2014-Winter-Meetings-002

Mayhem at Winter Meetings

by Conway West 12.16.14

Sometimes GMs do not Appear to Have the Best-Laid Plans

This year’s winter meetings saw a flurry of moves that was one of the more impressive transaction periods of the past 10 years. At this point, you can find analysis on every move out there. This article focuses on a few of those moves, and fallacies in the plans (or lack-thereof) of MLB GMs.

Deep down, in my heart of hearts, I know baseball executives are all really smart. Some are Ivy League educated, like Padres new GM A.J. Preller. Some have law degrees, like Theo Epstein of the Cubs. Some are just master manipulators like the Tiger’s Dave Dombrowski. But sometimes, with so much data and value out there proving otherwise, they make deals that just don’t make a ton of sense. Here are some of the pitfalls that I dislike, and some of the example teams this off season:

“We are looking to get younger and more athletic”

Culprit: Athletics

There are very few times I disagree with Billy Beane. One of the brightest GMs in baseball, Beane doesn’t seem to make a lot of mistakes with personnel choices, and makes more with less than almost anyone in baseball.

However, this offseason has confused me. Just 9 days after signing one of the least athletic players in baseball, the A’s trade their best player to the Blue Jays, discussed here. I don’t love this trade for the A’s, and I think it puts far too much faith in Brett Lawrie. But the most confusing part is Billy Beane’s quote: “we had to do something … that gave us a team with a chance to do better each day as opposed to one that was maybe starting to deteriorate”. Building off of that, the most inevitable trade piece of the offseason was Jeff Samardzija. In his trade to the White Sox, Marcus Semien headlines the return package (unless you like backup catchers or bullpen arms). Semien could play shortstop for the new-look A’s, which could be far worse than Jed Lowrie last year, who was fairly average. These moves in conjunction don’t accomplish saving the A’s money (Donaldson is set to make $4.5 M, and Samardzija $9.5 M, which is close to Butler’s $10 M) increasing their athleticism or value. Time will tell if Beane’s moves will pan out or not.

“We are in a ‘win-now’ mode”

 Culprit: Mariners, Marlins, Cubs, and the entire AL Central (except the Twins)

One of the biggest themes this offseason is the shear number of teams that are trying to become competitive. As teams adjust to the new postseason format, the new strategy for many front offices is to just be good enough for a shot at the playoffs. Once the playoffs start, anything can happen. The Giants won 88 and won last year, and the Royals won 89. Meanwhile, the Red Sox and Rangers went from great to awful. Teams are trying to just be good enough to be in the running.

Latos

Will trading away prospects hurt the Marlins long term?

I will talk about the Mariners below, and I like that the Cubs signed Jon Lester – his contract was huge, but they had the money to spend and look to win with youth – but I want to focus on the Marlins. Long heralded as great at player development, the Marlins traded away lots of young home-grown players to get some immediate “upgrades”. First, they traded for Dee Gordon and Dan Haren, giving up Andrew Heaney and several lower-end prospects (Austin Barnes, Chris Hatcher, and Kike Hernandez). The move looks to improve the 2014 Marlins slightly (with no real 2b options in house), but hurts their future, and doesn’t improve them as much as you’d think. Heaney is cheap and should be moderately effective at the back end of a rotation for several years. Gordon had a .290 wOBA past April, and is an average defender at best. So The Marlins traded a ton of future talent for an average player, a deal that doesn’t help the present or future much. Mat Latos was also acquired, a pitcher with huge injury risk and one year left on his current deal. I happen to be a Latos fan, and he should be worth 2-3 wins next year if healthy, but the Fish lost another couple young players, Anthony DeSclafani and Chad Wallach (who really crushed A ball last year). For a team that needed a lot of wins to become competitive, these moves look to set the Marlins a little farther back in 2016 and beyond.

“Signing an extra player, we can now deal from strength”

Culprit: Red Sox, Mariners

I wanted to point out this strategy, because it drives me nuts. Every offseason, teams acquire players where they already have healthy, effective options, and then state they “want to deal from a position of strength”. The Red Sox did this by signing Hanley Ramirez and immediately labeling him as a left fielder. Now, what to do with Yoenis Cespedes, Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, Rusney Castillo, Allen Craig, Jackie Bradley Jr, and Daniel Nava? That outfield is a teensy crowded. Fortunately, the Sox found the Tigers in need of a high power, low contact outfielder that may never live up to his potential. Out goes Cespedes, in comes Rick Porcello, a young, durable arm that I love. This is a rare case where this strategy appears to pay off, and I think the Red Sox made out like bandits here, considering they have 5 options to replace Cespedes.

