Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Vickkampf: Cue a Bruno Ganz Tirade about Betrayal

I have very little to add to Lester Munson's breakdown of Tony Taylor's plea deal. Money graf:

Taylor has signed an agreement that requires him to cooperate with the prosecutors and tell them everything he knows. If he is caught lying, he faces serious trouble. He will be interviewed extensively. In a highly unusual procedure outlined in Taylor's plea agreement, he can be subjected to lie detector tests on the information he gives. He will also testify before the grand jury, probably before the new indictment is filed next month. And he will testify at the trial that will begin Nov. 26. Taylor is also obligated to turn over all of his records and files, evidence which could be even more compelling than his testimony.

Taylor is not going to be a garden variety defendant who flips and can be portrayed as having done so solely to save himself. OK, that's probably all true, but if he produces records and all of his major allegations pass lie detector scrutiny (although I'm not sure if that latter fact will be admissible), then it becomes a lot harder for Billy Martin to destroy his credibility on the stand.

Munson also provides the details on a RICO charge that ought to worry Vick:

One of the admissions Taylor makes in his agreement with the government is that the kennel and the dogfighting were part of a "business enterprise." Vick and his lawyers do not want to hear about any "business enterprise." It could become the foundation for a racketeering charge in the new indictment to be filed next month. A racketeering charge would raise the stakes for Vick and the others. If they're convicted of racketeering, they could face stiffer prison sentences and forfeitures of anything they own. It was bad enough for Vick to have to defend himself against charges of a conspiracy that lasted for six years in five states. A racketeering charge would make it even more difficult for Vick and his five lawyers to mount a defense.

This changes the stakes, as the upper end of Vick's prison sentence moves well above five-to-six years. This is not going to end well.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Salty for Teixeira: I'm Conditionally Consenting

According to the New York Post, Salty for Teixeira is a done deal. Then again, the Post also employs Peter Vescey, so it would not be prudent to assume that they have the highest standards for truth in publishing. (Update: the very reliable David O'Brien also says this trade is going to happen and the only question is whether the Braves will get relief help from the Rangers along with Teixeira.) I am not totally opposed to this deal, provided that the Braves have had discussions with Teixeira about an extension and are confident that they are not just renting him for about 220 games. His agent is Scott Boras and baseball's free agent market is currently badly overpriced. Am I making myself clear here? Anyway, here are the reasons to make the trade:

1. Teixeira would immediately become the second-best hitter on the team behind Chipper. In fact, he would give the Braves a second hitter in the middle of the lineup who combines power with plate discipline. He would be a massive upgrade at the number four spot over Andruw, who would essentially be expendable from a lineup perspective once Teixeira is in the fold. My concern was initially that he could be a product of a favorable home park for hitters, but his numbers reflect a minimal home/road split. Simply put, he's having a great year. Furthermore, he's especially strong against left-handed pitching (his OPS is .124 higher as a right-hander) and the Braves have struggled all year against lefties, mainly because their right-handed clean-up hitter has been abysmal.

There is precious little in the starting pitching market. Thus, Teixeira doesn't make answer the Braves' biggest need, but he makes the team significantly better. I kinda like the idea of maxing out on the hitting side. Instead of adding a questionable new fifth starter who would be a little better than Reyes, but wouldn't be very good, the Braves would instead be adding a terrific hitter and putting him at a spot on the diamond that's been an offensive black hole all year. This move would be like the Rams maxing out on their offense or the Ravens maxing out on their defense earlier this decade. Instead of addressing their weakness, the Braves would be powering up their strength. I'm not opposed to that idea at all. (That said, they still need one or two more relievers.)

2. I don't want to see Salty traded because he gives every indication that he can hit and he's going to be cheap for the next several years. If Salty can come close to hitting at the same level as Teixeira, then this is a bad deal. However, the jury is still out on Salty. Remember, he struggled mightily for a good chunk of last year in the minors and his .745 OPS is nothing to scream about right now. If he was a lead pipe cinch to rake, then the Braves would not have acquired Julio Franco.

Combine the uncertainty as to Salty's production with the fact that his highest and best use is as a catcher and you see that the Braves probably need to deal him. Catchers who can hit are a very rare commodity. He would be worth more to just about any other team that he is to the Braves, who already have one of the few catchers who can hit in the majors. David Ricardo says that the Braves would trade Salty if they are rational actors. Playing him at first is like a footie team having too many quality strikers and playing one of them in the midfield. (Check back in this space in the fall for more.) Playing him at first is like taking seeds for peach trees and planting them in a cornfield in Iowa...or at least somewhere in between Georgia and Iowa where the trees will grow, but the peaches won't be as good as they would be if you planted the trees in Perry.

(An aside: how weird is it that the Braves are able to produce middle infielders and catchers who can hit on a regular basis, but they've struggled for a quality first baseman since El Gato Grande got cancer? What other team could consider trading a shortstop with an .870 OPS making a reasonable $6M per season because their farm system has just produced a youngster like Yunel Escobar who looks just as good [and pulled off a real gem of a steal last night to tie the game in the 9th inning]? The Braves are only in position to acquire Teixeira ahead of the bigger money teams because their farm system is so good at producing hard-to-find commodities like catchers and shortstops who don't hit like Rafael Belliard.)

