Are Tight Ends As Valuable As They Used To Be?

Five years ago, I surveyed the many changes brought to the tight end position during the era of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, whose parallel ascents to the top of the historical rankings mirrored the game’s turn toward more receiver-like talents in the role. During the 15 NFL seasons from 1999 to 2013, either Gonzalez or Gates finished among the top five in tight-end receiving yardage every single year.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/tight-ends-are-killing-it-lately-but-are-they-as-important-as-they-used-to-be/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="

Both ranked among the top four in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2013.

“>1 During that same span, the share of league receiving yards going to tight ends increased dramatically, from 12 percent to 21 percent.

It was a tight end revolution. But by now, the primary instigators have moved on. Gates is sort of still aroundmaybe — but Gonzalez retired after the 2013 season. And Rob Gronkowski, the greatest tight end of the era after the primes of Gonzalez and Gates, hung up his spikes in March. In their place, new statistical monsters have emerged. In fact, 2018 saw both of the two greatest yardage seasons by tight ends in NFL history:

The best tight ends of 2018 covered lots of ground …

Most single-season receiving yards by a tight end in NFL history, 1920-2018

RK Player Year Team Games Catches TDs Yards
1 George Kittle 2018 SF 16 88 5 1377
2 Travis Kelce 2018 KC 16 103 10 1336
3 Rob Gronkowski 2011 NE 16 90 17 1327
4 Jimmy Graham 2011 NO 16 99 11 1310
5 Kellen Winslow 1980 SD 16 89 9 1290
6 Tony Gonzalez 2004 KC 16 102 7 1258
7 Todd Christensen 1983 LRD 16 92 12 1247
8 Jimmy Graham 2013 NO 16 86 16 1215
9 Jackie Smith 1967 STL 14 56 9 1205
10 Tony Gonzalez 2000 KC 16 93 9 1203
11 Pete Retzlaff 1965 PHI 14 66 10 1190
12 Rob Gronkowski 2015 NE 15 72 11 1176
13 Ben Coates 1994 NE 16 96 7 1174
14 Tony Gonzalez 2007 KC 16 99 5 1172
15 Kellen Winslow 1983 SD 16 88 8 1172
16 Zach Ertz 2018 PHI 16 116 8 1163
17 Antonio Gates 2009 SD 16 79 8 1157
18 Todd Christensen 1986 LRD 16 95 8 1153
19 Jason Witten 2007 DAL 16 96 7 1145
20 Travis Kelce 2016 KC 16 85 4 1125

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

After producing an eye-popping 2,713 yards between them, George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers and Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs are clearly the new standard-bearers for the superstar tight end. So is this the start of another Gonzalez/Gates-style dynasty at the position? Or something different entirely? And might they be joined by even more elite tight ends in 2019?

There’s no question that the stat above — a record-breaking double for single-season yardage — grabs your attention right away. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Kittle and Kelce had the two most valuable tight end seasons of all time last year. According to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement metric, which measures a player’s production in terms of how much it adds to the team’s chances of scoring on any given drive (and adjusts for strength of schedule and era), Kittle was only the 44th-best single-season performer at the position since 1986, their earliest season of data. And instead of being the second-best all-time, Kelce ranks 60th, while Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz, who last year posted the 11th-best season for a tight end since 1986 in terms of yardage, ranks just 282nd in DYAR.

… but they don’t look as great by other measures

Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) for tight ends with the most receiving yards in a single season since 1986

Yards Rank Player Season Team DVOA DYAR DYAR Rank
1 George Kittle 2018 SF +15.1 207 44
2 Travis Kelce 2018 KC +11.5 196 60
3 Rob Gronkowski 2011 NE +45.9 459 1
4 Jimmy Graham 2011 NO +16.6 244 22
5 Kellen Winslow 1980 SD
6 Tony Gonzalez 2004 KC +26.1 335 8
7 Todd Christensen 1983 LRD
8 Jimmy Graham 2013 NO +15.7 223 35
9 Jackie Smith 1967 STL
10 Tony Gonzalez 2000 KC +27.7 357 4
11 Pete Retzlaff 1965 PHI
12 Rob Gronkowski 2015 NE +21.0 235 30
13 Ben Coates 1994 NE +15.9 223 35
14 Tony Gonzalez 2007 KC +9.4 161 97
15 Kellen Winslow 1983 SD
16 Zach Ertz 2018 PHI +1.6 93 282
17 Antonio Gates 2009 SD +35.6 336 7
18 Todd Christensen 1986 LRD +21.4 274 13
19 Jason Witten 2007 DAL +19.6 242 26
20 Travis Kelce 2016 KC +26.0 261 17

