Before Moneyball: How the Tigers Learned to Embrace the Strikeout

A conversation between Tim Kurkjian and Mark Teixeira on the May 7 edition of “Baseball Tonight” on ESPN reminded us of the following article, which was originally published in The 1992 Elias Baseball Analyst (New York: Fireside, 1992. Print.)  It’s also a reminder that the Moneyball-style approach of identifying undervalued players based on their statistical profiles didn’t begin with on-base percentage.  Nor is an appreciation of power-hitting, high-strikeout players a recent development.

 

The ancient Greek lyric poet Archilochus wrote: The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog just one—one good one.

Epigraphists believe Archilochus was a Detroit Tigers fan.

The Tigers’ one trick echoes ancient Greece, the legendary land of Homer.  Last season, the Tigers hit a major-league high 209 home runs and ranked second in runs scored. They pushed those runs across the plate despite ranking dead last in batting average in the American League and leaving the league’s second-highest total of runners on base.

Along with their homeric exploits, the Tigers struck out impressively.  Four of the American League’s top six strikeout victims were Tigers.  Overall, Detroit fanned 1185 times, breaking the junior-circuit record of 1148 established by the 1986 Seattle Mariners, a 67–95 last-place team.  The Tigers barely missed the 1968 New York Mets’ major league mark of 1203.  The Mets may have been just 12 months away from a miracle, but when they set the strikeout record they scored just 2.9 runs per game and finished ninth in a 10-team league.

Obviously strikeouts are no way to get runs across the plate. When the Mariners said bye-bye to homer-hitting strikeout specialist Steve Balboni a couple years ago, then-Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre said “the game stops” when a Balboni-style batter steps into the box.  Certainly the one time in 20 or so when that slugger hits one out is inspiring and useful, but are the rest of his at-bats merely a waste of time?

In the Cardinals essay of the 1987 Analyst, we showed that teams that advance more than a fair share of base runners on outs tend to score more runs than otherwise similar teams that don’t.  We’ve continued to notice that runners rarely advance on strikeouts.  So if only the Tigers would put the ball in play a little more often, they’d score more runs, right?

We went back into history to examine that supposition, seeking teams with the same offensive characteristics as the 1991 Tigers, but with lower strikeout totals.  Although the ’91 Tigers seem to be a team out of the 1930s (their still-classic period uniforms further enhancing that image), 16 of the 17 most-similar teams played after 1960.  The most similar team we found should warm the hearts of those who believe that ballparks shape ballclubs; it was the 1962 Tigers:

Year G AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO SB BA SLG
1991 162 5547 1372 259 26 209 699 1185 109 .247 .416
1962 161 5456 1352 191 36 209 651 894 69 .248 .411

That’s a close match as far as the condiments go.  Now here’s the beef: One of those Tigers teams scored 758 runs (or 4.7 per game); the other scored 817 runs (5.0 per game), or 7 percent more. And, ladies and gentlemen, the team that scored more runs was last season’s strikeout kings.

O.K., maybe that’s a fluke.  But the odds of such an aberration get longer the further you progress down the list of statistical clones.  You’d be unlikely to mistake any of the following teams for last season’s Tigers in a dark alley. Compare the rest of the 10 most-similar teams, and note that all were outscored by the 1991 Tigers:

Year Team G R R/G AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA SLG
1991 Tigers 162 817 5.04 5547 1372 259 26 209 699 1185 .247 .416
1969 Red Sox 162 743 4.59 5494 1381 234 37 197 658 923 .251 .415
1956 Dodgers 154 720 4.68 5098 1315 212 36 179 649 738 .258 .419
1961 Angels 162 744 4.59 5424 1331 218 22 189 681 1068 .245 .398
1979 Orioles 159 757 4.76 5371 1401 258 24 181 608 847 .261 .419
1985 Tigers 161 729 4.53 5575 1413 254 45 202 526 926 .253 .424
1987 Yankees 162 788 4.86 5511 1445 239 16 196 604 949 .262 .418
1987 Athletics 162 806 4.98 5511 1432 263 33 199 593 1056 .260 .428
1970 Red Sox 162 786 4.85 5535 1450 252 28 203 594 855 .262 .428
1987 Orioles 162 729 4.50 5576 1437 219 20 211 524 939 .258 .418

