “threefold higher than a level that applies to 99 in 100 women participants.”The argument for testosterone testing says that we divide sport into men’s and women’s categories because men have a practically unconquerable natural advantage over women. World records for men’s track and field and road running events are an average of 12.6 percent faster than the equivalent women’s events, and we give women their own class, akin to a weight class in combat sports, so they can have a chance to excel.The argument against testing is that the competitive advantage that men have over women arises from biological factors linked to sex, but sex is a biological trait without hard and fast borders. And that we can pretend that we divide competition by sex, but what we’re really doing is separating athletes by gender, which is an identity that has a social and cultural context as well, and those contexts may confer distinct advantages and disadvantages, too. Under this system, there’s an obligation to recognize Semenya under the gender identity that she has inhabited since birth, and to do so without subjecting her to invasive and humiliating inspections or tests. Her identity should not be up to strangers to decide.The debate over whether hormone testing is fair doesn’t have a scientific answer, only science-informed ones. There’s pretty good evidence that testosterone, a muscle-building hormone that men typically produce in greater quantities than women, is a performance-enhancing substance — that’s why it’s so popular among dopers. Joanna Harper, an athlete, scientist and transgender woman, found that her running performance dropped within weeks of starting therapy to reduce her testosterone levels, and she has documented similar changes in other male-to-female transgender runners. Insofar as you can pin the male advantage to a single factor, testosterone is it.Science shows that testosterone gives athletes an advantage, but it can’t tell us how much advantage is too much or how to categorize athletes who are women by gender but also have male sex traits — those are philosophical questions, not scientific ones. But it’s hard not to see sexism in the answers that the IAAF is providing. As espnW columnist Kate Fagan tweeted recently, “I shall steal line from someone on Twitter: I know Semenya is a woman because people are trying to control her body.” Women with high testosterone levels have been pressured to undergo life-changing surgery and medical interventions in exchange for the right to compete.The IAAF’s testosterone limit is necessarily arbitrary, and when Indian sprinter Dutee Chand faced scrutiny and demands to undergo treatment to reduce her testosterone levels, she pushed back. The medical interventions would be invasive, would be potentially irreversible and would come with side effects that could “interfere with the way my body has worked my whole life,” she wrote in a letter to the secretary general of the Athletics Federation of India, asking to have her eligibility reinstated. “I was born a woman, reared up as a woman, I identify as a woman and I believe I should be allowed to compete with other women, many of whom are either taller than me or come from more privileged backgrounds, things that most certainly give them an edge over me.”The case ended up in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which suspended the policy in July 2015 and gave the IAAF two years to return with science to show that women with naturally occurring testosterone over the 10 nmol/L limit have an unfair advantage. The ruling meant that Chand, Semenya and other hyperandrogenic athletes could compete without altering their hormones.The decision was greeted in some corners of the internet as a sign of the apocalypse — the end of women’s sports as we know it. Hyperandrogenic athletes, this line of reasoning held, were being given a chance to compete in their identified gender at the expense of other women.You can think of this as a version of the classic trolley car problem in which a runaway trolley car is speeding down the tracks, and a human operator has an opportunity to pull a lever to direct the car down another track — but both options will result in casualties.When some testing advocates look at this problem, they see that sending the car down the track with no sex or hormone testing will mow down female athletes and women’s sports. Send the trolley down the track with testing, and you tear down Semenya, Chand and other athletes with unusually high testosterone levels.Stated this way, it seems like a straightforward equation. Someone will get run over, but if you pull the lever in favor of testosterone testing, the only people hurt are the women with naturally high levels. If it’s strictly a numbers game, you’ve found a solution that harms the fewest people. Although there’s been a lot of mansplaining about why a testosterone limit is warranted, this isn’t just a black-and-white case of sexism, since woman athletes (including Martinez-Patiño, the Spanish hurdler who was shunned after testing in the 1980s) have also spoken in favor of the rules. Tucker and Harper, high-profile