Second Half Fantasy Baseball Advice

If you’re anything like me, you’re addicted to any and all fantasy sports.  Thus, the All-Star break officially marks the start of the stretch run towards winning the fantasy baseball championship.  While I can’t claim to be a fantasy expert in the way that Matthew Berry can claim to be a fantasy expert, I can vouch that I most certainly participate in an unhealthy amount of fantasy sports and have been for about fifteen years now.   Because of this, I can safely say with an overwhelming amount of confidence that I know more about fantasy sports than you, or pretty much any person I’ve ever met. 

Let me then counter my arrogance by saying that this doesn’t mean that I just win every league that I join.  As any experienced fantasy player knows, winning a league requires an extraordinary amount of luck.  The trick is to reduce your amount of luck required as much as possible.  As is oft repeated by fantasy columnists around the world, the advice I’m about to give is not a one-stop shop for fantasy advice.  Like any subject, you should be consuming a variety of content from a variety of different sources so that you don’t become ignorant and stubborn. My final disclaimer is that I don’t pretend to have an advanced understanding of statistics, mathematics, modeling, or any of the other fancy words attached to the analytics movement in sports.  I have a basic understanding and know how to use these advanced metrics to my advantage though, with quantifiable results.  With all that said, let’s see if I can’t help you find some value in the last half of the season to help you eventually win your league trophy.

There is no doubt that the biggest competitive advantage to be had right now in fantasy sports is still the under-usage of sabermetrics by owners.  While this is great for stats-obsessed losers like myself, it still astounds me how little the average fantasy player knows about advanced stats, given that we’re about a decade removed from Michael Lewis releasing Moneyball.  More importantly, it astounds me that they don’t know how to use advanced stats to help them build a solid squad.  A fantasy owner in 2012 doesn’t need to be able to explain how to calculate a stat like WAR or xFIP, but at a bare minimum they need to know how to use them to aid in building and tooling their team.

I’ll save long explanations on using the advanced stats for another column.  Basically what I’ve done here is compiled the players who have either gotten extremely unlucky or extremely lucky in the first half.  Based on this knowledge you can either find some undervalued guys to target in trades or you can look to sell high on players before they start to suck.  Here’s the list, based on what the advanced stats are telling us.

Pitchers You Should Target

1. Tim Lincecum – Take a quick look at Lincecum’s first half numbers and it’s quite clear that it was a disaster.  A shocking 3-10 record, an alarming 6.42 ERA, and a sky-high 1.58 WHIP aren’t exactly helping out his owners.  Many of them would have ditched him by now, if his name wasn’t Tim Lincecum.  This is exactly the kind of guy you should be looking to grab, while his value is at an all-time low.  While I can’t promise that he’ll return to the Cy Young form of old, Lincecum is due to start getting luckier.  In fact, he’s pretty much been the unluckiest pitcher in all of baseball thus far.  The advanced stats say he’s getting extremely unlucky on balls hit into play and that his fielders are letting him down right now.  He also has the second lowest left-on-base percentage among qualified starters.  These are all things that tend to average out over time so cash in now and enjoy Lincecum’s return to normalcy, especially when he dials it as the Giants shoot for the NL West Crown.  You can also take satisfaction in that he still delivers one of the best strikeout rates in MLB while you wait for the other numbers to come down.

2. Adam Wainwright

3. Josh Johnson

4. Max Scherzer

5. Jon Lester

Pitchers You Should Consider Trading

1. Ryan Vogelsong – Tim Lincecum’s lesser-known teammate enjoyed a second consecutive year of proving the critics wrong before the All-Star Gane.  He boasts one of the lowest ERAs in all of baseball and won a very respectable seven games.  The time is now to get as much as you can in return for him.  The numbers suggest that Vogelsong is unusually lucky in situations with runners on-base and that he’s getting extremely lucky on balls that get hit into the field of play.  There is some sucker in your league who has been salivating all year about his ERA and you should be able to rope him into a deal where you can fix another weakness on your roster.

2. C.J. Wilson 

3. Jeremy Hellickson

4. Ryan Dempster

5. Kyle Loshe

Hitters You Should Target

1. Jose Bautista – Okay so it’s not exactly an open secret that Bautista is the man.  It’s far from likely that you’ll be able to get him on the cheap either, given that he’s leading the league in home runs.  Let me defend this by saying that it’s possible Bautista is still due to see his numbers go up across the board after getting extremely unlucky in the first half with balls he hit into play.  So despite having league-leading power numbers, he still technically may have underachieved.  If you have an owner out there with Bautista who is desperate for some pitching, make the Blue Jays slugger your primary target.

2. Eric Hosmer

3. Cameron Maybin

4. Brian McCann

5. Rickie Weeks

Hitters You Should Consider Trading

1. Carlos Ruiz – If you were one of the lucky few who grabbed Ruiz with the last pick in the draft only to enjoy perhaps the finest offensive first-half by any catcher offensively, give yourself a pat on the back.  Now, start trying to move Ruiz, like yesterday.  If it seems like his numbers came out of nowhere, that’s because they did.  Ruiz is not only going for career-high numbers in all the traditional categories, but the advanced stats also suggest he’s getting the luckiest breaks of his career too.  He’s also bound to be hurt by the returns of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard which will push him back in the order.

2. Alex Rios

3. Jason Kubel

4. Austin Jackson

5. Edwin Encarnacion

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Good Morning Generation

If you haven’t heard yet, Albert Pujols agreed to a contract with the Angels this morning that will pay him somewhere north of $250 million dollars over ten years, with a no trade clause. It’s sending the predicted shock waves through baseball as the Angels seemingly came out of no where to get this deal done.

You’re going to hear a lot of polarized opinions in the coming days. One side of the argument will be the predictable “Pujols is destroying his legacy by leaving the Cardinals” angle. While the other side will argue that Pujols is just “expressing his right as a businessman and an American.” While I usually tend to lean towards the latter of those two opinions, this is an incredibly unique case. There is no argument there.

Besides Derek Jeter, I can think of no player in the last decade who has come to be a symbol of the franchise more than Albert Pujols. He is was the St. Louis Cardinals.  Not only was he the best player in baseball during that time, but he also won two championships for a club whose payroll isn’t exactly something to brag about.

Over the last seven years, there is no doubt that the St. Louis Cardinals have retained Albert Pujols’ services at an incredible discount.  Pujols was signed to a (relatively) low $100 million deal and he far exceeded the value of that contract, not only in his play but also because of the branding the franchise did around him.  If you’re Albert Pujols, that had to be the primary argument brought up when trying to get St. Louis to go bigger in this latest discussion.  This new contract should have been more about back compensation rather than compensation moving forward.

What’s awkward to point out though is that this is actually a win-win for both parties.  Pujols gets his record-breaking contract.  St. Louis is given an excellent opportunity to not tie the franchise down to a horrible contract for the next ten years that would have crippled the team’s ability to remain competitive.  While the Cardinals will no doubt struggle in the coming years, the organization has continually demonstrated over the years how they can remain tough without a New York-sized payroll.  They will bounce back.

I still can’t get over the issue though of a franchise’s best-ever player switching teams.  And this wasn’t a Carmelo Anthony type of case where the player had a lot of questions about leadership and commitment.  This is Albert freaking Pujols, the player any dad would point out for his son to emulate.  He’s always done it the “right” way.  He’s never been a distraction.  And all he does is drop bombs and win games.  There literally would have been a statue of him outside Busch Stadium when it was all said and done, had he decided to stay.  Not many players, in any sport, can say that.