Other than the prospect of Teixeira either being a 220 game-rental or a $20M/year player who the Braves watch decline expensively, the other aspect of the deal that concerns me is the inclusion of Matt Harrison, who was the co-number one pitching prospect in the Braves system along with Jo Jo Reyes (who got tagged again last night). If the Braves remain a mid-market team, then their biggest challenge is going to be finding quality pitching, which is completely overpriced in the market to the point that it's pretty much a luxury. The few good pitchers out there are held zealously by their clubs and if they hit the market, they are overpaid, especially in light of the fact that pitchers are less consistent than hitters, both because their muse can come and go (see: Willis, Dontrelle) and because they are more prone to be injured (see: Hampton, Mike). Thus, the Braves need to retain as many of their pitching prospects as possible. Because of the unreliability of pitching in general, the Braves need to make sure that they have as many bullets in the chamber as possible. They're more likely to find the diamond in the rough with ten prospects than they are with five. Then again, I've just laid out the Baseball Prospectus case for "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect" and that argument can be turned around to say that getting rid of Harrison is no big deal.

(Including Elvis Andrus does not concern me, as he still is tools without production and with Escobar and Brent Lillibridge [thanks to Ike for reminding me that I'm confusing Brent Lillibridge and Derek Lilliquist] ahead of him in the system, the Braves would be dealing him from a position of strength.)

3. Liberty Media needs to make a splash, both to the fans and to the team, that convinces everyone that they are going to spend some money. They need to send the message that the Braves are no longer going to only export talent. I know I sound like Mike Bell here and I apologize for it, but wouldn't management send a great message to the players that they are interested in winning the division? Wouldn't this create the "buzz" that Bell refers to on an hourly basis? I will now eat 27 Krystal Sunrisers and paw some unsuspecting coed at Dantana's.

In closing, I support the deal as long as Schuerholtz has a plan for keeping Teixeira without overpaying for him. If Teixeira is really excited about playing in Atlanta and/or for Bobby Cox and he's willing to pull an Andruw and tell Scott Boras not to hold the world hostage for every last penny, then this is a good deal. If not, then it's iffy. The Braves will ultimately need to trade Salty, but I'd prefer he go for someone like Rich Hill as opposed to a season and a third of a great first baseman. Six years of a great first baseman? That's a different story.

All that said, we should not overrate Teixeira's potential impact on the pennant race if the Braves acquire him. In Tex's break-out 2005 season, he was essentially a six-win player, meaning he was worth six wins over a replacement-level player at his position. Over a third of a season, he would be worth two extra wins to the Braves, playing at his epic 2005 level. The Braves are still fundamentally an average (or slightly above-average) team, so he wouldn't single-handedly win the division for them. However, given that the Braves have been getting below replacement-level performance from their first basemen this season, Teixeira might be worth more than two wins to the team. Braves fans are conditioned to believe that a July acquisition of a star first baseman can have major effects:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Random Post-Lunch Thoughts

1. There will be no Duel of the Jews this week because Mandel agrees that Mike Vick is a black eye for the Virginia Tech program. Oh, and he also answered the questions that were asked this week, so there's really nothing to mock. I'm sure he's tremendously relieved.

2. There's little worse that staying up way your bedtime to watch a Braves game on the West Coast and the last thing you see before turning off the lights in disgust is Bob Wickman blowing a beautifully pitched game by Tim Hudson. The game really illustrated the silliness of the traditional pitching stats. Hudson was outstanding for eight innings before leaving in the 9th with a 4-1 lead and runners on first and second following a bloop single. Wickman promptly allows a double and a single to tie the game, so Huddy doesn't get a win despite pitching really well and his final line is three runs in eight and two-thirds, a line that does not reflect the quality of the performance. The good news is that the Braves ended up winning the game, but Wickman's crap pitching not only cost Hudson a win, it also taxed four innings on the bullpen, including two innings for Peter Moylan, who is right now the Braves' only reliable reliever. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the team needs to bolster the bullpen before the stretch run. It will be much easier to find a quality reliever than it will to find someone to pitch significantly better than Jo Jo Reyes.

3. I watched the two-disc highlight video of Barca's victorious Champions League campaign and the prevailing notion I took away from it is that Samuel Eto'o is not a clinical finisher. I thought at the end of the season when he was failing to put away chances (like the one that would have knocked Espanyol out and effectively won the Primera, or the one that would have put Barca ahead in the first half at Villareal) that he was rusty, but I'm beginning to get the sense that he just isn't a good shooter. There are a ton of sequences on disk one where Eto'o is sent clear and then shoots at the keeper. His movement is great and he does a lot to free himself, but he doesn't finish as many of his one-on-one chances as a great striker should.

Oh, and I also had a good chuckle at the Special One whining about Messi getting Del Horno sent off when Barca were denied two clear penalties in the match, including the memorable instance when John Terry ran over Leo Messi in the box, then proceeded to land on the ball with his hands. Keep talking, Jose.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Vickkampf: What Else Would We Discuss?

Paul Campos provides an ounce of reality as various members of the media attempt to outdo one another in expressing outrage of the local professional football collective's signal-caller. The same people who are bloviating about Vick being one step removed from Pol Pot are likely also having a nice Porterhouse for dinner, ignoring (or willfully unaware of) the fact that a cow was likely slaughtered in conditions at least as inhumane as the dogs at Moonlight Road. There is a real element of hypocrisy here (and I'm part of it as much as anyone else, since I eat meat and still responded to reading the indictment by saying that I could not root for a Falcons offense with Vick under center). We like dogs and keep them as housepets, so they apparently have more rights than a cow or a pig (and pigs are fairly bright animals, so yay for me being kosher). I had similar thoughts (admittedly without a snappy intro referencing George Orwell or an interesting reference to the class angles involved) during the initial stages of the story:

Is it really rational to make dog-fighting a felony, but then to permit the slaughter of cows and pigs in oft-inhumane conditions? I suppose that the distinction is that cows and pigs provide food to humans, so there is some utility in their killing, but dog-fighting provides no utility other than base-level entertainment. And is the possibility of eating venison the reason why hunting is legal, but dog-fighting is not? There is probably also a distinction that dog-fighting is inevitably very painful for dogs, whereas a deer being shot by a hunter or a cow being slaughtered in a meat-packing facility creates less suffering for the animal, although I suspect that in practice, the difference is not too great. Finally, there is no reason why protection of some animals is illegitimate because we don't protect all animals in the same way.