proponents of hormone limits, have carefully acknowledged the cultural and social factors at play, but I don’t think they give these other considerations enough weight. When you’ve had people tell you that your body is too muscular or you’re not feminine enough (as I have), a system that makes it OK to enforce a particular kind of female body feels vindictive.There are consequences of an institutionalized process that seeks and targets women for looking like men (whatever that means). At the conclusion of a hearing on her case, Chand gave a brief statement telling the panel that “she fears that if she loses her appeal, she will have to leave her village.” This fear isn’t ungrounded. She also recounted the story of a young female friend who’d been forced out of her village after people refused to recognize her as a girl because of her appearance.It’s easy to sympathize with the women competing with Semenya. Her talents can seem insurmountable. But it’s wrong to prohibit her from competing with the body she was born with. She is not the first woman (or man) to dominate the competition. Once in a while someone comes along who’s an extreme case. Usually, we celebrate this.At Chand’s Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing, accomplished British runner Paula Radcliffe testified in favor of the hormone limit, saying that the rule fell under similar regulations “designed to ensure success is determined solely by talent and dedication, and not by ‘unfair’ advantage.”But what is “unfair?” Radcliffe also possesses extraordinary talent, and it’s hard to tease out and compare the boost that different advantages confer. Her marathon world record has remained untouched for more than a decade. Radcliffe herself has faced allegations of doping, abetted by a culture of doping that has made every performance suspect. Sex testing creates a similar atmosphere of suspicion, but the difference is that dopers are deliberately cheating. Hyperandrogenic women are simply competing with the bodies they were born with in the gender with which they identify and belong.In support of the hormone limit, the IAAF argued that dismissing conditions that produce unusually high levels of testosterone as “naturally occurring advantages would compromise the integrity of sport,” since that would be “analogous to having a system, where weight classifications exist, but then waiving the weight limit for certain individuals who cannot reduce their weight enough to fit into the required category.” The problem with that analogy is that in the case of a weight system, the person too heavy for a particular weight class has another class to compete in. What happens to Semenya under these rules if she doesn’t want to alter her body? The IAAF has said that a woman ineligible under the rules could compete with the men, but that feels a lot like shunning.Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth that this controversy forces us to confront is that there’s no such thing as a level playing field in sport. As much as we like the idea of athletes winning through hard work, guts and spirit, the fact is, much of it comes down to born talent. Most competitors never had a chance.In the end, the real question to ask is: What is the purpose of sport? Is it more important to provide uncomplicated stories that make us feel uplifted, or to celebrate extraordinary human effort and performance? My vote goes to the latter. Participating in sports taught me to feel powerful in my body, and I’m glad that no one put limits on how strong I could be. When Semenya takes to the line on Saturday, I’ll be cheering for her every step of the way.This was an edition of Strength in Numbers, my column exploring the science of sports and athleticism. Got feedback, suggestions or a news tip? Email me, leave suggestions in the comments section or tweet to me @CragCrest.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has been released from the hospital after suffering a seizure late Saturday afternoon.The school confirmed Kill’s release Sunday. Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys told local reporters Sunday that Kill’s seizure was minor and that the coach could return to the team as early as Sunday afternoon.Kill was taken to the hospital Saturday as a precaution and was reported to be resting comfortably by Saturday night.Kill, 51, has had seizure disorder since being diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2005. He suffered a more severe seizure on the sideline during a game last September and had to be hospitalized for several days.That hasn’t stopped Kill in the past from getting right back out there.“What the hell am I supposed to do? Stop? I mean, sit in the chair and wait for the next dang seizure to come along?” Kill said last year.It’s the latest bit of adversity for the Gophers, who started the season 4-0 to generate optimism among the program’s long-suffering fans that a bowl game could be had.But they were thumped 31-13 at Iowa in the Big Ten opener, then delivered a sloppy and mistake-filled performance in the loss to the Wildcats on Saturday to fall to 0-2 in the conference.
