Vikings start out No. 23 in ESPN’s Football Power Index

vikingsESPN is touting a new power ranking formula for NFL teams called the Football Power Index. We’ll get more to what it is in a minute, but I won’t bury the most obvious part: the FPI (remember, that stands for Football Power Index and not Federal Ponder Inspector or some such thing) does not like the Vikings. Your purple, in fact, start the season No. 23 out of the 32 NFL teams in that rating.

The Vikings are predicted to have the No. 17 offense, No. 19 defense and No. 20 special teams. But that adds up to a minus-0.8 Football Power Index ranking, which is “the points above or below average a team is expected to be in the coming season,” per the site. And minus-0.8 is 23rd in the NFL.

The Packers, on the other hand, have the No. 1 offense, the No. 23 defense and No. 28 special teams but have the No. 1 overall FPI.

How does it work?

Each team’s FPI rating is composed of a predicted offensive, defensive and special teams efficiency, as measured by expected points added per play, and that rating is the basis for FPI’s game-level and season-level projections.

That’s sounds reasonable!

In the preseason, FPI uses a number of predictive factors to project future team strength. The main component of preseason FPI is Vegas expectations.

Hmmm, had me and lost me.

But relying solely on Vegas has its flaws, and more information is needed to determine what percentage of a team’s projected win total can be attributed to its offense, defense and special teams units — the components that make up FPI.

OK, I’m back!

To gather more information on each unit, ESPN polled a panel of NFL experts regarding the expected offensive, defensive and overall performances of teams for the upcoming season. Also added to the model are previous years’ efficiencies for each unit, number of returning starters (on offense and defense), coaching/coordinator/quarterback changes and quarterback injuries. After combining all of these factors, a preseason FPI rating is determined for each team, which represents the points above or below average a team is expected to be in the coming season. Preseason FPI will serve as the basis of the early-season predictions but will diminish in effect as the season progresses and we learn more about the actual strength of each team.

So the preseason number is a largely human and/or past-leaning construction that we shouldn’t pay too much attention to, particularly in relation to say, a mid-year ranking. That said, it’s probably also more relevant than the standard preseason predictions we have seen that indicate the Vikings will do well, which has been happening a lot this preseason.

The most instructive part to me is that if the preseason model is correct, this could be a year where almost every game comes down to five plays one way or the other. That’s the way it is for roughly 24 teams every year (four elites, four stinkers, the big squishy NFL middle), but it could be especially true of this year’s Vikings.

Then again, the fact that the NFL is such a crap shoot could mean predictive models like this are irrelevant.

With bi-weekly no-hitters in MLB, does anyone still care?

A no-hit bid in Major League Baseball, as recently as a decade ago, was a “drop what you’re doing” occasion for baseball fans — and the completion of a no-hitter was major news.

These days, the former is still somewhat true, particularly as social media speeds news of such a thing to more people — though I wouldn’t say it’s a “drop everything” moment. The latter? No-hitters register a ripple on the surprise meter instead of a spike. At the Star Tribune, it’s usually not even fodder for the cover of the sports section (as was the case with Monday’s paper, when the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta’s Sunday no-no didn’t crack the cover).

The simplest reason: no-hitters seem to happen a lot more often, and in reality they ARE happening more often. Arrieta’s no-hitter was the 6th one this season, all since June. We’re on an every-other-week schedule with no-hitters over the past few months, turning them from exceptional acts into relatively routine occurrences.

There have already been 30 no-hitters from 2010-present after there were only 15 in the entire last decade. Historically, there is an ebb and flow — there were 31 in the 1990s but just 13 in the 1980s — but we are at an unusually high peak right now at five per season so far this decade, as illustrated by this graphic of no-hitters by decade since 1920, the start of the Live Ball Era:

There are some mitigating circumstances within that chart, with the biggest being that there used to be far fewer games played (the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were played with 16 teams and a 154-game schedule, meaning there were roughly half as many games as there are today). The 1960s offer the only real comparison to this decade in terms of no-hitter frequency, with 34 no-hitters in about two-thirds the number of games played per year as now (putting that decade on pace for about five per season instead of 3.4 in an equal number of games).