So often this thought process leads to what the Mariners did, which is buy an overrated player (Nelson Cruz), and assume he will be enough to trade away from “a position of strength”. The Mariners unloaded Michael Saunders, a cheap, young, effective option in the outfield, for JA Happ, a back-end starter who is not as cheap, young or effective. Last week, I said I liked the Cruz signing for the Mariners. Unfortunately, I feel an even dumber trade compounded the riskiness of the Cruz move. Now, the Mariners claim they need an outfielder after trading Saunders. But I thought they were dealing from a position of strength?

Notes: 

In contrast to most of the teams above, a couple teams look like they have a plan. I love what the White Sox are doing. A 73-win team in 2014, but were a very curious 73-win team: they had team-friendly deals with a top-5 starter (Chris Sale), an elite righty power bat (Jose Abreu), and trio of high-quality options in team-friendly deals (Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, and Alexei Ramirez). With all their wins tied to a select few inexpensive players, the pale hose had dire needs coming into the offseason, but roster flexibility to address them.

The AL Central will be a strong division after a busy winter meetings.

The AL Central will be a strong division after a busy winter meetings.

And address them they have. Armed with a hideous bullpen with the worst walk rate in the majors, the Sox first signed Zach Duke. Duke has gone from middling starter to LOOGY now to shutdown arm out of the pen, and is actually in a fairly team-friendly deal for signing so early (as a rule, the earlier someone signs, the better the deal is for the player). Adam Laroche’s deal is not quite as team friendly, but the deal gives them another high power bat in their lineup. The big splash comes this week, with David Robertson, Jeff Samardzija, and now Melky Carbera coming their way. Robertson will surely be a 2-3 win improvement from their current situation in late innings, and Samardzija gives the Sox a top heavy rotation that may trump the vaunted Tigers, depending on Detroit’s moves this offseason. Melky is an underrated offensive player, one with good line drive ability and consistent contact skills, who will be a massive improvement over Dayan Viciedo, one of MLB’s worst last year. These deals immediately vault the White Sox into the ranks of contender.

A friend of mine pointed out that stars are not fetching as much the past calendar year as they have in the past. Looking at David Price, Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Kemp trades, this appears to be the case. Gone are the days of Randy Johnson fetching 4 MLB caliber players for a 10-week rental, or Ken Griffey past his prime giving a team several cheaper, valuable options. I think teams saw the James Shields trade involving Wil Myers and see the difference in value between the two moving forward, and shy away from those large prospect packages.

Riley

Riley to Nebraska – Evaluating BIG Ambitions

by JDCam 12.11.14

The holiday season, a time for giving, family and a glut of wonderful college football games at the end of December and beginning of January in which fans of the BIG10 are becoming increasingly disgruntled at their once mighty conferences paltry displays. The BIG10 went 2-5 in bowl play in the 2013/14 bowl season a downward trend that shows no signs of abating. The BIG10 will send a record 10 teams to bowl games this year but with opposition like Stanford, USC, Missouri, Auburn, Baylor and of course Alabama awaiting it’s teams this year’s bowl slate offers little relief. The BIG10 is desperate for a spark.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke was doing a lot of head scratching during an underwhelming 2014 season

Michigan coach Brady Hoke was doing a lot of head scratching during an underwhelming 2014 season

The 2014 off-season provides the perfect opportunity. After becoming the Dallas Cowboys of college football Nebraska decided to fire acerbic Mr. Potato Head look alike Bo Pellini after 7 seasons. After a much more farcical season in Ann Arbor in which the only consistency was found in Brady Hoke’s all-weather polo shirt, Michigan finally canned their coach, who could never recreate the promise offered from an 11 win opening season and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech in 2011. What better chance to make an impact (as Ohio State did by hiring Urban Meyer in 2011) than by making two splashy hires in the respective head coaching positions for teams who have combined for 1775 wins but whom, to varying degrees have fallen from grace. Enter Mike Riley.

Nebraska fired Pelini after struggling badly against ranked opposition.

Nebraska fired Pelini after struggling badly against ranked opposition.

Who?

