Petit's hook key to record success

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
12:28
AM ET
The San Francisco Giants might have found the X factor when it comes to their postseason hopes in starting pitcher Yusmeiro Petit. Petit not only set a major league record for consecutive batters retired and pitched the Giants to a win over the Colorado Rockies on Thursday.

Petit also won in his first start since July 22 with a dominant performance. In his past seven appearances, dating back to July 26, he’s pitched 18 1/3 innings and allowed one run and four hits.

Record setter
Petit set the single-season mark by retiring 46 consecutive hitters, breaking Mark Buehrle's mark of 45, set in 2009.

Petit's streak ended with the next batter when pitcher Jordan Lyles doubled.

Petit had earlier broken the National League record, which was also held by a Giants pitcher of modest renown, Jim Barr, who retired 41 straight during the 1972 season.

Petit’s streak might have been a bit under the radar considering the results of the games in which he pitched. His past six appearances prior to Thursday were all Giants losses.

Petit is familiar with long runs of perfection. On Sept. 6, 2013, he pitched a one-hitter against the Arizona Diamondbacks, with a perfect-game bid that stretched into the ninth inning.

How he won
Petit finished with a season-high 15 swings-and-misses in his six innings of one-run, nine-strikeout work.

He was in total command despite a fastball that averaged only 89 mph. Petit’s key pitch was his 76 to 79 mph curveball, which he threw 19 times and netted 10 outs, including six strikeouts.

Opponents are 2-for-35 in at-bats ending with a Petit curveball dating back to July 2. They’ve missed on 34 of 66 swings against it.

In good company
Petit ranks sixth in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings among the 150 pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched this season. The five pitchers ahead of him are Yu Darvish, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

His 29 percent miss rate ranks fifth in the majors. Kershaw and Felix Hernandez rank sixth and seventh.

Quirky coincidence
Rockies catcher Jackson Williams, who just made his major league debut Wednesday, was the record-tying 45th "victim" of Petit's streak.

Williams came to Colorado as a minor league free agent from the Giants last offseason. During the 2012 and 2013 seasons, he caught Petit's starts 24 times when both were in Triple-A Fresno.

Williams also got his first major league hit off Petit in the fifth inning.
Tags:

MLB

Top stats to know: Hill's epic debut

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
11:14
PM ET
The precedent has been set for Texas A&M to do big things in 2014.
Kenny Hill made Texas A&M fans turn the page from Johnny Manziel with a debut to remember on Thursday night.

Hill completed 44 passes for 511 yards, both school records. Texas A&M gained 680 yards, the most by any team against South Carolina in school history as it ended the Gamecocks' 18-game home winning streak. The 52 points A&M scored are also the most ever scored by a road team against a Steve Spurrier-coached team and fourth-most overall.

We take you inside the numbers on this record-setting night in Columbia.

Don’t blitz
South Carolina attempted to blitz Hill on over 40 percent of his dropbacks on Thursday night, but Hill was not rattled by the pressure. He completed 72 percent of his passes and threw two touchdowns when facing added pressure compared to 74 percent and one touchdown against no blitz.

Johnny who?
Hill’s debut far surpassed Manziel’s debut against Florida in 2012. Manziel passed for 173 yards and no touchdowns in a 20-17 loss. Manziel did rush for 60 yards and a touchdown in that game.



Catch and run
The Aggies gained 278 of their 511 passing yards after the catch Thursday, including 106 by Malcome Kennedy. Last season, Texas A&M averaged an SEC-high 179.8 yards after the catch per game.

Curtains for South Carolina?
Despite tonight’s big loss for the Gamecocks, their season is far from over. Four teams have reached the SEC championship game after losing their season opener and six teams have done so after losing their SEC opener.

The most recent team to do both was Georgia in 2011, which reached the SEC title game after losing its opener to Boise State and its SEC opener to South Carolina.

Tags:

NCF

Do the numbers back Taylor on Love's 'D'?

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
6:40
PM ET

Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsKevin Love had the allowed the third-fewest points per play on post-up plays in the NBA last season

Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor criticized Kevin Love's defense on ESPN Radio 1500 AM in the Twin Cities on Tuesday:

"I think where maybe he got away with some stuff not playing defense on our team, I'm not sure that's how it's going to work in Cleveland," Taylor said. "I would guess they're going to ask him to play more defense and he's foul prone."

Was Taylor right about Love’s defense?


Love doesn’t defend the rim
According to NBA.com player tracking data, Love was the worst rim protector in the NBA last season. He allowed a 57.4 field goal percentage at the rim, worst in the league among players to defend at least six shots per game.

But that doesn't tell the entire story...


But Love can defend the post
Love may have struggled protecting the rim, but he was actually a good one-on-one defender. On post-up plays, Love allowed the third-fewest points per play, minimum 200 plays.

It’s not Love’s fault
Love actually led the Timberwolves in defensive win shares last season with 3.7. Defensive win shares are an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes to his team due to his defense.