The 1960s brought a dramatic change when the mound was lowered after the 1968 season because pitchers were so dominant. The 2010s are a similarly dominant era for pitchers, brought about by different factors:

*The end of the Steroid Era, generally agreed to have happened around the late 2000s, brought offensive numbers down. Juiced up pitchers were certainly part of that era, too, but hitters arguably reaped the greater benefit.

*Pitchers are nastier. While it’s hard to quantify whether sliders, cutters and other breaking pitches are getting better, the eye test seems to suggest it. What’s not hard to quantify is that pitchers are throwing harder. Thanks to PITCHf/x data, we know that hurlers averaged 89.9 mph on fastballs in 2002, 90.9 mph in 2008 and 92.0 in 2013.

*Batters are not afraid of striking out. There are way more strikeouts then their used to be. Some of it is because, as noted, pitchers are nastier. Some of it, though, is that batters are no longer faced with a stigma of being strikeout-prone. On-base percentage and slugging percentage are valued more than batting average and putting the ball in play. Consider: In 2005, MLB teams struck out an average of 1,021 times a season. In 2014, that number was 1,248. Fewer balls in play means fewer chances for a flare to the outfield or an infield single that stymies a no-hit bid before it starts.

*This is just a guess, but I also have to imagine defensive shifts have played a role in all of this. Better scouting about where batters are getting their hits — and positioning defensive players in non-traditional spots to eliminate those hits — would seem to increase the odds of a no-hitter.

All of that is the “why.” The gist of the original question was, “Are they still special?” To that, I would say: no-hitters still resonate with fans, but not in the same way they used to. Watching the end of one is still good theater, but the accomplishment itself has certainly lost its “wow” factor.

Joe Mauer has never batted with fewer runners on base than in 2015

The Twins don’t have a bad offense. It could be considered inconsistent, but heading into Friday’s they’ve scored 553 runs — tied for 10th in the majors with Houston, a team they coincidentally will face starting tonight in a three-game series at Target Field.

But there is one somewhat strange thing about this year’s Twins: in spite of Joe Mauer’s overall struggles, he’s hitting .354 with runners in scoring position … yet his RBI pace (54) is so sluggish that it compares to last year (55) in almost an identical number of plate appearances (520 this year to 518 last year) even though he hit .290 with RISP a year ago.

It prompted me to take a deeper look into the numbers, and this stood out: Mauer has batted, as a percentage, with fewer runners on base than in any season in his career (excluding 2004, when he had just 122 PAs) and the only other season he hit less often (again by percentage) with runners in scoring position was 2013.

Here’s a year-by-year breakdown since 2004:

Mauer this season has come to the plate with a runner on base just 40.4 percent of his plate appearances; compare that to last season when it was 46.5; four other season in his career when it topped 48 percent; and his career mark of 46 percent … and the picture starts to become more clear.

Sure, Mauer would be driving in more runs in general if his overall numbers were better (he does, after all, have a career-low OPS+ right now). But in fairness, his RBI total is at least somewhat circumstantial. In terms of raw numbers instead of percentages, he has batted 21 fewer times with runners in scoring position and 31 fewer times with any runner on base than he did in 2014, again with the PAs being nearly identical.

A big part of the problem: Twins leadoff hitters have a .299 OBP this year, and their No. 2 hitters are at .303 (whereas last year those numbers were .328 and .358). Compound that with the fact that Brian Dozier, who has typically hit ahead of Mauer, is the team leader with 26 homers (not at all a problem, but a thing that clears the bases), and it’s not hard to see why Mauer has had fewer chances.

Given the same number of chances he had even a year ago, with that robust .354 average with RISP that he has this year, it’s not crazy to think that Mauer would have another 10 runs batted in and be in the mid-60s — not far off from Trevor Plouffe’s team-leading 70.

