22 April 2017

...And Another Career Ended a Day Later

Add to the roster identified yesterday Josh Hamilton, the Greek tragedy of Baseball, whose Great Fall preceded a Phoenix-rise and then a fall back into ashes. At 36, Hamilton was released from his Minor League contract with the Texas Rangers after sustaining yet another knee injury.

Just to recap, Hamilton was the first pick in the 1999 draft by Tampa, a chiseled, 6'4" blue chip whose rapid ascent to the Majors was derailed by drug addiction. He fought his way back and debuted with the Reds in 2007. Following a trade to Texas for pitcher Edinson Volquez, Hamilton busted out in 2008, hitting .304 with 32 homers and a league-leading 130 RBI while staffing center field. 

Two years later, his .359/.411./.633 led the American League and won him the MVP, but the seeds of his demise were planted the year before when he missed half the season with a variety of injuries. He played 140 games just twice after that.

Cashing In
Despite all the missed time, Hamilton finished the Texas portion of his career averaging .305 with 28 homers and 101 RBI. Though he performed poorly in the playoffs and was booed by the fans, Anaheim signed him to a five-year, $125 million contract that they would regret.

Injuries and drug relapse characterized the next three years, during which Hamilton averaged .255 with 13 homers and 49 RBIs and was, because of the drug issues, far more trouble than he was worth, the massive contract aside. Anaheim essentially gave Hamilton back to Texas, where he contributed little before getting hurt again. 

Shorn of his playing value, Hamilton lost all of 2016 to knee surgery. In January, the Rangers signed him to a Minor League contract and in February he underwent left knee surgery, delaying his debut on the farm. Yesterday, the team revealed they had cut him loose after he inured his right knee while rehabbing the left one.

Turn the Lights Out: It's Over
It's hard to imagine that Josh Hamilton's career has any more legs. He has missed 367 games (and counting) over the last three-plus seasons, produced about two wins over replacement during that time, requires constant chaperoning to keep him on the wagon and will be bearing down on 40 if and when he is ready to return to baseball. There aren't many teams clamoring for an old, oft-injured slugger who can no longer play the outfield and is dragging around heavy personal baggage.

That is a fourth prominent sports career that may have effectively ended with an announcement the last two days.

21 April 2017

Three Great Athletes We Probably Said Goodbye to Yesterday

Three spectacular sports careers appear to have come to an end yesterday and it's not clear that people are much noticing. Two of those careers ended for all practical purposes years ago. In one case, the sporting public continued to fixate upon the athlete as if he were still at the top of his game. The other has been largely forgotten. And then the third has sprung news upon the world that might mean the denouement of her amazing career, though we can't be sure.

I'm referring, of course, to Tiger Woods, David Wright and Serena Williams. Woods and Williams are, or were once, considered the greatest athletes who ever played their sport. Wright might simply be the greatest Met ever, though that accolade depends largely upon Tom Seaver's 10 seasons elsewhere.

Serena, Greatest of All Time
Williams, the most decorated tennis player ever and at 35 still the best female tennis player in the world, announced yesterday that she is pregnant. The media reported this development in great detail, though it seemed to consider the identity of the father, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, to whom Williams became engaged in December, as an afterthought. Regardless, she says she expects to continue playing after giving birth, but she will be 36 and her attention will be attenuated. It is fair to assume that her dominance has ended as her morning sickness begins.

Tiger, Almost the Greatest of All Time
Serena and Tiger Woods share key attributes with regard to their sports, even beyond their transcendence. Both were racial trailblazers, dragging golf and tennis into the 20th century in their acceptance of black athletes. Both transformed the physique of the average athlete in their sport. Woods's influence appears ephemeral in the former; Williams's in the latter. Additionally, both athletes displayed emotion on the battlefield, something altogether novel on the links, if not on the court.

Unlike Serena, (each needs but a first name to be recognized) Tiger has been a has-been for years. He abdicated his golfing throne on Thanksgiving Day of 2009, when his marital issues spilled into the public consciousness. Knee and back injuries have derailed him since, with a yearlong hiatus from March 2013 to May 2014 when he briefly recaptured the world #1 ranking. But since back surgery that year, Tiger has hardly played, and hardly mattered to golf, except in his absence. News of a fourth back surgery at age 41 is likely the final nail in the coffin of his career on the links and also of the headlines about his absence.

Wright, Mr. Met
David Wright, 34, who from 2004-2010 hit .305 and averaged 24 home runs and five wins against replacement, and who was tabbed by Bill James after the 2008 season as the one ballplayer he'd start a team with, has been hampered by back issues for the better part of this decade. He's suited up for just 75 games since 2015 and requires hours of stretching and treatment just to get on the field of play. His return to the 60-day DL yesterday suggests that there really is no endgame here, except to hang around long enough to collect the last $67 million he is contractually owed over the next four years (2017 included.) At this point the Mets would be wise to work out a deal that pays him off and opens a roster spot for a third baseman who can actually play the position.

This triumvirate has earned something like half a billion dollars from their sports and many millions more in endorsements, so no one is crying for them. But every next tournament win for Serena would have been a new record; every Major for Tiger brought him closer to the mountaintop; and every game played, at bat, hit, run scored, RBI, and walk for Wright extended his career Met record. And now they probably won't happen.

It's a good reminder that young athletes who look like Mt. Rushmore material now can easily be derailed by injury or even by life. We very possibly said goodbye to three of the greatest in their sports all on the same day in April of 2017.

18 April 2017

A Tour Down the Thames

We've seen it before. In the first 27 games of his career, Shane Spencer hit .373 for the Yankees with 10 home runs. In the six seasons that followed he hit .257 with 49 home runs. Pitchers made an adjustment, Spencer adjusted to the adjustment. Pitchers further adjusted and Spencer didn't have much of an answer.

So I don't want to make too much of Eric Thames. He's burst out of the gate for Milwaukee with a 1.479 OPS and 7 home runs in just 12 games. He's already been worth more than a win against replacement, about what Travis d'Arnaud has been worth in his career. It's fun and exciting and we know it won't last.

