Do the Steelers Take Weak Teams Lightly?

Over the past few years I have heard the complaints of the local radio personalities as well as my mother, who claim that the Steelers take their opponents lightly and often lose games that they should have won. Pittsburgh’s football team has been successful by most measures in recent history, but that success has created a fan base with very high expectations. And perhaps has also produced a team that does not work as hard to prepare for their lesser opponents.

But is it true?

While some fans might think they should win every game, we will focus only on the games in which they were favored. In the five seasons since they won Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers have been the favorites in nearly three of every four games (59 of 80).

In short, they have gone 42-17 in those games. And while only winning 71% of the games you are favored in may sound low, it is actually higher than the rest of the League, which wins 67%.

Let’s take it a step further though by breaking down the weeks they were favored point-by-point. If we look at all NFL games over the past five years (almost 1300) we find that as the spread increases, the accuracy of the pick increases steadily as well. Teams who were favored to win by one point won just 51% of the time, whereas teams who were favored to win by 11 points won 90% of the time. We are not concerned about covering the spread here, simply winning the game.

Let’s graph it out point-by-point, although keep in mind that the Steelers’ line will look a bit wonky since they have played so few games as compared to the rest of the League.

Steelers Graph

As we can see, Pittsburgh is better than most teams in games that they are favored at five points or less. They have won 67%, compared to a 56% League average. When they are favored by more than five points, however, our doubters may have a point. Pittsburgh has won 75% of their games while the rest of the League has won 80%. It may only be a difference of two games out of 28, but it would have been very clear that they were the favorite going in. It would have also included games like Pittsburgh’s most notable failure—a 27-24 defeat at the hands of Oakland in December 2009. A 15-point favorite entering the game, the game was the biggest upset in the NFL over the past five years.

While there appears to be some confirmation bias at play overall, there is some truth that the Steelers lose when they are ‘supposed’ to win more than most.



The Point of Baseball

Baseball Prospectus takes every stat that there is about baseball, puts it into a simulation of the upcoming baseball season. The results say that the Pirates have a 17% chance of winning their division. In other words, if the season were played 100 times, assuming everything to be identical at the start—same players with the same talent on every team—the outcome would always be unique from every other time the season was played.

Fans tend to think the point of a baseball season is to determine the best team, and crown them the champions. The majority of play—the regular season—is actually just a means of weeding out the lesser teams. We quickly eliminate the rest during the playoffs, all so we can get it down to one team. The best team.

Only, it is extremely rare that the team that wins the World Series is actually the best team.

Consider this: The New York Yankees and a local college team decide to play each other. The Yankees are the “better team.” Always. When you consider the past performance of every player on both teams in every sporting event, they are never equal. It may be close, but one is always the favorite to win. One of the two teams is always “better” than the other.

Because so many factors go into determining who will win, almost any team will be able to beat any other team if given enough chances. But a win by the lesser team does not mean that they become the better team. It simply means that they won on that particular day. After all, if the two teams were to play again tomorrow the Yankees would again be considered the favorite to win, and they would remain the better team until the college team had won enough games so that their stats surpassed those of the players on the Yankees.

To say, “Since this college team beat the Yankees yesterday, we expect them to win again today,” would be silly because it ignores years of data about both teams’ playing abilities. Statistics are strengthened with the more data you have; a team’s true ability is more likely to be found in their stats over the whole season than in their stats for any given week. But the team that wins the championship is the team that happened to win their elimination games: their performance over the 162 game regular season is irrelevant.

If two MLB teams were to play in the final game of the World Series, sometimes the weaker teams wins. And when all is said and done the team who comes out on top of the World Series is said to be the “best team,” even if they had won significantly fewer games over the regular season than another team. Yet we know that if they were to play any number of teams the next day, they would be the underdog. So obviously they are not the “best team.” It might seem that the more accurate way to determine the best team is to name the team with the best record after 162 games champion and be done with it.

That would not work either though. First, because that team would not mathematically be proven to be the best team either. But more importantly because the point of a baseball season is not to find the best team. The point of having structured baseball seasons rather than random unconnected public exhibitions is to increase the level of fun.

To create the multi-month illusion that your team has a shot at winning makes being a fan very fun. Even more, there is nothing more fun than an elimination game in the playoffs, because we know that the best team does not always win. As long as you are in the game, you have a shot to win. What seed you are is irrelevant.