Since Love entered the NBA in 2008-09, he hasn’t had a single teammate ranked in the top 25 in defensive win shares. Only once has one of his teammates even ranked in the top 50 (Ricky Rubio was 29th last season, just behind Love).

With Love on the court last season, the Timberwolves allowed 104.1 points per 100 possessions. With Love off the court, they allowed 104.2 points per 100 possessions. Based on those numbers, it’s hard to say that Love was the reason why the team struggled defensively.

Foul prone? No way, Glen
Taylor also said that Love is “foul prone” and the numbers totally disagree with him about that.

In fact, Love only sent his opponents to the free throw line on 5.4 percent of his plays as on-ball defender last season, the second-lowest rate in the league, minimum 800 plays.

On post-up plays, Love was the best in the league at defending without fouling last season. He sent his opponents to the free throw line on just 5.8 percent of the post-up plays he defended, the lowest rate in the league among players to defend at least 100 plays.

Love hasn't fouled out of a game since his rookie season -- that's 319 straight games without fouling out.
Tags:

NBA

How will life after Manziel & Clowney go?

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
9:45
AM ET
In two years with Johnny Manziel, no SEC team accumulated more yards than Texas A&M. In three years with Jadeveon Clowney, no SEC team forced more turnovers than South Carolina. With both stars having left for the NFL, both sides have a lot of questions to answer this season, starting in tonight’s season opener in Columbia (6 ET on SEC Network).

Texas A&M’s Offense: Life after Manziel
A youth movement is underway in College Station, as the Aggies replace three first-round draft picks: Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. But through Kevin Sumlin’s recruiting and offensive track record, Texas A&M’s offense should remain very talented and dangerous.

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill was just a three-star recruit, but so was the man he is replacing, Manziel. In very limited time last season, Hill was effective, completing 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown in parts of four games. He also offers mobility, rushing for 37 yards on six carries.

Hill will be surrounded by young talent in the skill positions and experience up front. In the last three recruiting classes, Texas A&M signed 10 offensive players ranked in the top 100 of the ESPN 300. Only Alabama signed more players in that span.

And despite losing back-to-back top-six draft picks at offensive tackle, the Aggies return four offensive line starters, including tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, who is the second-ranked player on Mel Kiper’s 2015 Big Board.

But Aggies fans' best reason for optimism is Sumlin’s offensive track record. Since he took the Houston job in 2008, his teams have finished in the top 11 in total offense every season. Including his career as Oklahoma offensive coordinator, he has started five freshmen or sophomores at quarterback, and three finished in the top seven in QBR in FBS.


South Carolina’s Defense: Life after Clowney
Just as Texas A&M loses the face of its offense, South Carolina’s defense loses its most well-known star in Clowney. The top pick in the NFL draft was not as productive last season, recording just three sacks. But a closer look at the numbers shows the impact he and the rest of the defensive line had, and how it may be difficult for South Carolina to replace.

Clowney said last offseason that opposing quarterbacks were scared of him, and the numbers support that. South Carolina’s defense allowed an SEC-low 21.9 QBR, largely due to forcing 30 turnovers. Quarterbacks also averaged just 6.2 air yards per pass attempt against the Gamecocks, shortest among Power 5 conference teams.

However, despite Clowney’s presence, South Carolina’s defense has actually trended down. Each of the past two seasons, it has allowed more yards per game and per play than the year prior. Last year, the Gamecocks allowed 5.5 yards per play, ninth in the SEC.

For South Carolina to not fall off without Clowney and company, it must prove that it can either continue to force turnovers at a similar rate or that it can slow offenses down without them.
Tags:

NCF, SEC

Andrelton Simmons still amazing on D

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
12:37
AM ET
video Cue up the Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel comparisons one more time for Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Simmons made one of the best defensive plays by an infielder this season, throwing out Travis d’Arnaud at first base from deep in the shortstop-third base hole, with the tying run at third base and two outs in the eighth inning, and the Braves clinging to a one-run lead over the New York Mets.

The Braves would hang on for a one-run win, and though Craig Kimbrel was credited with the save, it was Simmons who was the game’s true closer.

Simmons doesn’t have the eye-popping stats he had at shortstop a year ago, but the Gold Glove is still highly likely to be his. He entered Wednesday tied with Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart for the major-league lead with 21 Defensive Runs Saved at the position in 2014.

The play Simmons made is the kind on which he excels unlike anyone else.

Baseball Info Solutions has a plus-minus system in which it looks at balls hit to different areas of the field and rates how much above or below average a player is against those balls.

Simmons is 24 plays better than average against balls hit in the area defined as the shortstop-third base hole (he finished last season a hair above that, at 27 plays above average). By comparison, Cozart is tied with Alexi Amarista for second-best among the 10 shortstops with the most Defensive Runs Saved this season. They rate only seven plays better than average on balls hit to that area.