A lot of people are going to try to preach about what this means about the state of the game.  Columnists will try to decipher what this expresses about our society and our sports culture.  I have to admit it’s really, really easy to fall into that trap.

The truth is though, all this means is that Albert Pujols wanted to make as much money as he could.  Who can blame him for that?  St. Louis was underpaying him the past seven years and both sides knew it.  This also likely means that in three years the Angels are going to extremely regret this move.  If history has taught us anything, it’s that spending extraordinary amounts of money NEVER works out well.  Throwing in that no trade clause too?  Organizational suicide.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t bad mouth the Cardinals this morning.  They didn’t want to ruin their chance to compete for a decade.  You shouldn’t bad mouth Albert Pujols either.  Any of us would do the exact same thing.

As a wise rap group once said, cash rules everything around me, CREAM, get the money, dollar dollar bills, ya’ll.

Generation Y, where I’m honestly debating getting a second Tebow jersey for Christmas.  I’m in love.

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Good Morning Generation

Here’s a quick history lesson for all of you. You know about Moneyball because you probably saw the movie this past year. It was excellent. Brad Pitt might finally win an Oscar because of his terrific performance in the movie. What you may not know is one of the key players in that 2002 Oakland Athletics story: Chad Bradford.

Bradford was a specialty reliever who was never quite given a shot in the Show because he did not fit the stereotypical idea of a Major League pitcher. Why? Bradford was an extreme submarine-style pitcher who couldn’t throw faster than the mid 80s. Despite putting up monster numbers in the Chicago White Sox farm system, he was repeatedly passed over as coaches and scouts swore that there was no doubt Major League hitters would destroy him.

Noticing that the White Sox were undervaluing an asset, Billy Beane promptly traded for Bradford, and all he did was become the most useful reliever in baseball in 2002. To give you an idea of how good Bradford was, he had a ground ball percentage of 66.2% that year which led all of baseball for relievers with at least 70 innings of work and was second only to Derek Lowe overall. Think about that. Two out of every three hitters Bradford faced grounded out against him.

In addition to that, Bradford finished top eight in some other important advanced stat categories like FIP, xFIP, HR/FB, and HR/9. Those last two are probably the most important of all because they mean that Bradford NEVER gave up home runs. How good was he? He gave up only .24 home runs per nine innings he pitched that year. When you do the math on that it means he only gave up two home runs the whole fricking year in 75+ innings pitched.

And yet all of baseball still pointed and laughed at Beane for starting a guy with such an awkward throwing motion. They discounted his success as a fluke and only because big league hitters were so thrown off by the throwing motion. The game suddenly became about style rather results. It’s no wonder Beane took a bunch of scrubs to the brink of a World Series title that year with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. The “experts” became so convinced of their method that they lost sight of what the ultimate goal was. Better to lose doing it the “right way” than win with a submarine pitcher and a bunch of has-been’s, am I right, am I right?!?!?!

You know where this is going.

I can’t help but notice the striking similarities between (insert random 2002 Oakland A’s player) and Tim Tebow this season with the Broncos.  If you remember the movie, you remember all the hilarious criticisms that were thrown at the A’s that year and how it literally just blew people’s minds that he would dare to think differently.  Tell me if any of this sounds similar to that:

ESPN’s Greg EasterbrookEverybody be at the pep rally after school — senior Tim Tebow is leading Denver Broncos High School to state! Yeah!  Denver is, improbably, the NFL’s hottest team outside Wisconsin, 5-1 since Tebow took the reins. Those fans in the bleachers who’d been chanting for Tebow — they were right. But then in high school, the booster club always knows. Maybe for the next home game, the Broncos should run out through a big sheet of paper that was decorated at the pep rally with “Go Broncos” and “XXOO” written all over by the cheerleaders.

The Bleacher Report’s Jantz SpaldingWill the Cinderella story stop?  Of course it will.  He lacks the inability to throw downfield, has little-to-no accuracy, the arm strength of a third-string quarterback and absolutely zero pocket presence. It just seems to be an embarrassment to call him a quarterback (see: two-completion game).

SI’s Peter King: It doesn’t look like Tim Tebow’s good enough to prevent Denver from making Matt Barkley or Landry Jones its first pick next April. But he sure is a nice guy.

I don’t want to claim that I have any more knowledge of the game than these fine gentlemen, but I do want to pose a couple of questions.  Is it possible that our minds are polluted as to how to actually evaluate the NFL?  Is it possible that we have reached a sort of cultural arrogance about what the NFL is supposed to represent?  Did we lose sight of what the ultimate goal is in football?

I continue to be confounded by the belief that you need to throw the ball to win in the NFL.  It’s always the primary theme that is brought up when dismissing Tebow’s future in the NFL.  At some point along the way we started valuing pass attempts and passing touchdowns as the most important stats in the game.  For all my Moneyball geeks out there, is this not the same exact thing as when MLB scouts began to value RBI and batting average more than OBP or walks? 

When did throwing the football become more important than not turning the ball over?  When did throwing the football become the only evaluation criteria on a quarterback?  Is it not about what he does as a whole, rather than one specific detail?

That’s exactly the question Cold Hard Football Facts’ Kerry J. Byrne tackles in this piece (a must read if you’re at all interested in the Tebow debate).  In that article Byrne points out these alarming details:

But Tebow himself has been deadly with the ball in his hands. He produces touchdowns at an amazing clip, better than any quarterback in football in his brief career. Here’s a comparison of Tebow vs. some of the more prolific quarterbacks in recent history.

Career percentage of touches that result in a TD:
Tim Tebow — 6.0 percent

Aaron Rodgers — 5.7 percent
Peyton Manning — 5.5 percent
Tom Brady — 5.1 percent
Drew Brees — 4.7 percent
John Elway — 3.9 percent

Wow. Tebow may not pass the ball effectively. But he’s produced an incredible 22 touchdowns (13 passing, nine rushing) in just 368 touches (225 pass attempts, 121 rush attempts, 22 sacks). Nobody in football gets the ball in the end zone more often.

More importantly, Tebow takes incredibly good care of the football. We track something at Cold, Hard Football Facts called the “interception ladder.” It shows us that every interception decreases your chances of winning by about 20 percentage points. In other words, interceptions are destructive plays that severely limit a team’s ability to win games.

But the Broncos are winning not just because Tebow protects the football, but because he protects it better than any QB in the game today. Here’s how he stacks up against some of the more prolific QBs in the game today.

Career interception percentage:
Tim Tebow — 1.78 percent
Aaron Rodgers — 1.83 percent
Tom Brady — 2.2 percent
Drew Brees — 2.71 percent
Peyton Manning — 2.75 percent
John Elway — 3.1 percent

Another interesting argument I’ve heard in favor of Tebow is that the Broncos are exploiting the way defenses have evolved to defend the high-flying passing offenses.  It pretty much boils down to this idea: defenses have had to get smaller and faster in order to defend the way offenses so clearly favor the passing game now.  The thinking goes that these smaller and faster defenders are incapable of taking the pounding that results from a game against the Broncos where the have to withstand the impact and physicality of 50+ runs.

Can you see the competitive advantage now that the Broncos have and why it’s not so ridiculous that they’re going with this style of play?

And finally, I’d like to dismiss once and for all the notion that the option can’t work in the NFL because “defenses are too fast” and “NFL coordinators are too smart.”  Look no further than Denver’s league-leading rushing attack as evidence of this, but let’s make an even further case as to why it makes sense.

