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Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Crazy crap analytics can prove

By ESPN The Magazine
ESPN The Magazine

Andrew Luck
The stats confirm -- Andrew Luck is indeed No. 1.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 4 Analytics issue. Subscribe today!

The numbers never lie. And in this case, the numbers give some shocking truths. Below is an assortment of know-it-all stats that you should use to win arguments -- and annoy your friends.

Andrew Luck is a more valuable runner than RG III.

Robert Griffin III rushed for 815 yards in 2012, joining Michael Vick, Bobby Douglass and Randall Cunningham as the only quarterbacks to break the 800-yard barrier in a season since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970. Andrew Luck, on the other hand, ran for just 255 yards, ranking eighth among QBs.

Seems like a blowout, but here’s the thing: Luck’s yards went a lot further than RG III’s did. The Colts rookie gained a first down on 55 percent of his carries, while Griffin moved the sticks just 35 percent of the time. Turnovers? Another win for Luck. Zero fumbles on rushes for the former Cardinal, seven for the Baylor product. Third-down conversions? Luck 15, RG3 14. Yes, officially Griffin averaged 6.8 yards per rush, 2.7 yards per carry more than Luck. But take away meaningless kneel-downs and Luck’s average climbs to 6.4, nearly matching Griffin’s 7.4.

Advanced metrics tell a similar story. According to ESPN’s QBR system, Luck added 21.1 expected points via the rush, versus 12.7 for Griffin. Luck also beats Griffin in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA); Luck rated 41.1 percent above average (third among QBs). RG III? Just 7.9 percent above average (19th).

All of which goes to show that when it comes to (being an effective rusher, it’s not about flash or speed but timing. And last season, Luck’s timing was about as good as it gets. -- Vince Verhei


Stephen Curry is the greatest outside shooter in NBA history.

Just four years into his career, Stephen Curry has already established himself as the most unstoppable long-range threat since ... forever. Consider that the Warriors guard is on pace this season to become the first player to shoot more than seven threes a game and make at least 44 percent of them. Meanwhile, only Steve Kerr (45.4 percent) can top Curry’s 44.3 percent career three-point mark -- and he had the benefit of three seasons with the shorter 22-foot line.

Even more astounding is how Curry gets his shots: (off the dribble. Curry is shooting 44.8 percent this season (from long range, and 42.2 percent of those conversions have been unassisted, the toughest kind to make. The players who shoot as often as Curry and have similar rates of unassisted makes -- guys like Chris Paul (46.9 percent), LeBron James (44.8 percent), Brandon Jennings (39.4 percent) and Kobe Bryant (38.5 percent) -- are all far less accurate from long range.

When you consider accuracy, frequency and degree of difficulty, the only comparable shooting profile to Curry’s belongs to Steve Nash. But while he is also an off-the-dribble shooter, Nash shoots far fewer threes per 48 minutes -- peaking at 4.7 in 2007-08 -- and has hit Curry’s career rate of accuracy just three times in his 17-year career.

Nash is no Curry. No one is -- because NBA fans have never seen a shooter this good. -- Beckley Mason


Matt Barkley is still a franchise QB.

It wasn’t Matt Barkley’s fault. Although the QB’s draft stock has plummeted following the Trojans’ disappointing 7-6 season -- a season in which his yards, completion rate and TD/INT rates declined from 2011 -- he still has the look of an elite NFL prospect. You just have to take a closer look at those numbers. In fact, Barkley saw an increase in his overall yards per attempt, from 8.0 in 2011 to 8.1 in 2012 against BCS opponents, right on par with Andrew Luck’s 8.7 ypa for Stanford in 2011. This even though Barkley’s stretch vertical (20-plus yards) and vertical (11-plus yards) pass attempts fell strongly, by 4.5 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively.

The real problem at USC? The playcalling. Think about that offense: You’re talking about a duo of NFL-caliber wideouts, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods; one of the best offensive lines in the nation; and a pair of top running backs in Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. With that level of talent, most coaches would focus on vertical routes to minimize pressure on the run game and maximize single coverage on the outside. Yet vertical throws accounted for only 37.3 percent of Lee and Woods’ targets in 2012. An average NFL receiver will see a vertical pass on roughly 50 percent of his targets.

If Barkley could post this ypa number under such stingy playcalling, it’s easy to see that he could be more successful in the NFL with even an average passing attack. Add that to his tremendous intangibles and he deserves a second look as a top-five pick. -- KC Joyner


The Orioles will finish in the cellar.

Coming off four straight last-place finishes, the Orioles of 2012 earned a playoff spot for the first time in 15 years. Nice story, right? Sure. Sustainable? A different story.

Bad omen No. 1: Since 1950 teams that improved by at least 24 wins in a single season, as the Orioles just did, have averaged a decline of almost nine wins the following year. Bad omen No. 2: The Orioles’ run differential, at 712 runs scored and 705 runs allowed, was that of a typical 82-win team, according to Bill James’ Pythagorean formula. In other words, they were awfully lucky last season -- and are likely to crash back down to earth.

The crash could be the loudest in the bullpen. Last season Baltimore went a best-ever 29-9 in one-run games, results driven by its excellent -- but also fortunate -- bullpen. Among AL relievers with at least 60 IP, Jim Johnson and Darren O’Day tied for the AL’s ninth-lowest BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) at .251, according to FanGraphs. That’s a number they are unlikely to sustain. Meanwhile, Pedro Strop led AL relievers in walks per nine innings at 5.02 yet had the seventh-highest strand rate at 83.2 percent. History shows that few pitchers can maintain that high-wire act.

The bigger issue? The O’s did little to offset their inevitable regression this offseason. (Sorry, trading for Danny Valencia doesn’t count.) So get ready to return to the basement, O’s fans. The jig is up. -- Ben Lundbergh