Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Thought on Why Georgia Stars Come from Wrightsville and Tennille

I recommend this piece in Wired about how small towns produce a disproportionate share of top athletes. Here is the basic conclusion:

The lesson of Tiger Woods is that the best way to become a superstar is to start young and get in those 10,000 hours as quickly as possible. That’s why Earl put a club in the hands of a toddler, and why Mozart was composing music before most of us can do arithmetic.

However, a series of recent studies by psychologists at Queen’s University adds an important wrinkle to the Tiger Woods parable. The scientists began by analyzing the birthplace of more than 2,000 athletes in a variety of professional sports, such as the NHL, NBA, and the PGA. This is when they discovered something peculiar: the percent of professional athletes who came from cities of fewer than a half million people was far higher than expected. While approximately 52 percent of the United States population resides in metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people, such cities only produce 13% of the players in the NHL, 29% of the players in the NBA, 15%of the players in MLB, and 13% of players in the PGA.

This conclusion is consistent with what I've noticed watching Georgia games over the years. Roughly half of the state's population lives in Metro Atlanta. Moreover, the metro area is significantly richer than the rest of the state. Nevertheless, Georgia always seems to have a majority of players from the rural parts of the state. By my half-assed count, 14 of Georgia's 22 projected starters come from outside of major metro areas (defined in the article as a city of 500,000 or more).

Here are the explanations proffered by Jonah Lehrer:

I can think of several different explanations for this effect, none of which are mutually exclusive. Perhaps kids in small towns are less likely to get distracted by gangs, drugs, etc. Perhaps athletes outside of big cities go to better schools, and thus receive more attention from their high school coaches. Perhaps they have more access to playing fields. Perhaps they have a better peer group. The scientists summarize this line of reasoning in a recent paper: “These small communities may offer more psychosocially supportive environments that are more intimate. In particular, sport programs in smaller communities may offer more opportunities for relationship development with coaches, parents, and peers, a greater sense of belonging, and a better integration of the program within the community.”

But there’s another possible explanation for this effect, which was nicely summarized by Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and author of the forthcoming Choke. She proposes that an important advantage of small towns is that they’re actually less competitive, thus allowing kids to sample and explore many different sports.

Based on my anecdotal experience, I don't buy the notion that small towns produce more players because there is less pressure. To the contrary, I suspect that small towns produce lots of top athletes because players in those towns grow up in an environment that mimics the pressure they'll face in college and then in the pros. Growing up in Macon, there were no pro sports teams, so high school sports dominated the local news. High school football was a very big deal. In Atlanta, high school sports are pushed to the back burner because we have four professional teams and the city also functions as a major college football market. A star high school player in Macon (or moreso in a real small town) is more likely to face pressure in the form of the entire town cheering or booing his performance. A football player in Atlanta is likely to experience pressure from family and friends, but not from the local media and the random guy on the street. Or have I been watching too many episodes of Friday Night Lights?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

From Negative Grohmentum with Love

For the uninitiated, Negative Grohmentum is the effect that teams whose coaches win conference coach of the year will usually see their teams get worse (and often significantly worse) the following season. It's named after three-time ACC Coach of the Year and newly-minted defensive coordinator on the Flats Al Groh, who managed to win the award and regress on a regular basis. Here's what the numbers looked like last summer:

There's no doubt that we have a strong correlation between a coach winning coach of the year and then his team getting worse. 78% of the teams in this situation this decade have seen their record regress the following year. 34% of the teams in the sample saw their record get worse by at least three games. By way of comparison, Phil Steele likes to look at net close wins and yards per point in finding teams that were especially lucky or unlucky in the previous season and are therefore due for a correction. (Page 299 if you're following along at home.) Teams with three net close wins have been weaker or the same the next year 76.7% of the time. Teams with 11.56 offensive yards per point or less have been weaker or the same 72.3% of the time. Teams with 19.85 defensive yards per point or more have been weaker or the same 77.6% of the time. Again, 78% of the teams whose coach won coach of the year have been weaker (not just weaker or the same, but weaker full-stop) the next year.

So how negative was the Grohmentum last year?

SEC - Nick Saban improved by two games, Bobby Johnson regressed by 4.5 games, and Houston Nutt was unchanged.

Big Ten - Joe Paterno was unchanged.

Big XII - Bob Stoops regressed by 3.5 games and Mike Leach regressed by two games.

ACC - Paul Johnson improved by 1.5 games.

Pac Ten - Mike Riley regressed by one game.

Big East - Brian Kelly improved by 1.5 games.

So four coaches saw their teams get worse, three got better, and two were unchanged. Three of the six BCS conferences were won by coaches whose teams should have gotten work. 2009 was a bad year for Negative Grohmentum. Anyway, if we are still buying that it has an effect, here are the coaches whose teams would be taking a step back this year:

SEC - Nick Saban
Big Ten - Kirk Ferentz
Big XII - Mack Brown
ACC - Paul Johnson
Pac Ten - Chip Kelly
Big East - Brian Kelly

We seem to have some mortal locks for regression this year, but how much guidance do we need to know that Alabama is unlikely to match a 14-0 season or that Iowa, Texas, and Georgia Tech will have a hard time doing better than they did last year? Negative Grohmentum is having a low self esteem moment.

The Most Boring Genre of Post

My fantasy team, in draft order:

Rashard Mendenhall
Jamaal Charles
Matt Forte
Greg Jennings
Hines Ward
Matt Cassel
Steve Breaston
Kyle Orton
Kellen Winslow
Donovan McNabb
Louis Murphy
Bears Defense
Donald Brown
Cardinals Defense
Matt Prater

(This is a 12-team league and I picked eighth in the first round.)
  • I relied heavily on the Football Outsiders' rankings. FO has Mendhall as their second-ranked player (behind only Chris Johnson) and Forte and Charles in their overall top ten. They have Ward as their eighth-ranked receiver, which surprised me. I wouldn't have taken Donald Brown (#55 overall) without looking at FO.
  • Once the top four quarterbacks (Brees, Rodgers, Manning, and Brady) were taken, I decided to wait on taking a QB until later in the draft because the rest of the options were all fungible. Then, I got nervous about the prospect of being weak at QB and took three in five picks. The McNabb pick was a bit of a panic pick, but I was feeling so good about my backs and receivers that it was worth rolling the dice.
  • When Chaz Schillens gets healthy, I'm hoping against hope that Al Davis doesn't force his coaches to throw the ball to Darius Heyward-Bey. Relying on rationality from the Raiders is a fool's errand, right?
  • Seven of my 15 picks come from the AFC and NFC West. We're relying on a bunch of our players benefitting from playing six games against terrible opponents.
  • With the Cassel-Charles combo, I'm putting my faith in Charlie Weis. Oy vey.
  • Yes, I know that the Bears' defense isn't what it used to be. That was a Devin Hester pick.
  • I feel very good about my team, but I always feel good after drafts and then remake my rosters within four weeks. The best battle plan never surivives first contact with the enemy.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Thoughts on the New Layout?