On top of that, he's an immobile first baseman best positioned at DH. If he sinks to league average at the plate he's got little value to the Brewers.

But there is a reason to think he won't sink to average. In fact, there's a reason to believe this isn't all that surprising. The reason is Cecil Fielder.

I mean, a 1.479 OPS is always surprising even if Miguel Cabrera produces it. But the thing about Thames, as I mentioned in a season preview, is that he showed some muscle in his two Major League half-seasons before getting his head straight in South Korea. He terrorized KBO pitching and earned the nickname "God" while he was there. (Evidently Koreans believe in a one-tool god.)

This is all reminiscent of Fielder, an immobile slugger without much to show for his first four years in the Bigs before lighting it up in Japan. Upon his return, Fielder smashed 160 homers and earned 15 WAR in his next four MVP-candidate seasons. Others have done the same: work out the kinks overseas and then bring the improved skills stateside.

Will Thames follow in Fielder's footsteps? That's a tall order. Fielder had a fuller resume than Thames when he left -- for one year -- and returned at age 26. Thames, gone for four years, is 30, the age at which Fielder lost his star status. On the other hand, Thames is a physical specimen, something only the World Eating Federation would have said about Fielder.

We know for sure Thames won't put up a 1.000 slugging percentage. It will be fun to see what he does manage to do. I'm rooting for him. As we say in Korea, 행운을!

17 April 2017

Because PItching is Harder Today, That's Why

The biggest criticism I hear from itinerant baseball fans today about the 21st century player is astonishment that pitchers are such weenies.

Tommy John threw 200+ innings seven times after his eponymous surgery (five times prior), peaking at 276 innings in 1979 at age 36. John hurled 162 complete games in his career, more than all of Major League Baseball racks up in a season.

So why can't some 240-pound stud last into the seventh without replacing his ulnar collateral ligament?

Answer: See the title of this post.

Behemoths With Bats During Tommy John's career in the 60s and 70s, and even into the early 80s, every lineup was stocked with batters, often including a pitcher, who couldn't reach the centerfield fence if you spotted him second base. Bud Harrelson anchored the Miracle Mets' World Series run in 1969 weighing in at 160 pounds with change in his pocket. Harrelson produced seven home runs in his 16-year career and I'd be willing to bet my Toyota Yaris that at least four of them rolled around the field of play while he circled the bases.

In 2016, even a novelty like Jose Altuve, all of 5'5" and 165, pokes 24 home runs in a season.

In fact, the year of Tommy John's return from elbow surgery, there were 86 players listed at 175 pounds or less who made 300 plate appearances. Last year, there were 12. That same year, 102 players with 300 PAs tallied fewer than five home runs. That's three or four semi-regulars per team. Last year, there were 31 -- one per team.

Back then, a pitcher could cruise through much of the lineup secure that only a couple of bats were capable of doing real damage. Today, every single pitch matters.

Rougned Odor, Keystoner, 33 Jacks
To counteract this, or rather to survive it, MLB teams grow tight ends who can light up radar guns. (Literally, in the case of Jeff Samardzija.) And they throw pitches Tommy John never heard of, like cut fastballs, 90-mph change-ups and 75 mph knuckleballs. They are being bred to snap off breaking pitches that scratch the corners at high velocities. They are not being bred to go the distance. For that, they raise relief pitchers, cultivated for their triple-digit heat, now crowding bullpens that held two or three second-string arms in Tommy John's day. The late innings are their dominion, not the starter's.

In the 70s, more than three-quarters of at-bats ended with a ball put in play. Pitchers could serve it up and allow their fielders to handle the batted balls. Today, about two-thirds of balls are put into play. That's about 650 more walks, strikeouts, and home runs per team each season, which means more pitches thrown per at bat. Today, every one of a starter's 100 precious pitches is delivered with maximum effort to 6'4" shortstops who can crank it out to the opposite field. There are no more Jerry Kenneys, the Yankees' 170-pound shortstop with a lifetime .299 slugging percentage.

Put it all together and you get 21st century baseball. Pitchers aren't wusses today and their ligaments aren't any more tender; in fact, they're bigger, stronger, better conditioned and more adept than ever before. They just have a more strenuous job.

16 April 2017

12 Things We've Already Seen in 2017

We're two weeks into the season, not nearly enough time to draw any conclusions. But there's plenty to keep our eyes on. Here are 12 interesting things we've seen:

  1. On the same day that the Cardinals' Carlos Martinez walked 8 and fanned 11 in five innings against the Yankees, Jacob deGrom whiffed 13 with one walk against the Marlins. Neither pitcher earned a win.
  2. Milwaukee first baseman (and Korean baseball legend) Eric Thames is batting .382 with five home runs after four years out of Major League baseball. 
  3. The woeful Cincinnati Reds own the best record in the NL, in part because they have nothing to lose. Team brass has decided to use their bullpen optimally, with top reliever Raisel Iglesias serving as fireman, not closer, and the next three best bullpen pieces -- Drew Storen, Michael Lorenzen and Tony Cingrani, pitching whatever number of innings they are needed. The results so far have been stellar and bear further observation. 
  4.  It's way too early to panic, but Toronto's 1-9 bodes poorly. In the last 12 years, no team starting 1-9 has finished above .500. But they're 2-9 today and if they're 3-9 tomorrow the equation shifts in their direction.
  5. If you're looking for signs from Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper, keep looking. Cutch is hitting like last year; Harper a little better than career average, 50 plate appearances in.
  6. There was a lot of off-season discussion about why no team had rushed to bring Joe Blanton on board, after two excellent seasons as a reliever. Perhaps this is why: 0-2, 6.43 so far this season for Washington. But no walks, seven strikeouts and a WHIP of 1 suggest better times ahead.
  7. The White Sox held onto ace Jose Quintana (i.e., the ace once Chris Sale was dispensed) for a better haul mid-season than was being offered in the winter. How's that working out, 0-3, 6.75?
  8. The Best Start Award goes to Ervin Santana. The 13-year veteran, now toiling for the Twins, is off to a 3-0, 0.41 start in 22 innings. He's allowed just five hits and struck out 15.
  9. His teammate, highly touted outfielder Byron Buxton, might have earned the Worst Start Award. A one-for-three day yesterday got him to .100/.143/.150 with strikeouts in 53% of his at bats. Minnesota is going to let him figure it out with the big club; it's not as if they're going anywhere without him.
  10. Chris Sale has lasted at least seven frames for his new team, allowing 0-2-1 runs. His Red Sox teammates have scored 0-1-2 runs for him. He could have stayed in Chicago for that.
  11. In case you're wondering, the Royals' revolution is over. If you think they're bad this year, wait 'til you see the tear-down that starts next year.
  12. The broadcast of the Braves' opener at Sun Trust Park was a craven three-hour commercial for the new stadium and its titular sponsor. The announcers, Joe Simpson and Chip Caray, extolled the park and allowed company brass to croon about serving the fans, unchallenged. They should hand in their journalist cards right now and preface every broadcast with a consumer warning that they are wanton shills for their employers. Abandoning beautiful Turner Field after just 20 years for a new park in the suburbs, where the white people live and will be saddled with its unnecessary costs, was an abomination. And the new park itself? Not a single interesting feature, as far as I could tell.

