The Curious Case of Al…

May 4, 2012 Leave a comment

In 110 plate appearances this season, Albert Pujols – the greatest slugging first baseman since perhaps Lou Gherig – has a whopping zero home runs. Unless you live under a rock, you probably already knew that. I mean, there have been thousands of words spilled over this pandemic all week. It’s as though the sky is falling. Seriously, repeat after me people:

Small Sample Size.

That’s right, weird things happen in April. Actually, weird things happen at any point in a baseball season, it’s just that those weird things are so glaringly obvious in April when they can’t dissolve into 300 productive at bats. Should the Angels be concerned about Pujols? Absolutely, but their concerns should relate not to this year’s homerless streak, but rather to the way his offensive numbers have declined for three straight seasons. Drastically declined.

In 2009 Albert was coming off a seven year run in which his WAR had not dipped below 8.2 – or superduperstar level. He had hit .327/.443/.658 that year, with a .449 OBA. The year before he’d abused NL pitchers to the tune of a .357/.462/.653 line. He controlled the strike zone (16.4% BB rate) and he mashed the ball (.331 ISO – .250 is considered excellent!). He was the best hitter in baseball and the best player in baseball.

Over the following two seasons however, Pujols’ WAR dropped from 9.0 to 7.5 to 5.1. His OBP went from .443 to .414, to .366. His slugging from .658 to .596, to .541. Perhaps of greatest concern, his walk rate dropped from 16.4% to 14.7% to 9.4%. Those numbers represent a trend. Do they mean that Albert is washed up as a player? Of course not, a player with a .299/.366/.541 slash line is still exceptionally valuable, but these numbers do represent a large sample of evidence that Albert is declining as a player.

Of course, this is information that the Angels knew five months ago, and if it didn’t bother them then, it shouldn’t suddenly bother them after 110 at bats. It should, however, have bothered them then. At 32 Pujols can reasonably expect to have another three seasons similar to the last two he just completed. Perhaps he’ll suffer a mild depreciation of his counting numbers; say, closer to 30 home runs than 40, but generally similar overall production. And those numbers are very good. They are all-star level numbers, but they aren’t numbers requisite with the best player in the game.

For 240 million over the following decade, the Angels weren’t hoping to acquire an all-star first baseman, they were looking for the best player in the game. Sure, they knew that the last two or three years of the deal would get ugly, but they also figured those decline years would be justified by these first few seasons of dominance. They weren’t alone either; before the season started, ESPN counted down the top 500 players in baseball for this season. They crowned Pujols #1.

Was there good cause to do so? Obviously, but there was also good cause not to. For starters, Pujols plays the least important defensive position on the diamond. Sure, he plays it very well, but basically for him to be the best player in baseball, he has to provide 99% of that value with his bat.

It’s a truth of our sports media bubble – and (ahem) the bloggers who exist increasingly on the inside of that bubble – they are slow to identify changing trends. We take for granted that what was true yesteryear continues to be true today. From 2003-2009 Albert Pujols was the best hitter in baseball. And with the exception of that guy out in San Francisco, it wasn’t even really close. Albert’s 62 WAR over those seven seasons leads A-Rod by 12, and A-Rod leads the eternally underrated Chase Utley by 9. Of course, WAR includes defense. For his prime, Pujols also led baseball* in batting average (.337), OBP (.435), SLG (.640), and wOBA (.443). HR (295), and – not that one should care – RBIs (855) and Runs (841). He was a beast. And, he was the best player in baseball.

* (I excluded Bonds, who only played about half the seasons in that span, but had otherworldly rate stats. Seriously, I know he was hopped up on flax seed oil and I know he was an arse, but go back and look at that 2001-2004 stretch, it was insane. We will never see anything like that again.)

The last two seasons? Pujols was still awesome, but… He was 8th in WAR, 6th in wOBA, 7th in OBP, 4th in SLG. Sure, he was still second in HRs, but the rate stats show a depreciation of his skills. Not a huge depreciation, but enough to lower him from the Demi-Gods to the extremely gifted mortals. And that’s an important drop.

Look, Pujols is going to hit a home run soon. Probably this weekend. And when does, he’s probably going to go on a run where he hits a bunch. He’s a really good hitter, and streaks are the nature of baseball. April just doesn’t represent a large enough sample size to tell you that Albert’s done. But, that also doesn’t mean that the games in April don’t count, they do. What Albert’s done, or not done, through 26 games does represent actual production, actual value. If Albert matches his exact 2011 numbers from May onward, his final season line will read:

.291/.348/.457 with 36 2B, 30 HR, and 56 BB.

That’s a solid player. When you add in his excellent base running and superb defense, it’s a borderline all-star, but is a borderline all-star what the Angels where hoping for when they gave him a 240 million ten year contract?

