Friday, April 30, 2010

In Defeat, Defiance

I never thought that F.C. Barcelona would ever take a page from Auburn's playbook on handling defeat at home, but there you go. I would not have been opposed to turning the water hoses on Jose Mourinho specifically after his disgraceful "look at me!!! I'm the king!!!" performance after the final whistle. A coach who advanced by parking the bus from the opening minute - conceding 86% possession to the opponent and instructing his players to waste time from the word go (Julio Cesar was wasting time on goal kicks from the second minute) - and was a bad handball call from going out doesn't need to be acting like MacArthur. Jose should remember what happened the last time his side knocked Barca out of the Champions League; the Blaugrana returned the favor with interest the next year. Good for Inter; good for their long-suffering fans; good for Lucio, Samuel, Zanetti, and Cambiasso, all of whom are consummate professionals; good for Sneijder, who has become a fantastic trequartista; good for Julio Cesar, an outstanding keeper; and good for Eto'o, whose departure from Catalunya is looking like a bigger mistake with each game that goes by. But f*** Inter's manager.

Other thoughts:

1. Could Zlatan be more useless? I don't think he's a big game bottler; I think he doesn't run, regardless of the opponent. How is it that Barca were more dangerous in both matches when they hauled off the second most expensive player in the world? Bojan isn't the greatest at this stage in his development, but Barca were immediately better when they brought him on because he was, you know, making runs. Zlatan is a Swedish giant, so how is it that mighty mite Bojan found himself on the end of a header in front of goal after an inch-perfect Messi cross (and admittedly fluffed the chance), but Ibra couldn't do the same? Where is this Plan B we were promised? Barca lost this tie when they couldn't sign David Villa over the summer. Villa wouldn't bring Plan B, but he's the best in the world at playing Barca's Plan A: quick passes on the ground to fast guys making runs in the spaces between defenders. Can Man City take Ibra off of the Blaugrana's hands? They seem to have a fetish for striker with bad attitudes.

[Update: Pep is thinking along the same lines.]

2. If Barca didn't have the reigning and future Ballon D'Or winner in the side, Gerard Pique would have a good chance of being the team MVP. He was often on an island against Diego Milito when Barca pushed forward and he was perfect. Then, with all of Barca's attackers misfiring, he scored the goal that put Barca on the front foot for the last ten minutes. I'd be impressed by a striker who had the presence of mind to pivot when one on one with the keeper so as to cause the keeper and an onrushing defender to take themselves out of position; I'm floored by the fact that a center back thought to do that. If Pique isn't first choice for La Furia this summer (even if Puyol is relegated to the bench), then Vincente del Bosque is making a huge mistake.

3. The season now comes down to two matches: the road games against Villarreal and Sevilla on the next two weekends. Barring an absolute stunner in which Barca drops points to a relegation side, Barca's La Liga campaign will come down to not dropping points at two venues that have been complicated in the past. Being the first team to repeat as Champions League winners and doing so at the Bernabeu would have been great, but winning La Liga over the most expensively assembled side in history would be a nice silver medal, especially when Real have dropped all of ten points out of 96 available against teams not named Barcelona.

4. I was pessimistic about Barca's chances in the second leg because top quality sides have shown time and again that they can negate Barca by parking the bus at the Nou Camp. In chess terms, opponents can always trade queens with the Blaugrana, neutering themselves and their opponents at the same time. Don't believe me? Here are the scores of the home legs of Barca's semifinals in the Rijkaard/Guardiola era:

2006 - Barca 0 Milan 0
2008 - Barca 0 Manchester United 0
2009 - Barca 0 Chelsea 0
2010 - Barca 1 Inter 0

Credit to Inter for being able to pull it off because there aren't many sides in the world with the back line and Makeleles to pull the feat off. (Thankfully, Real Madrid are not one of them. Watch them spend 60M Euros on Samuel and Lucio now.) I'll still maintain that it is an admission of inferiority by squads of this quality when they deploy players like Eto'o, Rooney, or Malouda as auxiliary defenders. Barca may have been knocked out, but they remain unchallenged. Other elite teams refuse to play at the Nou Camp. Hence the title of this post.

Fool on the Hill

Mocking unhinged rants from John Feinstein is like shooting fish in a barrel, but Blutarsky has unearthed another gem. To pile on, I'm amused by Feinstein's claim that the NCAA has the leverage to force a college football playoff over the wishes of its most powerful members, specifically to carry on a tournament with Butler and Cornell, but not Kentucky or Duke.

Let's imagine you are a lawyer for CBS negotiating and drafting the agreement with NCAA to pay billions for the right to show the NCAA Tournament. CBS is paying you hundreds of thousands of dollars to draft an agreement that will protect its interests. The agreement has to cover contingencies so CBS isn't paying billions for a significantly devalued tournament. Do you think that maybe, possibly you'd include language setting forth that CBS doesn't have to pay for the Tournament if all of the teams with significant cache and TV followings (you know, the ones who might interest advertisers?) have seceded and formed their own, competing tournament? Put another way, do you prefer not to commit malpractice?

