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College Soccer: Caught in No Man’s Land

by JDCam 07.13.15

With football in the United States hitting its zenith in popularity in recent years the debate surrounding the relevance of college football has continued to intensify. While MLS continues to grow its brand and star power, the debate occupying the national scene is focused on how the United States will increase its international success and strengthen its domestic league in the face of the financial and competitive obstacles raised by a saturated US sports scene and the pinnacle of footballing competition continuing to be grounded in European leagues.

Before taking a look at some fundamental flaws of the college system in the United States, let’s start with a little context. The success of the USMNT at the 2014 World Cup has continued to spark interest in an ever-expanding MLS. Currently, Major League Soccer is competing to be the third most attended sport in the United States (behind NFL and MLB), in spite of having clubs whose home stadiums barely meet the league average in attendance. Here are some eye-popping attendance numbers indicative of just how mainstream MLS has become:

MLS: 16,675/game (2010 season)
NHL: 16,985/game (2009-2010 season)
NBA: 17,149/game (2009-2010 season)

The MLS has been unfairly criticized as a feeder league for higher level European competition. While many talented US players play overseas, it could be argued that all European leagues are feeder patterns for the EPL, La Liga and Bundesliga; the only difference being the geographical distance of the United States from Europe, which simply exaggerates the effect.

Few would argue that MLS struggles to attract and sustain the most elite footballing talent. Many however, go too far in their criticism that high profile designated player signings are akin to cushy part-time retirement jobs for the likes of Villa, Kaka and Lampard. Call it what you will, having players of that caliber playing throughout the United States is a huge draw, even if they are not at their prime, and remains a reality that MLS couldn’t have dreamed of 10 years ago.

Still the circular argument asks the question; what will it take for the USMNT to ‘break through’ at the World Cup? Aside from a slightly unrealistic level of expectation, this question needs to be re-framed. What people are really asking is; how and when is the United States going to produce mega-stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo? (Neither of whom incidentally, has won the World Cup).

This brings us to the college game in the United States. NCAA football is perhaps the most chronically under-resourced men’s sport played at the collegiate level. There are simply not enough scholarships available to maintain a consistently elite level of competition (under 10 per D1 school for the men’s game compared to almost 15 per D1 school in the women’s game). While many have criticized the rules of the college games (greater amount of substitutions) as promoting a more physical game I don’t see that as a problem. Rather, shortened playing time combined with all too brief seasons does not set players up for the rigors of a full European season, or even the MLS workload.

Typically, players who make it to the level of the USMNT have had some college experience. Most who played a full-slate of four years however, are fringe players and several more relevant players at the national level did not play in college at all (Howard, Bradley, Altidore etc.). The missing link in the US evolutionary football chain is a full financial commitment to the academy system that has served European football so well.

The MLS may never attract the biggest names from world soccer at the peak of their playing prowess. Instead, the US system needs to commit itself to player academies. Take the example of EPL club Southampton, a team in the brink of liquidation in 2010. Beginning with Theo Walcott, and continuing with players like Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, and Rickie Lambert, the Saints investment in their youth programming has produced a steady stream of talent that has propelled them back to EPL significance and, through transfer fees, given them long-term financial viability.

Looking at the English national team continues to highlight the success of academy raised players. Despite the fact that the Three Lions are in a transitional period, their dedication to fostering home grown talent will pay dividends long term. If MLS clubs can channel their increasing financial clout into academies that identify and nurture talent from a younger age with a degree of player protection (so the uber-talented cannot be poached by European leagues), the quality of the men’s game in the US can continue to grow. If the MLS continues to be a feeder league to its more prestigious European cousins, at least protect the financial stability of the domestic game in doing so. College offers excellent opportunities to would be student athletes, but the next world super-talent will not be playing at a D1 school near you anytime soon.

Darvish

TJ, Japan and the Six Man Rotation

by JDCam 05.05.15

The epidemic of Tommy John surgeries sweeping the major leagues shows no signs of abating. Already in 2015, the Mets Zach Wheeler, Rangers ace Yu Darvish and the Royals Tim Collins have undergone the procedure, to name but a few.

While the long term effects of procedure do not compare, the prevalence of elbow issues for pitchers in the major leagues are starting to draw comparisons to the long term effects of concussions in the NFL. What remains clear is that the number of pitchers undergoing TJ remains high, approximately 1.1 per team in 2014.

The implications TJ surgery has on various levels of the game is a fascinating discussion. At a youth level there is a need for a greater breadth of creditable research on how to develop and maintain arm strength in a sustainable way, when to introduce young pitchers to offerings that put a greater strain on their arm (such as breaking balls) and arm conditioning regimens which can be followed at all levels of youth baseball to begin to decrease the risks of TJ.

A useful starting point and road map for this conversation can be found in the differing models of youth baseball in the United States and Japan.

Year TJ/Team NPB TJ/Team MLB
2012 0.833 2.30
2013 0.667 1.63
2014 0.083 1.10

At the major league level the particulars and possibilities are no less fascinating. A starting pitcher in 2015 and a starting pitcher in the 1960s have very different roles, naturally. It is easy to overlook how the statistics have traced the arc of the starting pitching role, the introduction of the ‘quality start’ being the most striking example of this (not to mention its alteration from 7 innings with 2 runs or less conceded to 6 and 3).

Pitching is an increasingly specialized trade with innings shared in greater and greater numbers between the rotation and bullpen (ever see a MLB team break camp with 13 pitchers in the 1970s)? With the combination of career threatening injuries to pitchers at a consistently high level and the explosion of power arms in recent years, one wonders if MLB teams could ever field 6 man rotations consistently?