We mentioned Simmons’ two-year run at the position. In that span, he has 62 Defensive Runs Saved. Next-most is 58 by Mets centerfielder Juan Lagares.

Simmons wasn’t the only great defender to make a key contribution in this game.

Braves rightfielder Jason Heyward led off the game with a home run for the fourth time this season and the second time against Mets starter Zack Wheeler, who had his streak of six straight winning decisions snapped.

Heyward will likely do what Simmons did last season: lead the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. His 33 are three more than Lagares currently has this season.
Tags:

MLB

Gordon a huge loss for Browns

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
1:08
PM ET

DavidDermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesJosh Gordon led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards last season.
With Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon suspended for the 2014 NFL season, Stats & Info examines Gordon’s accomplishments in historical context before delving into the impact of his loss on the Browns.

Out for season
Gordon will be the first player since Jim Brown to not play the season after leading the league in receiving or rushing yards. Brown retired after leading the NFL in rushing in 1965. Gordon is the sixth All-Pro player to face a suspension of one year or more from the NFL and the first since Ricky Williams in 2006.

Outstanding in 2013
Despite missing the first two games of the 2013 season, Gordon led the league in receiving yards with 1,646, setting a Browns single-season record in the process. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Gordon was the second-youngest player in NFL history to lead the league in receiving yards at age 22. Only Billy Howton of the 1952 Packers did so at a younger age.

The Browns found a receiving threat in Gordon that had been lacking for some time. Gordon was the first Browns player to lead any league in receiving yards in 64 years. Mac Speedie led the All-America Football Conference with 1,028 yards in 1949. Before Gordon, no Browns wide receiver had a 1,000-yard receiving season or made the Pro Bowl since 2007.

Gordon had a two-game run that was particularly outstanding. In Weeks 12 and 13, Gordon became the first player in NFL history with consecutive 200-yard receiving games, setting the Browns' single-game record for receiving yards (237 and 261) twice in consecutive weeks. Per Elias, his 498 yards over that tremendous two-game span was the most in NFL history.

Career in context
Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, only two players have had more receiving yards in their first two seasons than Josh Gordon: Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. To give you an idea of what kind of career trajectory Gordon was on -- Rice is the all-time leader in receiving yards, while Moss ranks third on that list.

Gordon’s 1,646 receiving yards were the third most in a player's second NFL season in league history. The last player to eclipse 1,600 yards in his second NFL season was Torry Holt with the Rams in 2000 (1,635).

Impact on Browns
The Browns' offense relied heavily on Gordon last season, as he accounted for nearly 38 percent of their receiving yards. He had over 600 more receiving yards last season than the rest of the Browns' wide receivers combined. The 1,029 yards amassed by the rest of Cleveland's receivers combined would have ranked 24th in the league among individual receivers, one spot behind Michael Floyd (1,041) and one ahead of Brian Hartline (1,016).

Browns quarterbacks got more out of Josh Gordon than any other receiving option by far. Gordon was tied with Jordy Nelson for the most 30-yard receptions last season. The rest of the Browns' receivers had 11 such receptions combined. When throwing to Gordon, Browns quarterbacks averaged 10.7 yards per target, compared to 5.6 yards per target when throwing to all other pass-catchers.

With Gordon out, the Browns will have to rely on returning Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron as well as offseason additions Miles Austin and Nate Burleson in the passing game. But truthfully, a talent like Gordon is immensely difficult to duplicate or replace.

Top stats to know: Yankees at Tigers

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
12:47
PM ET
ESPN Stats & InformationMiguel Cabrera is not as good against the inner-half fastball as he was in 2013.
The Detroit Tigers host the New York Yankees in the second game of their three-game series on “Wednesday Night Baseball” (7 ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). The Tigers took the first game of the series Tuesday as Rick Porcello earned his 15th win of the season, tied for the most in Major League Baseball.

Price changing pace

David Price will make his fifth start for the Tigers since being acquired from the Rays on July 31, and so far, his changeup has keyed his success in the Motor City (see chart).

Hitters have combined to bat .089 (4-for-45) against Price with just one extra-base hit in at-bats ending in a changeup since the trade. That’s the lowest opponent batting average against changeups by any pitcher since Aug. 1 (min. 20 batters faced).

It’s been quite a turnaround for Price as opponents hit .300 (36-for-120) against his changeup in 23 starts with Tampa Bay this season.

Cabrera’s power outage

Miguel Cabrera is on pace to hit .300 or better for the sixth straight season, but he’s not doing it with the power he has in years past. Consider the following:

• Cabrera hasn’t homered since Aug. 2 and ranks sixth on his team in slugging since hitting that home run (.350).

• Since the All-Star break, Cabrera has just 10 extra-base hits -- 3 HRs and 7 doubles -- which works out to an extra-base hit every 17 plate appearances. Cabrera recorded an extra-base hit every nine plate appearances in 2013.