Therefore we must accept the possibility that the better team could, and will likely, not win the World Series. The majority of the people will actually root for that to happen because it is more fun when the underdog wins. Perhaps you can take some solace in that, your team may not actually be the worst in the league when they lose ten games in a row and fall out of the playoffs this year. They are just very unlucky.

Knowing that the point of the whole exercise is not to find the best team, the games every night of the season are made more exciting. Because the real reason they are being played in the first place is not to find who is better, but for the simple sake of the players, coaches, and fans to have as much fun as possible, which is exactly why baseball should be played in the first place.

Fun Fact: According to this interesting book, two teams would have to play a Best-of-269 game series to determine which one was truly “the best team.”

The Incredible Story of Edward Doheny

Over a hundred years later, you would still be hard pressed to find a sports tale as depressing as this one…

The Pirates finished with the best record in the National League in 1900.

The World Series had not started yet, but a newspaper decided to give the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup to the winner of a best-of-5-game AL-NL championship. The Pirates lost the Cup, but you have probably heard of the Chronicle-Telegraph, which was eventually bought by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Midway through the next year, in 1901, the Bucs traded for a 27-year old pitcher with a good curveball named Edward Doheny. The southpaw’s hook was apparently so good he led the league in hit batsmen and wild pitches a few years earlier. Basically the kind of guy you would expect the Bucs to sign today. He had at least managed to keep his ERA under 6.66 since his rookie season though.

Doheny pitched well for the rest of the summer and into the next. He managed a 2.53 ERA over 188.1 innings in 1902, making him one of the top pitchers on the team. Unfortunately, the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup was not held in 1901 or 1902 because teams from a third league—the Western League—had started buying off players from American League teams. The WL was so successful that it essentially put the AL out of business, and then promptly changed its name from the Western League to the American League. If they were trying to confuse everyone, it worked, but it created enough of a mess to end any hopes of a real championship.

(After the Bucs finished with the best record in 1902, their owner Barney Dreyfuss challenged a group of AL All-Stars to a series of exhibition games. Doheny hurt his ankle and never got to pitch, but the Pirates won.)

The (new) AL and NL worked out some issues before the 1903 season, but in July something happened: Doheny developed a ‘dead arm.’ His curveball stopped working, and he stopped being such a nice guy. He started drinking. He argued with teammates. “Convinced he was being followed by detectives” he up and left the team in the middle of the season without a word to anyone.

Even without his curveball, Doheny was good enough to make a comeback. But when told he would not be pitching in the World Series, Doheny instantly became erratic and started punching his teammates. The police were called and they took Doheny directly to an Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

It seems strange now, but insane asylums and spending time in them were much more common during that period. Doheny rejoined the team after a few weeks off, but his paranoia eventually drove him back home to Massachusetts where he was put under constant care of a doctor.

A few weeks later, Doheny received a package in the mail containing his jersey. He took it as a sign that he was being welcomed back to pitch. Unfortunately the jersey was misinterpreted, as a few teammates had sent it merely thinking it would cheer Doheny up to see it.

Soon after Cy Young defeated the Pirates in the seventh game of the best-of-9-game World Series, bringing the Bucs within one game of elimination. Upon learning of the loss, Doheny informed his doctor that his services would no longer be needed. The doctor thought he was joking—until Doheny whacked his nurse upside the head with a fire iron. After the nurse had lost consciousness, Doheny destroyed much of his house and threatened to kill the next man who tried to stop him. Armed with the fire iron, he held the police at bay for an hour.

Doheny was immediately taken back to the Asylum, where he died 13 years later.

Pens Winning Everything but the Score

So far the Penguins are 0-2 and have outplayed their opponents in every aspect of the game except the score. Crosby looks very hungry for that first goal; he is surprisingly close to mid-season form already. Hopefully he doesn’t wear himself out.

Mark Letestu tore it up in the second game and was rewarded with a goal. It’s great to see that from the younger guys. Tyler Kennedy has been stellar in both games as well.

Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek both seem right at home in their new home. As does Mike Comrie who has been an awesome addition.

Malkin looked much better in the second game, but he can look foolish when the points don’t come. He seems to be in slow motion at times, as if every action is planned in advance and deliberate. That’s the opposite of the style guys like Ovechkin play, but not all bad: There was a guy Mario who was very deliberate with his actions too, you’ve probably heard of him.