The kids are taking great naps, so I decided to play around with the design a little. I ended up with a new header, a Twitter account, and Hugo Drax. Victory! If you have any recommendations on feeds you think I'd like to follow, drop a comment.

And on that note, here's Hitler!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Start Engraving

In last week’s issue, Sports Illustrated had a short pro/con list as to Chipper Jones' Hall of Fame credentials.  If SI deployed the best possible arguments against Chipper’s place in Cooperstown, then we can all start making our reservations to see Larry Wayne Jones deliver a speech.  Here are the arguments:

1. Dearth of batting-category titles. For each player, the website baseball-reference.com has four "Hall of Fame Statistics" tests. One of them is labeled "Black Ink" and is a reflection of how many times a player has led the league in a major category. Chipper has one such title, a batting crown in 2008 (a splendid .364, at age 36). So his score is 4. The average Hall of Famer's is 27.

Baseball Reference also has Chipper’s score on Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor.  A likely Hall of Famer scores 100 or higher.  A shoe-in scores 130 or higher.  Chipper’s score?  164.  The only current players who rank higher are A-Rod, Barry Bonds, and Manny Ramirez.  Absent steroid issues, do you think that those three are locks?  Chipper’s score is one point better than that of Derek Jeter.  Let’s see someone from SI argue that Jeter isn’t a Hall of Famer.  SI’s offices will be burned to the ground.  If Chipper is going to be denied enshrinement because he only led the NL in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage once each, then what do we make of Jeter, who has never led the league in anything other than runs and hits once each? 

2. Less than classic Fall Classics. In 69 at bats in three World Series: a .273 average, a single home run and six RBIs.

Chipper’s career OPS in the World Series: .828.  (His OBP in the World Series is .391.  Combined with a .273 average and I’d guess that opposing pitchers were avoiding Chipper.)  Captain Clutch’s career OPS in the World Series: .832.  Chipper’s career OPS in the playoffs: .871.  Captain Clutch’s career OPS in the playoffs: .863.  If only Chipper got a million hero shots from every available camera when he pumps his fist and looks very intense.  Moral of the story: you get a reputation for being a clutch hitter when your team has Mariano Rivera closing games instead of Mark Wohlers.

Defensive deficiencies. As a third baseman Chipper's career total zone total fielding runs average (the number of runs a player is worth above or below average based on the number of plays made) is -18. By contrast his contemporary and the active leader at the position, Scott Rolen, boasts a +145.

Jeter’s number for his career using the same stat?  -131.  Alex Rodriguez’s total in his career at shortstop? +18.  Not only is Derek Jeter a worse fielder than Chipper, but Mr. Ultimate Winner blocked a significantly superior shortstop from playing the most important defensive position on the diamond by not stepping aside when the Yankees acquired Rodriguez.  (Hat tip to John Kincaid for making this point.)  The fact that Jeter has four Gold Gloves is just an indication that that award is about as useful a measure of a player’s worth as a Heisman Trophy.  I guess that Yankees fans will just have to deal with Jeter being enshrined in the Hall of Very Good Hitters who Sucked in the Field, but Refused to Cede their Positions Because a Shortstop is More Likely to Have his own Cologne.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hell if I Know

OK, so here is my preseason top 25, only I had to paste it in a rudimentary way because the Blogpoll embed had a massive space and I'm not technically literate enough to fix the problem:

1 Florida Gators
2 Oklahoma Sooners
3 Alabama Crimson Tide
4 Texas Longhorns
5 Ohio St. Buckeyes
6 TCU Horned Frogs
7 Virginia Tech Hokies
8 Boise St. Broncos
9 Auburn Tigers
10 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
11 Nebraska Cornhuskers
12 Clemson Tigers
13 Oregon Ducks
14 Georgia Bulldogs
15 Iowa Hawkeyes
16 Oregon St. Beavers
17 Arkansas Razorbacks
18 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
19 Wisconsin Badgers
20 USC Trojans
21 Miami Hurricanes
22 LSU Tigers
23 North Carolina Tar Heels
24 Stanford Cardinal
25 Missouri Tigers

As a preliminary thought, I co-sign with Spencer Hall's description of the value of the exercise:

WHY AREN'T WEATHERMEN ALWAYS RIGHT HOW COME ECONOMISTS AREN'T ALL RICH HOW ARE PSYCHICS EVER CAUGHT BY SURPRISE? Inevitably, when someone asks you about your preseason poll, they expect things to make sense, which they don't, since the man who invented the thing to begin with admitted it was purely to start conversation around the old scotch cooler. (America used to be so much cooler in many ways.)

This long list of abject guesses is crap, but so is yours, and so is everyone else's. Know that the advantage of having zero loyalty to your preseason poll is the avoidance of stickiness later on, i.e. "Boise's looked like emu shit on a shingle for the past five games, but I had them at three so DURRR POLL LEVITATION."

I don't know and you don't know either. On with the bullets:

  • Why Florida #1? Because no one else is picking them that high. Because they're the new USC in terms of combination of coaching and recruiting. Because I am working on the assumption that Urban Meyer's brief break with reality in December was a fleeting instance of humanity that the Win-o-tron 9000 pushed out of his psyche. Because his program is a little ahead of Alabama's in terms of depth, solely because he has been at Florida two years longer than Saban has been at Alabama. Because of the sample size of one that is the other Nick Saban team that tried to repeat as national champions and had a shaky 9-3 season.

  • Why Oklahoma #2? Because I'm buying what Phil Steele is selling. Because this is the year in which the Sam Bradford injury pays off for the Sooners, as Oklahoma now has an experienced quarterback, whereas their rivals in Austin do not. And again with the sample size of one, Texas had a hangover the last time they had to replace a star quarterback.

  • Why Auburn #9? Faith in Gene Chizik to put a functional defense opposite Gus Malzahn's offense. I still think that if Bobby Lowder were still alive, he'd make sure that Malzahn's future at Auburn is longer than Chizik's. [Note: Bobby Lowder is not literally dead. This is a joke.]

  • Why Georgia Tech #10? I see Tech and Iowa as two sides of the same coin. They were both lucky to win as many games as they did last year. They both had one superlative unit and one weak unit. The difference is that Paul Johnson fired his defensive coordinator and hired Al Groh. (Make fun of Negative Grohmentum all you want, but the guy does know defense. He may have kept his inept son as offensive coordinator for too long, all while pissing off most of the high school coaches in the Commonwealth, but his UVA defenses were good [until the 2009 crater]. I'm making an assumption that Tech has functional pieces for a 3-4.) Iowa is going to keep on doing the same things that had them at the bottom of the Big Ten in offense because that's how you do things when you have a square jawline and you find the fare at Bob Evans a little racy. Again, when you're swimming in a pond with Danny Hope, Tim Brewster, and Queen Elizabeth, you don't need to swim very fast. And the sad thing is that my alma mater is going to get gashed by the Stanzibone. Hey wait, look over there:

  • Why Georgia #14? To be honest, I was tempted to peg the Dawgs a little higher. I like the offense, the defense can't be worse, and regression to the mean on turnovers, right? Plus, Richt's teams have typically responded well after disappointing seasons. Sample size of two, I know, but that's kind of the point, isn't it?

