Thursday, May 04, 2006

One of the key storylines of this upcoming weekend's play will be Northwestern's attempt to win the Big 10 regular-season title for the first time under Coach Kate Drohan. The Wildcats, who go downstate to play single games at Illinois Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, have a "Magic Number" of 1, in relation to second-place Michigan, who goes to Michigan State for single games Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

Northwestern is 14-3 in the conference, whereas Michigan is 12-4. Even if, hypothetically, the Wolverines swept and the Wildcats won only one of two, Northwestern's 15-4 would still top UM's 14-4 (sometimes rain-outs work in your favor, sometimes they don't). Likewise, a single Michigan loss, even in the absence of any Northwestern wins against Illinois, would give the Wildcats the crown. Adding to the importance of winning the regular-season title, doing so allows you to host the conference tournament.

About a week ago, ESPN.com ran a nice article on the Northwestern program which, even as a Michigan Ph.D., I have to admire (I also want to thank the discussant on the Ultimate College Softball boards who brought this article to people's attention).

Given that I'm a college professor (at Texas Tech) who teaches statistics and is a member of SABR, it should come as no surprise that I'm a strong proponent of statistics-based decision-making, as exemplified in Michael Lewis's book Moneyball on Oakland A's GM Billy Beane.

(Just as an aside, I once attended a small conference on sports decision-making in Scottsdale, Arizona that was attended by several fellow academics, as well as Beane himself, and writers Bill James and Rob Neyer. Here's a group picture, without Beane, who had to go back to the A's spring training camp after his appearance.)

Anyway, given my Moneyball/statistical bent, I was pleased to see the following in the ESPN article about Northwestern:

Just seven years removed from her own playing career when she got the job, Drohan wasted little time hiring an assistant she knew she could rely on: Caryl Drohan, her twin sister and teammate at Providence. A proponent of the power game (the Wildcats have by far the fewest sacrifice bunts in the conference with 22 -- Purdue leads with 86 -- and Kate jokingly says her sister thinks bunts are a waste of time), Caryl has transformed the offense into a potent group that leads the Big Ten in both slugging percentage (.441) and on-base percentage (.375).

I don't have the statistics for softball, but for Major League Baseball, the book Curve Ball by Jim Albert and Jay Bennett contains a chart on p. 192 that tells us the following:

With no outs and a runner on first, a team can expect to score an average of .813 runs.

With 1 out and a runner on second (i.e., assuming successful execution of a bunt), the value for expected runs is only .671, thus suggesting the non-optimality of bunting.

This Washington Post article examines the controversy over bunting, in greater depth.

The above excerpt also mentions two offensive statistics -- slugging percentage and on-base percentage -- that go well beyond batting average in characterizing prowess at the plate by taking into account, respectively, the bases earned by a hit (e.g., double, triple) rather than just the fact that someone got a hit, and the ability to draw walks. The two statistics are commonly combined into one called "OPS" (On-base Plus Slugging), as elaborated here.

I always like to see a cerebral team do well, even if it's a competitor to Michigan.