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Monday, January 18, 2016

Epping by the Numbers

Apologies for the delay in this Part II to our last article on Canada's Cups and Opens. Finally getting to the Canadian Open after my holiday hiatus. Unfortunately, something went amiss with my Telus Optik PVR and I was left with no recordings of the event, save a couple of early draws. I could choose to subscribe to the SportsNet Grand Slam online network, but $80 Canadian seems a little steep to watch a couple of games that I missed.

A least we can watch John's final shot against Kevin Koe...




I could write about last week's Skins games or the Continental Cup. But I'd rather write about curling. I suppose it's ok that these exhibition events exist. I keep telling myself they don't harm anyone and I'm not required to watch. Rumour has it some new changes to mixed doubles was creating some controversy. I understand some intentional misses by John Morris may have led to the new "shot clock" being dropped in the middle of the event. Not sure what possessed the powers-that-be to pile on the fancy new ideas into the mixed doubles format. I wasn't aware there was anything needed to change to make it better. Other than perhaps eliminating it completely and putting mixed curling in the Olympics.

Granted, an interesting slant to create a "power play" in which a team with hammer can build a corner with buried stone rather than a centre guard with rock in the back four foot. The shot clock was also intriguing, though perhaps it would simply things to have one clock (a la basketball) rather than a separate one for thinking and throwing.

There are many problems with this mixed doubles thing and I'll avoid going on a rant until a later time. Needless to say, too much is wrong than can be fixed with a time-clock and some Def Leppard. Perhaps I'll warm up to it before the next Winter Olympiad.

Now, back to Epping...

Without watching the video, no chance to breakdown some of the strategy calls from the final weekend of the Open. However, we can take a numerical look at the performance of John Epping over his final two games. I have heard that John is a streaky player who can beat anyone when he gets hot. I suppose the same can be said for many players, but the example here is quite extraordinary.
During the semi-final and final games, John shot 97% and 100% respectively.

Now, with all due respect, John was not perfect in the final game, and in fact did not score the maximum on every shot. He was actually scored 2 out of 5 on a double in the 4th end. Thirteen of his 14 shots had a DoD (Degree of Difficulty) above 1. This is the scoring system created by Gerry Geurts of CurlingZone (used by the Grand Slams). It is based on a score out of 5, and includes modifiers based on how difficult a shot is (runback, around guard, double, triple, etc). I'm not certain the exact modifier for each, but for example, John's last shot, a "in-turn peel runback double" had a DoD of 1.18. I'm not certain these modifiers are kept up to date with the modern game (and the ability of these players today), and could perhaps argue the value of various factors used, but I'll leave that for another time. Clearly, a player can, using this system, score OVER 100%, which seems strange to those of us who always thought you couldn't give 110%. Apparently, in Curling, you can!

So back to the numbers. Not accounting for modifiers, Epping was 140 of a possible 150 over both the semifinals and final. Compare against his opponents, Gushue and Koe combined for 137 of 150. Koe was actually slightly better in his game against John, shooting an adjusted 98% with DoD from a scoring of 77 out of 80 (one better than Epping).

These numbers show that John played well, but not much better than his opponents. This is were DoD comes into play and tells a greater story than a traditional curling box score (that scores out of 4). By looking at the number of difficult shots John faced, their value, and his result, we can get a more detailed look at what happened.

John had 13 shots that were >1.05 DoD. On those shots he was 92%. In the final game, John had 9 of these shots and was 41/45 for 91% on those shots. Compare this to the rest of the players in both games. Team Koe, Gushue and the 3 other players from Epping's squad were 74% on 39 shots with DoD >1.05. Brad Gushue and Kevin Koe were 80% on only 5 of these shots. In fact Koe only had one shot over 1.05.

On shots with DoD >1.10, John was 86% of 7 shots. Everyone else was 58% on 9 of these same shots.

You can see these numbers, and a description of each shot, in the detailed scoring breakdown here and here.

John had many difficult shots and made most of them for an entertaining win on the weekend of the Canadian Open.  Degree of Difficulty gives us a more detailed picture of what happened.  DoD could also be examined over a game, event, or even a year, to look at how often a player has more difficult shots.  It could indicate what type of game the skip is calling, or be a result of shots that were made (or not made) earlier in the end.

In John's case, his third Mathew Camm shot 83% and 81% in the semi-final and final, respectively.  In the semi-final, Matt had only 3 shots with DoD >1.05 (11/15) and none >1.10.  In the finals, Matt had 7 shots >1.05 (25/35) and 5 shots >1.10 (15/25).

The game against Koe had fewer and less difficult shots for the Epping squad than did the finals.  This might tell us:
- Team Gushue played well and put greater pressure on Epping's team, hence more/higher DoD shots.
- John called a more aggressive game against Gushue than against Koe.
- John's team played better against Koe and put less pressure on their skip.
- The finals were an over-all more agressive game than the semi-finals.
- Any other number of theories we might come up with

Not certain you can find all the answers, but this could be an interesting place to examine shooting data in the future to determine trends in ability and strategy with players and teams.  One challenge is scorekeeping is still done by volunteers, one for each game.  It would be interesting if technology allowed for dozens or even hundreds of scorekeepers to generate a score and have all the data consolidated to create a better and more accurate result.  One set of eyes with limited curling experience can make mistakes, but a large pool of data from many sources might not.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Looking at Canada's Cup and Open

Plenty of curling to cover so let's limit the preamble (and further talk of broomstuff) for now and get right into some game analysis on the Canada Cup from last week and (in Part 2) the Canadian Open from this past weekend....