The fact is that despite—or perhaps on account of?—their ponderous strikeout total, the 1991 Detroit club outscored nearly every comparable team (strikeouts notwithstanding) in recent major league history.  In fact, last season’s Tigers outscored every one of the similar teams until we reach number 15 on the hit list: the 1985 Baltimore Orioles, who scored one more run in one fewer game. We don’t insist you take these figures as an endorsement for strikeouts, or even as a comeback plea for Dave Kingman.  But they make it awfully difficult to claim that strikeouts are a bigger drag on a team’s offense than other outs; they suggest that an out is an out.  A hitter may look pitiful when striking out, but very few look too impressive popping out either.  If a major league hitter wants to avoid strikeouts, it’s likely he can do just that—and tap out to short every time up. But in the modern game, players swing for the fences, and unless they’re Joe DiMaggio that means more strikeouts—but not necessarily fewer runs.

In previous eras, strikeouts were stigmatized, perhaps rightfully so.  A half-century ago, smaller gloves, generally less-skillful fielders, and more-poorly-maintained fields (without carpets, no less) turned many more batted balls into adventures. It made sense to emphasize putting the ball in play, since almost anything could happen.  But this Tigers case study shows that such an approach may not be important any more, if you have a lineup of sluggers doing the striking out.  Besides, when batters strike out, they’re not hitting into double plays and they’re increasing pitch counts, thereby (according to the current statistical vogue) wearing down pitchers and giving base runners more opportunities to steal.

It’s been known for years that home runs help teams win games and players win bigger salaries.  Ralph Kiner said he gripped his bat at the bottom because “that’s where the Cadillacs are.”  Arbitration has institutionalized the connection between statistics and salary, and homers rank among the numbers that pay best. Today’s Tigers seem to be leading the major leagues’ charge toward the one-trick hedgehog, er, pony—or better still, ballplayer. Blame the usual suspects—expansion, the designated hitter, competition for top athletes from other major sports—as more players than ever before stay in the majors on the strength of a single skill.

Football turned the similar narrowing of its players’ skills into a positive by declaring them “specialists.”  Well, last year there were nine specialists in major league baseball as well—defined as players with at least 20 home runs and fewer than five steals, or 20 steals and less than five home runs, while batting at least 10 points below the league average.  And 1991 was a slow year for that sort of thing.  Over the last decade, there have been an average of 11 one-tool wonders per season, with more qualifying on the home-run end than the stolen-base end.  That 11-specialist average for the past decade is higher than every season during the 1970s except one; more than any two years during the 1950s combined (or any three during the 1960s); and more than for the entire decades of the 1940s, 1930s, or 1920s.

Rob Deer typifies the trend; he’s been on the list for the last three seasons.  Surprisingly, he’s the only Tiger in this thicket.  Pete Incaviglia is a two-time specialist, but he didn’t homer enough to make the list in 1991; with no tricks left in his bag, Big Pete wasn’t good enough even to remain on the Tigers roster for 1992.  But striking out a lot and hitting home runs doesn’t necessarily make a player a hedgehog.

Deer fanned 175 times to lead the A.L. last season, en route to his 25 homers and .179 batting average.  He didn’t hit his weight, but Deer is a better (and heavier) than average right fielder, and he walked 89 times, for a .314 on-base average. That’s better than Lance Johnson’s, whose batting average was 90 points higher than Deer’s.  Deer scored as many runs as Don Mattingly and knocked in just four less in 100 fewer plate appearances.  This Deer may be a hedgehog, but he ain’t a worthless one by any stretch of the imagination.

Cecil Fielder is a big burly bruiser who hit 44 homers and struck out 151 times in 1991, with no triples, no steals, and just 25 doubles.  More home runs than doubles often indicates a lumbering slugger, the single-tool stereotype; Harmon Killebrew did it 18 times, the most in major league history.  But Fielder isn’t on the specialist list either, because he batted .261, a point above the league average.  That’s also one point better than Mo Vaughn, the much ballyhooed young slugger, and Robin Yount, the vaunted all-around performer; it’s five points better than John Olerud, the purported natural (actually, we’ve done some of that purporting ourselves) whose spot Fielder could well be filling in Toronto if the Blue Jays had wanted it that way. Fielder also walked 78 times, giving him a .347 on-base percentage.  That’s five points better than Devon White, the reborn leadoff hitter who saved the Blue Jays, and 21 points better than aging but still athletic Dave Winfield.  Of course, none of those other players approached Fielder’s power numbers, and baseball history suggests they never will.  Sure, some of them bring other skills to the table; but Fielder does a lot more than homer and fan, too.