• Cabrera has four homers and is slugging .525 with runners in scoring position this season. Last season, Cabrera hit 18 homers and slugged .782 in the same situations.

The biggest reason for the decline has been Cabrera’s inconsistency against pitches on the inner half of the plate, particularly fastballs. Cabrera is slugging .589 against fastballs on the inner half this season with six home runs. In 2013, Cabrera slugged .788 with 18 home runs on such pitches, both of which led the majors.

Another rookie start for Yankees

Rookie right-hander Shane Greene gets the ball for New York on Wednesday, and it would mark the 53rd start this season by a Yankees rookie.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s easily the most in baseball. Perhaps amazingly, the Bombers are 33-19 in games started by rookies this season (.635). Meanwhile, the Yankees are just 35-43 in all other games in 2014 (.449).

In Greene’s only career appearance against the Tigers, the righty earned the win after throwing eight shutout innings with five strikeouts on Aug. 7 at Yankee Stadium. Greene will be on the road Wednesday, but the righty has been even better away from the Bronx, going 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA in four road starts this season.

Alex Gordon for MVP?

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
12:10
AM ET
The Kansas City Royals have an MVP candidate, albeit one without the super-flashy numbers. And now he has a signature hit, the kind that make differences in close races for division titles, like the one the Royals are locked in right now.
Alex Gordon
Gordon
Alex Gordon's walk-off home run gave the Royals a 2-1 come-from-behind win over the Minnesota Twins and kept their AL Central lead at 1½ games.

What makes Gordon a viable candidate alongside the Mike Trout’s of the world?

How he has hit
Gordon has respectable offensive numbers: a .283 batting average, .810 OPS and 16 home runs. Eight of those long balls have come against left-handed pitching (including Tuesday’s against Glenn Perkins), matching the most he has had against lefties in a single season.

As the Royals have surged, so too has Gordon. He has a .314/.368/.545 slashline in 33 games since July 22. His slugging percentage and OPS in that span ranked sixth-best in the American League at the game’s conclusion. The Royals are 25-8 in that span, easily the best record in baseball.

How he fields
It is on the defensive side where Gordon separates himself. His 22 defensive runs saved are the most any American League player at any position. Those come from a combination of his throwing arm and his ability to turn batted balls into outs.

With regards to the former, Gordon only has four outfield assists, after totaling 27 the previous two seasons, but there’s a reason for that. No one runs on him.

Only 19 percent of baserunners have taken an extra base on Gordon (in other words, gone first to third or second to home on a single, or first to home on a double). That’s half the rate of the average left fielder and accounts for more than one-third of Gordon’s defensive runs saved total.

In terms of the latter, this is an area in which Gordon has made significant improvements to his game. He has 12 defensive runs saved due to his range after totaling 13 the previous two seasons. It helps to have two fantastic defenders alternating in center field in Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain, who have combined for 27 defensive runs saved of their own.

The whole package
Some may scoff at the notion that Gordon ranks fourth among position players in the American League with 5.5 wins above replacement.

But the legitimacy of his value is that an outfielder who combines Gordon’s skills is hard to find.

He’s one of only two players in the sport with at least an .800 OPS and 20 defensive runs saved this season, along with Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson. Only two players hit that combo last season- Carlos Gomez and Shane Victorino.

And though it’s a small sample, it’s worth noting that when Gordon doesn’t start this season, the Royals have struggled, with one win in six games.
Tags:

MLB

Tillman stepping up into ace role

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
12:26
AM ET
Yes, the Baltimore Orioles hit five home runs in their win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night.

But also noteworthy was the continued run of terrific pitching by Orioles starter Chris Tillman.
Chris Tillman
Tillman
Tillman allowed one unearned run in seven innings, lowering his ERA in five August starts to 1.26. He ranks second in the majors for the month in both ERA and WHIP (0.65) and could move up to the top spot if the Orioles beat up on Rays starter Alex Cobb (1.04 ERA in August) on Tuesday.

As the Orioles move closer to an AL East title, Tillman looks to be moving closer to being known as a bona-fide ace.

How he’s winning
Tillman is a pitcher who tends to live up in (and above) the strike zone. In this five-start run, he has netted 66 outs and yielded only 11 hits and walks on pitches in that area.

That ratio changes to 34-to-1 if we change our parameter to the upper-third of the zone and above.

The biggest improvement that Tillman has made within this month-long stint is in his walk rate, as noted in the chart on the right. Tillman's first-pitch strike rate, which was 57 percent the first four months of the season, is 64 percent in August. He threw a first-pitch strike to 18 of 25 hitters on Monday.

Tillman also has gotten a fair amount of cooperation from his defense. He has allowed only 17 percent of opposing hitters who put the ball in play (in other words, not hit homers) to reach base.

That may stem from the fact that opponents are not hitting the ball hard against him.