All that said, after reading the indictment, there is a distinguishing factor between generic cruelty to animals in the meat-packing industry and what Vick is accused of. When Vick was supposed to be a passive investor and/or a guy who went to a couple fights, but didn't have significant involvement in running the operation, then the analogy made sense. Vick was participating in a cruel enterprise, but meat-eaters are sitting in a glass house when they throw around those charges. Now, assuming that the facts in the indictment are true (and the Feds are typically zealous about not throwing around accusations that they can't prove), Vick participated in every aspect of the operation. He didn't just pay for the facilities at which the fights happened; he tested out young dogs for aggression and then bludgeoned, electrocuted, or shot the ones who didn't perform. That goes beyond being a passive participant/meat eater into someone who can perform inhumane acts without batting an eyelash. There's a psychopathic element there that pushes Vick down the continuum of moral culpability. (Insert standard caveat that Vick has not been convicted of anything yet and he could just be guilty of keeping the wrong company, blah blah blah.)

Spare Me

Virginia Tech: America's Team? I don't recall LSU becoming America's Team after Katrina (the Saints? Sure.), but why would we get emotional about one of America's great cities getting pulverized and almost 2,000 people dying when we can get emotional about 32 people being shot (unless we assume that the lives of college students have more value than the lives of poor Blacks who could not get out of the way of a hurricane)?

I'm probably going to sound callous in saying this, but I think there is excessive attention being paid to the Virginia Tech shootings, mainly by the sports media because they want to turn it into a Sal Aunese/Hank Gathers sobfest, complete with fuzzy camera shots and babbling about innocence lost. The shootings were a tragedy and Seung-Hui Cho should burn for them, but regardless of whether you measure a disaster by loss of life or by property damage (or some combination thereof), it is not a history-altering event that is going to cause me to suddenly root for Virginia Tech. Instead, it is being treated by ESPN and others as an opportunity to sell a storyline that has little or nothing to do with the actual games they cover.

And yes, the fact that Michael Vick is Tech's most prominent football product has something to do with this, as does the fact that the Falcons other prominent Hokies are busy defending themselves after their dogs attack bystanders or getting arrested for marijuana possession. Per Cory McCartney, I'm supposed to start rooting for a cohort of players who, if they emulate their predecessors, will reveal themselves to be unlikeable people when they reach the NFL because those players attend the same institution (marginally) as 32 people who were shot by a deranged psychopath. Uh, no.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Did you Ever Think you'd See the Day...

Where Vandy would have three players apiece on an all-SEC first team and Georgia would have zero? Pre-season all-anything lists are not worth the ether they inhabit, but that did kinda shock me. A sign that Georgia was fortunate to win nine games last year, given that the lists are usually a reflection of the previous year's talent? A sign that Georgia lost too many good players? A way for Mark Richt to motivate his charges? Another reason to hyperventilate before the opening swing against Oklahoma State and South Carolina? The Dawgs certainly aren't alone; Auburn and Alabama placed one player apiece, so they apparently also lack the top-end talent that is on display in Nashville.

If there is any merit to the list (a big if), then this is a reflection that our beloved pinata's theory that the bottom of the SEC is very weak has about as much merit as the rest of his half-baked blatherings. The SEC's lower class (Kentucky, Vandy, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State) combine for eight of the 22 spots. Signs of parity this year in the conference? A reflection that there are more question marks than usual in the upper tier?

This does strike me as an interesting year in the conference. The perception might be that the league is down because it doesn't have any lead-pipe cinches for great teams (unless you believe in Les Miles and Gary Crowton), but it should be very strong from one to 12. Any year in which Kentucky and Vandy can be reasonably picked to win 3-4 SEC games apiece or South Carolina is as good a choice as any to win the East is shaping up to be a good year for the bottom of the conference. There's a little less reason to think that the Mississippi schools are going to pose a challenge to the top four in the West, but this should be the time when the Orgeron's recruiting and Sly Croom's noble (but almost certainly misguided) efforts to teach the West Coast offense start to pay off.

Then again, this is the time of year when every team looks like a threat, not unlike spring training when the D-Rays convince themselves that they have a good team. (Speaking of baseball, in case you're wondering, the answer is no, I don't want to talk about getting swept at home by the Reds, especially since the taxed bullpen had to throw 17 innings combined on Monday and Wednesday and Rafael Soriano is looking like the 289 appearances in the first half have him worn out. So there you go.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vickkampf: the Oder has been Crossed

A morning linkapalooza now that the local pro football collective's star quarterback has been indicted:

Lester Munson at ESPN.com has a solid description of the legal challenges that Vick faces. His story jibes with a conversation I had last night with a friend who is a criminal defense attorney (and a very good one, at that). The initial thought I had after hearing the allegations against Vick was that "sure, that sounds bad, but the evidence against OJ sounded a lot worse and he walked." That isn't an applicable analogy because federal prosecutors are a different class altogether from Chris Darden and Marcia Clark, not to mention the fact that the FBI is a lot better at assembling evidence than Mark Furman. I left the conversation thinking that Vick was cooked once the feds got tired of the Surry County prosecutor and launched into their own investigation.

Munson also references the fact that Vick is in the Fourth Circuit rocket docket, which means that Vick might stand trial during or shortly after the season. In terms of the Falcons' perspective, that isn't a bad thing because it means that Vick's legal situation will be resolved relatively quickly.