John, I'm going to make this very simple for you: people watch games because of teams and players, not organizations. The NFL couldn't put semipro players in uniforms and still get ratings. Thus, the BCS conferences hold the valuable chips. The NCAA works for them, not the other way around. There is a name for the NCAA without its most powerful members: the League of Nations.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Please Care More

If I wrote anything about the Hawks this morning, it would probably be a string of obscenities and name-calling. Thus, I'm going to outsource the analysis. Here's Mark Bradley:

How does Ersan Ilyasova will himself to dominate the final four minutes of an NBA playoff game?

“Just a lack of concentration,” Jamal Crawford said afterward.

But how do you not concentrate with a season on the line?

Said Crawford: “I honestly don’t know.”

I don’t, either. And neither does Mike Woodson or Rick Sund or James Naismith. It’s the great imponderable of a series that beggars belief. The Milwaukee Bucks are playing without their MVP; the Hawks won seven more games in the regular season and have all hands on deck, and they’re 48 minutes from elimination and perhaps a coaching search.

I keep wanting to believe the Hawks can still win this series, but I no longer have any basis for it. Game 5 was the worst moment in Hawks history since the loss — also to an undermanned Milwaukee team, also in Game 5 — at the old Omni in 1989. I was on hand for both, and the one of 21 years ago was the beginning of the end for Mike Fratello. For Mike Woodson, this Game 5 could be the end, period.

I remember that loss to the Bucks in 1989. It was the most frustrating loss that I can remember as a Hawks fan. The Hawks had staved off elimination in overtime on the road in Game Four and then blew the series at home in Game Five with the Bucks running some sort of bizarre weave that the Hawks couldn't stop. The loss in 1989 was the end of an era for the team, as they dismantled the group that had been pushing the Celtics and Pistons for several years. Last night's loss could be the same in terms of a sea change. Does Joe Johnson really want to come back to a team that has colossal mental lapses like this one does, especially when he can be a second fiddle to LeBron or Wade?

Peachtree Hoops also smells the end:

So yes, there are real coaching issues with this loss that point back to prior problems we have seen all season long. There are player performances that raise questions about team building blocks and ceiling. And there are actual blogging points to discuss as the team moves forward in a series that is far from over. But tonight? Tonight I mourn. I mourn 13 win seasons and player development. I mourn a free agent from Phoenix that took a chance on a city and a seven game series that made that city come alive. I mourn unlimited upside and player development and I mourn coaching question marks and franchise players. Because for this set of players, the unknown is over. The ceiling has been reached. And no words or box scores or analysis make that easier to take. Because it is just sad, but you can know I am sad right there with you.

Last night was definitely the end of something for me. I went to the draft party when the Hawks took Marvin Williams over Chris Paul. I went to ten games the year we won 13 and 20 games the year we won 26. I watched this team grow from the worst in the NBA into a 53-win team. If the Hawks would have hit the ceiling against LeBron or the Magic, I would have accepted that Knight and Sund had created a very good team that couldn't quite get over the hump. I have a harder time accepting losing to a demonstrably inferior team because a core group that has been together for years can't keep their heads together in the biggest games of the year.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fun with Baseball Reference

Picking a weak spot in the Braves' batting order this year is not unlike picking out a malapropism in a Sarah Palin speech, but I want to point out the situation in left field. Melky Cabrera is the nominal starter there and he has an OPS of .476. Matt Diaz spells him in left and his OPS is a robust .501. The Braves do not have a home run from their left fielders, despite the fact that left field should be the easiest position at which to find a hitter, other than first base.

The problems in left field are nothing new for this team. While I was messing around with Baseball Reference in an attempt to find punch and judy hitters who have career slugging percentages higher than the Braves' current collective .350 SLG (answer: David Eckstein has a career slugging percentage of .358), I came across this page listing the players who have started the most games at each position for every Braves team in history. The Braves have had a different left fielder every year since Chipper manned the position in 2002 and 2003. Moreover, Chipper only moved to the position because the Braves had cycled through candidates ever since trading Ryan Klesko in the disastrous Quilvio Veras deal. That trade set the stage for a decade of a revolving door in left, with just about all of the participants providing substandard production.

In short, the Braves have thought for the better part of a decade that left fielders are fungible and that the team can find solid production at the position on the cheap. (The same case can be made at first base, with the difference being that the Braves did produce Adam Laroche to play the position reasonably well for a three-year stretch, whereas the team has not found any left fielders in the farm system.) However, the Braves' confidence in finding economical options at the position has been misplaced. Think about that the next time you're watching Melky struggle through another at-bat.