According to Mitch Sherman there remains a portion of the Nebraska fan base loyal to Pelini. Let’s debunk that heresy first. Pelini went 67-27 as the Cornhuskers head coach. If nothing else he was consistent, winning at least 9 games in his 7 seasons at the helm. Since the 2012 season, Nebraska has been spectacularly, epically bad in games against ranked opponents. In 2012 they lost at home to UCLA, allowed 63 points against Ohio State and allowed Wisconsin to put up 70 on them in the BIG10 Championship game against Wisconsin. 2013 brought about another loss to the Bruins as well as defeats at the hands of Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa. In 2014…well you get the picture. The final nail in the Pelini coffin came at the hands of another shellacking in which Melvin Gordon ran for 408 yards in what was essentially a battle for the BIG10 West. In short Pelini beat the teams he should have beaten and little else in his term.

So who exactly is Mike Riley?

Riley spent 14 years in two different spells at Oregon State with 3 years sandwiched in between with the San Diego Chargers of the NFL. Riley is described as being consistently positive, driving a Prius and wearing flip-flops in the office in the summertime by Sherman. Sounds like he’ll fit right in in Lincoln. Riley sounds more ideologically suited to his brief NFL home than a gritty Midwestern city like Lincoln. Many Cornhusker fans have firmly entrenched in the Pelini camp because of his bullish, no bullshit approach, almost a gritty echo of the Midwestern lifestyle itself. While Riley may not share many political or ideological traits with Husker fans one undeniable truth will remain, win and he will be loved.

Riley has never been an outstanding recruiter but has gotten the best from the players afforded him. There are currently 14 Beaver alum in the NFL, perhaps the most exciting being wide receiving duo Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton. Something Riley never managed to accomplish in either of his stints at OSU was swinging the balance of recruiting power away from admittedly tough competition in the Arizona schools, UCLA, USC, Stanford and of course Oregon. Not that one would expect Riley to lure significant high end prospects away from these school but his 2014 crop included 24 3 star recruits, not a single 4 star name or ESPN 300 player among them. This recruiting mediocrity hamstrung Riley and was reflected in the Beavers play on the field. When Riley left OSU in 1999 a team that he had led to a 3-8 record became a 7-5 team, a fact he received a deserved amount of credit for. Riley returned to Corvalis in 2003 and after an excellent 2012 where the Beavers finished the conference slate at 6-3, he saw his program decline and slide to a 2-7 record in 2014, finishing 93-80 in his two stints with the Beavers.

Perhaps we can only judge Riley so much and no more on his time with OSU. The problem for Nebraska lies in that the hiring of Riley is a move that seems to contradict their ambition. Pelini showed an ability to win almost all the meaningless games his teams were supposed to win during his team in Lincoln. I applaud Nebraska’s sense of ambition in letting him go – despite his consistent 9 and 10 win seasons. In order to take one of the BIG10s goodnotgreat programs (Nebraska, Wisconsin) to the next level however, the battle that has to be won first is during recruiting season. Riley has shown little outstanding sway in this area.

Both Nebraska and Michigan have exhibited a consistent arrogance in their approach to running their programs in recent years, basking in the historical glow of past glories and championship teams. Both of these once might programs need a reality check and an honest self-assessment before they can move forwards sustainably. Nebraska and Michigan are simply not dominant programs right now. They are being out-recruited by SEC, ACC and PAC12 schools in more desirous locations and being outcoached every bowl season. The Riley hiring simply seems reactionary and ill-conceived (they seem to have simply found a coach who is Pelini’s antithesis). Nebraska’s hire ironically underlines its own arrogance. They believe they should be competing for National Championships year in and year out but, with all due respect to Riley, his is a name that hardly strikes fear into the hearts of opposition in the same way Nick Saban or Urban Meyer would. Nor will it likely lure any blue chip recruits from other schools further south. Nebraska and Michigan needed to make statement hires this off-season to bring the BIG10 back to relevance. Nebraska – you blew it, over to you Jim Hackett.

MLB Teams

Hot Stove Heating up in MLB Offseason

by Conway West 12.08.14

The 2014 MLB offseason has started out faster than any in recent memory. Here is a summary of my favorite moves to date:

Favorite move so far:

Cardinals acquire Jason Heyward and Jordan Waldon.

Braves acquire Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins

Let me start saying I understand why the Braves made this deal. I get that Shelby Miller is young and throws hard. The Braves look to be in rebuilding mode. Jason Heyward is a valuable trade chip, and some think he has underperformed during his time in the majors (which sounds a bit silly to me – 21 wins in your first 5 years is not too shabby).

Heyward brings solid defense and an excellent on base presence to the Cardinals outfield.

Heyward brings solid defense and an excellent on base presence to the Cardinals outfield.