Overall, the Penguins seem to be playing well. They’ve faced two goalies that have had great games, and got lucky more than once. Five of their shots hit the post in the first game. If they keep at it those shots will bounce in, rather than out.

Early game in New Jersey today before two more at their awesome new home later in the week. The only thing the CEC seems to be missing is a win.

Just like the Steelers, I’ll throw out my observations on the Penguins from time to time. If someone has a Penguins-dedicated blog and they’re looking for content, let me know!

How Fantasy Sports Are Like Life

Baseball night DSC_5573 B, originally uploaded by Joe Y Jiang.

This was the first season I played fantasy baseball, and I won my league. I’ve only played fantasy sports once before—football a few seasons ago. I won my league there too, so I’m 2-0. I thought I would grow weary after a few weeks, because unlike football, baseball requires adjusting your lineup every day.

Over 180 in a row, actually. I didn’t miss a day.

I came up with a strategy (which I ain’t telling you) and it worked. The rest was luck.

You can study stats until you are blue in the face, but if your guys don’t go out and get it done you aren’t going to win. Part is strategy in giving yourself the best percentage chance possible, the other part is luck.

That’s not so different than life. You can go to the best school, with the best teachers, and best resources. Study until you are blue in the face and get great grades.

Or you can skip all of that, get lucky, and find a great job doing something you love anyway.

Going to school can only increase your chances so much, it’s often a significant increase, but if you don’t get that big break then you won’t get the job you dreamed of having. We often don’t even recognize that break when it happens.

There is comfort in knowing that there are things beyond your control and that you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t succeed—it’s not always your fault. The guy that invented fantasy sports has never won his league, but he didn’t give up after the first year—just remember it’s the same way in life.

Stay hungry, and don’t miss a day.

Steelers, Ravens: Round I Recap

Biggest blame goes to the offense for their inability to move the ball after turnovers. Twice they got the ball with good field position, failed to acquire a first down, which ultimately resulted in two missed field goals. Lots of people love to hate on Jeff Reed, but I’m not one of them and I won’t blame him for the misses. Anything over 40 yards towards the open end—the most difficult end to kick towards in the league—I won’t put on the kicker. If the offense gains ten yards on either of those drives the kicks are good and we’re tied at the least.

The defense had what was probably their weakest performance yet—to put that in perspective, they gave up 17 points to a team expected by most to win the division—not exactly a horrible day for any defense.

So we go from our fourth string QB to getting our starter back in Ben, who has two weeks to prepare for the Browns coming to Pittsburgh. This is perhaps the best scenario for Ben to return to—coming to a 4-0 team might have some questioning whether or not we need him, but it’s still better than the 2-2 most people had projected.

As for the long-term forecast for the division, it’s a positive yesterday as we dropped the game by only three points with our fourth string QB and our defense both playing below their potential. It’s a long season though; let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

Steelers 2010 Season: Game Three

My thoughts on the Steelers in Week Three and why only Ben will lead them to the Super Bowl.

Every Monday I like to write a wrap up of the previous day’s Steelers game, but I’m not sure I need to go on too long today.

All that needs to be said is this: If the Steelers replicate the performance from yesterday every single week they might lose one time this season.

The defense played well once again and the offense decided to join them this week. The big lead gave the D some leeway and the defense was awesome, which kept any pressure off of the offense.

I hear some chatter about not needing Ben back, that Charlie can lead us to the Promised Land. Maybe he can, it would be interesting to see, but I would rather not. That’s not a knock on Charlie, he’s a guy who may not even be in a Steelers uniform were it not for multiple injuries, but he has stuck it out and obviously prepared well for the season regardless.

He isn’t Big Ben though.

When the Steelers get the mentality that the upcoming game or games will be a challenge they elevate their game. When they come into a game like yesterday’s knowing that their fourth string QB is at the helm, they give a little more. A few years ago when they faced the most difficult schedule in three decades, they gave a little more and they won the Super Bowl. The following year when they had a pretty easy schedule, they didn’t give a little more, and they didn’t do as well.

It’s next to impossible to give that extra boost week-after-week and Ben is the QB who gives the Steelers the best chance of winning without that extra boost.

The Steelers’ biggest challenge comes next week in Baltimore. Yes, they only beat the Browns by a touchdown, but when the Ravens come to town there is no doubt they’ll be giving a little more.