05 April 2017

On the Edge of Our NBA Seats

Evey year at this time, with just a handful of games left in the NBA season, some enterprising sports journalist writes a story that says, essentially, that various playoff races are building to their exciting conclusions.

The Bias of Sports Media
Many Americans believe that American journalism is guilty of a left-right partisan bias. Generally people who say this are revealing their own left-right partisan bias. But there is a significant bias in American news media: a bias for news.

It's why all kinds of irrelevancies bubble up as news, and often last for weeks. Witness this week's dust-up over the inevitable confirmation of a highly-qualified Supreme Court judge. American journalists have wrung weeks of stories out of this controversy, even though the result is a foregone conclusion.

Which brings us to the ineluctable stories about NBA playoff races. The writers of these pieces know that battles for seeding are nonsense, that way more teams are allowed into the tournament than have any hope of winning the title, and that the best team doesn't have to nab the top seed. But they want a story, so they put on the blinders and outline the races. (Also, their employers own the broadcast rights to these shenanigans.)

Who's the #1 Seed? Who Cares!
For example, there is uncertainty about whether Cleveland or Boston will take the top seed in the East. We all know it hardly matters, because both Cleveland and San Antonio have won recent NBA titles as the two seeds in their conference. The big advantage of finishing first is a home game 7 in a series two months from now.

Then there is the battle for three and four in the East between Toronto and Washington. Are you seeing the humor in this? If the seeds are 1. Boston 2. Cleveland 3. Toronto 4. Washington, the ostensible second round match-ups are the same as if the teams finished 1. Cleveland 2. Boston 3. Washington 4. Toronto. If your goal is to avoid Cleveland, it's not clear that you want to nail down the third seed.

Even more significant are the races for the last playoff slots. Where you sit isn't nearly as important as simply getting a seat at the table. Two games separate Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Indiana and Milwaukee with four spots available. Sounds compelling, until you consider that these thoroughly mediocre teams are just cannon fodder. LeBron James could beat any one of them himself.

In the West, the intrigue is around whether Portland's losing record will edge Denver's losing record for the right to get slathered by Golden State in the first round. Or is it whether Utah or the Clippers will earn the fourth seed? The stakes are high, because if Utah wins that race, they play the Clippers in the first round. Whereas if L.A. jumps up a seed, they get the Jazz in round one. 

All of this is utter rubbish, of course. The regular season is just a preliminary bout. The first round of the playoffs is just warm-ups. They could skip the first two rounds of the playoffs altogether and eliminate the need to seed anyone. Let Golden State and San Antonio square off for the right to host the Cleveland-Boston winner, and we won't have the charade of .500 teams filling up the bracket.

Instead, we'll have another week of this dreck. And don't even get me started on hockey.

04 April 2017

Save the Save...for the Dustbin of History

It only took one day. One day to remind us of the save's utter fecklessness, and to make us wonder anew why it hasn't been retired to the junk pile, along with the game-winning RBI and the hold.

I refer to the Opening Day tilt between the Phillies and Reds, very possibly a match-up of divisional basement residents. In that game, the Phils held a 4-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth when they brought in their closer, Mr. Jeanmar Gomez.

Jeanmar the Bullpen Keystone
Ol' Jeanmar earned his closer stripes by notching 37 of 43 saves last season, and also by sucking somewhat less than the rest of the Philadelphia bullpen. In his 69 innings, he allowed a 1.46 WHIP, a .289 batting average and 4.85 ERA. Baseball-reference.com suggests his value was less than replacement level.

Maybe some of that was the immobile, aging defense the Phillies rostered behind him. With the detritus cleared out, maybe Gomez is a better pitcher than those numbers indicate.

Saving the Victory
Well, don't tell yesterday that. Needing three outs to earn a save, Gomez got one, allowed a Zack Cozart single, fanned another and the watched mighty Scooter Gennett take him yard. I don't know anything about the single, but I doubt the dinger could be blamed on Ryan Howard's iron glove, even if he were still playing.

Gomez settled down to coax out number three for a 4-3 win and the save. 

Gomez earned the save solely because the Phillies had the foresight to craft a three-run lead. Consider this: 
  • Had Gomez entered a 2-1 game he would have earned a loss. 
  • Had he entered a 3-1 game a blown save would stain his record. 
  • A 5-1 score would not have provided him with a save opportunity. 
This is a very wise policy. At this rate, the Phils will win all their games, Jeanmar will break the saves record and small children 50 years from now will sing paeans to his door-shutting powers. The 18.00 ERA will be lost to history. 

Which should be the fate of the save.

02 April 2017

Go Game Vaginas!

Shouldn't the South Carolina women's basketball team be called the Game Vaginas?

Whatever you call them, they are now NCAA champs.