A video-tracking service, which rates each batted ball as hard, medium or soft-hit and provides that data to teams and media, has Tillman with a hard-hit rate of 9 percent this month, fifth-lowest among starting pitchers (the average pitcher allows hard-hit contact in 15 to 16 percent of his at-bats).

Tillman did allow a hard-hit ball to Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, one that center fielder Adam Jones made a homer-robbing catch on and subsequently turned into a double play.

Jones has seven home-run robberies over the past six seasons. Only Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez has more in that stretch, with 11.

The quirk
One odd nugget when it comes to Tillman’s performance us looking at his home-road splits.

Tillman is 4-5 at home, but with a 2.54 ERA. His ERA is considerably higher on the road (4.34), but his record is much better (7-0).

There’s still time for his record to catch up to his performance. Four of his next five starts should come at Camden Yards.

Ace-worthy?
How does Tillman stack up against other playoff-contending No. 1 pitchers?

His 3.41 ERA this season would rank fourth-best among starting pitchers on the Tigers and third-best on the Athletics, and it’s fair to say he’s not in the same class as the likes of David Price, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Sonny Gray.

But he stacks up well alongside pitchers such as James Shields of the Royals and Jered Weaver of the Angels.

The one thing that those two have which Tillman doesn’t is postseason experience. Shields and Weaver have a combined 10 postseason starts. Tillman should get his first chance at October glory in about five weeks.

SEC leads tight race in Power Rankings

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
1:36
PM ET

Joe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesWith a new college football postseason format comes a new trophy for the national champion
With the dawn of the college football playoff, conference strength will be examined more closely than ever before.

As the selection committee has noted, strength of schedule will be a factor in their decision making process. That means that both out-of-conference and in-conference schedules will be examined.

Tom Osborne, former Nebraska coach and a member of the selection committee, noted, “A lot of teams are going to be at the mercy of the strength of their conference.”

After all, at least one of the Power Five conferences will not have a team selected into the playoff.

Given the increased importance of conference strength, it is time to bring back ESPN Stats & Information’s conference power rankings.

What are the Conference Power Rankings?
Over the past few years ESPN Stats & Information has published weekly rankings of the FBS conferences during the college football season. The formula was originally crafted by then-Analytics Specialist Albert Larcada and has been adapted over the years.

In 2014, the formula is an equal blend of the rankings from the AP Poll (including the others receiving votes section) and ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI).

The AP Poll will not only add a human element to the rankings, but it will also measure the relative strength of the top schools in each conference. Conversely, the Football Power Index will measure the relative strength of every team in the country to determine conference power from top to bottom. For more information on FPI, click here.

The AP Poll and FPI will be weighed equally and the results will be calculated on a 0-100 scale in order to determine the best and worst conferences in the FBS.

SEC Leads Preseason Rankings
It should not be surprising that the SEC leads the conference power rankings after finishing at the top of these rankings in all four years of their existence.

The SEC begins the season with eight teams ranked in the preseason AP Poll, including five teams ranked in the top 13.

After having the most players selected in the NFL Draft for an eighth straight year, the SEC is ready to reload with more ESPN 300 players signed in the past two years (235) than the next two conferences combined.

However, the Pac-12 is gaining ground. After finishing last year in a distant second (14.1 point differential), the Pac-12 begins the 2014 season just 4.1 points behind the SEC as the top conference in the FBS.


USA TODAY SportsHeisman hopefuls Marcus Mariota (left) and Brett Hundley (right)


A lot of the Pac-12’s strength is based on the projected strength of its offenses. Ten of 12 starting quarterbacks from the Pac-12 return in 2014, including Heisman favorites Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley.

In comparison, only six of the SEC’s 14 starting quarterbacks from a year ago return, which leaves gaping holes for top teams such as Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M.

Some believe that this is the first time in years that the Pac-12 makes a legitimate run at the SEC for the top conference in the nation.

Elsewhere in the rankings, the Big 12 comes in as the third-best conference in the country, largely because of its depth in comparison to the Big Ten and ACC.

Many would expect the Big Ten to slide in the rankings after the news of Braxton Miller's injury. The conference actually did not take too big of a hit because Ohio State remained in the top 15 in FPI even when accounting for its new starting quarterback.

However, the component of these rankings that measures the AP Poll remained unchanged. To give an idea of what a drop in the AP Poll would mean: if Ohio State falls to 10th in the AP Poll, the Big Ten would lose an additional three points in the conference power rankings.

Among Power Five conferences, the ACC is considered the weakest by both the AP Poll and FPI. That means that if the top four conferences place a team in the playoff, it would leave the ACC on the outside looking in. Yet, there is a lot more that goes into those decisions, including the fact that the ACC has the clear No. 1 team in the country. Florida State received 57 of 60 first place votes in the AP Poll and has by far the best chance (39 percent) to finish the season undefeated according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

However, what if Florida State loses a conference game? Does the relative strength of the ACC come into play? Similarly, what if Marshall from Conference USA or Houston from the American Athletic Conference finish the season undefeated? Does the fact that they played in weaker conferences exclude them from the playoff?

