Yes, I know – it has been a while. Three weeks ago my dog had to have his knee surgically repaired, and the recovery has been slower than anticipated with some unexpected hurdles along the way. But he is showing progress and is doing a lot better these days, which means I have time to sit down and put together one of these write-ups for you fine folks.
The model thus far is 19-14 (57.6%) for +6.66 units (12.5% ROI). I’m pretty pleased with those marks given that there have been 13 quarterback changes in the first five weeks and they are the largest and arguably the most difficult adjustment to make to a team’s evaluation. If you are interested in joining, the model plays have been prorated down to $349 for the rest of the season given that a month of plays is already in the books.
San Francisco 49ers (4-0) vs. Los Angeles Rams (3-2)
The matchup I’ll be looking at this week is one that I anticipate a massive divide on across handicappers, modelers, and bettors everywhere. The Rams and Sean McVay have been adored by the analytics community for quite some time now and for good reason. In 2018, they finished 2nd in offensive DVOA including finishes of 5th in passing DVOA and 1st in running DVOA. As a result the Rams only trailed the Chiefs last year in scoring, averaging 31 points per game. With Cooper Kupp returning from injury this year, there were expectations that this offense could generate similar (if not better) results in 2019. Kupp has been more than advertised, averaging 8.2 catches and 101 yards per game and has been responsible for more than half of all of Jared Goff’s touchdowns (4 of 7).
Despite that, a lot of data points suggest that this Rams offense has taken quite a step back, especially through the air. A lot of it has to do with the inefficiencies from the offensive line and Jared Goff. After finishing seventh last year in yards per attempt (8.1), Jared Goff now ranks 17th with 7.4 yards per attempt. Much of this comes from the fact that the Rams offensive line has graded poorly in pass blocking this year, allowing the 12th most QB hits per game after allowing just the ninth fewest in 2018. That obviously doesn’t bode well for a quarterback who only completed 41% of his throws while under pressure last year.
Those numbers alone should be concerning for the Rams, but it gets much uglier when you look at the defense they have to face on Sunday. For as much attention as the Patriots’ defense has received this year, the 49ers have been just behind them as a complete unit. On a per game basis, the 49ers currently rank:
4th in points allowed
2nd in yards allowed
2nd in defensive DVOA
1st in pass defense DVOA
5th in rush defense DVOA
5th in sacks
7th in adjusted sack rate
8th in 3rd down conversion rate
2nd in interceptions
3rd in penalties committed and penalty yards
Credit needs to be given to the 49ers’ front office for the amount of defensive talent they have accrued through the draft. In the last five drafts, the 49ers have hit on the following Day 1 and Day 2 picks on defense: Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Solomon Thomas, Ahkello Witherspoon, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Jacquiski Tartt. That is quite the haul, and having a Kyle Shanahan offense to practice against for the past two seasons has undoubtedly played a huge role in their development.
But the Rams aren’t the only ones with noteworthy injuries coming into this week’s game. Starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey will be out for the next 4-6 weeks, which hurts a bit more than usual given that starting left tackle Joe Staley is already out and with the 49ers leading the league in rushing rate (57%). Fullback Kyle Juszcyk is also out, but the 49ers are arguably the deepest and most versatile team at the position and will surely find a way to distribute his touches.
Being deep and versatile best describes the 49ers as a whole so far this season. Sure, they have the capability just like any team performing well to start the season to come falling back down to earth. As for now, they currently rank 10th in pass offense and 7th in rush defense, and rank 2nd in pass defense and 5th in rush defense. Altogether, the 49ers are the second strongest team in my model as of this writing. That was certainly not something I expected heading into this season. In fact, the 49ers have outperformed my priors so much that their expected wins vs. league average has increased by 2.67 wins through just five weeks. The next best improvement has been New England, who has improved by 1.65 wins so far this season. To provide more context, there were only four teams through Week 5 last year that saw an improvement of one win or more, and only one team improved by two or more: the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Rams on the other hand have regressed a bit more than I had expected, finding themselves as the tenth best team in the model and decreasing their expected wins vs. league average by 0.67 wins. As for this week’s matchup, the model has this game made to be LAR -0.2 after accounting for game specific factors, rest discrepancies (Rams coming off TNF, 49ers coming off MNF), injuries, etc. That makes SF +3 +104 good for a 1.4 unit play.
Last week’s free play on the Jaguars played out like a treat. The Jaguars’ defense, fresh off of a game where they allowed 40 points, held the Texans’ offense to just 13 points. That was right around the average for the Jaguars following games in which they allowed 21+ points (11.1) which I covered in last week’s write-up. This allowed the Jaguars’ offense, led by backup Garnder Minshew, to do the bare minimum to cover the 9 point spread. Speaking of backups, last week’s model plays went 5-3 for +4.72 units with three of the plays being on games in which backup quarterbacks were unexpectedly needed (we went 1-2 on those games). To keep with the theme, we’ll be diving into a game that involves a backup.
New Orleans Saints (1-1) vs. Seattle Seahawks (2-0)
Simply put, there just isn’t a categorical edge I can find for the Saints when looking at this matchup. First let’s look at how the Seahawks’ offense stacks up against the Seahawks’ defense. The Seahawks currently rank seventh in the model passing offense and will be going against a Saints’ pass defense that ranks in the bottom third of the league. Seattle also ranks just outside the top third in rushing offense and will be going against a Saints’ rush defense that ranks 27th in yards allowed per game, 28th in yards allowed per attempt, and 25th in rushing first downs allowed per game.
On top of that, the Seahawks should have no problem putting together long drives given that the Saints’ defense is already allowing the fifth most yards per drive in the league (only edging out the Giants, Raiders, Dolphins, and Redskins) and ranks fifth worst in generating three-and-outs. The Seahawks should be able to put together a few drives that land them inside the red zone, where they are just one of three teams to have scored a touchdown on all of their trips there. But even when the Seahawks fail to push the ball into Saints territory, they will have All-Pro punter Michael Dickson to help pin the Saints deep in their own territory.
As for how the Saints offense might fair, the model expects the Saints’ offense without Drew Brees to be in the bottom third when it comes to both passing and running the ball. The Seahawks’ pass defense only ranks around league average in the model, but their run defense ranks tenth. So things may look bleak on offense for the Saints if Sean Payton were to opt for a more run-heavy, possession-focused type approach in lieu of Brees’ absence. If not, I don’t expect the Saints to find much repeated success through the air whether it’s Teddy Bridgewater or Taysom Hill behind center on Sunday. I expect the former to be a better quarterback but a harder piece to either fit into the Saints’ offense or to adequately adapt the offense to in a week, whereas the latter is a better fit to the existing offense (obviously given that he already had a role prior to Brees’ injury) but is less talented and very likely to see diminishing returns the more he is used.