Then there’s Mickey Tettleton, who struck out 131 times last season—the sixth-highest total in the A.L. and his third consecutive season of 117 or more.  He has now struck out 674 times in 2816 plate appearances—roughly one for every four PAs, almost exactly equal to Lew Burdette’s career rate.  But Tettleton also drew 101 walks last year, his second straight season with 100-plus free passes—a nice complement to his 31 homers, wouldn’t you say? All that from a switch hitter and pretty fair defensive catcher, to boot.  Until Sandy Alomar Jr. reproduces his rookie-season numbers, Tettleton could be the best receiver in the American League, if not all of baseball.

Here’s the point: The Tigers picked Tettleton, Fielder, and Deer off the discard pile.  Toronto gave up on Fielder, perhaps understandably, because they fell in love with long, lean Fred McGriff’s left-handed power stroke.  The Milwaukee Brewers let Deer leave as a free agent, replacing the devil they knew with Franklin Stubbs.  And when Tettleton became a free agent after a disappointing 1990 season, the Baltimore Orioles offered arbitration simply to ensure they’d get a draft choice when he signed elsewhere.  Tettleton hit just 15 homers in 1990, down from 26 the year before, although still third most among A.L. catchers. But he also fanned 160 times (a major league record for switch-hitters, if you follow that kind of stuff).  The O’s couldn’t have been too delighted when Tettleton took them up on the arbitration offer; faced with the prospect of paying an unwanted player more than a million bucks, Baltimore traded Tettleton to the Tigers for pitcher Jeff M. Robinson.  This past winter, Detroit signed Tettleton to a three-year deal, while the Orioles released Robinson.

The Orioles can say they needed to make room for minor league slugger Chris Hoiles, who may yet develop into the kind of threat Tettleton already is.  Or they can say they had to cut their payroll in order to accommodate Glenn Davis, a more accomplished slugger.  But you have to wonder how much of Baltimore’s decision to let Tettleton go for so small a price was simply a reflection of the disdain with which most teams regard players who strike out often—no matter what their other skills.

The Tigers are clearly the majors’ most enlightened team on this count, not letting strikeouts cloud their judgments about players, particularly those well suited to their own unique ballyard.  Of course, other factors contributed to the team’s willingness to go bottom fishing.  For years, the Tigers seldom chased big-ticket free agents, allowing much of their 1984 runaway championship team to trickle away, one at a time, uncontested: Ruppert Jones in 1984, followed by Aurelio Lopez (1985), Lance Parrish (1986), Kirk Gibson (1987), Darrell Evans (1988), and ultimately Jack Morris (1990).  And the organization’s farm system, perhaps the most productive of the 1970s when it spawned the foundation for that 1984 title, went dry in the late 1980s.  Last season, Milt Cuyler became the first Tigers rookie since Trammell and Whitaker in 1977 to accumulate as many as 400 plate appearances.  Nonetheless, Detroit’s trawling has yielded several big ones like Fielder, Tettleton, and 20-game winner Bill Gullickson to more than compensate for the flops (like Tony Bernazard and Andy Allanson, who also opened the 1991 season on Detroit’s roster).

Detroit has found its niche for the time being pulling frequent fanners from the bottom of the barrel.  But as other teams realize how they’ve helped restore respectability to the recently helpless Tigers, it could be that the availability of such players will dwindle.  To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, the Tigers are showing the rest of baseball how to stop worrying about the strikeout and learn to love it.  Once those rivals wise up, there might not be any more Fielders or Tettletons to snap up so cheaply; and unless the Detroit farm system regains its lost touch, the big club may be forced to field a lineup of Bernazards and Allansons.  A team of apparent hedgehogs on the field has made the front office look pretty foxy, but they won’t survive in the woods much longer on that one trick alone.

Tinker to Evers to Chance

The following article was originally published in The 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst (New York: Fireside, 1991. Print.)

Unless you remember the Spanish-American War first-hand, you probably think the history of the Chicago Cubs has been all gloom and doom: 46 years since their last National League title, nearly that long again since their last World Series victory in 1908. But if Willard Scott ever happens to throw birthday kisses to a 103-year-old grandma in the Windy City, jot down her name and give her a call.  Wish her 103 more, then ask her about the Cubs of her childhood.  She’ll tell you about the most dominant team in the history of the National League.

