Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stay Calm and Carry On, Trade Deadline Edition

Yes, it’s hard to watch the Braves abortive attempts to score runs.  Yes, I have a hard time looking at the batting averages of the position players and processing the fact that the local baseball collective has the third-most wins in baseball.  Yes, I would like Frank Wren to acquire a centerfielder who can hit.  Yes, a friend forwarded me Buster Olney's tweet:

Observation from an NL official about the Braves' interest in Hunter Pence: "They don't value on-base percentage as much as other teams do."

And I nearly lost my lunch.  (Further grist for the mill that the Braves’ sterling patience at the plate last year that led to the best on-base percentage in the NL was a big accident like the discovery of penicillin.) 

All that said, the Braves should not mortgage the team’s future to add a bat.  If the Phillies want to give up their two best prospects for two years and change of Hunter Pence, the more power to them.  Almost every member of that team’s core is at or over the age of 30, so they are in a win-now mode.  The Braves have a wealth of young pitchers, as well as Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, and Martin Prado.  The future of the franchise is bright.  It would be nice to win the World Series this year, but it would be just as good to win it in 2015 and that goal is significantly more realistic for the Braves than it is for the Phillies.  That’s why Frank Wren’s seeming conservatism makes sense.

But don’t take my word for it.  Here is Jayson Stark explaining the Braves’ reasoning:

So an official of one team who spoke with the Braves said he was told, "We've only got to weather the storm for 14 days, until [Brian] McCann gets back." By then, they hope Chipper Jones will be healthy; Peter Moylan will be back in their bullpen; and they will feel like the urgency to DO SOMETHING will have lessened. If not, there's always August.

After all, what month was it last year in which the team that won it all picked up its World Series cleanup hitter (Cody Ross)? It wasn't July. It was August -- on a waiver claim. And how'd that work out?

It’s possible that the Braves made the statement about simply needing to wait for August as a negotiating posture.  After all, it’s easier to get a good price when you are not desperate.  That said, if Stark is right that the Astros’ asking price from the Braves was two of Teheran, Vizcaino, Delgado, and Minor, then Wren would have been nuts to pull the trigger. 

And here is Mark Bradley also advocating for patience:

Wren wants to win a World Series, same as you, but there’s no assurance a big-ticket hiree makes you a champ. Fred McGriff panned out. Teixeira didn’t. B.J. Surhoff, acquired by the Braves at the 2000 deadline, didn’t. Denny Neagle, acquired in 1996, didn’t. (Though he would win 36 games in 1997 and ‘98.) But Mike Devereaux, who arrived in an afterthought trade for the minor-leaguer Andre King in August 1995, became the most valuable player of the NLCS en route to the Braves’ only World Series title.

This touches on something that has seemed odd to me about all of the trade deadline hysteria.  The Braves are very likely to make the playoffs as the wild card team.  Baseball Prospectus has the Braves at 85% likely to play in October.  If an outfield bat were the difference between making the playoffs and watching them on TV, then it would be important to get a bat.  However, with the Braves in great position to make the playoffs, the new bat would be relevant for as few as three games and as many as 19.  The baseball playoffs are a lottery.  Some teams have better odds than others, but in the end, there is a high degree of chance involved.  Making the team better at one position is nothing more than buying a slightly better lottery ticket.  With the small sample size involved, there’s no telling who is going to be Mike Devereaux and who is going to be B.J. Surhoff.

Update: Baseball Prospectus crunches the numbers on deadline deals and finds that the vast majority do not make a difference in whether a team makes the playoffs ($):

Looking at deadline deals since the introduction of the wild card in 1995, we see a bevy of moves. By rough count, looking at the past-season WARP of the players acquired versus the players given away, we can see that 180 of those deals were ones in which a team was buying talent as opposed to selling, or moves in which little talent was moving in either direction. (In this instance, the buyer is the team that acquired the player with the highest same-season WARP.) But how many of those deals had a significant impact on the division race? Reviewing the record, there are just 10 teams that made "impact" deals…

Finding one or two players who can combine for significant value is difficult, and getting those players to have a hot streak on cue is harder still. Most teams get into a position to acquire talent at the deadline by having a roster stocked with talented players, and how those players perform down the stretch is generally far more important than the work of one or two players brought in to bolster a squad.

That last sentence is a perfect description of why deadline deals are typically overblown.     

Friday, July 29, 2011

Question Time

The right honorable gentleman from North-Decatur-upon-Lullwater wants to know two things:

1. If Chipper Jones would have been drafted by the Cardinals instead of the Braves, how would his career have been different?  In other words, how would things be different after the inevitable blow-up between Chipper and Tony LaRussa as to Chipper’s reliance on his father for hitting advice?  That advice surely violates one of LaRussa’s myriad unwritten rules for baseball, like “I get a virgin in heaven for every pitching change I make” and “a pitcher can hit a batter only in one of the following 17 situations…”