Colin Kaepernick, who made a rousing debut as the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback Sunday replacing concussed Alex Smith, will take all the first-team reps for the Niners as they prepare to face the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.This comes from none other than Smith, to ESPN.The move seemingly would put Kaepernick on track to start against the Saints; players who receive first-team reps usually draw starts for that week’s game.Harbaugh said earlier Wednesday the QB for the NFC West-leading Niners (7-2-1) could change week to week, and even during the course of a game.Kaepernick went 16 for 23 for 243 yards, two touchdowns and an impressive passer rating of 133.1 in his first NFL start Monday against Chicago. The second-round draft pick out of Nevada in 2011 hardly seemed fazed by football’s big stage. He directed scoring drives and made beautiful throws on the Niners’ initial four possessions and completed 12 of his first 14 passes, with a 57-yard throw to Kyle Williams, setting up Vernon Davis’ 3-yard TD on the next play.Harbaugh rated Kaepernick’s debut start as “A-plus-plus.”Smith said plans to fight for his job once he is fully healthy, but he had yet to be medically cleared Wednesday after missing Monday night’s 32-7 rout of the Bears while recovering from a concussion. He was supportive Wednesday of Kaepernick’s success, even if the second-year pro takes Smith’s starting job as 49ers quarterback.“If you can’t be happy for your teammate’s success you’re playing the wrong sport. Go play tennis or golf or something,” Smith said Wednesday. “That’s ridiculous, I think. That doesn’t belong in team sports, in my opinion. It’s the quarterback position. It gets a lot of attention. We’re going to get talked about.”Harbaugh underwent a follow-up evaluation for his irregular heartbeat Tuesday and said, “believe we’ve got that one licked.” He has quit chewing tobacco and given up the four or five Diet Cokes he was drinking daily after doctors encouraged him to improve his diet and decrease his caffeine intake. Harbaugh underwent a cardiovert procedure last Thursday.“Zero,” he said of soda and dipping. “Cold turkey.”He swears he’s had no headaches as he moves off caffeine.Smith completed 18-of-19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in a Monday night win Oct. 29 at Arizona for a passer rating of 157.1. Smith then sustained a concussion in the second quarter of a 24-24 tie against St. Louis on Nov. 11. He even threw a touchdown pass with blurred vision six plays after taking the hit doctors believe caused his injury.
Michael Vick might be old in NFL football years, but he can still run like a track star. Just ask speedy Philadelphia Eagle teammate LeSean McCoy.Vick beat the running back in a 40-yard dash at practice after the running back had been calling him “old.”Vick, who will turn 33 next month, outran the 24-year-old McCoy and then tweeted about it after several teammates posted about the race on Twitter.“So today at the field 1 of my teammates called me old,” he wrote, adding that the teammate begged him to race the 40-yard dash. “Anybody want to guess which player?”“Beat him by a few yards too lol,” he wrote, adding #SpeedKILLS to the tweet.ProFootballTalk.com, citing a source with knowledge of the situation, reported that McCoy had been giving Vick a hard time for weeks, calling him “old man” and challenging him to a race. Vick reportedly had laughingly dismissed McCoy’s challenges until Thursday.According to the report, Vick asked Chip Kelly whether he would allow the two to race, and the coach granted them permission.Eagles teammates buzzed about the race through their own Twitter accounts.Tight end Clay Harbor wrote: “The rumors are true… Vick dusted McCoy in the 40yd dash.”Defensive end Clifton Geathers marveled at Vick’s win and took the opportunity to inform some of his former Cowboys teammates about the result. He tweeted: “Never seen a QB beat a runner back by 4yards until today Vick is a fast as mug @JayRat90 [Jay Ratliff] @hatcher97 [Jason Hatcher] @Fast_Teddy [Teddy Williams].McCoy took the loss in stride, joking on Twitter that Vick “cheated.”He gave Vick credit, however, writing that Vick was “Top 3 fastest man on the TEAM.”Vick made sure to let McCoy and his followers know there are no hard feelings between the two players.“Love you Lil bro @CutonDime25,” he wrote.