Even with that 46-year World Series vacuum, the Cubs’ history has been a successful one.  Take away every game that Ferguson Jenkins ever won for them, every game that Bruce Sutter ever saved for them, and every game in which Ernie Banks hit a home run, and the franchise would still have a record above the .500 mark.  The more recent past may have meant a half-century of frustration, but the golden days of the Cubs franchise go all the way back to the founding of the National League in 1876, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone and Sitting Bull danced on General Custer.

For starters, Chicago is the only team that has represented the same city throughout the league’s entire history. Even the historic Cincinnati franchise—considered the cornerstone of major league baseball—deserted the National League for the American Association for most of the 1880s.  But the Chicago team remained a member club under every N.L. president from Morgan Bulkeley and William Hulbert through Bart Giamatti and Bill White.  The first-year clubs were Chicago, originally called the White Stockings, the Boston Red Stockings (forerunners of the Atlanta Braves), and six other franchises no longer in operation: the Philadelphia Athletics, the New York Mutuals, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the St. Louis Brown Stockings (creative when it came to picking names, weren’t they?), the Louisville Grays, and the Hartford Dark Blues.

Chicago’s first manager was Al Spalding—that’s right, the guy who started the sporting goods firm that bears his name, and who made a fortune on the small, pink rubber balls that most boys and girls slapped around schoolyards until their hormones prodded them toward other diversions.  Spalding’s team won the first National League pennant with a record of 52–14, taking the first of Chicago’s six league titles during an 11-year period from 1876 through 1886.  The names of the team’s stars may be familiar even to current-day baseball fans with little knowledge of the 19th-century game: Cap Anson, King Kelly, and pre-Babe home-run king Ned Williamson (see page 424), to name a few.

Chicago posted winning records in every season from 1887 through 1891 as well, finishing second or third each time, and playing 102 games above .500 for the period.  That kind of record today would earn them a choker’s label.  But in the quaint mind-set of the 1800s, such a performance was probably considered a sign of excellence.  (How blissfully naive!)  The team then scuffled for the rest of the 1890s, but emerged shortly thereafter to become the only team ever to rival the dominance the great Yankees teams would display nearly a half-century later.

Starting in 1904, the Cubs strung together seven consecutive seasons above the .600 mark, four of them at .675 or better. (Only the Yankees had a longer streak, 11 years from 1947 through 1957; none of those teams reached the lofty .675 level.) They won four National League titles and two World Series during that time.  Their record of 116–36 in 1906 remains the best in the majors during the 1900s.  And the foundation of those teams was a trio of infielders whose names have been immortalized, but whose individual talents have been ironically obscured, by a poem entitled “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” written by columnist Franklin P. Adams, which was published in the New York Mail in July 1910:

 

            These are the saddest of possible words,

              Tinker to Evers to Chance.

            Trio of Bear Cubs and fleeter than birds,

              Tinker to Evers to Chance.

            Thoughtlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,

              Making a Giant hit into a double,

            Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble,

              Tinker to Evers to Chance.

 

Tinker, Evers, and Chance played together regularly from 1903 through 1910, a span that would have coincided perfectly with that run of .600 seasons had they not fallen three percentage points short in their first year together.  Because of Adams’s ode, baseball folklore holds that turning double plays was their hallmark.  But never during their eight seasons together did the Cubs lead the National League in making double plays.  On the other hand, a look at the record indicates that all three were excellent hitters and great base runners.  Fielding?  Well … at least we know they were excellent hitters and great base runners.

Actually, at first glance, their career batting statistics only reinforce the common notion that the three reached Cooperstown for their fielding skills. None of them was a career .300 hitter; Chance batted .297, and neither Tinker (.263) nor Evers (.270) was even close.  But the league batting average during the eight seasons they played together was just .250.  By comparison to the other players at their positions, it’s obvious that Tinker, Evers, and Chance were all superior hitters in their day.

