By: Edward Egros

Prediction

Who Will Win the Byron Nelson?

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Last year, Sergio Garcia became just the fifth golfer ever to win multiple titles at the Byron Nelson. Given this tournament has been around since 1944, it shows just how difficult it is to predict this tournament.

It does help the field is stronger than usual; eight of the top 20 golfers in the world will participate, including Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and of course Sergio. In fact,
Vegas Insider is giving these highly ranked golfers the best odds to win, most notably Johnson at 5/1. On the surface, this mark makes sense, given he has already won three times this year, more than anyone else on Tour.

But as with most golf predictions I have done, I place an emphasis on
strokes gained statistics. These measurements look at how well a golfer does in each phase of his game, compared with the rest of the field. For instance, strokes gained putting looks at how many putts a golfer needs to complete a hole at a specific distance, so if the average golfer needs 1.5 putts to complete a hole from seven feet, 10 inches, the golfer who sinks the putt gains 0.5 strokes, but a two-putt means they lose 0.5 strokes. These totals are then aggregated for the season.

ShotLink data has this information readily available since the 2004 season. Given the renovations TPC Four Seasons made to the course since that year, this time frame may be enough data for us to have a glimpse into what qualities a golfer needs to have to be successful at this particular tournament. I am using four statistics: Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, Approach-the-Green, Around-the-Green and Putting.

The statistic with the best ranking for success is Off-the-Tee. In other words, how well a golfer does from the tee box on all par-4's and par-5's is the best predictor for winning the Byron Nelson. Here is how golfers ranked in this statistic just before competing in the Nelson:

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Other than Steven Bowditch in 2015, every golfer ranks in the Top 100, often in the Top 60. As of the end of the PLAYERS Championship, here are the top ten golfers in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee

1. Sergio Garcia
2. Dustin Johnson
3. Jon Rahm
4. Tony Finau
5. Bubba Watson
6. Kyle Stanley
7. Patrick Cantlay
8. Justin Rose
9. Hideki Matsuyama
10. Hudson Swafford

Of these ten, only Garcia, Johnson, Finau and Swafford are competing. Finau and Swafford have played this event far fewer times and Swafford has never finished in the Top 30. As for the other two players, Johnson has played at the Nelson seven times and has averaged a score of 68.54, including four "Top Ten" finishes. Garcia has played the event 12 times, has averaged a score of 69.07 and has the same number of "Top Ten" finishes. The difference is, Garcia has won the Byron Nelson twice and also has a third-place finish.

The volatility of this tournament might make this exercise seem foolish, but history does show, three of the five multiple winners won in back-to-back years. I am picking Sergio Garcia to become the fourth to win back-to-back Byron Nelson championships.

Who Wins the FedExCup?

The PGA Tour will award its tenth FedExCup by week's end. This event has not attracted the same fanfare as majors or even other regular tournaments. The TOUR Championship is held during football season, has only been around for a decade and has a scoring system that has changed even in that short window. Still, with $10,000,000 in bonus money on the line for the winner and the best players of the season in the field, it is worth the exercise of predicting this year's champion.

Historically, there has been little fluctuation when it comes to who wins the FedExCup, based upon his ranking the prior week:

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Seven out of nine winners were ranked 5th or better heading into the final tournament. This trend bodes well for Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Adam Scott. However, seven out of nine won the tournament and went on to capture the cup, so much of this prediction exercise involves who will win at East Lake Golf Club just as much as it does forecasting the rankings afterwards.

The course has a par 70, uses Bermudagrass and is 7,385 yards long. Last year, it was ranked the 17th toughest course by score, out of 52 tournaments (and again, this tournament features only the top 30 ranked players in the FedExCup standings). As for more specific statistics compared with the rest of the Tour:

Driving Distance: 12th shortest (284.2)
Sand Save Percentage: 14th best (53.49%)
Greens in Regulation Percentage: 13th worst (62.1%)
Putting Average: 42nd best (1.742)

So far, nothing suggests this course has unique attributes that golfers have to make major adjustments for. The next step is looking at the strokes gained statistics for the last nine winners of the golf tournament, prior to the BMW Championship:

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Winning this tournament seems to require a complete game, though occasionally winners have had negatives strokes gained statistics in putting or driving. This idea does not necessarily eliminate anyone's chances. However, nearly all of them have needed good to great approach games, which is good news for Adam Scott (1st in SG: Approach the Green) and Hideki Matsuyama (2nd).

Often times the winner has also had a stellar World Golf Ranking, which suggests Jason Day or Dustin Johnson could win everything. Five golfers can win the TOUR Championship and hoist the FedExCup without requiring any help thanks to their point totals: Johnson, Scott, Day, Reed and Paul Casey. Given how important momentum can be for winning any golf tournament, these golfers have many reasons to feel confident about their chances.

This idea is furthered when analyzing how much of an advantage the higher-ranked players have heading into the tournament, relative to the rest of the field. Consider this: after the BMW Championship, a player's points are reset to a new number based upon his ranking (to see the updated point totals,
click here). Resetting scores gives everyone a chance to win the FedExCup, even though it wipes away any commanding leads a golfer may have had leading up to the TOUR Championship. The points earned for where a player finishes at the TOUR Championship can be found here.