Most people would agree with me if I said the advantage teams like the Patriots, Packers, and Saints have right now is that they have seemingly infinite amounts of personnel packages they can take advantage of in their spread passing attacks.  At any time, all of those teams seem like they have five Pro Bowl capable receivers on the field which makes it impossible for a defense to defend.  Pretty simple, right?

Why then can’t the reverse ring true for a rushing attack?

Is it not possible that the Broncos might be able to exploit that very same advantage with the option?  Say they have four people on the field at any time who can kill you with the run (Tebow, Ball, McGahee, and Royal), is that not the same advantage the Packers have in a package with Finley, Jennings, Jones, and Nelson?

When you throw in the fact that most teams spend the other 15 weeks of the season preparing to defend a spread offense rather than an option, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s advantage Broncose. 

Did I also mention that the option is also incredibly useful because it forces the defense to account for one more player on the field?  Think about it.  With the advent of the ultra-pass NFL, the defenses can pretty much give up accounting for the QB because he is so trained to remain in the pocket.  The battle becomes 11 defending 10.  The Broncos force teams to leave a linebacker as a spy or prevent a defensive end from pinning his ears back every play.  Again, advantage Broncos.

This probably won’t be my last Tim Tebow defense, but at this moment I consider it my greatest attempt to date.  In all seriousness, heed the lessons of MLB and how it failed to embrace how badly the A’s were exploiting market flaws in the game.  It’s exactly what the Denver Broncos are doing now and it’s going to continue to work as long as coaches, scouts, and writers continue to dismiss it as the latest “fad.”

Generation Y, where it feels great to be sifting through NBA rumors again.

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Good Morning Generation

What a game. What a sport.  There is of course nothing I can write this morning to perfectly describe that game.  Being that I live in Dallas I can tell you that it was a quiet, lonely morning where you could just kind of feel the energy of the city being sucked out.  Given that I have no dog in this fight though, let me be the one of the millions to say how much fun that game was last night.  Call it hyperbole, say I’m over-exaggerating, I don’t care.  That was the single greatest baseball game I’ve ever witnessed.  It follows one of the most entertaining playoffs I’ve ever seen as well as the single greatest day of baseball I’ve ever seen on the last day of the regular season.  And the best part is we get to come back tonight and do it all again.  Such a pleasure.  Let’s play a little mythbusters this morning instead of the usual column.

Myth: The losing team tonight should blame their manager.  You have two very contrasting styles going head-to-head here with Ron Washington’s “don’t mess with a good thing, trust the guys that got you here” philosophy battling Tony La Russa’s “I must constantly tweak everything possible in order to gain some sort of competitive advantage” theory.  Look, both of them work about 50% of the time and that’s all you can ask out of your manager.  It’s stupid to blame TLR for game five or Wash for game six.  I know hindsight is 20/20, but at their respective times of failure, both managers were acting in the best interests of their teams.  It’s impossible in baseball to make the correct managerial decision every single time.  There’s too much chance, luck, fate, and low probability involved.  It’s essentially gambling.

Fact: The losing team tonight should blame their defense.  It’s been awful.  Just unforgivable.  Both teams made fools of themselves throughout the series, and in particular the Rangers.  There’s been way too many errant throws, failed scoops, dropped flyballs (I’m looking at you Nelson Cruz), etc.  In an era where great fielding was seen as the latest trend in Moneyball, it’s astonishing that this is what we’re seeing in the World freaking Series. 

Myth: Any of the multiple players who were injured last night will miss the game this evening. I know a lot of Rangers fans are probably waking to the news of Napoli’s injury and Cruz’s hamstring injury this morning.  Curt Schilling said it best last night.  There’s no way any of them miss time tonight.  No way.  You never know when you’ll get the chance to be back in the World Series, much less a winner takes all situation like game seven.  How could you ever live with yourself as an athlete if you skipped tonight?  There’s no possible way either of them or Matt Holliday skip out.  Take your shots, take your pills, make this game a classic.  You have the rest of the offseason to heal.  For God’s sake Josh Hamilton is playing this entire playoffs with either (and possibly both) a groin tear or a sports hernia.  That didn’t stop him from going H.A.M.ilton (copyright Gen Y Sports, 2011) in extra innings last night for what should have been the game-winning homer.

Truth: A majority of the Rangers bullpen guys are incapable of throwing strikes.  If I was Tony La Russa I would be telling my guys that they’re not allowed to lift the bat off their shoulder against the Rangers bullpen until they have two strikes in the count.  I’m being 100% serious.  Consider the disasters of Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz last night.  The reason they found themselves in their respective scenarios was because neither of them have the ability to throw first pitch strikes.  Ogando has been particularly awful.  Look I get that having 99-mph heat goes a long way in this league.  I understand that Feliz is probably intentionally wild to give the hitters an even slimmer chance of ever catching up to one of his fastballs.  But still, my strategy wouldn’t change.  Let the Rangers pitchers beat themselves.  I swear to God they’ll load the bases with walks because they can’t come close to the strike zone.

Myth: The Cardinals have all the momentum.  It’s a game seven.  All bets are off.  Anything is possible.  There is nobody out there who could possibly predict what’s going to happen next.  The Red Sox didn’t win the World Series after Carlton Fisk’s game-six walk off.  For all we know, the Rangers might show up tonight and win by ten runs.  No seriously, look at their lineup again if you think I’m crazy.  It’s quite possible that momentum is the most made up false idea in all of sports.

Truth: Don’t tell any of the Cardinals players that.  This is why I love sports.  The athletes in reality are usually very simple men, a majority of whom likely didn’t receive higher education.  They believe in ideas like “never giving up,” that their “character” is what got them here, that they “refused to lose.”  And you know what?  They might just be right.

I said this on the last day of the regular season and I’ll reiterate it again.  Last night was one of those rare occasions where all of the time invested/wasted on sports paid off.  Who could have ever envisioned that game?  Who could have possibly said with any hint of sanity last night that the Cardinals were going to win that game?  At one point I was almost positive Disney was conspiring with Bud Selig to film the sequel to Angels in the Outfield.  It was one of those once in a generation “miracle” games.  And god damnit if that wasn’t one of the most enjoyable nights of sports watching I’ve ever been a part of.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I often take a bunch of flack for how much time I devote to sports.  I understand why.  But then there’s games like last night where I can point and say “See!  This is why it’s worth it.”  That kind of magic what you pray for every time you tune in, and somehow, somehow, last night was even better than that.

Generation Y, where we’d like to add Case Keenum to our fantasy team.

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Good Morning Generation

Baseball is a funny game with a dry sense of humor.  A day after the media deified Tony LaRussa for a game that will likely be the episode he submits to the Emmy’s for best actor in a drama series, TLR then went out and over-managed his team out of a victory and a commanding 2-0 lead in the World Series.  How awesome was that implosion last night?  How does momentum change that abruptly?  Consider the series of events that led us to this moment. 

First you had Rangers managers Ron Washington admitting before the thing even started that he hoped that it didn’t come down to a battle of the minds because he submitted that he is no match for LaRussa’s intellect.  And in typical tragic fashion, Washington went out and tried to play LaRussa’s game in the series opener by sending up a guy to bat who we all agree probably shouldn’t even be on the roster at this point. Advantage Cardinals.  They took the first game.  That then led to game two where it appeared we were headed in that same direction. 