2. In light of the fact that Bret Bielema is apparently the best coach in the Big Ten now that Jim Tressel is no more, how many head coaches in the SEC are better than the best coach in the Big Ten?  Put another way, would Georgia fans trade on-a-seat-of-indeterminable-warmth Mark Richt for any coach in the Big Ten?  Would LSU fans take any coach in the Big Ten over Les Miles?  Am I being too partisan here or does Jim Tressel’s demise at Ohio State really bring into full view the sorry state of coaching in a conference that has the money to do so much better?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Negative Grohmentum Commences Operation Grand Slam

When last we met with Negative Grohmentum, it was coming off an unprecedented year in which only four of the nine reigning conference coaches of the year saw their teams regress.  Nick Saban won a national title as one of three reigning SEC coaches of the year.  Brian Kelly led Cincinnati to an unbeaten regular season as the reigning Big East coach of the year.  Paul Johnson won an ACC title had a good year on the field as the reigning ACC coach of the year.  With another year like that, Negative Grohmentum was threatening to go the way of my previous pet theory for identifying overrated teams: the Charles Rogers Theorem, which died after it spat out eventual national champion Florida in 2006 and then eventual #2 Georgia in 2007.  Thankfully, 2010 was a return to glory, and not in a Ty Willingham, we kept getting outgained, but won because of a collection of punt blocks and terrible calls sort of way.  Behold the regression!

SEC - Nick Saban – regressed by 3.5 games
Big Ten - Kirk Ferentz – regressed by 3 games
Big XII - Mack Brown – regressed by 7 games
ACC - Paul Johnson – regressed by 4.5 games
Pac Ten - Chip Kelly – improved by 2 games
Big East - Brian Kelly – regressed by 7.5 games

Now that's a fire!  Five of the six coaches of the year regressed and not by a small margin.  Negative Grohmentum wasn’t screwing around last year.  It grabbed Mack Brown by the lapels and turned his team from a participant in the national title game to a team sitting out the bowl season.  It beat on Cincinnati like Sonny Corleone on Carlo Rizzi.  (I guess the Pitt game was the equivalent of getting beaten with a trash can.)

And best of all, the Big Ten maintained its lengthy winning streak.  Since 1992, no Big Ten coach of the year has seen his team’s record improve the following year.  Jim Tressel just resigned got fired and the only empty spot on his resume was a Dave McClain Coach of the Year award.  Tressel led the Bucks to an unbeaten season in his second year with an underwhelming squad and wasn’t the coach of the year.  He won or tied for the conference title in each of his last six seasons in Columbus, but the Midwestern media never saw fit to honor him with a plaque.  Lloyd Carr suffered the same fate.  Carr won Michigan’s first national title in 49 years, but Joe Tiller was deemed to have done a better job in 1997.  Carr won the conference title in 2004 with a true freshman at quarterback and lost the coach of the year award to Kirk Ferentz.  (I guess that it must have taken a superhuman coaching effort by Ferentz for Iowa to lose to Michigan by only 13 points that year.)  Meanwhile, the Queen of England has won the award three times, despite the fact that he is a combined 5-16 against Tressel and Carr.  Apparently, the key to winning the Dave McClain award is to have crappy seasons so that your good ones stand out.

So which teams are marked for death in 2011?  I’m glad you asked.

SEC – Steve Spurrier – South Carolina
Big Ten – Mark Dantonio – Michigan State
Big XII – Mike Gundy – Oklahoma State
ACC – Ralph Friedgen – Maryland
Pac Ten – Chip Kelly – Oregon
Big East – Randy Edsall – UConn & Charlie Strong – Louisville

Negative Grohmentum is pretty confident about this bunch.  Expecting South Carolina to regress after its first divisional title is a pretty safe bet;* it’s pretty much the same thing as asking “are one of Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee going to wake up?”  (Question: was 2010 South Carolina any different than the collection of good, but not great Gamecock teams that have graced the SEC since South Carolina joined the conference?)  Michigan State is the Platonic ideal of a Big Ten team that would get its coach a Dave McClain award: gaudy record, unremarkable underlying stats, and a near certainty for regression.  Mike Gundy looks to me like George O’Leary minus Ralph Friedgen.  Speaking of Georgia Tech’s former offensive coordinator, Maryland was so impressed by Friedgen’s work last year that they pushed him out the door, a move that made sense when Mike Leach was the rumored replacement and makes little sense now that Randy Edsall is in charge.  Chip Kelly’s Oregon team is bound to regress because there’s almost nowhere to go but down after going 12-1.  The only teams that might defy Negative Grohmentum are UConn and Louisville, because it’s reasonable to improve on 8-5 and 7-6 in a conference where everyone is the same.  The Huskies and Cards will likely determine whether Negative Grohmentum succeeds in setting off a nuclear device inside of Fort Knox.

* – Counterpoint: Spurrier won the SEC Coach of the Year award in 1990, 1991, 1994, 1995, and 1996 and kept right on winning conference titles.  The media in the SEC reward the coaches of the best teams, as opposed to the media in the Big Ten, which looks for the coach whose team overcame bad recruiting by winning a bunch of close games in improbable fashion showed guts and moxie en route to getting a hiding in Orlando or Tampa.  Can you tell, by the way, that I am having fun with Strikethrough this morning?  Windows Live Writer is so much fun!