Jose Fernandez in another pitching start rehabbing from season ending surgery

Jose Fernandez in another pitching start rehabbing from season ending surgery

This is a popular practice in Japan, where despite overusing and overexposing young and talented arms at the youth level through tournament play, the clubs of the Nippon League ere on the side of caution with starting pitching. Typically Japanese teams feature a 6 man rotation, with a season typically featuring a day off per week; the idea of a particular pitcher generally occupying a spot on a particular weekday is not uncommon. This raises interesting economic questions around the subject of a 6 man rotation. The most exceptional starters would probably be lined up on weekend days when more fans have an opportunity to attend games. This would however, create a divergence in pitching quality between weekdays and weekends, with the Kershaws and Scherzers of the world being trotted out on Saturday and Sunday while the J.A Happs and Trevor Mays perhaps occupying the Thursday matinee.

A further intriguing possibility would be a more extreme reduction in work load for back of the rotation starters and splitting innings between two or more multi-inning bullpen options, much like a traditional spring training game is handled. There are several problems with this notion (length of game, matchups)

Whatever the path forwards, there are certainly disturbing trends emerging in the status of pitchers who have undergone TJ surgery. According to a recent article from ESPN’s Stephania Bell ‘since 1999, of the 235 MLB pitchers have undergone TJ surgery, only 32 have undergone a revision – but one-third of them have occurred in the last year’. This data disturbingly points toward the misnomer that TJ recipients somehow miraculously strengthen their arms through their rehab and end up pitching at the same level and with the same effectiveness as they did prior to their surgery.

The bottom line here seems to be that despite an increasing willingness of pitchers to have and/or repeat the procedure the long term effects are still incredibly unpredictable. MLB seems to be moving forwards with a number of different research studies, educational programs and even technology aimed at reducing and limiting the number of pitchers that require TJ surgery, including obtaining data as specific as which pitches place the greatest long term biomechanical strain on various parts of the throwing arm.

MLB needs to continue its own in house research about the logistics of a possible 6 man rotation (expanding rosters, the potential stress placed on relievers, the potential for extra jobs creating some good will with the players union to name but a few).  While positive steps are being taken, pitchers are not yet carefully protected by major league baseball and out understanding of the specific relationship between work load and arm health will continue to limit this understanding, to the detriment of the most important players on the diamond.

Levenson

Why the NBA is ruining their best product, part 2

Last article, I talked a bit about the NBA, and why it is not doing as well as I think it should. This article I will discuss what I see as the number one problem with the growth of basketball, and it lies with mainstream white American culture.

Contrary to many’s beliefs, America is not post-racial, demonstrated by numerous events from Ferguson, MO to Baltimore, MD, and many places in between. These instances only represent a lived experience for many in this country: that racism is still alive and well in many places around the nation. The racial bias and uneasiness definitely transfers into the world of sport, particularly basketball, as Bruce Levenson proved. Lost in the racism of the Levenson story is a key point – that much of white America is fearful of the NBA due to race. My personal belief is that the NBA having most of the power and value in the players is not a comfortable thing for white America, and this is a shame. Potential fans are missing out on one of the best eras of a beautiful sport in its growth period.

Since the 60s, the NBA has been a majority African-American sport. It is the most African-American sport in North America, and in 2011, became the least Caucasian American sport in the history of professional sports in North America. This gradual trend is making the perception of basketball that it is not a ‘white’ sport, causing many white fans to feel uncomfortable.

In an American culture where western European descendants have majority control over the look, feel and culture, basketball can be looked at as a place where that is most certainly not true. And this, demonstrated in ticket sales and television ratings, is turning white fans off. Some folks also point out that the NFL is majority black, as well, but the NFL is not a player driven league. Basketball is almost entirely a player driven league. America’s “post-racial” racism is represented by the NBA: white former fans may use coded language, or have excuses, but the NBA is not as culturally relevant for white folks.

The most disturbing thing for me is that the NBA just finalized the Levanson issue, selling the Hawks to the highest bidder. Unlike the Donald Sterling issue, which came under intense media spotlight and coincided with a long history of bigotry and racism, the Levanson issue was said from a business owner’s perspective, and mostly named what many owners of NBA teams feel: they want what’s best for their business. The NBA lost out on an opportunity to talk about the biggest issues in America, and use their platform for honest conversation. Why are the Atlanta Hawks drawing a different demographic than their metro area would suggest? Why are there not very many white fans in the NBA? Why are all majority owners, nearly all general managers and coaches and much of the executive staff of teams white, in a league with mostly black players? Why are players like Ellis scoffed for their attention to professionalism with game streaks, while hockey players get lauded for their toughness?

So, shame on the NBA for not taking some of what Levenson wrote and creating a dialogue surrounding it. The fact that white America is not feeling cultural attachment to basketball can be a great opportunity for empathy for white folks who feel that marginalized groups need to “get over it” and “work harder”. The more attention shown to some of the questions above can convince many of the facts, that race is a powerful piece of American culture, and cannot be swept under the rug. Although this issue stems larger than basketball, a dialogue could help the sport, too. With white America still not ready for a sport that is culturally dominated by African American men, it is causing a multitude of fans to be missing out on what could be the highest quality playoffs out there.

KDBrokenFoot

The NBA is ruining their best product, but not for the reasons you think

Sunday marks the beginning of the NBA playoffs. The 82-game regular season ended Wednesday, and marked the end of a tumultuous 12 months in the NBA. Starting with Donald Sterling a year ago, Bruce Levenson in the fall, a slew of high-profile injuries, and some marquee franchises struggling, this 2014-2015 season could rank as the most disappointing in recent memory in terms of fan interest. The NBA may have the best product they have ever had, and is in a key crossroads for their future as a business and a cultural symbol.

Basketball is the second most popular sport in the world, and is continuing to grow. In addition, basketball has cultural appeal that extends across so many cultures and demographics. Basketball, as a sport, seems to be in a period of marked success – more kids are playing basketball than ever, and it remains the most popular youth team sport. Internationally, foreign teams and prospects are becoming more competitive, and 2014 set a record for most international players on the opening roster. So basketball is succeeding. But what about the NBA? How come NBA’s viewership was down in 2014?

In this article, I will address a couple issues that I have seen with the NBA. The number one reason for their decline in viewers, in my opinion, deserves its own post. I will get to that later.

One of the biggest issues with viewer interest comes down to the nature of the sport of basketball. One player influences team success more than in any other sport. Lebron’s return to Cleveland this year surely shows validity in that statement. Unlike other North American sports franchises, where the value is in the team name, locale, and stadium, NBA franchises are mostly tied to the players on that team. When Lebron came back to Cleveland from Miami, the Cavaliers doubled in value. Outside the Lakers and Celtics, teams are popular because players are popular. The NBA is a player driven league – considerably more so than any other league.

LeBron James may be the most marketable, and valuable, athlete on the planet.

Tied to this is the variance in talent in the NBA. The best players (Lebron, Kevin Durant) are superior to the weakest players by such a wide margin, wider than in sports such as baseball, football or hockey. Over the course of NBA history, stars have dominated the league: Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson & Larry Bird, and Jordan are the prime examples. When stars didn’t dominate, mainly from the “Bad Boys” Pistons teams in late 80s and early 90s, it was not due to strategy or skill as much as intimidation and brute force. Great players are what win NBA championships.

Modern basketball has changed the landscape of NBA success to a certain degree. In the past 5 seasons, stars are choosing to play together, creating several powerhouse teams. The rise of analytics has given teams without stars, or at least with less star power, a better chance to succeed. This has promoted some of the most efficient and entertaining basketball in years. The Warriors have the league’s best record and may be the most fun team to watch in the league; those two identifiers coupled together may be a first for the league since the Showtime Lakers of the 80s. Competitive balance in the west makes every team either a lot of fun or a legitimate title contender. The Hawks in the East won without having any names that a casual NBA fan would know (in fact, no one on the Hawks cracked 30 points this season; James Harden scored that many 35 times). In addition, players are bigger, stronger, and in better shape than ever. In addition, due to the rise of AAU youth leagues, young players can come into the league ready to contribute more than ever before. Basketball, at least amongst the top 8-10 teams, is played at a more competitive and higher level than ever.

So what gives? Why is the NBA mired in low interest? One reason that is often talked about is the season length. In the most recent period of early April, even the most diehard of NBA fans are longing for the season to end. The season drags on forever. A side effect not alaways talked about is the drain this has on the players. Due to the fact that the game is played on a higher level every night, the game takes a huge toll on the body. This is not the 1970s, where players didn’t run hard every possession and little contact was allowed. Modern basketball is intense, physically demanding and a contact sport. This poses problems, particularly with players who treat professionalism seriously. The Mavericks’ Monta Ellis hates missing games, and had a 237 consecutive game streak recently snapped. Many players take their nightly consistency seriously, but what that leads to is more injuries. This season endured unending injuries to star players, which diminished the product and the fan interest.

The myriad of injuries is a morale crusher to the fans, but the wear and tear on players may diminish careers. The NBA and its players may need to recognize that less is more when it comes to games and scheduling. The season is far too long and grueling for players to maintain their elite physical abilities, so either the league needs to go to a year-round model with 82 games, lessen the number of games, or both.

Next post, I’ll address the number one reason I believe the NBA is not living up to the potential of its athletes and its sport. Stay tuned…

MLB Draft Pic

A Window into the MLB Draft: San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals Come out on Top

by JDCam 03.28.15

With the MLB draft coming up in June, Curveball writers got to thinking about the differences between the 3 major US sporting drafts, baseball, football and basketball. The most obvious differences are the size, ranging from the smallest (the NBA at 2 rounds) to the largest (MLB at 40 rounds).

Specifically I was wondering what percentage of draftees in such a mammoth undertaking as the MLB draft actually make it to the majors? (Around 1 in 6 as it happens). These odds are actually surprisingly high for players drafted on the first round (around 81.1% between 2002 and 2006 in a study conducted by Baseball America). Unsurprisingly these figures drop round by round, petering out at a paltry 5.1% of players drafted after the 21st round making it to the show. But how effective are these players who make the majors and what proportion of them are significant major league contributors?

GRADUATION AND TENURE RATES THROUGH THE YEARS
MLB% 3YRS%
Round 87-91 92-96 97-01 02-06 87-91 92-96 97-01 02-06
1 78.0% 70.6% 61.6% 81.1% 50.4% 42.6% 32.2% 43.9%
1st supp 60.0% 52.8% 49.3% 55.0% 33.3% 13.9% 17.3% 15.0%
2 50.0% 47.5% 52.8% 50.7% 14.7% 15.1% 21.8% 19.1%
3-5 35.2% 32.8% 34.0% 35.2% 13.7% 9.9% 14.1% 6.8%
6-10 27.4% 20.4% 21.6% 19.9% 11.3% 6.0% 7.1% 5.1%
11-20 16.1% 13.9% 10.9% 13.2% 5.9% 3.1% 4.2% 2.5%
21+ 7.2% 8.3% 7.1% 5.1% 2.2% 2.4% 1.6% 0.9%
Total 18.3% 17.1% 17.2% 17.4% 7.3% 5.5% 6.4% 4.9%

I decided to look at the first round of 5 drafts (2006-2010) and try and find answers to a few basic questions; are certain teams drafting more successfully? What proportion of first round picks become successful major leaguers.

Immediately this goal hit major obstacles. Although smaller than I would like, I chose this draft window as it allows the players drafted in 20010 almost 5 years to progress to the major league level (I wish with hindsight I would have allowed longer). The greatest challenge comes in defining what a ‘successful’ MLB player is. I use this term as I wanted to distinguish between players that reach the major league level. Some players may make a handful of MLB appearances, I wanted to hone in on consistent contributors. In order to do that I focused on WAR (Wins Above Replacement). For the purposes of this study, we will use the following table from Fangraphs as a very basic guide in our analysis;

Scrub 0-1 WAR
Role Player 1-2 WAR
Solid Starter 2-3 WAR
Good Player 3-4 WAR
All-Star 4-5 WAR
Superstar 5-6 WAR
MVP 6+ WAR

These figures are based on a single season sampling (and would therefore need to be multiplied to find player effectiveness over a larger span – it is merely a guidepost for an at a glance analysis). Using WAR is of course tricky as WAR tends to alter position by position according to positional depth and quality (it’s tough for a relief pitcher to have a high WAR). A couple of caveats to this data:

  • This is strictly based on the 1st round of these 5 drafts.
  • I did not include the data from players who did not sign even if they signed for another team in a consecutive year.
  • The WAR listed in the chart below is for their entire MLB career to data, regardless of which club it was amassed with.

Let’s start by looking at the drafting history of teams within this window. In the table below all 30 MLB clubs are ranked by their average drafting position within the 5 year window (06-10) regardless of the number of picks they had. For example the Pirates had 5 picks in the window at an average position of 3.1. For teams that had the same average draft position, they were simply listed alphabetically. I subsequently listed the total career WAR to date of all draft picks made by a particular team as well as an average WAR for each draftee that made the majors. To account for players drafted more recently, I also listed the current organizational farm rankings according to Keith Law (Insider Reqd). Additionally, I listed the number of players per organization that did not make the majors to date (significant picks or current prospects are listed in parentheses).

Obviously the expected trend would be to see teams that had a higher average draft position amass a greater MLB WAR from its draftees. The limitations of the data certainly center around having too small a window of drafts as well as prospects drafted later not having a significant enough time in the majors to make a significant impact (Zach Wheeler for example). Having owned those limitations, there were still some compelling findings to be had.

Team Number of Draft Selections Average Position of Draft Selection Number of Selections that did not make the majors Total MLB WAR of all 1st round selections (Baseball Reference) Average WAR of 1st round selections who made majors (Baseball Reference) Current rank of Farm system (ESPN Law)
Pittsburgh 5 3.2  1 (Taillon) 6.2 1.55 7
Kansas City 5 4.4  0 15.5 3.1 15
Baltimore 5 5.2  2  26.3 8.76 22
Washington 6 9.1 1  28.3 5.66  9
Tampa Bay 5 10.6  3 (Beckham)*  63.2 31.6 23
Cincinnati 5 10.8  0 28.2 5.64  17
Seattle 5 13  0 17.3 3.46 21
Atlanta 3 15  1 28.3 14.15 6
San Francisco 7 15.14  2  63.3 12.66  29
Oakland 4 15.25  1 -1.3 -0.43 26
Cleveland 4 15.5  1 6.3 2.1  16
Florida 5 15.6  1 5.6 1.4  24
NY Mets 3 15.6  1 12.5 6.25 4
Detroit 4 15.75  0 10.1 2.525 30
Houston 5 16.2  4 (Foltynewicz) 7.1 7.1  3
Milwaukee 4 16.25  1 11.6 3.86  28
Chicago NL 5 16.4  1 4.5 1.125  1
San Diego 4 16.5  3 -0.2 -0.2  18
Toronto 6 16.5 2 7.3 1.825  19
Texas 6 16.83  4 2.5 1.25  11
Colorado 6 17.3  2  -0.9 -0.225  8
Arizona 5 15.8  1  37.4 9.34  14
LA Dodgers 5 19.2  1  42.4 10.6  10
Chicago AL 5 19.6  2  29.3 9.76  12
St. Louis 5 21  1 9.6 2.4  13
Minnesota 6 22  2 6.5 1.625  2
Philadelphia 4 22  2 (Biddle) -0.1 -0.05  25
LA Angels 5 25.4  1 30.1 7.525  27
Boston 5 26.6  2 3.5 1.16  5
NY Yankees 4 28  2 9.9 4.95  20

* Number 1 overall pick.

An interesting trend was just how many players in these 5 drafts that made only a handful of MLB appearances or just didn’t stick long term. To really get at the high impact players, here is the data presented in a different format. This table simply lists players that made the majors by team as well as their cumulative WAR since becoming major leaguers. (Players in bold have been MLB All-Stars)

Pittsburgh Brad Lincoln 0.1 Moskos 0.2 Alvarez 5.5 Sanchez 0.4
Kansas City Hochevar 2.5 Moustakas 4.5 Hosmer 5.5 Crow 2.3 Colon 0.7
Baltimore Wieters 13.6 Matusz 2.3 Machado 10.4
Washington Marrero -1 Detwiler 3.1 Strasburg 11.9 Storen 4.7 Harper 9.6
Tampa Bay Longoria 40 Price 23.2
Cincinnati Stubbs 9.2 Mesoraco 4.3 Alonso 4.2 Leake 6.2 Grandal 4.3
Seattle Morrow 7.4 Aumont -0.4 Fields -0.2 Ackley 8.9 Franklin 1.6
Atlanta Heyward 24.5 Minor 3.8
San Francisco Lincecum 22.6 Bumgarner 15.3 Posey 23.2 Wheeler 2.0 Brown 0.2
Oakland Weeks 1.1 Green -0.5 Choice -1.9
Cleveland Chisenhall 4.1 White -0.5 Pomeranz 2.7
Florida Sinkbeil -0.2 Dominguez 0.9 Skipworth 0.0 Yelich 4.9
NY Mets Davis 5.6 Harvey 6.9
Toronto Snider 3.8 Arencibia 2.0 Cooper 0.1 Jenkins 1.4
Detroit Miller -0.2 Porcello 10.6 Perry 0.2 Turner -0.5
Arizona Scherzer 24.0 Parker 6.1 Schlereth 0.0 Pollock 7.3
Houston Castro 7.1
Milwaukee Jeffress 0.8 LaPorta -0.9 Lawrie 11.7
Chicago NL Colvin 1.1 Vitters -1.3 Cashner 4.6 Jackson 0.1
San Diego Antonelli -0.2
Texas Beavan 1.5 Smoak 1.0
Colorado Reynolds -1.8 Friedrich -0.6 Matzek 1.9 Parker -0.4
LA Dodgers Kershaw 39.7 Morris 2.2 Withrow 0.9 Martin -0.4
Chicago AL Poreda 0.2 Beckham 6.2 Sale 22.9
St. Louis Ottavino 3.8 Kozma 0.9 Wallace -0.6 Miller 5.5
Minnesota Parmelee 0.5 Revere 4.2 Hicks 0.6 Gibson 1.2
Philadelphia Drabek -0.1 Savery 0.0
LA Angels Conger 2.4 Grichuk 0.2 Trout 28.2 Bedrosian -0.7
Boston Bard 4.3 Kelly -0.6 Fuentes -0.2
NY Yankees Kennedy 9.8 Brackman 0.1

In this group there are 19 All-Stars out of 146 first-rounder picks (that’s 13% if you’re counting). Of these 19 All-Stars, 8 were top 5 picks, 13 were top 10 picks, 18 were top 15 picks (the only one who wasn’t is Mike Trout). That raises your odds of drafting an All-Star to 24% if you have a top 15 pick and, 26% if you have a top 10 pick and 32% if you have a top 5 pick.
There were only 4 teams that drafted multiple all-stars in this drafting window, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Washington and San Francisco. Of these 4 the Giants are by far the most captivating, not only because their average position in these drafts was 15 (almost 5 spots later than the next highest (Tampa Bay) but also because of their incredible success in recent seasons (3 of the last 5 World Series). The Giants success seems tied to exceptional value out of their top picks. Even looking beyond the 3 all-stars drafted in this window, the Giants continually reap and develop outstanding talent in the first 5 rounds. Aside from the players drafted in the given window in the 1st round, the Giants have added Zach Wheeler (now with the Mets), Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and going back a little further, Matt Cain in the first few rounds of the draft (that’s a cumulative drafted WAR of 52.5 to tack onto what Lincecum, Posey and Bumgarner gave them). The Giants rarely have the best farm system in baseball, because they draft talent that can help them within a few years. Their success rate at drafting talent with MLB staying power is almost as impressive as how quickly they get it to the show. Anyone want to bet against Tyler Beede being a future all-star?

Will Joe Panik be next in line as a fast moving Giants draft pick who excels in the major leagues?

Will Joe Panik be next in line as a fast moving Giants draft pick who excels in the major leagues?

Another team worthy of discussion here is the St. Louis Cardinals. Their draft results were unspectacular, Shelby Miller being the only player of note, yet they always seem to be in contention at the end of the year. They rank in the middle of the pack (15th) in payroll obligations. Yet they have reached 2 World Series and two NL Championship Series in the past 4 seasons. The Cardinals typically have a good farm system but not always elite. Delving into the Cardinals history during this period, they maximize value from the middle rounds of the draft. From 2006 onwards the Cardinals have drafted the following players in rounds 2-10: Allen Craig (6.1 WAR), Jon Jay (11.2 WAR), Lance Lynn (7.7 WAR 1st round supplementary), Joe Kelly (3.8 WAR), Matt Carpenter (9.9 WAR – 13th round), Matt Adams (3.7 WAR – 21st round) and Kevin Siegrist (41st round) who have all made significant contributions to their major league roster. St. Louis it seems has an eye for diamond in the rough talent and does a stellar job at getting it major league ready.

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without the non-example. The Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates did an AWFUL job with their top picks between 2006 and 2010. Thank goodness for Andrew McCutchen (drafted in the first round of 2005). Pedro Alvarez was the only player of significance who has made a major league impact for Pittsburgh in the draft window. While Jamieson Taillon is an elite prospect and the Pirates seem to have made amends with Gerrit Cole and Austin Meadows (drafted since the window), they have simply whiffed too many times with such an outstanding average draft position. The list of players the Pirates passed on in this window is truly staggering and while hindsight is 20/20, there is no doubt some weak draft classes slowed their ascendance to a now perennial competitor. Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, Matt Wieters, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Manny Machado and Matt Harvey, to name but a few.

Jameson Taillon is a rare example of a highly touted prospect in amongst a slew of whiffs by the Pirates between 2006-2010

Jameson Taillon is a rare example of a highly touted prospect in amongst a slew of whiffs by the Pirates between 2006-2010

Looking at a small window into the first round of the draft has been fascinating. The most sure fire way to drafting high caliber MLB talent lies with a top 15 pick, even then there will always be whiffs. The most successful teams in recent years have found a way to maximize fast moving talent throughout the draft regardless of their position in it.

Kentucky

But really, is Kentucky the end of college basketball?

This college basketball season, I signed up for season tickets for my alma mater’s men’s basketball team. Games are played off campus, and the team is worse-than-average in a Division 1 conference that is worse-than-average. Needless to say, attendance is shoddy, averaging just north of 1500 people per game. The venue is oversized and games are middling in quality, but supporting a college I loved well after attending has been more enjoyable than I could have imagined.

 

March is the month for college basketball. The NCAA tournament may be the best sporting event in all of sports (as well as the one that ruins productivity the most). Every year, American spend more on March Madness betting than on presidential elections. The first piece of excitement is the conference tournament phase, where small teams and giant killers are scrapping their way into competing for NCAA tournament bids. Once the 68-team field is set, the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament make up the best two days in sport – 32 games at 8 locations, game after game, and upset after upset. This atmosphere fuels thrilling moments. It is an event more sports and organizations should emulate, as most people do not have any allegiance to the teams at play, but watch and engage like it was their favorite team playing.

 

The tournaments interest continues to escalate despite radical changes to the college basketball landscape. In the past 15 years, college basketball has radically transformed from programs built on juniors and seniors to teenagers. Sure, Duke and Arizona are still national powers and the same coaches rule the landscape, but the investment of individual players in their programs is diminished. Gone are the days of powerhouse players staying at their programs for loyalty or developmental reasons – as soon as your NBA draft stock peaks, it is time to move on to the professional ranks. When the NBA instituted a 19-year-old draft minimum, it all but insured college basketball to become the minor league basketball league, and has altered the landscape of recruiting, player development and player commitment to their college.

 

This philosophy translates to a college basketball product that has huge correlation to trends in the NBA draft. In 1999, 1 lottery pick was a college freshman, and 2 of the first 20 picks were freshman or sophomores. No high school players were taken in the lottery. 2001 kicked off the High school draft era, which actually helped college basketball; players who had no interest in playing college ball declared for the draft. In 2005, the last year high school players were eligible for the draft, 1 college freshman was taken in the entire draft. 3 high school seniors were selected in the first round. These draft classes look old by comparison to 2014: 8 lottery picks were college freshman or minimum age international players, with only 3 players in the top 20 being college juniors or seniors. College basketball has become a 1-year NBA draft combine.

 

Not all of this can be blamed on the NBA age minimum – NBA teams are also realizing younger is better. Studies were showing teams had more success in developing talent when they drafted younger players. A 19-year-old with NBA tools could be challenged to improve faster on the bench of a scrub NBA team than dominating college ranks, so it benefitted players both financially and developmentally to forgo most of college eligibility. With this change in NBA philosophy came a change to the college ranks – with the best talent, 1 year is all you are going to get.

 

Which brings us to Kentucky basketball. Led by a seemingly unending group of teenagers, The Wildcat basketball team has laid wreckage to the college ranks this season. The team is deep (10 players average at least 10 minutes/game), huge (6 players are 6’9” or taller) and talented (8 players ranked in Rivals top 50 of their respective recruiting classes). They are undefeated, and had only 7 games finish with single-digit differentials. This success comes off the heels of a 2014 NCAA tournament run, reaching the championship game with a roster mostly composed of freshman, and a 2012 national championship with baby faces leading the way. Kentucky has become the face of the college basketball youth movement, and many blame them for the demise of college basketball (or imminent demise).

 

The “ruining college basketball” moniker has 2 huge flaws. First, it is misinformed regarding Kentucky’s roster makeup. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky’s frontrunner for player of the year awards, is a junior, and another Kentucky starter, Alex Poythress, is also a junior (although he is out for the year). Two others starters all year have been sophomores. How does this to other college basketball programs? My alma mater finished .500 with two senior starters (both junior college transfers), 2 sophomores and a freshman. Our conference’s champion starts 2 freshman, a sophomore and 2 juniors. Although anecdotal, it speaks to the lack of disparity between Kentucky and the “little guys”: every team is starting and playing freshman. This isn’t 1964. And Kentucky is working their freshman into a rotation of NBA-quality players that all wanted to play college basketball together. No crime there.

 

The second nauseating piece of this argument is the doom and gloom: how the tournament will be ruined because of this “freshman philosophy”. This argument was aided by Kentucky’s run last year, much to the chagrin of basketball purists. The 2014 Kentucky team was freshman heavy, and struggled all regular season only to reach the championship game. This made them easy villains to many during the tournament. The common argument is that last year’s Kentucky run will become every year in college basketball, where freshman heavy teams will dominate the landscape. First, how is this working out? Plenty of teams in the country are blending freshman with older role players, and winning. Arizona starts seniors. Duke has important pieces that stay all four years. Experience still plays a vital part of success in college basketball, and will for some time to come. If you don’t believe that, look at Wisconsin the past two years (and that roster… look at all the home-grown talent!) Second, how is this any different from what the game was turning into, without Kentucky? The “Fab Five” in the early 90s was going to doom college basketball, and it appears we have ridden that wave fairly well (and got some really sweet boy band pictures out of it too) Carmelo Anthony led a young Syracuse team (starting 3 freshman that year) to a National Championship in 2003. Since then, countless other teams have loaded up on young talent (North Carolina, UCLA, Memphis in late 2000s) to varying success. And for those that talk about lack of parity, they obviously don’t see the fact that Duke, UCLA, North Carolina and Kansas dominate the top seeds and final four history books, dating back far before Freshman were even allowed to play NCAA sports. Calling Kentucky out in the name of parity is foolish.

 

Most importantly, there is a reason that no other program is as successful at Kentucky at this style of program: it is hard to do. Say what you will about John Calipari, the Kentucky head coach: he has worked relentlessly to make this team what it is. From recruiting to coaching the players, this team is well coached and immensely talented. The players have all put egos, NBA money and awards aside to be the deepest and most balanced team in my lifetime. It is hard to be a player that knows they may be losing draft stock because of playing in a system that does not showcase them. In addition, it is incredibly challenging to get young players ready to compete at the highest level every season. Look at the 2013 Kentucky for proof of that, where they missed the tournament, scuffling with young players who never meshed. One last thought: how much animosity of this years’ Kentucky team is centered on a different culture making college basketball successful? Kentucky’s basketball team is centered on talented young African-Americans, as opposed to a belief that college basketball looks like skinny white seniors hanging out in the corner chucking threes. Kentucky wins because they are disciplined, unselfish, and efficient, and they are doing those things in a style that is challenging the mainstream ideologies of what those qualities look like.

 

My alma mater’s basketball season ended in heartbreak: no NCAA tournament and no national TV time. I will still watch next year because it connects me to the university that I love. This fact is what brings most adults into college arenas all over the country no matter how many freshman take the court. And as for Kentucky, I will still watch the tournament, rooting for Kentucky the entire way. Being this good is hard to do, and it also creates more interest for me than in years past. Besides, I want to know who I can root for on the 76ers next year.

HOF

Baseball’s Hall of Infamy?

03.17.15

The Baseball Hall of Fame election process is a mess.

Over the last few years controversy surrounding its eligible parties and selection procedures has come to a head. It’s time for more legitimate dialogue about the Hall of Fame and it’s time that dialogue resulted in lasting and meaningful reform to the election process.

To begin, some reminders and basics of how the Hall of Fame election process works:

Each year, qualified members of the BBWAA (Baseball Writers’ Association of America) can select up to 10 eligible players they believe deserve to be enshrined. To become enshrined, players need to appear on at least 75% of voter ballots. Players are removed from the ballot if they receive less than 5% of the vote or they have appeared 15 times without receiving election (the HOF is moving to a 10 year period of consideration as of 2014). There is a failsafe, the veterans committee, who can vote in players not voted in by the BBWAA, as well as Negro league players and non-playing personnel (managers, executives). In order to be an eligible voter, a writer has to have been an active member of the BBWAA for at least 10 years (in 2010, 581 ballots were returned, although typically the number increases yearly).

On initial reflection one might think that there would be safety and consistency to be found amongst the throng of Hall of Fame voters, that the large number eligible might provide clarity among potential entrants. Instead the opposite is achieved; the diversity, agendas and sheer number of voters brings chaos to the proceedings.

The first problem is the restriction that each writer is only allowed to select 10 entrants per voting cycle. After trolling sources for a considerable time I have been unable to find a convincing rationale for this. This logically does not make sense. The peaks and troughs associated with the quality of any given sport dictate that there are some eras, years and voting cycles that will be of more high quality than others, where they maybe more deserving entrants. Given that each potential entrant needs to appear on 75% of ballots to be enshrined, what is the purpose of restricting each writer to 10 votes? This expectation has a severe knock on impact to the entire voting procedure; It makes each voter consider choices more strategically, omitting potential entrants that are in their first few years of eligibility if a player (even a potentially weaker candidate) who is in their last few ‘needs’ their vote to ensure enshrinement at the tail end of their eligibility.

Another issue is that only writers who have been active 10 years in the BBWAA have the right to vote. This is curious. How is it beneficial to shut out the younger quotient of potential voters? If there are writers who have been active less than 10 years who are highly influential and respected by their peers, why should they not help shape the history of the game? Baseball is limiting the diversity of its Hall of Fame voters instead of increasing it. Surely there should be a more representative spread of voters contributing to how the history of the game is traversed and remembered?

The mission of the Hall of Fame is an interesting read; it mentions ‘fostering an appreciation of the historical development of the game’, ‘honoring excellence’ and (to speak to my earlier point about voter diversity) to ‘make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball’. Should the election process not strive to meet the same ends? Currently, not all BBWAA voters follow these protocols and strive to meet this mission. Since becoming HOF eligible in 2013, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds have failed to be enshrined into the Hall. Bagwell, whose link to PEDs is purely speculatory, has had voting percentages of 59%, 54% and 55%. Clemens has remained at a steady 37% in his 3 years of eligibility and Bonds has remained at a consistent 36%. In other words, these three players are making little headway in their cases to be HOF players.

Should Barry Bonds be isolated in the Hall of Fame, or excluded altogether?

Should Barry Bonds be isolated in the Hall of Fame, or excluded altogether?

Looking at the achievements of these three players during their careers is a telling, if tiresome tale. Bagwell, the least prestigious of the three, had a career .408 OBP, slugged 449 HR, batted in 1529 runs, stole 202 bases, was a 4 time all-star and won an MVP. Bonds won 7 MVPs, has the MLB HR record at 762, single season record at 73 and took 2558 walks in his 22 year career. Lastly Clemens, who won 354 games (Randy Johnson was the last to even pass 300), won an MVP (pitchers rarely do that), won 7 Cy Young awards and owned a career WHIP of 1.173 (over 24 seasons). Incidentally Clemens is the only pitcher who posted over 300 wins in his career who isn’t in the HOF. These three players rank 4 (Bonds), 8 (Clemens) and 63 (Bagwell) on the all-time WAR list. These statistics aren’t new, so why bring them up? To highlight how utterly ridiculous it is that at least Bonds and Clemens are not in the Hall of Fame (Bagwell has good HOF numbers, I brought his name up more to highlight the effect that even suspicion of PED use can have on the case of a player).