Herrmann pinch-hitting for Buxton: a multi-layered debate

buxtonTwins manager Paul Molitor pinch hit for Byron Buxton with two outs in the ninth in a 5-4 game Thursday, opting for light-hitting catcher Chris Herrmann in a move that amounted, basically, to a gut instinct. Said Molitor after the game: “I thought the best chance was to get someone else up there and give him some swings, given the way his night had gone.”

Indeed, Buxton to that point was 0-for-4 with four strikeouts — a raw statistical line that doesn’t even quite capture the depth of how bad the rookie looked at the plate in those four at bats.

Still, the dominant reaction on Twitter at the time it was happening was that Molitor was making a mistake (this is the polite version). When Herrmann struck out to end the game, it added fuel to the fire. With more than 12 hours passed since that finish, I wanted to take one more look at the decision because it’s one of those decisions that can be examined from a lot of angles.

*Buxton is a right-handed batter, and he was set to face a right-handed pitcher, Brad Boxberger. In his brief MLB career, Buxton has had better success against righties (13-for-50) than lefties (3-for-21), but in his minor league career Buxton does hit lefties better. In 2014-15 combined, Buxton is 32-for-90 (.356) against lefties and 86-for-326 (.264) against righties.

*Herrmann is a lefty, which plays into a traditional right-lefty matchup advantage for the Twins. And while Herrmann’s career major league splits are pretty bad against both righties and lefties, he does hit righties better. However, Boxberger is actually much tougher on lefties than he is on righties. In his career, Boxberger has faced both sides almost equally (351 PAs vs. righties, 329 vs. lefties) and allowed a .730 OPS to righties as opposed to pretty stingy .577 against lefties — quite possibly because he throws a lot of changeups, which dive down and away to lefties but flow back into the swing of righties.

*Boxberger has also allowed 77 walks in 164.1 career innings, with 46 of them coming to righties. Buxton doesn’t walk much, but in their minor league careers Buxton and Herrmann have pretty similar walk rates. Herrmann runs well for a catcher; Buxton is one of the fastest baserunners I’ve ever seen. If either gets on base, Buxton is the one that’s more dangerous when it comes to stealing and/or scoring. Herrmann, a fringe major leaguer, had a career minor league slugging percentage of .384; Buxton’s is .489. Buxton has slugged a paltry .296 in his brief major league career, but that’s almost the same as Herrmann’s .294.

*So in the long view, Buxton lacks major league experience but can still be considered a more accomplished hitter who has a better chance of getting an extra base hit or of turning a single/walk into a run than Herrmann, and he would have been hitting against a pitcher who struggles more against righties than lefties.

*But the move was not made in the long view. If given the choice between Buxton and Herrmann in a vacuum, you take Buxton 100 out of 100 times. The ninth inning of a one-run game in which Buxton has struck out four times, however, is not a vacuum. It’s real life, and it’s a small sample size with relevance. When pitchers have bad games — even great ones — they get taken out. We wouldn’t groan (at least most of us wouldn’t) if a scuffling Kyle Gibson was removed in favor of a healthy J.R. Graham, even though in a vacuum we all know who the more accomplished pitcher is.

Buxton looked completely lost at the plate (the four strikeouts took just 17 pitches), and pinch-hitting for him had merit. The biggest issue is that Herrmann was the replacement; given his lack of options, Molitor might have just stuck with Buxton or tried righty Eduardo Nunez. All that said, it came down to a matter of gut, feel for the game and Buxton’s earlier struggles. Molitor’s moves have been pretty savvy most of the year, so if there’s a benefit of the doubt he has earned it — though in this case, he also earned the criticism.

Here’s the story of the twins who own twins.com instead of the Twins

My head is still spinning from all of the twists and turns in the story of Durland and Darvin Miller — and the great mystery unraveled, for the most part by Grantland.com.