Cesc and Thiago

I was going to write a post examining Barcelona’s pursuit of Cesc Fabregas in light of the emergence of Thiago Alcantara, but this piece on the Spanish Football site does my work for me.  Here is the argument in a nutshell:

Xavi is 31, Iniesta is 27, Fàbregas is 24 and Thiago is 20. Fàbregas would fill the 11 year gap between Xavi and Thiago and the 7 year gap between Iniesta and Thiago.

It would help Thiago to keep improving without the pressure of having to replace the two most important midfielders in Barça’s and Spain’s history. Fàbregas, being the more experienced player of the two, would share that responsibility with him.

Thiago has had a great summer.  He was one of the stars on the Spain side that won the European U-21 tournament, scoring a clever goal in the final against Switzerland.  This week, he added an award as the best player at the Audi Cup after scoring once in the semifinal against Internacional and both goals in the final against Bayern Munich.  His performances could lead to the conclusion that Cesc is unnecessary, but as Miguel points out, throwing Thiago into the mix at age 20 in place of either Xavi or Iniesta would be to pile enormous pressure on a prospect.  If Cesc arrives, then he serves as the buffer so Thiago can be put into the first team gradually.  Given that Barca are likely to play something in the neighborhood of 60 games this year, there are plenty of potential minutes for four central midfielders.

My first impulse after Thiago’s performance yesterday in Munich was to think “great, this will drive down Arsenal’s price for Cesc because it is clear that Barca doesn’t really need him.”  I quickly changed my mind when I remembered that Arsenal have no great need or desire to sell Cesc.  If this were a normal transaction with a buyer and a seller, then the buyer learning that he doesn’t really need to product would tend to drop this price.  This, however, is not a normal transaction because the seller doesn’t want to sell, but will do so reluctantly if its (possibly inflated) valuation of the (dissatisfied, wanting to move) product is met.  If Barca decides that they don’t need Cesc, then Arsenal’s likely response will be “great, we’ll keep our captain” instead of “hey, let me knock £5M off the price.”  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why I Hate New York Teams, Vol. XXIV

My morning sports consumption, in three acts:

1. Wake up just before six and do a quick check of the headlines on I learn that the Braves played a 19-inning game against the Pirates that ended with one of the worst calls in recent memory.* Is this game, a match-up between the NL Wild Card leaders and the team that is improbably in first place in the NL Central after almost two decades of consistent failure, the lead story on Does it get top billing in light of the fact that it was the longest game of the season and ended in a bizarre fashion? Nope. The top story was CC Sabathia shutting down the Mariners. Yes, the captivating story of the highest-paid pitcher in baseball dominating a historically bad offense was the big story in American sports yesterday.

* - I went to sleep in the tenth inning when Scott Linebrink came in and gave up a one-out single. That seemed like a sufficient indication that the Braves were going to lose their fourth in a row. Imagine my surprise this morning when I realized that I had missed a complete game shutout from Scott Proctor and the Lisp.

2. Watch SportsCenter while getting ready. What's the big story in the middle of the show? An interview with Jerry Jones in his car, followed by a lengthy feature on Rex Ryan and the Jets.

3. Listen to sports radio on the way to work. Surely, after my education on all things New York from ESPN, I'll get some local content, right? After all, the Falcons are about to wade into free agency and the Braves just played an epic game last night. Instead, for the majority of my commute, the Mayhem crew were peppering former 790 the Zone employee Chris Cotter (whom I always liked when he was on the air here) with questions about what it was like to cover Willie Randolph when Randolph was the manager of the Mets and what New York City is like in terms of interest in college football and the NFL.

So, if you ever want to know why I have a per se rule against rooting for New York teams, this is the evidence for the rule. Regardless of merit, their teams get showered with attention.*

* - This reminds me that I have a rant percolating in my head about the lionization of the New York Cosmos. Don't let me forget to write that in August.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Two Thoughts on ESPN

[Sorry for the lack of content over the past couple weeks. It's a combination of being busy at work, followed by vacation, with a splash of the July sports doldrums.]

A Few Belated Thoughts on L'Affaire Feldman

I like Bruce Feldman's work. I like Mike Leach. I dislike Craig James. I dislike Joe Schad. With those preferences, I am naturally inclined to side with the college football blogosphere in its #FreeBruce outrage that followed the report from Sports by Brooks that ESPN had suspended Feldman. After thinking a little bit about the issue, however, I can't say that I find much fault with ESPN. The bottom line is that: Feldman was working closely on a public project with a former coach who was suing ESPN. Is it that hard to imagine that ESPN would be squeamish about one of its employees being in that situation? I'll acknowledge that the timing of the "suspension" was poor, indicating that someone at ESPN only realized belatedly that Feldman was cooperating on the autobiography of a party legally adverse to the network. That said, without knowing what communications went back and forth between Feldman and his superiors, it seems plausible that Feldman deserves some blame in that he should have gotten a definitive answer from ESPN's management when Leach sued his employer.