The Atlanta Sports Anthem

Why opine on the facts that the Hawks can't play defense and the Braves can't score? Anything that I'd be saying, Neil can say twice as good.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tags on Conference Expansion

This quote (HT: Blutarsky) from Paul Tagliabue caught my eye:

At some point [the Big Ten is] going to overreach and get a big negative reaction out of Congress or someone else. You have to eventually tie your television to people actually watching and not just to television subscribers added up and totaled.
That's interesting on a number of levels. First, it's amusing to hear the NFL commissioner who presided over a bevy of NFL teams enriching themselves at the government teat through stadium subsidies, backed up by threats of relocation, complaining about another sports entity taking an unpopular action that might draw Congress's attention. Second, Tagliabue's statement is an indictment of his own conference. He's making the point that the Big Ten won't profit as much as it thinks by adding some combination of Rutgers, Syracuse, UConn, and Pitt because those teams might be proximate to large media markets, but they don't have a hold over meaningful numbers of households in those markets. Shorter version: don't recruit the members of my conference; they just aren't very valuable!

Third, Tagliabue's comment hits on a thought that I've been having about how expansion is going to expand the gap between the Big Ten and SEC. (Brian Cook is retching right now.) Let's say that the Big Ten strikes out on its two primary targets - Texas and Notre Dame - and then expands to 16 with Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Syracuse. What's the SEC's response? Mike Slive's comments last week indicated that the SEC is going to make a matching move in the event that there is a progression towards superconferences. The home run move for the Big Ten - and one that I think is quite plausible - would be to add Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. Think about the advantages here:

1. The added teams come from states that are already contiguous with the SEC.

2. The added teams come from states that are culturally similar to the SEC states.

3. Texas and Texas A&M would be reunited with Arkansas.

4. The added teams are football schools and they would be joining the top football conference.

5. The new SEC would be easy to organize, as Alabama and Auburn would join the East, leaving the West with the added schools, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU, and Arkansas.

Now, think about where the SEC and Big Ten would be after expansion. They would both have 16 teams, only the Big Ten would have added a bunch of decent, but nothing special football programs (assuming that Nebraska isn't headed back to their Osborne-Devaney levels) and the SEC would have added Oklahoma and Texas. Moreover, the Big Ten would have added TV markets that are large, but pro-oriented (this is Tagliabue's point as he is throwing his own conference under the SEPTA bus), whereas the SEC would have added TV markets that are large and college-obsessed. Finally, the Big Ten, which already struggles with a recruiting base that doesn't cut it, would have added states with mediocre talent levels, whereas the SEC would have added Texas.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Smaller Playoffs, Baseball Edition

Here's Joe Sheehan making a sharp point about MLB avoiding the temptation to imitate the NFL:

For too long now, MLB has tried to be like the NFL, emphasizing the postseason at the expense of the regular season while embracing the idea that every team should be competitive every year. It was a ridiculous notion in 1994, when MLB realigned and foisted a new round of postseason play on us, and it's a ridiculous notion now. MLB has raised a generation of fans who don't appreciate the idea of September, of a long, drawn-out pennant race in which there can be just one winner, who don't understand that sometimes a great team can fall short of the postseason or even be eliminated in it, without changing its greatness. The game has pandered to the modern idea that what matters isn't the 26 miles you run at a steady pace, but the 300-meter sprint to the finish.

The Braves fan in me who had to listen to endless "Buffalo Bills of baseball!" jibes after the local baseball collective would regularly have the best record in the NL and then lose to some annoying wild card entrant in a short series was nodding furiously at that argument. I like the idea of American sports being different, rather than each game having the same regular season/postseason structure. If I were king, I'd follow Sheehan's lead and re-do baseball like this.

20 teams in MLB, divided into a ten-team NL and a ten-team AL.

No interleague play. Each team plays each other team in its league 18 times.

League winners play each other in the World Series. Winning the NL or AL pennant is a big deal in and of itself.

Bottom two teams in each league are relegated at the end of the season to the 20 team league below the AL and NL. (I can't decide how to mesh the concept of a farm system with a European-style relegation set-up where there is a ladder of divisions. By expanding MLB to 40 teams and setting up two divisions, we prevent teams from having their farm teams in the top division, which would be a little awkward when players get called up.)

In other words, college football, but with a much bigger sample size. Added benefits:

1. No more Yankees-Red Sox postseason games. Instead, their interminable four-hour games in the regular season will actually mean something.

2. Bob Costas has a sexy time explosion that baseball has gone back to its roots with no playoffs other than the World Series, not to mention the end of interleague play.

3. Possible redux of the Braves-Giants pennant race of 1993, only without the indignity of the winner having to play the lard-ass Phillies for the right to win the NL.

4. Perennially mismanaged teams like the Pirates get their just desserts.

The one issue that I struggle with: I'd like to create the equivalent of the race for Champions League spots in Europe. Part of what's cool about the big footie leagues is that there are races for first, the top four, the top six, and avoiding relegation. Unfortunately, there is no Champions League equivalent for baseball.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

That was Awesome (After 26 Outs)

So what was the best aspect of the Braves' improbable 4-3 win over the Phillies last night? The Baseball Messiah homering to tie the game in the ninth? Much-maligned Troy Glaus hitting a two-run homer to keep hope alive? Much-maligned Nate McLouth hitting a bomb in the tenth for the win? The Braves' novel idea of dashing into the clubhouse after a walk-off home run as an upgraded version of the silent treatment? The mental image of the Barfing Bandit having to watch his Phils blow a game to a division rival?