Like many people, I occasionally forget that the domain for Minnesota Twins’ web site is twinsbaseball.com — and not, in fact, the simpler and cleaner Twins.com that MLB would rather it be. And so I type in Twins.com, and I see what I always see: D&D Miller, a site under construction.

The bullet points from the story:

*Durland and Darvin are, in fact, twins. They grabbed the domain in 1995 and they got it for free!

*Durland and Darvin are, in fact Twins fans!

*Plenty of people have tried to get them to sell the domain, including Major League Baseball Advanced Media, to no avail. But there’s hope?

Let’s let Grantland explain a little:

Durland and Darvin, born and raised in San Jose, are Twins fans. Not because they are Twins, or because they bought Twins.com. Either of those explanations would make too much sense. They’re Twins fans because their father is from Minnesota, where much of their family still lives.

“Years ago we’d actually reached out to the Twins, saying, ‘Hey, we have this [website], and we’re not really using it, maybe we could work out a deal,'” Durland says. “And they just never really followed through on it. But certainly, if the right offer came around, we’d sell.”

An MLBAM spokesperson confirms that there has been “direct outreach [to the twins] from in-house,” but that the talks have never resulted in the right price. The Millers seem to prefer that the outreach originate with their team, not the league. “We’ve just never been approached by anybody directly associated with the Minnesota Twins,” Durland says. “It’s always been through some other party trying to probably broker a deal, or commission a deal.” Judging by my own initial efforts to contact the Millers, the indirect approach doesn’t work. If MLB is serious about acquiring Twins.com, Twins president Dave St. Peter might have to fly to California and knock on Durland and Darvin’s door.

There’s really so much more to the entire story, though. Please do give it a read.

Escobar, Suzuki and Jepsen: Revisiting the Twins at the trade deadline

suzukiescobarThe wisdom of crowds — and statistics — suggested the Twins had three major areas that they either could or should address as last month’s non-waiver trade deadline approached: shortstop, catcher and the bullpen.

Kurt Suzuki, after a nice first half of 2014 that netted him an All-Star appearance at Target Field, dropped off considerably in the second half and had a .590 OPS  in late July this year — nearly 100 points below the MLB average for a catcher.

At shortstop, the Twins had started with Danny Santana and tried both Eduardo Escobar and Eduardo Nunez. They even gave Jorge Polanco a brief audition. Santana was a disaster at the plate and in the field (16 errors in 64 starts). None of the others had distinguished themselves in 2015 as a clear-cut starter, with Escobar’s offensive numbers lagging after a strong 2014 season holding down the position. Escobar’s OPS of .653 in late July was about 30 points below the league average for shortstops.

And the bullpen, after good work during the Twins’ hot 42-game stretch early in the season, was fading. Glen Perkins, nearly unhittable before the All-Star break, blew two saves and took two losses between July 18 and July 28. Their bullpen ERA in June was 4.38 and in July it was 4.15.

Of those three areas, of course, the Twins upgraded just one at the deadline — and one that appeared tepid, at best, when they grabbed righthanded reliever Kevin Jepsen from Tampa Bay.

It is a cliche to suggest that the best trades are sometimes the ones you don’t make, but in the case of the Twins and their approach to shortstop and catcher, it appears to be true. And in the case of Jepsen, the trade has had a far greater impact than most of us initially thought it would.

I don’t know exactly how close the Twins were to making moves at catcher or shortstop or really who was available for what price. What I do know is that if the Twins took a calculated risk that Suzuki and Escobar had underperformed to that point in the season and were therefore statistically likely to surge after the deadline — therefore providing the kind of upgrade they could have hoped for in a trade — it paid off in both cases.

Escobar is the most dramatic example. Even before his two-homer game Wednesday, his August OPS was .812 as he claimed a much stronger hold on the shortstop job. With Thursday factored in, Escobar since the trade deadline is now slashing .292/.554/.915 and has his overall season OPS (though not all at-bats came as a shortstop) is up to .712 — about 30 points higher now than the MLB average for a shortstop.