The Cardinals staff had combined for an eight inning shut out and had just turned over the ball to the flame-throwing Jason Motte, who up until last night had retired 27 of the 28 hitters he had faced in the postseason.  And then, one of those funny baseball things happened.  Ian Kinsler barely got his hands through a Motte fastball and on any other night, it likely would have been caught.  Instead a nice combination of cold, wind, and luck led to a flare that barely dropped over the glove of the short stop.  Washington then predictably called for the steal and Kinsler beat the throw by what seemed like .000001 seconds.  A “bang-bang” play if there ever was one.  After Elvis Andrus reached second base on a throwing error in the next at bat, it was time for LaRussa to make a decision.

LaRussa obviously then pulled Motte for left-handed pitcher Arthur Rhodes and what seemed like a favorable matchup against lefty Josh Hamilton.  That is until Hamilton took all of one pitches to hit a sacrifice, tie the game, and send LaRussa back to the mound to call for yet another pitcher.  It was a classic TLR over-management job and that type of performance that has driven Cardinals fans crazy during his entire tenure in St. Louis.  It’s admittedly hard to watch.  He’s like the Andy Reid of MLB managers.  Yeah he might get you to the playoffs every year, but it never comes easy, it’s never pretty, and it makes you want to hit the ejector button about five times along the way.

What I find so interesting though is the manner in which the viewing public scrutinizes every move a manager makes during a game.  In fact I have no doubt that LaRussa is going to get killed for what he did last night.  Obviously he should have kept Motte in, called for the intentional walk on Hamilton, and then played for a double play ball with Michael Young, right?? 

Wrong.

How are we supposed to know any of that?  Hindsight is 20/20, but in that moment, who is to truly say what the correct decision is?  That very same strategy that lost Tony LaRussa the game last night is the strategy that led the Cardinals to win the NL pennant.  Their bullpen has been better than outstanding thus far.  Why should LaRussa have then suddenly changed the strategy?

I guess what I’m saying is that I hope you don’t blast LaRussa this morning in much the same way I hoped you didn’t view him as a genius after game one.  Baseball is an extremely fickle sport.  No matter how long a person has been in the game, no matter how much you might increase your win probability by playing the numbers of sabermetrics, the game never fails to create moments that are unique unto themselves.  It’s like sports gambling for all you people out there who have ever placed a bet.  You’re winning if you hit 51% of your decisions.  But that still means 49% of them are wrong.

Last night Tony LaRussa got it wrong.  But the beauty of the game is that he still has the rest of the Series to do just the opposite.

Generation Y, where no seriously you guys, the Epstein deal is almost done this time.  For reals.

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Good Morning Generation

Quick baseball rant: I don’t want to hear another word about whether the Boston Red Sox drank beer or not.  It goes on everywhere.  Get over it.  Does it really matter whether the drinking took place back in the clubhouse or in the dugout?  The answer is no.  Also, don’t you think a blog like Deadspin or TMZ would have been all over that months ago?  Surely ONE photo would have emerged of Josh Beckett slamming a beer.  I’m sick of this great MLB playoffs getting overshadowed by an organization that somehow feels it has the right to still dominate the baseball conversation weeks after they completed one of the worst collapses in baseball history.  The arrogance shown by the front office in throwing their entire clubhouse under the bus in the now infamous Boston Globe piece is shocking.  But apparently that wasn’t enough as they then completed the hubris by shipping off the man who made all of this recent success possible in Theo Epstein.  Of course getting that deal completed in a reasonable fashion wasn’t sufficient either and so they’ve dragged along the negotiations for two weeks and counting and guess what?  If you’re not in Dallas or St Louis right now, you’d probably never guess there’s a World Series being played.  The Boston Red Sox ruined baseball.

Generation Y, where Tony LaRussa definitely scored a BASEketball style psyche out on Ron Washington last night.

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Good Morning Generation

One of the benefits of having your own sports blog is that you have your own space to dump ideas, no matter how awesome or dumb they might actually be.  It’s with that in mind that I want to throw out this next theory I have about where the game of baseball is going.  Before I do that though sit back and think about what has made the MLB playoffs so enjoyable thus far.  And go beyond the obvious facts that the Red Sox didn’t even qualify for it and that the Yankees and Phillies were eliminated in the first round.  I’d argue the explosion of offense has been the single greatest thing for baseball since the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry was renewed early last decade with the famous 2003 and 2004 postseasons.  Again I’ve been mentioning this all week but the game benefits from offense in much the same way football benefits from having the rules so oriented towards protecting the quarterback and favoring offensive players.  Defense doesn’t win TV ratings, neither does pitching.

One of the reasons this has been allowed to go on is because of the seeming lack of quality starting pitchers leftover in the the playoffs.  Even in both Championship Series I’d argue Justin Verlander was the only elite pitcher left of the whole bunch.  Grienke and Carpenter have both flirted with that kind of greatness before, but at no where close to the level of Verlander, most especially this season.  And with that thought in mind I texted a fellow baseball fan and friend yesterday wondering where all the starting pitching went in baseball.  His response, “they play for the giants, phillies, braves and are sitting at home.”  Wasn’t the key to playoff success having a dominant starter?  At least one anchor who could hold the staff together and get you a win when you needed it most?  Not so fast my friends!

Tony La Russa has long been touted for the restless manner in which he seeks to get competitive advantages over opponents by looking for new innovations within the game of baseball.  He’s largely credited with popularizing the concept of a closer (great idea) and has experimented with bizarre concepts such as hitting his pitcher eighth in an attempt to get his ninth hitter on base for the top of the order (advanced stats proved this was a bad idea).  Among other quirky habits, LaRussa is notorious for constantly tinkering with his lineup as if he might one day find some elusive combination of players that would create the perfect team.  Friends, it’s time to start recognizing the latest innovation we might one day credit to Tony LaRussa.  I call it: the bullpen starter.

Consider the decisive NLCS game six this past Sunday.  In that game Tony LaRussa used six relief pitchers which capped a series in which he would never use a single starting pitcher for more than six innings.  In game six in particular, LaRussa abandoned starter Edwin Jackson after just two innings of work.  All his bullpen did was allow just two runs the rest of the way to seal the victory.  It was a remarkable trend that we’re seeing more and more of as these playoffs continue. 

Imagine for a second the implications of all of this.  What if we one day lived in a world where the majority of pitchers don’t last in a game beyond three or so innings of work?  It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility, so I hope you don’t immediately dismiss the thought of it.  I’ve witnessed it first hand the past couple years at my alma mater TCU where head coach Jim Schlossnagle cycles through pitchers in games at a rate which seems unhealthy.  It’s not uncommon to see six different guys pitch for TCU each night during a three game weekend series.  And you know what?  It works.  Since Schloss took over the program the Horned Frogs are 348-153 and just wrapped up their sixth consecutive Mountain West Conference Championship.  This includes multiple NCAA Regional tournament appearances and the memorable 2010 team that made it to the semi finals of the College World Series.

I think we’re headed in that direction in the Majors and I’ll make the case right now.  First reason: Moneyball.  Teams do not want to hand over ridiculous long-term contracts anymore.  The stat geeks have proven that most teams just simply can’t afford to do it and you’re seeing more and more teams refuse to sign multi-year deals to get star players.  The problem then becomes though that they have to effectively replace the production.  While teams can’t find a Justin Verlander to go eight solid innings every start, I’m pretty sure they could just as easily find three dudes to combine for the same output.  Most importantly, those three dudes could be had on the cheap. While the season-long 25-man rosters will make this difficult, I trust they’d be able to figure it out.  The second reason is baseball’s new obsession with pitching counts and preserving arms.  What better way to do that than completely cut back on the total amount of balls thrown by every pitcher?  You could have your “ace” throw 30 pitches every three or four nights.  The third reason is an extension of the second reason in that managers and coaches simply do not trust starters like they once did back in the day.  There’s too much at stake anymore in baseball games because of the explosion of information and the increased accessibility fans now enjoy.  The job is on the line every night now and many teams just can’t afford anymore to wait around for a guy to learn how to pitch and gain confidence.  The Rangers of course are the rare exception in that Nolan actually urges his guys to throw a ton of pitches and learn “the art.”  Most teams don’t have the greatest pitcher of all-time as their co-owner and team president though.