All of these questions may arise throughout the season. Stay tuned after an exciting Week 1 of non-conference matchups that could significantly impact the conference power rankings going forward.


Kernels: Capitol Gains

August, 24, 2014
Aug 24
9:04
PM ET

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesThe Nationals won via walk-off five times this week.
Congress always takes an extra-long recess in August because Washington gets really hot in the summer. Our weekly look at the interesting and unusual in Major League Baseball concurs: Washington has been pretty hot in August.

After walk-off wins last weekend against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Washington Nationals ran that streak to three with Adam LaRoche's 11th-inning homer on Monday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. That gave the franchise just its second streak of three straight walk-offs, the other being July 26-28, 1988, against the Cubs and Cardinals (Mike Fitzgerald had two of those, one a pinch-hit grand slam). It was the team's first set of back-to-back walk-offs in the 11th or later since June 2009.

They weren't done. The Nats walked off twice more to close the Arizona series, with both game-ending hits by Anthony Rendon. In the process they became the first team with four walk-offs in five days since the Kansas City Royals did it from April 10-13, 2000 (Johnny Damon, Brian Johnson, Rey Sanchez, Carlos Beltran); and the first team with five in six days since the Houston Astros won five straight via walk-off from July 19-23, 1986.

Thursday's game was the franchise's first 1-0 win via walk-off since June 2011, and the first time they had won a game without an RBI since August 27, 1995. It was also the last in a 10-game win streak, tying the longest in the majors this year (Royals in June) and the longest in franchise history (last done in 2005).


"(R, Minnesota)"

No, not Republicans... runs. The Minnesota Twins piled up an MLB-season-high 20 in Friday's thumping of the Detroit Tigers. It was the team's highest run total since May 2009, and just the second time any team had scored 20 runs outdoors in Minneapolis. The Twins won a 20-11 slugfest with Oakland on April 27, 1980, at Metropolitan Stadium.

Five players scored three runs on Friday, the first time that's happened since the Cleveland Indians did it on April 18, 2009 (that's the game where they had a 14-run inning against the Yankees). The 20-6 game also came on the seventh anniversary of the Rangers' famous 30-3 win over the Orioles. (We predict a 10-9 game on August 22, 2021.)

Eduardo Escobar had five hits including a homer and a triple, the first player in the majors to do that this season, and just the second ever for Minnesota. Tim Teufel had two homers and a triple against Toronto on September 16, 1983. At the same time, Escobar committed two errors in the field, becoming (via Elias) the first player with five hits and two errors since Angel Berroa did it for the Royals in 2003.

Second baseman Andrew Romine pitched the ninth inning for Detroit, joining Danny Worth as Tigers position players to pitch this season. The last time the Tigers had two position players throw in the same year was in 1918. Player-manager Ty Cobb frequently put himself on the mound in the final game of the season if it didn't mean anything, and in that particular finale, left fielder Donny Veach relieved him.

Romine, for his part, gave up three runs including longballs by Oswaldo Arcia and Trevor Plouffe. He's the first position player to give up two homers in a game since outfielder Dane Iorg of the Padres did it in an 18-1 loss against the Giants on June 23, 1986.

The Twins added 12 more in the day game of Saturday's doubleheader, their first time scoring 12+ in consecutive games since September 13, 2008, when they swept a doubleheader in Baltimore. The 32 combined runs in two games were three shy of the franchise record. The Tigers then won 13-4 on Sunday, their most runs scored in Minnesota since July 4, 1999 (won 15-5). The 73 total runs were the most in any four-game series in over two years.

"(d, New York)"

The New York Mets have cornered the market on small "D"s over the last couple years, with Travis d'Arnaud, Jacob deGrom, and Matt den Dekker all on the 25-man roster at some point this season. That already made the Mets the first team with three "lowercase" players on the roster at once, but thanks to callups, injuries, and deGrom being a pitcher who only plays every five days, the three had never appeared in a game together. That changed Saturday when all of them started against the Dodgers, the first trio of lowercase players ever to appear in the same boxscore.

Top Stats to Know: Angels at Athletics

August, 24, 2014
Aug 24
4:14
PM ET

AP Photo/Ben MargotScott Kazmir is having a career year.

The Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland Athletics finish off their three-game series on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET on ESPN/WatchESPN) in a dead heat for the AL West crown.


On Saturday, the Athletics beat the Angels to tie them atop the AL West. Here are the top stats to know as these teams battle for the division lead.

AL West race tightens up

On June 21, the Angels were six games behind the Athletics, marking their largest deficit of the season. Since then, Los Angeles has gone 36-19, the best record in the American League in that span (the Nationals have also gone 36-19).

Oakland is just 29-24 in that span. However, the Athletics have dominated the head-to-head matchup this season, winning eight of their 11 meetings, including all five at home.