Mark Bradley, who is often one to get carried away, gets carried away:

Before the game, Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel was asked if a transcendent young player — like the Phillies’ Howard was back in 2005, or like Heyward is today — can energize an entire franchise. “A guy like that can bring excitement and bring energy,” Manuel said. “He can bring a whole lot to a team and to a clubhouse.”

We Atlantans are seeing it on a daily basis. Barely two weeks on the job, Jason Heyward hasn’t just stamped himself as the Next Big Thing. He’s making a big thing out of the team around him. He’s making us think it’s 1991 all over again. And maybe it is.

I'll put my irrational exuberance about the mystical powers of Mssr. Heyward up against anyone, but having this burgeoning superstar in the Braves' dugout hasn't made McLouth, Glaus, or Melky hit. Maybe last night is the start of something and the weak spots in the order will get better, but years of watching Bobby Cox succeed based on a mantra that a team should never read too much into any one game make me skeptical.

Blown to Bits

Inter took Barcelona apart last night. There, I said it. I'd like to blame the ref for allowing an Inter goal that was clearly offside and for denying Barca a penalty. I'd like to blame the volcano with the untypable name. I'd like to blame the absence of Iniesta and Abidal, not to mention the fact that Zlatan is clearly not fit. I'd like to imagine that there are other explanations, but the simple fact of the matter is that the better team on the night won. Inter aren't quite on Barca's level overall, but they're damn close and when they play like they did last night, they can be a lot better.

As much as it pains me to say it, Jose Mourinho has done a terrific job with Inter. I love to hate Mourinho, but part of that hate is based on fear. The guy knows how to construct a winning side. He reconstructed an Inter side that had been dominant in Serie A, but tepid in Europe, and he has turned them into a team that looks likely to claim the club's first Champions League/European Cup since 1965. The attacking foursome that the Nerazzurri deployed last night - Milito, Eto'o, Pandev, and Sneijder - are all new additions in 2009-10, as are Lucio and Thiago Motta. Mourinho has molded them into Chelsea II. As the third goal rolled in last night, I struggled to remember a big game in which Barca had been beaten so thoroughly. And then I remembered Mourinho's Chelsea putting three past Barca in 25 minutes at Stamford Bridge in 2005 and I had my example. This was the same: a counter-attacking team that hit Barca at pace and embarrassed the Blaugrana's defense every time they came forward.

If I had to point a finger, it would be at Alves, Maxwell, and Busquets. Dani Alves was horrendous last night and was largely to blame for the opener, as he completely vacated his zone to allow Wesley Sneijder an unmolested chance. Maxwell set up Barca's goal, so I can't criticize him too much, but Inter's goals all flowed from attacks on the left. And finally, when a central attacking midfielder runs riot as Sneijder did, it's usually the case that the opposing defensive midfielder didn't do his job. If you want to look at an explanation for last night's result, contrast Esteban Cambiasso's pitbull performance against Leo Messi with the time and space that Busquets gave to Sneijder.

Zonal Marking opines that Pep's decision to play Zlatan was the problem:

Playing Ibrahimovic backfired for three reasons:

1) It meant Barcelona changed their passing style and played longer than usual, meaning they were less fluid and suited Inter defensively.

2) It meant that Messi had less space to work in – against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu he thrived by playing infront of the Real Madrid centre-backs and on three separate occasions he reached through balls played by Xavi. Tonight, with Ibrahimovic taking up his space, he couldn’t play this role.

3) It meant that Barcelona were less secure defensively on their left-hand side. They were completely caught out for Inter’s third because Keita was playing relatively centrally and failed to track Maicon’s run. Had Eric Abidal been playing left-back with Maxwell infront, it’s doubtful that would have happened.

Barcelona’s switch to the system in the preview (and in doing so, taking a off striker (Ibrahimovic) for a left-back (Abidal)) when 3-1 down was surely an admission from Guardiola that his initial shape was wrong.

If ZM is right, then this is the second straight big game in which Pep has deployed a system and then had to change it when it didn't work. Against Real Madrid, Barca moved Dani Alves to right wing and then had to change for the second half. Fortunately, a moment of magic from Xavi and Messi had Barca ahead despite the tactical problem. Last night, Barca were down 3-1 by the time the ship was put right. Barca have been close to unstoppable at home under Pep, but I suspect that 3-1 is too much of a mountain to climb against Mourinho's Inter.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Word of Advice for Those of you who Play "Streak for the Cash"

One bet today is Barca win vs. Inter win or draw. A few stats for your consideration:

1. Barca's results in Champions League knockout road legs under Pep Guardiola: 1-1, 1-1, 1-1, 1-1, 2-2.

2. Barca had to take a two-day bus trip to Milan.

3. Jose Mourinho's teams have not lost a home league game in 134 matches, dating back to his time at Porto. His teams have lost all of three home games in the Champions League, and only one Champions League knockout home leg: Chelsea 1 Barca 2 in 2006. The scorer of the winner in that match - Samuel Eto'o - now plays for Inter, as does the scorer of Chelsea's goal: Thiago Motta, who knocked a Lampard free kick past his own keeper. (That match was Leo Messi's coming out party. He didn't score, but he hit the post, got trampled in the box, and generally ran riot on the right, causing Asier Del Horno's red card that gave Barca the advantage.)