The reason for their exclusion is their links to use of performance enhancing drugs. Using PEDs is obviously contrary to the spirit of sportsmanship and the integrity of the game, but for the writers to pretend that the period of PED use wasn’t a significant historical development through ignoring these individuals is equally insulting to fans of the game. No one is suggesting that the actions of PED users be condoned. The current landscape however, where players such as Bagwell are receiving knocks on their voting totals because of an unsubstantiated link is absurd. One cannot parse through the significant historical records of baseball without coming across the names of Bonds, Clemens and Bagwell. Are we really suggesting that if it were not for PEDs their careers would have added little statistical significance and value to the history of the sport? I think not. These three men are all Hall of Famers in my book.

Jeff Bagwell's HOF case has been damaged by association with the PED era

Jeff Bagwell’s HOF case has been damaged by association with the PED era

Another legend marginalized by MLB is Pete Rose. Pete Rose WAS baseball in the 1970s. The all-time hit leader (4256) embodied the combination of hustle, heart and ability which made him a hero, particularly in Cincinnati. Rose’s lifetime ban (in effect since 1989) has lasted almost 26 years. His career in baseball is over. He has served a significant (rightly so) penalty for his infractions. To continue to exclude him from the baseball Hall of Fame and suppress his contributions to the game are insulting. I am not suggesting he be enshrined on the spot, merely that his place in baseball history is reflected in the Hall of Fame, as should be the case with Bonds and Clemens. If it is deemed that these players need to be separated in a new ‘room of controversy’ in the Hall then so be it. To pretend however, that they played no part in shaping recent baseball history is backward. All sports experience eras in which their integrity is challenged (just look at the 2014 NFL season). Baseball’s refusal to acknowledge its own dark past renders it immobile in a purgatory of denial. It is only by acknowledging periods of struggle that we grow from them. With the All-Star game in Cincinnati this year, new Commissioner Rob Manfred has an opportunity to right a wrong early in his tenure by allowing Rose participation in the all-star game festivities and a back door to the enshrinement in his lifetime of which he is fully deserving (Rose has now formally petitioned Rob Manfred for reinstatement from his ban).

Pete Rose has served significant enough punishment for his betting infractions

Pete Rose has served significant enough punishment for his betting infractions

A new issue that has surfaced with HOF voting is around a shift in what perceived ‘Hall of Fame numbers’ are. While this is a useful discussion as a benchmark from which to evaluate players, it also narrows the focus of criterion for entry to an unreasonable level. The discussion is so focused on these statistical measures that all other considerables are thrown aside. Take the example of Jack Morris.

Jack Morris was Madison Bumgarner in the mid-80s and early 90s. In 1984 (a season in which he threw a no-hitter), Morris threw two complete game victories against the Padres to lead the Tigers to their last World Series triumph. In 1991 he signed a one year pact with his hometown Twins, went on to win both his starts in the ALCS against the Blue Jays and went onto one of the most remarkable performances in World Series history. Morris started 3 games in the 91 World Series, going 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA. In game 7 against the Braves, he threw a 10 inning shutout to win game 7, wrap up the World Series for the Twins and finished as World Series MVP, at the age of 36. Morris was up to 67.7% of the vote in 2013 (his 14th year of eligibility). In 2014, Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux all became eligible, all three were first ballot Hall of Famers, Morris’s percentage dropped to just 61% in his final year of eligibility. My point here is simply this; Morris didn’t have some of the numbers to stack up with entrants like Glavine and Maddux, he offers something else, a performance for the ages. Does this not have a place in the history of the game? Morris pitched a 10 inning shutout in arguably the greatest World Series ever and was a post-season legend. Perhaps he will be voted in by the veterans committee, but something doesn’t feel right about his exclusion. To give another example, if Madison Bumgarner suffered a career ending injury he would never qualify for enshrinement (he has not played 10 years). Would we want the owner of the most impressive performance in recent World Series history not be celebrated in some way in the HOF? The fact that Bumgarner already appears on lists like this would suggest otherwise. My point here is that it seems as though the HOF has trended to becoming solely a numbers game, how can numbers be all you take into account when you have to compete with pitchers like Old Hoss Radbourn? (Radbourn threw 678 innings in a single season….in 1884).

Usually, writers name problems. Here are some potential solutions. Not all of them are plausible or even effective but it would be hypocritical to list issues that people know exist without naming alternatives.

  • Baseball writers with votes can vote for as many players as they see fit per voting cycle. Let’s trust them, not handcuff them.
  • The baseball writers can waive the 10 year playing requirement under special circumstances (such as career ending injury), if a particular percentage consent to do so for the player in question.
  • The number of voters is cut dramatically and the BBWAA has a limited number of voters that are elected by their peers for a given number of voting cycles before the votes are given to other writers (additionally there is no 10 year active writing requirement).
  • There is an advisory committee set up who cast a certain number of votes every cycle. The members of the committee include but are not limited to; writers, players, ex-players, managers, executives, politicians and other societal figures of note. If baseball is America’s pastime, why can a representative subsection of American society help contribute to how the history of the game is written?

There are many who think that players tied to PEDs should be excluded from the baseball HOF forever. I would be curious to hear your opinions. Obviously the limited suggestions above are no Hall of Fame fix. Ultimately I would ask, what is the Hall of Fame trying to do? Does it aim to chart the history of the game or the morality of the game and some of its most significant players? I choose to believe that baseball can do better. When we have gotten to the stage where intelligent baseball writers are abstaining from voting and can provide a rationale for doing so, perhaps we can agree on one thing. We aren’t celebrating baseball and its most significant players the way America’s national pastime deserves.