And so there you have it.  The bullpen starter.  Read about it, witness it first hand tonight when LaRussa yanks Carpenter in the fourth inning in favor of his hot bullpen.  If the Cardinals end up winning the World Series this year because of it, well as Brad Pitt famously said in Moneyball, “we’ll have changed the game forever.”

Generation Y, where we’re happy to see nothing has changed with the Raiders.

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Good Morning Generation

As we head into the World Series tomorrow night, I can’t help but wonder about the future of baseball in this country.  Not only in the terms of popularity, but also in the way teams actually play the game.  One of the biggest travesties of this postseason, which I’d actually argue has been the most entertaining playoffs since 2003, is the sheer lack of coverage from news outlets.  If you ever had any doubt about the ESPN’s of the world favoring Boston, New York, and Philly, here’s exhibit A as to why that’s true.  They’d rather discuss last night’s horrific excuse for a Monday Night Football game then get into just how awesome, and unlikely, this World Series matchup actually is.  It’s partially our fault as consumers, ESPN is in the profit-making business after all.  However, there is no excuse as to why baseball isn’t the dominant topic of conversation in the sports world right now.

What is it about baseball these days that makes it edge further and further towards being a niche sport like hockey?  Why can’t the sport capture our imagination anymore?  Is ESPN entirely to blame for it?  What is it going to take for this country to be riveted by a baseball series again?

Let’s address this in a couple of ways.  First I think we need to figure out at what point baseball seemed to have lost its innocence and then let’s examine what could possibly get the country as a whole interested in the sport again. 

To me, the decline of baseball’s popularity is far too obvious and you can probably come up with it yourself without reading any further.  Steroids and the allusion of mystical performances that baseball fans went through in the late 90s and early 00s completely ruined the fan experience for an entire generation of people.  For many, witnessing the epic home run chase of 1998 and then watching Barry Bonds completely challenge the notion of what a baseball player is capable of were some of the best moments of their sports fandom.  You can’t forget the emotions that we all had tied up in that period.  Everyone had an opinion ranging from protecting Maris’ legacy all the way to hoping McGwire or Bonds would forever rewrite the record books.  Rarely do we get to witness history being made in such a dramatic fashion like that.  We were all emotionally invested in it.  To then have it revealed that PEDs were largely responsible for the whole thing just absolutely sucked.  It felt like you’d been cheated on by your wife of twenty years and had absolutely no idea it was coming.

I’d then argue a further extension of that was the Boston Red Sox breaking the curse.  It got rid of one of the best storylines in all of sports.  What other angles could we possibly now draw every year but to finally see if the Cubs could be the last franchise to get over their franchise’s awful history?  While New England finally got to rejoice in 2004 in one of the most incredible postseason performances ever seen, we now know that the two individuals most responsible for the Sox success have been tied to steroids (Manny and Papi).  It was a double blow to the fans, especially the younger generation who had grown up rooting for and identifying with these guys, only to find out they were cheaters.  That was the last dance baseball ever had with romanticism, or so it seems.

So where do we go from here?  How do you get America excited again about baseball if you can’t get them excited about the Home Run Derby of a series that is about to take place between the Cards and Rangers?  And it’s time to start thinking outside the box and getting away from the idea that the Red Sox, Yankees, or Phillies need to be involved.  I don’t buy that.  The Red Sox were a baseball afterthought for almost a century before they finally won a World Series and the game got along just fine before that.  Why then though will this year’s series likely feature historically low television ratings?

I have a couple of idea, none of which may seem original to you, and if they are, well then thanks for stopping by, this round’s on me.  Baseball needs individual stars again.  I don’t know what’s responsible for the dramatic decline in superstar baseball players, but they don’t exist anymore.  You could argue it’s on the fans who are afraid to commit anymore, for fear of repeating the awful emotions of the steroid revelation.  You could blame the media for brutalizing any player that dares speak with non-cliches.  Who knows.  But we need them again.  Baseball is extremely similar to basketball in that the fan’s can experience the game at a way more personal level, mostly because fans at home can view player’s facial expressions and see the emotions on their faces.  This is a huge marketing advantage over say, football.  It’s exactly why the NBA has been so successful in recent years. They have well over 50% of the marketable stars in sports today because of it. And yet it’s not being exploited in baseball for whatever reason.  I’d argue Derek Jeter is the last “superstar” in the sense of the word that I’m using here and I have no idea who is going to replace him.  Bryce Harper seems to be the closest thing we’ve got, but who knows if he’ll even make it out of the minor leagues? Albert Pujols is the best player in the game but I’m not even sure I’ve seen him in a commercial besides that SportsCenter bit. That’s a problem.

The next thing we need is for the franchises in Chicago and LA to stabalize and by that I mean the Cubs and Dodgers.  I’m not arguing that I want either of those two teams to dominate every year and turn into the midwest and west coast version of the Yankees.  Far from it.  However, there is a certain benefit of the game towards having it’s biggest franchises continually competing year in and year out.  As a baseball fan, how can you resist watching the Cubs in the postseason, knowing that the next Bartman moment is likely on the way?  You can’t!  It’s like how we were all obssessed with Charlie Sheen earlier this year.  America loves witnessing a public meltdown and the Cubs are capable of that every time they’re in the playoffs.

Lastly, and this is entirely debatable whereas the earlier points are not, Billy Beane has got to find a way to vindicate the movement he started and win a World Series.  Before this past month or two, this point would not have been true.  Moneyball resonated with a certain group of people, but it was a rather small population of mostly white, mostly male, mostly nerdy sports fans who devoted entirely too much time to reading about the game.  Man am I good at describing myself.  It was just a book.  But then something happened.  What else can you call it but the Brad Pitt effect?  He gets into roles and uses the Brad Pitt style and that Brad Pitt charisma and poof!  You can’t help but feel for his character.  Moneyball was pretty damn successful at the box office.  And I’m guessing it’s not because America has a sudden interest in advanced statistics.  My theory is that a run by Oakland while Beane is still in charge could do wonders towards attracting casual fans like women who loved the idea of a man who chose to stay in Oakland to be with his daughter, to working stiffs who related with the frustration of bosses and co-workers that refuse to advance their ways of doing things.  Beane represents something more than the game now.

So, you got all that Bud Selig?  Or are you alreadying seeing the light at the end of the tunnel?

Generation Y, where we demand to read Al Davis’ will after that trade this morning.

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Good Morning Generation

Now that the Cardinals officially sealed their trip to the World Series to face the Rangers last night, I think it’s really interesting how completely different the narrative of this series will be as opposed to just last season.  Consider that last year we had these same Texas Rangers going up against the San Francisco Giants, a team praised wide and far for their unbelievable pitching.  The Giants rotation dominated the Rangers and pretty much every baseball writer across the land wrote something to the effect of “pitching wins championships.”  It’s a hilarious and oft-rehearsed line of the postseason as it if were one of the absolute truths of all of baseball.  I’m hear to go all mythbusters on you pitching-obsessed baseball fans out there.  That is not the ultimate key to winning a title. It’s the baseball equivalent of the football line that defense wins championships. Only when it doesn’t of course.