  • Why Notre Dame at #18? Because Charlie Weis could recruit and Brian Kelly can coach.

  • Why no Penn State? Because it's hard to function without being able to complete a forward pass.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Turner Field is About to Burn

So after we all worried that the Braves were going to ride Troy Glaus to the bitter end, deliverance arrived today in the form of Derrek Lee.  Lee represents an immediate upgrade at first.  As long as the Braves’ doctors are right in concluding that Lee’s back issues don’t pose an issue for the remainder of the season, then we have a perfect fit: a National League first baseman who can hit for power and get on base.  Moreover, his contract is up at the end of the year, which is good in two respects.  First, Lee is going to be highly motivated because he is playing for money in the winter.  Second, he is not going to block Freddie Freeman.  Additionally, the Braves did not surrender any prospects of note, so this is not at all like some other first baseman the Braves acquired in a push for a pennant.  Cliff Corcoran of SI.com sums up the upside:

That the 34-year-old Lee is a far better hitter than his miserable first-half (.233/.329/.366) is what the Braves are hanging their hat on here, as Lee has struggled at Turner Field over his career (.237/.338/.388) and doesn't have any other favorable splits this season that would suggest his performance could be maximized through platooning or by escaping what is indeed the hitting-friendly Wrigley Field. If Lee can simply perform at a level equal to his career rates of .282/.367/.499, he'll be a huge upgrade for the Braves, equivalent to having the early-season version of Glaus back. In fact, with Infante effectively replacing the OBP-only version of Chipper Jones, Prado back in the lineup, and Lee and Alex Gonzalez representing upgrades on the aching Glaus and slumping Yunel Escobar, the Braves infield might actually be stronger now than it was with Jones in the lineup, both at the plate and in the field.

My trip to the Memory Motel turned out to be useful.  Just as Sid Bream’s look of dismay in 1993 presaged the Braves acquiring a left-handed first baseman, so did Troy Glaus’s look on Monday night.  This can only mean that the Braves are going to dominate for the rest of the regular season, a luxury box is going to catch fire tomorrow night, and the Braves’ season is going to end with a playoff loss to the Phillies. 

And speaking of departed Braves, Lee played a prominent role in Braves history as his home run off of John Rocker on June 21, 2001 marked the last appearance for Rocker as a Brave.  It was not a cheap home run.  I remember watching the game from section 409 and marveling at the charge that Lee put into his game-winning homer.  Lee and Rocker had mildly divergent fortunes thereafter.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Iowa Got Lucky, but it was an Accident

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a fan to admit that his team was lucky. I give you Iowa. Team Speed Kills flags Iowa as potentially overrated for the obvious reasons that they almost lost to a series of bad-to-mediocre teams in 2009. MGoBlog co-signs. As could be expected, Black Heart Gold Pants gets prickly and refuses to acknowledge the obvious. You know your argument sucks when you're fighting the notion that your team was lucky in 2009 and you cite a chart that shows your team to have been the second luckiest team in the conference.

For their next trick, BHGP will show a picture of Sofia Vergara to prove that Columbians are ugly.

Iowa finished tenth in the Big Ten in total offense, ninth in yards per play, tenth in scoring offense, tenth in rushing yards per game, ninth in yards per carry, sixth in passing yards per game, and tenth in passer rating. In short, their offense sucked. Iowa won 11 games because it had a great defense and it won a disproportionate share of close games. Maybe Hawkeye fans think that their team has some sort of magical, replicable skill at winning tight contests. If so, they might want to consider talking to a Notre Dame fan about the 2003 Irish.

As a result of Iowa's inability to demonstrate its superiority over Arkansas State and Northern Iowa, every ranking system that accounts for data beyond record and strength of schedule pegged Iowa in the lower part of the top 20. The Sagarin Predictor had Iowa 17th. Sports Reference's SRS measure had Iowa 19th, as did Football Outsiders. In short, you can accept what reams of research tells us about football, which is that points, yards, and drive outcomes are a better indication of a team's merit and contain less noise than the final record itself. Or, you can reject all of that, put on a dumb hat, and wait to be punked by Fire Joe Morgan.

Iowa played a bevy of close games in 2009 because it had a very good defense and a bad offense. Thus, every game became a defensive battle, although some of the games ended up with higher scores because of Stanziballs run back for touchdowns by Iowa's opponents. Regardless of whether they were playing Ohio State on ther road or Northern Iowa at home, Iowa's defense kept them in the game, but their offense prevented them from getting a substantial lead. Because 2009 performances provide the baseline for 2010 predictions, it makes sense to evaluate Iowa in 2010 by acknowledging that they were a 9-4 team that got enough breaks and made enough timely plays to go 11-2. (The reverse was true in 2008, when Iowa was better than their record.) Maybe Iowa will be better in 2010 because of returning starters, Stanzi learning to throw to the right team, etc., but now we're venturing into the unknown. What is known is that Iowa was not a top ten team in 2009.

Freeman! Now!

Christina Kahrl's suggestion for the Braves' solution to the hole created by Chipper's injury? Bring up Freddie Freeman($):

The problem with the Braves offense isn't that they might or might not be able to adequately replace Jones, but that the patches they'll employ to cover for their being less Chipper can't be used to fix the other leaks in the lineup.

Does that mean they have to make a trade? Not necessarily, because they can reacquire that depth down the stretch if they do as they've done in the past, and turn to the top almost-ready talent they've developed themselves. A Freddie Freeman call-up would involve accelerating the timetable for the 20-year-old, but over in Gwinnett the kid has hit .319/.384/.531 against right-handers overall, and has pasted everybody at a .371/.427/.603 pace in 131 PAs since the All-Star break. He doesn't have to be next Andruw Jones or Chipper Jones for the Braves to simply keep up ahead of the Joneses. Nor does it have to involve moving Glaus to third base as an everyday player—it's about getting offense period, not just finding a third baseman.

In that light, describing turning to Freeman as a “risk” in light of their reliance on Heyward strikes me as particularly silly—an aging, slumping Glaus is no more of a sure thing, having been something of an accepted risk with placeholding potential from the moment Frank Wren signed him. Glaus was supposed to keep the seat warm from the get-go, and if Freeman's bat is already re-setting the timetable for his arrival, that doesn't need reference to Chipper Jones' situation, but Jones' absence certainly eats into Wren's ability to let it ride with Glaus for much longer.

Kahrl also identifies Jose Lopez, Chone Figgins, and Mark Reynolds as expensive players on bad teams who would represent an upgrade for the Braves at third. I suspect that Frank Wren is not going to take on any of those salaries unless he knows that Chipper isn't coming back next year. Kahrl suggests that the Braves would be able to move one of those guys in the event that Chipper does come back, but after the Rafael Soriano experience this summer, I doubt that Wren is going to allow himself to get into a position where he has to trade an expensive asset.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Here I am, your Drama Queen

Thoughts on another comeback win:

1. The first Braves game I attended this year was the seven-run comeback against the Reds. I left at the start of the ninth inning. So last night (the third Braves game I've attended this year), when the Braves went into the ninth down 3-1 against Hong-Chih Kuo and his 0.88 ERA, I resisted the urge to get home. That was a good decision. The Braves scored three in the ninth without hitting a ball hard. Alex Gonzalez hit a duck snort to left. Brian McCann grounded into the hole between first and second. Troy Glaus popped out. Brooks Conrad walked. David Ross walked. Melky Cabrera grounded one into the hole between short and third (a ball that would have been fielded if the shortstop wouldn't have been at double-play depth). Three runs on three hits without hard contact. It was a fitting reward after the Braves had tagged some balls right at outfielders in the earlier innings. It was also a fitting reward for a team that has been patient at the plate all year. The bridge for the inning were the two walks.

2. I know that he had a homer and four RBI on Sunday, but Troy Glaus still looks lost. He had his big day against Vicente Padilla, who can barely crack 85 with his fastball. Glaus was overmatched yesterday against Billingsley and Kuo. You know that things are bad when you are hoping that your cleanup hitter strikes out with they tying runs on base in the ninth so as to avoid an inning-killing double play. When Glaus came up with runners on first and second against Kuo, I looked at my two friends and asked "if I offered you a strikeout right now, would you take it?" Both said yes.

I feel bad for Glaus. He might be coming to the end of his career and that cannot be an easy thing for an athlete to handle. With the way he was playing in May and June, I'm sure he could see a good contract waiting for him in the offseason. Now, he's looking at a paycut on an already-small salary (relatively speaking, of course). When I look at Glaus's facial expressions, I keep thinking of Sid Bream in 1993. There is one particular game that stands out in my memory. The Braves lost a Saturday night game in July to the denuded Pirates 4-3. The team was nine games back at the time and struggling to score runs. Bream had gone 0-4 to drop his average to .239 and he grounded into a double play in the sixth with the Braves trailing by a run. After the game, he was sitting alone in the dugout, looking forlorn. Skip Caray intoned "don't think for a minute that these guys don't care." Three days later, the Braves traded for Fred McGriff, rallied from 5-0 to beat the Cardinals, and then went on an epic 51-17 run to win the West in the last great pennant race. (How great would the duel between the Yankees and Rays be if only one of the two best teams in baseball could make the playoffs?) Bream barely played for the rest of 1993, then finished his career the following year by getting 70 plate appearances for the Astros. The moral of the story: it's hard for a baseball player to confront the end of his career and it's doubly hard when his declining performance comes in the context of a hot pennant race.

3. Last night's game illustrated that the Braves need Martin Prado back in the worst way. Brooks Conrad is a nice utility piece, but he's not a third baseman. When Prado returns, the Braves can shift Omar Infante to third base and they'll shore up the defense while improving the offense. Getting Prado back isn't quite like the Phillies getting Utley and Howard back, but it is important.

4. Don't look now, but Melky is hitting. His OPSs by month:

April - .508
May - .739
June - .710
July - .814
August - .833

After the Braves' annual struggles in getting production from the corner outfield spots, I'll take that. Additionally, Melky made a great throw to cut a runner down at the plate at the end of the top of the eighth. Without that throw, his single in the ninth would have tied the game instead of winning it.

5. If Bobby had a sense of humor, he would have brought Kyle Farnsworth in to face Brad Ausmus in the seventh.

6. Am I the only one who hears Octavio Dotel's name and immediately thinks of Octavio, the dancing mime who follows Richard Belzer at Club Babylon in Scarface? Yes? Never mind.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Really, Bill?

You spend days ripping on LeBron James for signing with Miami and then you write this:

I love visiting Seattle and Portland -- two of my favorite cities in America, actually -- but could never live in the Pacific Northwest because nonstop rain puts me in a perpetual funk. If Portland drafted me No. 1 in a Sports Columnist draft, and I knew I could hold out for a few months and force them to trade me to San Diego, Miami or Los Angeles ... you're telling me I wouldn't hold out? Please. In a heartbeat. I need the sun. Sorry, Portland. It's not you, it's me.

Simmons has written on numerous occasions that he lives in LA because of the weather, that people going to college should go somewhere with nice weather, that the Northeast is depressing in the winter because of the weather, blah blah blah. When LeBron James makes the decision to play in Miami over Cleveland, Chicago, or New York, Simmons should be the first one saying "welcome to the team."

Note: much of Simmons' criticism of LeBron is based on the manner in which he announced his decision. I agree 100% on that front. However, if you're going to complain about the substance of the decision as opposed to the procedure, then you had better have clean hands. Additionally, Simmons is not dissimilar from most writers (especially NBA writer because the sport is so star-driven) who evaluate athletes based on whether they win championships. If LeBron is going to be judged based on the number of rings he wins with insufficient attention paid to context, then it makes perfect sense for him to ally himself with the best possible players. The fact that he was able to do so and live in Miami makes the decision even more of a no-brainer. Personally, I don't like the decision because Miami is one of the few cities for which I have a per se rule against rooting for its teams. (The others: New York, Philadephia, and Boston, with Boston being a more recent entry on the list. I liked the Pats and Red Sox just fine before the aughts.) However, the decision makes perfect sense to me.

And Speaking of Joan Laporta

Here's hoping he makes good decisions in the film cutting room.

Unintentional Honesty from Arsene Wenger

For those of you who don't check The Guardian or Goal.com on a daily basis, the big story of the transfer market has been the "will he or won't he" saga concerning Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas is a product of the Barcelona youth system. He was buddies with Leo Messi and Gerard Pique when they came up at La Masia. He is a paid member of the club. His family started taking him to games at the Camp Nou when he was tiny. Arsenal signed him at age 16 by taking advantage of the fact that English clubs are not subject to the EU law that forbids people under the age of 17 from signing employment contracts. At Arsenal, Cesc has turned into one of the best midfielders in the world.

Prior to the World Cup, Cesc met with Arsene Wenger and almost certainly told him that he wanted a transfer to Barcelona. Cesc then went off to play for Spain and won the World Cup in a side dominated by Barcelona players. Before and after the World Cup, Barca players popped off in the press (in an increasingly unseemly fashion) about how Arsenal should sell Cesc to Barca. This campaign culminated in Pique and Carles Puyol putting a Barca jersey on Cesc at the team's post-tournament celebration in Madrid.