 I get to crow about that as a resident of the state of Sa' Calina, once described as too small to be a state and too large to be an insane asylum.

It's been quite a year sportswise for a state without a single major professional team.

The USC women hoopsters have achieved the pinnacle.

The South Carolina men's team beat the odds to make the Final Four.

The Clemson football team is the reigning national champ.

And Coastal Carolina University sits atop the throne of the NCAA baseball world.

We're very proud here. Front page news everyday. It distracts us from the fact that our schools academically rank somewhere in the vicinity of 113th among states in the union, just behind catatonia and just ahead of Mississippi.

Go 'Cocks. And other South Carolina appendages.

31 March 2017

10 Predictions for 2017 That Can't Go Wrong

Anything can happen in baseball. The season is as long as a butterfly's entire life and then they start all over again to determine the champs. Balls take funny bounces, key ligaments incur the wrath of sliders and strokes get lost or discovered.

The game defies prediction.

And yet, there are events that can be foreseen by dropouts with bad depth perception. Here are a few that jump to mind:

1. Someone with an unimpressive resume will bash out of the gate, Adam Duvall style. Hosannas will be sung; articles will be written. And before the electrons are dry, pitchers will figure him out and he'll fade back to well-compensated oblivion.

2. Some September cellar occupant will rattle off early season wins. Try not to have an orgasm. The blooms of May are long forgotten by Labor Day.

3. Some dope with a microphone in his face and diminishing brain cells will rant against analytics, unaware that the debate is over, every team employs a gaggle of numbers crunchers, and MLB itself puts a tape measure and radar gun on every ball thrown, hit and chased. Just because a guy could snap off a curve -- or hit one -- in the 70s doesn't make him smarter than a Pet Rock. (That's White Sox resident Bozo Ken Harrelson proudly posing as avatar of this prediction.)

4, We will continue to hear about momentum, as if it's a thing in sports. Most speakers will mean that a team is playing well and has confidence, but they will invoke momentum as if it's a magic potion created with crystals and feng shui.

5. We'll see fewer infield shifts. You know why? Because those pesky advanced analytics tell us they don't generally work. (Damn those facts! Don't they know America doesn't do facts anymore?) They only make sense for a handful of players who pull everything and won't/can't adjust.

6. Mike Trout will continue his reign as best baseball player on Planet Earth, but he won't win the MVP. Voters get tired of voting for the same guys repeatedly, especially when they're as personally exciting as toast.

7. At least one MVP or Cy Young winner will rise up from the floorboards. Think R.A. Dickey, Brandon Webb, Terry Pendelton, George Bell. 

8. The trend towards using relievers in more optimal ways will continue to grow. Several long relievers will pitch key innings, not mop up, and their teams will benefit from it, particularly as starter throw fewer and fewer innings.

9. People will be surprised when Stephen Strasburg goes on the DL, Pablo Sandoval earns a starting job and the weather turns hot during the summer. Either we have short memories or we're distracted by our phones.

10. Some throwaway name like Tampa Bay shortstop Brad Miller will slug 30 home runs out of nowhere this year. Oh wait, Miller did that last year. Who knew?

29 March 2017

Not the 2017 Standings

What will the 2017 standings look like at season's end? Probably not like the chart below. This is Fangraphs' Zips projections for each team, which has every bit as much value as every other projection system, but less than toilet paper, which has at least one other important use.

Still, it's a starting point for understanding the upcoming season.

Some items to note: 
1. None of the projection systems see much in the way of division races. Zips has the Red Sox winning the AL East by 4 games, but after that there's no drama. It's got Cleveland by 8 in the Central and Houston by 10 in the West.  In the NL, it projects the Nats by 8 and Cubs by 17, and the Dodgers over the Giants by 7 in the West.

2. If all goes according to form, which it literally never does, the Wild Cards are a pair of shootouts at the October corral. This chart rates the Angels Mariners, Rangers and Rays as a toss-up for the second Wild Card behind the Blue Jays. In the NL, the Giants, Mets, Cardinals and Pirates will battle for the play-in game.

3. The most volatile projections belong to the Anaheim Angels, Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals. Zips puts the Halos at 83 wins and a Wild Card while Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA rankings have them at 77 wins and 85 losses. PECOTA doesn't believe in the Orioles either, tabbing them at 74 wins and the AL East cellar. And PECOTA is unfathomably dubious about St. Louis, forecasting just 77 wins and a finish behind Milwaukee.

So where do all those wins go in PECOTA? To the basement. Its worst team -- the Royals -- still win 71 games, more than four teams in the ZIPS projections

4. No one is much buying the Rangers, who ran away with their division last season. The advanced metrics suggested that was more a matter of serendipity than talent and regressed the Rangers to their natural ability level. A healthy Yu Darvish could mess with that.

5. The Mets' outlook is dampened severely by health concerns on the mound. They are rated as just the fourth best staff in the NL, barely ahead of Washington in fifth. But if the breaks go their way -- or actually, if there are no breaks, and pulls, tears, strains, tweaks, stiffness, contusions and syndromes are kept to a minimum -- they could be scary good at preventing runs. Of course, if the queen had testicles she'd be king.

6. The White Sox will look to deal whoever isn't nailed down mid-season, so their numbers could suffer in the short term in order to improve quickly down the line. The projections already like the path the Braves are on.

Are you ready? Opening Day's just a couple of days away.

27 March 2017

Here's What 33 Homers Can Do For Your Career

Rougned Odor has an extremely entertaining name. The one bequeathed to him by his father makes our noses itch. The one preceding it, bestowed upon him by (presumably) his mother, makes our brain frown. 

What's more, Roogie packs a punch, as Jose Bautista's jaw can attest. So does his bat, which deposited 33 pitches over the outfield fence in 2016, his third MLB season.

Being 23 and smacking 33 homers has great value, particularly when you're a middle infielder. It's so valuable to the Texas Rangers, that they have reportedly signed him to a six-year $49.5 million contract that takes him through all three years of arbitration and a pair of free agent years. (There is also a seventh-year option.)

