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Stats ‘N’ At: Faith in Murray, Conner vs. Bell, Kang’s value

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Matt Murray, Saturday night. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Welcome to Stats ‘N’ At, a weekly feature that takes a deep dive into the numbers that define the Pittsburgh sports scene.

Matt Murray weathered a personally and professionally trying season for the Penguins in 2017-18 -- one in which he lost his father, plus suffered a concussion and a lower-body injury that limited his playing time -- and turned in a performance that was disappointing given the lofty standard he set while contributing to consecutive Stanley Cup titles.

Murray's under pressure as the 2018-19 season opens, thanks to the expectations that follow the prodigious start to his NHL career and the scrutiny that comes with replacing the Patron Saint of Penguins Hockey, Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray does need to prove he can stay healthy, and his play last season was uneven. He has gotten off to a brutal start this year, too, surrendering 11 goals through his first two games. But fans should still consider themselves lucky to have the 24-year-old in net. Few young goalies in NHL history have outperformed Murray, who still looks like a franchise netminder to me.

Why keep the faith in Murray?

Consider:

• Murray flashed elite talent during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. Over that timeframe, his expected save percentage in 5-on-5 situations -- calculated based on shot location and shot angle, as well as odd-man rush situations -- was .920, according to Corsica Hockey. Murray's actual 5-on-5 save percentage over that two-year span was .934, meaning that he prevented 1.4% more goals than an average NHL goaltender given the quality of chances faced. Murray had the highest such rate among anyone who logged at least 2,000 minutes in 2015-16 and 2016-17, besting standouts like Corey Crawford, Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist. 

• The Penguins' at-times reckless play in 2017-18 meant Murray faced more difficult shots. In 2015-16, they surrendered the eighth-fewest high-danger scoring chances (604) among NHL teams, according to Natural Stat Trick. In 2016-17, they ranked 22nd in high-danger chances against (713). Last year? they ranked 26th, allowing 767 high-danger chances. This doesn't completely bail out Murray, who stopped 1.3% fewer shots than expected last year, but it serves as a reminder that goalies don't make saves in a vacuum. He needs more support.

• Even with a so-so 2017-18, Murray still ranks as one of the better young goaltenders in NHL history. Hockey-Reference features a stat called Adjusted Goals Allowed Percentage, which compares a save percentage to that of the NHL average over a given period of time. It's a rough way of comparing goaltenders across eras by accounting for differences in the league-wide offensive environment. One hundred is average, and a number below 100 means that a goaltender stopped more pucks than an average NHL player. By that measure, Murray turned in one of the 10 best performances among goaltenders during his age 21 to 23 seasons:

Three of the guys on this list -- Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur and Grant Fuhr -- are Hall of Famers. Murray has something to prove this season, but we shouldn't lose sight of his talent and accomplishments. Most NHL teams would kill to have an affordable, two-time Cup-winning goaltender who's just entering his prime years.

MORE PENGUINS

• Kris Letang: Greatest Penguins D-man? With a prolific start to this season, Kris Letang  passed Paul Coffey for the Penguins' franchise lead in career points by a defenseman with 441. That milestone is sure to generate talk about whether Letang -- a three-time Stanley Cup champion, four-time All-Star, and potential future Hall of Fame candidate -- is the best ever at his position in Pittsburgh.

At first glance, Letang's offensive stats don't seem to stack up with those of Coffey, who racked up his 440 points in less than half the amount of career games in Pittsburgh (331) as Letang (684). However, the comparison becomes much more interesting when you adjust for the vastly different offensive eras during which these guys played. Coffey played for the Penguins between 1987-88 and 1991-92, when the average NHL team netted between 3.46 and 3.74 goals per game. Letang has played since 2006-07, and the average team goals per game has hovered between 2.7 and 2.9 between then and the present day. Two totally different eras of offensive hockey.

According to Hockey-Reference, Letang's adjusted points per game total (which adjusts a player's production based on the offensive environment during his career) is 1.1, compared to his actual total of 0.64 per game. Coffey had 1.13 adjusted points per game during his Penguins tenure, versus his actual total of 1.33. In terms of adjusted points per game, Letang and Coffey are a cut above other notable Pittsburgh defensemen like Ron Stackhouse (0.47), Randy Carlyle (0.64), Larry Murphy (0.87) and Sergei Gonchar (0.83).