In the end, the transfer has not gone through and Cesc remains at Arsenal. There are a variety of potential explanations. One is that Arsenal value Cesc more than Barca do (and more than he would be worth on the open market). Barca have a bevy of top players; Arsenal are totally dependent on Cesc. A second is that Barca might have overestimated their ability to get a good price for Cesc based on the fact that the market for Cesc is a closed market. In theory, if Cesc will only go to one club, then Arsenal can't command full market value, but it hasn't played out that way. A third is that Cesc is an exemplary professional, a guy who wants to leave, but didn't make his feelings known by handing in a transfer request or mouthing off in the papers. (Too bad he's not Adebayor.) A fourth is that Barca might not have the money to sign him. The incoming club president, Sandro Rosell, has claimed that the club has a massive debt problem. (The debt issue is overblown by Rosell for political reasons. Rosell hates outgoing president Joan Laporta and he knows that he cannot criticize the results on the field in the Laporta era, so he has to rip apart the club's books.) A fifth is that Wenger and Cesc might have reached a Ferguson-Ronaldo compromise that Cesc will give Arsenal one more year and then they will let him go at a reasonable price.

In any event, I thought about the saga this morning when reading Arsene Wenger's comments on the EPL's new squad rules:

In my opinion – and it's not [the Premier League's] opinion – if you are a great player, you want to play with great players. If you are a great musician, you want to play in an orchestra with the best musicians. If you offer the guy the chance to play in an orchestra with poor musicians, he will not be happy.

I couldn't have said it better myself. Cesc can stay at a club that has sat on its hands and not addressed crying needs at goalkeeper and in central defense or he can play with the teammates with whom he has won the European Championship and the World Cup. (Note: Arsenal do have until the end of the month to right this failing.) He can play with Diaby and Denilson or Xavi and Iniesta. Which orchestra has the best musicians, Arsene?

Incidentally, I totally agree with Wenger's comments about the EPL's new squad rules. The league will be hurt by the imposition of a quota of domestic players. As long as England isn't producing top players, then the problem will lie with the development system. The squad rules will simply force clubs to deploy players who are not the most deserving. Wenger's comments are self-serving (Arsenal have relatively few English players, mainly because Wenger smartly refuses to pay extra for a nationality) and he's trying to excuse his inactivity in the transfer market by saying that the new rules have tightened the market. Nevertheless, he's absolutely right. It's refreshing to read the comments of a trained economist as opposed to the ususal "we were robbed of a clear penalty" tripe that comes from most EPL managers.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Putting on my SEC Pajamas

A juicy invitation from my favorite blogger:

Maybe holistic and stuff. I'm pretty sure that Doctor Saturday is just reading the media zeitgeist when he suggests that the only thing that can repair the Big Ten's image problem is a national title, but he highlights a fact that's been true at least since Jim Delany's spectacularly ill-advised open letter bashing the SEC:

The Buckeyes' coast-to-coast run at No. 1 in 2006 in calamity, along with their surprising return to the top in '07, the two losses that still loom over the conference like a giant monolith that periodically drawls "S-E-C! S-E-C!" and has no input to receive data such as "the Big Ten and SEC have split their two annual bowl tie-in games 10 to 10 over the last decade."

When you bring this up to someone wearing SEC pajamas, they invariably respond with "bowl games don't matter except those two Ohio State humiliations." The Big Ten has been a bit down of late since Michigan and Penn State can seem to be good at the same time and USC has managed to lose a game against a Pac-10 also-ran yearly, but reports of the conference's demise have long been greatly exaggerated.

Or, instead of a straw man, how about a response from the nerdporn that is SportsReference.com's new college football page?  The following are the conference ratings for the Big Ten and SEC over the past four years, using the web site’s Simple Rating System, which is based on point differentials and strength of schedule:

  ACC Big XII Big East Big Ten Pac Ten SEC
2009 6.02 4.07 4.77 2.42 3.70 10.22
2008 6.39 7.76 1.93 3.11 2.61 6.62
2007 3.42 5.41 6.44 3.68 7.45 9.44
2006 2.08 2.16 6.65 3.76 7.28 8.31

The SEC has finished first, second, first, and first over the past four years.  The Big Ten has finished sixth, fourth, fifth, and fourth over that same time frame.  I may not have an engineering degree, but I think I can detect a trend: the Big Ten’s rating has fallen each year.  (Actually, the Big Ten’s rating has fallen in each of the past five years.  In the interest of full disclosure, the Big Ten had an outstanding rating in 2005, finishing first while the SEC finished fifth.  But since the point is that Brian is wrong when he says that evidence of the Big Ten’s demise is exaggerated, the fact that the Big Ten was once good merely proves that it has declined.  Otherwise, the point would be that it has always sucked.) 

And lest you think that SportsReference is an outlier, here are Sagarin’s averages for the BCS conferences:

  ACC Big XII Big East Big Ten Pac Ten SEC
2009 75.90 75.54 76.97 74.49 75.45 81.07
2008 77.67 77.80 74.11 73.49 75.39 79.08
2007 74.98 78.35 77.12 74.17 79.63 81.83
2006 73.79 74.01 79.90 75.62 79.15 81.23

Not only has the SEC finished first in each of the past four seasons while the Big Ten has finished last, last, last, and fourth, but the Big Ten has finished behind the Big East in each of those four seasons and the ACC in the last three.  So, you can believe that the Big Ten - a conference with great fan support, facilities, financial potential, and media presence – has declined or you can put your faith in the massive sample size provided by the Capital One and Outback Bowls as being a relevant measuring stick for the Big Ten and the SEC.  Upon reflection, I think I’ll pass on giving a #1 vote to Ohio State after all.

One final note: the Big Ten is set up for a major fall because the preseason narrative this year has been that the conference is perfectly healthy in light of the performances of its top four teams in bowl games last season.  This screams “recency effect” to me.  The computers view the Big Ten as having been very weak last year.  (Counterpoint: the top four in the Big Ten return between 13 and 16 starters.  It’s possible that their final flourish last year was a mirage, but they’ll be better this year.  Hell, maybe the conference will finally get out of the lower half of the BCS leagues.)

The Braves have had Better Days

Iconic third baseman is lost for the year and possibly his career with a torn ACL, just as he was starting to heat up.  (Good lord, do we need Martin Prado back in short order, in part for offense and in part to free Infante to play third.  Or maybe this is the spur to call up Freddie Freeman so Glaus can play a little third?)  Phillies come back from 9-2 down in the eighth to win and narrow the deficit to two games. 