Given everything highlighted above, it’s not hard to see why there would be value on the Seahawks being favored by four points. As most know, the Seahawks possess one of the better home field advantages in the NFL. Even when considering that the average homefield advantage in the NFL has seen an approximate 20% decline in the past two decades, it would be hard to argue that the Seahawks’ homefield advantage is any lower than the equivalent of three points. So intuitively, if you subtract out those three points we are left with a line that suggests that the Seahawks are just a point better than the Drew Brees-less Saints on a neutral field.
That should be a hard buy for anyone, and my model agrees. Prior to the season, my model had the Saints as the fourth best team at 9.64 wins and the Seahawks as the seventh best with 9.38 wins (Note: model wins are expressed in terms of a team playing 16 games against a league average team). While Seattle has managed to hold steady in the model through two weeks of play, the Saints are a much different story. As a result of Drew Brees absence and the Saints’ poor defensive play to start the season, the Saints have been downgraded to 6.27 model wins, good for 27th in the league. The result is a 68.2% probability that the Seahawks would beat the Saints on a neutral field, which is already higher than the implied probability of the Seahawks moneyline for the game. After accounting for game-specific factors the model makes this game Seahawks -8.4, which makes SEA -4 a 2.2 unit model play.
Welcome back! Last week’s play fell incredibly flat as the Raiders had their way with the Broncos for the entire night. The Raiders offensive line, which was missing two starters, allowed zero QB hits. Big money free agent acquisition Juwan James went down early and the right side of the Broncos offensive line never really recovered after that. On the other side of the ball, stud cornerback Bryce Callahan (2018 PFF grade of 81.3) also went out early and the Raiders intelligently went after Isaac Yiadom after that, who received a PFF grade of 41.3 for the night. To cap off the ugly night, Vic Fangio showed poor game management skills in his head coaching debut – the lowlight being opting to kick a field goal when down 21-6 to decrease the deficit from a two touchdown game to a two touchdown game. Nevertheless, Week 1 is behind us and we are on to Week 2.
Jacksonville Jaguars (0-1) vs. Houston Texans (0-1)
Both of these AFC South teams will face off after having quite an eventful Week 1. The visiting Jaguars come off of a blowout at home in which Nick Foles exited with a season-ending broken clavicle. The Texans on the other hand watched a late-game comeback slip through their fingers as they lost in the final moments of the early Monday Night Football game. This week is a pivotal week for many 0-1 teams, as teams starting 0-2 only make the playoffs roughly 11% of the time. Add in the fact that all four AFC South teams face off against each other this week, this week has a lot at stake.
The glaring element to this game is the undrafted rookie quarterback who will now start in place of Nick Foles, Gardner Minshew. After taking over for Foles, Minshew went on to finish 22/25 (88%) for 275 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT. To add to his performance, the three incompletions were drops and Minshew wound up finishing fourth in attempted Air Yards amongst all quarterbacks. Not bad at all if you ask me.
But when it comes to replacement quarterbacks, it’s not necessarily about how good the replacment is – it’s more about how much more valuable the starter was compared to the backup. Luckily for us, BetOnline actually released the effect each quarterback has on the line:
Now obviously different books might have different numbers for each quarterback but I can’t imagine it differing by too much. If Foles is worth 2.5 points, then the current spread of Texans -9.5 for this game suggests that it would have been around Texans -7 had Foles finished last week’s game unscathed. To me, that immediately didn’t sound right. Prior to Week 1, the Pinnacle regular season win total for the Texans was approximately 8.6 and the Jaguars’ was 7.9. A difference of 0.7 wins would never equate to a spread of -7 in Week 2 had Foles been healthy. And that’s absolutely true. When we look at what the lookahead line for Week 2 was before Week 1, you can see that the Texans were originally -3.5. That means that after adjusting for the quarterback change, there is 3.5 points of unexplained movement left. For many, that alone would be enough to take a line and not think twice about it. But that wouldn’t make for a good write-up so let’s dive a bit deeper.
Outside of the quarterback situation, the two biggest takeaways from the two games these teams played last week are that 1) The Jaguars defense looked apprehensible, allowing the Chiefs to score 40 points and that 2) the Texans passing game looks better than ever with the offensive line getting a boost from Tunsil and with Will Fuller back. However, long-time NFL bettors will tell you that overreacting week-to-week is a good way to deplete your bankroll, especially at the start of the season.
To put the Jaguars’ poor defensive performance in context, I took a look at every time the Jaguars allowed 21+ points in the past two seasons (left column) and how they fared in the following week (right column):
2017 W2 Titans 37
2017 W4: Jets 23 (in OT)
2017 W6: Rams 27
2017 W12: Cardinals 27
2017 W14: Seahawks 24
2017 W16: 49ers 44
2018 W5: Chiefs 30
2018 W6: Cowboys 40
2018 W12: Bills 24
2018 W14: Titans 30
2017 W3: Ravens 7
2017 W5: Steelers 9
2017 W7: Colts 0
2017 W13: Colts 10
2017 W15: Texans 7
2017 W17: Titans 15
2018 W6: Cowboys 40
2018 W7: Texans 7
2018 W13: Colts 0
2018 W15: Redskins 16
As you can see, the Jaguars’ defense only allowed 21+ in consecutive weeks once in the last two seasons: in Week 6 of last season when they allowed 40 points to the Cowboys after allowing 30 to the Chiefs in Week 5. In the ten weeks following a game in which the Jaguars allowed 21+ points, they only allowed 11.1 points per game. Logically, this makes a lot of sense when you think of the ebb and flow of week-to-week game-planning. If the Jaguars’ defense plays well, opposing coaches will avoid what the Jaguars defended well and try to find where they were lacking. The Jaguars’ coaches on the other hand will be a bit more content with their defense and try not to change too much. That leaves the Jaguars defense exposed. If the Jaguars’ defense plays poorly, opposing coaches will look to exploit the weaknesses the Jaguars already showed whereas the Jaguars’ coaches will look to patch up those holes. This will give the Jaguars’ defense the advantage.
But if you’re unconvinced and have the Texans’ recent offensive performance still fresh in your mind, you might want to pump the brakes. The Saints defense ranked dead last in DVOA allowed on deep passes last year. The Jaguars, on the other hand, ranked seventh best. Yes the Jaguars did just get burned deep by Mahomes, but like we just discussed you would be hard-pressed to find instances where the Jaguars had consecutive weeks of defensive lapses.