• A tale of two offenses: In their season-opening, freewheeling win over the Capitals, the Penguins' offense looked characteristically lethal. Against the Canadiens ... they did play that game, right? Against Washington, they generated a staggering 36 scoring chances -- a total that they surpassed in only two regular-season games during the 2017-18 season, two games during the 2016-17 season, and once during the 2015-16 season, according to Natural Stat Trick. Against Montreal, the Penguins generated a paltry 13 scoring chances. They created fewer scoring chances in just three games during the 2017-18 season, four games in 2016-17, and four games in 2015-16.

It's just two games in, but we have already seen the Penguins' offense at its zenith and nadir.

STEELERS

• Conner can catch: In the receiving game, James Conner has looked downright Le'Veon Bell-like. Through five games in 2018, Conner has 22 receptions on 28 targets (a 78.6% catch rate) for 239 yards (10.9 yards per reception). He's averaging 47.8 receiving yards per game. Bell's career pass-catching averages? A 78.6% catch rate, 42.9 receiving yards per game, and 8.5 yards per reception. At this rate, Conner will surpass his receiving total during his entire 39-game career at Pitt (412 yards) by mid-season.

• Run right through Falcons: After practically abandoning the running game in recent weeks, the Steelers rumbled for 134 yards at an average of 4.8 per carry versus the Falcons (excluding Joshua Dobbs' kneel-down to end the game). Conner did the heavy lifting, collecting 110 yards and scoring two TDs. The Steelers charged to the right side of the field at will -- through David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert -- with Conner gaining 52 yards on eight carries (6.5 yards per attempt) in that direction, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Even Ben Roethlisberger got into the act, running for 16 yards on two scrambles to the right side.

• AB bests Julio: In a game billed as a matchup of two of the greatest receivers of this generation, Antonio Brown outshined Julio Jones. Brown hauled in six passes for 101 yards and two TDs. Jones finished with five receptions for 62 yards and was shutout entirely until the fourth quarter. The Steelers' oft-criticized, oft-burned secondary did an excellent job of staying close to Jones the entire game. On average, Jones gained just 2.1 yards of separation per route run from the nearest Steelers defender, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The NFL average separation from the nearest defender is 2.7 yards.

PIRATES

• Will Kang return? In the Pirates' final series, Jung-Ho Kang made a big league cameo for the first time in two years. Now, the question becomes: Is that the last we will see of him in Pittsburgh?

The Pirates hold a $5.5 million club option for Kang in 2019, and they could also choose to decline that option and re-negotiate a lower salary. We really don't know what type of player that Kang, now 31, will be moving forward. But if he's anything close to the player who took the field in 2015 and 2016, the power-deprived Pirates could certainly use him.

For his career, Kang has posted a park and league-adjusted On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS) that's 25% above the overall Major League Basebasll average. Per 162 games, Kang has been worth 4.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). WAR is an all-encompassing measure of a player's value that accounts for hitting, fielding, and base running. For comparison's sake, the Pirates' WAR leader among position players in 2018 was Starling Marte, at 3.7.

• Bell's D needs overhaul, too: First baseman Josh Bell didn't turn in the breakout performance that many expected in 2018, with his home run total dipping from 26 in 2017 to 12 and his park and league-adjusted On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage remaining around 10% above the overall MLB average -- hardly slugger territory for a guy who plays a power position.

But Bell's defense should also be a concern. According to Fangraphs' Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) stat, Bell cost the Pirates minus-9 runs in 2018 compared to an average defensive first baseman. DRS rates a player’s fielding ability compared to an average defender at his position, accounting for play difficulty, range and throwing arm. Bell tied with Seattle's Ryon Healy for the worst DRS total among regular first basemen. In 2017, Bell actually saved the Pirates 6 runs compared to an average defender. That's a 15 run swing--or about 1.5 wins in the standings--in Bell's defensive value over the last two years.