I don't think that Bobby Petrino knew it when he took the job, but he's now Terry Bowden. He's stepped into the equivalent of a team on probation, which means he'll get mulligans for the first year or two in Atlanta and no one can blame him if the team doesn't do well. I was mildly optimistic about Joey Harrington until I looked at his numbers and realized that the change of venue to Miami did nothing to improve his stats. Just like multiple witnesses testifying against Vick are going to be more difficult to beat than one or two, sucking for two NFL teams makes it harder for me to play the "Harrington sucked because the Lions suck" card. And as for Vick, it's hard to imagine that he'll be able to put a looming criminal trial with significant prison time at stake out of his mind and focus on playing football. The million dollar question is whether the rest of the team will be affected. I'm generally not a big fan of the line of reasoning that any off-the-field issues prevent other players from doing their jobs, as that reasoning treats players like emotionally immature children. The Falcons' players still have every individual incentive to play well. That said, they now have a built-in excuse not to succeed and that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Both George Dohrman and Mark Bradley focus on the lurid nature of the allegations in the indictment against Ookie and Friends. The widespread dissemination and discussion of the indictment is a major, major problem for Vick. It was one thing for Vick to vaguely be associated with dogfighting. I could rationalize his role as being that of a passive investor who was culpable in the sense that he let his friends commit terrible acts, but he wasn't involved himself. Now, there are very specific allegations that allow anyone who reads the indictment to paint a truly disturbing mental picture of what Vick allegedly did on the property. It is hard for me to escape the conclusion that the allegations are more likely than not to be true, given the level of specificity and the fact that it is not just based on one eye-witness. Moreover, it is very hard for me to paint the mental picture that the indictment invites me to paint and then root for a Falcons offense with Michael Vick under center. As time passes, the impact of reading the indictment will fade somewhat, but is that a good thing?

One other note on the media coverage of the indictment: 790 the Zone did a terrific job this morning at lining up quality guests and having an intelligent discussion of the impact of the indictment. That said, the one thing that bothered me was Steak Shapiro repeatedly discussing the fact that the indictment was going to lead to further polarization, with white racists on one side and African-Americans apologizing for the indefensible on the other. (For instance, one gentleman called in this morning alleging that Vick was being indicted as part of some sort of cover-up for the Feds' failure to "get" Scooter Libby [then what was that whole commutation about?] and investigate voter fraud.) Steak admitted that most people fall in the middle, but that the extreme voices are the ones who end up on the radio. The inescapable conclusion from his admission is that sports talk radio increases the level of polarization by highlighting the extremists and giving them a platform such that their opinions seem far more common than they are. Then again, I listen, so I'm contributing to the process as well. And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Best and Worst Coaches: a Defense of...Al Groh?

Since the question of "worst starter in the Braves rotation" has been conclusively resolved, we'll turn our attention to Mandel's argument that Al Groh is the worst coach in college football. Leaving aside the criticism that there are surely coaches plumbing the depths of the Sunbelt and MAC who are inferior head coaches, Mandel's argument has two major fallacies:

1. It penalizes Groh for good recruiting. Here is the argument used for attacking Groh:

Matt Schaub. D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Heath Miller. Ahmad Brooks. Groh has produced his share of talent in Charlottesville. So what does he have to show for it? A 25-23 ACC record and a whole bunch of Christmas dinners in Charlotte and Boise.

Al Groh recruited all of these players, save for Schaub (and in Schaub's case, Groh implemented the perfect offense for Schaub's skills and turned a middling recruit into a ACC Player of the Year and a first-day draft pick). Is Mandel aware that college football coaches do not have general managers and are therefore responsible for inducing quality players to attend their schools? This criticism is the same meritless argument that was used against Steve Fisher when he was leading Michigan to back-to-back NCAA Title games: he's only winning because he has a lot of talent. This is not unlike saying that Sports Illustrated is only readable because it has good writers.

In some cases, it's easy to criticize a coach for not winning at levels commensurate with the talent available, namely when that coach is at a program with major recruiting advantages. Joe Paterno would be a good example. Paterno coaches at the name program in one of the most talent-rich states in the country, yet he has produced middling results this decade. His team got its one quality win last season - the bowl win over Tennessee - when Paterno was isolated in the press box without a headset. Unlike Bobby Bowden, who still brings a strong recruiting element to the table and just brought in a good upgrade at offensive coordinator (albeit after employing Fredo for longer than the DMV would), Paterno apparently manages to confuse and terrify recruits. Paterno literally brings nothing to the table now, other that his legacy. Groh is at a program that lacks most of the advantages of Penn State, which we will get to now...

2. It fails to appreciate context. Al Groh has won 56% of his games at Virginia. This is admittedly nothing to set the world on fire, but considering that Virginia won only 53% of its games historically before Groh arrived, his number isn't too shabby. His predecessor, George Welsh, won 60.2% of his games at UVA and for his trouble, was proclaimed the best coach in college football by the Sporting News. So what is Mandel penalizing Groh for? The fact that he didn't turn Virginia into a major power?

Look at UVA's football program for a moment. It's in a state that produces a decent amount of talent, but nothing sterling. Virginia is at a disadvantage against its southern brethren in terms of recruiting bases. UVA shares the state with Virginia Tech, which doesn't have the same academic restrictions as Virginia and can therefore clean up in Michael Vick's neck of the woods. Virginia Tech also happens to have the best coach in the conference, per Mandel and the rest of the world. Is it too much to ask that a writer look at context before weighing in on a coach? How did Mack Brown go from "can't win the big one" to a top five coach? Oklahoma declined. How did Dennis Franchione go from good coach in the SEC to bad coach in the Big XII? He's in the same division as Brown and Stoops. Why is Lloyd Carr viewed differently now than he was in 1999? Because of the transition from John Cooper to Jim Tressel.