Dreaming of a Larry Bird Kicker…

April 20, 2012 Leave a comment

If you were playing a poker game with the modern U.S. Olympic team and the Dream Team members as the cards, would you rather flip over LeBron or a Magic? A Stockton or a Paul? A Kobe or a Jordan?

Last month, in a pair of BS Reports, Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons asked Chris Mullin and Magic Johnson what would happen if the famed 1992 team was sucked up into a time portal vacuum and deposited into the modern day to play this year’s U.S. Olympic team – think of it like Terra Nova, but with actual viewers.

Bill felt that despite the Dream Team being, uhm… well, the Dream Team, they would fall at the hands of the modern squad. He lays the foundation for this on two principles:

  1. That despite their gaudy names, Bird and Magic weren’t exactly Bird and Magic.
  2. That Derrick Rose and Chris Paul and the rest of their cohorts would create match-up problems that the Dream Team couldn’t overcome.

Frankly, that sounds logical. Bird’s body was older than Moses, and Magic was barely beyond the Announcement. And there is no denying that this year’s Olympic squad is going to be otherworldly. By my count, there are 14 locks for a 12 man roster:

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard*, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, and Russell Westbrook.

That is an obscene collection of basketball talent, and I can see how it might induce one into thinking that this is an unbeatable team, but is that really the case? Could the 2012 team defeat even the vaunted Dream Team as Bill suggests, or would the Dream Team prevail as Magic Johnson contends?

*This was written before the news broke yesterday that Howard will miss the Olympics, so for the purposes of this piece, we’ll pretend he isn’t a whining, coach sabotaging, quitting on the team” super” star injured.

As Bill points out, the Dream Team wasn’t really a full 12 man roster: they had a crippled Larry Bird and an overmatched Christian Laettner. There is no doubt that by 1992 Bird’s body was being held together with bobby pins and scotch tape. In 1990-91 he played in 60 games and in 1991-92 he managed a barely standing 45; the 1992 Olympics were his swan song. So, ostensibly he’s not really on the roster, at least not as LARRY BIRD, Basketball Jesus. But, there is a place for him and we’ll get to that in a couple thousand words.

For reasons unknown, or at least for reasons I don’t give a crap about, the Dream Team brass decided to hand a free trip to Barcelona to a token college player; selecting Christian Laettner to serve as the team’s gopher and lame duck whipping boy. Obviously if the Olympic committee had been selecting the most talented collegiate player, they would have picked a sprightly young giant by the name of Shaquille O’Neal, but they instead paid tribute to then assistant coach – and current head coach – Mike Kryzyzzzzzzzzzzyzski by taking his best player.

While it’s obviously an absurd decision in hindsight, Laettner was the star player on the two time defending champs and he was the collegiate player of the year. In the context of the era – and of wanting a collegiate player – it’s defensible; in hindsight it’s as dubious as making Ozzie Guillen the face of your franchise, but here’s the thing: if the 1992 Dream Team was playing a serious 7 game series, there’s no point when coach Chuck Daly would look down the bench and call upon the 12th man. Nope, Chuck would go ten deep and even then, only for brief spurts.

With the 11th and 12th men out of our way, lets get to the meat of the debate, by breaking down the starters. Other than Michael Jordan, no player started every Olympic game for the Dream Team, but if they were transported to today and forced to play in a barbaric Hunger Games style death match, I think we can safely say, that this would be their starting five:

PG – Magic Johnson

SG – Michael Jorden

SF – Scottie Pippen

PF – Charles Barkley

C – David Robinson.

In contrast, we can reasonably assume that the 2012 team will start:

PG – Derrick Rose

SG – Kobe Bryant

SF – Kevin Durant

PF – Lebron James

C – Dwight Howard.

There is no denying that the 2012 team is a monster, but better than the Dream Team?

One of the pieces that makes the 2012 team seem so unstoppable, is that other than Kobe, those starters are all at the peak of their powers, but guess what? So were the Dream Teamers. Sure, Magic was 32 (a year younger than Kobe), but Robinson and Scottie were 26, while Barkley and Jordan were 28.

Lets start with a pair of obvious match-ups: center and shooting guard. Dwight Howard is the no-brainer, go-to best center in the NBA, but how great is he historically? Doesn’t his standing as the preeminent center have a little more to do with the paucity of quality pivots? Really, look at the landscape of the league, guard play is out of control, but I’m starting to believe that my Grandma could make the Eastern All Stars as a center, and she’s a 4’11” Scottish lady.