John Wall exceled with 31 points, including a crowd-pleasing 360-degree dunk, to go with nine assists as he led the Washington Wizards to a 116-111 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night.The Lakers had a tough time dealing with Wall especially on a fast break play where he showed off his leaping ability.With the Wizards behind 42-41 in the second quarter, Wall stole a pass which was headed to Wesley Johnson jetted the towards Washington’s basket, finishing with a flashy 360 dunk.Wall has 30 points or more for the three straight game. This has been the first time he has accomplished that in his career. He scored 13 points with 4:41 left in the fourth-quarter to help the Wizards beat Los Angeles. Wall was also 10 for 18 in field goals and he made 11 of 12 free throws.Dunk is below:
On Sunday, in a 30-24 overtime win in Tampa Bay, the Oakland Raiders were flagged for 23 penalties, which cost them an even 200 yards. That was the most penalties for one team in a single game since at least 1940 and the third-most penalty yards that any one team has racked up in a single game in that same span. The Raiders have a history of committing penalties — the franchise led the NFL in that category for four straight years in the nineties and set the single-season record with 163 back in 2011 — so adding the single-game record to that legacy is at least in character. Heck, Oakland was already leading the NFL in penalties this season even before that, um, historic performance in Week 8. But what if I told you that the same factors that are driving the Raiders’ penalties are likely driving their surprising success?The Raiders have the second-most penalties through eight games of any team since 1940, but Oakland is also 6-2. That may not be as surprising as it appears, because committing more penalties isn’t as strongly correlated with losing as conventional wisdom suggests. I looked at all team penalties through Week 8 of each season since the NFL’s realignment in 2002, and there was only a slightly negative correlation between penalties and winning (i.e., the more penalties a team has, the lower its winning percentage).1The correlation coefficient between winning percentage and penalties over that span was just -0.10. And that correlation is actually positive for the 2016 season, thanks to the Bay Area teams: Not only is Oakland an outlier, but also the 1-6 49ers have the fewest penalties in the NFL this season. And while most coaches stress to players that they shouldn’t incur penalties, the relationship between penalties and success (as we can see from the chart) isn’t as clear as you might think. Sure, on any given play, a penalty is bad, but penalties are also associated with aggressive, physical play, and those can be very good things on the plays where penalties aren’t called.Of Oakland’s 103 total penalties (both accepted and declined), a league-high 53 (51 percent) of them have come on offense. (On average this season, 49 percent of all penalties have come on offense, compared to 37 percent on defense and 14 percent on special teams.) Of Oakland’s offensive penalties, 18 have come from offensive holding, which is tied for first with the Patriots (who have only played seven games), and 14 have come via false start, second in the league to Washington’s 16. And Oakland’s offense has been flagged a league-high four times for unnecessary roughness, with tackle Donald Penn owning two of those infractions.So far this season, 45 players have been flagged for at least five offensive penalties, and six of those players are Raiders: backup lineman Vadal Alexander (8), followed by Penn (7), center Rodney Hudson (6), guard Gabe Jackson (6), WR Michael Crabtree (5) and guard Kelechi Osemele (5). In total, Raiders offensive linemen have been flagged for 33 penalties, nine more than any other offensive line in the league.That’s a lot of penalties, but what that analysis is missing is what’s happening on all the plays that don’t result in a penalty — especially if those plays include ones where the refs don’t throw a flag because they’ve already thrown so many. And Oakland’s offensive line is doing really, really well on those plays. No team has spent more 2016 salary cap dollars on its offensive line than the Raiders, and it’s paid off: Oakland has been sacked on just 2.7 percent of all pass plays this season, the lowest rate in the NFL. And Oakland’s top three running backs — Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington, Jalen Richard — aren’t highly-regarded and weren’t drafted with premium picks, but they have rushed 156 times for 763 yards and 6 touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per attempt. The Oakland line is getting things done.We don’t often think of offensive linemen as boom-bust players, but that’s what the Raiders have created under OL coach Mike Tice. Because while that unit has been responsible for an enormous share of the team’s penalties, on most other plays, it’s operating as one of the best units in football. The Raiders have talked about building a nasty, physical, aggressive offensive line — and for better or worse, that’s exactly what they’ve done.CORRECTION (Nov. 2, 12:34 p.m.): An earlier version of the chart in this article misstated the time period of the penalties and win percentages shown in light purple. The correct time period is 2002 to 2016, not 2012 to 2016.