That said, I co-sign on Blutarsky's reference to the Longhorn Network as a great example of a conflict of interest that ESPN ignores while pontificating on Feldman's relationship with Leach.*

* - I do not co-sign on Blutarksy's argument that the NCAA could not have subpoena power because it is a private organization. Yes, the NCAA is private, as are the American Arbitration Association, FINRA, and a host of other entities that enforce subpoenas in private dispute resolution settings. Those entities are all creatures of contract. An employer and employee sign an arbitration agreement in which they submit to the rules of an arbitration entity and part of those rules provides for compelling the production of documents. If one party refuses to comply with the process, then the arbitration entity can issue an enforceable award against it. Now, I suspect that the Federal Arbitration Act gets involved in the analysis at some point and whether the NCAA would be able to benefit from the FAA is a question that I haven't thought through. That said, it does not seem implausible to me that the NCAA could, for example, enter into agreements with all coaches and players in NCAA-sanctioned sports that they will comply with reasonable requests for documents and information after their eligibility expires. The NCAA can't get subpoena power over unaffiliated entities (read: Cecil Newton's church), but it can expand its ability to get information and documents from former players (read: Cecil's son).

Why Must we Keep Hearing "Back, Back, Back, Back..."

There are few subjects that unite the blogosphere quite like disdain for Chris Berman and Dick Vitale. Good luck finding any online commentary regarding these two along the lines of "yes, Chris, hit me with another reference to the Bay City Rollers" or "I can't wait for Dick to tell me which 17 assistants deserve head coaching jobs, all while he maintains that no coach should ever get the ziggy." I'm halfway through Those Guys Have All the Fun and the infliction of Berman and Vitale on American's eardrums makes more sense to me now: these guys have been around since the very beginning. They made their bones at ESPN when it was losing millions of Getty dollars, so they come with institutional weight.

ESPN faces the same issue that the Yankees faced with Derek Jeter and the Braves faced with Chipper Jones. In both of the latter cases, two successful baseball franchises overpaid to keep iconic stars who were and are well past their best. It is never easy for a sports entity to part with a declining legend. This phenomenon doesn't make it a good idea to pay Chipper $14M per year or send Vitale to Duke-UNC so Dickie V can be the FTD of verbal bouquets, but it does at least explain what would otherwise seem to be inexplicable.

Monday, July 18, 2011

My New Game

It's very simple. I listen to sports radio on the way to work in the morning (most of my podcasts are either taking the summer off or are operating a little below normal levels) and wait for a discussion of an event that actually took place on a field or a court. I'll admit that starting this game the week before the All-Star Break was a little unfair, but I had a solid, one-week streak going. During that week, I was enlightened on the following topics:

  • Steak Shapiro going to New Orleans for the wedding of Tulane's play-by-play guy;

  • How excited the 680 morning crew were to see Zookeeper;

  • Floyd Mayweather being a "punk" by burning hundred-dollar bills at a club;

  • Nick Cellini deciding not to go to a friend's 40th birthday party in Vegas because the group going was going to waste hundreds of dollars on table service (no s***, they discussed this without a hint of irony one day after venting about Mayweather wasting money); and

  • Wall-to-wall James Harrison discussion (nothing lights the fire of sports radio hosts like negative comments about teammates).

Truly, this is sports radio in name only.

So this morning, Sandra Golden finally snapped the streak by discussing her experience watching the Women's World Cup Final, so I only made it a little more than a week without hearing a discussion about an actual sporting event. The discussion on 790 was on the changes at 680, which Shapiro naturally credited to 790 winning in the afternoon slot.

In reality, the change in the lineup could be a good harbinger for sports radio in this town. I've never been a big fan of Buck & Kincaid, mainly because Buck isn't especially interesting to me and Kincaid fills out the caricature of a sports radio host to a "T": opinionated Northeasterner who spends as much time trying to rile up his audience as he does thinking of something intelligent to say. In other words, emotion over intellect.* I much prefer Matt Chernoff and Chuck Oliver because they seem less emotionally manipulative. In fact, I reached the decision that the sports radio medium had left me** when I realized that the two local shows that I like the most - Chernoff & Oliver on 680 and Tony Barnhart & Wes Durham on 790 - are both in the wasteland of late morning and that it's probably not an accident that the shows with the best sports content are in the worst slots, while the "how can I titillate or annoy the most people?" shows get drive time. Putting a likeable, sports-heavy show in PM drive time is a good step.***

* - Shapiro made the point that the comments to Rodney Ho's AJC articles on sports talk radio reflect the strength of the medium because of the passion displayed by the commenters. By the same reasoning, I suppose that the race wars that break out in the comments sections of news articles show the strength of American democracy. If your sole goal is to rile people up to the point that they express how much you annoy them, then yes, you are a success. If your goal is that people get out of their cars when they get to their homes or offices and say to themselves "that was a quality product and a good use of my time; I'm happy with how I just spent my commute," then hundreds of negative comments on an AJC article are not an indicator of success. It's like the difference between reading intelligent sports commentary on the Internet (and Alex Massie is right; the college football blogosphere is rife with smart analysis) and "look, boobs!" posts on Deadspin. The latter gets a ton of clicks, but at the expense of credibility. As some guy from Hibbing once sang, all the money you made will never buy back your soul.

** - No lineup change is going to address the fundamental issue that sports talk radio has, which is that it's inferior to a good podcast. If my choice is to listen to a 30-minute interview with Tim Vickery or a seven-minute interview with Darren Rovell, followed by a lengthy commercial break and then recitation of scores that I can get on my phone at a moment's notice, I am going to choose the former every time. Even when the local stations get good guests and assuming for the sake of argument that the hosts asked good questions, the chopped up format of sports talk radio prevents the guests from ever getting into detail with their answers. The format has not evolved with technology, specifically the facts that: (1) listeners now have commercial-free options; and (2) there is no point in wasting time on scores that listeners can get with ease if they are so inclined.

*** - Though Cellini has scratched his schtick itch a bit too much in the morning slot, my favorite drive time show on either channel was the Cellini-Dimino afternoon program. Oliver & Chernoff seem like a good replacement for that.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Drew Sharp: The Most Ironically Named Man Outside of Rush Limbaugh

Newspaper columnists tend to be respectful to one another.  Whereas bloggers are prone to pissing matches of all shapes and sizes, our mainstream media counterparts will rarely call one another onto the carpet.  They represent the civility of a bygone age … or they just don’t get the fun of calling another writer a mouth-breathing troglodyte.  Either way, a columnist has to have written something really dumb in order to get another columnist to spend an entire piece railing on a bad argument.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Drew Sharp.  I read Sharp for my four years in Ann Arbor and his sole value was to raise my blood pressure.  Sharp is a Michigan graduate who quickly figured out that his place in the world is to make bomb-throwing statements to anger the local fan bases, most prominently that of his alma mater.  In his mind, Sharp probably thinks of himself as a noble scribe telling truth to power, regardless of the reaction.  In reality, the next well-constructed argument he makes will be the first.  Remarkably, both approaches can lead to a negative reaction, only Sharp (and apparently his bosses at the Detroit Free Press, who have employed Sharp for years) doesn’t understand the difference between the two.

I haven’t clicked on the Free Press’s web site since that newspaper committed journalistic malpractice by giving Mike Rosenberg license to publish a wildly slanted and misleading piece about the practice habits of Michigan football players.*  Mark Bradley does not operate under the same constraints, so he found Sharp’s piece about how Jair Jurrjens would be a .500 pitcher in the mighty American League and tore it to pieces.  Again, when you have caused a veteran columnist to go Fire Joe Morgan on you, then you have really screwed the pooch.

* – Here’s a thought experiment: if Michigan took Ohio State’s approach to NCAA violations, what would it’s response to the NCAA’s notice of inquiry have been?  Maybe a letter suggesting that Michigan get more practice time than the rules permit for the trouble of having to respond to such trivial allegations?  Seriously, look at the disparity between one school referring to “a day of great shame” when it concluded that it had misclassified stretching time and another school stating that it would be “shocked and disappointed and on the offensive” if the NCAA went beyond the ludicrously light sanctions suggested by the school in response to its head coach burying evidence of violations and thereby riding five ineligible players to a Big Ten title.  With that hyper-partisan aside behind me, we can get back to mocking Drew Sharp.

Because he is polite and I am not, I was expecting to have to pick up where Bradley left off, but Mark hit all of the high notes: the minor statistical difference between the AL and NL (Sharp has apparently missed the fact that offense is down in both leagues this year), the fact that Jurrjens has done well against the AL in 2011 (in two starts, Jurrjens has allowed one earned run in 14.1 innings, striking out 12 and walking three), and the fact that velocity isn’t the be-all, end-all for pitching (a point to which Braves fans are especially keen after years of watching Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux mow through opposing lineups without cracking 90 on the radar gun). 

The one point that I would add to Bradley’s fine work is that Jurrjens has gotten better this year despite dropping his average fastball velocity from 91 to 89.  Dave Allen at Fan Graphs noted this change at the start of June, positing that Jurrjens controls his slower fastball better, thus leading to fewer walks and more bad contact as Jurrjens gets opposing hitters to swing at pitches just outside of the strike zone.  Christina Kahrl has noticed that Jurrjens has dropped both his walk rate and his opponents' ISO rates.  We are dealing with a sample size of 110 innings, so there is a good chance that there is noise in the numbers.  It’s eminently reasonable to assume that Jurrjens will not be able to keep his ERA at Maddux levels for an entire season.  However, there’s no way to deny that Jurrjens has been outstanding in 2011, possibly because of a reduction in velocity that has yielded better control.  In that sense, Drew Sharp is backwards when he criticizes Jurrjens for noth throwing hard enough.  After a sample size of thousands of columns, we can safely say that Sharp’s performance is representative of his true quality.

Monday, July 11, 2011

“Goal Goal USA!!!”

I’ll say this for American soccer: we’re never boring.  Our men might punch below our weight (if you measure weight by GDP and number of kids and teens who play the game), our women might have struggled for the last two World Cups to replicate the magic of 1999, but we produce some memorable matches.  In the past year and change, we have had Landon Donovan’s injury time winner against Algeria, the memorable Gold Cup Final, and now Abby Wambach scoring the latest possible equalizer.  I can picture Uncle Sam shouting “are you not entertained?”  We may not have a defined playing style, but we do have a terrific “we can do this, no matter the circumstances” attitude in late game situations.  Our former colonial masters should take note.