Canada Cup - Mens Final: Kevin Koe vs Mike McEwen

There's been some talk, both on CurlingZone forums and with the SportsNet announcing crew, of Team McEwen having an off season. Certainly a surprise to see them miss the play-offs in two consecutive Slams (the National and now Canadian Open), but if they had won this game the past month would have been a success. The McEwen squad have won 3 events this year, including a Slam, and if you heard us on the Around The House podcast a few weeks ago, we discussed that Mike has been distracted more than most by the broom controversy. Not by the impact of reversed heads without inserts (though some want to point to this as the cause of their recent slide), but as a dealer for Hardline, Mike derives his personal income from the IcePad broom business. Likely it's been difficult to remain focused while dealing with the on and off ice impact of what's transpired this season. Also, is the McEwen rink slipping or have other teams raised their game over last year? Not much seperating the top 4 teams in Canada right now (McEwen, Jacobs, Gushue and Koe) and the next few teams are very close to that level.

A few thoughts on the mens final...

Koe gets the key deuce in the 5th end because BJ Neufeld's hit rolls 6 inches too far. Looking back, that might have been the difference in the entire match. Reminds us that when this game is played well, it can all be decided on a tiny mistake. One little rub, a small extra roll or a draw that comes up an inch short.

Kevin's first shot in the 6th end avoided those mishaps. Up two, he plays a soft weight hit that removed a 2/3rds burried stone and left them sitting two. He considered a draw or runback as well but third Mark Kennedy tells him he can make it with "easy hack" (isn't hack already easy?). Some directional sweeping with a hair broom by Brent Lang, I wonder how much of a difference it made as they just avoid the jam at the back. Depsite the great shot, Mike was still left with a corner guard and a chance for a skips deuce, but he came light and ultimately was forced to one.

In the 7th end, down one without hammer, McEwen chooses a freeze into the pocket on BJ Neufeld's first rock. I like the split screen use by TSN (McEwen is red)...

Someone in the production booth has been watching Fargo Season 2

...but I don't like the call. Perhaps a situation where they were focused on the force or they just liked the look of the rocks, but it's too early in the end and too late in the game. At this late stage and only 3 ends remaining, the objective is to steal with the secondary outcome a force. Often it feels like a steal is unlikely, but by coming into the rings this early they are greatly decreasing their chances.

They end up guarding on BJ's next shot, in a less favorable position, without the catcher at the back four foot. The end result is a force, a welcome result, but I believe they could have improved their chance at a steal (and their odds of winning) with a guard on his first.

A close game where a few shots made the difference and Team Koe was just a little bit better on this day. Demonstrates how important a two point lead can be in that "old" 4 rock free guard zone game.

This game reminded me why I prefer the 5 rock free guard zone. It became repetitive once Koe was up two points: watching a corner guard removed, another guard goes up, it gets peeled, then McEwen has to settle for placing rocks in the rings. A difficult challenge when these guys can throw hard enough to remove all the granite in the house. Curling Canada and the World Curling Federation (WCF) could improve curling by changing that rule quickly, instead of focusing on that other sweeping related rule. I found the following excerpt in meeting notes from the Royal Caledonian Club (the St. Andrews of Curling), from August of 2015....

"6.5 WCF Proposals

The Committee discussed the WCF Proposals of Free Guard Zone andTime Outs, we agreed to continue with only one time out and agreed thatmuch further testing is required before we can agree to any proposal on a5 rock rule for the free guard zone."

Much further testing? The 5 rock rule was introduced 4 years ago, is in its second full season on the Tour and is clearly a better version of the game. What type of "testing" do they plan to do? If they can complete broom testing over a couple of weeks, then this should be wrapped up in an afternoon. I could not find the WCF proposal mentioned and it's unclear to me how the 5 rock rule would be approved (does the WCF take direction from Scotland?), but I certainly hope it happens soon.

 

Canada Cup - Womens Final: Rachel Homan vs Val Sweeting

One of those games that could haunt Sweeting for a while. I rewatched with my friend and occaisional ATH podcast guest Mark Klinck. His wife kept saying every other end "how does Val lose this game?". Not much concern Team Sweeting won't be at the Trials in 2017, but when you fail to close the door on a win against the hottest team in the world, it might sting a little.

The early deuce by Homan is the result of Val missing a 3 foot runback. Uncharacteristic, though Russ called it before she threw it. He mentions her left handed inturn will curl more than Rachel's out turn and needs more ice.

In the third end, I don't understand why Rachel tries a draw to the back (green line) when it appeared she could have played a hit and roll (blue line), eliminated the chance at three, and gotten the same (or better) result.

 

Homan is Yellow

Perhaps she was uncertain of the ice, but I prefer the hit and roll with a two point lead in this situation. In fact, the chance to steal is more likely with the hit and roll. By drawing to the back eight foot, Rachel leaves Val a draw for one or possibly soft tap for two (or even three). If Rachel draws to the top four foot, Val will have an option to runback a double for two points. If Homan hits and rolls, Sweeting will have no choice but to attempt a tough draw for her single. Ultimately, Rachel is light, and Sweeting scores three.

In the 7th end, Sweeting third Lori Olson-Johns hits and rolls out, eliminating a possible deuce (though Homan still had several chances at a double). The next mistake is a nose hit on Val's last shot, when she is attempting to roll out for a blank. Two point lead rather than 1 up with hammer. Interesting that Win Expectancy is the same in both cases, 80% for up two without or 1 up with hammer. In this case, I think one less end with Rachel having hammer would be preferred.

In the 8th end, Sweeting is sitting three, with two at the top tweleve side by each and one behind in the back eight foot. With second's last shot she could peel the corner guard (my preference), but chooses to try a tap-back, and creates a staggered guard. Lori appears to get them out of the end with a raise double, leaving Sweeting sitting four. Homan third Emma Miskew then makes a great freeze on her last.

Val tries to blast it out on her first but leaves the Homan stone second shot. I think the soft weight hit to sit in front, frozen on top for shot, may have been the better play. Even if Val makes the peel, Rachel has a chance to draw into the four foot, around two staggered rocks, and get her deuce. Now, Rachel could chose a hit and roll (blue line) but changes her mind and elects to freeze (green line).