Odor would have been in line to make a little more than $500,000 this season before becoming eligible for arbitration after the World Series. Keeping up his current level of play, Odor could have been expected to earn about $24 million in arbitration, and then around $16-$20 million/year in free agency. Moving in early earned the Rangers a discount of $7-$15 million, which seems like a reasonable ending point that puts the major risk on the team.

But at 23, Odor may actually have peaked. The Venezuelan doubled his home run quotient despite walking a meager 19 times. His OBP hovered below .300 and his defense suggests he might be a first baseman by mid-career. For all his power and youth, Odor earned just 2 WAR in 2016, which roughly means he's an average starter at his position -- the keystone. None of these bode well for the future. Few players develop a batting eye with experience, but plenty exhibit one anomalous power season. (FWIW, the projection systems have Odor almost exactly where he was in 2016, with a handful fewer home runs and couple more walks.)

It seems like a reasonable deal for both sides, which is why it got done. Second basemen who leave the yard that often are hard to find. Batters who fan 7X as often as they walk are also hard to find -- in the Majors. We'll see which Odor lingers.

26 March 2017

A Thorn By Any Other Name Would Prick As Painfully

Is it too much to ask people who talk about sports for a living to know the names of colleges that field teams?

The basketball phenomenon in Spokane is Gon-zag-a, not Gon-zog-a. Did you not get the hint from their nickname? They're not the Zogs, ya know.

The Catholic school from Cincinnati is pronounced Zavier, not Ecks-avier. (By the way moms and dads, if you name your son Xavier, you've given him a name that exists, and that name is pronounced Zavier.)

The national champs in football represented Clem-son, not Clemz-on.

(The broadcast partners are always good about this, so thank you CBS, TBS and friends.) 

And so on. Coastal Carolina is moving up its football program to Division 1A. So you're all going to have to learn how to say Chanticleers.

25 March 2017

Did You See the Madness for Yourself?

As if the NCAA basketball tournament was awaiting an opportunity to vindicate me, there was the fascinating Sweet 16 game between #1 seed Gonzaga and #4 seed West Virginia, in which the losing team held the ball too long on the last possession and paid for it with the end of their season.

Down three with 35 seconds left, the Mountaineers missed a pair of shots and retrieved the rebound each time, giving them the ball with 13 seconds left. As you can see from the video here (go to about 2:05 for the final sequence), the rebounder hands the ball to another player who immediately backs away to regroup just as the clock hits 10 seconds.


You can see from the still shot above that he doesn't begin making an effort to drive the lane or set up for a pass or a shot until 6 seconds are left, by which time it is way too late. Gonzaga stifled his attempt to dribble and he never even got off a shot. 

Think about what a disastrous possession that was. The team missed a pair of three pointers and yet still had the ball with plenty of time to even the score. Yet they wasted half the available time in a misguided attempt to run out the clock while still behind.

Eventually, some coach is going to recognize the folly of this strategy and win a Final Four or championship game. Then you will begin to see teams altering what is transparently and empirically a losing proposition.

11 March 2017

A Brief Note About the Real Madness in March

You want to know the real March Madness? It's this: professional coaches all over the college basketball landscape, leaders and molders of young men, CEOs of their teams, the top hoops strategists in the world, can't figure out a simple concept that is literally costing wins in league tournaments -- which means teams are losing league titles, and thus NCAA appearances, because coaches and players can't figure out something that's beyond obvious to me and empirically provable.

I saw this crop up in Siena's MAAC championship loss to Iona and Kansas State's Big 12 semi-final loss to West Virginia. In Siena's case, the punishment is the league title and the NCAA bid. In K-State's case, as a team squarely on the at-large bubble, it might or might not have cost them a place in the dance.

The Football Parallel
Before delving into this discernible, indisputable, self-evident strategic error, I want to take a trip back to review its football analog. Remember the days when teams ahead late in games rushed three defensive lineman and played their linebackers and corners way off the line to prevent the deep ball from beating them? Remember what an abject failure that strategy was, as trailing teams regularly marched down the field with short passes and scored tying and winning touchdowns? Remember how you howled at the TV when your team attempted this clearly ineffective strategy?  It eventually became so obvious that "prevent defenses" were preventing teams from winning that they finally -- finally! -- abandoned the practice.

That's what's going on for me in basketball. I yell at the television every year around this time while enjoying conference tournament action. Why is it so plain to me but apparently beyond the perception of highly-compensated head coaches?

What's the Problem?
The issue is this: teams with the final shot in a game -- in the first half too -- regularly run the clock down way too far before pressing the action for the last shot. They fear leaving time on the clock for the other team to respond, but that's irrelevant unless they score first.

Generally, teams dribble the clock down to about 8 seconds before beginning their play, an amount of time that is clearly insufficient. It leaves enough time for a rush to the basket and a shot -- nothing more. Invariably, a defender intercepts the attempt, leaving the offense without any real second option. Time after time you'll see the result is a bad shot that doesn't go in.

Teams need to start their rush with at least 12 seconds on the clock. This gives them time to go to a second option or get an offensive rebound and make a pass before another shot. If the play materializes quickly and they score in only a few seconds, the other team still only has 8 or 9 seconds to rush up the court and make a shot. In any case, that has to be a secondary consideration. 

Score first; defend second.

How It Plays Out

In Siena's and Kansas State's case, they made this mistake while behind. That's nuts! They needed to maximize their own ability to score, not worry about their opponent's possession.

So here's what happened: The point guard for the Saints, who were down two at the time, was stymied on his attempt to drive the lane, so he did the only thing available to him -- chucking up a 30-footer. Clang.

The Wildcats fared even worse. In a tight defensive struggle with the Mountaineers, Coach Bruce Weber allowed his team to dribble the clock down to 10 seconds before calling a time out. That left them about eight seconds to organize a play against a stout defense that easily cut off an attempted drive, resulting in a weak, off-balance shot as time expired.

The success rate on running the clock down below 10 is, in my viewing experience, about 8%. But no one seems to have learned the lesson. So it's going to happen again in another league tournament game. And then again in an NCAA tournament game. And then again. And again. What is going on with college basketball coaches?