Random thoughts:

1. Great lede by Grant Wahl:

This U.S. Women's World Cup campaign has a chance to get big now. It's one of the slowest weeks on the U.S. sports calendar, so there's not much competition, and any time you mix patriotism and miraculous comebacks and appealing athletes who play for the purity of the sport -- and the winning, of course, always the winning -- well, you've got something that could blow up.

I’d add in Hope Solo, a star goalkeeper who is attractive, has a great name, is terrific at what she does, and comes with a fascinating personal story.  This team has the capacity to draw attention to their sport in the same way that the 1999 team did, although I ought to make the Debbie Downer point that any sort of effect on the struggling domestic professional league would be transitory.  (It makes more sense for the best players in the world to play in Europe one women’s teams attached to established clubs.  Add the branding of Arsenal or Olympique Lyonnais to women’s teams and then they have more of a chance to succeed than they do as the Western New York Flash.)

2. It’s hard to remember a day where Brazil were considered to be big game bottlers, but the women’s team is actually following in a tradition that the men’s team had between the epic performance in 1970 and the return to glory in 1994.  Brazil’s exits from the World Cup in the 70s were acceptable – they lost to the brilliant Cruyff Netherlands in ‘74 and went out in suspicious circumstances without losing a game in ‘78 – but their failures in the next three World Cups were spectacular failures.  In ‘82, Brazil brought one of the great attacking sides of all time to Spain and managed to get knocked out by Italy (in a match in which the Selecao only needed a draw) through a series of comical defensive lapses.  In ‘86, Brazil missed a penalty kick that would have won the match against France and then went out in penalties.  In ‘90, Brazil comprehensively outplayed Argentina, missed a raft of chances, and then lost when the entire back line panicked on the only occasion that Maradona ran at them.  These failures formed Brazil’s reputation when I was becoming a footie fan.  The men have banished the reputation with two more World Cups, but the women seem to have taken the mantle.  Losing in penalties after a late equalizer from a cross is a nice synthesis of Brazil’s failures in the 80s. 

3. Part of what I like about soccer is that it doesn’t have football’s fascist tendencies (and I say that as someone who considers football to be his favorite sport).  There are a host of ways to make this point, but the easiest is that soccer fans honor creative goal celebrations, whereas football authorities think of new, more draconian ways to punish them.  “Let’s fine players who use props.  No, that’s not enough.  We can’t have too much exuberance from these scary Black men.  Let’s take away touchdowns for celebrations that are punctuated with something that might strike a given ref on a given day as excessive.”  That said, soccer could use a governing body that makes the trains run on time.  There is a very simple solution to the simulated injuries that mar the end of matches such as yesterday’s: if a player is down for more than 20 seconds, then the stretcher comes off and the player stays off the field for a minimum of five minutes.  Soccer has an issue with incentives.  Players have an incentive to fake injuries to waste time and break up play, so they do it.  (My beloved Barca are no angels in this department.)  Football players would do the same if they had the same incentives (and indeed, defensive players have faked injuries before to slow down no-huddle offenses).  If FIFA were capable of anything other than sweeping gross acts of corruption under the rug, then it would alter the incentives of players to fake injuries.  It is not, so it will not.

Relievers, Please

In assessing the Braves at the All Star Break, my prevailing sense is “how is this team 16 games over .500?”  The pitching has been phenomenal, but it’s painful to look at the current batting lineup, where most of the starters are hitting under .250 (and not drawing enough walks to make up for their low averages).  As usual, the Braves are getting below-average production from the outfield spots, and this despite the fact that Nate McLouth has exceeded expectations.  Martin Prado got off to a terrible start and then got injured as he was dragging his numbers back to respectability.  Jason Heyward has been a major disappointment, struggling through injuries that raise the question as to whether he’s a German Tiger or Panther tank.  (Awesome when functioning properly, but prone to breaking down and hard to repair when they do.)  Jordan Schafer has had to fill in and his on-base percentage is below .300, which is something of a problem for a leadoff hitter. 

The outfield seems to be the most logical place to upgrade the team, ideally with a new centerfielder so Nate McLouth can become the fourth outfielder and Jordan Schafer can go back to Gwinnett.  If the Mets find themselves out of the race, then Carlos Beltran will be a logical option if Liberty Media is willing to add payroll.  Fred Wilpon is certainly looking to shed it.  Whether the Mets would be willing to help a division rival is an open question.  Maybe Frank Wren can convince them that they are really screwing the Phillies.