With that in mind, here are my bottom five coaches in major college football:

1. Paterno - see above. I see no reason to deviate from tradition.

2. Ty Willingham - since we're going after coaches in Title VII protected categories, how about a shoutout for the only coach in recorded history to achieve the Herculean feat of not being able to recruit at Notre Dame (although I will admit that he put together a pretty creditable team at U-Dub last year before Isiah Stanback got hurt).

3. Ron Zook - I'm not going to penalize him for not getting results commensurate with his talent; I'm going to penalize him for not getting results period. The only good thing to be said about Zook is that he will put his successor in a great position to win at Illinois.

4. Bill Callahan - I know that he's had to go through some growing pains in transitioning Nebraska to a new offense, but he's averaging five losses per year and for an alleged offensive guru, Big Red's offenses have been pedestrian. The "let's just run out the clock, take our 18-point beating, and go home" performance at the Coliseum last year was downright embarrassing for a major program.

5. Bill Doba - Just because I have a thing against Bills.

Friday, July 13, 2007

My Head Hurts

My commute to work takes about 15 minutes. During that period of time, I got to hear the following shining examples of Socratic reasoning:

1. On 680, Perry Laurentino is launching into a tirade about African-Americans supporting Barry Bonds and Michael Vick. When Laurentino attacks African-Americans for supposedly defending dog-fighting, Christopher Rude makes the obvious point that while dog-fighting is a bad thing, the question is whether there is a link between Vick and dog-fighting. Laurentino responds that it is "legalistic" to demand such a link. Sure.

This comes on the heels of Laurentino dismissing soccer as a "Communist" sport earlier in the morning. Let's see. The NFL has complete revenue sharing, a hard salary cap, and it derives a significant portion of its profits from state subsidies in the form of publicly-funded stadia. European football leagues have minimal revenue sharing so the best-run and/or most popular clubs can retain the money that they generate, relegation that punishes ineptly run clubs (you think that Bill Bidwell would continue to rake in profits in the Bundesliga? His team would be in a regional league right now, battling Kickers Offenbach or KFC Uerdingen 05, which is what is supposed to happen in a meriocracy.), and no salary caps so the best players can get their true market value. Which sport is "Communist" again?

2. I switch over to 790, where they are discussing Alex Rodriguez. After Chris Dimino volunteers a very interesting stat that A-Rod is hitting .520-something in the 9th inning this year and has seven game-winning hits, Mike Bell (admittedly after putting on the self-parody "Sparky the Sportscaster" moniker) attempts to argue that A-Rod winning games for the Yankees in a year in which they aren't playing well is meaningless. That makes perfect sense. The Yankees are threatened by not making the post-season for the first time in over a decade. A-Rod is the one guy keeping the team afloat and in striking distance of a playoff berth. So naturally, that means that A-Rod can't come through when the chips are down. The argument might be the Platonic ideal of the fallacy of "clutch hitting." Any game that A-Rod wins is by definition not a big game, so the sample size keeps changing and shrinking to fit the hypothesis that he's a choker. Cue Bobby Bowden's observation that "the big one" is always the one that you don't win.

Brazil and Argentina

I recommend Tim Vickery's excellent piece at SI.com on the paths taken by Brazil and Argentina since getting embarrassed by Clockwork Oranje in 1974. It's definitely counter to the typical view of Brazilian football, which is that style is elevated as a paramount concern, co-equal with obtaining a good result. Upon reflection, Vickery has a point. Brazil '82 is lionized as a glorious failure (sorta like every Dutch team I've ever supported, save for the ugly ducklings of the last World Cup), but ever since, Brazil have struggled somewhat to produce a really attractive side. Neither the '94 winners, nor their compatriots in '02 were viewed as playing true "Brazilian" futebol, although that might be the result of being held to an impossible standard.

After Mexico beat Brazil in their Copa America opener, Stephen Cohen was discussing on the World Soccer Daily podcast (which I can't recommend enough; I listen every night when I'm cooking dinner [steaks marinated in Chimichurri in honor of Leo Messi last night]) that he can't remember the last time that Brazil really looked like Brazil. The implications from Vickery's piece is that we're looking for something that doesn't exist; that Brazil have emphasized the result over all else and physical dominance in the midfield for some time. I got a lot of my ideas on the Brazilian style from Pete Davies' Twenty-Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts in the run-up to the '94 World Cup as I was becoming more of a footie fan. He described the side as playing a wonderful passing style that was foreign to European sides. It might be time for a rethink on that belief.

(I doubt that Vickery is right when he says that Brazil losing on Sunday will force a re-think in that country. It will be far too easy for the CBF to rationalize this defeat by pointing out that Ronaldinho and Kaka were on vacation and Brazil currently lack a top-level striker because of Ronaldo's decline and Adriano's distractions.)

I'm also having to re-evaluate my views on Argentina, which were formed as a result of their reprehensible show at the Italia '90, when they embodied everything that was bad about the tournament. FIFA responded to the negative display by banning keepers from picking up back-passes and by awarding three points for a win instead of two, so I guess Argentina deserve a little credit. Since then, they haven't produced an unattractive side and their '06 side in Germany were the only one of the traditionally attacking side (Brazil and Holland being the others) who stayed true to their roots. I don't think I can ever become an out-and-out fan of Argentina; the rivalry I had with my brother formed from hundreds of Brazil-Argentina matches in SNES Super Soccer is too deep. That said, this side of Messi, Riquelme, Tevez, and a rejuvenated Veron is almost irresistible. Riquelme has taken the mantle from Zidane of the best old-school footballer on earth, from the passing skills to the lack of pace to the moodiness. This team has come full circle from the unwatchable '90 squad.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Braves are Two Games Out and Coming off of a Good Road Trip...