One way to look at the probability each golfer has for winning the FedExCup is to look at how resetting points improves or worsens each golfer's chances. The most critical assumption in this exercise is every golfer is of the same quality and has the same abilities, so everyone has an equal opportunity to win; their probability to win the TOUR Championship is 1/30, or 3.33%. But to calculate their chances of winning the FedExCup, after resetting points, requires a more rigorous approach. Using
Monte Carlo simulation, I ran 5,000 tournaments and looked at how many times each golfer finished with the highest point total. Their probabilities can be found here:

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As expected, the lower the ranking, the worse the probability. Also as expected, if you were to draw a function to fit these points, it would be logarithmic (the R^2 is .9536 suggests this function captures almost all of the variation). Dustin Johnson has a significantly better probability to win than second-place golfer Patrick Reed. After Reed, the variation levels off. Still, in this exercise, golfers ranked 1st thru 8th have a better probability of winning than if points were completely erased, and whoever won the TOUR Championship also won the FedExCup.

No matter if you are computing probabilities using golfers of similar skill set, glimpsing at historical results or looking at abilities using advanced quantitative measures, the lesson is clear: likely looking at the top of the points list is where you will find this year's season-long champion.

You've Drafted Your Team, Now What?

image1For three days, there is a frenetic pace to the NFL Draft, where specific needs are addressed (or not), value is appropriated for each pick (or not), opponents' draft boards are analyzed and combated (or not) and undrafted free agents are debated and signed. After all of these minuscule details, there comes a bigger picture question: What the heck just happened?

Pundits and perhaps those within each franchise grade these draft classes before anyone attends a rookie minicamp or any single contract gets signed. Though there's always the inexplicable human elements, grading draft classes is becoming easier and more analytically sound.

Last year, the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective posted a blog about
predicting success based upon combine numbers. Some positions are much easier to predict than others. For instance, cornerbacks and outside linebackers with good combine numbers tend to do well in the NFL, whereas quarterbacks and wide receivers are much harder to predict.

Value also matters. Franchises will be crippled if an average player is chosen in the first or second round, while others can be bolstered by picking stellar athletes in later in rounds. Many of these problematic picks happen when a team drafts an offensive skill player.
One research paper suggested 60% of running backs and receivers taken in the 3rd-7th rounds have better average career statistics than those taken in the first and second rounds. The trend with receivers makes sense, given combine numbers not having as much predictive power, but perhaps the trend with running backs is a sign of the times (i.e. the NFL evolving to a passing league). As for quarterbacks, the more highly touted ones tend to have better careers.

So who drafted well in 2016? Without offering clear answers, perhaps surprisingly, the perennial bottom feeders in the Cleveland Browns did well. They took defensive stars with good combine numbers like Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib and, for the most part, waited on skill players in later rounds, including Ricardo Louis and Jordan Payton. Another possible surprise is the Jacksonville Jaguars. Their first round pick was a cornerback with excellent combine numbers in Jalen Ramsey. They also took defensive risks like Myles Jack and Sheldon Day, also suggesting they are focusing on addressing some of their bigger needs. As for the uncertainties, obviously the Rams and Eagles gave up a lot for quarterbacks who may or may not pan out, but the Cowboys, Texans and Redskins also drafted skill players in the first round who will be tougher to predict if they can translate to wins.

What we're learning with the latest research is the NFL Draft is not the crapshoot it once was. It will never be perfect, but it is also becoming clearer which teams are heeding this research and who prefers considering non-analytical advice.

Predicting the Masters

IMG_3374Jordan Spieth is and should be one of the favorites to win the Masters. He's had two starts at Augusta National, finished tied for second in 2014 and won it in 2015. He also has a PGA Tour victory in 2016, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

But, the PGA Tour's website is predicting someone different. Using an analytic formula, the site says
Phil Mickelson will win the green jacket. There are three variables used: the overall rankings for driving distance, putting and scrambling. Mickelson has the best ranking when combining all three variables, and by a lot. The second-place golfer, Jason Day, is 38 "points" lower than Mickelson but only ten points better than third and fourth place (Marc Leishman and Rickie Fowler, respectively). If this formula is completely accurate, Spieth will finish 7th.

Though the simplicity of the formula can be appreciated, any Masters prediction should include past performances. This variable is highly predictive. It explains why Fred Couples finished in the Top 20 in five of the last six years, even though he has played on the Champions Tour since 2010. It might also explain why the Masters remains the only major championship Rory McIlroy has yet to win (he has finished 8th or better the last two times at Augusta National).

Even when adding this variable, it does not take away from the argument for Mickelson. After all, he has won a pair of green jackets and finished tied 2nd in 2015, four strokes behind Spieth. It is also worth noting, of the 48 different golfers who have won the Masters, 17 won it multiple times (35.4%). Look for Mickelson, Spieth or Adam Scott to finish atop Sunday's leaderboard.