When the Kansas City Chiefs host the Oakland Raiders Thursday night, the outcome will go a long way toward determining who wins the AFC West and will influence the whole conference’s playoff picture. But further down the game’s list of notable implications is the fact that it’s one of the best Thursday night games1We’re counting any prime-time game played on a Thursday as a Thursday night game, even though some games played on Thursday nights are marketed as “Sunday Night Football” or “Monday Night Football” and some games marketed as “Thursday Night Football” are played on other days of the week. in NFL history.Just like when I sized up the awfulness of Week 8’s Jaguars-Titans Thursday night tilt, we can measure the quality of a given NFL matchup by taking the harmonic mean of the two teams’ pre-game Elo ratings (FiveThirtyEight’s pet metric for estimating a team’s quality at any given moment). And according to that measure, tonight’s K.C.-Oakland game is the seventh-best Thursday night matchup in NFL history: The best Thursday night NFL matchups of all time 111/29/07DallasGreen Bay166016491655 211/27/14**SeattleSan Francisco166816291648 69/9/04*New EnglandIndianapolis166715911628 310/23/14DenverSan Diego168816071646 99/5/13*BaltimoreDenver162816091618 109/10/09*PittsburghTennessee164515931618 411/26/98**MinnesotaDallas167716101643 712/8/16Kansas CityOakland166215861623 811/24/11**BaltimoreSan Francisco162816101619 DATETEAM 1TEAM 2TEAM 1TEAM 2HARMONIC MEAN 59/8/16*DenverCarolina163716341635 *NFL’s season-opening game.**Thanksgiving night game.In each matchup, “Team 1” is the higher-rated team according to Elo.Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com At the same time, Monday night matchups have been getting worse, and now the two days have very nearly pulled even in terms of their average quality.2At least in prime time; I excluded non-prime-time Thursday games such as Thanksgiving day games. Both are still far, far below the level established by the league’s flagship prime-time games on Sunday nights. But with more games like tonight’s Raiders-Chiefs tilt, Thursday night is no longer merely a place for the NFL to stash terrible matchups so it can get every team on prime-time TV.Check out our latest NFL predictions. In fact, if we toss out special Thursday occasions — Thanksgiving and the NFL’s annual opening-night showcase — Raiders-Chiefs rises to third-best among the ranks of ordinary Thursday night games. We haven’t seen a matchup this good emerge organically from the Thursday night schedule since the Broncos hosted the Chargers in Oct. 2014.Good Thursday night games like Chiefs-Raiders are part of a larger comeback trend. Thursday night football has been a perennial punchline, particularly since 2012, when the NFL decided to play a Thursday night game almost every week instead of firing the feature up at midseason for the stretch run, as it did between 2006 and 2011. But after a rocky start, the quality of these midweek games has slowly risen over the past five seasons: PRE-GAME ELO RATING
So depending on how quickly the duo jells (or re-jells), Wade may get far easier shots than he got last season in Chicago, when he generated just 3 percent of his offense from cuts to the basket and took his average shot attempt from more than 12 feet away, tied for the longest average shot distance of his 14-year career.Some will question whether Wade — and to a greater extent, Derrick Rose — is a good enough jump shooter to keep defenses honest while James is running the show and probing for driving lanes. But a closer evaluation of Wade’s game suggests that he can more than hold his own as an off-ball threat if used properly.Wade has shown himself to be a competent 3-point shooter when stationed in the corner, shooting almost 38 percent138 of 101. from the corner in the seven seasons since James signed with Miami in 2010 — considerably better than his 27 percent2147 of 550. on all other 3-point tries over that same span. That’s particularly meaningful for Cleveland, which led the NBA in corner 3-point makes and attempts by a huge margin, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Cavs launch far more corner triples