From 1903 to 1910, Chance was one of the toughest outs in baseball, batting .302 and ranking eighth in the majors with an eight-year total of 417 walks.  (Hit by pitch statistics are regrettably unavailable for that period.  But even discounting them, Chance—an olden-day Minnie Minoso who crowded the plate—ranked sixth with a .382 on-base average.  If HBPs were included, Chance might leap-frog over Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie, among others, into second place behind Honus Wagner.)  Harry Davis had far more power, but no other first baseman compared to Chance at the plate.  The eight-year batting statistics of all players with 750 or more games at first base during the period follow, along with the average performance for all first basemen telescoped down to the same number of plate appearances as Chance:

 

First Base                  AB           R             H            2B           3B          HR            BB        SB          BA

Kitty Bransfield         3958      382      1041      175        49        13         173     128      .263

Frank Chance            3211      597       970       154        60        16         417     311      .302

Harry Davis               4094      598      1128      239        63        53         346     172      .276

Tom Jones                 3688      320       919       115        30         3          191     134      .249

Fred Tenney              3585      527       984       115        34        10         458     112      .274

Averages                   3388      395       889       131        50        16         241     129      .263

 

Evers was also among the best offensive second basemen of that period, second only to Nap Lajoie.  Similarly, Tinker (a power-hitting infielder by dead-ball standards) and Bobby Wallace ran a distant and inseparable second and third to Honus Wagner among the top-hitting shortstops of the day.  Those who played at least 750 games at those positions from 1903 through 1910:

 

Second Base             AB           R             H            2B           3B          HR        BB            SB          BA

Johnny Evers             3689      552       995       136        45         5       395        257      .270

Miller Huggins          3365      542       879        78        38         5       547        184      .261

Nap Lajoie                4043      577      1379      298        62        24      270        162      .341

Claude Ritchey          3074      338       811       128        40         5       341         61       .264

Jimmy Williams        3449      386       863       146        58        20      290         72       .250

Averages                   3775      445       960       140        48        12      309        153      .254

 

Shortstops                      AB           R             H            2B           3B          HR        BB            SB          BA

Bill Dahlen                3175      383       770       130        22        16      379        159      .243

Mickey Doolan          3010      253       705       133        45         8       165         82       .234

Freddy Parent            3883      453       987       125        57        13      266        152      .254

Joe Tinker                 3957      474      1002      154        69        22      241        222      .253

Honus Wagner           4200      791      1454      294       107        42      440        382      .346

Bobby Wallace          4068      449      1047      171        57         8       366        107      .257

Averages                   3893      441       967       139        48        12      305        165      .248

 

Tinker, Evers, and Chance were no worse than the second-best hitters at their three infield positions.  By today’s standards, they could be Eddie Murray, Steve Sax, and Barry Larkin; or Don Mattingly, Roberto Alomar, and Alan Trammell—in short, the foundation of a potentially awesome lineup, especially when you factor in their base-stealing capabilities.  Notice the stolen-base totals above; during those eight seasons, Chance (2d), Evers (4th), and Tinker (9th) all ranked among the top 10 in the entire majors, Chance trailing only Honus Wagner.

Ironically, fielding—the skill for which Tinker, Evers, and Chance were immortalized—may have been the one at which they were merely ordinary.  As we mentioned earlier, the Cubs didn’t lead the National League in double plays even once during their time together; in fact, they never finished higher than third. Tinker, at least, was a good (though probably not great) fielder, having consistently ranked among the leaders in assists per game.  The same standard of measure doesn’t flatter Evers, however.  The following table shows their major-league ranks at shortstop and second base, respectively, among players with at least 50 games played there in each season; the number of players ranked is also indicated:

 

                    1903     1904     1905     1906     1907     1908     1909     1910

Tinker     5/17      6/18      2/17     10/16     5/18      7/17      6/19     9/18

Evers      10/17     2/17     10/17    12/18     2/18     12/19     7/17    11/17

 

For the period from 1903 through 1910, Tinker’s average of 3.4 assists per game ranked sixth among 17 players with 500 or more games at shortstop; Evers ranked sixth among 13 second basemen with a 3.00 mark.  Neither was a particularly sure-handed fielder, either.  Tinker ranked eighth among those 17 shortstops in fielding percentage, with one error for every 16.1 chances.  (He led the majors in fielding percentage in 1908 and 1913, and led the N.L. in 1909 and 1911.)  Evers ranked only 11th among the 13 second basemen (one error per 19.3 chances). Of course, fielding is the most difficult of all baseball skills to quantify.  But neither Tinker nor Evers turned an inordinate number of double plays; they didn’t field an unusual number of ground balls; and they both made their share of errors—especially Evers.  Have there been any great fielders in major league history who failed to distinguish themselves statistically in at least one of those categories?  Among the three, it was the first baseman Chance who had the best fielding statistics.  That says a lot.