 

Homan is Yellow

It appears she's taking on more risk than is required to get the same result (a deuce). Rachel makes a great shot and Val has to hit third shot at the back four foot. If she hits it dead on, or rolls in slightly, Rachel would have no shot for two. But, as I said earlier, this game changes on fractions of inches, and her slight roll to the outside leaves Rachel a shot for two, which she makes. The hit is the better call, but interesting that if Rachel had corner frozen instead of freeze on the nose, Sweeting likely blasts them out (she can't risk leaving the in-off for three) and Rachel gets her deuce without any risk. The perfect freeze was actually less of a perfect shot.

In the 9th end, big mistake by rolling out with Val's first shot. I like her choice of trying an angle raise for two on her last, rather than draw for one (did you scorekeepers at home add it to her Risk Factor?), but if her first had stuck around the shot is much easier for two as she doesn't need to stick the promoted stone.

in the 10th end, Sweeting attempts an open freeze on Homan's shot stone sitting back button, rather than a hit and roll. Yes, the roll would have dropped behind the tee, but a better chance at a deuce with that call.

Homan is left with a draw to the four foot in the extra end and makes it for the (what at times seemed unlikely) win and spot in the 2017 Olympic Trials.

In Part 2 we'll head to the Canadian Open...

 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Time for a New Statistic?

Curling could use a new statistic and I've come up with an idea. It's been mulling in my mind about a year and I'm finally putting fingers to keyboard. Skips have a risk factor. The name is still a work in progress, but lets call it that for now. SRF, skip-risk-factor.

I'm going to attempt to lay out a method for this new stat. However, it comes with a significant problem.

The CCA Curling Canada, SportsNet, WCF and other governing bodies that keep statistics will need to incorporate this into their record keeping. Not an easy task, as I'll soon explain. I've been tempted to go back and watch every game since 4 rock Free Guard Zone in Canada began. I even started recording and saving to games from my PVR last year (and this year) to my PC. I highly recommend the Hauppauge, even if I can't pronounce it. As I slowly collect a small horde of video, I could have my kids take on the task one day for me. But that likely won't happen. And then there are the many other games that aren't captured on TV.

So this article might outline a great idea that will never amount to anything. But in spite of this hurdle, I'm going to present my case for SRF. At the very least, teams may want to keep track of this on their own to see how often they are faced with these decisions, what amount of risk they take, the impact and the eventual outcome.

So here goes.

Skip Risk Average (SRA)
Recorded in percentage. Divide the total number of times a skip has an option on his/her final shot to take a risky option (to score 2 or more) rather than a simple draw or hit (for 1) at risk of the opponent stealing 1 or more points by the number of times they chose the risky option.

For example. A skip has an option to draw for 1 or try a double for 2 points, at risk of giving up a steal.

If a skip attempts the shot for 2, it counts as a risk attempt towards their risk factor. A skip with a .50 or 50% SRA would be one who choses to attempt the riskier shot half the time.

Skip Risk Outcome (SRO)
Only counting instances when the skip chose a risky option, what is the percentage of time they are succesful? From our previous example, a skip with a .50 SRA might have an SRO of .75. Meaning that when they attempt a riskier shot, they are successful 3 out of every 4 attempts.

So what is the Skip Risk Factor or SRF?

By using Win Expectancy (WE) charts, we can see what impact the result of a risky decision will have on a teams chances at victory. From our example, let's suggest the team deciding on the double attempt is down 1 and this is the final shot of the 5th end in an 8 end game. That leaves 3 ends remaining following the outcome of this end. If they take 1, their WE = .35. If they take 2 WE = .61 and if there is a steal WE = .19.

The baseline is the draw for 1. If they choose to attempt the draw for 1 then their SRF = 0, even if they miss. If they attempt the double and make, their SRF = .26, the difference between making the double for 2 and taking 1. If they miss, the result becomes an SRF = -.16.

The cumulative SRF becomes the addition of the result of all of these shots. Between SRA, SRO and SRF, we can then see a pattern for the amount of risk a skip takes and how those results are impacting the team's chances of winning.

We could also create an average of SRF (SRFa) by dividing this total by the number of times the skip chooses to be risky.

It seems to me these key decision points during games are critical to the outcome of games and could be interesting to examine.

Another idea could be to incorporate points available and generate an average point scored in these situations (SRP?). From our example, the skip had a shot for 2. If you add up all of these decisions and incorporate what the succesful risky shot result was (2, 3, 4, etc) subtract the results of the misses (steal of 1, 2, etc) and then divide by the total number of key decisions, you would see what the average score return was to their team. A skip that is in the negative might want to look at changing their future decisions, or stepping down a position.

As always, any and all comments welcome. This stat will ultimately depend on the ability to train score keepers to recognize a clear key decision moment in a game and then properly record the likely outcomes (take 2, 3 steal 1, etc). Not all situations are equal and some shots have multiple possibilities. Often a shot at 2 can still result in a score of 1. But it would be interesting to track these situations.

Then again, it would also be great to have SportVu for curling, but we aren't there yet. Maybe one day...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Going Like a Pro at The National

The broom news this week from the WCF has distracted me from focusing on the task at hand, rewatching and analyzing games from the National. The conversation has shifted away from "directional fabric" to water proofing and a "hardening" or "stiffening" insert. I leave the related adult jokes to your own imagination, but these new regulations appear to put one company in a tough spot. Hardline responded with their statement later in the day, disagreeing with the decision and stating they will "do what is necessary". Not certain this will come to legal action but given that the icePad was a previously approved broom and, two years later, is not, it's easy enough to feel empathy for their position. If you were a small business owner, how would you react in the same situation? Then again, it's possible all this news coverage might increase their sales. The Donald always said "all publicity is good publicity", or "there is no bad publicity" or something to that effect. Heck, they even made the New York Times.