when James — one of the best passers in the sport — is on the court compared to when he’s on the bench.) Miami Heat27769040.1 2008-09Miami3.1– 2015-16Miami5.0– Cleveland Cavaliers35385041.5% The Cavs take (and make) more corner 3s than anyone elseFor the 2016-17 regular season Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group 2013-14Miami9.4– 2012-13Miami11.4– 2011-12Miami8.6– After being bought out by the Chicago Bulls, 12-time All-Star Dwyane Wade had a handful of solid options to consider when deciding which team to sign with.There was the fairy-tale possibility of rejoining the Heat, the franchise he was drafted by and where he won three titles. The suddenly fortified Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs — the team that effectively ended Miami’s Big Three era back in 2014 by winning the title that year — were also suitors. But as enticing as those teams might have been, none of them have LeBron James.So it isn’t surprising that Wade is choosing to sign in Cleveland, where he not only has a great chance at reaching the NBA Finals again but also gets to reunite with one of his closest friends. But if we only examine those two factors, we might be overlooking the biggest incentive Wade has in all this: LeBron and the Cavs may be a fountain of youth for the 35-year-old.James makes life easier for everyone he plays with (well, Mario Chalmers might disagree), and Wade was no exception while the two were in Miami. Wade logged career bests in effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage during that four-year run, from his age-29 to age-32 seasons. His stark improvement as an off-ball threat — specifically as a cutter who would make his break toward the basket while defenses were preoccupied with James — helped take the Heat’s offense to another level. 2007-08Miami3.0– Utah Jazz23461238.2 2016-17Chicago3.1%– The years in bold highlight seasons in which Dwyane Wade was teammates with LeBron James.Source: Synergy Sports Technology 2009-10Miami4.6– Wade cut to the basket far more when playing with LeBron CORNER 3S The percentage of Wade’s offense that came from cuts to the basket basically doubled during the years he teamed with LeBron and then dropped back to its original level as soon as James went back to Cleveland. 2010-11Miami6.5– Boston Celtics25362340.6 SEASONTEAMSHARE OF OFFENSE THAT STEMS FROM CUTTING TO THE BASKET 2014-15Miami4.3– Houston Rockets26769038.7 TEAMMAKESATTEMPTSSHARE One variable that figures to be vital is how much Wade is being asked to do; especially in an offense that already features LeBron, Rose, the oft-forgotten Kevin Love and, at some point after the new year, Isaiah Thomas, who was acquired in the Kyrie Irving deal. It’s not hard to imagine Wade frequently handling the ball to give James a rest, though his game and Rose’s are similar in that both can develop tunnel vision when they’re driving to the basket.It would be wise for Cleveland to take a conservative approach that helps maintain Wade’s aging body for the postseason. J.R. Smith is seemingly a better fit for the Cavs’ starting lineup, thanks to both his size and his superior outside shooting.None of this is meant to suggest that Wade will be a perfect fit with the Cavs, as there are a handful of things that James and Wade simply won’t be able to replicate this many years after their first partnership. Chief among them: The swarming, blitzing defense the Heat used to trap pick-and-rolls. (Chris Bosh was truly special defensively with those teams.) In fact, a defense featuring the two of them might be a half-step slow now.However, even if Wade performs more fluidly during the regular season, it’s possible that, given his age, he and his body may not be totally dependable come playoff time, no matter how the Cavs manage his minutes. The 2014 Finals, in which the Heat got blasted by San Antonio four games to one, were a prime example.But if there’s one thing we’ve seen with Wade’s game in the past, it’s that James’s presence — as it has done for many others — will lessen the physical toll on Wade and possibly help offset the effects of Father Time. And that means the Cavaliers have little to lose with this signing.