10 March 2017

There's a Revolution Brewing Among Hitters

It has probably always been evident to you that for every physical action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You realized it in some vague way you couldn't articulate long before you ever heard of Newton's Third Law. You knew that if someone threw a dodge ball at your head in school gym, the ball and the melon each bounce in opposite directions.

You probably had some unformed understanding of gravity too, since everything you threw in the air mysteriously came down.

The same kind of old discovery becoming new is happening today with a small number of batters in baseball. It's been fueled by Statcast measurements of launch angles but it goes back to the days of Babe Ruth.

What J.D. Martinez Figured Out
Let's look at the career of J.D. Martinez to see what the revolution is. In his first three seasons as an Astro, Martinez followed the counsel of all the hitting gurus and attempted to put a level swing on the ball. If he blasted a liner up the middle, that was considered perfect contact.

Employing that philosophy, Martinez compiled a .251/.300/.387 line, roughly 12% below average -- for an outfielder, about replacement level. It began to occur to him that perfecting his swing was getting singles.

The he started noticing teammate Jason Castro, who in 2013 increased his OPS 100 points -- almost all of it in slugging percentage -- by swinging upward. The wheels began to turn. He started watching the swings of the best hitters in baseball. They all sported similar uppercut swings. It's something Babe Ruth introduced to the game in the 1920s and has been employed by every Hall of Fame home run hitter since. But it's always been seen as the province only of sluggers, not of ordinary hitters.

Well, what made those hitters sluggers?

Martinez spent that off-season with a hitting instructor whose motto was "ground balls suck." In fact, ground balls are somewhat more likely to result in hits, but obviously never home runs, and rarely doubles or triples. The OPS on fly balls is much higher. 

Chicks don't dig the ground ball. Neither do front offices.

So Martinez rebuilt his swing, and the next season in Detroit, looking for pitches he lift, he more than doubled his extra base output. In his three seasons as a Tiger, he's become a star, triple-slashing  .299/.357/.540. That's a 210-point rocket launch in OPS, and it earned Martinez an All-Star nod, some MVP votes, 13 wins against replacement and $11,750,000 in his last season of arbitration eligibility. If he hits like that again this year he'll be looking at $100 million.

Where Statcast Comes In
It might have escaped notice, except MLB now measures launch angle and exit velocity of every ball hit. And when you look at the numbers it's pretty obvious, so obvious that pitchers are now throwing, ironically, more pitches up in the zone to Martinez. It's hard to golf a chest-high fastball.

It's a secret that's been hiding in plain sight for a century but it may be enjoying a renewed heyday. Word is that some teams are introducing their players to a more angled swing path. We'll see: maybe it's just an isolated thing; after all, Castro's performance plummeted after the 2013 season. But for a handful of guys like Martinez, hitting the ball in the air has been the path to success.

06 March 2017

More Questions and Answers -- Some of Them Right!

Spring Training brings questions about the upcoming baseball season. According to the projections, the division races will have less intrigue than a four-pitch intentional walk; the Wild Cards are a tossup. We'll see...

Q. Who is going to challenge the Indians this year?
A. Andrew Jackson? I don't see anyone in the AL Central giving them much of a tussle, though, of course, you never know. The White Sox are rebuilding and the Twins are not yet rebuilt. The Royals are degrading and the Tigers would have sold off if they could get something for their expensive old stars. I suppose KC could put things together and make a respectable showing, but I don't see anyone challenging the Indians for first place.

Q. Which team that looks bad going into the season would you be least surprised to see contend?
A. The Diamondbacks have so many good pieces and now have a front office that could pass a competency test. With the return of A.J. Pollack and an unexpected arm or two they could enter the Wild Card mix.

On the other side, the Tigers still have some big bats and Justin Verlander. Wouldn't that be rich if Detroit got its World Champs as soon as Mike Illitch finally dies?

Q. Now that we have so much more information, is there anything more definitive we can say about clutch hitting?
A. The same thing discerning people were saying before: psychology matters in baseball, as in all aspects of life, but you would be surprised how rare true "clutch" performance really is. The vast majority of "clutch" plays are just good plays that happened to come at opportune times. All the statistical evidence, and now all the atomically-measured Statcast data, demonstrates that more and more clearly.

Q. Eric Thames was a washout in the Majors and then went to Korea and became Babe Ruth. What are his prospects now that he's back in MLB?
A. Everyone is very curious to see. Experience tells us that guys who go elsewhere and figure it out (e.g., Cecil Fielder, Ryan Vogelsong) return having figured it out, just as guys in the Majors who suddenly figure it out (e.g., David Ortiz, Jose Bautista) do. The problem with Thames is that his window is narrow because he's 30 and he really can't play the field. It wouldn't surprise me if he puts together two or three power-hitting seasons before tailing off and losing any value.

Q. Whither Rick Porciello, who won 22 games for Boston last year?
A. If he's a viable #3 for 30 starts this season the Sox should be grateful. He's not repeating last year.

Q. How damaging is the David Price injury?
A. Well, that depends on how damaging it is. If he's cooked, that brings Boston back to the AL East pack. If his first start is delayed and he has to monitor innings, that will be fine. Teams have to assume they won't get a full season out of any starter. On average, a team uses eight starting pitchers.

Q. Are we in another golden age of shortstops?
A. No question. Manny Machado, Xander Bogarts, Addison Russell, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Andrelton Simmons, Javier Baez, Trea Turner, Francisco Lindor, Dansby Swanson, etc. And second base is brimming as well.

Q. Are the Mets crazy for sitting Conforto in favor of Jay Bruce?
A. Insane. But these things have a way of working themselves out.

Q. I hear there is a new Statcast wins against replacement measure. What's that all about?
A. Not yet, but MLB's Statcast does provide a computational version of what the A's were doing in the 90s by charting batted balls.

