The U.S. Department of Justice released a redacted version of the full Mueller report Thursday. On this episode of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, the crew reacts to special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings that the Trump campaign did not criminally conspire with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. The report came to no conclusion about the criminality of President Trump’s actions during the investigation.
Also, the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recording a live podcast in Houston on May 8. Find more information and tickets here.
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We won’t find out who won until late June, but the 2018-19 NBA season treated basketball fans to one of the great MVP battles in recent memory. Several worthy players hung around the race for large portions of the season, including Paul George and Nikola Jokic. But in the end, there were two: Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden — each of whom has several arguments working in his favor.
Antetokounmpo is the best player on the best team1 in the league, and he led the 60-win Bucks to the best defense and fourth-best offense in the NBA. He averaged an unheard of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. He is also one of the best defenders in the league — a top-tier candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Harden, meanwhile, carried an offensive burden unlike any in modern NBA history. His 40.5 percent usage rate is the second-highest of all time. He finished the season averaging 36.1 points per game, eighth-most in league history and the most since Michael Jordan ticked off 37.1 per game in 1987. Harden boosted his deep attempts far beyond what previously seemed either possible or reasonable, taking 13.2 triples per game and connecting on them at a 37 percent rate.2
Really, though, the argument between the two players is less about who had the better season and more about the definition of “valuable.” Is it just the best player in the league? Is it the best player on the best team? Is it the player whose performance was most outstanding, whatever you decide that means? Is it the player whose team needs him the most? Is it some combination of all of those things, as well as a few others? Different players, coaches, executives, fans and media members have different definitions.
What if we took the word “valuable” as literally as possible, though, and tried to identify the player who provided his team with the greatest bang for its buck throughout this season? After all, what’s more valuable than performing at a level that far outstrips your salary, allowing your team to spend those surplus dollars on more talent elsewhere?
The first step to answering this question is to quantify the dollar value of a win in the NBA. There were 1,230 games played this season, which means there were 1,230 wins up for grabs. According to Basketball-Reference.com, NBA teams handed out more than $3.6 billion in salary this year. Dividing that figure by 1,230 means that a single win was valued at $2,949,908.82.
We can then turn to ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus and specifically RPM wins, a stat that uses a player’s RPM and his possessions played to estimate his contribution to the number of his team’s wins. Not all players qualified for the RPM leaderboard, so there was a slight shortfall of wins produced by the 514 players who did qualify. We applied a multiplier to each of those player’s totals in order to account for the shortfall. Then, we multiplied the dollar value of a win by the number of adjusted RPM wins each player produced to pinpoint the dollar value of that player’s production. Subtracting his actual 2018-19 salary from that number yields a surplus, meeting our goal of identifying the best bang-for-buck player in the league this season.
|RK||NAME||RPM WINS||Adjusted WINS*||WINS VALUE||ACTUAL SALARY||SURPLUS VALUE|
It should come as no surprise that both Antetokounmpo and Harden ranked among the league leaders in both the value of their production and the surplus value they provided their teams. The Rockets received more than $27 million in surplus value on Harden; the Bucks got nearly $23 million in surplus on Antetokounmpo. Neither player, though, led the league in surplus value. Harden ranked sixth, while Antetokounmpo ranked ninth (and second on his own team).3 Fellow MVP candidates George ($30.22 million) and Jokic ($19.49 million) also ranked highly in surplus value, but again, neither of them led the league.4 Instead, the league leader was do-it-all Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, with a surplus value of nearly $36 million.
Siakam is quite good, obviously, but he’s not nearly as good as the MVP types just yet. By any traditional MVP definition, he doesn’t really fit. But we’re not looking for a traditionally defined MVP here — just the player whose value most exceeded his salary. And that’s why Siakam makes perfect sense.