So why don't I feel optimistic about them? Collectively, the Braves are five games over .500, but their run differential is almost even, so they have probably been a little lucky in the first half of the season. (If you normalize for Equivalent Runs, then the gap between their run differential and record narrows, but doesn't disappear entirely.

Individually, there are holes in places where it's bad to have holes. The rotation is a mess, with Smoltz showing signs of shoulder problems and his endurance waning by the end of June. Tim Hudson has pitched well, but he too has shown signs of slowing as the second half has progressed. The bottom of the rotation is a giant dilemma, as Kyle Davies has had a wretched first half interspersed with random quality starts against the better teams in the NL. With every contender in baseball looking for starting pitching and a limited number of useful starters on the market, the prospect of solving the dilemma through a trade seems bleak. That leaves the farm system, but the early returns on JoJo Reyes were not encouraging (although it was one start; maybe he'll be the reverse Kyle Davies and we'll be naming Centennial Park Jojo Place by this October). In the realm of things I never thought I'd be saying when the season kicked off, "thank G-d for Buddy Carlyle" ranks right up there with "Good for Barry!" and "I just don't hear enough about the Yankees."

The bullpen, which was supposed to be the reason why the team outperformed its run differential, has been Rafael Soriano and the seven dwarfs. Bob Wickman drives me crazy, Mike Gonzalez's elbow looks like Verdun circa 1917, and the rest of the pen is OK, but nothing special. (That probably sells Peter Moylan short, as he's been excellent and Oscar RoyalHouse has also been good in long relief.) The bullpen, unlike the starting rotation, is an area that can be addressed in the trading market as quality relievers can be had for less-than-premium prospects and they don't add too much to the payroll.

That said, if the team is to find its salvation, it's going to have to come from the lineup. Against all the pitching questions, the cause for optimism is that Andruw cannot possibly be as bad in the second half as he was in the first. (Mets fans are probably saying the same thing about Carlos Delgado.) If 'Druw comes around and Chipper avoids his typical "that's a new way for a player to miss three weeks" injury, then the lineup is imposing with Kelly Johnson (whose stance is a dead ringer for Chipper's) and Renteria setting up the Jones and then Francoeur, McCann, and Salty cleaning up behind them. The Braves survived Langerhans, Thorman, and Craig Wilson plumbing new depths at two premium offensive positions, so with solutions in right field and first base, the offense ought to pick up the slack for the pitchers.

In the end, the team's fate will probably be decided by the health of Smoltz's shoulder and Hudson's oblique at the top of the rotation, and Buddy Carlyle's deal with the devil not expiring and the farm system producing a competent starter at the bottom. (If our Reyes won the East instead of their Reyes, would Mike Lupica's head explode?) The second half schedule is very manageable coming out of the gate, with the murderer's row of interleague opponents in the rear view mirror and a diet of NL Central fodder coming up, but this team has strangely played better against the cream of the NL (17-9 against the Mets, Brewers, Padres, and Dodgers) than against the rest of the Senior Circuit.

Vickkampf: Not Another Step Back...without a Large Cap Hit

Kudos to Tim Tucker for this lucid explanation of Mike Vick's contractual situation. A lot of the article is devoted to explaining to the casual fan that NFL contracts are not guaranteed and that the Falcons aren't really committed to paying $130M to Vick. That said, Tucker lays out the case that cutting Vick would cost $6M and change against this year's cap and $15M and change against the team's 2008 cap. With the salary cap projected to be about $115M in 2008, that would be a hefty charge, but not impossible.

The most likely scenario is that this year is Vick's audition for Bobby Petrino. To date, Vick has been a slightly above-average quarterback who's been paid as if he's Brady, Manning, or McNabb. If Vick improves in Petrino's offense, then the team will keep him and possibly look to negotiate his salary down a little so they can make a run at the Super Bowl by adding pieces. If Vick stagnates, then he'll be gone for football reasons. I don't think the dog-fighting allegations will be anything more than a secondary consideration, since it appears that he is not going to be charged, let alone indicted.

That said, the allegations are going to be hanging over Vick and will likely be considered by Blank, McKay, and Petrino when they make a decision on Vick's future. The Falcons braintrust are too smart not to realize that the federal prosecutors might indict the individuals running the ring from Vick's house and then seek to flip one or more of them in return for testimony against Vick. (Len Pasquarelli does a good job with this "Vick isn't out of the woods yet" piece. The Feds' decision to go after Vick will likely be determined by whether they see Vick as a major player in the dog-fighting ring. In my heart of hearts, I think Vick knew what was going on and was a passive investor, but wasn't a major player. In that case, it seems unlikely that the Feds will go to the trouble of flipping a major player in order to get a famous, but relatively minor participant, unless they want Vick to be a sacrificial lamb to highlight the evils of dog-fighting.

Getting back to the on-field issues, Mark Bradley is optimistic about the team. (Bradley seems to be on fire recently. I can't stop linking him.) Vick's Sturm und Drang offseason has colored the views of most national pundits regarding the Falcons, most notably Fox Sports, which ranked the team 29th in the NFL a few weeks ago. Vick got too much credit when the team won and now his off-field problems have caused opinion to swing too far in the opposite direction. The team had a very good Draft, they have a better coaching staff, and the overall talent level seems to be heading in the right direction (although I have concerns about the offensive line adapting to Petrino's offense). Vick may be distracted right now, but he's never been that good, so would a slight decline in performance really be that notable? It isn't as if the Falcons are dependent on Vick the way the Colts are on Manning. Additionally, part of me is giddy with excitement over the possibility of Vick playing with a major chip on his shoulder and viewing this season as his chance to shut all of his critics up. This off-season has made it much harder for me to root for Vick the person, but there is a good chance that I'll be happier with Vick the player come September.

