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No asterisk required. Appreciating the game breaking season of Trevor Baptiste

Pro lacrosse has its fair share of records that are considered to be unbreakable. At this point, Paul Rabil’s 657 career points is a mark that no one is going to approach any time soon. John Grant Junior’s 393 records doesn’t seem like it will be in reach for anyone. Brodie Merrill and Greg Gurenlian both are sitting on 1,120 career ground balls, the next closest is Matt Bocklet with 730, and nobody else has more than 700. Gurenlian’s ground ball mark, even if Merrill does play again and picks up just one more ground ball to become the sole leader, is in the stratosphere. But it’s not Gurenlian’s only record.

In the 2015 season, when he won league MVP, Gurenlian went 280-382 facing off, for a record setting 73.3% faceoff mark. The sheer volume of draws taken, and the pace at which he won them, was staggering. The 73.3% mark was one of those records that didn’t seem like something anyone would approach in the near future. Other specialists around the MLL at the time included, to name just a few, Anthony Kelly, Greg Puskuldjian, Chris Mattes, Brendan Fowler, and a promising rookie named Joe Nardella. Not exactly lightweights. The Bayhawks were the only team really hurting at the position, using Charlie Raffa and CJ Costabile for most of their draws

And now here we are in 2023, and the faceoff landscape is…different. The PLL instituted a new rule this season, which sets the shot clock to 32 seconds after a faceoff win, down from 52 seconds in years past. At the beginning of the year, teams still played faceoffs basically the same way they always had, just trying to sub more urgently and play aggressively to get a good look at the goal in a short time. Things changed drastically in week three when the Atlas played Waterdogs. Coach Andy Copelan decided, mid game while trailing, against using a faceoff specialist entirely, opting instead to use a long pole on the draw and force Trevor Baptiste to go backwards. In doing so, they focused on holding up the Atlas clear and disrupting the sub game as much as possible, forcing them to play offense with very little time left on the shot clock which led to poor possessions and turnovers. The Waterdogs would take over with the full 52 seconds on the shot clock, and they rode this strategy to a massive comeback win. The Waterdogs haven’t dressed a faceoff specialist since. The Cannons have adapted the same strategy, and the Chrome have made Connor Farrell, an all star at the position, a healthy scratch in a pair of games this season. The tactic has taken on the name “the faceoff prevent”, ironically dubbed this Gurenlian.

The Prevent, at its core, surrenders the clamp and the ground ball to the opposing specialist, choosing instead to try and dictate where the ball goes from the faceoff and eat up the short shot clock. As a result, some of the most lopsided faceoff games we’ve ever seen are getting logged on a weekly basis. Baptiste went 31-36 against Waterdogs, 27-31 against Cannons, 21-22 against Chrome, all three were games where the opposition didn’t dress a faceoff man or gave up on using one, and ran the prevent. The Atlas lost all three of those games. This past weekend in Denver, Waterdogs ran it again, Baptiste went 23-28, and the Atlas lost.

I counted up 11 games this year where one team primarily ran the prevent and didn’t even dress a faceoff man while the other team did. In those games, the team running the prevent is 8-3. The Waterdogs alone are 4-1. The faceoff specialists in those games are a combined 271/301, a 90% win rate.

The Prevent being the tactic of choice for multiple teams has made that Gurenlian mark of 73.3%, once thought maybe untouchable, to become not only breakable, but by a strong margin. In fact, this season it’s possible multiple specialists will surpass the mark. Baptiste is currently facing off at 77.3%. Farrell is at 69.8%, and Mike Sisselberger is at 68.7%. Baptiste is a safe bet to clear the mark and set a new record, Sisselberger is the next most likely candidate, since he still has a game remaining against Waterdogs who will run the Prevent against him. Sisselberger went 33-36 the last time he played the Waterdogs, 92%.

The breaking of Gurenlian’s record looks to be inevitable. And as such, the conversation has become, does whatever the new record is deserve an asterisk?

The asterisk gets thrown around a lot in sports. Sports talk shows know it’s a popular formula for engagement to have the “player did this, but it doesn’t count because that” type conversation. Baseball’s home run records are wracked with discussion about who has the number that really counts versus who doesn’t because they were using performance enhancing drugs. A common refrain among fans is to just put an asterisk by it. Let history know that yes, this thing happened, but this mark right here means we really aren’t sure if we should count it or how we feel about it. The record broken by playing outside the rules. The championship that ends up being vacated. The asterisk is there to say this wasn’t done the same exact way as the other guys did it so we need to note that somehow.