It appears the WCF (and possibly soon the CCA) feel the need to make a quick decision because, well, we are in the middle of November and a third the way into the season. Unfortunately, more time is needed and I hope this is not the final resolution. The WCF begins stating this ruling is in place until further notice but ends by commiting to continue to "work to establish a well-defined equipment policy". This last statement might lead someone to think their current policy is poorly-defined. Some think the ruling smells of corporate conspiracy. With Balance Plus being a sponsor of both the CCA and the WCF, it's reasonable that questions would be raised and fair to expect them to be answered. In any case, more to come I'm sure. Perhaps in 10 years an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, released on Blu-Ray, digital download and 3D hologram, just before the 2026 Olympics.

Let's move on.

Mens Final: Brad Gushue vs Reid Carruthers

The Carruthers squad can look back at a few situations as missed opportunities to change the outcome of this game. In the second end, tied without hammer, Gushue was in trouble most of the end until Carruthers third Braeden Moskowy came deep on his second shot. Brad was able to draw in to possibly escape, but Reid then made a fantastic shot with his next, leaving 3 of his own tucked in behind a corner guard. Gushue was unable to tuck his last rock completely but a whisker rub on Reid's final shot gave Brad the steal, a 5 point swing. Rather than being up 4, Carruthers ended up one down. A very poor mistake as they had no need to be so close to the guard or their own rock in the house (the one they rubbed). Carruthers could have been an inch further out and still scored 3 points. The difference between 3 and 4 (We =87% to 94%) is not large enough to be too cute on the shot.

In the fourth end, some discussion from the broadcast crew on sweeping techniques, as they watch a single sweeper. A few good points raised that led me to think how much of the current controversy is over the technology and how much can be attributed to teams being innovative and doing things differently. In this game we saw teams corner sweeping hits with hair brooms in an effort to get them to curl. Kevin Martin bemoaned that he should have used one sweeper back in his day (which isn't really so long ago). Didn't mean to come back to this topic...damn you Mike Harris for bringing it up.
Another missed opportunity in the 5th end. After a centre guard, Gushue calls for their first rock in the house and out to the wings. Martin suggests they would prefer a "soft deuce", ie. one without much risk, but their primary goal is a blank. A slight faux pas by KMart as they can't have 2 primary goals. Again, this is based on thinking that holding hammer in the 6th is the best situation, and as I've said at nauseum, this strategy is over thought. But not much harm, unless your opponent puts up a second centre guard and then play moves to the centre. Carruthers however, doesn't want to get that aggressive and choses to hit and sit for one. After a miss and a pick, Gushue gets into some trouble but Reid comes light on his first and then faces this with his final shot.

Gushue is Red

It's unclear who is sitting shot, but by chosing to try the double (green line) Reid may believe it's Gushue. However, Harris, Martin and I all agree it's a strange call. Even with a made shot, Gushue is still likely to score his one. It could be a higher percentage shot for Reid to play a draw to the back four foot (blue line) and make Gushue's draw more difficult, also increasing the chance of a steal. In the end, Gushue drops an out turn draw to the back four foot to score two. The same draw that, if Reid had thrown, would have been a great result and perhaps changed the outcome of the game.
Down two in the 6th end, Carruthers puts up two corner guards, one on either side. We've seen some teams choose to put two on the same side, one long and one short. Still not sure which strategy I prefer.

Perhaps an error in 7th end or a change in strategy by Carruthers. As we return from commercial, lead Colin Hodgson is drawing around a lone centre guard. Perhaps his first was in the wrong spot (halfway between hog and top twelve) so they decided to come into the rings instead. In this situation, down one without hammer and 2 ends to go, two centre guards is a preferred position. However, a pick and a miss by Gushue third Mark Nichols puts Carruthers in a good position to force or even steal. Some discussion by Mike Harris about teams maybe preferring, under the 5 rock free guard zone, to be tied with hammer rather than two up without in the last end. Not enough data yet to prove out this theory but I would guess it is closer but still a small advantage to be up two. Under the four rock free guard zone, up two without hammer has a WE = 88%. Perhaps with the 5 rock rule we may see this drop a percentage point or two. Tied with hammer WE is historically 76% but per my article last season is closer to 80% and for some teams that are proficient with the tick shot, possibly higher.

Gushue gets his single and holds on in the final end for the win.

Womens Final: Rachel Homan vs Tracy Fleury

A great battle for the first ever Womens National Grand Slam. A couple of interesting situations.
In the third end, Homan is 1 up and could draw to sit two and force Fleury to a single (green line) but instead chooses to hit (blue line) and allow a blank.
Homan is Red
Kevin Martin suggess Rachel is concerned about leaving a possible shot for two. The decision might indicate that Rachel doesn't expect her draw weight to be accurate enough. I expect many other skips would have drawn to sit two in this situation, but in Womens the WE is actually about the same (58% vs 59% for tied with hammer). So perhaps Rachel does trust her draw weight, and trusts CWM and curling analytics even more.

In the 7th end another interesting situation. Homan lead Lisa Weagle attempted a tick on her first shot. She instead tapped the Fleury stone into the back four foot, leaving her rock as a centre guard. Tracy should have thrown a long guard in front of the Homan stone. Instead she chose to come into the rings. The probelm is, Free Guard Zone only stops a team from removing their opponent's guards. Homan was able to play a runback on Lisa's next shot. Of course, that runback left another centre guard and ultimately Homan got into a mess, eventually surrendering a steal of one point. Or was it?

