Welcome to Stats ‘N’ At, a weekly feature that takes a deep dive into the numbers that define the Pittsburgh sports scene.
Fall is here, which means pumpkin-flavored everything, meaningful hockey, and constant chatter about whether Phil Kessel and Mike Sullivan can co-exist on the Penguins' bench.
Both Kessel and Sullivan claim there's no animosity between them, and if any rift does exist, it looks tame compared to the Ballers-esque, made-for-TMZ turbulence taking place in Steelers Country. Kessel supposedly wasn't happy when he was taken off center Evgeni Malkin's line last season. Kessel and Malkin were back on the ice together during training camp, however. Kessel was pleased. Malkin offered more qualified praise, noting that the two lethal scoring threats had to tighten up their defense when paired together.
On the surface, Kessel and Malkin seem like an ideal pair. Kessel's best-in-class wrist shot and Malkin's slashing, punishing playing style seem to go together like hot dogs and Heinz Ketchup. Or borscht and black bread. A good combo, is what I'm saying. But just how productive are these two when paired together? Let's review the Phil and Geno Show.
• There's a reason that Kessel wants Malkin centering his line. When Kessel was on the ice with Malkin last season during 5-on-5 situations, the Penguins generated 51.6% of all shots taken, according to Natural Stat Trick's Lineup Tool. When Kessel was paired with another center, that figure dropped to 49.1% of all shots taken. The difference was even more pronounced during the 2016-17 campaign, with the Penguins generating 51.1% of all shots with Phil and Geno together, and just 44.6% when Phil's line was centered by someone else.
• There's also a reason why Malkin might be less enthusiastic about being paired with Kessel. When Malkin wasn't paired with Kessel during 5-on-5 play last season, the Penguins unleashed 53.7% of all shots taken. The same split was there in 2016-17, too (Malkin's line took 53.5% of total shots). And, to Malkin's point about defense, his line was better in that regard without Kessel in 2017-18 (28.9 shots allowed per 60 minutes of ice time, 2.5 goals allowed per 60 minutes) than with him (35 shots allowed, 3.1 goals allowed). Granted, neither of these guys get superstar money to play D. But it still matters.
• From Malkin's standpoint, he could be happier with a certain relentless Swede as his right wing. With Patric Hornqvist on his wing, Malkin's line generates a higher percentage of total shots taken (Corsi For Percentage in the graphic below), as well as more scoring chances and goals compared to the opposition.
While the pairing might not benefit Malkin as much, it's hardly the worst thing if Phil and Geno get a lot of ice time together. Kessel seems to perform better with the big Russian feeding him the puck, and keeping this duo together would allow Hornqvist to either get more ice time with Sidney Crosby, or add some physicality and scoring ability to the third line.
• ZAR badgering goalies: Speaking of that relentless Swede, Zach Aston-Reese elicits comparisons to Hornqvist for the way that he crashes the net and drives goalies clinically insane. According to the Icy Data website, Aston-Reese took 69% of his total shots either directly in front of the net (in the part of the ice between the two faceoff circles) or within the crease during the 2017-18 season. That was even higher than Hornqvist's rate (62%) and more than double the NHL average of 34%. Why does that matter? Because close shots lead to more goals. Last season, 62% of all NHL goals scored came in front of the net or inside the crease.
• The odd defenseman out: The reality of the NHL is that teams need more than six quality defensemen to get through a season. Chad Ruhwedel played the seventh D-man role last year, appearing in 44 games, and he'll likely play the same part in 2018-19 after the Penguins signed Jack Johnson (though Finnish defenseman Juuso Riikola has been highly impressive so far). You could understand, though, if Ruhwedel (and many Pens fans) think he's among their six best. Last year, Johnson's team generated -5.4% fewer shots out of all attempts taken when he was on the ice compared to when he was on the bench. With Ruhwedel on the ice, the Penguins generated -1.5% fewer shots than the opposition compared to when he was off the ice. Ruhwedel also fared better in terms of shots allowed per 60 minutes of ice time (29.1, compared to 31.9 for Johnson), goals allowed (2.1 per 60 minutes for Ruhwedel, 2.5 for Johnson), and scoring chances generated (the Penguins had 52.3% of total scoring chances with Ruhwedel on the ice, while the Blue Jackets generated 47.8% of scoring chances with Johnson playing).