Siakam broke out in a huge way this season, emerging as both the favorite for Most Improved Player and a candidate for one of the All-NBA teams. He averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.6 combined steals and blocks per game while getting to the line 3.8 times a night and canning 36.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He is a wonderful defender, capable of handling himself both in space and on the block, wreaking havoc in passing lanes and containing ball-handlers off the dribble. He also served as the point man in the Raptors’ league-best zone defense and the one of the primary drivers of their defense-to-offense transition attack. Toronto outscored its opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor, per NBA.com, the eighth-best figure among the 353 players who appeared in at least 40 games. He carried the Raptors in several games when Kyle Lowry and/or Kawhi Leonard sat out because of injuries or load management; he was also a rotation mainstay, playing in 80 of 82 games, all but one of which he started.
And Siakam did all of this while drawing a salary of just $1,544,951, as a former No. 27 overall pick playing in the third year of his rookie-scale contract. He produced like a star — Siakam ranked 11th in production value per RPM wins — while being paid less than 391 other players in the league. Add it all up, and he produced by far the most surplus value of any player this season, with the difference between him and No. 2 Nikola Vucevic slightly exceeding the difference between Vucevic and No. 7 Danny Green, Siakam’s teammate in Toronto. Considering that neither Siakam nor Green is even Toronto’s best player, it’s no wonder the Raptors are among the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in this year’s NBA Finals.5
If that is indeed how these playoffs play out, Siakam will almost surely have played a valuable role — maybe not the “most valuable” by popular definitions, but one that far exceeds the value of his paycheck.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
Much of the info in this post is from an article on engadget. I became aware of the situation as I was working to build an IFTTT applet that would change my office lights to red if a website went down and I got an email about it from Uptime Robot. That applet can probably still be made but just not using Gmail anymore as a trigger.
Google’s push to tighten third-party API access is already going to cost the world Google+, but a change that more of you might notice is coming to IFTTT. The service sent out emails alerting users that their “recipe” scripts involving Gmail triggers and an action that could create a draft will go away as of March 31st. According to Google, the shift is a result of the Project Strobe sweep it announced last October.
IFTTT said it worked with Google to keep the integration that will support triggers to Send an email, or to Send Yourself an email, but the API lockdown that’s coming would’ve required too much work to change its services. Otherwise, integrations with Google will still be the same, but anyone relying heavily on the automated scripts may want to double check things before they get a surprise in a few days.
On Feb. 13, 25-year-old ace Aaron Nola agreed to a four-year contract extension with the Phillies. A day later, 26-year-old Max Kepler and 25-year-old Jorge Polanco agreed to five-year extensions with the Twins. The following day, Yankees ace Luis Severino, who turned 25 a few days later, signed a pact with the Yankees. The deals marked the beginning of a historic spree of extensions.
From mid-February through Thursday, 27 players had agreed to extensions worth a total of 132 years and $2.045 billion, according to data from the MLBTradeRumors.com extension database analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. There has never been a flurry of activity like this: March represented the most dollars ($1.126 billion) and years (58) awarded in contract extensions in a one-month period that we’ve seen.
While veteran stars including Nolan Arenado, Chris Sale and Mike Trout all signed massive extensions this spring, players with little major league experience made up the majority of the deals. Fourteen of the players — including reigning NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna, who signed a $100 million extension last week, and fellow Brave Ozzie Albies, who signed a much-discussed extension Thursday — were so early in their careers that they were not yet eligible for salary arbitration, which generally requires a player to accrue three years of major league experience before becoming eligible to negotiate for significant raises. Eight others were at least a year shy of six years of service time, the amount required to become a free agent. In 2019 to date, players signing extensions have forfeited 51 combined arbitration-eligible seasons and 69 future free-agent years. The deals also include club options covering 25 seasons.
Buying out the arbitration and free agency years of younger stars for the purpose of controlling and reducing payroll costs was a practice pioneered in the early 1990s by John Hart, then general manager of the Cleveland Indians, who watched great Pittsburgh Pirates teams broken up prematurely because of escalating player costs. While extensions had since become common practice, the activity had slowed in recent seasons as young stars like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado seemed intent on hitting the open market as soon as possible.