But I love what the Cardinals get in this deal – Heyward is entering his age-25 season with patience, some power, elite defense, and room to grow. Even for those who are skeptical of defensive metrics, Heyward has a career wRC+ of 120, and it is clear he could hit for more power consistently. Meanwhile, they successfully got rid of one of my least favorite starters in the game (read here for more). I recognize that Shelby Miller had a great August. I also know he throws pretty hard. But he was bottom five in BB/K Ratio, and a .256 BABIP. That’s not good. He doesn’t get a ton of grounders, and has a below average home run rate. Also not a good thing. His numbers look a lot like Jeremy Hellickson from a few years ago, when Hellickson vastly outperformed his peripherals for a season and a half. For some reason, I keep envisioning Miller lost in middle relief for the Mets by 2017, which is DEFINITELY not a good thing (More on the Mets later). The icing on the cake for the Cardinals is Jordan Waldon, who can be a dominant righty arm out of the pen. This trade is an easy win for the reigning NL Central champs.

Most out-of-place move:

Billy Butler to Athletics (3 year contract for $30 million)

“Country Breakfast” made a ton of sense for a team in desperate need of a right-handed bat with money to spare (see the Mariners below), a profile that doesn’t really fit the Athletics. Do not be immediately misled by Billy’s disappointing 2014, where he was well under replacement level. Butler has had 5 remarkable consistent years of smashing line drives around the yard, and WAR inadvertently penalizes DH’s. You know what you are getting with Butler – liners, some patience and contact – and you know what you aren’t getting – practically anything else.

Butler fills a hitting need for the As but doesn't bring much else to a club looking to get more athletic.

Butler fills a hitting need for the As but doesn’t bring much else to a club looking to get more athletic.

This move was surprising instantly, given the A’s propensity to be afraid of spending any money. $10 million a year to an unathletic DH, who is turning into a ground ball machine? Doesn’t exactly scream Moneyball. This move was proven more out of place after the Donaldson trade (see below). Billy Beane stated he “wanted to get younger and more athletic”. And you hope to accomplish this by signing Billy Butler?

Most desperate move:

Nelson Cruz to Mariners (4 years, $57 million)

As a Mariner fan, I am painfully aware of how bad the Mariner’s offense has been for the entirety of this century. The Seattle core is changing that, and the Mariners missed the playoffs by one game in 2014. Looking poised to jump into the AL West race, the Mariners saw that their in-house options for both DH and LF were well below replacement level. That cannot be overlooked when analyzing this deal. So the Mariners threw an extra year at Cruz, and outbid other teams with a desperation move: win now, or waste money trying. Cruz led the majors with 40 homers, and the M’s hope he can continue with his 2014 form, which saw improvements in walk rate, K rate, and ISO.

Nelson Cruz brings immediate power but may hamstring the Mariners payroll flexibility in the latter years of his contract.

Nelson Cruz brings immediate power but may hamstring the Mariners payroll flexibility in the latter years of his contract.

This move shapes up to be pretty terrible in 2017 and 2018. Cruz has a skill set that does not age gracefully, is already 34 and will need to be worth 4 wins in his 37 and 38 seasons to make this a good value. Contract aside, I happen to like this deal: The Mariners have a lot of wins tied up in positions that are hard to develop (second, short, third and catcher), and needed to find an offensive spark. It’s not always the best business people who win in baseball. It’s sometimes deals like these that can boost you into contention for a couple years, even at the expense of some cash flow a further years down the line. The Mariners now have three hitters who are well above league average, something they haven’t been able to say in almost 15 years. Now it’s time to win.

Most surprising move:

Josh Donaldson to Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie, Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolan

To continue on a theme of “moves that only the A’s would dream up,” Beane totally threw the AL for a loop by trading one of the most valuable players in baseball to the suddenly potent Blue Jays.