The other obvious spot for an upgrade is the bullpen.  The top of the pen is outstanding.  Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, and Craig Kimbrel have all been outstanding this year.  We should feel fortunate to be watching a modern incarnation of the Nasty Boys, although that happiness is tempered by the knowledge that all three pitchers are headed for a ludicrous number of innings and appearances because: (1) the Braves play a lot of close games because of the team’s weak offense; and (2) there is a huge drop-off from those three guys to the rest of the pen.  Those three pitchers combined for a 6.2 WAR.  In other words, they have been worth a tick over six wins to the Braves.  The rest of the bullpen has been worth 1.8.  By most other measures (ERA, WHIP, etc.), there is a major drop-off from those three to Scott Linebrink, George Sherrill, Scott Proctor, and whomever else is filling out the roster.  In terms of gut feel, I just don’t have confidence that the Braves can win close games when the top three have been used.  If we envision a meeting with the Phillies in October, Friday night’s game is a frightening prospect: a tight, defensive battle that is decided as soon as the Braves deploy one of their suspect relievers.  Even Saturday was dicey, as Sherrill came dangerously close to losing the game in the tenth before the Braves’ offense could win it in the eleventh.

There are three potential solutions here.  One is that the Braves use one or more of their mega-prospects in a Neftali Feliz-type role in September or October.  Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino would both seem to be candidates for that task.  It would be a nice introduction to Major League Baseball: get these three guys out in a massive situation in October.  The second is that Peter Moylan and Kris Medlen will get healthy and fill roles.  I would take either of them over the Scotts.  Third, the Braves would acquire one or more relievers on the market.  Relief help is usually easy to find on the market in July.  What good does a top reliever do for a bad team when most relievers are on short-term contracts and their performance varies from year to year?  Knowing Liberty Media, they will opt for options one and two.  Regardless of what they choose, the goals are simple and achievable: (1) reduce the workload for the three top relievers by finding other options who can be trusted in the late innings of a close game; and (2) ensure that no one named Scott throws an inning of consequence in October.  

Friday, July 08, 2011

Al Borges, Get Thyself to Univision

Despite being the host nation for this summer’s Copa America, Argentina are off to a dreadful start.  Through two matches, they have two draws, one goal scored, and one goal conceded.  They have achieved these meager results against Bolivia and Columbia, two teams that did not make last summer’s World Cup.  It’s not like Argentina are struggling against the strong South American sides that made such a good showing in South Africa.

Argentina’s struggles come despite the fact that they deploy the undisputed greatest player on the planet.  When we last saw Leo Messi, he was scoring the winning goal in the Champions League Final.  He was wrapping up a season in which he scored 50 goals and added 21 assists in 47 games.  He’s the best player on the best team in a generation.  Because Messi is following in the footsteps of Diego Maradona and Maradona’s greatest achievement was dragging the Albiceleste to the ‘86 World Cup title, Messi needs to add international success to his resume with Barcelona in order to vault into the Pele/Maradona pantheon of the greatest players of all time.  Playing for Argentina at home with a wealth of potential attacking partners* seemed like the perfect opportunity.  At present, it looks like the Copa America is going to be another missed chance for Messi.

* – In the match against Columbia, Argentina had the following players on their bench: Kun Aguero (about to make a 45M Euro transfer from Atletico Madrid), Angel di Maria (starting winger for Real Madrid), Gonzalo Higuain (starting striker for Real Madrid), and Diego Milito (the star striker for the Inter side that won the treble in 2009-10).  No team in the world has the collection of attacking talent that Argentina possesses.

Why has Argentina struggled?  To use a term from our football, it’s a lack of constraint plays.  Argentina are trying to mimic Barca’s style, which entails Leo Messi playing in a central role between the forward line and the midfield.  This role takes advantage of Messi’s passing ability, as it gives him forward options on either side to pick out.  Ezequiel Lavezzi is in the side ahead of a number of other bright attacking options specifically because he can play the cutting winger role that Pedro and David Villa play for Barca.  The role also puts Messi in a tough spot for opponents, as he is between defense and midfield.  However, any player, no matter how talented, can be negated with the right tactics, and Argentina’s opponents have played in a narrow, defensive style to surround Messi and his compatriots on Argentina’s front line.

Why does this tactic work against Argentina and not Barca?  Barca has two primary countermeasures.  The first is Xavi and Andres Iniesta crashing into offensive areas.  If Messi is drawing a lot of attention from the opposing defense and midfield, then this creates space for Xavi and Iniesta to occupy.  Barca’s opener in the 5-0 thrashing of Real and their critical second goal in the second leg against Arsenal were both scored by Xavi running into space created by opposing defenses being occupied by Messi & Friends.  The second is that Dani Alves, ostensibly a defender, bombs forward on the right wing to take advantage of the space that defenders have created by clogging the middle of the field.  Alves scored several goals this year, including an important one against Shakhtar Donetsk, by making runs into open space on the right.

Argentina either don’t or can’t make the same options work.  Here is Michael Cox describing the issues against Columbia:

With Messi-minding left to Sanchez, this meant that Argentina had 4 v 3 in the midfield when Messi moved deep, a situation they didn’t take full advantage of. A slight problem with a 4-1-4-1 is that when the holding midfielder is taken away from the centre (or if he departs completely, like Pepe in the Champions League semi-final first leg) and the midfield doesn’t drop deeper, there can often be too much space between the lines. Neither Ever Banega nor Esteban Cambiasso moved into that ‘red zone’ often enough – it was (surprisingly) the latter who did find himself in space there on 30 minutes, but Argentina didn’t play the ball to him.

