In Robinson’s case, a player at his age would typically retain 60 percent of his value. Robinson retained 65 percent instead. The injury didn’t really have any lasting effects; Robinson resumed a typical aging curve after missing most of 1996-97.This also tells us a more nuanced story about George. It’s not that young players like him recover better from injury so much as that they were on more of an upward trajectory to begin with. In fact, the two lines in the chart are almost parallel. That implies the impact of a severe injury is fairly constant regardless of a player’s age. More specifically, it reduces his long-term value by 30 percent, on average. George is projected to be about 80 percent as good as he was before his injury. But if he hadn’t gotten hurt, he’d project to be about 110 percent as good as he was instead.8That would make him about a 12-win player from 2015-16 through 2017-18, worth about $36 million per season in market value.In other words, young players can suffer a setback and still be very good. A player who was already in decline and then suffers a serious injury often has too much working against him.But each of these outcomes describes an average — and there’s a huge amount of variation around those averages. It’s entirely plausible that George will never again be a productive player in the NBA. And it’s entirely plausible that he’ll come back even better than before. Perhaps in April 2017 Zach Lowe will be writing about how George was forced to become a better spot-up shooter while his mobility was limited after his initial return from injury — but then his quickness came back, making him a more multidimensional player than before. Here’s hoping that 10 years from now the injury won’t be the first thing we think about when we think about Paul George. Sports fans have selective memories. Most of us NBA geeks know that Bernard King, the former New York Knicks forward, was never the same after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in a 1985 game. We remember that Grant Hill’s ankle injury in 2000 permanently dimmed his star status, and that Gilbert Arenas’s career went into a downward spiral after he blew out his knee in 2007.But we forget the cases where a serious injury was just a footnote to a long career. Mark Price, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ point guard, tore his ACL early in the 1990-91 season and was out most of the year. He returned to make the NBA All-Star team in each of his next three seasons. A shoulder injury, and eventual shoulder surgery, cost Chris Webber more than a season’s worth of games between 1994-95 and 1995-96, but he wound up as a borderline Hall of Famer. Michael Jordan broke his foot in his second NBA season, missing 64 games in 1985-86. His career turned out pretty well.If we want to get a better sense of the future of Paul George, the Indiana Pacers star who fractured his right leg while scrimmaging with Team USA last week, we need a more comprehensive way of identifying star players who got hurt. I searched our NBA database for players since 1976-77 to whom the following happened:First, the player had an All-Star-caliber season. I define this as a player worth at least 7.5 wins above replacement (WAR) as based on statistical plus-minus (see more about that statistic here). There are about 25 players who meet this threshold each year in the NBA, about as many as make one of the league All-Star teams.Then, the next season, he played in 20 or fewer games for reasons having principally to do with his injury.Price, for instance, produced 9.7 wins in 1989-90 then played in just 16 games in 1990-91, so he qualifies. So do 24 other players, counting the oft-injured Anfernee Hardaway twice. Those players are listed in the chart below, which tracks how their careers progressed before and after their injuries.1In screening the players, I prorated wins and games-played totals to 82 games for seasons shortened by a labor dispute. You probably get the general sense for how the chart works — green numbers are good and red ones are bad — but there’s some terminology to sort out:Injured Season refers to the season in which the player was limited to 20 or fewer games because of an injury. This holds even if his actual injury came late in the prior season: For instance, Derrick Rose tore his ACL during the 2011-2012 season’s playoffs, but 2012-13 is listed as his Injured Season because that’s the year he sat out.2The table also excludes Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon in April 2013, because 2013-14 counts as his Injured Season. The idea is to compare a player’s performance before and after his injury — and Bryant has yet to play his 2014-15 season, his first comeback year.Recovery Rate represents how much of his value the player retained after his injury. It’s