As for the model, the Jaguars are given a 38.6% chance of winning on a neutral field and after adjusting for game-specific factors the Jaguars are made to be 5.8 point underdogs. I’ll sell a half point and opt for JAX +9 -110, which leaves us with 3.2 points of disagreement making this a play risking 1.76 units to win 1.60.
NOTE: This write-up was completed just before the Antonio Brown suspension was announced and when the resulting 2.5 point move on the spread occurred. Since I already spent the time writing it, I figured it was better to release it than trash it.
The 100th season of the NFL officially kicks off later tonight, which means the return of my weekly write-ups. For those that didn’t follow along last year, each week I look at one of my model plays and break down the matchup to illustrate how and why my model may be finding value on one of the teams. If you didn’t follow along last year, let’s first do a crash course on how the model works. If you’re already familiar, feel free to skip ahead to the matchup.
A Reintroduction for the Uninitiated
The model takes in various inputs and assigns a category rating for pass offense, rush offense, pass defense, rush defense, and special teams. It then uses these category ratings to decide how much the strength of success in each category correlates with overall team strength, which itself is determined separately and independently. A final dynamic formula is used that weighs each category according to the aforementioned correlations, and spits out the expected wins for each team if they were to play against a league average team for 16 games. This formula and the weights it assigns to each category changes throughout the season changes as more data is collected and the model analyzes the data and each category’s importance.
For each matchup, each teams’ expected wins number is divided by 16 to get a per game win probability, which is then interpreted into a neutral field win probability and spread. Various game factors are then added on (home field advantage, etc.) to spit out a final model spread for the game. That spread is compared to the Vegas spread, and any disagreements of two points or more becomes a model play. For each half point of disagreement, 0.25 units are added to the model play. For example, if the model makes the Packers / Bears game tonight Packers +1.5, there would be a 2.0 point disagreement with the current spread of Packers +3.5. As a result, the model play would be on the Packers to win 1.00 unit.
NOTE: This has been changed from last year where each half point disagreement was a half unit. The reason for the change was that last year’s method made it so that the lowest possible play was two units, whereas this year’s method makes it so that the base play is one unit. Despite the change, there is no change in the rate at which the model generates profit since even though the total net is halved, the total risked amount would also be halved. This change has been implemented to last year’s play tracker to be consistent with this year’s method.
Denver Broncos (0-0) @ Oakland Raiders (0-0)
The second leg of Monday night’s doubleheader will pit the Denver Broncos against the Oakland Raiders. The Broncos stumbled through 2018 finishing with just six wins, with a couple of games being throw away by former head coach Vance Joseph who week in and week out proved to have no idea how to manage a professional football game from start to finish. Despite Joseph’s mishaps, the Broncos did fare well against tougher competition last year. In the Broncos’ eight games against eventual playoff teams last year, the Broncos won two (against Seattle and the Chargers) and five of the six losses were by one possession.
Nevertheless, the Broncos decided this offseason to move on from Vance Joseph and hired former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio – the mastermind behind the Bears’ defense that terrorized the league last season and the man whose defense Sean McVay, Mike Shanahan, and Matt LeFleur called the hardest defense to read and attack. The Broncos also changed the head honcho on offense, bringing in the relatively unknown Rich Scangarello who comes from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree. Scangarello has promised to expand and grow the offense from its existing base, which will marry a sense of familiarity with the benefit of doing more with an offense that has ranked 28th in points per game in the last three years. Despite the poor offensive output the Broncos are 20-28 during that span much to the credit of the defense, so any improvement on offense that comes with the inevitable improvement Fangio will bring to the defense should result in more wins for the Broncos this year.
Another pivotal addition was the hiring of Mike Munchak as the offensive line coach, who previously occupied the same position for the Pittsburg Steelers and masterfully crafted blocking schemes that helped Le’Veon Bell and James Conner put together elite rushing campaigns. The obvious beneficiaries are the sophomore year running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman who ran behind an offensive line that ranked league average in percentage of runs thats were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Joe Flacco, who in the last four years has an average rank of 28th in passer rating when under pressure, also stands to benefit if Munchak can improve an offensive line that already ranked 11th in adjusted sack rate last year. Given that the Raiders’ defense ranked dead last in adjusted sack rate last year as well as in DVOA allowed even when they do generate pressure, Flacco might have himself a night on Monday against a Raiders pass defense which ranks 31st in my model heading into Week 1.
Derek Carr has similar troubles against pressure, as he ranked 30th in passer rating last year when pressured. Unfortunately for Carr, the Broncos’ defense was the best in the league last year when it came to DVOA allowed on passes under pressure despite only ranking 18th in pressure rate (which I’m sure Fangio can and will improve on this season). The Raiders will also be without Richie Incognito (suspension) and Gabe Jackson (injury), while tackle Denzel Good (who is recovering from back surgery) is slated to start at right guard. Given that the Broncos were already 8th in sacks and adjusted sack rate last year, Carr might be on his back staring up at the lights more than he would like to be. But what if by some miracle the Raiders offensive line can hold a clean pocket for Carr? It might not matter as the Broncos still ranked 5th in DVOA allowed when pressure wasn’t generated:
All in all, it’s pretty easy to see what there is to like about the Broncos on Monday night. The addition of Munchak should offset the loss of center Matt Paradis, and help diminish the rate at which Flacco will be under duress in the pocket. The return of Emmanuel Sanders and the continued development of second-year wideouts Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton should provide Flacco with more weapons through the air than he has had in years past with the Ravens, who notoriously have trotted out some of the biggest hodgepodges at the position. For the Raiders, the additions of Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams might not bear much fruit in Week 1 as Carr finds himself hurrying to get the ball out of his hands, while the first round pick Josh Jacobs might have little room to breathe against the Fangio’s front seven. As for the model, the Broncos are given a 68.1% chance of winning this game on a neutral field. After adjusting for specific game factors, the model makes the game Broncos -2.6. That means with the line currently at a pick ’em, the Broncos show 2.6 points of value making Broncos PK -107 a model play (1.39 to win 1.30 units).
Last week I covered a key question I had for each of the 16 AFC teams, and if you missed that write-up I’d highly recommend checking that out. This week, ahead of the first full slate of preseason games, we shift our focus to the NFC where there are just as many pivotal and juicy questions to be answered before the real action kicks off in Week 1. These two write-ups hopefully can serve as a viewing guide for the preseason and the rest of camp, and give you an idea of what to look for.