Colombia’s tactics higher up the pitch worked excellently. They let Nicolas Burdisso and Gabriel Milito have time on the ball, confident that neither are technically proficient enough to provide clever passes from the back. Instead, they dropped deep into their own half and pressed as soon as the ball was played into midfield, forcing Cambiasso and Javier Mascherano to return the ball to the back. The two Colombian wide players tracked the full-back, where there was less overlapping than in the first game, with Zabaleta not a great attacker, and Zanetti on the ‘wrong’ flank (albeit somewhere where he is comfortable).

And here is Cox explaining the midfield issue against Bolivia:

That problem was related to the role of Banega, who did a decent job with the ball at his feet connecting midfield and attack, but was cautious with his movement off the ball. When Messi plays in the centre and drops deep he attracts two or three players to him, opening up space for an attacking midfielder to exploit – at club level, most frequently Andres Iniesta. Banega remained quite deep, however, and there was no real need for him to do so with both Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso in that zone, plus no real driving runs from midfield from Bolivia.

It’s hard for Argentina to make players like Ever Banega and Pablo Zabaleta play in the same way as Xavi and Dani Alves.  They just haven’t been taught to play those roles and two weeks is not enough time to learn.  The situation is especially difficult for Zabaleta and the other Argentina fullbacks because they are playing with slow center backs who will struggle if they are put into the space that Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol are used to handling.*

* – One of Argentina’s center backs is Gaby Milito, a player in whom Barca had so little confidence that the Blaugrana deployed defensive midfielders Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets at center back in the biggest matches of the season rather than trusting Milito.  It’s always possible for an older player to come up big over a short international tournament (see: France ‘06), but Milito looks a shell of himself before his knee injuries.

In short, Argentina lack constraint plays.  They lack the threats that would make opponents pay from taking away the primary option.  Brian Cook’s post on constraint plays and the Michigan offense gave me this idea.  The Michigan version of Leo Messi running wild in the space between defense and attack is Denard Robinson running wild in whatever space the offensive line can create.  Al Borges now faces a similar quandary to Sergio Batista.  He has a supremely talented offensive player who thrived in a system that was perfect for that player.  Those systems were run by Rich Rodriguez and Pep Guardiola, both of whom are experts in the systems.  Can Borges do better than Batista at mimicry?  Conversely, if Borges tries to shoehorn Michigan’s personnel into a more conventional offense, is he going to have a collection of players who have no idea what they are doing, not unlike Messi’s Argentina teammates trying to copy the movement of his Barca teammates?  Futbol often presents fascinating test cases where club stars have to function in different systems when they play for their countries (and vice versa).  American football doesn’t have as many change scenarios, but Michigan’s offense presents one this year.      

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Jurrjens’ Gem

Nine innings, no runs, one hit, eight strikeouts, one walk.  According to ESPN’s Game Score measure, Jurrjens’ start was the fourth best of the season in all of baseball.  Jair’s ERA is now 1.89, which is a half a run better than anyone else in the National League.  (If you look at defensive-independent ERA, then Jurrjens drops to 16th, right behind Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson.)  He came into his start against Texas two weeks ago with an ERA of 2.13 and he has lowered that ERA in each of his last three starts.  I keep waiting for regression to the mean and Jair keeps making great starts.

I can keep going with the stats.  Jurrjens is first in quality start percentage, fifth in WHIP, and fourth in opponents’ OPS.  (If you want to know why the Phillies and Braves have emerged as the two best teams in the NL, look at this list.  Their pitchers hold six of the top seven spots in opponents’ OPS.)  Jurrjens doesn’t strike many batters out, but the flip side is that he is highly efficient.  He’s second in the NL in fewest pitches per inning and tenth in fewest pitches per plate appearance.  While Jurrjens is like Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe in that he doesn’t strike or walk a lot of hitters, he isn’t a groundball pitcher, as his groundball to flyball ratio is less than one.  Lowe and Hudson are third and fifth in the NL in groundball ratio; Jurrjens is 37th.  Jurrjens is, however, very good at avoiding preventing line drives; he is fifth in the NL in lowest line drive percentage.  Combine that low line drive rate with Jurrjens’ fofth place showing in lowest homers allowed per nine innings and  our lesson should be that Jair is pitching to bad contact.  Opponents can put their bats on balls, but not the good parts of their bats.

ESPN’s Dan Braunstein has two interesting notes on Jurrjens’ performance last night:

• Jurrjens kept the ball down, with 63 of his 112 pitches (56.3 percent) tracked down in the zone or below it. Jurrjens got 15 of his outs and six of his eight strikeouts on low pitches. For the season, Jurrjens is 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA in five starts this season when more than 50 percent of his pitches are low.

• Jurrjens took advantage of a generous strike zone. He got 11 called strikes on pitches out of the strike zone, tying his most in a start in the last three seasons. Six of Jurrjens' eight strikeouts came on pitches out of the zone, tying his most in a start in the past three seasons. Five of those strikeouts were on pitches the Orioles chased out of the zone.

The liberal strike zone.  Jurrjens got one strikeout of Matt Wieters in the seventh on a called third strike that was a good nine inches outside.  Eric Gregg would have been proud of that one.