Does anyone else feel like this team is teetering a little?  I really shouldn’t feel this way about a team with the second-best record in the NL, but I do.  The first baseman can’t hit anymore.  The closer can’t close.  The promising young starter heard something pop in his elbow.  The team struggles mightily on the road.  The defense lets us down once a game.  I look at the lineup at times (such as Sunday) and wonder how this team expects to score runs.  The Braves are 14-12 in the second half.  The two-time defending NL champs have the Braves in their sights and they get a slew of regulars back over the next several weeks.  Right now, I’m feeling like the barriers to a collapse are Hudson, McCann, Venters, and Fortress Ted.  Am I alone here? 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Meet the New Season, Same as the Old Season

So here’s what I don’t get.  Stewart Mandel thinks that this is going to be an open season, a la 2007.  His reasoning, which I think is correct, is that the usual contenders – Alabama, Florida, and Texas – are all replacing a lot of talent and USC has major problems of its own.  Thus, without a dominant team, we ought to expect an increase in upsets and one or more teams coming from nowhere to seriously contend for the national title. 

So when Sports Illustrated picks its top ten, what does it do?

Its top eight consists of eight teams that made BCS bowls last year.  The top ten is rounded out by two teams that were most impressive in major second tier bowl games.  In other words, SI is predicting stasis in a season in which it’s reasonable to expect upheaval.  (Note: I recognize that Mandel probably didn’t prepare the SI rankings by himself, so I’m not criticizing him specifically.  In fact, I think I’m saying that his magazine should listen to him more.  To quote Karl Stromberg from The Spy Who Loved Me, detente indeed.)

SI certainly isn’t stepping out on a limb with its picks.  Their top ten hews fairly close to the preseason consensus, with the exception that SI isn’t jumping on the Oklahoma bandwagon.  Is it bravery for other to pick Oklahoma in the top ten after an 8-5 season or is it unimaginative for one’s outsider to be a top five program that happened to have an injury-marred, disappointing season in 2009?  I could be swayed either way.  Still, shouldn’t they take a risk on somebody?  Stassen measures the rankings of ten different outfits.  Those ten outfits have collectively given their 100 top ten spots to 14 teams: the ten SI teams, plus Wisconsin, Penn State, USC, and Miami.  I don’t remember a season in which prognosticators have been so risk-averse.

Interestingly, SI has staked out the position that Florida will be a little down this year (by their standards), whereas the two pure numbers-based predictions in Stassen’s database – Football Outsiders and Compughter – both have the Gators at #2.  The humans probably put more importance on Urban Meyer’s “should I stay or should I go” dance, as well as the fact that Charlie Strong is now at Louisville.  The computers see a roster stacked with talent at a program that has been the best in the nation over the past four years and say “reload.”

It’s also interesting to me that Georgia Tech has not received a single top ten nod from a publication.  Of the ten BCS participants from 2009, SI ranks eight of then as its top eight.  Cincinnati doesn’t appear in anyone’s top twenty for the obvious reason that Brian Kelly moved on to Notre Dame.  The Jackets, on the other hand, return 14 starters from a team that won the ACC.  They have eight starters back on defense and upgraded the defensive coordinator.  They also have Paul Johnson running an offense that hasn’t yet been solved (except in bowl games).  So why are the Jackets treated differently than other, similarly situated teams?  I have a few potential explanations:

1. Despite its repeated success, national pundits still view the Johnson offense as being primitive.  (I don’t buy this one.  Numbers are numbers.)

2. Tech won a bunch of close games last year, so they weren’t as good as their record.  (I do buy this one, but most writers are fooled by a gaudy record.)

3. The ACC isn’t worthy of a top ranking.  (Probably not true because Virginia Tech is in a lot of top tens.)

4. The ACC Coastal is stacked this year, so Tech will have a hard time putting up a good record.  (Again, if this is true, then why all the love for Virginia Tech?)

5. Inertia.  Writers are used to seeing Virginia Tech win the ACC, so they reflexively put the Hokies in their top tens as the ACC representative.  Georgia Tech is a new participant on the scene, so they are waiting to see if last year proves to be a fluke, a la Wake Forest in 2006.  I suppose that this year will answer this question, but it seems close enough for me that someone should be putting the Jackets in a top ten.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Whither the Big Ten

My crack research staff is hard at work.

Matt Hinton makes an interesting point when he describes the Big Ten’s resurgence in public opinion over the course of the summer. The league written off by many as overhyped and outdated produced a fine bowl season in which its top four teams all won bowl games, including two BCS bowls. The league then set off a seismic charge with its public expansion process, settling on Nebraska, a cultural fit and a historical top ten program. However, Hinton points out that the Big Ten has struggled to produce championship teams over the past 40 years, so the test will be whether Ohio State can bring home the crystal ball, thus ending the perception that Big Ten teams are not truly elite.

Hinton’s point illustrated something that I was considering when I was reading Football Outsiders’ ranking of the 100 best college football teams of all-time according to their Estimated S&P+ metric. There isn’t a Big Ten team in the last 50 years that cracked the top 40 of the rankings. Despite having attended a Big Ten school, I still cling to the basic maxim of a Southern upbringing that Big Ten teams get a lot of attention because of the number of eyeballs they bring to a broadcast (although those eyeballs are gradually taking I-75 south), but they are usually overrated. (Counterpoint: easy for me to say now that Michigan is irrelevant. Where was this modesty four years ago?)

I need to resolve this issue before the end of the month because my initial inclination is to rank Ohio State as my preseason #1. Neither Florida, nor Alabama look like world-beaters in 2010 because of their losses on defense, which leaves the field somewhat open. Ohio State returns a lot of experienced talent (I’m not of the school that thinks that the Bucks cannot produce top players; the composition of NFL rosters rebuts that notion) and their offense might come out of the Paleolithic Era with an experienced quarterback. (Let’s be clear: Ohio State isn’t winning the national title with the offense that it deployed after the Purdue loss. Successful though it may have been, at a certain point, vanilla will only go so far.) The schedule is reasonably favorable. If the Bucks do go 12-0 and I’m right about the SEC not having an elite team this year, then they might find themselves with a manageable matchup against someone like Boise State, Virginia Tech, or Oklahoma in Glendale. And what could go wrong for the Bucks in Glendale?

On the other hand, reading Hinton’s post reminded me that the Big Ten bounce at the end of the bowl games was something of a mirage. For one thing, it’s a fool’s errand to put too much importance on non-championship bowl games because it’s always possible that one or both teams have checked out mentally at the end of a long season. (This is generally less true as you move up the bowl pecking order. I think that teams usually take BCS games seriously.) Second, and more importantly, the top four Big Ten teams all got favorable match-ups in the bowl games. Ohio State drew an offense-heavy Oregon team whose weakish defense couldn’t get the Bucks off the field. Iowa drew Georgia Tech, a team that was: (1) pretty darn lucky over the course of the season; (2) reliant on an off-beat offense that loses much of its mojo when the opponent has a month to prepare; and (3) a little overvalued because, like Oregon, they weren’t very good defensively. For talent reasons, you'd rather play Oregon than USC; you'd rather play Georgia Tech than a well-coached Florida State or Miami. Penn State drew an LSU team that was outgained in SEC play. (In other words, an LSU team in name more than merit.) Wisconsin drew Miami, a team that finished the year better than it started it. The Big Ten has been unfairly criticized in the past for poor bowl performances when its champions have played USC in Pasadena and its remaining teams have been bumped up in the pecking order as a result of the fact that they bring crowds to games. Last year, the Big Ten got good match-ups for its top teams and it’s a little overvalued going into 2010 as a result.