OPS is not an end-all stat, but it is a good reference point for offensive success. Suzuki had a .690 career OPS going into this season. Much of that was bolstered by better seasons at the plate earlier in his career than in recent years, but his .727 mark last season at least gave the Twins hope that his .590 pre-deadline mark was bound to improve. That is exactly what has happened so far. Suzuki’s slash line of .279/.361/.694 since the trade deadline won’t win him any awards, but it compares reasonably well to the MLB averages for catchers in 2015: .240/.382/.685. He’s had several clutch hits this month — yes, those can be circumstantial, particularly in a small sample — including a huge two-run single to rally the Twins over Baltimore in the second game of what has become a six-game winning streak.

The bullpen help offered by Jepsen has proven to be the thing the Twins really needed to go outside the organization to get. It’s not to say they couldn’t be where they are now without it, but it’s hard to imagine navigating the past few weeks — in particular the last week with Glen Perkins unavailable much of the time with neck and back issues — without Jepsen. Since his forgettable first outing with the Twins (two runs allowed in just 1/3 of an inning), he’s been lights out. He’s pitched in a rather remarkable 13 games in the last 23 days (Aug. 4 through Wednesday) with this line: 12.1 IP, 5 hits, 0 runs, 2 BB, 10 Ks, 2 holds, 3 saves.

Included in that: Jepsen has pitched in each of the Twins’ last five games, all wins. All three saves have come in the last five games. Two were one-run wins and another was a two-run win, and he has had 1-2-3 innings in all of them. He also pitched in the other two games, finishing the 11-7 win with a scoreless ninth and providing a scoreless 10th in the 12-inning win at Baltimore. So yes, imagine this winning streak without Jepsen. Does it happen? Doubtful.

Long story short: While many of us ripped the Twins for not doing enough at the deadline while other teams made splashy moves, their one lower-key move to get Jepsen (added to in August during the waiver trade period with the Neal Cotts acquisition) and faith in their in-house talent has put them (for now) in prime postseason position.

Curt Schilling pulled from multiple ESPN assignments after tweet

It’s only been a month since I checked in with former MLB pitcher and current ESPN analyst Curt Schilling, who stirred the pot here with some comments about Kirby Puckett’s character.

He remained adamant at that time that he was a person who was going to speak his mind, saying, “I’ve never tried to make people like me — and I’ve never tried to make people dislike me. I’ve just tried to be honest to myself.”

If that was a regional story, Schilling now finds himself in a national controversy — and one impacting his job. After a tweet comparing Muslims and Nazis, Schilling has been taken off both the Little League World Series and this weekend’s Sunday Night Baseball telecast.

Schilling took the tweet down pretty quickly after it went out, but the Internet has no magic eraser. This latest flap is enough to make someone as prominent as Dan Patrick wonder when ESPN will say enough is enough.

Does Miguel Sano have a shot at AL Rookie of the Year?

miguelsanoMiguel Sano is a lot of things already, after only 45 major league games. He’s the Twins’ most dangerous hitter (we could argue this, but his approach, power and the way he’s pitched indicate it’s true). He’s a middle-of-the-order savior. He’s everything advertised and more.

But prompted by a tweet from Judd Zulgad last night indicating he thinks Sano is the choice for AL Rookie of the Year if the Twins make the postseason, I had to take a closer look at whether Sano is really a prime contender for that award.

First, the good: Sano is mashing. Of MLB rookies with at least 150 plate appearances this season, he’s first in OPS and slugging percentage. He has 12 homers — five of them on this road trip, trying his best to keep the Twins in the race. By sheer production alone, even in a small sample size, he’s making himself a factor.

Now, the bad news: there are a few pretty big obstacles in Sano’s way when it comes to the Rookie of the Year race.

The first: Carlos Correa, the shortstop for the Astros who fans will have the pleasure to see at Target Field this weekend, has been phenomenal since being called up two months into the season. Correa is hitting for power and average while playing highlight-reel defense. He also has 100 more at-bats than Sano. As long as Correa doesn’t fall apart, he has to be considered the odds-on favorite to win the award with the Astros.