4. Mourinho is going to be quite content with a 0-0. He also got a blueprint from Espanyol this weekend.

Have I convinced you that a draw or an Inter win is the most likely result?

Taking Stock in the Braves

Am I the only one who feels like this Braves team is mostly unchanged from last year's edition, with one obvious exception? Let's leave Jason Heyward aside, along with his .302/.423/.581 line and his 15 RBI (no other Brave has more than eight). We still don't have another outfielder who can hit, as McLouth, Cabrera, and Diaz have all disappointed in the first two weeks of the season. Thus, the Braves still look like a team that is an outfield bat away from contending. Chipper is good, but not great when healthy. We can't find offense at first base, the easiest position at which to find a bat, but we have plenty of offense at catcher and the keystone spots, which are the three hardest. (Maybe Eric Hinske is the solution at first instead of Troy Glaus?) Collectively, the Braves don't show much power, but they draw a pile of walks. It's 2009 all over again.

In terms of the pitching, the starting staff looks good, but not as good as last year's version because we're replacing Javy Vazquez with Tim Hudson. Hudson has been good in his first two starts, but he isn't striking anybody out, which is a cause of concern. Derek Lowe looks about like he did after the first two months of 2009: below average. (It's strange that the Braves' best pitchers earn the lowest salaries, while their least effective starters are handsomely compensated. Tenure is nice if you can get it.) The bullpen looks great, but the specter of Bobby wearing out Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner still looms.

Overall, as the Braves head into a measuring stick series against the three-time defending NL East champs, the local baseball collective again looks like a team that will win between 85 and 90 games. Tonight's pitching match-up (Hanson vs. Kendrick) is favorable, tomorrow night's is not (Halladay against Hudson), and then Thursday looks like a classic rubber game (Lowe vs. Moyer). Heyward, deliver us from evil.

What am I Missing Here?

So Zach Mettenberger has been kicked off of Georgia's football team for an incident involving drinking at a bar underage with a fake ID, along with the obligatory obstruction charge that a police officer can give for a nasty look? Mettenberger was originally suspended for the opener against Hucklebuck State, but now he's been booted, even though there hasn't been a new incident? Is there some salacious rumor that will explain this for me? Or is Mark Richt overreacting to the charges that he wasn't tight enough on the reins? A little help here, please.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Random College Football Thoughts

Because the season is a mere four-and-a-half months away!

  • I expect that the response from most Georgia fans will be something along the lines of "are you f***ing crazy!?!," but do we have a slight desire to see the Florida offense do well under John Brantley? The last two years have been defined for many of us by increasing nausea at the way that Tim Tebow has been sold by the media. (Insert standard disclaimer here that this is not Tebow's fault.) He's been portrayed as the best college football player of all-time and then when that wasn't enough, he turned into a combination of Dick Butkus and Mother Teresa. Those of us who got annoyed by this pointed out that Tebow was playing in a clever offensive system, he was surrounded by terrific talent, and most importantly, Florida was supported by a bad-ass defense. Tebow got credit for the work of Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Carlos Dunlap, and friends as if the defense would have turned to jello without their inspirational leader. (If there's a way for some in the media to direct credit away from the fast black guys with dreads, they'll do it.) Tebow was a great player and I'd be an idiot for claiming otherwise, but the credit he received was disproportionate. So wouldn't it be a pisser if the Florida offense doesn't miss a beat when Tebow is gone? Admit it, in your heart of hearts, the idea of watching Brantley put up big numbers against Tennessee and Alabama while Gary Danielson tries to make sense of the world will be entertaining. (Danielson will almost certainly claim that Florida changed the offense fundamentally and that his claim that the spread is dying was correct. He'll be wrong on both counts, but that's what the party line will be.)

  • Continuing on that theme, the summer is often the time in which I sort out my rooting preferences for the season, in part by sorting out feelings like "Tim Tebow annoyed me, but I never really disliked Florida, so what is my feeling on them now?" How do I feel about Alabama? I grew to like them last year because they were the counterweight to Florida, not unlike how I found myself in the bizarre position of briefly becoming a casual Cowboys fan in the early 90s because of my all-consuming disdain for the 49ers. (NFC West antipathy died hard.) Now? Does Bama need to be taken down a notch? Am I rooting for the Gators when they meet in Tuscaloosa? Another team about which I need to do some thinking is Notre Dame. The Irish are the alpha of my college football bete noires, but I do like and respect Brian Kelly. For once, I can imagine the customary "Return to Glory!" cover in SI and not be nauseated. And although Charlie Weis has gotten quite the comeuppance, a little tiny piece of me would be amused to see Notre Dame do well now that they have been liberated.