The AL East has been really tough to winSince 2010, the most and fewest number of wins for the winner of each MLB division, with the average number of wins (per 162 games) required 2008Tampa Bay Rays1096673 2017Cleveland Indians937111 2019Tampa Bay Rays11611715 WAR Rankings by category YearTeamHittingRunningDefenseStartersBullpenOverall These Rays go to 11MLB teams who ranked among the top 11 in every subcategory of wins above replacement — across offense, defense and pitching — since 1995 NL Central1049095.3 1996Texas Rangers1039763 AL Central1028894.2 AL West1058896.6 2016L.A. Dodgers9951146 2002Anaheim Angels9211164 It’s tough to find a more successful baseball club over the past decade-plus than the Tampa Bay Rays, owners of a 1,035-901 record — fifth-best in MLB — ever since their stunning breakout in 2008. The Rays went to the World Series that season and made the playoffs in three of the five years that followed, creating a blueprint for other teams hoping to win on similarly microscopic budgets. Even this year, the Rays sit 10th in our Elo team rankings despite ranking 30th in payroll.But for all of those wins, Tampa Bay has had some lousy luck in actually getting to the playoffs. The Rays have made only three postseason appearances this decade — and none since 2013. Only three teams in the expanded wild-card era (since 2012) have won 90 games but failed to play in the postseason: One of those was the 2013 Texas Rangers; the other two were Rays clubs, in 2012 and 2018. And this year’s team, on pace for 95 wins, has just a 54 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to the FiveThirtyEight model. What do the Rays have to do to get some postseason love around here?Some of Tampa’s troubles simply have to do with playing in the cutthroat American League East, where the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are together currently spending more than twice as much on players as the rest of the division combined. Whether in terms of the average victories necessary to win the division or even just the bare-minimum requirement, those numbers have consistently been higher for the AL East than any other division in baseball this decade: 2001Seattle Mariners111951 AL East1089397.3 DivisionMostFewestAverage NL East1029096.1 NL West1049194.8 Winner’s Wins (per 162 games) 2002Seattle Mariners3410856 Source: Baseball-Reference.com In every division except the AL East and NL West, a 90-win team has had at least had some chance to come out in first place this decade. But in the AL East, no fewer than 93 wins have been required to win the division, and seldom fewer than 91 have been needed to make the playoffs, period.1Two 89-win teams — the 2016 Blue Jays and Orioles — and one 87-win team — the 2015 Yankees — have made the wild card this decade out of the AL East. By my accounting,2Using a logistic regression on team data since 1995, with a dummy variable for the extra wild-card slot MLB added in 2012. being in the AL East makes it 8 percentage points tougher for a 90-win team to make the playoffs than being in another division would make it, 10 percentage points tougher for an 89-win team and 12 percentage points tougher for an 88-win team.That sweet spot around 90 wins happens to be where Tampa tends to often find itself, and it’s tough to make the playoffs from that zone when you’re in the AL East. Last year was a great example: The Rays went 90-72 but were precluded from winning the division (the Red Sox won 108 games) or even finishing in second place (the Yankees won 100 on the number). That left only one solitary playoff spot even up for the Rays to battle for, and it was snapped up by the 97-win Oakland Athletics. Baseball’s seventh-best team by wins above replacement,3Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. sporting a record that would normally earn a playoff slot 81 percent of the time in the double-wild-card era,4Once again, according to the logistic regression I ran. ended up missing the playoffs by seven whole games.But the Rays have found ways to miss the playoffs even when the Yankee/Red Sox hegemony was partially broken. Back in 2012, New York was good (95 wins) but hardly dominant, and Boston deteriorated completely under the not-so-watchful eye of Bobby Valentine, going 69-93. Meanwhile Tampa Bay had the fourth-most WAR in baseball, led by star seasons from Ben Zobrist (5.7 WAR) and