DVOA is Football Outsiders’ measure of per-play efficiency, scaled as a percentage relative to average. It is used to generate DYAR, which measures total value relative to a backup-level player.

Advanced metrics are only reported for 1986 and later.

Source: Football Outsiders

While the best yardage seasons by Gronkowski, Gonzalez and Gates ranked among the most valuable since 1986 according to DYAR — thanks in large part to enormous per-play efficiency (as measured by Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, Football Outsiders’ rate-stat answer to DYAR) — Kittle and Kelce were less efficient in their monster seasons. This is true relative to other tight ends but also just in the sense that all passes to a tight end are less efficient now than they used to be, both compared with the average pass and (especially) relative to the average offensive play.

From 2006 (the first season of ESPN’s expected points added data) through 2011, the average pass attempt to a tight end added about 18 percent more EPA per play than the overall average for all passes. Since 2012, the average tight end target has been worth only 14 percent more EPA than an average pass to any position. At the same time, passes make up a larger share of offensive plays than in the past,<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="2" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/tight-ends-are-killing-it-lately-but-are-they-as-important-as-they-used-to-be/#fn-2" data-footnote-content="

Going from 50.8 percent of all plays in the first half of our data to 52.7 percent in the latter half.

“>2 which only further reduces the edge in effectiveness that a tight end target has relative to the average NFL offensive play.

Simply put, it’s harder to stand out as a great tight end these days. Gonzalez and Gates used to excel by creating mismatches, forcing defenses to choose between committing undersized defensive backs against their towering frames or using slower linebackers in coverage against their speed. But defenses have adapted by emphasizing quicker linebackers and developing hybrid safeties who can defend the run while still keeping stride with receiving tight ends. At the same time, tight end prospects are emphasizing pass-catching skills more than other aspects of the job, creating a whole league full of quasi-receivers at the position.

You can see this trend in how tight ends are being deployed. Only 44 percent of total receiving yards went to tight ends who lined up from the traditional tight end spot at the end of the offensive line (including playoffs). Kelce picked up 906 yards from lining up as an oversized slot receiver, and 41 percent of overall tight end receiving yardage was gained that way in 2018. Kelce also hauled in 240 more yards — best in the league among TEs — while split out wide, from where about 13 percent of all tight end yardage was accrued. (That’s nearly double what the share was at the beginning of the decade.)

Perhaps the balance of all these changes explains why, after massive gains in the share of receiving yardage filtered to tight ends between the 1990s and early 2010s, that number has stagnated in recent seasons, fluctuating between 19 and 20 percent each year since 2013. Tight ends are still among the most efficient options on the field, but teams might be maxing out just how much of a receiving load they can ask the position to carry. Ertz set a new tight end record last season with 156 targets; Kelce (150) and Kittle (136) weren’t far behind.

The next tight end to join them atop the yardage (and workload) list might be O.J. Howard of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who ranked third in DYAR behind Kittle and Kelce last season despite being targeted for a third as many passes. Howard had a league-leading DVOA of +44 percent in 2018, and he actually ranked ahead of Kelce in ProFootballFocus’s metrics because of superior blocking grades. Howard seems due for a greater role in Tampa’s offense than before, though, and if his elite TE peers are any indication, that might mean a big dip in efficiency. Then again, Howard also embodies the kind of deep-threat mismatch a modern tight end is increasingly required to be, with an average depth of 11.47 air yards per target last season, which ranked second only to Gronkowski.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="3" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/tight-ends-are-killing-it-lately-but-are-they-as-important-as-they-used-to-be/#fn-3" data-footnote-content="

Despite seldom being asked to split out wide.