Sunday night's starters
Angels starter Jered Weaver has the third-most wins (126) and third-most strikeouts (1,362) in franchise history. Only Chuck Finley and Nolan Ryan have more. Weaver has a 3.70 ERA this season, on pace to be his worst since 2009. There’s been a significant dip in his average fastball velocity, down to 86.1 mph from 88.7 in 2009.

Only three qualified pitchers this season have a lower average fastball velocity (minimum 400 fastballs).



Athletics starter Scott Kazmir is having the best season of his career. His ERA (2.73), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.6) and opponent OPS (.608) are all career highs, as are his 14 wins. He’s really taken a step forward in his performance against right-handed hitters.

Kazmir has allowed a .618 OPS to right-handed batters this season, on pace to be the best of his career. The only qualified lefties who have allowed a lower OPS to righties this year are Clayton Kershaw (.556), Chris Sale (.604) and David Price (.617).

Trout struggling
All-Star Mike Trout has had a rough second half of the season thus far. Since the All-Star break, Trout’s batting average is down 81 points, his on-base percentage is down 96 points, and his slugging percentage is down 177 points. Part of the reason could be pitchers are starting to throw him more pitches up in the zone; 43.9 percent of the pitches Trout has seen in the second half have been in the upper half of the zone or higher. In the first half, only 38.7 percent of his pitches were in that location.

Doolittle lights out
Athletics closer Sean Doolittle is having an excellent season. Doolittle has a 16.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio, on pace to rank third in any season by a pitcher with at least 50 innings. No pitcher with a minimum of 50 innings throws strikes at a higher rate than Doolittle (75 percent).

After Sunday night, seven games remain between the Angels and Athletics. The Angels have four of those games at home, but are just 3-3 at home against the Athletics so far this season.

Gordon projected to win at Bristol

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
8:26
PM ET

Will Schneekloth/NASCAR/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon picked up his third win of the season last week at Michigan.
Here are the projections for Saturday's Sprint Cup race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC). Our projection system takes into account, among other factors, drivers’ past performances at the current track, prerace on-track activity (practices and qualifying) and probability of finishing the race. All of the data is then adjusted for the track type (in this case, a .533-mile oval short track) and time of year.

With three races remaining until the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set, all drivers who have won races so far have mathematically locked themselves into the Chase (as long as they attempt to qualify for the final races). At least one winless driver is now guaranteed to make the Chase, as the field of 16 will be rounded out with the winless drivers highest in points.

Jeff Gordon picked up his third win of the season last week at Michigan, giving him his 14th career three-win season. That moves him into sole possession of the second-most such seasons in Cup Series history, trailing only Richard Petty’s 20. Gordon’s win was his first at Michigan since 2001, and his last win at Bristol came in 2002.

Jimmie Johnson has been slumping despite being tied with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski for the NSCS lead in wins. In the last eight races, Johnson’s Hendrick teammates (Gordon, Earnhardt and winless Kasey Kahne) rank first, second and tied for third in most points earned -- Johnson ranks 26th during that span.

Kyle Busch has finished 42nd, 40th and 39th in the last three races -- the worst stretch of his Sprint Cup Series career. Saturday night's race at the bullring could be a turning point, however, as he’s won 26 percent of his Cup starts at Bristol (the second-highest mark all time behind Cale Yarborough’s 31 percent). Entering this week, Busch has won 16 times at Bristol across NASCAR’s top three series, the most all-time.

QUICK-HITTERS
• Kasey Kahne: Four straight top-10 finishes at Bristol (top-two in two of last three)
• Matt Kenseth: 579 laps led in last six Bristol races (leads all drivers)
• Brian Vickers: Five straight top-10 finishes at Bristol (zero in first 14 career Bristol races)
• Paul Menard: Four top-10s in his last five Bristol races (five top-10s at Bristol tied for his most at any track)
• Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Zero top-5 finishes in last 12 Bristol races (last top-5 came in March 2008)
• Kurt Busch: In five of his last six Bristol races, he's been 17th or worse (five Bristol wins, but last in 2006)
• Kevin Harvick: One top-10 finish in last 11 Bristol races (zero top-5s); 34th and 39th in last two Bristol races

Richards tough to replace for Angels

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
12:39
AM ET

AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Angels were 19-7 (.731) in games Garrett Richards started this season.
Los Angeles Angels pitcher Garrett Richards is expected to miss 6-9 months after an MRI exam Thursday revealed a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. He sustained the injury while running to cover first base in Wednesday’s start against the Boston Red Sox.

With Richards done for the year, let’s review his breakout season and his importance to the Angels.

Breakout season
Richards entered the season 9-9 with a 4.37 ERA in 29 career starts (167 innings), but the 26-year-old figured things out this year. Richards will finish the year 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA over 168 2/3 innings. In 1 2/3 more innings this year, he gave up 32 fewer runs as a starter than the previous three years.