The asterisk is now finding its way to the lacrosse record book discussion. When Baptiste breaks Gurenlian’s record this season, there will be plenty of calls for the notorious mark next to it. Baptiste spent several games winning draws against non-specialists, piling up wins and drastically improving his percentage. A look through game logs shows Baptiste taking 106 faceoffs this season against over a dozen different non-specialists, and winning 95 of them. That’s just under 90%. That’s 47% of Baptiste’s faceoffs taken coming against non-specialists. It’s a big sample, and that level of dominance absolutely will skew the season stats for him. Other top tier specialists are experiencing the same sort of thing, but Baptiste, because he’s already an all time great, is in a class by himself.

Don’t sell him short. It’s lazy to suggest his stats are where they are this year because he’s being conceded wins. Against other specialists this year, Baptiste has taken 119 draws and won 79 of them. That’s just over 66%. That percentage alone would be one of the best pro lacrosse has ever seen. It would be the second best of his career for a season, only behind last year. Baptiste won the league MVP a season ago facing off at 70%. In essence, Baptiste has forced other teams into a situation where they decided that it’s not even worth trying to beat Trevor Baptiste. There’s really never been anything like this before.

And that brings us back to the little mark for records. The asterisk. In the baseball example above, who gets the asterisk? Barry Bonds? Mark McGwire? Some have called for the Houston Astros to get an asterisk by their World Series Championship when it was later revealed they were signaling their batters what pitches were about to be thrown, should that happen? And the reasoning for applying the mark in all these cases is the same. They cheated the game somehow. They broke the rules to get their achievement, so we need to let everyone know. With that as a criteria, why should Baptiste get an asterisk?

What rules is Baptiste breaking? What has he done to gain some sort of unfair advantage, some edge that couldn’t be obtained legally? Is he forcing other teams to decide not to faceoff against him? And if you try to answer that yes, you have to come to the conclusion that the way he is forcing teams to do that is just by being better than everyone who ever played the position. Nothing else to it.

You know who doesn’t have any asterisks next to his stats? Wilt Chamberlain. Maybe the most dominant basketball player of all time, owner of some of the most absurd statistical marks the sport has seen. 100 points in a game. Averaging 50 points and 25 rebounds per game for a season. Averaging over 48 minutes a game for a season despite NBA games only being 48 minutes long. Chamberlain was a force of nature. And played entirely within the rules. He was so dominant, the NBA changed rules because of the way he played. You could no longer dunk free throws (Chamberlain did that). They added offensive goaltending. Chamberlain was simply too good for the game as it was meant to be played while he played it. And there aren’t any asterisks next to his stats. Not next to his 100 point game or anything else.

Lacrosse legend Jim Brown was so dominant at Syracuse that the rules were changed for him as well. Because he could just hold his stick still and close to his body, he’d charge through everyone on the field, an unstoppable force in the game. Rules were changed so that players were required to keep their stick in motion as they had the ball and ran, meaning Brown could just hold his stick still and tight against himself. There are no asterisks for Jim Brown’s lacrosse career or stats.

Baptiste is entering that territory for the pro lacrosse world. He’s simply too good. He was changing the course of games by himself even though lacrosse is a 10v10 game. Having a great faceoff specialist was always going to give a team an edge, but Baptiste had reached a class by himself and nobody else was close. The rules were changed this year, and while they were sold on being put in place to increase pace of play and speed everything up, it was also immediately clear they were reducing the impact of the faceoff specialist. Baptiste had just gone 70%, heavily tilting possession towards the Atlas in a way that became borderline impossible to counter. He won the MVP. And there were no signs of him slowing down, but actually signs of him getting even better. He added better stick skills to his arsenal, his time playing indoors was starting to show up in his outdoor game. It would be reasonable to wonder if the Baptiste, incredible as he was, maybe hadn’t even hit his ceiling yet.

To asterisk his season this year is to punish him and his place in history. Like it would punish those who someone cheated their way to a record. Baptiste being the best to ever do it isn’t cheating. When we look back at the careers of Chamberlain in basketball and Brown in lacrosse, the discussion includes the context of the times. Chamberlain was so good they changed multiple offensive rules. Brown was so dominant he’s responsible for the early iterations of some stick rules we have in the modern game. They didn’t cheat. They dominated at a level so high it forced evolutions in the sport. Baptiste isn’t cheating, he’s forcing coaches across the PLL to throw up their hands and say, we just can’t beat him, let’s see if we can turn the new rule against his team somehow.

When he breaks the record this year, it doesn’t need an asterisk, it doesn’t need qualification. It just needs the context of Baptiste’s dominance. Whether you consider Baptiste or Gurenlian the best ever. When Baptiste inevitably goes to the Hall of Fame, this stat will assuredly be talked about again. The discourse will likely be about how he broke the record the year they changed the rule about the shot clock. Just make sure the discourse also covers what happened the year before that rule changed.


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