  • There's plenty of time to take the temperature of Georgia fans about expectations for the season, but I'll be interested to see how much improvement is expected on defense. There's a natural tendency to assume that replacing bad coaches with good ones is a panacea, but things don't always work out like that. Take Florida State when they replaced Fredo Bowden with Jimbo Fisher. The expectation was that Florida State would get better immediately, but like Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it took several years to root out the lingering effects of total incompetence. Removed from their most heated moments, I don't think that Georgia fans quite view Willie Martinez as being on par with Jeff Bowden, but the point remains.

  • I'm a little disappointed in Dr. Saturday that he could list the worst coaching hires of the decade and not find room for the name "Bill Callahan." Storied program in area bereft of talent that has succeeded on the basis of a unique offense ingrained into the state from the pee wee level up and a famed walk-on program that allows the team to practice the offense chooses to abandon that offense to bring in a thin-skinned NFL coach to run a complex passing game that has never worked in college. How did that not lead to success?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

He's Here

Boom goes the dynamite. I watched that clip on my DVR about eight times last night. By the end, I was picking out fans in the crowd and watching their reactions. My favorite was a guy in right field in a white t-shirt and khakis who was jumping up and down with his arms extended in the air like he had just won a Showcase Showdown. Atlanta fans have been waiting for someone like Heyward ever since the air went out of the Vick balloon (and we can debate when that happened) and he certainly didn't disappoint.

[Side note: I wish that I could say that the Hawks had produced a star to fill the space left by Vick, but they haven't. The team is very good, but Joe Johnson doesn't have quite the charisma to be a star and Josh Smith doesn't quite score enough points to be a superstar. The Hawks' disappointing attendance this year, which is not in line with the team's performance, can be partly laid at the feet of the fact that the team doesn't have one big star, especially in a sport where teams are defined by individuals.]

Other thoughts on the game:

1. Derek Lowe, yeesh. A pitcher can get away with a low strikeout rate if he keeps the ball in the park and doesn't walk opponents. Lowe gave up two homers yesterday and had three walks. It's only one start, but it's not encouraging. I'll be interested to see how the Braves treat him if his performances remain poor. On the one hand, the Braves paying him to be an ace. It's hard to bench a guy with that contract for Kris Medlin. On the other hand, a team with playoff aspirations can't trot out a guy to get rocked every five days.

2. After an offseason in which the mainstream media really picked up on the trend towards valuing defense, the Braves' first inning was a great illustration. Before Heyward put us all on the back of his chariot and took us to HappyLand, the Braves had scored three runs without hitting a ball hard. A better defensive team would have turned one or more of the flares hit by Prado, Chipper, and McCann into outs, not to mention the grounder up the middle by Yunel that preceded Heyward's bomb. Better defense would have been the difference between no runs and six. Also, in watching the inning, I was reminded of the fact that it is hard to evaluate defense. When I'm watching a game on TV, I see a flare hit to the outfield and I see the centerfielder almost get there. I don't see his positioning or the jump he got on the ball, and it's hard to evaluate how his speed or lack thereof was the difference between making the play and letting the ball fall in. Thus, I became even more appreciative of the defensive stats that can tell me what my brain struggles to perceive. I liked Bill Simmons's line about Ultimate Zone Rating:

I'm one of those "I don't care how you killed the cow; just serve me a great steak" guys. If the results are logical and easy to understand, I'm pouring some A1 sauce on that formula and eating it.

Speaking of Simmons, I quite enjoyed his podcasts with Jonah Keri and Keith Law over the weekend. It's interesting to see him step out of the dark on the usefulness of advanced baseball stats. It's also nice listening to him when he's not spending all of his time on the Red Sox and the Yankees. I'm generally excited about baseball this year, partially because of Heyward and partially because it's new and shiny.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Five Thoughts on the Braves at the Outset of 2010

1. In thinking about Jason Heyward the other day and how fortunate we are to have him, I was reminded of the Baseball Prospectus's chapter about the Braves several years ago. At the height of the Moneyball craze, the Prospectus argued that the Braves weren't cutting edge in the Billy Beane sense, but they had figured out how to exploit a market inefficiency of their own. Most baseball teams struggle to know much about the players in the draft pool because the pool is so big. The Braves made the decision to know their local area very, very well so they would know more about their draftees than other teams would about theirs. Now, cue the stories about Heyward that other scouts didn't see as much in him because he never saw a strike, so they never got to see him swing, but the Braves saw him enough and had enough good input from coaches in the area that they swiped him.

2. I'm hard-pressed to think of a weakness for this team going into the season. Last year, we wondered whether we would get anything from the outfield and we knew that we were going to get below-average production at first base. This year, we have a first baseman who is one year removed from being a five-win player and every outfield spot is manned by a player who can at least be described as decent. I'd feel better with Javy Vazquez in the rotation, but right now, I feel good about this team.