And for those of you that missed it, my NFL model plays are now available to purchase. The model plays include a full refund if the plays do not yield a five unit profit by the end of the season, making it so that a $100 bettor either breaks even or gets refunded. If you didn’t follow along last year, the model went 75-47-6 record (61% hit rate) for +43.1 units (18% ROI) and you can read a full recap of the results here if you didn’t follow along last year.
Despite improvement over the previous year, the Bears’ offense left a lot to be desired in 2018. Combining a second-year quarterback selected second overall the previous year with a new head coach coming directly from the Andy Reid coaching tree sounds like the perfect recipe for marked improvement. However, the Bears only went from 29th in passing DVOA in 2017 to 20th in 2018. To me, that sounds like a lot of the improvement came from new head coach Matt Nagy, and not so much from development on Mitch Trubisky’s end. Can Trubisky take that “next step” in his development and further improve this offense? Given that elite defensive performance is less likely to be repeatable year-over-year compared to offense and with Chuck Pagano replacing Vic Fangio as the defensive coordinator, improvement on offense will be necessary for this team to remain a contender.
When Kevan Stefanski took over as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator late last season, there was one very notable change: a much higher reliance on two tight end sets. The results for the Vikings followed a trend that is permeating the rest of the league: higher passing efficiency. As a testament to this, the five teams that attempted the most passes with 12 personnel all made the playoffs last year:
Most passing attempts with multiple TE on the field in 2018:
1. Eagles: 255
2. Texans: 208
3. Chiefs: 181
4. Ravens: 164
5. Colts: 159
In this year’s draft, the Vikings spent a second round pick on stud tight end prospect Irv Smith Jr. Will Mike Zimmer give Stefanski and the Vikings the opportunity to continue with their two-tight end experiment? Zimmer’s meddling with the offensive playcalling in the past has been troublesome to say the least.
Matt LeFleur is the new head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and has quite a mixed bag of recent experience. He excelled in 2015 and 2016 as Kyle Shanahan’s QB coach (Matt Ryan’s MVP win, SuperBowl appearance) and in 2017 as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator (5th in offensive DVOA), but struggled in 2018 as the Titan’s offensive coordinator (27th in points scored, league average in offensive DVOA). Which version of Matt LeFleur are the Packers going to get as their head coach? Offensive dynamism and creativity isn’t something this offense has had in quite some time but if LeFleur can inject that into this offense, it could go a long way in making up for their relative lack of experience and talent on that side of the ball.
The Lions’ 2018 campaign consisted of Matthew Stafford playing through a fractured back, Marvin Jones missing seven games, Kerryon Johnson missing nine games, and Golden Tate getting traded halfway through the season. When you get your $135 million quarterback, your electric running back, and your go-to outside-the-numbers wide receiver all back to full health while adding eighth-overall pick TE T.J. Hockenson and veteran WR Danny Amendola, you should have all the potential in the world to put together an explosive offense. However, if Matt Patricia continues forward with the run-centric mindset he has introduced in Detroit, all of that potential might be left untapped. Will Patricia pledge his allegiance to the “establish the run” coaching community or take advantage of the slue of weapons he has on offense?
The addition of Amari Cooper in the middle of last season may just be the beginning of a new-look Cowboys’ offense for the first time in a very long time. Scott Linehan was finally shown the door and Kellen Moore takes over as the offensive coordinator. Moore lacks any significant experience to draw conclusions from, but it’d be hard for Moore to be less creative and mundane than Linehan was during his five year tenure. With a new offensive coordinator, a full season of Cooper, and an offense that ranked 24th in wide receiver, tight end, and offensive line health last year, is there anywhere for the Cowboys’ offense to go but up?
The Philadelphia Eagles arguably head into the 2019 season without a single below average starter on either side of the ball. However it’s not what you start with, but what you finish with. In 2017, the Eagles finished the 13th healthiest team and, despite losing their starting quarterback, had enough talent left on the field to bring home the Lombardi trophy. Last year, the Eagles ranked dead last in Adjusted Games Lost and still managed to make the playoffs. Can the Eagles stay healthy in 2019? This is an especially important question for the WR corps, who ranked 25th in health last year and have an appreciable history of injuries amongst them. In fact between Alshon Jeffery, Desean Jackson, and Nelson Agholor, the average chance of injury is just under 50% (according to Sports Injury Predictor).
No NFC team lacks a silver lining more heading into the 2019 season than the New York Giants. Replacing Odell Beckham Jr. with Golden Tate has already proven to be worse than anticipated with Tate’s four game PED suspension to start the season. But the significant losses in talent don’t just stop on offense. The Giants lost OLB Olivier Vernon (PFF grade: 86.3), FS Landon Collins (70.4), DT Mario Edwards (70.1), DT Josh Mauro (66.8), DT Kerry Wynn (66.2), and CB B.W Webb (62.6). Adding safeties Jabrill Peppers (OBJ trade) and Antoine Bethea (free agency) as well as DT Dexter Lawrence and CB Deandre Baker through the draft is hardly going to be close to enough to fill the voids of the aforementioned losses, and has me asking “Who can this Giants defense realistically stop?“.
The Redskins have a lot of questions to answer during camp and preseason, but none as big as “Who is going to play quarterback?“. The first unofficial depth chart has Colt McCoy listed as the starter, with newly acquired Case Keenum as the backup, and fifteenth overall pick Dwayne Haskins as the third stringer. My evaluation of each varies enough from each other that the results of this quarterback competition (as well as any changes at the position throughout the season) has a significant impact on the team’s value.
Something that flew under the radar for the Saints last season was Drew Brees’ struggles with the deep ball later in the season. Prior to Week 12, Brees completed 63% of his deep passes for 6 TDs, 0 INTs, and a 144 passer rating. Week 13 onwards, his completion percentage on those throws dipped to 41% and he threw 1 TD and 2 INTs and had a passer rating of just 63 (via Warren Sharp’s “2019 Football Preview”). Whether it was an undisclosed injury, league-wide defensive adjustments, or just poor play, we’ll never know. But the question obviously stands heading into 2019: Will Brees’ struggles with the deep ball late last season continue into 2019?
There seems to be some optimism amongst football fans that the Atlanta Falcons can get back to the playoffs. After keeping a close watch over them in the offseason, I’m not so sure I agree. The Falcons have struggled with offensive playcalling ever since the departure of Mike Shanahan. Steve Sarkisian’s two year tenure resulted in a points per game average drop of nearly a full touchdown, and he was unsurprisingly let go. Is former Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter the answer for this offense? This is somewhat a sarcastic question as I firmly have my feet planted in the “no” camp, but I am keeping an eye on anything I can draw from their preseason affairs. If Koetter and the Falcons can surprise me, then the landscape of the NFC South could look quite a bit different than I currently anticipate.