Here's how it works: if a batter hits a screaming liner in the gap and the center fielder snags it, the pitcher records and out and the batter absorbs a futile at bat. Statcast can tell us that 75% of the time that would have been a double, and charges the pitcher with 3/4 of a double and credits the batter with the same. So instead of measuring the results of plays it measures what "should have" happened.

Over the course of a season, luck, the effects of defense and park effects are stripped out of a player's performance, not just on average but specific to him. Additionally, the same calculations will apply to their defense, which would be an immense upgrade, compared to the squooshy defense metrics we have now. Eventually this could be a major upgrade.

Q. Why doesn't anyone give the Yankees any love.
A. They are reserving it for the next decade, when the Bombers will be a force. For now, they're short on rotation arms.

Q. Did you see that Bud Selig said in an interview that Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame?
A. And he said that Donald Trump is a dope. Tell me something that's not obvious.

Q. But Selig never endorsed Miller for the HOF before.
A. It would be unseemly for the Commissioner to do that. But Bud's just an ordinary citizen now. And it's not like he's sticking his neck out: Marvin Miller is one of the five most influential people in baseball history. 

Q. What do you see for Jason Heyward this year?
A. If we knew the answers to questions like that baseball wouldn't be as much fun. That said, it's hard to believe Heyward won't hit for both a higher average and more power than he did last year.

Q. If the Braves are faltering by the trade deadline, will they unload all those free agent pickups they signed?
A. If they're faltering, it's unlikely the free agent pickups are performing all that well. What are they going to get for a mediocre 42-year-old pitcher on a one-year deal? 

Q. Who is this year's surprise breakout?
A. If I told you that, it wouldn't be a surprise.

Keep those cards and letters coming!

01 March 2017

The High-High Upside, Low-Low Downside Mets

When Theo Epstein took over the Chicago Cubs the bare cupboard allowed him an opportunity to reconfigure the franchise to his liking. Epstein decided to rebuild with hitting and defense, and pick up arms wherever he could. The Cubs drafted everyday players, developed everyday players, hunted internationally for everyday players, and when the time was right, went fishing for pitchers in free agency, low-cost trades and the like.

When you build behind pitching, you're building on a foundation of uncertainly, like a house built on sand. Scouts and seamheads know there's only a little hyperbole in the bromide abbreviated as TINSTAAPP -- there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. Banking millions of dollars and a pennant on arms, shoulders, elbows and other appendages withstanding the blunt force trauma of snapping off sliders and cranking up fastballs 90 times a game is a fool's errand.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the 2017 New York Mets.

Not so much by design as by happenstance, the studs holding up the walls in Queens are all of the hurling variety. Thor, the Dark Knight, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Robert Gsellman and Zack Wheeler have all demonstrated ace or near-ace ability, and present as a group the most formidable five starters since at least the '90s Braves.

 At the same time, only one star player graces the everyday lineup, Yo, and there are even questions about him. Baseball Prospectus's projection system has the Mets winning the division with the second best run prevention in the league, but also below average offense.

If Terry Collins can coax 130 starts out of his impossible sextet, the hitting might not matter. With continued dominance and newfound health 90 feet from the plate, the Mets could rout the division and claim the NL's best record. That is the formula that drove them to the pennant in 2015, though with a somewhat different crew.

It Isn't Gonna Be That Way
Ah, to dream. Gsellman owns all of eight starts in the Major Leagues. Matz shut it down in mid-August last season. Wheeler's a wreck after post-TJ surgery complications and Harvey looks more like the rabbit than the Knight. That doesn't even account for the prospect of injury every time a previously healthy pitcher like Syndergaard takes the mound.

The betting line on starts by the top six starters is probably in the 110-120 area and betting the over seems foolhardy. The team showed last year they could sneak into the playoffs without the staff intact, but one-and-done isn't any pennant contender's idea of success. Besides, what if the mound arms implode? It could get uglier than a Twitter war with Charles Barkley. The franchise has some good options in a pinch, but not #2-starter types for extended periods.

Fangraphs' projection system says the Mets' pitching staff (including relievers) will produce roughly twice as much WAR as the everyday players. That assumes a full season (143 starts) from the front line. A couple of injuries could easily cost 10 wins of value.

Every team has best and worst case scenarios but the standard deviations on this team are the largest. It wouldn't be shocking for them to knock on the door of 100 wins -- or 84 losses. There really isn't any other team you could say that about at season's start.

27 February 2017

Craig Kimbrel Is Proof of Mariano Rivera

In his first five seasons in baseball, Craig Kimbrel was turning the best hitters in the world into pretzels -- the greatest reliever baseball had ever seen.

The undersized Brave mowed down 476 batters in his first 289 innings and allowed just a 1.43 ERA. He relinquished a total of 12 home runs -- in five years! -- and finished off 186 saves, the most in the NL in four of those five seasons. Despite the size of his workload, he earned top 10 Cy Young votes for all but his rookie season.

Then Kimbrel became arbitration-eligible, and the Braves inked him to a deal that hiked his salary 11-fold to $7 million in just its first year. In deep rebuilding mode and at the urging of this blog, the Braves suckered A.J. Preller into taking Kimbrel and B.J. Upton's death-contract to San Diego for players, prospects and massive salary relief.

But I haven't heard much about him lately...
Imagine the setup: the Incredible Hulk of closers moving to the most demoralizing park for hitters the game has conjured. Petco Park saps 14% from hitters' production, a gilding of the lily that Kimbrel hardly needed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to immortality: Kimbrel lost some of his mojo. Batters began timing his fastball -- just a bit -- and squared him up for homers twice as often. His ERA ballooned from otherworldly to excellent (2.68) and his save numbers dropped by 20%.

Quickly pivoting, Preller sent Kimbrel to Boston for pennies on the dollar, but Kimbrel again took a step back in 2016. Battling injuries for the first time, his walk rate spiked, sending his ERA to 3.40. His saves plummeted again and his value, once reliably more than three wins a year, stood at 0.9 wins last season. The projections suggest that this is the new Craig Kimbrel -- a flame-throwing reliever whose high heat is losing its novelty.

All of this is commentary on Mariano Rivera. Wha?