3. Outside of Heyward, the Brave whom I am most excited to see this year is Yunel. There is a tendency to get excited about the new shiny addition, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that our shortstop has improved in each of his three season as a major leaguer. He was a seven-win player last year, which put him in the top tier of shortstops in baseball. If he didn't have a reputation of being a bit difficult or if this town didn't have a sense of ennui about the Braves, Yunel would be a star. Maybe the combination of Bobby's last year and Heyward's emergence will cause people to pay more attention this year and they'll realize that we have a great shortstop in Atlanta. See, Jason Heyward can solve anything!

4. How much of this season comes down to Chipper? The Braves are a more balanced team than they have been in recent years, but they lack a true marquee hitter, unlike the rival Phillies with Utley and Howard. Chipper can be that guy, but he showed the signs of age for the first time last year, as his numbers dipped into mere mortal territory. If I could ask the Fates one question to determine whether this team will be playing in October, it would be whether Chipper is going to be a 1.000 OPS player or an .800 version.

5. I know it's not Bobby's style, but I kinda wish that Tommy Hanson were getting the start today. In my mind, he's the ace of the staff already. But then again, I've always been distracted by new, shiny things.

Blast from the Past

Remember when Jeff Schultz claimed that recruiting is overrated because college teams miss on players even more than NFL teams do? I thought about that last night when the news broke that the Eagles had traded Donovan McNabb for a second round pick in 2010 and a third or a fourth in 2011. The Draft is a crapshoot and yet the Eagles just sent a cornerstone player to a division rival for two picks, neither of which are in the first round. Either Schultz is right or everyone in the NFL, save for the Raiders and Redskins, is right.

Friday, April 02, 2010

A Paean to Bob Huggins

Kudos to Jason Zengerle for that rarest of pieces: a defense of Bob Huggins. OK, I'll admit to being drawn to the piece because Zengerle (a UNC grad) attacks Coach K's pretentious claims to being a great leader with pearls of wisdom for all walks of life, rather than just a good basketball coach:

And yet, despite all of this—or, rather, because of it—Huggins is a surprisingly refreshing figure* in the world of big-time college basketball, which is currently filled with coaches who are constantly pretending to be so much more than just coaches. Krzyzewski, of course, is the most egregious example of this—with his whole “leader of men” schtick that, in addition to his lucrative endorsement career, has led to the creation of an actual Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke’s business school. But pretty much every successful college coach these days now considers himself a guru who has valuable lessons to impart about not just how to beat a 2-3 zone but how to have a successful business and successful life. To pull a couple titles from the ever growing bookshelf of coach lit, consider Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun’s A Passion to Lead: Seven Leadership Secrets for Success in Business, Sports, and Life, which, presumably, offers a slightly quicker path to success than Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s Lead to Succeed: Ten Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life. Even a rogue like Kentucky’s John Calipari—the only coach in college basketball history to have Final Fours vacated at two different schools due to rules violations—has recast himself as a philanthropist , starting his own charitable foundation for children and organizing a “Hoops for Haiti” telethon that earned him a congratulatory call from President Obama.

I think it's fair to say that if a coach "writes" a book about leadership skills designed for a middle manager to consume on an airplane, then that creates a rebuttable presumption that I am not going to like that coach. Put another way, I can ask myself this question about coaches and their commercial ventures: would Woody Hayes or Bear Bryant do this? Can anyone see the Bear writing a piece of treacly nonsense like "Lead to Succeed?" F*** you and buy a Ford!

My only complaint about Zengerle's argument is that his reference to John Calipari at the end seems forced. There is a big distinction to be made between coaches who put out vapid tomes on business skills in order to make a buck and/or massage their egos and coaches who spend time on philanthropic ventures. The description of Calipari fits into the latter category. (This is not to say that Coach K, Calhoun, and Pitino don't do charitable activities.)

Fundamenally, most of us want to find something genuine in the world of sports. So much of what we are supposed to consume as sports fans is sanitized, pre-packaged, and massaged to remove any interesting content. Tiger Woods is the best example of this phenomenon, but there are countless examples. I liked Bob Knight from a young age because he seemed like that rarest of college basketball coaches without a filter. I liked Steve Spurrier during his Florida years for the same reason. I never liked Huggins because of the zero percent graduation rate at Cincinnati (and I probably never will), but Zengerle's article makes me think of him in a slightly different light.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Message Sent

Mark Bradley is bullish on the Hawks after a dominating win over the defending champs:

The consensus holds that the Hawks are doomed to lose either to Cleveland or Orlando in Round 2, but if you’re the Cavs or the Magic do you really want to see this team in a best-of-seven? The Hawks finally broke through against Orlando last week, and they’ll have another chance at LeBron’s crew in Cleveland on Friday. And is there any better fortification for a trip to Quicken Loans Arena than a 17-point drubbing of the defending champions?

The Hawks are 5-5 against the other three elite teams in the East. They are 6-4 against the top five teams in the West. This Hawks team has shown this year that they can compete with the elite teams in the NBA. I wouldn't bet my mortgage on the Hawks beating the Cavs or Magic in a seven game series, but that's because those are the two teams against which the Hawks have struggled the most. It's odd to say this because the West is significantly better than the East, but I'd feel better about the Hawks's odds if they were in the Western Conference playoffs.