If he's not going to hit for mammoth power, the Pirates need Bell to be the kind of defender he was in 2017, not the guy who channeled Pedro Alvarez this past year.

• Wham! Another homer! Is 'Dovydas Neverauskas' Lithuanian for home run?

Neverauskas made history by becoming the first MLB player from his native country, but he's also making the record books for some less desirable reasons. In 52.1 career MLB innings pitched, he has surrendered 13 homers -- a rate of 2.24 per nine frames. That's the 13th-highest home run rate all-time among pitchers who have logged 50+ innings pitched. He has been plenty successful at Triple-A Indianapolis, posting a 2.91 ERA, punching out more than a batter per inning (9.1 K/9) and rarely getting taken deep (0.3 HR/9). Yet, at the highest level, he's struggling to locate his stuff. According to MLB Statcast, Neverauskas has thrown a "meatball" -- a pitch thrown to the middle-middle of the strike zone -- more than 10% of the time (the MLB average is about 7%). Poor location is part of why Neverauskas surrenders more hard contact (36.3% of balls put in play) than the average pitcher (34.1%), and why he's getting whiplash on the mound.

COLLEGES

• Drops plague Penn State: At first blush, it seems like QB Trace McSorley has been off-target to start the 2018 season. After all, his completion percentage has cratered from 66.5% in 2017 to just 53.2% this year. That doesn't tell the whole story, though. McSorley is getting little help from his receivers, who have appeared stone-handed at times. According to the Roar Lions Roar website, which conducts detailed passing chart breakdowns of each game, Penn State receivers have dropped a total of 18 passes this season. Had Nittany Lions receivers hauled in those catchable balls, McSorley's completion rate would be right around 66%.

• Air Kessman: Pitt kicker Alex Kessman entered Saturday's game versus Syracuse with a career field goal percentage below 60%. By the end of the contest, he had showcased serious leg strength, etched his name in the record books, and even pumped up the homecoming crowd while flexing his 24 inch...well, maybe 14-inch pythons. Kessman set a new record by booting a 55-yard field goal at Heinz Field--the longest in the stadium's history for a college or NFL kicker. He broke the mark shared by Steelers kicker Chris Boswell (2017) and then-Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey (2016), who both made 53 yard field goals. Technically, Kessman broke his own record, as he hit a 54-yard attempt earlier versus Syracuse before converting from 55 yards. Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt also got in on the act, splitting the uprights with a 54-yard attempt against Pitt.

Pitt's ground grind: The Panthers crushed the Orange on the ground, with Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall both topping 100 yards rushing while scoring three touchdowns. Pitt finished with 265 rushing yards, which is the school's highest total since it ran for 267 versus North Carolina in November of 2017. While the Kenny Pickett-led passing game has been tame, averaging a mere 149.2 yards per game (119th among FBS schools), Pitt ranks a respectable 39th in the FBS with 203.8 rushing yards per contest. Overall, the running game accounts for 57.7% of Pitt's total offense in 2018. That's the second-highest percentage among Atlantic Coast Conference schools, and far above Pitt's 40.6% rate from 2017. The only ACC team more reliant on the running game is Georgia Tech--and they run the triple-option, so they shouldn't really count. Just how good is the Panthers' running attack? We should find out when they travel to South Bend, as Notre Dame has limited teams to 127.8 rushing yards per game this season (38th among FBS schools).

THE NATIONAL TREND

• Take me out to the ball game? The Pirates' attendance figures have plummeted in recent years, from an average 30,847 fans filling PNC park in 2015 to a mere 18,316 per game in 2018. That's a staggering decline no matter how you look at it. But the Pirates are an extreme example of a national trend that's afflicting our National Pastime. Across all of MLB, attendance his dipped from an average of 30,349 fans per game in 2015 to 28,659 this past season (a 5.6% decline). MLB's not exactly hurting financially, with total revenue eclipsing $10 billion last year, and some of this year's attendance decline could be due to especially harsh weather. But hey, if you do buy a ticket, you've got better odds of snagging a foul ball, a free T-shirt, or a lukewarm hot dog!

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