In his best year, Rivera was a pale shadow of Craig Kimbrel 1.0. He never fanned batters at such a rate. He never dominated hitters so thoroughly. He merely converted his split-finger into relentless awesomeness -- year after year after year.

In Rivera's worst year, his ERA jumped to 3.15. But advanced metrics suggested he was mostly unlucky and the following season -- at age 38 -- he allowed 49 baserunners in 71 innings and dropped his ERA to 1.40.

Mariano in his 40s
In his 40s, Rivera saved 126 games, sported a 1.95 ERA and allowed a WHIP under one. Included in that period was a year missed due to knee surgery and his comeback (and final) season.

In other words, any notion we might have had that Rivera was turning into the game's second best reliever of all time have evaporated, just like that. While Kimbrel's inaugural five campaigns rank up there with the best ever, his two seasons since would rank as Rivera's worst. Kimbrel would have had to maintain his pace for 15 years to match Mariano -- and he has begun to wear down after five.

The name of the greatest reliever of all time will not be changing anytime soon, and by soon we mean at least two decades. Craig Kimbrel's "struggles" remind us how unbelievably great Mariano Rivera was.

25 February 2017

Dellin Betances Exposes Baseball

I'm going to go out on a limb and opine that Dellin Betances is awesome. The gigantic, Brooklyn-raised Yankee reliever sports a career ERA of 2.16, a WHIP of one, and 400 strikeouts in 254 innings. Those numbers put him in the company of the two best relievers in baseball -- Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen.

What makes Betances especially valuable is what you might call Andrew Miller Syndrome: Betances is Joe Girardi's Swiss Army Knife, heading to the hill whenever he's needed. In three years, he's made 217 appearances -- mostly in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He's entered games with no days' rest about as often as he's pitched with days off. And half his pitches are thrown in high-leverage situations.

A mere 22 saves belie his prodigious value to the Bronx Bombers.

The Betances Arbitration Debacle
You might have heard that Betances took the team to salary arbitration, requesting a tenfold raise to $5 million, citing projections that put his financial worth at about $15 million to the team. The Yankees countered with $3 million, citing precedent. No other non-closer has ever won more than $2 million in his first year of arbitration.

The Yankees' case is based on a flaw in the arbitration rules, which were constructed on an old paradigm that over-values closers and saves. Without the saves to make his case, Betances was forced into the untenable position of having to argue that he is a closer, which he patently isn't, although patently false arguments seem to be the strategy du jour in America.

Needless to say, the Yankees won the arbitration case and Betances will simply double his career earnings this season. 

A Great Set-up Man > A Lousy Closer
The larger issue is that the arbitration system makes no sense. Had Betances simply pitched at the same level of production all ninth innings, instead of seventh and eighth innings, he would have cited Aroldis Chapman's $5 million arbitration salary from three years ago and probably exceeded that. The irony there is that Betances pitches in more high leverage situations as a fireman than he would as a closer, who is often asked to protect two- and three-run leads.

Compare Betances with Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez, a replacement-level pitcher who is Betances' inferior by every measure except saves, 37 of which Gomez fell into last season despite a 4.85 ERA. And by salary: those 37 saves earned Gomez a $4.2 million contract for 2017.

Take a look at the difference between these two pitchers over the last three years:
Betances: 217 games, 245 innings, 5.3 hits/9, 3.4 BB/9, 14.3 K/9, 1.93 ERA, 8.5 WAR
Gomez: 179 games, 205 innings, 10 hits/9, 2.7 BB/9, 6.4 K/9, 3.68 ERA, 1.5 WAR\

One More Thing, Randy Levine...
There is one more point to make, and that is that Yankees president Randy Levine must have been channeling his inner Jim Dolan in the aftermath of the arbitrator's decision, and now he owes Betances an apology. Levine's denigrating public rant about Betances and his arbitration strategy was mean-spirited and gratuitous. He is going to have to live with the consequences if Betances leaves town as a free agent when he's eligible because the boss treated him poorly in public.

23 February 2017

The Amazing Career of Randy Velarde

You might remember Randy Velarde, a longtime backup middle infielder for the Yankees in the late 80s-early 90s who bolted to the Angels just as the Yankee steamroller got into gear, and played into the new millennium.

Generally speaking, Velarde could hit for average and get on base, offered middling pop, ran well and had a fine glove, all in spot duty. He played 120 games just four times in his 16-year career but when he played, he could be asked to cover second, short, third or the outfield.

What's so amazing about that? 1999.

That season, toiling for the woebegone Angels, and traded after 95 games to the second-place A's, Velarde set career marks for games, at bats, hits, runs, home runs, RBI, steals, OBP, baserunning value, and offensive and defensive WAR. 

Not just by a little. He scored 105 runs. His next best was 82.

He knocked in 76 runs. His next best was 54.

He stole 24 bases. His next best was nine.

He earned six wins against replacement for those two teams, batting .317/.390/.455. His next best WAR in a season was three. (These are all Fangraphs estimates. Baseball Reference credited him with seven wins in '99.)

Indeed, Velarde earned more WAR in 1999 than in his nine worst seasons combined.

Now, I know where your mind is going: steroids. Velarde admitted buying PEDs from Barry Bonds' personal trainer and benefiting from them. But that started in 2001, two years after his career year.

For his career, Velarde added 22 wins to his employers over 16 years, a pretty hefty number. More than a quarter of that came in that one great campaign.

But wait, you haven't heard the amazing part: Velarde accomplished that -- by far his best season in the Majors -- at age 36.

No one does that. By age 36, Derek Jeter was hitting .270 without power. Cal Ripken was playing third base. Miguel Tejada was a replacement-level backup. Nomar was no more.

Randy Velarde never made an All-Star team, never garnered an MVP vote, never led the league in anything except for that year (most singles). Eighty second-basemen's careers are rated ahead of his. Yet he is one of only two second basemen since 1946 to earn 5+ WAR after age 35. The other fella is a guy called Joe Morgan, perhaps the greatest keystoner in baseball history.