John Hollinger notes that the Hawks took a step towards the #3 seed in the East:

For Atlanta, meanwhile, this was a big win in the race for the third seed in the Eastern Conference -- a race they must win outright since Boston, as a division champion, would get the nod in a tiebreaker despite Atlanta's winning all four games between the clubs.

Fortunately for the Hawks, it may not come down to that. While they face near-certain defeat in Cleveland on Friday, they play only two winning teams in the six games that follow before a season-ending game against a Cavs squad that probably will feature the likes of Jawad Williams and Danny Green instead of LeBron James.

Combined with Boston's loss to Oklahoma City, it puts the Hawks a game ahead of the Celtics, and Boston must also face Cleveland this weekend.

Given the Hawks' struggles against the Magic, the three seed isn't much better in terms of a second round opponent. However, avoiding the suddenly torrid Bucks would be nice. I'd be more interested in a series against Milwaukee than I would another slog against the Heat, but I'd rather play Miami.

Well, That Was Interesting

You would have a hard time finding a match in which the scoreline flattered a team more than 2-2 flattered Arsenal yesterday. Here is the Guardian's description of the match at the end of the first half:

HALF TIME: There's no point me telling you the score, you simply wouldn't believe it. How on earth aren't Barcelona ahead? They could easily have been five up after a quarter of an hour. Oh for a goalscorer in the mould of, I dunno, Samuel Eto'o. For Arsenal, it's been pretty dismal viewing, although Almunia and Nasri have both been excellent. And for a team often accused of lacking bottle, you can't accuse them of not digging in and putting in a shift.

And here's the description at full-time:

FULL TIME: There's no point me telling you the score, you simply wouldn't believe it. Well, how on earth have Arsenal got away with a draw there? They were thoroughly outplayed for approximately 88 of those minutes - and allowed Zlatigol to break his duck against English clubs - but showed immense grit to fight back for a draw. Chances are that Arsenal will need to win in the Nou Camp - but Barcelona will have something to worry about now, especially as Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique will both miss the second leg.

And here is a pithy description at Zonal Marking:

Credit to Wenger for rescuing the situation, but on another day Barcelona would have won the tie by half-time. Arsenal need to learn their lessons from this game if they are to progress: they need to defend from the front as a unit, they need to hold a higher defensive line, and they must field one more defensive-minded player. If they play like they did today at the Nou Camp, they will suffer the demolition job they were fortunate to avoid tonight.

In short, Arsenal confirmed my perception of them: a reasonably attractive side who try to do the same things that Barca does, but do not do them as well. The first 20 minutes were amusing and gratifying for me because Arsenal tried to play football with the Blaugrana, only they struggled to do so because they couldn't get a sniff of the ball. Even after the Gunners came into the game a little, at halftime, Barca had 70% possession and 15 shots to Arsenal's two. It was only charitable finishing and superlative goalkeeping that kept the tie from being over in the first 45 minutes. And on that point, here are two reasons why last night's result was a colossal fluke:

1. Arsenal's two men of the match were Manuel Almunia and Theo Walcott, who also happen to be the two players most criticized by Arsenal fans this year, Almunia for hit not-infrequent howlers and Walcott for being a track guy who doesn't know what to do with the ball.

2. Last night was the first Champions League match in which Barca held a lead and failed to win since a meaningless tie in November 2007 against Lyon when the Blaugrana had already progressed out of the group stage. Last night was the 29th Champions League match that Barca have played since that match at the Stade Gerland. My point is this: Barca are normally outstanding at holding a lead because they can keep the ball. Last night was a strange, strange match.

All in all, I'm very confident going into the second leg. Barca were by far the better team at the Emirates. They didn't emerge with a win because of a stirring fightback put on by the Gunners with the crowd roaring them on. Great, Arsenal has a fast guy on the right wing. Duly noted. Barca will have its starting left back ready to go for the second leg. The only factor that gives me pause is the notion of Rafa Marquez starting against an opponent not named Xerez. Otherwise, drawing 2-2 in the first leg in London is no different than drawing 1-1 at Lyon (Barca won the return leg 5-2) or Stuttgart (Barca won the return leg 4-0). Last night's game only felt like a loss because I finished watching it and said to myself "that should have been 2-5, not 2-2." Taking a step back, 2-2 is a great result for a first leg on the road.

One final thought on Ibra: at halftime, I wanted to straight swap him for Brian Ching. By the end of the game, I wanted him to start every Barca game for the next decade. Ibra had been slumping since December, culminating in an embarrassing performance at Zaragoza. However, he started to come out of his funk with winning goals against Osasuna and Mallorca. Those goals were right place, right time tap-ins, but he then he tried this move against Mallorca:

Moreso than most, Ibra's value as a striker waxes and wanes based on his confidence. Ignoring the three goals that he scored in the last three La Liga matches, that pass showed a player whose confidence had returned. If he is on song, then Barca are close to unbeatable.