Two things make this deal rather strange for me:

  • The Jays appear to make out like bandits here, giving away dimes on the dollar for an elite player still with 3 years under team control. I know arbitration gets expensive these days, but even as Donaldson moves into his 30s, he will still be an effective/elite 3b who hits for a good amount of right-handed power with above average contact. That’s pretty rare, and hard to justify for two back-end starter types and a 5’8” minor league coin flip at shortstop.
  • A part of me thought Brett Lawrie, a native Canadian, would die a Blue Jay. Lawrie has the most talent in this deal, but has just not shown much since his .293/.373/.580 slash line in a 2011 cup of coffee. Unfortunately for him, he moves to a place that is a dearth for righty power. Good luck Brett.
The Blue Jays made out with THE elite third baseball in all of baseball

The Blue Jays made out with THE elite third baseball in all of baseball

Other notes:

  • Russell Martin (5 years, $82 million) is a great player, with awesome on-base ability and pitch framing skills. His deal is not that outrageous, and I believe will look better and better as the offseason moves along, as teams get more desperate.
  • The White sox have proven to be analytically intelligent, frugal, and value-finding very quickly here this offseason (The White Sox!). Both Adam LaRoche (2 years, $25 million) and Zach Duke (3 years, $15 million) are solid signings. I am excited to see how the fill out their roster.
  • With the signing of Michael Cuddyer (2 years, $21 million), the Mets have proven they have absolutely no clue what they are doing. They look to be competing with the Phillies for who is more clueless running an MLB team. Cuddyer would have fit perfectly in the AL, where his statue-like defense never would appear on the field. Now Mets fans can look forward to even more washed up older guys on their roster! I see this as a challenge to Juan Lagares: let’s see if you can catch every ball hit to the outfield if Curtis Granderson and Cuddyer get out of the way and stand on the foul lines.
  • I love high contact, high walk type guys. This is a fading breed in professional baseball, but one that may gain a lot of popularity in the coming years as the Royals (high contact) and the SABR (high walk) strategies meld. This is why I love Tommy La Stella, who was traded from the Braves to the Cubs for international signing rights. The worst part of this deal is that La Stella will now be a backup bat, hardly getting a chance to show that his skills matter at the Major League level. Here’s hoping he can break out, much like Michael Brantley did in 2014 with a similar skill.
CFP

Evaluating the College Football Playoff

by JDCam 12.04.14

The College Football Playoff is an initiative of pure genius. In its inaugural year there are no losers in this process. Fans of powerful also-rans of recent years see the potential for their team to finally get the recognition it deserves. It raises the stakes in an already brilliant slate of conference games week after week. It eliminates the constant complaining of numerous programs that their nuanced and delicately balanced season is dictated by a computerized formula. The compelling drama plays out on national television every Tuesday night with the College Football Playoff committee releasing its top 25 teams and the all-important top four. There are no losers in this process. Yet.

A closer examination of both the initial committee members and the guidelines the committee are required to follow is a fascinating process. The 12 person committee includes an athletic director from each of the power 5 conferences (ACC, BIG10, BIG12, PAC12 and SEC) as well as a former Air Force Academy Super-Intendant (Michael C. Gould), former NCAA Executive Vice President (Tom Jernstedt), a former US Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice), a former USA Today reporter (Steve Wieberg), former Big East Commissioner (Mike Tranghese) and a former coach of multiple collegiate programs (Tyrone Willingham).

Will the committee end up being more heavily criticized than the BCS system?

Will the committee end up being more heavily criticized than the BCS system?

The formation of the panel was always set to be controversial. The original goal was for the panel to consist of current Athletic Directors, former coaches and a third group of voters from other professions and endeavors. The appointment of Rice was the most debated, former Auburn coach Pat Dye pulled no punches when he declared that ‘All she knows about football is what somebody told her’. This comment, indicative of an unfathomable level of sexism and ignorance simply underlines just how critical is remains that the panel include personnel that have NO football background. This is a process of objective judgment based upon a clearly stated series of guidelines given to the committee. A football background, it could be argued, could cloud the judgment of panel members just as similarly as it could enhance it.

The selection protocol dictates that their goal is to ‘Establish a committee that will be instructed to place an emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule and head-to-head competition when comparing teams with similar records and pedigree (treat final determination like a tie-breaker; apply specific guidelines).’

These specific guidelines include:

  • Championships won
  • Strength of Schedule
  • Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)
  • Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)

With only a week left in the college football season before selection Sunday we have a pretty clear picture of which teams are competing for the all-important top four spots. Alabama and Oregon, currently No 1 and 2 in the rankings, seem locks as long as they take care of business in their conference title games against Missouri and Arizona respectively. Florida State, the only remaining unbeaten, continues to eke out wins against sub-par opposition but bizarrely have looked so vulnerable they are beginning to seem indestructible. Who would bet against them this weekend, even against an incredibly dangerous and underrated Georgia Tech team? The fourth spot remains up for grabs, with TCU, Baylor and Ohio St the most likely suitors.

Many believe Baylor, who hold the head to head tie-breaker, should be ahead of TCU.

Many believe Baylor, who hold the head to head tie-breaker, should be ahead of TCU.

Big 12 Claim – Frogs or Bears?

The committee’s evaluation of the BIG12 is mired with several complications. Assuming TCU and Baylor both win this weekend (against ISU and Kansas State) both teams will finish the season at 11-1. There is no BIG12 Championship game and the conference has indicated it will present TCU and Baylor as co-conference champions and let the committee sort out the mess.

Most current metrics rank the Horned Frog’s resume substantially tougher than the Bears. Through week 14 the Frogs had 4 wins against top 25 opposition to Baylor’s 2. Problematically one of those two top 25 wins for the Bears came in an insane 61-58 comeback win at home to the Frogs. Looking at teams comparative outcomes of common opponents is only useful if we compare the margin of victory. TCU squeaked by then No 4 Oklahoma by 4 points at home while Baylor crushed a declining No 15 Sooner team in Norman by 24 points. How do we truly compare these results? The Oklahoma team that TCU defeated was not the same one that the Bears dominated. The Oklahoma matchup is merely one example of the infinite number of factors that weigh into the decisions the committee has to make. TCU’s inclusion may ultimately have as much to do with an incredibly surprising season by Minnesota, whom the Frogs dismissed early in the season but which as the season has progressed has become an increasingly high quality win. One final problem is that the selection committee guidelines do not dictate how much weight each of their essential criteria must bear. Should we value head to head, comparative outcomes, or strength of schedule more?

TCU just leapfrogged Florida State for the No 3 position.

TCU just leapfrogged Florida State for the No 3 position.

The one aspect of this that seems to be stumping and frustrating fans more than any other is a new lens through which the committee seems to be looking at teams through – the eye test. How else could we explain TCU jumping and unbeaten Florida State to No 3 and seemingly pulling further ahead of Baylor after the Bears 48-46 squeaker over Texas Tech? The committee seems to be declaring that TCU is simply a better team than Baylor. Whether correct or incorrect (this weekend will go a long way to determining the answer) this is a refreshing a novel way to look at an incredibly fluid top 25. The idea that a team can still be judged as superior to another with a similar record who bested them is difficult to conceive but a beautiful leap into open-mindedness for a system that under its previous guise was criticized for being too narrow and unaccommodating. This will be a difficult adjustment, but one we must make.

JT Barrett was making a legitimate Heisman case before his season-ending injury.

JT Barrett was making a legitimate Heisman case before his season-ending injury.

Barrett’s injury and the Ohio State question

Sandwiched between the two North Texas schools is current No 5 Ohio State. Their season looked lost when standout QB Braxton Miller went down pre-season with a season ending injury and they lost at home to a since pitiful Virginia Tech team. Cue J.T Barrett who had an incredible freshman season and emerged as a legitimate Heisman contender until a gruesome ankle injury against Michigan ended his season. OSU are now left with third string QB Cardale Jones to compete against a Wisconsin team that may have had playoff designs of their own if it weren’t for an awful loss at Northwestern. There has been much conjecture in the media about OSU’s ranking being adversely affected by how the committee perceive they may play in the absence of Barrett, who has single handedly inspired the team to its current position. This seems like a ridiculous conversation to have! Surely Ohio State has to be judged on what they have accomplished this season…to this point. Their season defining win in East Lansing against a fancied Michigan State team catapulted them from also-rans to a legitimate playoff contender. Perhaps another Heisman candidate, Melvin Gordon (who hammered the final nail in the Bo Pellini coffin with his 408 yard bamboozling of Nebraska) will decide OSU’s fate for them. The only clear understanding currently is just what a headache the selection committee will have if Ohio State, TCU and Baylor all win this weekend. Just to think, (particularly for those already insisting that the 4 team system is more exclusionary than its BCS predecessor and others already clamoring for an 8 or 12 team system) this is only the first year of this incredibly complex and potentially controversial new four team system. ESPN’s contract for the current format is only in place for the next 12 years.

SEC

The Folly of ‘SEC Bye Week’

by JDCam 11.30.14

Thanksgiving. A time of gratitude, family, great food and of course a glut of ever clumsily constructed nationally televised sporting events designed to limit family conversation on Thanksgiving Day. A prime example of this is ‘The Battle for Atlantis’ an 8 team college basketball tournament in the Bahamas played over three days designed to give some of the nation’s top programs an early season litmus test which has beefed up a typically dull non-conference schedule. These mini-tournaments have been affectionately dubbed as part of ‘feast week’ on ESPN in 2014.

While college basketball tries to increase its early season relevance and viewership this weekend is a HUGE weekend of college football, rivalry week. This week sees a number of critical matchups which will impact the formation of the NCAA selection committee’s inaugural football ‘final four’ including the Iron Bowl, The Egg Bowl, no 11 Arizona vs no 13 Arizona State, no 6 Ohio State vs Michigan, no 16 Georgia Tech vs no 9 Georgia and even the resurrection of a Minnesota vs Wisconsin rivalry that has been meaningless in recent years but this year pits the 18th ranked Gophers against the 14th ranked Badgers, with a spot in the BIG10 Championship game on the line. This is what a week in college football SHOULD look like, conferences on the line with the fiercest rivalries being played out. An amazing weekend resulted.

Having lived in BIG10 country (Ann Arbor) for the last 5 years before moving to Dallas this fall, there is ONE undeniable truth about college football which BIG10 fans are painfully reminded of year after year from the latter part of November through early January…The SEC rules the college football roost. Since the National Championship Game became a named entity and not simply a rotation of the major BCS bowl games in 2006 an SEC team has been represented in or won the NCG EVERY SINGLE YEAR (incidentally winning 7 of those 8 contests). This is news to no one, part of an ever perpetuating recruiting beat down the SEC puts on every other conference, year after year (SEC teams landed 49 of ESPNs top 100 football recruits in 2014)

The SEC does have one practice that has emerged in recent years that is a discredit to their teams, fans, school and the premier college football conference in the country. I like to call it SEC bye week. In week 13, the weekend before rivalry week, some of the top teams in the SEC pitted their wits against the following stellar opposition. Week 13 matchups included no 1 Alabama vs Western Carolina, no 10 Georgia against Charleston Southern and no 14 Auburn hosting Samford. No, not Stanford, Samford. Unlucky for us I guess. The finest from the Southern Conference and Big South did their part, dutifully showing up, getting resoundingly beaten by absurdly superior opposition and collecting their huge paydays. I have no problem with these teams seizing these amazing opportunities for their players, fans and for their coffers. The SEC needs to step in here and keep non-conference games and sub-par opposition in the first third of the season during tune-up time, where they belong.

Georgia's season ended in disappointment against rival Georgia Tech on Saturday

Georgia’s season ended in disappointment against rival Georgia Tech on Saturday

Alabama came off an incredible 4 week stretch where they put away then no 21 Texas A&M by 59 and followed this up with impressive back to back wins against then no 16 LSU and no 1 MSU, catapulting themselves (deservedly so) to the no 1 ranking in the nation and they follow this amazing stretch up with a 34 point pasting of Western Carolina?! Georgia, coming off their best performance of the season where they ran all over no 9 Auburn, drubbing them 34-7, precede their big rivalry game with Georgia Tech with a 55-9 win over Charleston Southern. Georgia Tech had a bye week but the previous week had impressively dispatched no 19 Clemson 28-6.  Boy did it make the SEC scheduling look foolish this weekend when Georgia Tech topped Georgia in Athens (incidentally the ACC went 4-0 vs the SEC this weekend). No one in their right mind can deny that the SEC is and has been the most dominant and impressive conference in the country for a significant period of time. Have a little respect for the integrity of the season SEC, keep the cupcakes where they belong…in September. Playing these types of games in the penultimate regular season game just makes you look soft, when we all know you’re anything but.

Stats Meme

Demystifying the Math – The Rise of Statistics in Baseball

By Conway West 11.26.14

It has been impossible to be a baseball fan and not witness (or take part) in the holy war that is statistical analysis of the sport. With the rise of fame of Moneyball, this reached levels that transcend baseball fandom. When I tell folks I write about baseball, they immediately talk Moneyball: “oh so you are like Billy Beane/Brad Pitt/Nerd With A Calculator Who Squeaks Nerdy Information When Commanded By The Executive”. Stats referred to as sabermetrics (from SABR: Society for American Baseball Research) are everywhere in the sport, even to some who know the game only casually.

While I may love stats, particularly SABR, I also love the fickle nature of the sport of baseball. I love that one day runs are scored in bunches, then the next they are at a premium. I love how baseball blends predictability and statistical anomalies every game of an arduously long season.

The stance I see with statistics in the game boils down to two main tenants, which I will talk about in depth:

  • Almost all stats have at least some value
  • This value can be used as an evaluative tool or a predictive tool

The first of these tenants, finding the value in each statistic, will be covered in this article.