“>3

Either way, despite the record-setting numbers, Kittle and Kelce aren’t necessarily better than their TE predecessors — just different. And they might have company at the top soon. But if today’s top tight ends are less dominant relative to league average than in the heyday of Gonzalez and Gates, it might just be because the whole position has gotten better and is being asked to do a lot more, while defenses are more geared to stop them than ever.

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Mike Trout’s One Rule For Hitting

The God of WAR does not spend much time thinking about analytics.

Outside the cafeteria in the visiting clubhouse in the depths of Cleveland’s Progressive Field, Mike Trout, the best player of baseball’s information age, said he employed little of the data or tech available to him as he passed Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle for most wins above replacement<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mike-trouts-one-rule-for-hitting/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="

According to Baseball-Reference.com’s version of the metric.

“>1 by a player age 27 or younger (71.7 career WAR) this season.

“I don’t look at any of that stuff,” Trout told FiveThirtyEight.

Trout turned 28 on Wednesday, and he might be at the peak of his powers. He’s on pace for his fourth 10-plus WAR season in his career. While pitching velocity is increasing every year, breaking balls are moving more and strikeouts have ballooned, Trout has reduced his strikeout rates in recent years and continues to add power. He is on pace to lead the AL in on-base and slugging percentage for the second time in three seasons.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="2" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mike-trouts-one-rule-for-hitting/#fn-2" data-footnote-content="

The third-straight year for on-base percentage.

“>2 But he isn’t interested in mapping his swing or understanding his launch angle (which has increased from 14 degrees in 2015 to 21.2 degrees this season, ranking 12th in baseball).

He does have one rule: Almost always take the first pitch. “I did that in the minor leagues,” Trout said. “I took until I got a strike. I think that helped me understand the zone.”

From the start of the 2015 season through Aug. 4, Trout has swung at just 15.9 percent of first pitches, which is the 22nd-lowest rate in the majors among the 549 players in that time who have seen at least 500 pitches, according to Baseball Savant data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. This season, Trout is offering at 15.4 percent of first pitches, ranking 27th among the 438 hitters hitters who have seen least 250 pitches. On all zero-strike counts since 2015, Trout has swung at just 21.5 percent of pitches, ranking as the 21st-most discerning hitter in such situations. On all zero-strike counts this season, Trout has swung at just 22.3 percent of pitches, which ranks 33rd.

Few players put themselves in favorable situations as often as the best player of his generation, in large part because of his don’t-swing-until-he-gets-a-strike approach. This has a compounding positive effect for Trout as he can then zero in on his preferred zone of choice. He’s leading the AL in walks (87), and he’s on track to easily surpass his career high for home runs (41 in 2016), given that he has 38 home runs already this season.

“I just have a zone,” Trout says. “If I get a pitch I think I can hit, a light goes off to swing. If I don’t get it, I’m not going to swing.”

He also rarely swings at a first-pitch ball,<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="3" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mike-trouts-one-rule-for-hitting/#fn-3" data-footnote-content="

He’s swinging at just 3 percent of first pitches out of the zone this season.

“>3 though opponents throw less than 40 percent of their pitches to him within the strike zone anyway, and he offers at out-of-zone pitches only 19.3 percent of the time — the fifth-lowest chase rate in baseball. So he’s getting in more favorable counts more than most major league batters.

FiveThirtyEight analyzed every pitch Trout has faced this season and outcome of each pitch. Trout doesn’t usually take his bat off his shoulder early in counts, and much of his production comes in favorable counts.

Trout ranks 12th in baseball this season in the share of pitches seen while being ahead in the count, at 34 percent.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="4" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mike-trouts-one-rule-for-hitting/#fn-4" data-footnote-content="

Among hitters who have seen at least 250 pitches.

“>4 (The MLB average is 26.9 percent.) And he takes 38.2 percent of his total swings when he’s ahead in the count, which ranks him 15th in MLB. When he gets ahead, Trout dominates: He ranks third in weighted on-base average (wOBA) when ahead this season (at .577), and since 2015, only New York Yankee slugger Aaron Judge (.535) has had a higher wOBA than Trout’s (.524) when ahead.