So what’s behind the extension surge this spring? Why are MLB teams intent on avoiding arbitration and locking up young stars? It may be because arbitration wasn’t working to begin with — at least from the perspective of the teams.
Under arbitration, a player and a team each puts forth a salary amount to a panel of arbitrators, who then must decide on one of the two figures. In the past two offseasons, players have totaled more wins than losses in arbitration cases against the owners — the first time that’s happened in back-to-back years since 1989-90. Through 2015, owners had won 58 percent of all arbitration cases, according to Forbes.
This winter, Gerrit Cole ($13.5 million) and Trevor Bauer ($13 million) were among the six players to win their cases against their clubs. Arenado and the Rockies avoided a hearing, which is common practice, by signing a one-year, $26 million deal — a record for a player eligible for arbitration.
“We’re going to be seeing $20 [million] and $30 million salaries regularly in arbitration,” one agent told us. “They [MLB teams] are going to try and push back on that. How do you do it? You pull those guys out of the system.
“Every time the teams see a seam in the defense, they exploit the shit out of it and they are really good at it,” the agent said. “They are capitalizing on good players they have been watching through the draft, through the minor leagues, and who are represented largely by unqualified or under-qualified agents. The teams have scouting reports on agents the very same way they have on opposing hitters and pitchers. They have heat maps. They know our tendencies, they know who will go to arbitration, who won’t, whose business is failing and they need to vest their fees.”
The agent noted that teams look at arbitration as an important battleground and have scores of analysts that compile data for these cases. By taking players out of the arbitration system, the teams not only cap earning potential for those players, but they also reduce salary comps for other players. Agent Scott Boras described the MLB’s aggressive approach with young players and extensions this spring as “snuff contracts” — or an attempt to snuff out future markets.
Greg Dreyfuss, an associate general counsel for the union and the MLBPA’s director of analytics and baseball operations, also sees a link between the wave of extensions and players’ recent arbitration wins. The union and players have closed the data gap between clubs in making their cases. Dreyfuss says agents and players are educated on the market. While MLB payrolls remain stagnant, the records for largest arbitration salaries have been set in the past two years. The average salary of an arbitration-eligible player in 2011 was $2.73 million; that increased to $3.97 million this year, a 45 percent jump, according to analysis of MLBTradeRumors.com data.
The total dollars and players in the arbitration system has jumped from $393.6 million and 144 players in 2011 to $789.6 million spread among 199 players this last offseason, growth in part due to the game trending younger — meaning that there will be more 20-somethings entering arbitration.
“Nine of the 10 largest one-year contracts in the history of salary arbitration have come in the past two years, and overall, arbitration salaries have kept pace with the rise in industry revenue over a 10-year period,” Dreyfuss told FiveThirtyEight. “Recently a lot of really good players in that process have stood up and said, ‘No, I’m not just going to take what you give me,’ and they’ve fought for what they consider a fair salary. So, I do think there’s some correlation between players succeeding in arbitration and clubs wanting to take players out of that process.”
While spending efficiently is always a goal for teams, how these clubs have handled free agency in recent winters may be a motivating factor in some players’ decision-making. Even Trout, the game’s best player, expressed reservations about entering the open market when he signed a record extension (which is also a bargain for the Angels) this spring.
“I kind of saw what Bryce and Manny went through and it drew a red flag for me,” Trout said. “I talked to Manny and Bryce. It was a tough couple months in the offseason. They put it perspective in my mind.”
Not all extensions are club-friendly. Drefyuss notes that there have also been a number of veteran players who have agreed to extensions that will pay them lucratively into their mid-30s.