There really isn’t a more pressing question for the Panthers (and arguably for the entire NFC South) than “What lasting effects will Cam Newton’s shoulder injury have?“. Following a 6-2 start last year during which Newton was arguably an early MVP candidate, Newton sustained a shoulder injury that severely affected his throwing motion and ability. His play was visibly very limited, and it came to no surprise that he underwent offseason surgery to repair the issue. Whether it be a result of the injury, the surgery, or the recovery, Cam Newton has changed his throwing motion ahead of the 2019 season and it has been described as a work-in-progress as recently as of last week. Any early indications or analysis of the effect during preseason will be telling, just like it was for Andrew Luck and his recovery process last season.
Although much focus of the focus with the Buccaneers has been on new head coach Bruce Arians and what transformations the offense will undergo, I think the defense deserves an equal amount of attention. The losses of DT Gerald McCoy and CB Javien Elliott were aptly dealt with by the additions of DT Ndamukong Suh and OLB Shaquil Barrett in free agency and with the additions of LB Devin White, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, and CB Jamal Dean through the draft. Add new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the mix as well as the fact that this defense ranked dead last in total Adjustes Games Lost on the defensive side of the ball and you have the formula for a big jump. Can the Buccaneers defense turn it around a year after ranking bottom three in both pass and rush defense in my model?
The Los Angeles Rams are looking to get back to the SuperBowl and will have breakout wide receiver Cooper Kupp back on the field. Goff with Kupp on the field had a 69.6% completion percentage, 2.8 TD:INT ratio, 9.7 YPA, and 111.9 passer rating. Without Kupp, Goff had a 60.1% completion percentage, 2.3 TD:INT ratio, 7.1 YPA, and a 88.6 passer rating. It’s easy to point at those splits and just attribute them to Kupp’s absence and not consider that maybe the league just figured out McVay’s offense. This is an offense that ran 95% of their plays from the same formation and ran a league-high 77% of their plays from 11 personnel. Furthermore, they played the eighth-easiest schedule of pass defenses Week 7 onward last year but cooled off incredibly quickly in the latter half of the season. This is also the same offense that only beat the Cowboys by one score in the Divisional Round despite knowing 90% or more of the Cowboys’ defensive plays. So did the Rams’ offense cool off last year because of Cooper Kupp’s absence or did the rest of the league just figure out the Rams’ offense?
The Seahawks, much like the Lions and Texans, are prisoners to their own offensive playcallers. Brian Schottenheimer implemented a run-heavy offense last year that really reduced the potential impact Russell Wilson, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league, could have on a game-to-game basis. But it’s hard not to ask “Will Schottenheimer call plays any differently this year?” following a year in which passes to Tyler Lockett yielded a perfect passer rating and a draft in which they took DK Metcalf in the second round. One encouraging sign is that starting running back Chris Carson has discussed how Schottenheimer has given him and Rashaad Penny more reps in the passing game, including splitting them out wide.
For the second offseason in a row, I find myself looking at the San Francisco 49ers’ place in the market and asking myself “Is Jimmy Garoppolo really that good?“. Sure, losing your starting quarterback in Week 3 AND ranking dead last in turnover margin (-25) AND ranking 29th in overall team health AND going 3-6 in one-score games all point towards an incredibly unlucky season that should signal positive regression for the next, but I still remain a firm skeptic that a significant turnaround for the Niners would come from the arm of Jimmy G, especially coming off of an ACL tear.
For the Arizona Cardinals, much of the focus this offseason has been on what new head coach Kliff Kingsbury will be able to do with his air raid offense. There is bound to be a learning curve for both coaches and players when it comes to deploying that offense at the pro level, so a lot of Arizona’s early hopes for wins may come down to how much the defense can hold up in the meantime. Vance Joseph might find coordinating the defense a much more manageable task than his head coaching ventures with Denver, and Terrell Suggs and Jordan Hicks are great additions to the front seven for Joseph to utilize. But can cornerbacks Robert Alford and Byron Murphy hold the secondary together while Patrick Paterson serves his six game PED suspension? Alford saw a massive decline in his play last year compared to the previous year and Murphy is a rookie who has obviously not yet played a snap at the professional level. It’s a big task for the two, to say the least.
And that wraps it up for this week’s write-up! In the coming weeks, I’ll likely shift my focus to some free model-recommended futures or win totals. If you have something you’d like covered before the season begins, make sure to give me a shout on Twitter – I’m more than open to any suggestions you guys may have!
For any NFL modeler or handicapper, one of the biggest parts of the offseason is answering the key questions surrounding each team. Figuring out the range of outcomes that can come from coaching changes, player development trajectories, scheme changes, offseason additions, etc. is a pivotal task in offseason preparation and many times there are questions yet to be answered by the time camp begins. To help illustrate this process and provide insight into my own progress, I’ve highlighted a question for each of the sixteen AFC teams that I am looking to answer before Week 1.
For those of you that missed it, my NFL model plays are now available to purchase. The model plays include a full refund if the plays do not yield a five unit profit by the end of the season, making it so that a $100 bettor either breaks even or gets refunded. If you didn’t follow along last year, the model went 75-47-6 record (61% hit rate) for +43.1 units (18% ROI) and you can read a full recap of the results here.
The Baltimore Ravens’ defense suffered losses of FS Eric Weddle, OLB Terrell Suggs, OLB Za’Darius Smith, and ILB CJ Mosley in free agency. In fact, the loss is the second-largest offseason net loss by a defense according to Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric (AV). To what extent will the additions of FS Earl Thomas, OLB Pernell McPhee, and Shane Ray help mitigate those losses?The answer to that question will likely determine how far the reigning AFC North champions will go this year.
On the other hand, the Browns made two incredibly exciting additions to their offense with Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt. However, it’s not these additions that I have my eye on – my sights are set on third-year tight end David Njoku. He has been a slight disappointment thus far, but tight ends typically take 3-4 years to begin producing at the pro level. Can Njoku put together that typical leap and finally become the contributor he was promised to be?
In the last 20 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had incredible success drafting and developing wide receivers. Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Juju Smith-Schuster are incredible yields across just 24 picks at the position. Who will be the next wide receiver success story for the Steelers? With Antonio Brown donning black for a team on the opposite coast now, eyes are now on 2018 second-round pick James Washington and 2019 third-round pick Diontae Johnson to see who can add their name to that illustrious group. Inability from either receiver to produce on a significant level this year will likely leave the passing offense a bit bare.