He has become one of the best starters in the American League, ranking first in opponent slugging percentage (.261), second in opponent batting average (.201), eighth in ERA (.261), 10th in strikeout rate (24.2 percent) and sixth in ground-ball rate (51.3 percent).

Richards’ opponent slugging percentage is the fourth lowest in a season in Angels history and the lowest since Nolan Ryan in 1977. It’s also the third lowest by any pitcher in the last 20 seasons. The only two lower? Pedro Martinez (.259) in 2000 and Greg Maddux (.258) in 1995, both of whom went on to win Cy Young awards those years.

So just how did Richards put it together this season? His plus stuff finally started missing bats. From 2011 to '13, Richards’ strikeout rate was only 15.2 percent as a starter. That ranked 168th out of 230 pitchers who started at least 20 games over that span. This season, he has increased his strikeout rate to 24.2 percent, which ranks 16th out of 95 qualified starters. In fact, only one starter in baseball has increased his strikeout rate more than Richards from last season to this season (Brandon McCarthy 8.0 percentage points; Richards 7.9).

Importance to Angels
The Angels are 19-7 (.731) when Richards starts this season and 57-43 (.570) when anyone else does. According to Elias, the Angels' .731 win percentage with Richards on the mound is the best for any starter in the American League this season (minimum 15 starts).

Richards has been worth 4.4 Wins Above Replacement this season. Entering Thursday, all other Angels starters had been worth 3.3 WAR combined. The loss of Richards could have an effect on the Angels' bullpen as well. No bullpen has thrown more innings since the All-Star break than the Angels (122).

Replacing Richards
While it’s unclear who will take Richards’ spot in the rotation the rest of the season, the Angels will surely look for their other starters to step up, as Matt Shoemaker did Thursday night against the Red Sox.

Shoemaker no-hit the Red Sox through 6 2/3 innings and finished with 7 2/3 scoreless innings along with nine strikeouts. Since giving up a career-high eight runs against the Kansas City Royals on June 27, Shoemaker is 5-2 with a 2.51 ERA in seven starts.

What does Leonard Fournette bring to LSU?

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
12:05
PM ET

AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette ran for 7,619 yards and scored 88 rushing TDs in his high school career
In January, LSU landed the top recruit in the ESPN 300, running back Leonard Fournette. The New Orleans product was the first running back to top our rankings since Joe McKnight in 2007.

Fournette should be relied upon right away after the team lost lead back Jeremy Hill, who was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft by Cincinnati. Last season Hill ran for 1,401 yards while averaging a school-record 6.9 yards per carry (minimum 200 carries). However, given Fournette’s size, speed and pedigree, he should be able to step right in to fill Hill’s role, even as a true freshman.

Examining Fournette’s Role
Fournette’s upside was described this way by RecruitingNation.com. “If he can land in a downhill, two-back offense, we see big-time production at the next level.”

If that description is accurate, Fournette landed in the right place. No BCS-AQ (automatic qualifying) team ran more often in a two-back set than LSU last season.

LSU was also fourth among BCS-AQ teams in rushing yards between the tackles (136.4 yards per game).

Hill excelled in LSU’s downhill running scheme. He led all BCS-AQ backs, averaging 105.9 yards per game in two-back sets, and his average of 7.9 yards per carry between the tackles led BCS-AQ backs (minimum 50 carries).

With Hill gone, 203 carries have been freed up, with Fournette expected to take the majority of them. Physically, the two are very similar. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, the freshman is listed at one inch shorter and six pounds lighter than Hill. Yet Fournette has elite speed to go with that size. Last year, he ran a 10.68-second 100-meter dash to win Louisiana’s 4A regional title.

How Successful Can He Be?
Fournette will have help in the trenches. LSU returns four starters from an offensive line that carved big holes up the middle. Last season, the Tigers’ average of 3.9 yards before contact per carry on designed runs between the tackles was second-best among BCS-AQ teams.

Les Miles isn’t afraid to use freshmen running backs either. Two years ago, Hill led the team in rushing and set a school freshman record in touchdowns with 12. As the schedule got tougher, Miles rode his freshman more. In LSU’s last seven games – five against ranked opponents - Hill averaged 19.5 carries per game.

LSU did not sign a single running back in last year’s recruiting class primarily because of its pursuit of Fournette, so the Tigers should ride their freshman heavily. Over the last two seasons, four different SEC freshmen have rushed for 1,000 yards.

Only one Tiger freshman has rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, Justin Vincent in 2003. That year, Vincent was named most valuable player of LSU’s BCS Championship Game victory over Oklahoma. LSU hopes that Fournette can have a similar impact this season.

"We decided not to take a tailback," LSU head coach Les Miles said at his signing day press conference in February. "We will need a great one, one of those guys who has great speed, and ball skills and can run with power, and I'm thinking of him right now."

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