As dominant as Howard is, is he appreciably better than a pre-glomerulonephritis (and yes, I copy and pasted that) Alonzo Mourning? In Zo’s last season with a fully functioning liver, he averaged 21.7/9.5/1.9 on 55% shooting, with 3.7 blocks and a 25.8 PER. In contrast, last year old wishy wash Dwight’s line was 22.9, 14.1, 1.4 on 61% shooting, with a 26.0 PER and 2.4 blocks per game. Both men won Defensive Players of the Year awards, Howard was obviously a far superior rebounder, but Zo was the better shot blocker. Overall, the numbers are pretty close. And, here’s the rub: as good as Zo was, he resides on a tier well below the peak of 1990s centers.

It was just a different era. Throughout his career, offensively, Robinson had to score against preeminent defensive centers like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Mark Eaton, and Mourning. Defensively he had to battle the Dream, Patrick Ewing, Brad Daugherty, and that precocious young kid, Shaq. In contrast, Howard has made a name for himself defending such offensive luminaries as Brook Lopez, Al Horford, and Andrew Bynum. As good as Bynum has been, I don’t think he’s a threat to drop 71 as the Admiral did to win the 1993-94 scoring title. On the other end of the floor, Howard’s had to throw down on defensive stalwarts like Kendrick Perkins, Joakim Noah, and Tyson Chandler. We all love Chandler’s tenacity and Noah’s pluck, but nobody’s confusing those two for Mount Mutombo or the Dream.

As ESPNs John Hollinger continually points out, one of the reasons that Orlando has had so many problems with Atlanta in the playoffs the past few seasons is the presence of the big bodied Jason Collins. Let me repeat that for effect: JASON FREAKIN’ COLLINS. If Howard can’t lead his team past the Atlanta Hawks because Jason Collins is thwarting him, what the heck is he going to do against David Robinson?

Howard’s great, obviously, but his offensive game has all the elegance of a Republican debate: big slams and one way spins. Robinson spent his days dealing with Hakeem’s myriad shimmies, spins, twists, floaters, and, of course, his Dream Shake. After Olajuwon, Robinson could guard Howard with one hand, while saluting the flag with the other.

At shooting guard you have Michael Jordan against Kobe Bryant. And to that, all I can say is… DAMN. The greatest player of all time against the modern incarnation of his game is worth the price of admission all on its own. Kobe’s awesome. He’s a five time champion, an MVP, a two-time finals MVP, a 2 time scoring leader, a nine time All-NBA Defensive 1st Team selection, and a better 3pt shooter than Jordan, but Michael’s a six time champion, a five time MVP, six times Finals MVP, a ten time scoring champion, a nine time ALL-NBA first team selection, and a defensive player of the year winner. And, sure, Kobe was a better three point shooter, but ask Clyde Drexler how well Jordan was shooting the 3 in 1992.

Kobe’s a career 45% shooter (who is currently shooting 43%), Jordan’s a career 50% shooter (who shot 51% in 1992). You know the old song, “anything you can do I can do better?” Well, Michael would just be walking up and down the court singing that to Kobe, while dropping 37 on him on one end and forcing him into a 6 for 24 on the other. Seriously, Kobe’s a top ten player all time, but Jordan’s a top ONE player all time. Plus, we’re talking about 1992 Jordan (28) against 2012 Kobe (33). It’s a no brainer, so lets put this one to bed.

Now it gets interesting: at power forward, you have LeBron James who is the best basketball player alive. But, lets be honest, despite being the best basketball player alive, LeBron has demonstrated a flaw or two. Namely, he shrinks in the moment and despite being the biggest boy in the playground, he can get bullied into taking crappy jump shots. So, who does the Dream Team have to cover him? Well, if Jordan wasn’t on Kobe duty, that might be an interesting challenge for Mr Air, and Scottie Pippen is probably the greatest perimeter defender of all time, so he’d get some run, but the man to shut down LeBron is none other than Charles “After losing 70lbs I can finally wear color again” Barkley.

This is where living in the moment does us a disservice. Today, April 12, 2012, LeBron is the best player in the NBA and Barkley is the goofy, opinionated, still overweight, SNL hosting, tortured golf swing having, TV pundit. We think of him as a small whale, or large seal, racing a 97 year old referee. We forget that before LeBron was a once in a generation athletic marvel, there was Charles Barkley.

Sure, he wasn’t as big as LeBron, but Chuck was a bulldog. Conservatively 6’6″, Barkley was one of the leading rebounders during an era of dominant big men. He fought for balls, his tenacity around the hoop and dogged determination evidenced by his grabbing 2600 offensive rebounds in his first 8 seasons (or, about 400 more than Dwight Howard has grabbed over the same time span). And Sir Charles could score; known as the Round Mound of Rebound, Charles was an athletic freak. Sure, he wasn’t on LeBron’s level, nobody is, but in the five seasons leading up to the 1992 Olympics, Charles averaged 26 points per game, on 58% shooting. His PER ranged from 24.5 to 28.9 and he led the league in True Shooting Percentage in four of those years. Charles was a beast.