With A.J. Green already out for 6-8 weeks and with the expectations for the Bengals so incredibly low, new offensive coordinator Zac Taylor has the perfect opportunity to run the offense he envisions without much pressure. Eyes are certainly on the young and emerging Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd, but the future of this team needs more building blocks to work with. What can Zac Taylor do with the third-year, former ninth-overall pick John Ross?If it’s anything of significance, this offense might be a sleeping giant in future seasons and may even be sneaky enough to cause a little trouble this year along the way.
The Patriots will start their annual SuperBowl hunt without Rob Gronkowski for the first time since 2009. They also lost wide receivers Chris Hogan and Cordell Patterson in free agency, and Demaryius Thomas is currently on the PUP list. Who is going to step up and be the weapons necessary for this team to make another serious run?First-round selection N’Keal Harry might be too young and raw, Phillip Dorsett has been disappointing with New England thus far, and Josh Gordon’s likelihood of seeing and staying on the field is always up in the air. My pick is former Redskin Maurice Harris, who seems to already be turning heads in camp.
By the end of the 2018 season, the Buffalo Bills were regularly running out players like Deonte Thompson, Jason Croom, Marcus Murphy, Ray-Andre Holmes, and Isaiah McKenzie. To breathe some new life into the offense, the Bills added 15 free agents worth over $170 million in contract value to the offense this offseason. How much is the massive spending on offense going to help Josh Allen?Some of that spending included adding WR Cole Beasley (fourth in receiver catch percentage) as well as pairing John Brown with Robert Foster, who ranked sixth and first in average targeted air yards (TAY), respectively. Being able to layer the underneath with reliability while threatening big play potential over the top could do wonders for Josh Allen, especially when paired with his lethal abilities on the ground.
According to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL), the Jets last year ranked 29th in combined wide receiver and running back health. Getting Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa on the field along with the newly added Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder should do wonders for Sam Darnold’s sophomore campaign. But will the Jets’ offensive line completely offset the potential of the skill position players? This unit ranked dead last according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and stuffed rate, and ProFootballFocus ranks this unit 28th heading into 2019. That could spell disaster for Darnold as only Josh Rosen ranked worse in passer rating when pressured last year.
Even when a team is expected to be bad (the Dolphins have the lowest regular season win total), it is still important to be thorough in your evaluation. After all, any team can provide value in the market as long as your evaluation of them is correct. My focus is on one particular position group: wide receiver. Will Kenny Stills and/or DeVante Parker finally be able to deliver on the seemingly annual offseason tradition of having potential?If either (and especially if both) can return significant production, the effect could be enough for the Dolphins to show some value against the spread throughout the season.
One of the most pivotal questions I need an answer to is “Will Texans’ head coach Bill O’Brien continue to be one of the worst playcallers in the NFL?“. In 2018, the Texans benefited from the easiest schedule and were able to circumvent the damages done by O’Brien’s playcalling (e.g. he ranked first in first down run rate). This year, they are set to face one of the toughest schedules according to win totals. Ultimately, the likely answer to the question is “no”, but it is something I will keep an eye on because any surprises on that front could lead to heavy upgrades to the Texans’ offensive efficiency.
The Colts exceeded expectations in 2018 despite ranking 30th in total Adjusted Games Lost. Why does this matter? In 2017, the average improvement of the ten teams who ranked highest is AGL was three wins, and five of those teams made the playoffs despite only one team having made it the year prior. Despite what you may think, health can be determined by more than luck. Consistent fortune or misfortune in the health department can signal the quality of a team’s strength and conditioning staff, how the team handles travel, etc. The Colts in particular have been consistently near the bottom in the last five years, ranking 30th, 17th, 20th, 26th, 30th. So the question is “Can the Colts stay healthy in 2019?“.
The Tennessee Titans stumbled through 2018 with Marcus Mariota playing through seven injuries and Delanie Walker going down for the year in Week 1. With those two presumably healthy going into 2019, the focus is on an offensive line that ranked fourth worst in sack ratelargely in part due to the new and difficult-to-learn zone-blocking scheme that was implemented last year. Will the Titans offensive line have a better grasp of the zone-blocking scheme this year? Some improvement on that end as well as the addition of Adam Humphries can really help the offense put together more dynamic and sustainable drives in 2019.
Will Nick Foles find success with the Jaguars without the plethora of offensive weapons he had on the Eagles? It’s going to be a jarring experience going from Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, Dallas Goedert, Darren Sproles, Nelson Agholor, Golden Tate, and a stout offensive line to this:
I’m not sure why Alfred Blue is listed as the starting running back ahead of Leonard Fournette on ProFootballFocus, but given Fournette’s injury history, this might be an accurate representation of the Jaguars’ offense for a good portion of the season.
There isn’t much to say about the Los Angeles Chargers‘ offense as not much has changed. They lost Tyrell Williams in free agency but get tight end Hunter Henry back from injury, and whether Melvin Gordon sticks to his holdout or not likely won’t matter as Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are more than capable of filling Gordon’s hypothetical void. The defense, however, is much more intriguing. The Chargers ranked 28th in health on defense last year, which included missing Joey Bosa for ten games last year. They also added LB Thomas Davis in free agency and DT Jerry Tillery through the draft to a defense that already features studs like DT Melvin Ingram, DE Uchenna Nwosu, SS Derwin James, CB Desmond King, and CB Casey Hayward Jr. One area where the Chargers are lacking and may be left exposed is at safety, especially in dime packages when facing 11 personnel. The Chargers are left to depend on Jaylen Watkins (PFF grade 57.2) and rookie Nasir Adderly, coming off a year where they already ranked second-worst in DVOA against deep passes. Can the rest of the Chargers defense make up for their tendency to give up the deep ball?
The Broncos’ offense will look a lot different to start this year than the way it finished 2018. Joe Flacco is the new quarterback in Denver and will play behind an offensive line that loses star center Matt Paradis but gains RG Dalton Risner and RT Ja’Wuan James, as well as one of the league’s premier offensive line coaches in Mike Munchak (formerly of the Steelers). On top of that Emmanuel Sanders will return from injury after putting up a blistering first half in 2018, second-year wide receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton are primed to take a next step, and stud tight end prospect Noah Fant joins the fray. I’m more than confident that this Broncos offense can’t be any worse than last year’s iteration, so my main focus is actually on the other side of the ball. In a division featuring two elite offenses (the Chiefs and Chargers) and another that is trying to get there (the Raiders added Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Josh Jacobs, etc.), the Broncos seemingly have the best defense to counter the offensive firepower of the AFC West. With former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio now at the helm, can the already prolific Broncos defense take a big enough step forward to push this team to the next level? Combining an average / above average offense with a dominant defense seemed to do wonders for Fangio and the Bears last year, who knows what it can do for the Broncos in 2019?