“Players agree to extensions for a variety of valid reasons, and there are any number of factors involved in their decisions,” he said
One key decision a player must make when considering an extension is how much financial upside to concede for the sake of job and financial security. In dealing with future risk, teams face less downside than individual players do. While a team can absorb a poor contract, a player is one injury or decline in performance away from having his career trajectory significantly altered.
Acuna and Albies look like future superstars, yet they signed deals that could potentially cost them nine figures in future earnings. White Sox top prospect Eloy Jimenez signed a six-year deal with two club options before he ever took a major league at-bat, limiting his financial upside. Those are the types of club-friendly deals that some on the players’ side have criticized. There is also an argument that individual players ought to consider not just themselves but their peers and future major leaguers when considering a long-term deal — and that they should wait until they are at least arbitration-eligible.
“If guys aren’t going through the system, if all the young [stars] are signing before they get there, then we are not going to have those posts to hold on to,” the agent said of salary comps. “I don’t think this is teams trying to screw with the free agent market. They are trying to take the best young players out of the arbitration system.”
Toronto outfielder Randal Grichuk, 27, said the Blue Jays began negotiating with him last month during spring training in the midst of the extension spree. He eventually signed a five-year, $52 million extension.
“The way I looked at it was taking guaranteed money, setting my family up for life, it’s hard to turn down,” Grichuk said. “If I leave a few dollars on the table now, I’m going to just be finishing my 31 season [after his deal expires] going into free agency. If I produce well, I’m going to be young enough to make some more. And if I’m not able to, whether due to injuries, failures, anything happens, I’m still set for life.”
Grichuk was into his arbitration years when he signed his extension, but he didn’t take issue with young stars like Acuna opting for financial security earlier along in the process.
“He could have probably waited and got more, but it’s tough to talk negatively about a guy who just got $100 million and is set for life,” Grichuk said. “What’s the difference between $100 [million] and $200 [million]? His kids’ kids’ kids won’t have to work? … I think it’s one of those things where his life changes completely.”
Neil Paine contributed research
You’re reading Significant Digits, a daily digest of the numbers tucked inside the news.
The National Enquirer, supermarket-tabloid fixture and fervent supporter of President Trump, is on the selling block. American Media Inc., its owner, is “actively seeking to sell off” the publication, according to Washington Post sources. A hedge fund manager whose company controls AMI reportedly became “disgusted” with the Enquirer’s reporting, which led to the decision to sell. In 2014, the tabloid sold an average of 516,000 copies per issue — a number that fell to 218,000 in December, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. [The Washington Post]
A new human species, which lived at least 50,000 years ago, was discovered in a cave in the Philippines, according to new research in Nature. The species is being called Homo luzonensis. The bad news for H. luzonensis — other than being extinct and all — is that they probably stood less than three feet tall. [The New York Times]
Tax returns and the hypothetical and actual releases thereof are all the rage these days, and Elizabeth Warren released hers yesterday. She and her husband reported $846,394 in adjusted gross income in 2018. Over $300,000 of that came from writing. Speaking of which, I need to have a talk with my editor. [CNN]
The New Zealand parliament voted 119 to 1 to ban most automatic and semi-automatic weapons. The vote came less than a month after 50 people were killed in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch. The lone no vote came from the sole member of the libertarian ACT party. [Associated Press]
In San Francisco earlier this week, the city’s Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected an apartment complex, which would’ve contained 15 below-market-rate units, “because it would cast an evening shadow on a South of Market park.” Specifically, the building would’ve cast a shadow for 100 minutes on the longest day of the year, covering an additional 18.24 percent of the park in darkness. [San Francisco Chronicle]
Should first-term Democrats such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib worry about getting primaried? Some in their party are already discussing recruiting challengers, but out of 626 total freshmen who served between 1999 and 2018, nine have lost primary challenges since the 2000 election, my colleague Nathaniel Rakich writes. That’s a 1.4 percent rate of defeat, compared to 1.1 percent for all representatives over that period. [FiveThirtyEight]
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