• Defensive woes start up front: While the Steelers' secondary is, justifiably, getting panned for giving up huge passing plays, the defensive backs are hardly the only problem on that side of the ball. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are paid All-Pro money to generate pressure, generally make life miserable for opposing QBs, and ease the burden on the corners and safeties. So far, they're falling short of those goals. According to Pro Football Focus' grading system, Heyward has just a 60.3 pass rushing grade (on a scale of 0-100) this season, and Tuitt has a 56.7 pass rushing rating. Heyward's overall grade (which includes run defense and any coverage responsibilities) is just 67.7, and Tuitt's overall grade is 67.9. For comparison's sake, Heyward had an 89.1 overall grade in 2017 and Tuitt an 80.5 grade.
• You lack discipline! Through Week 2, the Steelers were the most penalized team in the NFL. Pittsburgh has been flagged a total of 29 times (24 accepted, five declined), directly costing the team a collective 206 yards. Every unit is getting in on the action, with the offense being called for seven accepted penalties, the defense 11, and special teams six. The most common penalties are offensive holding, defensive offside, defensive holding, illegal block above the waist, and illegal formation, according to the NFL Penalty Tracker website. Linebacker Bud Dupree (three penalties) is the biggest offender thus far. Overall, the Steelers have been penalized on 5.7% of their snaps in 2018. Last year, they were flagged on just 3.5% of total snaps.
• Not-so-special teams: As if the defensive meltdowns weren't exasperating enough, the Steelers are also a mess on special teams. Punter Jordan Berry's job is in jeopardy. Historically accurate kicker Chris Boswell is 0-for-2 and has even missed an extra point. There are busted coverages on returns, and the Steelers' offense has the worst average starting field position in the league (their own 23-yard-line, compared to the 29-yard-line average for all NFL teams). According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers rank 26th in total special teams value in 2018. They have performed -5.3 points worse than an average NFL team in terms of field goals and extra points, while the punting game (-1.4) and kick return unit (-0.8) are also in the red.
• Rodriguez’s sneaky-good fastball: Richard Rodriguez, a 28 year-old rookie who dominated in the minor leagues but never got an extended shot in the majors until 2018, has emerged as a key cog in the Pirates’ bullpen. Rodriguez has struck out 11.5 batters per nine innings pitched this season — about the same rate as closer Felipe Vazquez and one of the 25 highest marks among all qualified MLB relievers — and he’s doing it unconventionally. Unlike Vazquez and an ever-growing collection of MLB relievers, Rodriguez lacks premium fastball velocity. His four-seam fastball, which he throws about 75% of the time, averages just 92.9 mph. But what Rodriguez lacks in pure velocity, he makes up for in movement.
Of the 179 MLB pitchers who have thrown at least 500 four-seam fastballs this season, Rodriguez ranks 34th in spin rate. Why does that matter? Four-seam fastballs with high spin rates tend to be more effective than those with lower spin rates, and lead to more whiffs and weak contact. Rodriguez’s four-seamer moves about as much as that of former Pirate and current Cy Young contender Gerrit Cole. That has helped Rodriguez generate far more swings and misses with his four-seam fastball (29%) than the average MLB pitcher (24%).
• Luplow’s trouble with the curve (and slider, and..): With Gregory Polanco potentially sidelined into the 2019 season while recovering from shoulder surgery, the Pirates could rely more upon outfielder Jordan Luplow to fill the temporary void. Luplow, a 24-year-old whom the Bucs selected in the third round of the 2014 draft, has struggled offensively in the majors in a small sample size (his On-Base-Plus-Slugging Percentage, once adjusted for park and league factors, is about 27% worse than that of the average MLB hitter). Luplow has shown that he can turn on a big league fastball, but he’s struggling to connect on breaking and off-speed stuff. Per 100 pitches seen, Luplow has performed +0.3 runs better than the average MLB batter against fastballs, according to Fangraphs’ Runs/100 metric. But he has been -5.1 runs worse than average (per 100 pitches seen) against sliders, -0.2 runs worse versus curveballs, and -4.8 runs worse on changeups.