I’m not trying to go all hyperbolic in the other direction, but is there any doubt that the 2011 MLB postseason will be remembered as the year of the home run?  We’re coming off an ALCS series where Nelson Cruz clubbed six bombs all by himself including a blast off the man likely to win both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards this season.  And then there was last night’s sloppy end to the Cardinals Brewers series in which the teams combined for six home runs in the final game.  An exhibition of pitching prowess this was not.

And as I sit back here and think about what this all means for the game, I can’t help but think about the manner in which the NFL has forever been altered by a switch to dominant offenses.  And make no mistake about football, it’s never going back again.  We’re likely to see teams with very questionable defenses win the next ten Super Bowls all because the game has so heavily fixed the rules to favor the offenses.  Are we about to enter an age in which the elite hitter is a more prized possession on the free agent market than an elite pitcher?  Are we already there?

Consider the Philadelphia Phillies.  They had three legitimate Cy Young candidates all season in Halladay, Lee, and Hamels.  It doesn’t suck to have Roy Oswalt as your fourth guy either.  Their bullpen didn’t produce at an elite level because they were troubled with injuries all season, but Madson, Lidge, and the rest of them are above average.  After dominating the league all year and winning an MLB best 102 games they were promptly knocked out of the postseason by the Cardinals and actually outpitched in the decisive game five by Chris Carpenter, a 36-year old aging pitcher who didn’t exactly have his best stuff all year.  It’s not to discount Carpenter.  He is a former Cy Young winner himself, after all.  However, he’s no Roy Halladay.  In perhaps the biggest coincidence of all, the Cardinals wouldn’t even have qualified for the postseason if not for the Phillies refusal to take it easy in the final games of the regular season when they had already clinched the best record in baseball.  The logic says that the Phillies should have walked through the playoffs and the World Series without any problems, all because of their pitching.  It didn’t quite work out that way.

And so now we’re left with two teams that have been red hot at the plate all of October.  The Rangers in particular boast an incredibly scary lineup where their one through seven hitters can all kill you by themselves.  Even their eighth hitter David Murphy is on a hot streak right now.  A pitcher gets no easy outs when facing the Rangers.  Nelson Cruz, he of the ALCS record breaking six home runs hits seventh for crying out loud!  The Rangers are the Green Bay Packers of baseball.

However, despite all of this offense, I’m still not willing to come out and say definitively that a hyper offensive-oriented style of play is what wins a World Series.  Far from it.  I think the lesson that these baseball playoffs have taught us is that it’s not about embracing any kind of cliches about pitching or hitting.  The only constants seem to be two things: a bullpen that can close a game down and timely hitting.  I’m not talking about scoring a ton of runs.  I’m talking about scoring runs with two outs, scoring runs that immediately respond to the opposing teams’ runs, being able to get on base when your team needs it most.  Which is to say that the only constant in winning championships seems to be getting hot at the right time.

Does anyone have a metric for that?

Generation Y, where our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Dan Wheldon this morning.

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Gen Y Sponsored Post – Easton’s New Power Brigade Bat

(Editor’s Note: I was contacted by representatives from Easton and given one of their latest Power Brigade bats to check out and try for myself. This is my honest review for the site)

Admittedly I haven’t been interested in baseball bats in quite some time. It’s not that I have anything against baseball or bats in particular. It’s just that you have to leave certain things behind as you grow up. I’m now a full time employee and a recent college graduate. Getting my Masters in the evenings leaves little time to pursue some of my favorite hobbies, namely participating in recreational athletic leagues and, in particular, softball/baseball. Which is to say I freely admit I’m not exactly an expert when it comes to the latest and greatest bats and the technology being introduced into the latest releases. However, like I do any topic in sports, I dove into some research and became more educated about some of the physics of baseball as a result. Before I give my full review, here’s a bit of my own background.

I played ball in high school and that was probably the last real time I spent paying attention to what brands mattered and how technology was shaping the game. To give you an idea of how far out of touch I originally was, the last “great” bat I can remember a teammate of mine ever owning was the original Easton Z-Core Redline. It came out all the way back when I was in middle school. When I first got my hands on that bat I was quite sure that not only had I laid hands on the finest baseball bat ever made by a man, but also that Easton was secretly borrowing technology from NASA. Roy Hobbs had the Wonderboy. My teammates and I had the Z-Core.

It was the first bat I ever remember being made of composite material which, after doing quite a bit of reading, I now understand disappeared for a while before making a triumphant comeback in the late 2000s. I’ll never forget how different the ball sounded coming off the bat as compared to the metal bats we were used to at the time. Oddly it almost sounded like the wood bats we used in fall league. It felt like baseball was moving into the space age. Whether or not the bats actually made us better was of no issue. We knew we had the coolest bat on the market with the latest technology and it gave us a mental edge we hadn’t had before. We promptly won our first tournament in Glenwood Springs, Colorado later that summer and eventually finished second in the Colorado state tournament after that. This from a team that rarely advanced out of the knockout stages in the tournaments we played every weekend during the summers.

Some parents might say we finally had the timely hitting and solid pitching that had been absent for so many games before that. I credit the bat. I don’t know if any of you remember the movie Space Jam, but it was like that scene at halftime when MJ convinces all the Looney Tunes characters that drinking “Michael’s Secret Stuff” would push them to victory (even though it was merely water). It was with those fond memories in mind that I agreed to write this review for Easton.

Let’s get the specs out of the way first on the bat. I have in my possession the Power Brigade S2 -3 BBCOR BB11S2. It’s a 32 inch/29 oz bat which complies with the standard length to weight rules that were in place during my high school years. It’s one of the bats from the Easton Speed Series which have the lowest MOI of any bat on the market right now. MOI stands for moment of inertia. The easy way to explain it is that every bat has a balance point at which the weight is evenly distributed between the two halves (think of trying to balance the bat flatly on a finger). The lower the MOI, the lighter the bat feels in the hands of the hitter because its balance point is closer to the handle of the bat. It also translates to being able to get the bat through the point of contact faster, which cuts down on reaction time.

In addition to that, the bat is a two-piece which is an advancement that hadn’t come around yet when I was in high school. The science behind it says that the two-piece bat allows for a larger “trampoline effect” which is the slight bending that occurs when the bat makes contact with the ball. The rational is that the larger the trampoline effect, the more energy that gets transferred to the ball and the harder and faster it goes.

That sounded really nerdy. Let’s put it another way. The bat gives you an actual competitive advantage over the opponent and, specifically, the pitcher. It feels light as hell and it gives you confidence. As any athlete can attest, you take any advantage you can get. Whether it’s the bat being the most technologically advanced piece of equiment out there (it is) or whether it gives you more confidence as a hitter (it does), you take whatever you can.

The next aspect of the bat which kicks ass is just the pure aesthetic appearance. My fiancee can attest that I was extremely skeptical about this whole process but immediately having pulled the bat out of the box, I ended up looking like Ralphy after he gets the Red Ryder BB Gun in A Christmas Story. I was in shock about how ballin’ it looked. I’m embarrassed by how much I like it. The bat is light years more attractive than the hunks of metal I used to swing back in my playing days. The Power Brigade follows a black and yellow color scheme made even sweeter by the fact that the black and yellow grip is separated from the black and yellow barrel by a metallic snake skin-looking middle that has to be seen in person to fully appreciate. Don’t take my word for it though, here’s the actual bat:

Image Courtesy Easton's Website

I could spend hundreds or more words vouching for the bat, but the truth is that’s boring. The simple things you need to know are that it has everything I’d ever want as an athlete. It’s the best looking bat out there. It has the most superior technology. And in perhaps the most convincing point of all, it was used by all the players at this year’s College World Series and Little League World Series. If you’re a parent, your kid needs to get this bat in their hands, like yesterday. If you’re a current player, you probably already know what I’m taking about.