Back to the title of this article. The Fleury team acted like pros in a difficult situation. After the final rock of the 7th end, Homan second Joanne Courtney cleared a Fleury stone that could have been measured. The TV monitor appeared to show it was likely not second shot, but we've seen those overhead cameras lie to us before. Heather Nedohin was certain she had lost to Jennifer Jones in the 2012 Scotties Semi-Finals, but ended up winning the measurement and went on to win the national championship. Team Homan also acted like pros in the situation. Rather than pouting about their mistake or brushing it off as no big deal (as I recall seeing a famous third in mens do in a similar situation many, many years ago), they properly gave the option to Tracy of deciding what her team wanted to do. It is ultimately the non-offending team's choice to decide the course of action. Tracy chose to take a single point and went on to lose when Homan scored a deuce in the final end. Not an easy situation that tradition and curling etiquette creates and many teams don't always take an empathetic position. I recall one instance from my early days in mens where a well known and well liked team from Manitoba made a tough choice against us in an important game. On our skips first shot we tapped a stationary guard with our broom while attempting a hit. Rather than put the rocks where they would have gone (we either would have made the shot or hit the guard and they would would split apart), our non-offending opponent chose to remove our stone from play and keep the guard in its place, actually tapping it back into its original position. Thankfully for us, our skip then made a runback for two points on his next shot and we went on to win the game and knock our opponent out of contention for the provincials.

Homan wins again. Her numbers this year are nearing Steph Curry and Golden State levels. I will enjoy watching them both for the remainder of the season.

Until next time...



Friday, November 13, 2015

A Quick One on The Masters

The National has already started but let's take a quick look at a couple of scenarios from the Masters.

The first situation involves the 7th end of the Men's semi-final between Kevin Koe and Mike McEwen. This would have been a great game to watch but television viewers were instead served a potpourri of shots from all four games taking place. I understand the desire to capture the best shots across all games and the SportsNet crew has improved with this broadcasting approach, but I would prefer to watch a single strong game and see how ends develop rather than jump around. McEwen scored a critical three in the sixth end and we never saw how it happened. Curling's version of the NFL Red Zone isn't something I'm interested in watching but I wonder if other viewers would disagree.

Following a pick on McEwen second Matt Wozniak's final shot, Brent Laing drops a corner freeze into the rings that sits 5th stone and, up two points without hammer, Mike is looking at this:

McEwen is Yellow

Despite sitting first, third and fourth, McEwen is not thrilled with his position. A runback on the corner guard could drive the Laing stone onto his shot on the top four. A straight peel could help but the staggered stones will conttinue to create trouble. At this stage everything Mike does should be to avoid three or more points. He would gladly hand over a deuce right now and take last rock tied into the final end. After some discussion they chose a corner freeze onto second shot. BJ is light with his attempt and sits beside the corner of the red stone in the top twelve. Kennedy then hits and rolls behind cover and things have gotten worse:

McEwen is Yellow

BJ now noses with his runback of the corner guard and when the dust settles Koe is sitting first and second behind cover and fifth stone biting. With a Kennedy hit on the back stone Koe then sits 1,2,3 and 5.

Ultimately, Mike makes two spectacular shots, a triple followed by a runback double and Koe has no choice but to blank the end. The McEwen squad could simply look back at this end and thank their skipper for saving their bacon, or they could examine whether they put themselves in the best position possible.

Consider if they had simply peeled the guard on BJs first shot. Granted, he came light on his freeze attempt and a made shot would have created a better result, but even if he had come into the rings, Koe would have been left some type of hit and roll behind cover or freeze into an expanding pile. If BJ peels, Koe now either replaces the corner guard, freezes to his second shot stone or attempts a hit and roll. Lets look at each:

Corner guard, Mike now can chose to peel or try the same corner freeze with BJs second shot. If he comes light (as he did), we're into the same mess. If he makes the shot, Koe now has one less rock to try and score 3 or more points.

If Kevin freezes to his own rock, Mike can blast the staggered rocks, but will have some risk of jamming the red stone onto his shot stone top 4. Koe would then sit 1,2 and 3 and will likely score three unless Mike is able to make a triple or runback double, depending on where Koe places his first shot. Assuming both rocks are buried, a better choice in this case would be for Mike to hit and roll off his shot stone and remove one or both of the buried red stones. In the case that Kevin is not fully buried, Mike may be able to blast one or more of the reds out of play.

With a hit and roll Koe will have his two rocks close together, Mike can now blast the staggered rocks on his first shot and Kevin will have the option to guard his two stones or draw to the open side to sit 3. If he sits three, Mike should have a high probability of a double (and possibly triple) and Koe will likely end up with his deuce. A guard will leave a runback for Mike to try and kill at least one Koe stone and again, Koe will get a deuce.

I'm not certain trying to corner freeze on BJs first shot is the best decision. I'd prefer to open things up at this stage, and not play further into a draw-behind-corner strategy. However, you can see that all scenarios will result in Mike needing to make a big shot to get out of the end. Interesting how this all resulted from a corner freeze from Brent that left McEwen sitting 3. Reminds me that staggered rocks are a real pain in the derriere and teams should try to create this type of situation when they are behind in order to stymie their opponent.

Women's Finals, 6th end, Homan is up 3-2 with hammer. On second Joanne Courtney's last stone they attempt a difficult soft weight hit (green line) rather than peeling a long guard (blue line).

Homan is Yellow

Perhaps they misjudged the amount of curl, but the shot is swept to get past the guard but does not curl at the end leaving two red stones in the four foot. A poor first shot by Sweeting third Lori Olson-Johns and subsequent hit and roll by Emma Miskew helps Homan escape the early danger. Sweeting then has Lori attempt a long runback (green line) that overcurls for a straight peel and Homan sits 2 with 5 rocks to go in the end.

Homan is Yellow

I'm not thrilled by this call and clearly the nose hit is critical to leave a centre guard that could help them escape the end or even sneak out a steal. They could have instead tried a soft weight hit with the inturn, the exact same shot that Val makes on her first shot two rocks later!