And here’s the thing, was Barkley as good as LeBron? No, but he sure as hell would annoy the crap out of the King. This is the first year that LeBron has taken advantage of smaller defenders and shown some semblance of a post game, but do you think he’s backing down Charles Barkley? Really? No, I didn’t think you were that foolish. He’s going to have to drive past him and at some point in the first game, as LeBron went past Charles, he’d end up with an “unintentional” mouthful of knuckles, and in the same way that Jason Veritek emasculated ARod in July of 2004, LeBron would spend the rest of the game settling for 18 footers; shots that will fall in quarters 1-3 and then roll out in the 4th. If I were doing advantages, this is a win for the 2012 team, but not an overwhelming one.

When Bill was talking to Mullin and Magic, he guessed that against Derrick Rose, the Dream Team would have to hide Magic on D. He mused that the Chuck Daly would play Scottie on Rose and Magic on Kevin Durant. This would make sense (as would using Jordan on Rose, and Magic on Kobe – who’s by far the least athletic member of the modern Olympic squad), but I don’t think you have match up that way the whole game. Rose is awesome, no doubt, but he’s still not a lights out shooter. And at 6’9″ Magic TOWERS over him. Looking at the 2012 squad, Kevin Durant’s their scariest scorer and I’d rather force Rose to beat me. I’d put Scottie on Durant (which would be an awesome battle, the game’s best current scorer against its greatest defender) and have Magic sag off Rose, daring him to shoot. Even sagging off of Rose, is Magic going to get beat sometimes? Sure, but this is where the presence of David Robinson and the 4.5 blocks a game he averaged in 1992 come into play.

With Scottie and Jordan locking down Kobe and Durant, with Barkley annoying LeBron, and with Robinson negating Howard, you’re left with Rose attacking Magic, and that’s fine, because it’s a two way street. Assuming that Kobe covers Jordan and Durant covers Scottie, the 2012 team has to decide between LeBron guarding Magic and Rose being ABUSED by Barkley, or LeBron shutting down Barkley and Rose having to cover the six inch taller Magic.

Now, you could argue that a recently HIV diagnosed Magic wasn’t Magic, but go back and watch the 1992 all-star game, or find tapes of the Dream Team games. Magic was just fine. As the man himself said to Bill, “sure, we’d have problems with Rose, but we’d just come right back at them on the other end.”

Both starting lineups are awesome and the match-ups are drool inducing, but ultimately, this battle becomes about who’s going to flinch first. And who are you picking to flinch? The starting five that has five rings (all from Kobe), or the starting five that has 19 rings? (admittedly, they only had 11 in 1992, but still). A starting five where the no-brainer best player is Michael Jeffrey Jordan?  Or a starting five where the best player is LeBron “2011 NBA Finals 4th Q LVP” James? A starting five where LeBron, Dwight, and Durant have all shown themselves to be a little too interested in pre-game photos, capes, and post-game backpacks, or a starting five where Magic, Scottie, and Michael cared only about demoralizing you as they drove their foot into your ass?

Seriously, who you got? Yeah, I thought so.

With the starters out of the way, lets take a quick look at the pine. The second unit of the 2012 team will look something like:

Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, and Tyson Chandler.

The most obvious edge for the 2012 squad is at the two guard spot, where Wade would be going against Clyde the Glide Drexler, but we’ll get to this one in a minute.

At the point, it’s Paul against John Stockton, which would have been a solid “W” for the 2012 team three years ago; yet as great as Paul remains, he’s playing on a knee and a half, and there’s no disputing that he’s lost a step. Stockton’s a five time ALL-NBA 2nd team defender, who throughout his career covered Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Mark Price, Gary Payton, and Allen Iverson.

Is Paul a harder match-up than Hardaway or the Glove, let alone Thomas? Don’t be fooled by the fact that he looks like a choir boy in short-shorts, Stockton was tough as snot. He wouldn’t shut Paul down, but he’d make Paul work. Besides, Paul would also have to stop Stockton and here’s the thing about the Dream Team:

Stockton to Malone is COMING OFF THE BENCH! D-Wade might be the greatest sixth man ever, but that’s in large part negated by the Dream Team just having a two man, automatic, punch the clock, two point machine on their bench.

Karl Malone might be overrated, gaining a career boost by outlasting the golden age of players (ie. the Dream Teamers and their ilk) and dominating the late 90s “Me-Stars”, and he obviously wasn’t clutch, but for 20 minutes a game? You’re telling me that with 3 minutes remaining in the first and third quarters and for the first half of the second and fourth, you couldn’t bring in Stockton and Malone and run that pick and roll until the 2012 team is dizzy? Malone, coming off a season in which he averaged 28 and 11, wouldn’t have to be clutch, because when the game gets tight and late, he’d come out and Jordan, Magic, Scottie and the rest would take over. He could just roll to the basket, take the easy pass from Stockton, throw some elbows and count the bucket.

Kevin Love is awesome and what he did before getting hurt, with a 51-14 and 30-20 in the same weekend, is straight up stupid, but he has yet to play on a team that finished .500 in a season and he’s not exactly known for his lockdown D. Are Paul and Love stopping the Stockton to Malone pick and roll? No, I didn’t think so.

Even if the Mailman is waylaid, Stockton has other options. Ewing is being guarded by Tyson Chandler (PUH’lease), Chris Mullin is out on the wing to drain open threes, and if they need someone to create a basket, Clyde could get into the lane.

Defensively, this isn’t a lights out unit, but Ewing, Malone, and Stockton were above average defenders, and while Mullin was a turnstile, so is the man guarding him: Carmelo Anthony (and wouldn’t that just be another delectable match up). Sure Anthony might drop 40 on Mullin, but as Mullin showed against Magic in the 1991 playoffs, he’ll just come right back with 40 of his own.

So, as I said above, the only spot in the second unit that the 2012 team has a clear advantage is at the two, but a) The Olympic pay scale might preclude Wade from even showing up; b) Clyde’s probably a little underrated because he played in Jordan’s shadow; and c) if push comes to shove and this spot’s killing his team, do you think Chuck Daly’s really leaving Jordan on the pine? No. He’s going to bring in Jordan (or even Pippen) to neutralize Wade.

In a tight game, the starters are going to play the lion’s share of minutes. A coach will really only go eight, maybe nine deep. So, assuming that Jordan’s going to play 38 or 39 minutes and that Scottie might take a couple minutes covering Wade, Clyde’s only going to play 8ish minutes. Same thing really for Mullin. So the Dream Team can survive the Wade mismatch without Daly losing any sleep.

All of which brings me back to the 11th man on the bench: Larry Joe Bird. Sure, he was a broken down version of himself. His prodigious talent betrayed by a decaying back, but… on this team, even to win a seven game series over the 2012 team, Larry wouldn’t have to play meaningful minutes. He’d be a veteran presence on the pine, a co-captain, and source of the Basketball Son of God like wisdom. But… if the game was tight and the Dream Team needed a basket, a floor spacing shooter, or a decoy, you’re telling me that there’s someone better than the Legend?

Honestly, lets put the question to the man who started this whole thing: Bill, in the closing minutes of the game, with one team needing a basket and Coach K or Chuck Daly looking down the bench for the 11th man to drive a dagger into the hearts of the opponent, who’d you rather have, a barely standing Larry Legend, or Chris “I’m Getting a 115 million to be an inferior version of Horace Grant” Bosh?

Yeah, I thought so.

A seven game series between the 2012 U.S. Olympic team and the Dream Team would be epic and the 2012 team has perhaps the best chance to beat the 1992 squad as any other collection of basketball talent in history, but in the game of trumps, there’s just no getting around the fact that whoever you flip over in 2012, the Dream Team can always come back with a little Magic, a lot of Michael and a Larry Bird kicker.

Fat Jokes and Twitter-Baiting…

April 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Tony Kornheiser, of PTI fame, has repeatedly said that the reason he’s not on Twitter – other than being too old to know how to use the google machine – is that he knows two minutes in he’d say something stupid that would end up ruining his career. For all its greatness, Twitter is a medium that leads people to shoot from the proverbial hip, when perhaps they should take a moment to exhale.

Jays catcher JP Arencibia found himself embroiled in a little controversy this morning, when he responded to a baiting tweet by calling his combatant fat. Eric Mirlis, a sports talk show host was the subject of this tweet from the Jays embattled catcher,

@themirl please have one more donut, looks like u need it!

Most of the commentary around Arencibia’s tweet, including from the Getting Blanked guys here, has taken the stance that Arencibia was in the wrong for making a fat joke about the guy. And, I guess they are right, he probably should have simply exhaled, remembered that he’s a young, attractive (cough-at least according to my wife – cough), wealthy baseball player. Early season struggles or not, his life is pretty good. So, you’d like to think that JP would be above reacting to Twitter riff-raff goading him, plus a joke about the guy’s weight does probably cross some sort of line, but here’s my question, why in the world was a professional sports pundit tweeting to Arencibia to denigrate his play anyhow?

Scary bad stat line: @jparencibia9 ranked behind guys like Mike Morse and V-Mart so far this season…and they have not played.

You could say that this is an innocuous tweet, and that fat jokes are in bad taste, and yes, Arencibia is a professional athlete who should be above such petty repartees, but isn’t that exactly what the guy was looking for? Why else was he tweeting @ Arencibia? What’s the upside? In reading Eric Mirlis’ twitter feed, it seems that after his comment, he’s been lambasted by Arencibia fans, to which he’s responded with comments like,

Respect is a two way way street.

and,

It is about accountability. There is none on Twitter.

Mirlis is right, it is about accountability and respect. he showed neither when he chose to include Arencibia in his tweet. He’s certainly justified in posing the question to his radio listeners and he is probably justified in tweeting the question, but doesn’t including Arencibia in the tweet cross into some form of baiting? I understand that athletes are paid a lot of money, and thus have to accept some backlash and criticism as part of the job, but do they need to have that criticism rubbed directly into their face? Twitter – and the internet in general – breeds this kind of vitriol, both Mirlis’ baiting and Arencibia’s retort, but does that mean that like Mr Tony we need to just avoid it all together? Shouldn’t there be some sort of decorum required? If not from the casual (trolling) fan, then from the professionals?

Of course, as a talk show host, perhaps this is the level of decorum that Mirlis subscribes to,

To @jparencibia9 and his fans who think they are funny…my show is on this Sunday night at 10. Call in and come get me. I’m right here.

After all, as he himself says,

The down side of Twitter…even the bottom feeders can use it.

I’m sure Arencibia is thinking the same thing.

Baseball’s Parity Problem…

April 17, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote this about six weeks ago and never published it, because I was planning on changing the name of my blog and was waiting to do that first. One thing led to another, and, well… I’m still planning on changing the name of my blog (my wife has informed me that it’s beyond acceptable levels of sport-nerdom), just, you know, tomorrow…

Anyhow, while this isn’t exactly topical anymore, it still largely applies and since it’s written it might as well be read:

Jayson Stark, who’s a wonderful writer, despite not spelling his name properly, wrote an interesting piece earlier this week (cough-in February-cough) in which he polled several league executives to determine how many teams had the potential to win the World Series this season.

Now, lets deal with the question first, before getting to the results. The question, how many teams, going into the season, have even the slightest hope of winning the World Series, could really be rephrased, “how many teams have a chance to make the playoffs this year?” As we’ve seen the last two seasons with the Giants and the Cardinals popping champagne in November, you don’t have to be the best team, because once you reach the playoffs, it’s anyone’s game.

And, of course, opportunities to make the playoffs are going to be a little better this year than they’ve been in the past, which must be considered in the equation, but still if you read Stark’s article, the executives he spoke with identified an astounding 19 different teams capable of winning the World Series. They unanimously identified 12 as being contenders – and Boston wasn’t one of the 12.

For all the caterwauling about how baseball needs a salary cap and how only the rich can win, we are truly in an era of almost universal parity. Even without the second wild card, you have to believe that more than 15 teams can at least play the “IF” game (ie. “IF Colby Rasmus remembers how to hit a ball, IF Brandon Morrow learns to pitch with runners on base, IF Kyle Drabek or Brett Cecil can tap into their potential…). Despite what those polled thought, the Red Sox are certainly title contenders, as are – obviously – the Yanks and Rays. If everything broke right, as it did for the Rays in 2008, then the Jays could sneak in. That’s four. The AL central has the front-running Tigers and with a few breaks, the Indians could squeak into contention. So, now we’re at six. Out West there’s only two options, the two time AL champion Rangers and the reloaded Angels will both beat the snot out of the Mariners and A’s. So, now we’re at eight from the AL alone.

The NL has even greater parity. The East has four teams who are reasonable picks to play in October (sorry Mets fans…). Even after losing Pujols and Fielder, the Cardinals and Brewers shouldn’t surprise anyone by winning the central, neither should the Reds. That’s seven NL teams and 15 overall. And the NL West? Well, everybody’s aboard the Diamondbacks bandwagon, but the year before that everyone was championing the Giants and Rockies, and despite their ownership mess, the Dodgers boast the best position player and pitcher in the league. So, that’s everyone out West except the Padres. Four more teams, giving us an absurd 11 teams in the 16 team NL with playoff hopes.

All told, that means that only fans of 11 teams enter the 2012 season dreaming of the 2013 season. What does that mean? It means that absurd payroll discrepancies or not, parity is not a problem in baseball.

Don’t believe me?

In the twelve years since the turn of the century, 15 teams have played in the World Series. That’s half of baseball. And an astounding nine of those fifteen teams have scheduled a parade in the week following the series. What about all those leagues with more stringent salary caps? Well the lordly NFL, for all its wonderful parity, has seen a similar 15 teams in the Super Bowl – however with two more teams, that’s a slightly lower percentage of the league – and they’ve only crowned eight different champions. The NBA, which due to the nature of the sport, is perhaps the least capable of having true parity, has sent 11 teams to the championship, with only six different winners. Only the NHL can match MLB’s record of contestants throughout the early part of this century, matching MLB with 15 Stanley Cup combatants, and nine different teams drinking from the Cup.

Of course, the NHL crowned their 15 and 9 in one fewer season than baseball. That’s because hockey lost an entire year of their sport to a lockout that ensured the owners could implement a hard cap… So, yeah. All things being equal, I’ll take my sport, sans salary cap, with 12 full seasons of play, 15 different teams in the World Series, and 9 different champions.

Parity Indeed!

No Fielder for Jays…

January 25, 2012 1 comment

All offseason, Jays fans have practically been charging up to Rogers Center with pitchforks, clamouring that the team and general manager Alex Anthopoulos should be opening Roger’s wallet and laying down some serious coin for the likes of Prince Fielder (and to a lesser extent Yu Darvish). They’ve taken to message boards, they’ve clogged talk radio with calls, and they’ve even started an online petition demanding that the Jays start spending money or lose what few fans they still have. It’s seemed silly and asinine to me all offseason, and in light of yesterday’s news that super agent Scott Boras had procured his rotund client, Fielder, a 214 million, 9 year contract, it seems particularly obtuse.

Do the Jays need a player at first base who can actually, you know, hit? Absolutely, of course they do, but Fielder was not the options. In signing the offspring of Cecil, the Jays would have paid 214 million for a player who can’t field, can’t run, and may well eat Jose Bautista. Fielder is a phenomenal hitter; he is a 5 win player at his best and that’s all bat, but he has three or four more years in his prime and then he’s going to begin a decline. You want to be paying a 35 year old Prince Fielder, with his body type, 25 million a year?

I think any sane person, or at least any person who isn’t a fan of the Tigers, would prety resoundingly say, no!

And before the proprietors of that lovely Jays-Fielder site try to argue that the Jays should have locked up the burly first baseman earlier in the offseason when the price was lower, uhmmm… no, no, no. That’s not how Boras operates. While fans may revile him, Scott Boras is the best at what he does and it’s not even particularly close. If you are a player and you want to maximize your earning potential, you sign with Boras. And in the year of your free agency, he releases a Dostoevskyian brochure that lists your accolades and makes the case that you’re Babe Ruth, Lou Gherig, and Marie Currie all rolled up into one. He then waits, and waits, and waits.

He waits until every other prominent player at your position has signed. Then he waits a little more. He waits until the season is almost upon us, and teams are looking at their roster, and the roster’s of their opponents, and thinking, damn I might be missing… then he starts to pit one team against another, and he always, always talks about that mystery team. After Pujols took the Angels’ money, much was made of how Boras wouldn’t be able to get Fielder a big contract. The big money/market teams were out: the Yankees had Teixeira, the Red Sox Gonzalez, the Angels Pujols, the Dodgers and Mets are in financial disarray, the Cubs and White Sox are rebuilding. There was Texas, but they jumped in on Darvish. So, who was left? The Nationals? The Orioles? Maybe the Mariners? Or, maybe, a 214 million, 9 year deal with the Tigers.

Bam.

Done.

That’s why you hire Scott Boras, and that’s -whatever you might want to think about him because he’s the agent of your team’s best player – why he’s the best.

So, it would be stupid for Jays fans to be upset that Anthopoulos didn’t sign Fielder. He’s a lousy fielder who will probably be a DH in the next four years. And, while I love making snarky comments about his size, because of that size, he’s also a strong candidate to age quickly. Nine years, a lot can change in nine years. The history of 7+ year contracts is not good. Go to Cots’ MLB contracts, look at the highest total contracts, look at the names, think about how those deals ended up. Think about how the Yankees felt about Giambi near the end, or how the Cubs feel about Soriano, or how the Rockies felt about Mike Hampton, or about – as great as Johan Santana was – whether the Mets still want to pay him 60 million dollars. Go to that site and look at three of the 100 million contracts handed out last year and ask yourself how quickly opinions about Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth changed. You think Prince Fielder is good? He’s not even one of the three best first basemen in baseball. Joe Mauer was one of the three best players in baseball. Now? Who knows.

So yes Jays fans, Alex Anthopoulos didn’t make a big push for Fielder, but that doesn’t mean that Jays’ management aren’t serious about winning. It might just mean that they’re a little smarter about it than the you.

Who Won What?!? The Knicks, Anthony, and all those Nuggets…

January 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Chris Bernucca of Sheridan Hoops postulated in an article yesterday that if the Knicks lost last night’s affair against Denver, it might be coach Mike D’Antoni’s last game at the helm of the listing ship SS Knickerbocker. Much like the Italian captain who this week spurned the nobility of captain going down with his vessel and instead leapt straight into the nearest life raft, getting off the boat right now might just be opportune.