David Price (5.5), plus solid years via players ranging from the expected (James Shields, Evan Longoria) to the out-of-nowhere (Jeff Keppinger??). By WAR, that was one of the most talented teams the Rays have ever produced. But they underperformed relative to the record their underlying stats say they “should” have had — according to BaseRuns, they should have made the playoffs with a 95-67 mark — wasting a red-hot 36-22 finish over the last two months of the season to end up three games shy of Texas and Baltimore for the wild card.The disappointing Red Sox will miss the playoffs this season as well, possibly finishing as many as 10 games behind the rival Rays. Although the Yankees have dominated this season, tracking for 105 wins, you would think 95 wins could at least buy the Rays a wild-card appearance, in a wide-open year with Boston out of the picture.And yet, here Tampa Bay is again, fighting for its playoff life on a nightly basis over the final few weeks of the season. Once again, the Oakland A’s — in many ways the West Coast mirror image of the Rays — are almost assured of one wild-card slot, putting themselves on pace for 97 wins by season’s end. And after the Minnesota Twins unexpectedly dominated the AL Central race, the Cleveland Indians’ only playoff hopes essentially rest on the same wild-card spot Tampa Bay has been eyeing all season. In the mega-top-heavy AL, one misfortunate team could win 95 games and still miss the playoffs entirely.5And the team that makes it would promptly haves to face a gauntlet of three hundred-win teams, and a 97-win one.If that team ends up being Tampa, it would obscure what has been maybe the most quintessentially Rays-y season of them all, in terms of doing more with less. The team’s best player by WAR (with 5.1) has been pitcher Charlie Morton, who had 1.5 career WAR to his name before joining the Astros in 2017; he is easily obliterating his previous career-best WAR (3.2 in 2018) this season at age 35. Left fielder Tommy Pham (3.9 WAR) had previously displayed his talent with 6.2 WAR in 2017, and shortstop Willy Adames had up-and-coming star potential. But the rest of Tampa Bay’s expected stars — such as pitcher Blake Snell and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier — have been merely OK, if also injured and/or underwhelming.Instead, the Rays have succeeded with a mishmash of acquired prospects (Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow), unheralded youngsters (Brandon Lowe), seemingly random pitchers (Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos, Emilio Pagan), retread veterans (Travis d’Arnaud) and other spare parts. They still use the opener, still shift a ton and still play relievers in the field before putting them back on the mound. They’ve fought through key injuries to rank fifth in the league in WAR per game, and through Sunday they were tracking to become just the eighth team since the 1994 strike to rank among MLB’s top 11 in WAR from every phase of the game — hitting, fielding, base-running and pitching (both starting and relieving):6Yes, “top 11” is arbitrary. Who cares? This is an impressive all-around team season! 2019 Rays’ rankings are through Sept. 15.Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs.com (Fittingly, the 2008 Rays — the team that started it all — are also in that club.)If Tampa Bay does end up missing the playoffs, it would go down as one of the best teams ever to fit that criteria. Its current Elo rating of 1543 would tie last year’s Rays for the second-best among nonplayoff teams of the double-wild-card era (trailing only the 2012 Rays), and its 0.303 WAR per game would easily be the highest of any nonplayoff team since 2012. The last team to miss the postseason with as many WAR per game was the 2011 Red Sox, who fumbled away their playoff hopes with one of the most infamous collapses in baseball history.But if the baseball gods know what they’re doing, they would maybe consider giving the Rays a break this time around. The franchise has already seen several of the hardest-luck nonplayoff seasons in recent history — and this year’s might be the cruelest postseason snub of all, given how many wins the Rays might rack up in vain. After so many years spent knocking on the door with records that usually belong in the postseason, it seems like it’s time Tampa finally gets in.Check out our latest MLB predictions.