Jonah Hill

Moneyball foreshadowed a huge transition, investigation and investment by MLB teams into finding more meaningful and valuable statistical measures.

Value of statistics

The most misunderstood about new age baseball statistics is their purpose. As Jonah Hill points out, the point of the game is to score runs and win. As baseball analysts, we try to refine that goal into models: what is valuable on a baseball field? SABR’s main purpose is to determine what answers are more correct than others – and that this evaluation is an ever-evolving tool.

Nearly all baseball statistics have value. What should be debated in how much stock we put into each statistic. Wins and batting average are two of the most talked about on this topic. Contrary to what be said in analysis, both these stats do have (some) value. When there is one game left of the playoffs, you better believe whichever pitcher gets the win is a good stat for that team. During the year, wins tells how many games the pitcher had some involvement in the win – often interpreted as ‘outdueling’ the opposing pitcher. This has been like in days of old when one pitcher pitched the entire game until it was out of reach, and it was surmised that the pitchers from either side “won” or “lost” the game for their teams.

The problem is that there are far, far better tools to determine value of a pitcher. Gone are the days of pitchers going deep into games every time out, so “wins” measure nothing outside of that game, which is usually based on many things outside of that pitcher’s control. So “wins” measures so little of the value of that pitcher, both for that game and games to come. What about the elements of the game that the pitcher does have more control over?

The next step in evaluation of the pitcher is usually earned run average (ERA), a tried and true measurement. Unfortunately, ERA has its flaws too. First, there is always a debate of the idea of “earned run”. When determining this stat, it takes into account errors, which are arbitrarily assigned by a member of the media (the “scorekeeper”) watching that game. This mechanic is flawed. Additionally, there is the inherited runners issue. ERA assigns the runs to whatever pitcher was responsible for putting the runner on base, even if the next pitcher comes in to the game and lets the runner score. Why should the first pitcher be charged for a run he didn’t give up?

ERA is a decent measure, but like good modelers, baseball statisticians have developed and shown what pitchers have more control over: strikeouts, walks, and avoiding hard contact. That’s all there is to it for a pitcher – if they can strike a lot out while only allowing weak contact with no walks, they are doing their job. This is where fielding independent pitching (FIP), expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP), and skill interactive ERA (SIERA) come into play. These isolate just the things that pitchers have sole control over.

For hitting, let’s take Batting Average to start. Batting average has been used since the 1800s, and can describe how effective the player is at hitting the ball to get on base, particularly in large samples. It is also predictive, in large sample sizes: players with this skill can repeat it. This explains why Joe Mauer, Ichiro, and others have had years near the league lead in average, and why Tony Gwynn was a first ballot hall of famer. Baseball lore has always loved the “good hitter”, someone who can go up to the plate and square up a baseball, putting it where they want it in the field. For decades, the ‘hit’ tool by scouts has been quantified by batting average. Batting average has a special, special place in some fans’ hearts.

If baseball was a contest of who could hit the most pitches squarely where they wanted, batting average may be more useful. But baseball is a sport where runs matter, and runs only. And runs are scored more by either powerful hits (doubles, triples, home runs), or by avoiding outs (lots of hits, walks, and hit by pitches together). Simple tools such as on base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG) have been around for decades, but have become more and more popular as the game develops. OBP is easy to calculate and doesn’t need any conversions or “park factors” is a simple tool to show how well a batter is at avoiding outs.

Once again, better models have been developed to show exactly how valuable each skill has been proven, using thousands and thousands of actual baseball games as data. Stats such as weighted on base average (wOBA), weighted runs created plus (wRC+) and Run Equivilancy per 24 outs (RE24) have been developed using these samples, and are far more useful when looking at batting. By assigning weights to events (singles, doubles, homers), ballparks, quality of pitching, and situations (did the hit happen with people on base?), baseball analysts can tell so much better how a player is performing, and the sustainability level of that performance.

So many fans are irate about baseball becoming a numbers game. The truth is, baseball has always been a numbers game. We have just been using more refined tools to figure out how the numbers matter. So while wins and batting average can be counted, they do not tell even close to the entire picture.

Ultimately, all these numbers are used to try to develop wins on the baseball field, something that no one has mastered perfectly. But as Jonah Hill shows in Moneyball, we are certainly getting better. And contrary to some beliefs, these numbers are just trying to tell a better story of how and why some teams make it and some don’t.

PS: We will be back after a short hiatus for Thanksgiving! Check back the week beginning 12.05.14

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.