So that leaves me in a position of uncertainty as to what to make of the Big Ten generally and Ohio State specifically. Picking against a Big Ten team in August is like picking against England in the run-up to a World Cup: it’s never a bad idea. The twin seductions of an open field and an alluring Big Ten contender that seems to check all the boxes for a national title winner just mean that I should be lashing myself to the mast right about now. But if not the Bucks, then who?

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Steele and the Football Outsiders

I buy two football previews: the Football Outsiders Almanac and Phil Steele. As I was flipping through FOA last night and hoping that their projection of 5.8 wins for Michigan was a mistake, I decided to take out my 2009 editions of FOA and Phil Steele to see which did a better job. Then I remembered that Chris Stassen does my work for me. It turns out that Steele and FOA were both in the middle of the pack. So much for the numbers-based approach; both previews finished behind Sports Illustrated. I was unaware of the existence of CompughterRatings.com, but that site took the prize for most accurate predictions last year. (and cheesecake, too!) I suppose that Mr. Pugh’s mathematical model that might as well be in hieroglyphics to me is a step ahead of FOA’s FEI, although one year is not enough of a sample size to make that judgment. (Even a liberal arts major who needs help from his spouse to do regression analysis knows that.) If Pugh is the cream of the crop again, then that’s good news for fans of USC (Pugh has them #4; the consensus is that they’ll be #12) and Georgia (Pugh has the Dawgs at #12; the consensus is that they will be #20). Pugh is not as high as the consensus on North Carolina, Miami, and TCU.

It is amusing to me that College Football News, which is already being picked on for its factual inaccuracies du jour, has come in 12th of 17, 14th of 15, and 15th of 18 in the three years in which they show up in Stassen’s database. Maybe their confidence in Matt James stepping up for Notre Dame at left tackle will reverse the trend.

It’s interesting to me that the two previews that are most reliant on computer formulae – Football Outsiders and Pugh – are down on Nebraska and North Carolina, the two teams that are getting preseason buzz despite the fact that both had putrid offenses last year. I have to admit that I was surprised to see Steele rank the Huskers at #5. Nebraska was outgained in conference play last year. The old Phil would have jumped all over Nebraska as being potentially overrated.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

You Need People Like me, so you Can Point your F***ing Finger and Say “That’s the Bad Guy.”

I expect hyperbole from the Bleacher Report.  I expect articles titled “Ten Reasons why Nick Saban is a Commi-Nazi.”  I don’t expect transparent attempts to drive hits from Sports Illustrated.  That publications seems more respectable.  So when I was scanning SI.com’s front page on Monday and saw an article by Stewart Mandel entitled "Masoli move latest proof Nutt is certifiably dirty coach", I assumed that this had to be an instance of a lowly headline writer at the web site taking liberties with the article.  Nope.  Mandel is really calling Nutt dirty.  In doing so, Mandel’s reasoning is horrendous on any one of a number of levels.  It’s the sort of petty moralizing that one expects on sports radio. 

First, Mandel’s definition of “dirty” is both misplaced and too broad.  Read these words and ask yourself if there is a coach to whom these words would not apply:

The definition of "dirty" seems to vary based on one's affiliation, but surely we can all agree on at least one designation: A dirty coach is willing to eschew his integrity if doing so might pay off in a couple more W's. He's not so much a winner as a survivalist. He's not even necessarily a rule-breaker because he creates his own loopholes.

Any coach who makes compromises to win games is dirty.  Really, Stewart?  If that is your definition, then every major college football coach is dirty.  Nick Saban consistently oversigns and then puts pressure on his existing players so he can fit his plus-sized recruiting classes under the 85-scholarship limit.  Urban Meyer famously told Jevan Snead that he was recruiting Tim Tebow as a linebacker.  Is Mandel writing columns about how Saban and Meyer are dirty?  No, because they are respected coaches at major programs.  Mandel doesn’t want to piss off titans, but he feels free to invade Granada by picking on Houston Nutt.

And then think about Mandel’s definition of “dirty.”  Wouldn’t a better definition of dirty be “a coach who breaks the rules that govern his profession?”  What’s dirtier: violating NCAA rules or accepting a transfer of a player who has been booted off of his team?  That’s what’s ludicrous about Mandel’s piece.  Within the first three paragraphs, Mandel has taken the position that Nutt is dirtier than Pete Carroll, who presided over a program that just got tagged with the harshest sanctions dealt out by the NCAA to a major football program in almost a decade, and Lane Kiffin, who made secondary violations his modus operandi in one season at Tennessee.  Call me crazy, but in the hierarchy of ethics, violating the rules that govern one’s profession is worse than welcoming a player whom Mandel’s own publication just published a mostly positive piece

Second, Mandel’s retelling of the Mitch Mustain/Gus Malzahn saga is just wrong.  Mandel points to this as the point at which Nutt lost his ethical bearings, but I fail to see what Nutt did wrong.  He hired Malzahn, possibly in part to secure Mustain’s letter of intent, but it’s not as if hiring Malzahn was unqualified (as subsequent events have demonstrated).  Then, during Mustain’s freshman season, Nutt figured out that the strength of his team was its two star running backs – Darren McFadden and Felix Jones – and tasked David Lee with figuring out the best way to get them the ball.  Thus, the Wildcat offense was born.  Arkansas won the SEC West and was Reggie Fish’s boner away from winning the conference.  Nutt did marginalize Malzahn, but the result speak for themselves.  Is getting McFadden and Jones on the field at the same time evidence of Nutt turning into Dr. Evil?  I’m going with no.

Third, Mandel cites the Jamar Hornsby episode to establish a pattern, as if a sample size of two is sufficient to conclude that Nutt will take any player.  Moreover, the Hornsby episode illustrates two additional points that bear mentioning.  First, Hornsby’s crime at Florida – using the credit card of a teammate’s dead girlfriend – was incredibly foul, but it was non-violent.  Masoli has been accused of several crimes and pled guilty to participating in the theft of a laptop, but his crimes are also non-violent.  There’s a distinction between Nutt bringing any old “questionable character” to Oxford and Nutt bringing someone who threatens the safety of the populace.  Nutt has done the former, but not the latter.  At least the players he brought to campus aren’t dragging their girlfriends by the hair down the stairs of apartment complexes like some legends.  (I’m eagerly looking forward to Mandel addressing the last four years of Tom Osborne’s coaching career under the standard that he has laid down for Nutt.  And I say this as someone who likes Osborne.)