The second, somewhat related to the first: In contrast to Correa and other candidates, Sano has done most of his work as a one-dimensional designated hitter force. If there’s an offensive tie between Sano and another candidate, this could be the tiebreaker.

The third: Sano has played 45 games, and the Twins have only 37 remaining. So he can play a maximum of 82 games this season, and considering he has 189 plate appearances now we can expect him to finish around 340 plate appearances. In the history of the Rookie of the Year Award, which dates back to Jackie Robinson in 1947, only one offensive winner has claimed the honor while playing in 82 games or fewer (Willie McCovey, with a scant 52 red-hot games in 1959. Only three other offensive players have won the award while playing in fewer than 100 games.

Perhaps the bright side within that is that two of those players — Wil Myers in 2013 and Ryan Howard in 2005 — came within the past decade, and both played in 88 games while finishing with only a slightly higher number of plate appearances than Sano projects to get.

Howard’s monster rookie batting average/on-base/slugging slash line of .288/.356/.567 was enough to overcome his lack of at-bats; Sano’s surge lately gives him an even more robust .287/.397/.592 slash line. So it is possible. But it is rare.

Long story short: the award is Correa’s to lose thanks to his marvelous two-way play and head start on Sano while playing for an even better surprise winning team. But a big final push from Sano would at least make things interesting in spite of his late start, particularly if his bat carried the Twins into the postseason.

What’s interesting is that two of Sano’s teammates — Eddie Rosario and Trevor May, who is technically (barely) still a rookie — should also get some votes. That’s a good sign for the Twins.

Madden 16 doesn’t give Vikings respect, does use new stadium

I don’t really play video games anymore unless it’s 1) On a long trip and we happen to have a hookup for an old PlayStation, as was the case with this year’s Great Baseball Road Trip or 2) If Rocket, my friend of a quarter-century, is in town and he needs a reminder about who is better at Mario Kart.

(It’s me).

So if you came here for a review of the new Madden 16 football game, which was officially released today, you’re in the wrong place. My available moments these days are used up dreaming about jumpsuits, thinking about puns and tending to a 1-year-old.

What I can tell you, without having spent a moment with the actual game, is that the Madden folks don’t seem to give the Vikings a whole lot of respect.

Individually, Adrian Peterson garners a very nice 95 rating. Teddy Bridgewater gets a modest 82, Robert Blanton gets a strangely high 86 and Cordarrelle Patterson gets a well-earned but chilly 73.

Team-wise is where it really gets ugly. Within the division, the Packers are deemed the best (90 rating out of 100), which is fair, fine, whatever. Next up? Detroit, with an 83 … and then the Vikings way down at 77, followed not too far behind by the Bears at 75.

By my count, there are 10 NFC teams ranked higher than the Vikings, two with the same 77 rating and just three below them. I know. I know.

I know.

None of this really matters. It’s just a video game.

But if the Vikings, who have been flattered all preseason with positive press — and in fact are picked by many Vegas odds I’ve seen to finish better than Detroit, at least, and are picked by ME to be in contention for the division going into Week 17 at Lambeau Field — are looking for any kind of no-respect motivation, this is it.

Because based on the ratings, I’d say Madden has the Packers going about 12-4, the Lions 10-6 or 9-7, the Vikings 7-9 and the Bears 6-10. Basically, Madden thinks this is 2014 again.

The 2015 reality as I see it?

The Packers, minus Jordy Nelson, are still the favorites but the Vikings are in the mix. Both will make the playoffs, and the division is not conceded. The Lions slide back to 7-9. The Bears don’t win more than four games.

One pretty fun thing, it should be noted, is that you can play in U.S. Bank Stadium, the new home of the Vikings, in both exhibition mode and in franchise mode. Here’s a look (below) at game footage using the stadium: