Coaching Cartoon

Elite Coaching Enabling Vikings, Twins Improvements

by JDCam 11.18.14

The Minnesota Vikings are a very different team in 2014. An early injury to incumbent QB Matt Cassel sparked the early initiation of the Teddy Bridgewater era in Minnesota and GM Rick Spielman has continued to make impressively impactful free agents signings as well as meaningful draft picks (Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater to name a few). Despite this change the Vikings offense continues to sputter, struggling to cover up the loss of Adrian Peterson and overcome the struggles of an ineffective offensive line. One area the Vikings have improved significantly since 2013 is their pass defense, long an area of weakness that drew constant ire and frustration from Viking fans.

New head coach Mike Zimmer has preached discipline and the no nonsense approach to team defense that the previously ill-disciplined Vikings have long needed. Zimmer’s message is clear, losing is unacceptable. As trite as it sounds Zimmer has a ‘sound fundamentals’ approach that is having a huge impact in Minnesota.

Mike Zimmer has brought a 'no nonsense' approach to the Vikings D, sparking immediate improvement in 2014

Mike Zimmer has brought a ‘no nonsense’ approach to the Vikings D, sparking immediate improvement in 2014

Through the first 9 weeks of the season the Vikes passing defense went from joint 22nd in the league with 22 sacks to 1st with 30. They went from 30th in the league conceding 287.2 yards per game to 4th conceding only 213.6. They conceded 21 TD through this point in the season through the air in 2013, good for 31st in the league, in 2014 they are tied 15th with 14. Finally their pass defense rating has gone from 26th in the league in 2013, to 16th in 2014. Zimmer’s aggressive approach certainly seems to be having an impact, despite limited personnel improvement in the Vikings secondary an area of consistent struggle in recent seasons.

Conversely, Zimmer’s last employer, the Cincinnati Bengals have seen their defense go from dominant to ugly since his departure. Last season the Bengals defense stymied almost everything that came at them, conceding a miserly 19.1 points per game, giving up a balanced 209 ypg through the air and 96.5 ypg on the ground. The Bengals defense has plummeted this season since Zimmer’s departure, falling to 29th in the league, conceding 23.4 points per game and giving up 248.9 ypg through the air and a porous 143 ypg against the rush, including their recent Thursday Night Football domination at the hands of the once lowly in-state rival Cleveland Browns…at home. Of course Zimmer is not the sole reason for these changes but the numbers don’t lie, these trends are too stark to ignore.

A short way across town the Minnesota Twins made an announcement Thursday that drew little fanfare but could be similarly impactful for an organization that is filled with recent optimism after the recent hiring of home town hopeful and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. The Twins decided to retain hitting coach Tom Brunansky after his second season with the club. Looking at the Twins offensive improvement, it is easy to see why. The Twins pitching woes are well documented and do not bear consideration in this article.

In 2013 the Twins were in the bottom 10 (and often the bottom 5) in almost every major offensive category. They finished 25th overall in team offense with a .242 team BA, .312 OBP, .692 OPS. The Twins scored just 614 runs in 2013 6th worst in the majors and managed just 151 HRs. Brunansky entered at the beginning of the 2013 season and opened with an immediately disappointing season. In 2014 however he sparked an immediate turnaround. Simply looking at basic metrics the Twins jumped 18 spots to 7th overall in hitting. In 2014 the Twins team BA rose to .254, OBP rose to an MLB 5th best .324, OPS rose to .715 and unbelievably the Twins scored 101 more runs despite homering just 128 times. The Twins had limited personnel turnover between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Most of the Twins significant offseason additions were pitchers, with the exception of catcher Kurt Suzuki, who posted a career year in his first season at Target Field. The Twins also saw impressive debuts from SS/OF Danny Santana who posted a .319/.353/.472 slash line through 101 games to finish 7th in the AL ROY voting. Kennys Vargas also debuted later in the season and despite some inconsistencies managed 9HR and 38RBI through his first 53 big league games. So what is it in Brunansky’s coaching and adjustments that caused such a turnaround for the Twins in 2014?

Tom Brunansky keyed the Twins offensive turnaround in 2014

Tom Brunansky keyed the Twins offensive turnaround in 2014

In a recent interview Brunansky opined that he wanted to challenge all the Twins hitters to ‘be more competitive’. I wanted us to compete on every pitch’. This all part of an improvement in spite of a career low .277 average from perennial team BA prop Joe Mauer. In short there doesn’t seem to be one factor at play here. The Twins simply got a little bit better at a lot of things offensively in 2014. Their SO% dropped from 23% to 21.3%, this doesn’t seem significant until you factor in that a drop of just 1% over the course of the season is akin to 62 less SO. Their BB% rose incrementally, their SO/BB ration fell from 2.68 strike outs per walk to 2.44. The Twins also increased their number of ABs per %, hit less ground balls and increased their team LD% (line drive %) by 2%. All of these incremental, seemingly unimportant statistical increases and decreases point to one conclusion; the Twins are becoming more competitive. They are striking out less, walking more, hitting the ball on the ground less and hitting more line drives. As with Mike Zimmer and the Vikes, the Twins limited personnel are benefiting from quality coaching and buying into a new offensive mindset. If both franchises can continue to build on these improvements and address areas of need, the long drought of highly competitive sports franchises in the Twin Cities may be coming to an end.

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Most Underrated Hitters and Best Value Players of 2014

By Jonway West 11.14.14

Last week, I talked about the most surprising pitcher of 2014, both good and bad. This week, using Steamer projections, I will talk about the hitter that over-performed the most, as well as the one that under-performed the most. I will also throw in the two most valuable players to their teams this year.

Most underrated hitter of 2014 (measured by wOBA, qualified batters):

Michael Brantley, Indians (Projected wOBA: .315, Actual: .391)

Once the second-to-last throw-in from the Milwaukee Brewers for CC Sabathia (whatever happened to Matt LaPorta?), Brantley went from league average hitter to elite hitter in one season, with close to the same luck (although his BABIP jumped 30 points, his line drive rate went up 3 percent and his xBABIP stayed exactly the same). Brantley breakout has been fun, unexpected by purists and statheads alike, and speaks to a skill set we may look for as contact rates plummet around baseball.

Brantley has long been regarded for one great skill: lots of contact. He was fifth in the league in contact rate, and this has been his strong suit since he was a minor leaguer. While in years past the contact was meager, this year he started driving the ball a ton more, and stopped swinging at non-strikes as much (heck, he has even walked a fair amount!). And while his HR/FB and Infield fly ball rates are considerably fluky, his approach, patience, and line-drive ability are here to stay. So while 20 homers may not be his calling card, he appears to be an awesome value at the MLB level for a few more years.

Outstanding contact hitters like Brantley are starting to become a hot commodity

Outstanding contact hitters like Brantley are starting to become a hot commodity

Guys with Brantley’s skill set have played baseball as long as baseball has been around, and for the last 20 years have been left to rot in the minors. MLB managers don’t like hearing that the new call-up hit 14 homers in thousands of major league at bats, and doesn’t rate out with an elite hit, defense or speed tool. But making contact is becoming increasingly rare in the MLB, and guys like Brantley (and Matt Carpenter) will make a living off of patient contact rates. In fact, I see this becoming a focus of player development, as the pendulum swings away from “3-true-outcome” miseries at the plate.

Honorable mentions: Victor Martinez, Josh Harrison, Charlie Blackmon

Most Overrated Hitter of 2014:

Chris Davis, Indians (Projected wOBA: .373, Actual: .308)

Chris Davis struggled in every way imaginable in 2014, compounded by the fact that he was suspended for the last month of the season, as well as the playoffs, for using a banned substance. This came after repeated accusations and denials of using PEDs in the past. I don’t take much of a stance on the issue, but there is no denying that the suspension hurt the image and credibility he built in 2013.

Former Mariners executive Tony Blengino wrote a great piece about the demise of Chris Davis. As the article points out, Davis fit the bill of so many who get chances in the majors – “light-tower power” as the saying goes – but Davis’ case seemed special. Known for his work ethic, it seemed he had found the ability to consistently crush hard contact. Unfortunately, as the article points out, the margin for error of the extreme fly ball/k rate sluggers is so low, that the power tool needs to remain elite. It’s why Henry Rodriguez and Rob Deer aren’t talked about all that much in baseball circles.

2014 was NOT all smiles for Chris Davis

2014 was NOT all smiles for Chris Davis

In addition to the statistical abnormalities that make up Davis’ track record, his plight also speaks to the fickle nature of the ‘power tool’ that scouts crave. Since it is so closely tied to the hit tool, it can be impossible to separate at the highest level. Davis still has elite ability to strike a baseball with authority; no PED nor K rate can take that away. Unfortunately, he may not last long in the Majors if the hit tool cannot accompany that power, something that hasn’t happened his entire career outside May-June 2013.

Honorable mentions: Corey Hart, Carlos Quinten, Nick Swisher, Will Venable

Most valuable players, 2014:

Corey Kluber, Indians ($ per win: $70,400)

Josh Harrison, Pirates ($ per win: $104,600)

Yes, yes, I know that Mike Trout (deservedly) and Clayton Kershaw (mostly deservedly [Andrew McCutchen for President!]) won the MVPs this year, but let’s look at who was truly the most valuable player for their franchise. What is most valuable to a team is high value for low cost. I wanted to show who had the largest bang-for-buck in the majors, and Kluber and Harrison take the cake!

Both players made darn near the MLB minimum, at $513k for Kluber and $514k for Harrison. Both also completed phenomenal sophomore campaigns. Kluber (and that beautiful cutter) has been a statistician’s darling for a year and a half now. This year, his FIP was just over half of league average all while keeping high GB rate. He even accomplished his Cy Young Season with one of the worst defenses in baseball this year. His accolades are more deserved than alarming to those in the know.

Harrison, on the other hand, was never even in the Pirates top-30 prospect list. Harrison is small with middling skill sets, and managed to rake this past year without any remarkable peripherals (.353 BABIP!!). He also provided that bat with position flexibility, as he started all over the diamond for the Pirates, who surprisingly finished 4th in the NL in runs. It will be interesting to see if Harrison can catch lightning in a bottle next year, and I for one am rooting for the former 6th round pick.

I also want to mention that Mike Trout, the two time defending champ of this award, broke baseball economy with his 2012-2013 performance. Additionally, the 2012 runner-up Giancarlo Stanton might sign a $300 million deal. Kluber and Harrison might not appear to be as glamorous as the past few notables, but they could have big paydays in their near future.

Royals Bullpen

Relief Pitchers Key Royals Postseason Success – Twins to Follow Suit?

By JDCam 11.09.14

With the off-season only a few days old the Minnesota Twins did something they haven’t done in over 13 years, naming Hall of Famer Paul Molitor as their new manager. Being a first time manager, no-one is quite sure exactly what Molitor will bring to the table. It will no doubt be fascinating as the Twins are renowned not only for their loyalty but their desire to ‘keep it in the family’.

The Twins organization has been criticized in recent years for failing to embrace some of the modern tendencies of ‘successful’ organizations such as sabermetrics and defensive shifts. Their recent struggles can certainly be traced back to woeful starting pitching stemming from an inability to sign big name free agent pitching and more importantly, spending their average mid first round draft picks from their more successful mid-2000s years on positional players.

The Twins have certainly changed their philosophy recently, bringing in a dearth of potentially high impact power arms both via trade and the draft. Names like Alex Meijer, JJ Berrios and Kohl Stewart will be gracing the beautiful confines of Target Field in the next few years (Trevor May made a disappointing but slowly improving debut at the end of the 2014 season).

Looking at the Twins 2014 draft however may be an indicator of an area in which their thinking maybe more progressive and forward thinking than other clubs. With their first selection they drafted Nick Gordon (son of Flash) a talented multi-tool SS out of high school. With their subsequent picks, the Twins only went out and drafted an entire bullpen. The Twins spent their next 7 picks on high velocity arms including Nick Burdi in round 2, the former Louisville closer who can hit 103 on the radar, Michael Cederoth out of San Diego State, who also throws in the high 90s and Jake Reed in the 5th round out of Oregon.

Burdi

Nick Burdi could soon be impacting the Twins, despite only being drafted in 2014

The early returns on these bullpen pieces have been very promising. Burdi, who could see Target Field as early as 2015 struggled with control issues early before being promoted to High A Fort Myers. In his first 20 innings of professional ball he struck out an absurd 16.8/9 innings and had yet to give up a run at High A when the season drew to a close. Cederoth struggled more out of the gate with Rookie ball Elizabethton before finishing the season strong (although the Twins have been trying to stretch him out as a starter). Reed, another hard throwing right hander had perhaps the most impressive debut, giving up just 1ER in his first 31 innings pitched while striking out 39 and walking just 3 through two different levels in the minors.

If this year’s refreshingly competitive playoffs taught us anything it was the value of an outstanding bullpen. Kansas City hardly had a dominating starting rotation but had the best bullpen in the regular season (5.9 WAR). Their late innings trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland proved impossible to stop. Herrera finished the season with a 2.8 WAR, Davis with a WAR of 3.7 (for an 8th inning guy!) and Holland with a WAR of 2.5. That’s a combined WAR of 9 for their late inning, high octane arms.

Wade Davis had a remarkable 2014 and keyed the best bullpen in the majors

Wade Davis had a remarkable 2014 and keyed the best bullpen in the majors

Twins fans need to accept the fact that the Pohlad family, despite their fortune, is never going to allow the Twins to have  payroll much over $100 million. Because of this the Twins will never be able to afford, or attract top tier rotation arms via free agency. Assuming some of their excellent starting prospects can develop into solid major league starters Terry Ryan and the front office might just be pursuing a novel blueprint for success, drafting an elite bullpen. Look out for the Twins relievers in 2015 and beyond, it might just be their ticket back to competitiveness.

Year of the Pitcher

Year of the Pitcher 2.0 – Where is all the Offence?

By Conway West 11.03.14

Baseball had a year that rivaled 1968 for the “year of the pitcher” moniker: the highest K rate of all time and the lowest runs scored since 1981. That, in addition to the specialized relievers becoming more specialized and defensive shifts becoming commonplace, means that baseball might be in a drought of offense, which seemed unimaginable just 10 years ago.

This article will focus on starting pitchers and which outperformed projection expectations of them coming into the year, as well as those who underperformed. I have avoided the conversation regarding relievers for two reasons: one, the overrated/underrated thing is so apparent with relievers (wow, Wade Davis was really good this year! And Jim Johnson was terrible!). Two, relievers are so fickle, and have such situational roles, that their success is so much harder to predict. It is almost assumed that there is no good in projecting the success of the bullpen arms; just have as many relievers that throw really hard as you possibly can. I used steamer for the projections, and FIP for the basis, which I will explain why FIP is great in a later article.

Most Surprising Starting Pitcher

Garrett Richards, Angels (Projected FIP: 4.37, Actual: 2.60)

Richards began the year as a previously ineffective extra arm for an Angel’s team that had a lot of pitchers that fit that bill. With injuries in the rotation to start the year, Richards started the season in the 4th spot of the Angels’ rotation, slotted between the potent combination of Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs (both struggled mightily). He proved effective the first start of the season, and then pitched 7 shut out innings against the Mariners his second start, and then pitched like an ace the rest of the way on a team that desperately needed it. He was consistently the most effective pitcher the Angels had all year, in any role.

G.Richards

Angels pitcher Garrett Richards took the AL by storm in 2014 before going down to an ironically NON elbow/arm related injury

Richards rise to ace-dom comes from that fastball velocity, amongst other things, which was 6th in the bigs out of players with significant playing time, and first out of starters. Dude throws hard, and has always thrown hard, but this year he continued on 2013 success of finding the strike zone more often. When you throw 96+, and can locate with 3 pitches, you can normally be successful at the major league level. Richards is on the young side (this was his age 26 season) and looks like he has learned how to pitch; he looks poised to continue his growth as an ace. Even before his season-ending injury, advanced scouts were wary of Garrett’s success because of a growing trend in MLB.

One of the emerging storylines of early in the 2014 baseball year was Tommy John surgery. While pitchers left and right were being put on the shelf with elbow injuries, the consensus (with a lot of scientific data to back it up) was that hard throwers (especially young ones) equate to elbow injuries. The dark humor behind this statement, obviously, is that Richards suffered one of the most gruesome injuries of 2014 that wasn’t an elbow. That injury could be crippling to the best pitcher in Southern California not named Clayton.

Honorable Mentions: Jose Quintana, Jeremy Guthrie, Dallas Keuchel

Most Deceptively Underachieving Starting Pitcher:

Shelby Miller, Cardinals (Projected FIP: 3.82, Actual: 4.54)

The category of “most underachieving” can be really fun, particularly with pitchers, when looking subjectively at the matter. For instance, the year after RA Dickey won the Cy Young as a feel-good story (when he was possibly out-pitched by the afore-mentioned Clayton), he was traded to the Blue Jays in a deal the Mets must have been licking their chops over: they knew the market was grossly overrating their Cy Young winner. He then pitched pretty much like numbers should suggest: average. This seems to happen with pitching to a high degree: since they perform less than hitters, their success is examined more thoroughly, then blown out of proportion either way afterwards. Starting pitchers are the quarterbacks (analytically) of baseball.

With that being said, I have tried to be objective with this list, showing numbers and explaining them with possible explanations. Shelby Miller for me wasn’t as exciting as several of the candidates for this award, but he is still deserving of the honor. Led by a bottom-15 walk rate, K rate, and home run rate, Miller was tagged all season. He also had tremendous luck with a .256 BABIP, which was third lowest in the majors. St Louis had a good team defense, but nothing so spectacular to explain that number. Miller’s ground ball rate wasn’t that special, either. He just was lucky to not be worse than he already was this year.

Shelby Miller was below par last year but it could have been worse

Shelby Miller was below par last year but it could have been worse

If you ever watched Shelby pitch, there is subjective reasoning to back that up: he seemed to walk everyone the first inning, until he threw a flat fastball in the zone that got roped and caught by someone to turn a double play. His season felt always on the verge of disaster. There is hope – he is still very young, and shot through the minors striking people out all the way.

Others on this list popped out as more exciting: Danny Salazar was a dark-house ace candidate, who was ruined by terrible team defense and wildness early in the year. Alfredo Simon was a fantasy name heard often all year: just interesting enough to always pop up on the waiver wire, but ended with terrible peripherals. AJ Burnett was awesome last year, and was equally bad this year, which could have led to interesting discussions on age and pitching. And we haven’t even mentioned Chris Young, the worst pitcher by FIP this season. If you were to ask Mariners’ fans in August about Chris Young, some would have called him the MVP of the team. How’s that for overrated?

Honorable Mentions: Danny Salazar, AJ Burnett, Alfredo Simon

J Zimmermann

Jordan Zimmermann – The Most Underrated Pitcher in Baseball

by JDCam October 25th 2014

When the baseball season is over. When a refreshing and truly excellent post-season comes to a close, awards season will begin. At this point it is a mere formality that Clayton Kershaw wins his second successive Cy Young award (and most likely an MVP) and deservedly so. Someone who will start to garner more attention from Cy Young voters this year is Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, perhaps the most grossly underrated starting pitcher in all of baseball.

The most impressive thing about Zimmermann is how he just gets better and better. Let’s start with the basics. In 2014, Zimmermann put up career bests (since he has become a full time starter) in win % (.737), WHIP (1.072), HR/9 (0.6), BB/9 (1.3) and SO/9 (8.2). This is elite production and at 28, Zimmermann is yet to enter his pitching prime.

Let’s get into some more stats on Zimmermann. He was 10th in all of baseball with a 5.2 WAR in 2014. He has the majors 7th best FIP at 2.68 and 13th in xFIP at 3.10. Zimmerman did all this with an above average BABIP of .302. How aren’t we raving about this guy? I don’t understand. Zimmerann seems to suffer from being undervalued by others, most evidently by his own manager, the consistently buffoonish Matt Williams.

In game 2 of the Nationals series against the pennant winning San Francisco Giants, a mere 6 days after throwing a no hitter against the surprisingly competitive Florida Marlins, Williams took Zimmerman out of the game in remarkable circumstances. Against the Marlins Zimmeran threw 104 pitches (79 for strikes), struck out 10, and walked one in a game that was near perfection. Against the Giants Zimmermann was incredible again. He has pitched 8.2 innings of shut out ball before walking  promising Giants 2B joe Panik. Bizareely, with the game on the line and his unappreciated ace working on 17 2/3 shut out innings, Williams took Zimmermann out of the game in favor of injury prone closer Drew Storen. After a Buster Posey single and a Pablo Sandoval double, the game was tied. San Francisco went on to win in 18 innings and take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the best of 5 series.

Williams made one of the worst managerial decisions in recent playoff history by pulling Zimmermann in game 2 against the Giants in the NLDS

Williams made one of the worst managerial decisions in recent playoff history by pulling Zimmermann in game 2 against the Giants in the NLDS

For me, Williams decision is a puzzle I still have not managed to solve. Consider the situation. Your bona fide ace (yes over Strasburg) throws a no hitter. The next game (a crucial playoff start) he throws 8 2/3 innings of 3 hit ball. He has dominated the Giants lineup comfortably. He walks a man in the 9th, with two men down and he is taken out. SHOCKING! Just a shocking managerial decision! What does Zimmermann have to do to stay in the game? How could you possibly pull Zimmermann, in the midst of one of the most impressive streaks of his career for Storen (an injury prone, streakily dominant closer). I cannot wrap my head around the level of stupidity. The Nationals had a legitimate opportunity to win this year with a great rotation in which Gio Gonzalez was a number 4. Jordan Zimmerann is, without question the best pitcher in this potentially dominant group. Next year, his salary of $16.5 million will be richly deserved. He will undoubtedly be of the best available starters in a deep free agent starter class that boasts David Price and Mat Latos. I’m sure the Nationals will try to re-up Zimmerman in the off-season or during 2015. If I was him, I’d be testing the market to find a club that truly appreciated my value.

Buffalo Bills v Detroit Lions

Jim Schwartz and the Lions – Where is the Class in Sports?

by JDCam 10.16.14

This might qualify as somewhat of a rant. I was prepared to let it go until the Baylor Bears scored 21 unanswered points to top TCU on Saturday in a defenseless see-saw battle that was worthy of the top ten matchup it was hyped to be. At the end of their last gasp win Baylor fans rushed the field. WHY? I DON’T GET IT?! Clearly Baylor was down big in this game and the odds were stacked against them. However this was a 5 vs 9 matchup. Baylor was a favorite here. To me, while rushing the field is fun and it was certainly a remarkable comeback it screams of a lack of belongingness of your college team. Heads up Bear fans, you were supposed to win that top ten matchup at home. No matter the circumstances, rushing the field seemed a little much.

Was Baylor rushing the field in a game in which they were favored too much?

Was Baylor rushing the field in a game in which they were favored too much?

The previous Sunday October 5th the Buffalo Bills committed a way more egregiously pathetic and Bush league maneuver after outlasting Alex Henry, the kicker of the Detroit Lions, who was thoroughly determined to lose the game.  Henry managed to miss 3 field goals (indoors mind you) before Dan Carpenter split the sticks with a 58-yarder with 4 seconds left on the clock for a 17-14 win.

After the clock expired Buffalo players carried former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz from the field. This certainly got Golden Tate’s blood boiling, as the Lions wideout confessed after the game later. ‘I thought it was so disrespectful. So disrespectful. I didn’t like it at all. If I knew I wasn’t going to get fined, I would have snatched him right down off their shoulders and threw him on the ground, personally. But obviously I couldn’t do that’. (Obviously Golden, obviously. The outstanding quote of the week award goes to you for this gem).

Bizarrely, I’m inclined to agree with Tate here. Apparently, Bills defensive coordinator Schwartz had told Bills players how much beating his former team in their own building would mean to him, all but hinting at the level of adulation he wanted at the end of the game. How classless. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. Schwartz was paraded around like a conquering Roman hero. What do you have smile about Jim? You are coaching on a vanilla Bills team that sits at 3-3. You were fired from your last job with the Lions after a season of underachievement with significant talent and a litany of poor judgment calls.

Ultimately it would be a refreshing change of pace if folks in the position of men like Schwartz (leaders in the highest level of competition in a given sport) would act like they expected to win. Not only did Schwartz fail to do so, he acted as if he had single handedly won a game in which it was primarily the incompetence of the Detroit special teams that lead to the victory (Henry was cut the following Monday), not to mention the lack of sportsmanship in blatantly disrespecting a team you beat in their own building. Stay classy Jim Schwartz, I’m sure the Lions won’t forget THAT game in a hurry.

Cal

Cal’s Historic ‘Goff’ense and the Resurgence of Golden Bear Football (Also – Stanfurd Sucks)

by JDCam 10.10.14

Late Saturday night, after 11 ranked teams had already lost. Cal and WSU participated in one of the most ridiculous games in college football history. WSU QB Connor Halliday threw for an FBS record 734 yards and 6 TDs. In a loss. To Cal. Remarkably, despite Halliday’s record breaking night (amassing more passing yards to date than 16 FBS teams) he was arguably the second best player on the field. Cal’s emergent QB Jared Goff is quietly making a name for himself in a division that already boasts potential top pick Marcus Mariota and after several years of quiet anonymity, Golden Bear fans have some hope after a miserable few seasons.

Against WSU Goff threw for a paltry 527 yards and 5 TDs. Through 5 games Goff has 1875 yards, with 22 TDs, just 3 INTs and a completion percentage of 64.6%. Sophmore Goff was a 4 star recruit out of Marin Catholic in Northern California and was originally ranked 267th in the ESPN 300 in 2012. Goff’s crisp throwing and arm strength have many comparing him to another Cal alumni, Aaron Rodgers – whose peak with the Golden Bears came in the 2004 season.

Jared Goff is dominating in a young 2014 season

Jared Goff is dominating in a young 2014 season

2004 BCS Controversy

For those unfamiliar with Cal football history here is a brief summary of a controversial 2004 season. With Aaron Rodgers guiding a typically dominant offense, Cal lost only one regular season contest against eventual BCS National Champion USC Trojans. Cal finished the regular season at number 4 and seemed like a lock for a Rose Bowl berth. Then Texas coach Mack Brown subsequently made pleas to the media and to coaches to consider and re-consider their rankings to allow Texas a BCS opportunity. As a result number 6 Texas made up 23 points on number 4 Cal in the AP poll and the 5th ranked Longhorns gained 43 points on the 4th ranked Golden Bears in the coach’s poll. The rest is history and Texas went on to edge Michigan 38-37 in the Rose Bowl. To the ire of Cal fans, the AP poll was removed from BCS formula consideration after the 2004 season, partially because of the controversy with the Bears. For their part, Cal whimpered to a 45-31 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech.

The demise of Cal since this recent apex has been a slow and painful one to watch. In the last 3 seasons they have gone 7-6 (4-5) in 2011, 3-9 (2-7) in 2012 and 1-11 (0-9) in 2013. Longtime coach Jeff Tedford was fired in 2012 and replaced by Sonny Dykes. Looking at the active NFL players to emerge from Cal as well as their recruiting history in the last decade, some interesting patterns emerge that foreshadowed their recent spiral. First let’s take a look at offensive and defensive linemen produced by Cal in recent seasons

Player Position Drafted Experience
Tyson Alualu Defensive End 1st round, 10th overall 5th season – JAX
Deandre Coleman Defensive Tackle Undrafted free agent Rookie – MIA
Brian De La Puente Center Undrafted free agent 5th season – CHI
Cameron Jordan Defensive End 1st round, 25th overall 4th season – NO
L.P Ladouceur Center Undrafted free agent 10th season – DAL
Alex Mack Center 1st round, 21st overall 6th season – CLE
Brandon Mebane Defensive Tackle 3rd round, 85th overall 8th season – SEA
Mitchell Schwartz Offensive Tackle 2nd round, 37th overall 3rd season – CLE
Brian Schwenke Center 4th round, 107th overall 2nd season – CAL
Nick Sundberg Center Undrafted free agent 5th season – WAS

Looking at this list there are certainly some exceptional players. Mack, who was named to his first Pro-bowl in 2013 has become a huge part of the Browns offensive line alongside fellow behemoth Joe Thomas. Mebane of course has been a successful part of a hugely dominant Seattle Seahawks defense over the last few years. Jordan, Alualu and Mitchell Schwartz are all good players. Several of the undrafted free agents on the list are career backups who have not played a snap this season. Now to look at a similar list of active offensive skill position players drafted out of Cal.

Alex Mack is one of the few elite linemen to come out of Cal in recent seasons

Alex Mack is one of the few elite linemen to come out of Cal in recent seasons

Player Position Drafted Experience
Shane Vereen Running Back 2nd round, 56th overall 4th season
Craig Stevens Tight End 3rd round, 85th overall 8th season
Jeremy Ross Wide Receiver Undrafted free agent 2nd season
Aaron Rodgers Quarterback 1st round, 24th overall 10th season
Marshawn Lynch Running Back 1st round, 12th overall 8th season
Marvin Jones Wide Receiver 5th round, 166th overall 3rd season
DeSean Jackson Wide Receiver 2nd round, 49th overall 7th season
Justin Forsett Running Back 7th round, 233rd overall 7th season
C.J Anderson Running Back Undrafted free agent 2nd season
Keenan Allen Wide Receiver 3rd round, 76th overall 2nd season

There is a notable disparity between these two groups. Even some of the lower drafted offensive skill players have become impact NFL players. The accomplishments of Rodgers and Lynch do not need to be discussed here. DeSean Jackson can be one of the most legitimate downfield threats in the NFL. Allen just got off a monster rookie season for the Chargers. Justin Forsett has a golden opportunity as the number one back in the wake of the Ray Rice controversy in Baltimore. Marvin Jones was on the receiving end of 10 TD passes and 712 yards in his sophomore season before injuries have slowed him this year. Forget draft position, the productivity differential between the two groups is huge.

Justin Forsett has a legitimate chance to have an impactful season for the Ravens, despite being a 7th round pick.

Justin Forsett has a legitimate chance to have an impactful season for the Ravens, despite being a 7th round pick.

So the Golden Bears are producing more NFL ready offensive skill position players than offensive or defensive lineman, hardly surprising, but how are they recruiting? In Cal’s last 8 recruiting classes the discrepancy between offensive skill position players and quality linemen and defensive skill positions is just as stark. According to ESPN recruiting, in their last 8 classes, the spread of positions by top 10 recruits each year has been as follows;

Position Number of Players Recruited
Wide Receiver 14
Running Back 9
Quarterback 8
Offensive Tackle 8
Athlete 7
Defensive End 7
Offensive Guard 6
Defensive Tackle 5
Cornerback 5
Safety 3

Looking through their recruiting lists, the offensive bias is obvious. It is also noticeable just how few quality players Cal is recruiting into its secondary. This has been born out in Cal’s play in recent seasons. Porous is not an adequate adjective to describe their recent defensive play. Cal currently ranks 122nd in the NCAA with a whopping 40.4 points conceded per game. Remarkably this is topped by their 2nd in the NCAA 50 points per game by their offense. Cal’s 2014 defense is just shocking. They are currently ranked 119th out of 124 1-A teams and are currently conceding 545 yards per game with 427.8 coming through the air (worst among 1-A teams) and 117.2 on the ground.

My point here is simply that no matter how good Goff is or will become, this recent surge of Cal success is unsustainable until they can address some of their recruiting issues on defense and particularly in their secondary. Cal has never had difficulty recruiting quality classes, usually falling in the 20th-40th range nationally. If they want to create a program with long term success and continue the journey back to consistent respectability they need to take advantage of this improved year and make sure they focus on quality defensive recruits, particularly in their secondary as sooner or later, Goff will have something less than a perfect game and in the long term, will probably follow Mariota in a year or two into the NFL. Cal football is on the up this year, but will they have the foresight to make it last?