After all, the highly lauded Knicks are 6-9, and 9th in the middling Eastern Conference. As a point of contrast, their opponent last night, the Denver Nuggets are 12-5 and 2nd in the Western Conference. This only really matters in that the Nuggets seem to have a roster mostly made up of D’Antoni’s castaways: Danilo Gallinari, Tomofey Mozgov, Corey Brewer, and Al Harrinton all suited up for the Nuggets last night, and each in turn suited up for the Knicks. Well, actually that’s not entirely true, Brewer was acquired by the Knicks as part of the Den-NY-Minn. Anthony trade, but they thought he wasn’t even worth a roster spot and just waved him. He signed with the eventual champs in Dallas.

And this is the problem for the Knicks as they look to turn around their season, they’re a misshapen roster lacking the requisite parts  – cough guards cough – to win games in the NBA. And while D’Antoni’s certainly not helping matters, can the blame for the roster really be laid at his feet? In acquiring Anthony, the Knicks swung for the fences and seemingly came up lame. Since the trade New York’s 20-24, the Nuggets are 30-12, that probably has something to do with coaching, but it also has something to do with roster construction and the value placed on the star player.

Last night Carmelo Anthony scored a very respectable 25 points. Of course, he required 30 shots to get those 25, and he only made it to the line 6 times. His counterpart scored 37 points (in two overtimes), on 19 shots. With 20 – yes, TWENTY – attempts from the charity stripe. Galinari took bold advantage of the free shots too, converting 18 of them. Now, it’s one game, and Carmelo has done a lot for the Knicks, but remind me which player was the premier piece of that trade?

Conventional NBA wisdom says that the team that acquires the best player in a trade won that trade, but in the case of that deal eleven months ago, I’m not so sure. I think the writing’s pretty clearly on the wall, the New York Knicks lost the Carmelo Anthony trade. Acquiring Anthony cost the Knicks cap room, it cost them flexibility, and it cost them four players. It also, seemingly, will cost them Mike D’Antoni (which most knicks fans would probably chalk up as a win). When this trade was made, I listed the Knicks as both winners and losers of the deal, writing,

On its face, this is a slam dunk win for the Knicks, but it also has the hollow ring of a flashy deal that garners BIG headlines but doesn’t actually make the team appreciably better.

It hasn’t made New York better, but it has improved the Nuggets. Armed with a roster of ex-pat Knicks, the Nuggets sit in the NBA’s penthouse; the perfect place to watch the SS Knickerbocker list and sink…

Beating up on Losers…

January 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Much has been made in the week leading up to the AFC Championship game about the Patriots failure to beat any teams with winning records this season, but does that fact have any meaning? I think this is a pretty clear example of someone grabbing a stat that is factually true, but intellectually meaningless and spreading it for all to hear. Then, everyone else jumps on board, running along the watchtower shouting, sharing the proclamation, without ever stopping to actually think about what’s being said.

It is true that the Pats have not beaten a team with a winning record this season, but it’s also a misleading stat, because some of the teams that the Pats beat, would have had winning records if they’d won against New England. Brady’s boys beat San Diego, Oakland, Denver, Philadelphia, Dallas and the Jets twice. If you reverse any of those games, the Pats opponent suddenly has a winning record.

Beyond that, you can only beat the teams in front of you, which in all but three cases this season the Pats did. If you’d looked at the Pats schedule at the start of the season, you’d have felt it was a hard schedule. The Jets were coming off two straight AFC championship games, the Eagles were widely believed to be some sort of dream team, the Cowboys are the Cowboys, the Colts are the Colts, Miami was seen as an up and coming plucky team, as were the Raiders, and the Redskins are… well, no.

Yet, when the season played out, the Jets act had worn thin, the Eagles took longer to jell than expected, the Cowboys ARE the Cowboys, the Colts were a Manning away from being the Colts, Miami wasn’t so much up and coming as flaming out, and the Raiders lost their quarterback, their owner, and their minds (when they thought Carson Palmer was worth two picks, let alone a first).

Taken further, with a few exceptions, this was a season of almost universal parity: eight teams finished 8-8 (and the Pats beat six of them), three teams finished 9-7 (and the Pats lost to one of them), and two teams finished 7-9 (and the Pats beat one). That’s 13 teams hovering around the middle and the Pats played eight of them.  New England, more than any other team, was responsible for determining who passed the threshold of mediocrity to potential glory.

Yes, the Pats lost to the Steelers and they lost to the Giants (that 9-7 team), and each of those losses are tough to swallow, but lets not extrapolate that out to be something meaningful. It’s not. It’s two games, and really, since the Giants could just as easily have been one of those teams without a winning record, it’s really just one game.

I’m not saying the Pats are going to beat the Ravens – I think they will, but I’m a moron, so who the heck knows – I’m just saying that this fact that keeps getting repeated – that the Pats haven’t beaten a team with a winning record – is vapid and meaningless.

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