The Raiders took a lot of risks this offseason in an attempt to make up the talent deficit that plagued their efforts last year. They traded for star wide receiver Antonio Brown (who is entering his age 31 season); they signed Tyrell Williams to a four-year deal worth $44 million despite the fact that he has only eclipsed 100 targets OR 50 receptions OR 5 TDs in one season so far (the season in which Keenan Allen tore his ACL in Week 1); and they took backup Alabama running back Josh Jacobs in the first round of the draft. The Raiders also signed RT Trent Brown (PFF rank 71.0) as well as LG Richie Incognito, who is also a massive risk and did not play in 2018. However, with these two additions the Raiders starting offensive line has all but one player who doesn’t rank “Above Average” or better on PFF: left tackle and 2018 fifteenth-overall pick Kolton Miller. Can Kolton Miller and Richie Incognito stabilize the left side of the Raiders offensive line? Given that Derek Carr ranked 30th in passer rating when pressured last year, this is an incredibly important question to answer for the boys in black and silver.
Ahat’s going to wrap it up for the first write-up of the 2019 NFL season! Hopefully you got some interesting tidbits to chew on or some insight into what to be looking for when evaluating teams in camp and preseason. Next up, I’ll be looking at the key questions I have for the sixteen NFC teams.
The NFL season is quickly approaching and many of you have begun asking what my plans are when it comes to sharing my NFL model plays. For those of you that followed along last season, we enjoyed a 75-47-6 record (61% hit rate) for +43.1 units (18% ROI). To keep things short and sweet, I will be charging for the NFL model plays this season. However, I will still be doing a free weekly writeup during the regular season that will cover one model play in-depth. Those write-ups can be found on this site every Thursday afternoon.
Model Play Package Details
Full refund issued if the model plays do not generate a 5 unit profit ($100 bettor breaks even, or is refunded)
Includes model plays for regular season and playoffs
Includes model-recommended preseason and in-season futures
I made a change in how the model derives larger spreads. Last year the model struggled with spreads of +7 or higher last season (11-11-2 for -2.72 units) and plays on such spreads were discontinued Week 10 onwards. I implemented a change and backtested it, and the record on those plays were now 7-5-0 for +1.73u. I was more pleased with the increased selectivity (12 plays vs. 24) as opposed to the better performance, as the sample is obviously too small to make anything of the increased performance.
Last year each point of disagreement equaled one unit of play which made it so that the lowest possible play was two units, given that the model required two points of disagreement for a play to qualify. This year each point of difference will equal a half unit of play, so that the base play is one unit. I’ve went ahead and made this change across the site and in last year’s model tracker, as the previous net was +86.2 units but now stands at +43.1 units. The scale does not change the ROI for last year, which still stands at 18%.
I didn’t follow along last year, how does it work?
There are so many words that I could use to describe the entire experience I had with my NCAAM model. It was humbling to have nearly 1,000 people donate to Doctors Without Borders, raising $25,378 in the process. It was fulfilling to have the model finish 77-49-2 (60.94%) for +34.43 units (13.76% ROI) and provide an incredible return to those who contributed their money to a good cause. I decided to take a look at how donators fared given the day they contributed, here is a look at those splits:
If you donated on 2/12: 56-37-2 (60.00%) for +21.34u (11.52% ROI)
If you donated on 2/13: 55-36-2 (60.22%) for +22.53u (12.40% ROI)
If you donated on 2/27: 28-16-0 (63.64%) for +16.27u (19.74% ROI)
If you donated on 2/28: 25-14-0 (64.10%) for +15.29u (21.67% ROI)
Looking at the above splits from the perspective of a $100 unit bettor, donators had a profit yield that was 75 to 110 times larger than the $20 minimum donation. In other words, you would have to be a 25 cents per unit bettor to not have made enough profit to cover the minimum donation. You get the idea, so I’ll move on some of the model’s key performance splits.
Home/road and favorite/underdog splits
If you recall, the NFL model from last season performed best with underdogs and with road teams. Interestingly enough, the same was largely true with the NCAAM model. Here’s a full look at those splits:
Like with the NFL (and any sport), I attribute this to the psychological tendency for bettors (especially “square” bettors) to favor favorites and home teams. Because of this, oddsmakers typically shade their lines in order to capture more value on that action. The effect is very small on a game-to-game basis, but provides opportunity and value over the course of a season. Next lets take a look at when we combine home/road and favorite/underdog splits:
Obviously combining the larger edges on road and underdog teams into a singular road underdogs split very clearly demonstrates where the model found the most opportunity and success. Road underdogs accounted for 60% of all model plays and those plays hit at a 64.47% rate, generating a 25.55 unit profit (17.38% ROI). The other splits contain far too small of sample sizes to make any definitive statements, but are there for you to interpret any particular way you’d like.
Unit size splits
If there’s one split of the model’s performance that was most concerning, it would certainly be how the model performed as the disagreement level grew. One sign of a good model is that the model generates profit at a higher rate as the size of disagreement increases. Given that the model had a 13.76% ROI on all model plays but a 9.08% ROI on model plays that were two or more units is admittedly a bit concerning. The only counter I can offer is that flipping two or three of the results in that split from losses to wins does make that split more profitable than the overall ROI. Either way, it will obviously be something I keep an eye on for future seasons.
Frequently backed/opposed teams
There were certainly teams that the model deemed undervalued and overvalued and took repeated action on or against. Of the teams that the model backs three or more times (Binghamton, Columbia, New Hampshire, Notre Dame, Portland, San Diego State, and William & Mary), the model went 12-9 for +5.82 units. Of the teams that the model played against three or more times (Brown, Drake, Florida Atlantic, Fresno State, Louisville, Murray State, Saint Mary’s, Stony Brook, Utah State, VCU, Virginia, and Virginia Tech), the model went 29-21-1 for +9.80 units. I thought the positive results for both were a good sign for the model as it signals that the model is proficient on some level of identifying which teams are overvalued and undervalued in the market.
It goes without saying that these splits have way too small of sample sizes to make any definitive conclusions, but I included it just for fun and it was a split I got asked to include on several occasions. The Ivy League obviously stands out as the model’s best conference with a 6-1 record for +6.96 units. Outside of that, I thought the model’s performance with the Power 5 conferences would be interesting to look at given that those games get the most attention in terms of handle. The Big 12, SEC, and Pac 12 combined for a 5-0 record for +8.75 units whereas the Big 10 and ACC went a combined 9-9 for -1.99 units.