As a further testament to how much I believe in this product, I’m actually going to film myself demonstrating the bat for a post later this month. I’m a rookie when it comes to video editing, but I think I’ll be able to demonstrate just how much the bat makes a difference when you see a skinny sports writer like myself dropping bombs on camera.

Stay tuned.

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Gen Y Sponsored Post – Easton’s New Power Brigade Bat

(Editor’s Note: I was contacted by representatives from Easton and given one of their latest Power Brigade bats to check out and try for myself. This is my honest review for the site)

Admittedly I haven’t been interested in baseball bats in quite some time. It’s not that I have anything against baseball or bats in particular. It’s just that you have to leave certain things behind as you grow up. I’m now a full time employee and a recent college graduate. Getting my Masters in the evenings leaves little time to pursue some of my favorite hobbies, namely participating in recreational athletic leagues and, in particular, softball/baseball. Which is to say I freely admit I’m not exactly an expert when it comes to the latest and greatest bats and the technology being introduced into the latest releases. However, like I do any topic in sports, I dove into some research and became more educated about some of the physics of baseball as a result. Before I give my full review, here’s a bit of my own background.

I played ball in high school and that was probably the last real time I spent paying attention to what brands mattered and how technology was shaping the game. To give you an idea of how far out of touch I originally was, the last “great” bat I can remember a teammate of mine ever owning was the original Easton Z-Core Redline. It came out all the way back when I was in middle school. When I first got my hands on that bat I was quite sure that not only had I laid hands on the finest baseball bat ever made by a man, but also that Easton was secretly borrowing technology from NASA. Roy Hobbs had the Wonderboy. My teammates and I had the Z-Core.

It was the first bat I ever remember being made of composite material which, after doing quite a bit of reading, I now understand disappeared for a while before making a triumphant comeback in the late 2000s. I’ll never forget how different the ball sounded coming off the bat as compared to the metal bats we were used to at the time. Oddly it almost sounded like the wood bats we used in fall league. It felt like baseball was moving into the space age. Whether or not the bats actually made us better was of no issue. We knew we had the coolest bat on the market with the latest technology and it gave us a mental edge we hadn’t had before. We promptly won our first tournament in Glenwood Springs, Colorado later that summer and eventually finished second in the Colorado state tournament after that. This from a team that rarely advanced out of the knockout stages in the tournaments we played every weekend during the summers.

Some parents might say we finally had the timely hitting and solid pitching that had been absent for so many games before that. I credit the bat. I don’t know if any of you remember the movie Space Jam, but it was like that scene at halftime when MJ convinces all the Looney Tunes characters that drinking “Michael’s Secret Stuff” would push them to victory (even though it was merely water). It was with those fond memories in mind that I agreed to write this review for Easton.

Let’s get the specs out of the way first on the bat. I have in my possession the Power Brigade S2 -3 BBCOR BB11S2. It’s a 32 inch/29 oz bat which complies with the standard length to weight rules that were in place during my high school years. It’s one of the bats from the Easton Speed Series which have the lowest MOI of any bat on the market right now. MOI stands for moment of inertia. The easy way to explain it is that every bat has a balance point at which the weight is evenly distributed between the two halves (think of trying to balance the bat flatly on a finger). The lower the MOI, the lighter the bat feels in the hands of the hitter because its balance point is closer to the handle of the bat. It also translates to being able to get the bat through the point of contact faster, which cuts down on reaction time.

In addition to that, the bat is a two-piece which is an advancement that hadn’t come around yet when I was in high school. The science behind it says that the two-piece bat allows for a larger “trampoline effect” which is the slight bending that occurs when the bat makes contact with the ball. The rational is that the larger the trampoline effect, the more energy that gets transferred to the ball and the harder and faster it goes.

That sounded really nerdy. Let’s put it another way. The bat gives you an actual competitive advantage over the opponent and, specifically, the pitcher. It feels light as hell and it gives you confidence. As any athlete can attest, you take any advantage you can get. Whether it’s the bat being the most technologically advanced piece of equiment out there (it is) or whether it gives you more confidence as a hitter (it does), you take whatever you can.

The next aspect of the bat which kicks ass is just the pure aesthetic appearance. My fiancee can attest that I was extremely skeptical about this whole process but immediately having pulled the bat out of the box, I ended up looking like Ralphy after he gets the Red Ryder BB Gun in A Christmas Story. I was in shock about how ballin’ it looked. I’m embarrassed by how much I like it. The bat is light years more attractive than the hunks of metal I used to swing back in my playing days. The Power Brigade follows a black and yellow color scheme made even sweeter by the fact that the black and yellow grip is separated from the black and yellow barrel by a metallic snake skin-looking middle that has to be seen in person to fully appreciate. Don’t take my word for it though, here’s the actual bat:

Image Courtesy Easton's Website

I could spend hundreds or more words vouching for the bat, but the truth is that’s boring. The simple things you need to know are that it has everything I’d ever want as an athlete. It’s the best looking bat out there. It has the most superior technology. And in perhaps the most convincing point of all, it was used by all the players at this year’s College World Series and Little League World Series. If you’re a parent, your kid needs to get this bat in their hands, like yesterday. If you’re a current player, you probably already know what I’m taking about.

As a further testament to how much I believe in this product, I’m actually going to film myself demonstrating the bat for a post later this month. I’m a rookie when it comes to video editing, but I think I’ll be able to demonstrate just how much the bat makes a difference when you see a skinny sports writer like myself dropping bombs on camera.

Stay tuned.

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Why The NFL Is And Isn’t The Most Moneyball League Of Them All

Does that even make sense?  Let’s give this a shot…

I first read the Moneyball book two summers ago.  I was ages behind the rest of the sporting world in actually getting around to read the book, sadly, but ever since that moment I’ve devoted entirely way too much time catching up on the movement that I had missed just years before.  It would take a lot of time to sit here and prove to you that I’ve actually done the research, so let me just sum it up by giving my own personal definition of what exactly Moneyball is.  To me, Moneyball is the attempt to capture value in a market where it has yet to be captured.  Expanding on that, you get to broader definitions like exploiting market inefficiencies, creating new measures of data, and complicated analytics the likes of which you have absolutely no interest in (for good reason). 

As I’ve spent time in the past 24 months mass consuming everything I could find that had to do with advanced metrics, I learned that the original principles of Bill James that Billy Beane adopted in Oakland were now being applied to different sports, most notably soccer and basketball where the challenges to capture relevant data increase exponentially because of the freestyle nature of the sports.  Fascinating stuff to a sports dork like myself.  I became increasingly more captivated with all of this and delved heavily into both of those worlds.  When I finally surfaced to live a normal life I came to a curious realization though.  Not once have I ever come across an article detailing attempts in the NFL to detail their own personal sabermetric revolution.  I went out and fixed that last night learning all about Football Outsiders and the outstanding work they’ve been doing for the better part of a decade (hint, hint, hint for fantasy football purposes).  However, I’m still coming up short in one important aspect: who is THE sabermetric team of the NFL?  No seriously.  Is there any team you’d identify out there as being the team best utilizing sabermetrics?  Baseball had the A’s first, with the Red Sox and Rays being most associated with it now.  Basketball had the Houston Rockets with teams like Seattle/Oklahoma City, Portland, Dallas, and Boston following suit.  In the NFL?  I don’t know of one.  I have a theory on one (and you can probably guess who it is).  But there is no team that I can definitively point to and say, “that’s them.”