Trout’s patience has beaten many pitchers, but it may also offer a roadmap for a pitcher to gain an edge on baseball’s best hitter. If Trout has one weakness this season, it’s that he’s actually worse than the major league average (.225 wOBA) when behind in the count (.215) .

Trout is a mere mortal when he’s behind in the count

The 15 MLB players with the largest differences in weighted on-base average between when they’re ahead and behind in the count

weighted on-base avg.
Player Ahead in the count Behind in the count Difference
Alex Avila .562 .103 -.459
Stephen Vogt .608 .152 -.456
Mike Freeman .559 .111 -.448
David Bote .523 .097 -.426
Tomas Nido .473 .069 -.404
Eugenio Suarez .594 .194 -.400
Manny Pina .501 .104 -.397
Leonys Martin .510 .143 -.367
Mike Trout .573 .208 -.365
Eloy Jimenez .485 .121 -.364
Kole Calhoun .510 .149 -.361
Miguel Sano .524 .169 -.355
Jesus Aguilar .523 .171 -.352
Travis d’Arnaud .540 .196 -.344
Joc Pederson .525 .182 -.343

Stats through Aug. 4.

Source: Baseball Savant

And since Trout rarely swings at first pitches, pitchers may be better off throwing a strike right away to get ahead in the count. While some hitters are becoming more aggressive early in counts ostensibly to take advantage of pitches to hit, Trout benefits from his patience, and the only sure way to get ahead in the count is to take the first pitch. Trout has always been more effective when he’s ahead than when he swings at the first pitch.

The Baseball-Reference.com metric sOPS+ measures a player’s splits against the league’s overall performance within specific splits, with 100 marking an average performance. Trout has a 194 sOPS+ when ahead in the count this season, compared with 141 on the first pitch. (When behind, it’s an 86.)

Few batters are as patient as Trout, and very few, if any, have his physical gifts. That combination has given Trout a compounding and — from the pitchers’ perspective — seemingly unfair advantage.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Democrats’ Desire For Electable Candidates May Be Driven By Older Voters

Many Democrats say the most important quality they look for in a 2020 candidate is that the person can beat President Trump. But this might not be true of younger Democrats, many of whom are saying that they care more about a presidential candidate’s policies — and less about their chances of beating Trump.

Recent polls from YouGov/HuffPost and Gallup show an age split on whether voters prioritize policy or electability. Both polls found that younger Democrats tended to prioritize nominating a candidate whose positions on issues were closest to their own over a candidate who they believed had the best chance of defeating Trump. Conversely, older Democrats were more likely to want an electable candidate even if they disagreed on the issues.

And this generational divide may be reflected in the patterns of support for former Vice President Joe Biden. Voters of all ages often name Biden as the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump. But a Quinnipiac University poll from early July found that while 28 percent of Democrats over 50 rate Biden as their first choice, just 17 percent of Democrats between 18 and 49 said the same.

It’s possible that the reason more older Democrats prioritize choosing a candidate who can win in the general election is that they have lived through other administrations and have seen how they’ve governed, according to Rey Junco, a senior researcher at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Junco said older Americans could be “more concerned about the autocratic tendencies in the current administration” than younger Americans, and as a result want a candidate that has the best chance of winning in 2020.

But by prioritizing electability, older Democrats may wind up backing a candidate with a major weakness: an inability to drive youth turnout. While younger voters tend to lean heavily Democratic — in 2016, for instance, they backed Hillary Clinton by around 20 percentage points — the challenge has always been getting them to the polls. But when they do mobilize, younger voters can have a profound impact on the election. The blue wave of 2018, for example, was powered in part by Gen Z, Millennial and Gen X voters,1 who cast more votes than Baby Boomers and people from older generations, according to the Pew Research Center.