Takeaways and closing thoughts
First and foremost, I think it’s safe to say that I should have put more time and attention into the NCAAM model. For the entire first month of sharing plays, I only checked lines once in the morning and that was it. It comes as no surprise that once I started checking lines more frequently, including looking at overnight lines, the model found more opportunity and more success.
In the past, I’ve typically been very hesitant to take any action any earlier than February. I don’t think I’d go as far to say that I would use the model for the non-conference play that starts the season, but I definitely think there is an opportunity to use the model in December and January.
All in all, I’m incredibly satisfied with what the NCAAM model accomplished. The profit it was able to generate was of course a great feat, but nothing I’ve done in my life comes close to the collective contribution we were able to generate for Doctors Without Borders. I don’t think there has been a day since that I haven’t thought about those two donation periods and the rush of happiness I experienced as donation after donation came in. Thank you all again for making that happen.
Every March, 68 of the 353 nation’s best college basketball teams travel around the country to compete in the most exciting opening round of any tournament in any sport. There will be more games played and as many teams sent home in the first round as there are in the rest of the entire tournament combined. Millions of brackets across the country are busted before the second round begins, and much of that comes to the chaotic nature of the March Madness tournament and the difficulty of predicting first round upsets. However, one upset candidate stands above the rest this year: #12 Oregon vs. #5 Wisconsin.
This matchup is definitely the juiciest upset candidate for several reasons. The first is that Oregon +1.5 is officially a model play, meaning that my numbers give validation to the upset potential. Looking deeper into the numbers, this game should be a very ugly and low-scoring affair. Oregon ranks 18th in KenPom defensive efficiency while Wisconsin ranks 3rd. Offensive sets will be largely ineffective, as Oregon ranks in the 91st percentile in non-transition effective field goal percentage allowed whereas Wisconsin ranks in the 99th percentile. However, in the transition game, Oregon certainly has the advantage with their 71st percentile transition eFG% compared to Wisconsin’s 47th percentile ranking. Given that Oregon ranks above average in percentage of shots taken in transition whereas Wisconsin could literally not rank any worse, this is definitely an area where Oregon can exploit an edge.
% of Shots in Transition
That isn’t the only place where Oregon can find some wiggle room. Wisconsin’s struggles at the free throw line are well-documented, but it really would be a disservice on my part if I didn’t touch on it briefly. Wisconsin as a team is shooting 64.4% at the charity stripe. To put into perspective how awful that is, there are only 23 other teams in all of college basketball who sport a worse percentage. Wisconsin also ranks outside the top 300 in offensive rebound percentage. Considering we are expecting a low-scoring environment, getting the most out of your free throw opportunities as well as generating second-chance opportunities on the glass become even more valuable. Oregon happens to rank 133rd in free throw percentage and 123rd in offensive rebound percentage, meaning these are yet a few more areas where Oregon can exploit some matchup edges.
Another reason why Oregon is a fantastic upset candidate is that they provide great contrarian value. As someone who lives in Wisconsin and went to UW Madison, I tend to always try to take a contrarian stance against the deep Wisconsin runs that are littered all throughout my bracket pools. This admittedly worked against me from 2014 to 2017 as the Badgers fielded some incredible tournament teams. Nevertheless, a combination of Wisconsin’s name recognition value and their recent performance in tournaments (outside of their absence last year) as well as the large gap in seeds seems to have enamored the vast majority of the public. As of the time of this writing, Oregon is only being chosen to win this first round matchup by 37% of all CBS users. This comes despite the fact that neither team has been favored by more than two points since the line has opened. That to me, along with all of the considerations mentioned above, sounds like a great way to generate some value by backing an Oregon upset.
Fun fact: I have never bet on a season win total before. I admittedly always thought they were a bit pointless. Even if I thought a team’s win total over/under had value, why would I tie up my money for an entire season when I could just leverage my disagreement from game to game? It’s a legitimate critique that I wouldn’t fault any bettor for expressing. But given my relatively recent foray into predictive sports modeling, I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate team win totals in a more concrete way.
Seeing in hindsight the profit I could have accumulated with my NFL model by taking action on large model disagreements gives me the assurance that doing that exact thing with the MLB model I’ve built for the upcoming 2019 season should have positive expected value. And I figured with you guys waiting for my impending announcement of what my plans will be with the MLB model, I thought I’d share some of that information with you and give you something to chew on.
As a Cubs fan, seeing that the Cubs were the most overvalued team in the team totals market hurt quite a bit, but it’s really not that hard to see how and why this team would be overvalued. In terms of offseason moves, the Cubs did absolutely nothing of substance whereas the rest of the NL Central did their best to ensure this year’s divisional race is a bloodbath. The Cardinals added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller; the Brewers added Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas; and the Reds added Tanner Roark, Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray, and Matt Kemp (while getting rid of Homer Bailey).
On top of that, they have a bunch of talent that is either already regressing or are prime regression candidates (Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, etc.). Javier Baez in particular is due for regression in the biggest of ways this season. Last year he batted .290 for 34 HRs and led the league with 111 RBIs, which was a massive improvement over his 2017 campaign in which he batted .273 for 23 HRs and 75 RBIs. Granted Baez did have 27% more plate appearances in 2018, but the bump in his counting stats production vastly outpaced the rate of his opportunity increase.
That production increase came despite maintaining a similar and abnormally high BABIP (.345 in 2017, .347 in 2018), and can be best explained by his increase in power (.207 ISO in 2017, .265 in 2018) which then led to the massive jump in his slugging percentage (.480 in 2017, .554 in 2018) and HRs. Despite those spikes, his BaseRuns only jumped from 3.8 to 3.9 across those two seasons and it’d be much more likely for Baez to have a 2019 that looks more like 2017 than 2018.
And while the Cubs have a ton of talent trending downwards, the rest of the NL Central has budding talent. The Cardinals have Marcell Ozuna, Jack Flaherty, and Alex Reyes; the Brewers have Ben Gamel and Keston Hiura; and the Reds have Luis Castillo, Nick Senzel, and a Sonny Gray without a non-destructive pitching coach. Considering 35% of the Cubs’ games will be against the Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds, they have a tough task to get wins as-is.
Another 20% of their games will be against the NL East, which is full of playoff contenders (ATL, PHI, NYM, WAS). A look at the supporting data doesn’t make their case any better, as the model projects this team to only be a top ten team in starting pitching while ranking league-average in run production, tenth-worst in relief pitching, and near the bottom third in fielding. That doesn’t sound like a team that should be tied for the seventh-hightest win total, and the model agrees. Take the Chicago Cubs to go under 88.5 wins.