Lincoln Financial Loses its Charm

My plans for keeping a notebook with me this year while watching college football games to preserve every last inanity that comes tumbling out of the mouths of the guys who get paid lots of money to be useful just took a big hit with the news that David Archer is replacing Dave Rowe on Lincoln Financial broadcasts. Archer is insightful and competent, but where does that leave me? How am I supposed to scribble things like "Dave Rowe suggested that Kregg Lunpkin needs 25 carries to get going. I wonder if he knows that Vince Dooley stopped coaching the Dawgs 18 years ago? Maybe he missed that whole "the point of offense is to score" revolution that Spurrier brought to the league?"

Monday, July 09, 2007

If a Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds...

Then Stewart Mandel has some sort of Enrico Fermi-sized brain in his skull. When dismissing the the irrational exuberance of Penn State fans, bowl games are irrelevant:

Actually, I'm a little concerned that Penn State fans -- many of whom have written in to me with similar sentiments -- are setting themselves up for disappointment by falling for the age-old bowl-win trap. It happens with at least one team every year. They go out and beat a purportedly superior opponent in a bowl game and suddenly everyone forgets about the 12 contests before it. The only problem is, most non-BCS bowl games are reflective of absolutely nothing. Case in point: Which would you say was the more accurate measuring stick of Florida State's offense last year -- the 12 regular-season games in which it struggled to gain a first down or the 'Noles' 44-point outburst in the Emerald Bowl?

When dismissing the SEC's claims to superiority, bowl games are critical evidence:

We've heard it. We get it. We've put it in bold type across the cover of Sports Illustrated: The SEC is the toughest conference. Florida proved that in the title game.

But it's not like the league is indisputably head and shoulders above everyone else. Perhaps Miles needs a reminder that two of his league's best teams last year, Arkansas and Tennessee, lost to the third- (Wisconsin) and fourth-place (Penn State) teams from the Big Ten in their bowl games. Or that the year before that, the SEC's champion (Georgia) lost its bowl game to the Big East's champion (West Virginia).

So, in case you're keeping score, the Capital One Bowl result is important in showing that the SEC wasn't that good last year, but it is not important in showing that Penn State could actually beat a good team. Penn State's victory means nothing, but Tennessee's loss is very important.

For the record, Mandel's article is useful in highlighting the boner that LSU fans have for USC and I don't disagree with him entirely that SEC fans (myself included) bang the drum a little too hard for the conference's superiority. The SEC was indeed the best conference in the country last year, but by any objective measure, USC played a very difficult schedule. The only way to conclude otherwise would be to dismiss a number of quality teams outside of the SEC, as well as the SEC West Champion. SEC fans are conditioned to media darling programs being overrated (read: Notre Dame and [often] the upper tier of the Big Ten), so they assume against all evidence to the contrary that USC must also fall into that category as well.

As for Miles's motivation for attacking USC, he's simply playing to his supporters in the same way that he did when he referred to "f***ing Alabama." The danger is that he's already setting expectations towards a match-up with USC, which is not what a good Southern coach would do. If Miles was cut from the Bryant/Dye/Dooley cloth, he'd be fretting about how he can't sleep at night worrying about the Mississippi State passing attack, or that LSU fans are excited about the Virginia Tech game, but Middle Tennessee State is going to be very challenging the next week. Instead, he has his electorate dreaming about welcoming Snoop Dogg to Canal Street, which will lead to some pissed off Cajuns if they end up in the meaningless bowl in Orlando.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

John Schuerholtz, Have You Really Thought this Through?

Someone alert Morgan Spurlock: the Braves are now offering All-You-Can-Eat Seats. Having spent many an evening in the upper deck watching parents buy their wobbly children endless treats on an inning-by-inning basis, as well as the experience of watching one clan unload a cooler full of food that I dubbed a "clown car of desserts," I am pretty confident that these tickets will be popular. I only hope that the Braves really know their fan base. Clearly they have an idea, in light of the fact that the cornucopia is located "just around the corner from your seats."

Insert obligatory "Homer Simpson at the buffet" clip:

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mandel on Fulmer: He's Great! He's in Trouble! I don't Know! What do you Want from Me!?!

It's been a while since we covered a Mandelian gander at the college football world. His gander at the situation on Rocky Top is an exercise in not answering a good question:

In your opinion, what is the main reason why Tennessee is barely mentioned anymore nationally? They are not considered as a favorite to even win their division. And you did not include the UF-Tennessee matchup as one of your 10 most important games as it has been in the past, even though they have played some good ones lately. Is it that you believe the present coaching staff simply cannot get it done?
-- Gerald Woods, Tampa

Do you think if Phillip Fulmer does not get the Vols to a BCS bowl this year Tennessee would look bad for giving him the boot? Here's a guy who year in and year out has some of the best recruits in the country come in only to churn out mediocre seasons (with the exception of 1998). Some people tend to think that his one and only national championship has given him a free ride for the rest of his life. The guy had a freaking losing season two years ago with a preseason No. 3 squad!!!! What gives?
--Josh Johnston, Virginia Beach, Va.

So you want to give Big Phil the boot, do you? I guess that means they'll have to take down that street they named after him (Phillip Fulmer Way). And explain why they're firing one of the five winningest active coaches in the country (only Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops and Mark Richt have a higher percentage among guys with at least five years experience).

But both Gerald and Josh have valid points. While the Vols remain a regular top-20 program, the fact is they're not as nationally relevant as they were a decade ago. They haven't won an SEC championship since 1998, haven't played in a BCS bowl since '99 and haven't seriously contended for the national title since 2001. In the five seasons since, they've posted a combined record of 42-21 -- not too shabby by any means but certainly a step down from their 54-8 run from 1995 to '99.