Rachel and her team have some deliberation, before deciding to throw a guard. Commentator Mike Harris asks Kevin and Joan their preferred options. Both are wary of the guard. I agree. Rachel has a one up lead with hammer and clogging up the centre here could leave her without a path for a final draw if the end starts to go badly. Granted, it looks great for her right now, but she is essentially assuming her tight centre guard can be promoted later if she gets into trouble. She is placing stones that give her a chance at a big end but also leave her opponent a possible escape hatch. The problem is, Homan doesn't need to score more than two points. With a deuce her Win Expectancy (WE) = 94%. In fact, scoring 1 is still a great position (WE= 83%) and her only real mistake would be to allow Val to steal (WE=62%).

In the end, Rachel makes an angle raise for two and goes on to win the game. Proving once again that questionable strategy only becomes apparent when it leads to a bad result.

Until next time...

 

 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Of Brooms and Men

Firstly, I want to point out that technology is a wonderful thing. I was schooled as an engineer and have a generally optimistic view that we can avoid a bleak dystopian future (at least until our Sun reaches super nova) by aligning our great scientific minds to create advancements for the betterment of humankind. Just think about what we've already accomplished. The wheel. The printing press. The Internet (brought to you by Al Gore). Figuring out how to deep fry a snickers bar. Inventing a sensor for a new wi-fi enabled fridge that will update your mobile phone to tell you when your meatloaf has gone bad. Yes, the future does look bright, and not just because carbon emissions are heating the planet. This does not mean I'm naive to the possibility we will soon live in a world resembling Bladerunner and have oceanfront property in Arizona. I'm just hopeful we can avoid that outcome with the use of technology.

When it comes to feelings about high tech advancement in Sports, the glass appears more half-empty to me. When I was younger, my favorite players and athletes were "throwbacks" who "play the game the right way". Some of this nostalgia is misleading when you realize that many legendary players were racist, violent and possibly criminal. Yes, I'm talking about Ty Cobb, but there were many others. In any case, I prefered a player like Will Clark, first basemen for the San Francisco Giants over a Deion Sanders of the Cowboys/Braves. Will's Wikipedia page previously (now removed) suggested he could have been a better player if he had exercised on occasion and been in better shape. What's more throwback than that? How could anyone born before 1975 not get choked up seeing classic photos of Guy Lafleur lighting up a cigarette between periods? To me there is more appeal when sports heroes are regular guys and not perfectly shaped athletes who appear to have been built in a lab.

So where am I going with all of this? Brooms of course. Where else did you think we were headed?

The advancement of golf technology has improved my game (or at least kept it from getting much worse), but in the days of balata balls and persimmon woods, it was much easier to determine who was a true shotmaker. Today, everyone on the PGA tour can hit it long and straight. Back then, straight was a skill and length was a marvel.

Tennis seemed more creative when there were wooden rackets, flowing locks and multi-coloured wristbands. The power game of 300 mph serves from NASA composite rackets takes a little something away.

Featherweight goalie pads the size of giant shmoos lowered scoring, but thankfully were reduced in 2008 and again in 2013. This is a rare example of a sport scaling back advances to improve the game.

When the protection or well being of the athlete is considered, technology should be encouraged. Few will argue helmets in football and hockey, or lab designed sneakers that reduce injury in basketball aren't for the better. But golf and curling (Brad Gushue's recent fall not withstanding) generally have less need for advancement in the safety of its competitors.

But what about when technology changes the game? The skills required to excel at golf and tennis have changed based on technology, but people still watch and play the games. In the latter case with more pleasure from those same advancements that have altered the play at the highest levels. There is no doubt broom technology can help the club curler. The fewer heart attacks at the local rink, the better. But what does it do to curling?

Over its history, curling has seen many technological improvements. Most noteably, the move to push brooms from corn and improved ice conditions made the game more precise, but resulted in the need for rule changes to make the game more entertaining. There was a transition that many of us endured during the mid 80s to the early 90s, but thankfully the free guard zone saved the sport from a slew of 2-1 games and possible extinction. Interstingly, the free guard zone was largely driven and supported by the players. Sure, those pesky "old school" Canadians held out for a few years at a conservative 3 rock FGZ while the world moved immediately to 4 rocks, but eventually everyone agreed more offense made more sense, and maybe we'll see the 5 rock FGZ become standard in the future.

The broomgate situation that has exploded in the early stages of this season, also appears to have begun with the players. The governing bodies appear to be behind in taking the necessary steps to properly police those pesky sport scientists who are working on the roaring game. Now they are playing catch-up, and maybe moving a little too quickly. The World Curling Federation released a statement on October 30th that stated "This is a very complex subject...taking the time necessary...we believe it is better to do this "right" than to do it fast". Then they made a ruling in less than week. Not sure how your government operates, but 1 week for this type of organization seems to be relative to the speed of the Berne particle accelerator. Granted, they have stated it is an interm decision and applicable for the Pacific-Asia Championships, being held this week, with further rulings to come.

At stake in the short term is the possible fate of one company (Hardline and its IcePad) and the reputation of another (Balance Plus). Putting claims of corporate underhandedness aside, the key question ultimately raised by this situation is "what impact should sweeping have on the game?"

The rules of curling state something to the effect that equipment should not alter the playing conditions. Strange, because ice has been "fudging" from use of synthetic push brooms since their inception. Before that, the use of corn brooms and their "chaff" dramatically alterted the path of rocks on the ice. The very nature of sweeping is to help alter the conditions of the path of the rock. The intent is that following a shot, the conditions should then revert back to their original state for the opposing team. We know that this is never completely possible, (pebble is being broken down with each swept rock) but at least if the conditions alter in a consistent manner that each team can analyse and adjust to, it could be deemed more competitively fair.

I'm not as concerned with Nolan Thiessen or Ben Hebert's arguement related to physical conditioning and the elimination of "athleticism". The days of corn brooms for 12 ends, three draws a day are long gone and every advancement since has made it easier to sweep well. I'm not so sure the fans care as much as some players might and don't feel that's the primary arguement for scaling back the technology. Even the ability for brushers to make the rock do strange new things (like fall rather than curl) could be argued. Granted, if it reached the point where guards no longer "guard" anything then we're back to 1990 again and no one wants to see that. But if one broom can do "new" things, maybe we should be open to allowing some of this in the game and letting all teams take advantage? I'm not agreeing with this statement, I prefer that sweeping only make a rock straighter and go further, but that doesn't have to be the case.