In addition, a CIRCLE report that looked at youth voting patterns in three key battleground races in 2018 found that support for Democratic candidates was higher in counties with a high youth population in all three races. Researchers found that in the Montana Senate race, Sen. Jon Tester’s big margins in youth-heavy counties were decisive in his narrow victory. In counties with a low youth population, Tester won just 31.8 percent of the vote, but in counties with a high youth population, he won 52 percent. Strong Democratic support in counties with a high youth population also helped make the Georgia gubernatorial race and the Texas Senate race close, though both those Democratic candidates ultimately lost. According to Junco, politicians have taken note of the impact that young voters can have on close races and they may be adjusting their campaigns accordingly.

“I think you’re seeing candidates and campaigns take notice [of younger voters] in a way that they haven’t in more recent cycles,” Junco said, “And I think that you’re going to see that [form] a positive feedback loop.”

So what might this mean for 2020? It’s still early, but Sen. Bernie Sanders — who won more votes from people under 30 in 2016 primaries than Trump and Clinton combined, according to a CIRCLE analysis of 21 states — is currently leading in the polls among younger voters, with 22 percent of Democrats under 50 saying they would vote for him if the primary was held today, according to a Quinnipiac poll. But three other candidates were close behind, with Biden at 17 percent, Warren at 14 percent, and Harris at 12 percent.

Only time will tell whether younger voters continue to prioritize candidates that align more closely with them on policy issues over candidates they think can win the general election. But, for candidates hoping to win over younger voters, taking clear stances on specific policies may be the way to go. “I think there are going to be a number of issues, a number of battles being fought — especially among this generation — that reflects the nuanced nature of the young voter,” said Richard Sweeney, a 20-year-old and the chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, which polls adults under 30 twice a year. But Sweeney cautioned that young voters are not a monolith. “We don’t have homogenous views on all these issues. We care about a variety of substantive issues, and we have nuanced views of those issues.”

So while there may not be an easy way to do it, if any 2020 candidates do manage to get young people excited, they could use that voter bloc to argue that they’re the most electable candidate of them all.

Significant Digits For Tuesday, July 30, 2019

You’re reading Significant Digits, a daily digest of the numbers tucked inside the news.


$460,000

Just as Alexander Hamilton surely envisioned it, President Trump’s reelection campaign has raised $460,000 in a week selling plastic straws. The campaign appears to be in reaction to some environmentalists’ efforts to move toward paper straws. Ten Trump-branded, “laser-engraved,” own-the-libs straws go for $15. [The Guardian]


1,022 nouns

Chaser, a Border collie known as the world’s smartest dog, has died of natural causes at the age of 15. Chaser’s owner, a psychology professor named John Pilley, used “800 cloth animal toys, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and an assortment of plastic items” to teach Chaser 1,022 nouns. Chaser is also said to have understood sentences including a prepositional object, verb and direct object. Rest in peace. I’m gonna go figure out how many nouns I know. [The New York Times]


353,633,660 trees

Ethiopian officials say that volunteers in the country planted more than 350 million tree seedlings in 1,000 sites in just 12 hours in a day. It was a mass effort to counter deforestation and climate change. The world record for single-day tree-planting had been held by India, where 800,000 volunteers planted more than 50 million trees in 2016. [BBC]


7 frozen tiger carcasses

Speaking of single-day hauls, authorities in Vietnam seized 275 pounds of rhino horns at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport and seven frozen tiger carcasses from the vehicle of a wildlife trafficking suspect. While it’s illegal, some believe rhino horns have medicinal properties and they are “a status symbol in some circles.” Unrelatedly, and the horrors of poaching aside, Frozen Tiger Carcass is a pretty good band name. [Gizmodo]


52 inmates

Fifty-two inmates died in a prison riot in Brazil on Monday, according to officials there. Sixteen of them were decapitated. The deaths follow gang-related prison riots elsewhere in Brazil in May, which killed 55 people. Human rights groups say the Brazilian government has done little to prevent such violence and accuse it of “even facilitating clashes by allowing the cells to become overcrowded.” [CNN]


17 weeks

Lil Nas X has broken the record for the most consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. His song, “Old Town Road,” has now sat atop the Hot 100 for 17 of them, or enough time to listen to the song about 65,000 times, which it feels like we, as a society, have indeed done. Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” had topped the chart for 16 straight weeks each. [Associated Press]


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