Without question, the trademark of Fulmer's 15-year tenure in Knoxville has been recruiting. The Vols do it as well as anyone, not only dominating their own state but luring big-time talent from as far away as California. Many of their biggest stars over the years -- from Peyton Manning (Louisiana) to Jamal Lewis (Georgia) to Peerless Price (Ohio) to Donte Stallworth (California) -- have come from outside of Tennessee. Based on the recruiting rankings, that juggernaut seems to be continuing today. According to Rivals.com, two of the Vols' past three classes have ranked in the top five nationally.

But even the best recruiters occasionally make mistakes, and Fulmer would be the first to tell you the program got sloppy a few years ago, recruiting some questionable characters who not only flamed out on the field but also created off-field distractions and poisoned the locker room. They contributed heavily to the 5-6 disaster in 2005. But I also think Fulmer and his staff have been exposed a bit as coaches ever since the SEC playing field got leveled a bit. The Vols may still be recruiting blue-chippers, but so too are Florida, LSU, Georgia and Auburn. I don't think any football observer would ever single out Fulmer as a world-class game coach. It's not like you watch a Vols game and go, "Oh, yeah, that was a signature Fulmer move." So is it any wonder that when the talent is mostly even, Fulmer has struggled against more renowned tacticians like Steve Spurrier (4-8), Richt (2-4), Tommy Tuberville (1-3 since Tuberville got to Auburn) and Meyer (0-2)?

This year's Vols certainly look promising on paper, but Tennessee is one of those teams that always looks good on paper because it's never hurting for talent. Is it fair for Tennessee fans to expect a return to the BCS sooner than later? Absolutely. But I'll tell you this much -- with Meyer, Richt and Spurrier in his own division and Nick Saban now on the Vols' schedule every year at Alabama, it's not going to get any easier for Fulmer.

This drives me crazy. Mandel gets a pair of good questions from Tennessee fans about Philip Fulmer's future, a fascinating topic since Fulmer has a good aggregate record, but has clearly fallen several notches this decade, leaving Tennessee behind a number of other programs in the rapidly-fortifying SEC. So what are his answers:

Fulmer has a good record and a street named after him. (Johnny Majors was possibly the most famous Vol of all-time and that didn't stop him from getting the boot after the '92 season.)

Fulmer has been mediocre since 2001. (And Mandel might want to add in that Tennessee lost a shot at the national title in 2001 against a clearly inferior LSU team missing its starting quarterback. That LSU team was coached by Nick Saban, who is now the head coach at Tennessee's arch-rival. Hmmm...)

Fulmer recruits well.

Fulmer brought in some bad apples and struggles against the best coaches in the SEC.

Tennessee should be good this year, but things are getting harder because of the level of coaching in the conference (and still no mention of the fact that Saban was hired by the one program that Tennessee fans want to beat the most. The program that caused Fulmer to turn state's evidence.)

Notice what's missing in that "answer"? There is no actual stand on whether Fulmer ought to be fired if Tennessee doesn't reach a certain level of success. Mandel instead relies on a series of obvious statements that are, in his defense, backed up with actual facts, and there is no attempt to interpret the facts. Seeing as how I've never met Fulmer and don't have any plans to do so, I don't have to worry about Phil giving me nasty looks the next time I see him and thus, I can offer an actual opinion, which is this: Fulmer can and should be gone if he doesn't get Tennessee into the top 15 this year and show that he can hold his own against Richt, Meyer, and Saban. Fulmer is in the same boat that John Cooper was in in 2000: a good coach who had led his program to some excellent seasons, but who was also presiding over a bit of a downfall. At the time Cooper was fired, there was plenty of "how do you fire a guy who went 11-1 and finished #2 two years ago?", just as there will be plenty of "how can you fire a coach who won a national title?" if Fulmer is offed. (Ask Larry Coker.)

In evaluating Fulmer, I see two competing possibilities:

1. The decline of Tennessee tracks David Cutcliffe's departure after the 1998 regular season. Now that Cutcliffe is back, Tennessee is on better footing and as long as Fulmer can run the recruiting/CEO functions of being a head coach, the Vols should be fine.

2. Fulmer doesn't bring much to the table. He could succeed when he was competing against Jim Donnan, Mike Dubose, Ron Zook, Brad Scott, and Terry Bowden, but he's out of his depth against Spurrier, Richt, Meyer, Saban, and Tuberville. Mandel hints towards this conclusion in his answer, but he doesn't conjure up the stones to actually say it.

There's an interesting corollary to #2: let's say that Tennessee loses to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama this year, looks at the coaching arms race in the SEC, and decides that their rivals are all deploying jets while they're defending their factories with props. They fire Fulmer after an 8-4 regular season and throw a boatload of money at Rich Rodriguez, who decides that life after Steve Slaton doesn't seem that great and he can make twice the money in Knoxville, all while staying in Appalachia. All of a sudden, Tennessee has a fancy jet and there are other powers in the conference that are suddenly wondering whether their planes are a little out-dated. LSU is the obvious place for discontent, which will be tricky, especially if Les Miles produces another 11-2 season. The other place is Georgia. I'm certainly not going to claim that Georgia fans will be annoyed with Richt in the short-term, but it's conceivable to see a situation five years from now where Richt doesn't look as great when he's competing against Spurrier, Meyer, and Rodriguez in the East as opposed to Zook, Fulmer, and Granny Clampett. On the other hand, it's just as likely that Richt would make one or two staff improvements and would hold his own against those rivals. Oh no, I've gone cross-eyed.