Fundamentally Curling must deal with answering two questions: what is acceptable for the impact on the speed and direction of a stone from sweeping and to what level should conditions of the surface be altered.

I'm not going to answer these two questions, it's not a simple task. But in a sport that is over 400 years old, is this something that should be handled in the matter of a few weeks? Probably not.

I feel for the folks at Hardline and suggest you listen to Dean Gemmell's latest episode of The Curling Show with Archie Manavian, President of Hardline to get his perspective. You can also check out his previous show with Ben Hebert and Mark Kennedy on the same topic, or read up on the many forum posts on CurlingZone.

Also see CurlingZone's Gerry Geurts recent post here. A must read.

The fact this topic is putting players and their sponsors at odds is unfortunate, and seems to be encouraging a quick resolution, but let's hope the players, manufacturers and governing bodies deal with this properly to lay out a foundation for the future that can satisfy everyone. (Um, not much precedent for this but we can always dream). The good news is the broom issue could be dealt with well before the Olympics and curling getting major news coverage (not just the CBC but home of Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post) is always a good thing.

Enough about brooms. Baseball playoffs are over, The Slams are already two events in and I'm ready to do some traditional CWM analysis. Watch for a Masters write up coming up sometime soon...

 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Long Strange Trip and Improving Relegation

Yes, it's the end of the season and I've fallen short once again to write as much as I would like (or promised).  Maybe I'll get to the Brier Part II mentioned here.  The first ever Match Play event provided an opportunity for new strategy and subsequently new analysis, but my first draft still is little more than a title (and not a great one either).  I managed to provide a brief glimpse at the Women's World Championship, but even that wasn't the length or depth of my usual output.

Now, with TV watching hitting an entirely new level (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Veep, Daredevil, Louie, Orphan Black, Broad City, all while still trying to finish Deadwood), the NBA and NHL Play-offs starting, MLB underway, spring yardwork beginning and golf season arriving early...

There's probably no chance of catching up.

A shame.  

I promise to revisit the Match Play next year as a lead-up to the second annual event.  From what I've read on CurlingZone, many want to forget it even took place.  I'm not convinced it's the highest quality product in the game of curling, but I found it interesting to watch teams thinking through new decisions.  If we can have singles and skins in the Continental Cup, no reason we can't have a Match Play format to mix things up.  With even more Slams coming in future, maybe we need a few more ideas.

The last two games from the Brier were fascinating and had plenty we could examine closer.  The semi-final was an entertaining mess of a battle, with strange turns throughout.  The finals is likely in the top 5 all time, if not top 3.  I'll try to get there eventually.

I went LIVE to the Canadian Senior's Championship, hosted at the Thistle in Edmonton.  No commentary, but a photo to share, the logo of the title sponsor.  I can't recall the last time I've seen event which was so well matched to it's main benefactor.


Almost makes you look forward to the end.


The weekend of the Men's Worlds also put on a wonderful display of drama, heartache and elation, though maybe not the best play we've ever seen.  I'd like to look a closer Team Canada during the semi-final and see if they lost focus, altered their game plan, verbally sparred beyond their comfort, or simply played poorly.

The Player's was fun, most of all for Brad Jacobs and Eve Muirhead.  Teams often receive unexpected gifts during a long run to victory.  It usually does not happen in the final two games, like it did for the team from the Soo.  Disappointing loss for the McEwen squad, an expensive sweeping error that you don't expect to see, but it reminded us that these things happen.  Because we see these top skips cover the button 90% of the time, we sometimes forget one in 10 isn't the same as never.  Just to throw in a little Math...I'd expect Jacob's odds before Wayne Middaugh threw his last shot to be around 20%, leaving a combined chance of 2 in a hundred for Jacobs to win it all.  Odds similar to those they overcame in 2013 getting to the World Finals. Taken from this past CWM article

Canada and Team Jacobs finds themselves again in the 4th spot, without hammer, identical to their position at the Tim Horton's Brier.  (Spoiler Alert), they win this game and the subsequent semi-final against Scotland to make the finals, where they lose to Sweden.  It is still an incredible feat considering they played 6 playoff games, against the strongest teams at each event, without hammer, second choice of rocks, and managed to come up just a few shots short of being crowned World Champions.  If you consider teams to be of equal calibre, hammer should win roughly 60% of the time.  So, if we consider Jacobs equal with Howard and Stoughton (and I expect some people might at this point), and with Denmark and Scotland (debatable perhaps with one of those non-English speaking teams) then their chance of even getting to the World finals following the Brier Round Robin was about 1%.  

Yes kids, 1% or +990.

Fitting to see Jacobs once again overcome long odds in a season full of long shots coming in, with more unexpected outcomes and strange turns than usual.  Makes sense in a year where Relegation finally came to roost at the Briers and Scotties and the curling community became split on what this means for the game.  Here's one more artcile on this topic.  Something I wrote a few weeks back but didn't get around to posting.  May the controversy continue and may the spring last until summer....


Improving Relegation

This article will not debate the merits of having relegation.  There are discussions elsewhere for that and I for one struggle with both sides of the argument. 

This article will instead examine the case of how best to implement relegation with 14 or 15 teams vying to compete in a 12 team Brier or Scotties.

Firstly, let’s establish the tie-breaker process of cumulative draws to the button is ludicrous and should be scrapped.  I hope there is no argument with this statement.  If you are still unsure, I will break it down quickly for you.