Tinker, Evers, and Chance are all worthy Hall of Famers for their hitting and base stealing alone—especially in light of the N.L. championship teams they played for.  That’s a blessing denied many other great infields in Cubs history: not Cap Anson, Fred Pfeffer, Ned Williamson, and Tom Burns in the 1880s; but certainly Billy Jurges, Billy Herman, Stan Hack, and the first baseman of the month in the 1930s; Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, and Ron Santo in the 1960s; Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, and Leon Durham or Mark Grace in the 1980s.  But as to whether baseball’s most legendary double play combination was anything more than adequate in the field, you’ll have to take columnist Adams’s word for it, if you like.  That leaves only one question: What’s a gonfalon?

Beckham’s breakthrough

Odell Beckham Jr. caught 12 passes for 185 yards in the Giants’ 34–26 loss to the Eagles on Sunday. That completed a nearly unprecedented month of December during which Beckham caught 43 passes for 606 yards. Only two other players in NFL history gained at least 600 receiving yards in December of one season: Calvin Johnson in 2012 (707) and Josh Gordon in 2013 (658).

Beckham also set an NFL record for receiving yards by a rookie in any calendar month, December or otherwise. The previous mark was 596 yards by Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers and it had stood since November 1960. Amazingly, after Groman’s record had stood for 54 years, Beckham fell 3 yards short in November and then broke it in December.

Only two other players in NFL history posted back-to-back months of 500 or more receiving yards, and both were veterans with multiple Pro Bowls on their résumés: Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson (both in 2012).

But that’s not all. A few more bullet points to serve as exclamation points to Beckham’s season:

  • Beckman led all players in receiving yards in each of his last six games, the longest streak ever by an NFL rookie. The previous record was four straight games by John Jefferson of the Chargers in 1978.
  • Beckham had the highest receiving-yards total on both Week 15 and Week 16. The only other rookie in NFL history to do so on consecutive weeks was Don Looney of the Eagles, who had a streak of three weeks in September 1940. Beckham ranked second in receiving yards on Week 17 with a season-high total of 185; Eric Decker caught 10 passes for 221 yards.
  • During November, Beckham set Giants records for pass receptions and receiving yards in one calendar month, and he broke both of those marks in December.

#OBJ

@EliasSports

Donovan & Keane: Almost Unprecedented as Teammates

Enjoy it while you can. Landon Donovan has announced that he will retire after next Sunday’s MLS Cup Final between Los Angeles and New England.  And we may not see another pairing like Donovan and Galaxy striker Robbie Keane for decades.

Donovan and Keane are only the second pair of teammates—at any time, for any team, in any league in the world—to have scored at least 50 goals each for their respective countries. Keane has scored 65 goals for Ireland, Donovan has scored 57 for the U.S.  The first such teammates were Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis with Budapest Honvéd FC (1950–56). Puskás scored 84 goals for Hungary (#50 in 1952); Kocsis scored 75 (#50 in 1954).

When Didier Drogba rejoined Chelsea this summer, it appeared there would be a third club-pairing of international 50-goal scorers. But one month later, just before the start of the Premier League season, Samuel Eto’o was loaned to Everton.

 

Bobcats handle Big 3 as a unit, but Miami sweeps series as LeBron James dominates

The Heat became the first NBA team to advance to the conference semifinals, finishing off a four-game sweep of the Bobcats with a 109–98 victory in Charlotte. It was Miami’s ninth consecutive playoff series won, and its 12th victory in 13 playoff series in the Big Three era. Since the 2003 playoffs, when the NBA adopted the best-of-seven format for every playoff round, just one other team has won 12 series within a 13-series span (the Lakers, from 2008 to 2011).

Remarkably, in the four games against Charlotte, Miami was actually outscored, 191 to 179, during the 91 minutes, 40 seconds for which LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh were on the court together. But during the 46 minutes, 45 seconds for which LeBron was on the court but Wade and Bosh were on the bench, the Heat outscored the Bobcats, 108 to 83.

On Monday night, James led all scorers for the fourth game in a row: 27 points in Game 1, 32 in Game 2, 30 in Game 3, and 31 in Game 4. It marked the third time in his NBA career that James was the outright scoring leader—that is, no teammate or opponent even tied with him—in all four games of a best-of-seven playoff series swept by his team.  He had previously done that twice in 2009, while with the Cavaliers, in sweeps of the Pistons and the Hawks. So LeBron has done that three times; all other players in NBA history, combined, have done it exactly twice! Hakeem Olajuwon did it in the 1995 Finals against the Magic, and Dirk Nowitzki did it in a first-round series versus Memphis in 2006.