• Dickerson’s surprising defense: Entering the 2018 season, Corey Dickerson was regarded as a DH-worthy defender whom the Pirates were just hoping could be something better than disastrous in left field. After all, Dickerson had been one of the worse defensive left fielders in baseball from 2013-17, costing his team about nine runs compared to an average fielder, according to Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) stat. DRS rates a player’s fielding ability compared to an average defender at his position, accounting for play difficulty, range and throwing arm. In 2018, though, Dickerson has been a staggering +14 runs above average in left field. That’s the second-best mark among all MLB left fielders, trailing only Kansas City’s Alex Gordon (+16). It takes a larger sample size for defensive stats to become meaningful, so we probably shouldn’t think of Dickerson in the same light as Starling Marte just yet. But even when his bat has gone cold, Dickerson has delivered value in the field.
• Wait, there's a second half? In the first half of its games in 2018, Pitt has looked like an ACC Coastal Division contender. In the second half, the Panthers have resembled a WPIAL bottom-feeder. Pitt has outscored opponents 88-42 (+46 point differential) in the first half, but has been trampled to the tune of 73-10 (-63 point differential) after halftime. QB Kenny Pickett has completed 65.9% of his passes in the first half, while averaging 9.5 yards per attempt, but his accuracy and big-play ability have disappeared in the second half (51.6% completion rate, 6.5 yards per attempt). The running game, meanwhile, is about half as productive during the second half of the game (6.8 rushing yards per carry in the first half, 3.55 yards per carry in the second half). Is this huge first half/second half disparity just a statistical oddity, or the sign of a team that can't make in-game adjustments? Either way, it's a bizarre storyline for a program that is often disappointing, but never boring.
• Narduzzi's rep taking a hit: Pat Narduzzi arrived at Pitt with a sterling defensive reputation, having led a Michigan State unit that consistently ranked among the FBS' best in total defense. But, with Narduzzi now in his fourth season as the Panthers' head coach and presiding over a defense filled with his own recruits, there has been precious little progress. The Panthers were actually pretty good defensively during Narduzzi's first year in 2015, placing 27th among all FBS teams in total defense, but here's where they have ranked since: 98th in 2016, 66th in 2017 and 86th so far in 2018.
• Penn State keeps rolling: The holes won't be nearly as large or as easily created when Ohio State visits Happy Valley this week, but the Nittany Lions have dominated in the ground game in 2018. Penn State posted a collective 387 rushing yards while vanquishing Illinois, which is the fourth-highest single-game total for the school since at least the year 2000. Miles Sanders (200 yards) was the star, though freshman RB Ricky Slade (94 yards) and QB Trace McSorley (92 yards) also ran wild against the Fighting Illini. Sanders became just the fourth Nittany Lion to run for at least 200 yards in a game during the new millennium, joining Larry Johnson (who accomplished that feat four times), Saquon Barkley (three 200+ yard games), and Bill Belton (one game).
THE NATIONAL TREND
• A punchout epidemic: As the end of the 2018 regular season nears, keep an eye on whether total strikeouts outnumber hits for the first time in MLB history. Overall, MLB hitters have struck out in 22.2% of plate appearances. That's a new MLB record, breaking the mark set in 2017...which broke the record set in 2016...which broke the record set in 2015...which... (you get the idea). Thirty-five percent of all plate appearances this season have ended without a ball being put in play, which would mark yet another MLB record. There are a variety of reasons for the rising strikeout rate, but here are a few quick contributing factors: pitchers are throwing harder than ever before (the average MLB fastball velocity in 2018 is 92.8 mph, up two mph from a decade ago), they're throwing more breaking and off-speed pitches that generate more whiffs (pitchers have thrown fastballs just 55% this year, compared to 60.7% a decade ago), and teams are relying more on power-armed relievers and pulling tired starting pitchers earlier (starters have pitched an average of 5.4 innings per game in 2018, down from 5.8 innings a decade ago).
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