calculated by dividing a player’s average WAR in the three seasons after his Injured Season by the three seasons before it. The higher the Recovery Rate the better. I exclude seasons from the average if they haven’t yet occurred3For instance, Kevin Love has yet to play the second and third seasons after his 2012-13 injury. or if the player was not yet in the NBA at the time.4I also exclude Bill Walton’s 1975-76 season because our database does not cover it. However, I include seasons — and list the player as having zero value — if the player was forced into retirement by the injury.This is not a list of every NBA star who suffered a severe injury — for instance, my selection process will tend to miss star players whose injuries came in the middle of a season instead of toward the beginning or the end. So there are some false negatives. But there shouldn’t be any false positives — I screened out players who missed time due to illness, suspension, a retirement not forced by injury, or some other reason.5There are some ambiguous cases about whether players retired because of injury or other reasons. The general principle is that retirement counts as voluntary if the player retired without an acute injury, even if he had some chronic injury problems. For instance, Larry Bird was healthy enough to play in the 1992 NBA playoffs and the 1992 Olympic Games before announcing his retirement later that summer. Although Bird had chronic back problems, I do not consider his retirement to be because of injury. Charles Barkley’s retirement, however, was largely because of an acute knee injury that he suffered in December 1999. All these players were producing at an All-Star level at the time of their injuries.It’s a noisy set of examples. Six of the 25 players, like Jordan and Webber, had Recovery Rates above 100 percent, which means that they were actually better after their injuries than before. Another six, like Arenas and Yao Ming, had Recovery Rates of 10 percent or below, meaning that they lost almost all their value (although some, like Grant Hill, recovered to be productive role players later in their careers).The average Recovery Rate is just 55 percent, meaning that the typical player was only about half as good after his injury as beforehand. But that paints too pessimistic a picture for George and the Pacers.The reason is that there’s a correlation between Recovery Rate and age. With some exceptions, the players who returned to have productive careers after their injuries were young at the time they got hurt, while the ones who didn’t were in the middle to late stage of their careers:George recently turned 24. The regression line in the chart above implies that the average player who is injured at that age will come back to be 75 percent to 80 percent as productive as he was before. If George came back at 75 percent to 80 percent of his former self, that would not be such a bad outcome for the Pacers. Between 2011-12 and 2013-14, George was worth an average of 11 wins per season; 80 percent of that would make him a 9-win player instead between 2015-16 and 2017-18, the last three guaranteed years of his contract. Wins above replacement in the NBA are worth about $3 million a pop, so that means he’d be producing $27 million worth of value per season for the Pacers — on a contract that will pay him about $18 million per year instead.But we haven’t accounted for how George would project if he hadn’t been hurt. For that matter, we haven’t compared our injured stars against a control group of other All-Star-caliber NBA players.Take David Robinson, who missed almost all of the 1996-97 season with a back injury.6Conveniently enough, this helped allow the Spurs into the draft lottery, where they snagged Tim Duncan. His Recovery Rate is calculated at 65 percent, which implies that he lost something after returning from the injury. But Robinson was already 31 years old at the time — most basketball players are in decline at that age even if they stay relatively healthy. Was Robinson’s decline worse than what we would have expected without the injury?That’s the calculation I’ve made in the chart below. It compares the Recovery Rate for injured stars against the same calculation for all NBA players who had a 7.5 WAR season, whether or not they got hurt the next year.7The calculation of the Recovery Rate for the healthy players otherwise follows the same procedure as for the injured players. For example, take a player who produced 12.2 wins in 2003-04; he qualifies for the control group. To calculate his Recovery Rate, I compare how he performed in the three seasons from 2001-02 through 2003-04 against the three seasons from 2005-06 through 2007-08. What happened to 2004-05? We ignore it because that year would be considered the player’s Injury Season had he been hurt.
The first blockbuster trade of the 2014-15 NBA season came late Thursday, when the Boston Celtics finally shipped Rajon Rondo, their perpetually on-the-trading-block star, to the Dallas Mavericks for a handful of players, picks and a trade exception.Others have broken down the pros and cons of the trade, but the deal also serves to spark discussion about Rondo himself, one of the most polarizing players in the league. In early November, when Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry profiled the enigmatic point guard, he touched on the conundrum advanced stats face in measuring his performance. “Rondo’s value is difficult to quantify, in part because he doesn’t fit into our established taxonomy of NBA superstars,” Goldsberry wrote. “He amplifies the goodness around him, but he can’t create it.”The statistical arc of Rondo’s career bears this out. According to metrics ranging from Player Efficiency Rating (PER) to Win Shares and Statistical Plus/Minus (SPM), Rondo’s best seasons came in 2009 and 2010, when he was surrounded by three future Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. In Goldsberry’s terms, Rondo amplified their goodness — or at least, he helped organize it — and his numbers received a sizable boost as well. In 2009, he ranked as the NBA’s 14th-best player by Win Shares and its 12th-best by Value Over Replacement Player.But since Rondo tore his ACL midway through the 2012-13 season and the Celtics broke up their “Big Three” for good, Rondo’s output has taken a nosedive. Stats such as a .461 true shooting percentage (TS%) might have been excused while returning from injury a year ago, but Rondo has continued to shoot the ball poorly (.422 TS%), turn it over frequently (on nearly 26 percent of his possessions) and score infrequently (he’s averaging 9.4 points per 36 minutes) this season. Abysmal numbers like those would typically warrant a benching, not a win-now return in a blockbuster trade.Then again, Rondo has never been a typical player. Along with the bad shooting and nonexistent scoring, he also provides his team with one of the game’s most prolific passers, its best rebounding point guard, a highly skilled thief and an elite defender. In other words, there’s precious little middle ground with Rondo; pick an area of the game, and he’s either one of the best or one of the worst in it.So, how do we weigh the positives of Rondo’s game against the negatives? The popular single-number metrics are all over the place. PER thinks he’s average so far this season; Win Shares per 48 minutes considers him substantially below average. Naturally, Wins Produced likes him for his rebounding prowess (and doesn’t care about his microscopic scoring output), while Box Plus/Minus (an SPM variant) pegs him as above-average but completely because of defense (he’s quite negative offensively). Box Plus/Minus jibes with what ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus (RPM) lists for Rondo this season, but last year RPM considered him good offensively and bad defensively (go figure).Dallas owner Mark Cuban has always had the Mavericks at the forefront of analytics among NBA teams, so it’s possible he’s found his own way to cut through the fog and divine Rondo’s true worth. But for the rest of us, the debate over Rondo is one of how best to measure a unique player. Advanced as they are, our best statistical formulas are trained on trends that emerge over the entire sample of NBA players. Rondo might just be the extreme case that causes our math to break down.
Deion Sanders, who’s committed to helping youth through his academic and Christian-based select sports programs, believes the threat of concussions has been overstated.He’ll be in town this weekend to host registration for his football and cheerleader programs in Snellville and Jonesboro.Sanders believes that if youth players are taught properly, they will know not to use their heads and helmets to strike. Upon his retirement, he saw the poor youth coaching, most times by fathers, who never played the game, and that gave him the impetus to start T.R.U.T.H. Select Youth Sports in Dallas.He’s set to expand here with youth football and cheerleading tryouts set for Saturday and Sunday for ages 7-14 (football) and ages 5-14 (cheerleading). On Saturday, from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., tryouts will be held at Shiloh Athletic Association in Snellville. On Sunday, from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., tryouts will be held at Tara Stadium in Jonesboro.Sanders’ youth model calls for good coaches and state-of-the-art equipment to combat the threat of head injuries.“I don’t believe that’s valid, everything they are talking about with the concussion issue,” Sanders said. “Also, we have taken extra precautions because we have some of the best coaches, which means they are some of the best teachers. Our coaches will teach them how to tackle, how to block and how to conduct different drills. We are not going to line up people 50 miles apart and let them collide.”Sanders points out that his teams wear the new Xenith helmets aimed at reducing head injuries.Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon sustained at least six concussions during his playing career and works with Xenith, which created a football helmet that uses 12 to 18 shock absorbers that act as airbags for the head.Read the rest of this story on the AJC.
Usain Bolt has done it again. The Jamaican six-time Olympic gold medalist won his second 100-meter world title. The victory came on Sunday under rainy skies in Moscow.“I came out here just to execute and get it right and to win,” Bolt said. “That’s what I do. For me to come in and regain my title, it’s always great to be back.”American Justin Gatlin finished second after taking an early lead out of the starting blocks. Bolt tracked down Gatlin and won the race in 9.77 seconds, which would have been significantly lower if it wasn’t raining.“They wanted an epic race in rain, and they got it,” Gatlin said.Bolt’s fellow Jamaican Nesta Carter, who was the fastest out of the starting blocks, came in third with a time of 9.95.Earlier this week, Bolt talked to reporters in Moscow about what motivates him to keep running after all the success that he has achieved in his track career.“I want to set myself higher than the rest because I want to be among the greatest of all time and be discussed as someone great like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Pele,” Bolt said. “I want to be among these guys, and if I want to be that I have to keep pushing myself regardless of who I am facing so that when I retire I’ll be remembered among the greatest sportsmen.”
Timothy Bradley Jr. defeated Juan Manuel Marquez by split decision to remain unbeaten and keep his World Boxing Organization’s welterweight title.Bradley did just enough to win, beating Marquez by split decision in Las Vegas Saturday night.“That win was my ticket to the boxing Hall of Fame,” Bradley said. “I beat a great champion.”Two judges scored in Bradley’s favor 116-112 on one card and 115-113 on another, while a third judge gave a win to Marquez at 115-113.Marquez and the pro-Marquez crowd did not agree with the judges decision and hinted at foul play.“I came to win. I felt that I did win,” Marquez said. “The judges took it away. You don’t have to knock out a guy to win.”Marquez went on to say, “I’ve been robbed six times in my career. I clearly won the fight.”However, Bradley was the more active fighter and rocked Marquez with a vicious left hook that almost dropped him to the canvas.“He couldn’t touch me,” Bradley said. “I gave him a boxing lesson.”Bradley is now undefeated in 31 fights with his third narrow decision win in a row. Marquez dropped to 55-7-1–a champion record by all accounts–and is probably coming to the end of his career.Both fighters earned $4 million.
Defeating Carlos Melina Saturday night for the International Super Lightweight title was not enough for Adrien Broner, the boxer-rapper who has been considered over-the-top by many. Rather, Broner, the former WBC welterweight champion, made racially insensitive comments about Melina.“I’ve beaten Africans, and I just beat the f*** out of a Mexican,” Broner said to Showtime cable network’s Jim Gray.Wednesday, the World Boxing Council issued a suspension and demanded a public apology. In a statement, the WBC said: “The World Boxing Council holds human equality as its banner and will not accept a former WBC champion to make racially offensive statements.“Since words have different meanings and can be interpreted in different ways , the WBC is issuing this open letter to Adrien Broner to either clarify what he meant with his words or to issue a public apology if those words were intended to be disrespectful and offensive.“Adrien Broner is hereby suspended from participating in any WBC-sanctioned championship and will be excluded from the WBC ratings until the time he makes a public apology satisfactorily to the public of the world.”According to BoxingScene.com, Broner, 24, was immediately remorseful, apologizing to Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer as soon as he got out of the ring, saying, “I’m sorry for what I said.”“Sometimes [Broner] says stuff without really thinking, because as I came out into the ring the first thing he said to me was ‘I’m so sorry that I said what I said.’ He’s a young guy,” Schaefer said, “and I’m going to keep trying to explain to him, and maybe somebody like Bernard (Hopkins) who has the experience would certainly be a great coach in that regard.”
42000DiamondbacksRandy Johnson16.534.7+18.2 211993MarinersRandy Johnson15.129.5+14.4 191991RangersNolan Ryan15.229.7+14.5 241979AstrosJ.R. Richard12.526.6+14.1 101989RangersNolan Ryan14.830.5+15.7 91998CubsKerry Wood16.933.3+16.4 81997MarinersRandy Johnson17.134.2+17.1 51995MarinersRandy Johnson16.233.9+17.7 11999Red SoxPedro Martinez16.4%37.5%+21.1 32000Red SoxPedro Martinez16.534.8+18.3 Chris Sale is drawing comparisons this season to the most dominant strikeout pitchers in baseball history as he threatens to supplant Pedro Martinez in the Boston Red Sox record book.Earlier this season, he registered double-digit Ks in eight straight starts, matching a record that he already shared with Martinez. He has a total of 14 double-digit strikeout games this season. That’s just nine off the all-time record and within shouting distance of Martinez’s team record 19 in 1999, according to Baseball-Reference.com. He’s on pace for 324 strikeouts this season, a figure that only Randy Johnson has topped since 1990. If Sale were to end the season with his current strikeout percentage of 36.1 percent, it would be the third-highest in baseball’s expansion era (since 1961). And no pitcher in the American League has ever gotten to 200 strikeouts faster than Sale’s 141⅓ innings, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.But Sale’s place in history is a curious one. After all, it’s significantly easier to rack up strikeouts when every player in baseball is constantly striking out.Sale’s numbers seem to be an inevitable byproduct of an era. The strikeout, for pitchers, is still being celebrated, but hitters no longer view the journey back to the dugout after being rung up as a walk of shame. The major league strikeout rate this season of 21.6 percent of plate appearances is the highest ever. And it’s continuing a steady climb: In every year since 2009, the leaguewide strikeout rate has broken a record that was set the previous season. On a player level, this season has 19 of the top 200 pitching seasons since 1961 in terms of strikeout percentage, with Corey Kluber of the Indians (35.8 percent) and Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals (35.7 percent) joining Sale in the top five.So how can we tell whether Sale is historically great? A better way to compare baseball’s strikeout kings is to look at how much better each pitcher was than the leaguewide rate. 171973AngelsNolan Ryan13.728.2+14.5 The strikeout kings relative to eraPitchers with biggest difference between their strikeout rate and the league rate that season. 151962DodgersSandy Koufax14.129.0+14.9 111998Mariners-AstrosRandy Johnson16.932.4+15.5 131987AstrosNolan Ryan15.530.9+15.4 141997ExposPedro Martinez17.132.2+15.1 122002DiamondbacksRandy Johnson16.832.3+15.5 232017IndiansCorey Kluber21.635.8+14.2 161976AngelsNolan Ryan12.727.3+14.6 61984MetsDwight Gooden14.031.4+17.4 71999DiamondbacksRandy Johnson16.433.7+17.3 181997PhilliesCurt Schilling17.131.6+14.5 Among the top 200 pitcher-seasons by strikeout rate since 1961.Source: Baseball-Reference.com 22001DiamondbacksRandy Johnson17.337.4+20.1 222002DiamondbacksCurt Schilling16.831.1+14.3 RANKYEARTEAMPITCHERLEAGUE K%PITCHER K%DIFF. 252017NationalsMax Scherzer21.635.7+14.1 202017Red SoxChris Sale21.636.1+14.5 Let’s take 1999 as an example. When Martinez was striking out 37.5 percent of hitters that season, MLB hitters were whiffing at a rate of 16.4 percent. That difference of 21.1 percentage points is the best since 19611Among the top 200 pitcher-seasons by strikeout rate since 1961. and dwarfs Sale’s current 14.5 percentage-point improvement on the league average (20th-best since 1961). But this list is top heavy: The margin between Martinez’s 1999 performance and Sale’s current one, for instance, is the same as the gap between Sale and the 129th pitcher-season on the list, Kluber’s 7.9 percentage point difference in 2014.Johnson and Martinez dominate the top eight spots when you adjust strikeouts for era. The only pitcher who interrupts their run is Dwight Gooden and his 1984 season with the New York Mets. Also ahead of Sale’s current season are several of Nolan Ryan’s and Kerry Wood’s 1998 season with the Chicago Cubs.Sale’s most impressive accomplishment this season doesn’t even have to do with strikeouts. Even after being uncharacteristically lit up for seven runs on Tuesday against the Indians, his ERA at home is below 3.00 (2.82). That’s no easy feat for a lefty toiling at Fenway, where right-handed pull hitters can smack a glorified pop-up toward the Green Monster and watch it turn into a hit. Only 11 Red Sox lefties have had an ERA under 3.50 in at least 15 starts at Fenway and just one since 1988 (Jon Lester, 2.49, in 2008), according to my analysis at The Wall Street Journal.In terms of strikeouts, Sale’s season is merely impressive, but perhaps not historic. Meanwhile, Red Sox fans are only left to imagine how many strikeouts Pedro would have in this era of whiff-happy hitters.
Things That Caught My EyeNow that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long timeShalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the New York City marathon in 40 years in what may be her final competitive marathon. Her time was two hours, 26 minutes, 53 seconds. Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor won the men’s race. [Reuters]NBA considers making everyone happierIt’s certainly looking like NBA administrators are keen on removing or revising the age restriction on players. It’s interesting that even though the league instituted the age minimum of 19 in 2006, the average age of players drafted into the NBA has actually been steadily decreasing. The players union wants the age minimum to drop to 18, which would send shockwaves through not only the league but also the NCAA for that matter.[FiveThirtyEight]Not Duke!ESPN’s Basketball Power Index is out for NCAA Men’s basketball, and the early favorite to win the March Madness tournament is Not Duke. Yes, Not Duke — a terrific school that is not located in Durham, N.C. with the iconic mascot of neither Blue nor Devils — sits in 13 of the most likely spots to win the tournament, with a school named Duke appearing in 14th place, and then Not Duke once again filling spots 15 through, well, you get the idea. Right now BPI is bullish on Wichita State, which has an 11 percent chance to win the national title. [ESPN]Hawk > BuckAfter a brutal 55 to 24 loss to Iowa, Ohio State is No. 3 no longer. The Buckeyes’ almost unprecedented loss to the Hawkeyes has destroyed [their chances] of making the college football playoff this year. Ohio State’s loss is [checks spreadsheet to see which Big Ten team is still even in this thing anymore] Wisconsin’s gain, as they’re now the favorite to win the conference and now have a 37 percent chance of making the playoff, according to FiveThirtyEight. [ESPN]Excellent esports on-ramp alert:South Korea won the Overwatch World Cup this past weekend with a 4-1 win in the best of seven final over Canada. The Canadian squad — which itself made the final dance only because of one of the most electric quarterfinal victories over Australia I’ve ever seen — went down to the same team that eliminated the U.S. in the quarterfinal and France in the semifinal. [ESPN]I was made to believe I didn’t have to think about baseball for quite some timeWith the Astros triumphantly holding the World Series trophy, now we’re finally free from thinking about baseball for at least a few months, right? Wrong! The same analytics that got them that trophy can tell us information about who’s well poised to make a strong run over the next five years. The World Series loser, Los Angeles, has the highest forecast wins per season over the next five years. The Cleveland Indians actually come in at number two, followed by Houston, Chicago, and the Yankees. [FiveThirtyEight]Make sure to try your hand at our fun NFL can you beat the FiveThirtyEight predictions? game!Big Number10.97That’s the expected points added per game from the Jacksonville Jaguars passing defense through their first seven games, the highest of any team since at least 2001. Yes, they appear to be better than the 2013 Seahawks. Again, defenses get gassed and we’re only halfway through the season, so that number may decline, but the pass defense expected points added per game — 10.97 — is way, way higher than even the second ranked pass defense according to the stat, which comes in at 7.32 expected points added per game. [ESPN]Leaks from Slack:Sunday, around 10: Kristaps Porzingis drops 40 to lead stunning Knicks comebackkyle:[10:30]hm feeling good about that kristaps piece going out last weekPredictions NFL Oh, and don’t forgetAs a Giants fan, this piece about which NFL teams will hit the preseason Vegas win forecasts hurt a lot. Even worse, I know somewhere that a Philadelphia fan is reading it and deriving joy. We’re launching a sports newsletter. 🏆 Join the squad. Subscribe All newsletters See more NFL predictions
17J.D. MartinezTigers/D-Backs/Red Sox9.14.88 playerTeamTOTALper 600 plate app. 7Matt ChapmanAthletics9.36.06 Aaron Hicks is climbing the WAR chartsThe top 20 MLB players by wins above replacement per 600 plate appearances, 2017-18 12Christian YelichMarlins/Brewers11.25.11 8Jose AltuveAstros12.56.04 13Andrelton SimmonsAngels10.45.07 9Francisco LindorIndians13.25.51 5Anthony RendonNationals12.46.32 1Mike TroutAngels16.38.95 4Jose RamirezIndians14.56.61 2Mookie BettsRed Sox15.16.91 3Aaron JudgeYankees13.06.79 16J.T. RealmutoMarlins8.94.88 15Kris BryantCubs9.25.01 6Justin TurnerDodgers9.56.08 It once seemed inevitable that the New York Yankees would sign Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper when he became a free agent at the end of this season. Though Harper has been injured and inconsistent since his 2015 MVP year, he’s still a rare talent who will hit free agency just entering his physical prime at age 26 — and the Yankees are one of the few teams able to afford him.But the Yankees may no longer need Harper’s services in the outfield. They’ve found a new star to join Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and the rest of their big names, a star who may not be as well-known but who has turned into one of the game’s best players: Aaron Hicks.The underrated 28-year-old is in his prime and under club control through the 2019 season. Hicks avoided arbitration by settling for a modest one-year, $2.85 million deal last offseason. He’ll be a relative bargain next year, too.Hicks homered Saturday and later provided the walk-off hit against Baltimore to clinch a playoff berth for the Yankees. He left Monday’s game in the fourth inning with hamstring discomfort, but he told reporters he isn’t concerned and should be able to return in a few days.Through Sunday, Hicks was tied for 17th in position player wins above replacement at 4.9 WAR, according to FanGraphs. (Harper was tied for 38th.) WAR is an accumulative stat, so when we adjust for playing time,1Hicks missed significant time in 2017 because of an oblique injury. Hicks ranked 11th in baseball in WAR per 600 plate appearances since 2017. By that measure, he placed ahead of stars like Christian Yelich, J.D. Martinez and Kris Bryant in terms of overall performance per playing time. Hicks projects to finish 2018 as a 5-WAR center fielder, a star-level player. He blends one of the game’s strongest outfield arms (reaching 105.5 mph with a throw in 2016) at a premium defensive position with one of the most disciplined bats in the majors and burgeoning switch-hitting power.Of course, prior to last season, he had been a major disappointment. The Twins selected Hicks — a two-way star at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California — 14th overall in the 2008 draft. He made multiple top 100 prospect lists. But in his three years in the majors with Minnesota, covering 928 plate appearances, Hicks batted just .225 with a .306 on-base percentage and .349 slugging mark. It was good for an OPS+ of 81, meaning he was 19 percent below the average major league offensive performer.On Nov. 11, 2015, the Twins ran out of patience and traded Hicks to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy, a replacement-level catcher with a career on-base mark of .269. Murphy is now a backup in Arizona.“In Minnesota, I feel like I was just trying to hit for a high average. That’s pretty much all I was trying to do,” Hicks told me in July. “I didn’t worry about home runs or anything like that. I just tried to get on base and have a high on-base percentage and hit singles: up-the-middle, opposite field.”The approach was generally ineffective for Hicks. When he arrived at Yankee Stadium, which has one of the shortest right-field fences in baseball, his entire philosophy changed. With the Twins in 2015, Hicks pulled batted balls at a 35.8 percent rate. Hicks has increased his pull percentage to 42.9 percent last season and to 45.1 percent this season, making him the 28th most pull-oriented hitter in the game.“When I came here, they wanted me to use my athleticism to hit the ball in the air more,” Hicks said. “Hit for more power. … The [Yankees major league] staff has been amazing as far as being able to elevate my game, different approaches in how to attack the baseball, and how to become the type of player I want to be.”The Yankees as a team focus on power and pull. That philosophy may be why the Yankees (251 home runs through Sunday) could challenge the 1997 Seattle Mariners’ single-season team home run record (264) despite having only one player (Stanton) with more than 30 home runs this season.Hicks doesn’t have the raw power of some of his teammates: His average exit velocity of 87.3 mph puts him in the middle of the pack in the majors, ranking 195th out of 336 batters. But he said his focus on power and pull has a side benefit: He’s become more selective at the plate. Hicks ranks fifth in baseball in walk rate on the season at 15.8 percent, a slight increase from his 14.1 percent mark last year and a large gain from 2016 (8.3 percent) and 2015 (8.7 percent). In the second half of this season, Hicks leads baseball in walk rate at 19.6 percent.“When I try and get the ball in the air, I swing at less stuff, because if I can’t hit a pitch in the air, I don’t swing at it,” Hicks said. “Naturally, I start to walk more. … If I’m getting pitches I can’t do damage with, I’m not going to swing until I have to with two strikes.”Only two major league players have walked more frequently and hit more home runs than Hicks this season: Harper and Mike Trout.Hicks swung at 23.8 percent of pitches classified as out of the strike zone in 2015 and 24.4 percent in his first year with the Yankees in 2016. That rate dipped to 21.5 percent last year and 19.4 percent this season. Among qualified hitters, only Joey Votto, Alex Bregman, Andrew McCutchen and Mookie Betts are swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone. Those players are either MVP candidates (Bregman, Betts) or have won MVP Awards (Votto, McCutchen). Trout ranks seventh.Pitchers have thrown Hicks — an excellent fastball hitter — fewer and fewer four-seam fastballs, from 34.8 percent of offerings in 2016 to 31.2 this season. Yet Hicks is slugging .525 against curveballs and holding his own against changeups.The Yankees have unearthed a star. While the club could still pursue Harper, Hicks gives it an alternative. He allows New York to invest $400 million elsewhere this winter and beyond.Check out our latest MLB predictions. Among players with at least 800 plate appearances since the start of the 2017 season.Source: FanGraphs 18Nolan ArenadoRockies10.64.82 19Giancarlo StantonMarlins/Yankees10.84.73 20Lorenzo CainRoyals/Brewers9.74.72 WAR 10Tommy PhamCardinals/Rays9.65.38 11Aaron HicksYankees8.25.30 14Alex BregmanAstros11.05.04
Ohio State football recruit Bryce Haynes stepped into a role that landed him what could be a four year starting job with the Buckeyes. Haynes is a long snapper — he’s the guy who lines up in the center position for punts and field goals and snaps the ball. Haynes, who attends Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, Ga., is the first incoming freshman in OSU football history to be offered a scholarship for long snapping. But for most of his career, long snapping was just something he did, not his main focus. “I started at receiver as a sophomore and started at receiver and defensive end both junior and senior year,” Haynes said. “I was just a back-up (long snapper) my freshman and sophomore years, so I hadn’t really gotten into it or really practiced that much.” During his junior season, Haynes beat out a senior for the starting long snapping job on punts, but not for field goals. Instead, he focused on playing defensive end and wide receiver. That all changed after his junior season. “I knew I definitely wanted to go somewhere to play football in college, but I realized it would kind of be a long shot to play receiver or defensive end at a bigger school or one of the schools I wanted to go to,” Haynes said. “I was already pretty good at (long snapping), and I didn’t have any teaching or anything, so I figured I’d try it out.” Haynes started working on long snapping and in December following his junior year, he attended a special-teams camp in Georgia led by the country’s premier long snapping instructor, Chris Rubio. “That’s how I really learned the great technique,” Haynes said. “It took a lot of effort, but once I learned what I was doing wrong, I got better a lot faster.” Haynes continued during the summer months when he attended between six and eight different special-teams camps — he was named “best long snapper” at each camp. After a camp in California, Rubio declared Haynes the best long snapper in the country. Rubio later said on his website: “This kid has it all. … Flat out the best in the country. In the top five I have had coming out of high school in the past decade.” Colleges took notice as Haynes received offers from North Carolina, Arkansas, Utah State, Michigan State, Harvard, Notre Dame and OSU. Because of his Catholic background, many people pegged Notre Dame as the front-runner, but on Jan. 28, Haynes verbally committed to OSU and said he doesn’t regret his decision. “I love the football community at Ohio State,” Haynes said. “I never even imagined that I would go to Ohio State originally starting out.” Because of the departure of senior long snapper Jake McQuaide, Haynes said he expects to play as a freshman. McQuaide made sure the coaches took a look at Haynes, said Kevin Noon, managing editor of BuckeyeGrove.com. Even with all his accolades, not all Buckeye fans were keen on giving a valuable scholarship to a player whose position can normally be filled by a walk-on. Noon doesn’t agree. “Bryce is a once-in-a-decade type of talent,” Noon said. “I think that Bryce Haynes has an excellent opportunity to walk into the long snapping duties as a freshman. You are locking a guy down for four years instead of having to develop someone.” For a long snapper, Noon said, every play is important. “All it takes is one bad snap to ruin your season,” he said. “One bad snap and you’re out of it.” Correction: May 24, 2011 An earlier version of this story stated Haynes attends Pinecrest Academy in Cummings, Ga. It is Cumming, Ga.