In a 3 team Round Robin (RR) there are 2 of 8 scenarios where teams are tied at 1-1.  Calculating estimated outcomes based on strength of team does adjust the number slightly but I still came up with a roughly 24% chance.  This means nearly 1 in 4 times they run this type of qualifier, a team will be leaving the Brier because of draws to the button.  This is bad enough; however, in 6 of 8 scenarios (every time a different team wins the first two games) a greater risk exists.  Depending on outcome of the draws to the button, the final game may not matter and does not need to be played.  There is no place for that type of situation in the Brier and unfortunately, the odds of it happening are much higher than some might realize (I estimate nearly 15% chance from the start of the Pre-qualifier).

Tie breaker aside, the fundamental issue with relegation is the outcome of only 1 spot.  I believe this will become a deterrent to several organizations and will decrease interest in curling and improving the level of play, rather than the original intent of increasing focus and participation.

When Marvin Miller negotiated with Major League Baseball to create a free agent market, MLB owners fought hard to limit the number of free agents that would be available in any given year.  Surprising that these moguls of the business world never realized the negative impact (to them) of supply and demand. The players at first rejected the idea; they all wanted to be given the same freedom to negotiate on an open market.  Marvin was able to convince them that by having limited talent in any given year, demand would increase and salaries would increase for all, not just free agents. 

It’s my understanding Curling Canada originaly proposed 2 teams to be relegated each year and that this was voted down by the curling member organizations and reduced to a single team.  If that is the case, this is short sighted thinking by all of these institutions.

I believe the Brier, Scotties and curling in general would benefit by having a two or better yet, three team relegation rather than single.  If Nunavut participates (and one day they will, otherwise this has all been a mess for no good reason), this would produce a 6 team pre-qualification for 3 spots, rather than a 4 team play-off for one.  You could make a case for even 4 or 5 teams to be relegated but that would create some danger, with multiple tie-breakers in a given event, that nearly every team not making the play-offs would be relegated.  For example, in this recent Brier, if Saskatchewan had lost their final RR game to BC, 7 teams would have been in a tie-breaker or play-off and 5 teams would be left out.  If you consider that Team Canada will never be relegated (the winning team is invited back each year) and the host team is always given an entry, you could have a team that makes a tie-breaker be relegated, and that makes no sense.

Looking at the current structure, there are several issues that having only one qualifier creates.

Firstly, the fan interest is smaller.  With only 4 teams, and 2 or 3 from the north for the immediate future, interest in the games themselves will be limited and TV is not likely to have any interest.  Having just 2 more teams, possibly from more populated provinces, could greatly increase fan interest.  For example, this year Manitoba would be relegated under this format.  I understand how this might anger Manitoba curling, but is there any doubt the Buffalo rep in 2016 would easily move through a 6 team qualifier for 3 spots?  And the drama and excitement of the pre-event would be must see TV for curling fans.

Secondly, with only a single qualifying spot each year, struggling provinces and territories may lose interest and become less focused on trying to gain entry.  If the Brier continues with a single qualifier for the next decade, it’s very likely Yukon, NWT and certainly Nunanvut may go several years (or never) without gaining entry to the Brier.  In the extreme but possible case where a Jacobs, Gushue or Adam Casey were to win the Brier, and their provincial rep the following year were relegated, the following year pre-qualification (should those teams not repeat as Team Canada) would be much less competitive. Either of the Brads would likely steamroll their competition and with only one spot available, teams may feel defeated before even showing up, assuming they decide to show at all (I’m talking about you again, Nunavut). 

With NWT relegated this year, having a single qualifier has moved the old Territories Playdowns to an expenses paid, arena ice event, that will always include a 4th team, one that is more likely to win each year (especially in the scenario described above).  This may have the effect of killing competitive curling in Northern Canada, what I thought was the opposite intent of relegation in the first place.

Yes, adding other teams which are likely stronger may simply mean the northern teams are still unable to qualify, but adding spots creates that much more opportunity for upsets and for teams to have a chance, and isn’t that what they wanted in the first place?.

This also has the potential to create more juggling each year.  A struggling province or territory may get in 2 or 3 times over a decade, rather than never.  This has to benefit curling in that member organization, and considerably more than an established province like BC, Manitoba or Saskatchewan would be damaged by not qualifying for the RR at the Brier for 1 or 2 years out of 10.

Yes, this might scare some fans, sponsors, TV networks and even Curling Canada.  No Manitoba at a Brier, that’s unthinkable!  I can hear it now.  But this format would allow MB a much greater chance to return the following year.  For example, if MB was relegated this year (as they would be under my suggested changes), and Mike McEwen was finally able to come out of Manitoba, there is a slim chance of them being upset in a small format event with only one spot but (given current talent levels) virtually none (or an infinitesimally smaller chance) in the example of 3 spots.

I also prefer a bracket style playdown format rather than a round robin.  With 5 or 6 teams a round robin may not be feasible.  Also, this eliminates the need for draws to button for tie-breakers.  Sure, everyone loves a round robin, but fans don’t seem to mind the structure of the Olympic Pre-Trials, aka Road to the Roar.  Isn’t this pre-Brier trying to accomplish the same thing?

I’m open to other ideas, like running the event earlier than the Brier (again, see Olympic Pre-Trials).  This gives time for fans to make travel decisions and also create a separate TV event and generate additional dollars.  CurlingZone’s Gerry Geurts mentioned to me that maybe these relegated teams wouldn’t draw well, but if 600,000 people can watch a meaningless Bronze medal game, I have to think at least some eyeballs would be drawn to an elimination battle between teams with so much more at stake.

I’m not so much in favour of adding additional entries (based on CTRS for example), or carving up the country into zones, such as the Maritime Playdowns producing 2 teams rather than 4.  But I do enjoy the open discussion and who knows, one day that type of structure may be used, so we better be prepared. 

More changes may yet come to these historic events.  I’m open to ideas and thoughts, but will argue adamantly that if relegation must continue, than a single qualifier event is too limiting, it’s unfair to all and stifles growth and hurts curling across the country.