Fourth, Mandel plays the “what about the children!?!” trope by asking how Nathan Stanley, Ole Miss’s current starter, feels about Nutt bringing in Masoli.  Leaving aside the fact that Nutt is bringing in a player with one year of eligibility (by Mandel’s standard, any coach who recruits a star freshman quarterback when he has an existing starter is dirty; I guess Lloyd Carr is a dirty jerk for recruiting Chad Henne when he already had Matt Gutierrez), isn’t football supposed to be about competition?  If Stanley is a competitor, then he’ll respond to Masoli coming to Oxford by saying to himself “I know this offense better than Masoli and I’m going to make him my back-up.”  If he’s a realist, he’ll say “gee, we only had two quarterbacks; what would happen if I got hurt?”  In Stewart’s world, Stanley should say “my coach wants to win games?  Burn him!” 

One final question to end this rant: should Masoli have been banished from football for his offenses at Oregon? 

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Three Things I Liked About the Braves Game Last Night

Other than the obvious:

1. Bobby made a clever, unconventional decision putting Matt Diaz in the clean-up spot. Diaz has a great record against Johan Santana and that decision paid off when Diaz's double was the keystone in a three-run first inning.

2. Jeff Franceour playing for the Mets.

3. Chipper showing that his power isn't completely gone.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Waiting for Godot’s Bases-Clearing Double

After an extended stretch of time in which they lost one of 20 series, the Braves lost all three series on their recent road-trip, finishing what looked like a manageable Florida-Washington-Cincinnati swing at 3-6. The once-fat lead over the Phillies has been trimmed to 2.5 games.

This road trip was especially frustrating because it seemed like every game followed a similar plot: the Braves would get runners on and strand them, whereas the opponents would score the moment they threatened. I’d like Elias to weigh in on this little statistical oddity: the Braves lost six of nine on their travels, but they had the same or more base runners in all nine games. All told, the Braves had 115 base runners in the nine games and scored 35 runs; their opponents had 92 base runners and scored 37 runs. A Brave who got on base had a 30% chance of scoring; a Marlin, National, or Red had a 40% chance of crossing home plate. My initial thought is that the Braves lack of power was exposed on the road trip, but that’s not the case. Not only did the Braves have significantly more base runners, but they also had more extra base hits: 28 to 22.

So how did the Braves go 3-6 despite getting more runners and and more big hits? Maybe this was just a stretch of bad luck. Over 162 games, every team will have a stretch in which its hits are spaced out in an unlucky fashion. Maybe the Braves lacked an Ecksteinian clutchitude that could be remedied by more Jeter-style icy stars and fist pumps. Maybe Bobby didn’t do his best managing, such as leaving the slumping Troy Glaus in a spot in the order in which he could do maximal damage in squelching rallies, or leaving a clearly tiring Jair Jurrjens in against the Reds to allow a 2-1 lead to morph into a 5-2 deficit, or pitching Jesse Chavez in a high-leverage situation. I should stop now.

Anyway, we see Johan Santana tomorrow. Yay!

Can't you Hear me Knocking on your Window? Can't you? Now? Anything?

I went for a run yesterday morning and was listening to Bill Simmons' podcast with Mike Lombardi. (My opinion on Simmons' podcasts: they are highly dependent on the guest. I pass on any of his interviews with celebrities and his friends. I like the podcasts with subject matter experts. Lombardi falls into the latter category.) Simmons started off by making the point that football has snuck up on us this year because this has been a sports year full of interesting stories. If the American sports scene were struggling for stories, then we would get a lot of college football and NFL coverage because those are the two most popular sports in the country. Instead, we've had the Winter Olympics, above-average NHL and NBA seasons (although the NBA playoffs lacked a compelling series between the first round and the finals, save for the Boston-Cleveland matchup), Tiger's return, the Big Dance (although Simmons was wrong that this year's edition was in any way above average), and the World Cup.

I nodded when Simmons made this point, as he was hitting on something that I've been feeling, as well. Football hasn't grabbed me like it normally does over the summer. I normally get Phil Steele the moment that it hits the rack at Borders, but I got it as an afterthought this year. I had to remind myself to order the Football Outsiders preview, despite the fact that they have done a great job in beefing up the college coverage. I'll freely grant that as someone who has always been a soccer fan and has become more intense in that preference over the past several years - in part because so many games are on the TV and in part as a coping mechanism because Michigan football and the Braves have been weak while Barca has been very strong - I'm not a representative example. Or at least I felt that way until Simmons voiced similar thoughts.

It was interesting to me that Simmons omitted baseball from his list of stories that have reduced the anticipation for the season, especially in light of the fact that he just wrote a column explaining why Red Sox fans are feeling a sense of ennui about this year's edition. If any fan base should be looking forward to football season, it's one with the expectations of Red Sox fans that sees its team well behind the Yankees and Rays in the AL East. Spoiled fans, perhaps? (I don't mean this as a criticism. This hasn't been an especially compelling baseball season in terms of national stories.
Upon reflection, though, the distribution of teams having good season might at least partially explain why college football isn't on the front of our brains in the summer like normal. (Obviously, Simmons wasn’t talking about college football when he said that football has suck up on him this year. As a product of his environment, college football is about the last thing on his radar.) There are two major regions for intense college football interest: the South and the Midwest. The flagship baseball team for the South - the Braves - is in first place. The Texas Rangers are in first place and the Rays are awfully close. In the Midwest, the Twins, Tigers (until recently), White Sox, Cards, and Reds have all had good summers. There was a heavy prevalence of Midwestern teams in the rankings of local ratings that I linked last week. In short, this has not been a baseball season dominated by the coasts, so fan bases that would normally give up on baseball and start obsessing about the depth chart on the offensive line have had their interest held by their local baseball collectives. The fact that the baseball playoffs have been a random number generator for years adds to the interest.

Another factor in the comparative lack of college football dominating my thoughts as it normally would at this stage (and, if I’m representative of other fans, the thoughts of others) is that this season doesn’t have an obvious dominant team(s) to drive attention. At this time last year, we had Tebow and Florida as the kings of the hill and McCoy’s Texas and Bradford’s Oklahoma in challenging positions. With quarterbacks filling a sometimes excessive role as driving attention, 2009 lent itself to a lot of preseason hype, but 2010 is not the same.

The “no alpha male teams” explanation does not apply to the NFL, which finished a banner season in 2009 with the lovable Saints beating Manning’s Colts in exciting fashion. Those teams are back again, as are a number of other very good teams with ready-made plot lines. There’s no reason for the NFL to sneak up on us this year, other than the fact that there has been less oxygen this summer for football stories because of LeBron, Tiger, and the vuvuzela.