So like I said I spent last evening trying to cram as much football sabermetric information into my brain as humanly possible.  Eventually I ran across an interesting article by a couple of economics professors who looked to create a model that could definitively predict success in the NFL draft.  It doesn’t come quite out and say “this is sabermetrics,” but it most certainly fits into my definition of trying to capture value where it has yet to be captured.  In that article, authors David J. Berri and Martin B. Schmidt do their damndest to see if there are any predictive measures, as we currently know them, that can show whether a prospect will succeed in the NFL.  It’s really, really nerdy so to give you the Cliff Notes version, they basically found that being drafted in the first round does not guarantee a successful player and, most interestingly, that the best value to be had in the whole draft is actually in the top half of the second round.  Furthermore they found that it doesn’t really matter what round a team selects a quarterback. 

Which is to say: teams don’t know s— about s— when it comes to drafting players.

—–

A new perk of getting the NFL Network is the in depth coverage we now have of the actual draft and everything that goes into it.  For the first time, we’re granted access into the combine, able to witness the 40-yard dashes of different players live, see their performances in the vert, bench press, etc.  It’s pretty dang cool to see for the first time, if only for the inevitable moment each week when Rich Eisen runs the 40 and they ghost race him against 350-pound linemen.  Unfortunately for all the unsuspecting NFL teams out there, these ridiculous measurements guarantee nothing when it comes to how a player will perform on the field

—–

One of the most entertaining scenes of the recent Moneyball movie is an early one in the Oakland A’s war room in which Beane first lets his scouts know that they’re going to start thinking outside the box.  Although highly exaggerated for comedic effect, the scene offers a glimpse into the type of world and collective mindset that Beane sought out to change when he originally applied the new stats movement to baseball.

It would be hard to forget the particular moment when the old scouts discuss how a player has an ugly girlfriend, surely meaning that he has no self confidence.  The camera then cuts out to all the scouts nodding in unison as if this were some ancient hidden constant of baseball that could only be learned after spending at least thirty years involved at the professional level.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ll guarantee you’ll laugh.  Everyone laughed.

The sad part is the NFL is still in that mindset.  The 40-yard dash is the player’s ugly girlfriend and Al Davis is the old scout.

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A couple of weeks ago I spent about 1,000 words felating the New England Patriots for what I theorized was their own unique attempt at practicing sabermetrics within the game of football (and yes, this is the anonymous team I mentioned earlier).  In that piece, I introduced you to the brain behind the Patriots dynasty and told you how him and Belichick have spent a lifetime outsmarting their football counterparts.  I brought up a couple of the unique practices I postulated were their attempts at Moneyball and how the rest of the league seems to have yet to catch up.  I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about all of that and so I’d like to take the time again to explain the unique things New England does in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage.  Please understand that I obviously have no way of proving any of this because I don’t have access to New England’s front office.  But the series of ways in which the Patriots have distinguished themselves seems to indicate to me that it’s more than luck or coincidence, and actually a trend.  Without further ado, the list:

-A highly passing oriented offense that pretty much mimics the true spread offense used in college.  It’s a natural extension of Bill Walsh’s first west coast offenses which came up with the idea that a 5-yard pass is just as effective as a 5-yard run, only the Patriots utilize it to the extreme.  The basic premise behind it all is that they’ll dink and dunk you to death with underneath routes until you defense cheats and then they punish you with a long throw.  Although more and more teams are making the switch to this style, the Patriots have even added their own unique wrinkle.  It used to be that they’d make you pay with Randy Moss until they figured out that having a big name receiver maybe wasn’t the best idea for disguising your intentions on offense.  So instead they went out and found two tight ends of the same height and even bigger size.  As fantasy owners can attest, getting Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez on the roster was probably the best pick up anyone will make all year.  Brady has torched teams this season hitting them on streak routes straight through the middle of defenses.

-My second idea is an extension of how I ended the first.  The Patriots want to be underestimated and they found that the best way to do this was to utilize players you’ve never heard of to beat you.  Specifically players of the vertically challenged nature, but also the small name recognition.  No seriously, did you think we’d ever live in a world where Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez would be legitimate starters in fantasy football?  There’s no way.  They even went so far as to create an even bigger con by grabbing Ochocinco so that defenses might waste time focusing on him rather than the real players who were going to beat them.  It’s like how Oakland grabbed David Justice and Scott Hatteberg to replace Giambi and Damon and were just as successful, if not more so.

-A further extension of this which I have no way of proving because  1) I don’t know the metric they’re using and 2) am probably reaching is that the Patriots have figured out that you can get equal, if not more, production from two or three semi-talented players that you could get from one ultra-talented player, and likely for way cheaper (again think OBP for Justice and Hatteberg in baseball).  As an example, the Patriots would never have paid Chris Johnson that fat contract he just got under any circumstances whatsoever.  Never.  Even if they had had the fortune of drafting him, they still would have let him walk for the likes of Edelman, Woodhead, et al.  I have a big theory behind this that the wear and tear on these hybrid players is considerably less than the beating a guy like CJ2K takes on a regular basis.  Think of just the pure physics involved with a run versus a pass.  On runs you have a running back just getting close to hitting his full speed at the line of scrimmage meeting a linebacker doing the same but in the opposite direction.  Not to mention the prospect of linemen falling awkwardly on you knee/leg/ankle.  Now think of your average pass route.  More times than not the receiver comes to a complete stop in order to create the necessary space to catch the ball, thus reducing the overall impact of any tackle or hit that occurs.  Sure you get your anomalies once or twice a season like Austin Collie or DeSean Jackson’s brutal hits last year.  But for the most part being a receiver has far more long-term sustainability than being a running back.  It’s another reason I’m guessing teams are slowly making the transition to passing-oriented offenses versus running ones. 

-Draft picks.  People have long wondered why Belichick is way more content to stockpile draft picks and trade out of the first round when the Patriots had a ton of glaring needs, most notably on defense.  As the research indicates, it turns out that the guys drafting the players really don’t know anything, so why waste the resources necessary to secure a first round pick when you could get a second, third, and a sixth in return?  You have just as likely a chance to hit later in the draft as you do early, only with a considerable amount less money spent.  It wasn’t until I witnessed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s achievements in the NBA that it all finally clicked.  For those unfamiliar, OKC GM Sam Presti figured out a long time before anyone else that cheap contracts and the stockpiling of draft picks were way more important than wasting cap space on free agents.  It appears that the Patriots have done the same.

-An extension of the draft pick philosophy is the freedom this allows the team when it comes to signing and retaining players for the cheapest amount possible.  Despite being one of (if not) the most successful franchises over the last decade, New England’s owner Bob Kraft is notoriously cheap when it comes to signing players, including all-universe QB Tom Brady.  As a result, he figured out that it’s definitely more profitable to stockpile young talent on the cheap rather than fill needs right away with one big name player.  This allows them the flexibility to eventually tie down the players that really matter (Brady, the offensive line, etc).  Unlike the NBA though, the NFL offers teams the chance to get out whenever they like because of the nature of non-guaranteed contracts.  As a result the smartest guys in the room are afforded the opportunity of parachuting out of any bad deal they might find themselves in.  That’s like giving the house even better odds than they already have in Vegas.

-Drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round with the 199th overall pick is the most Moneyball thing that ever happened…ever.

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Perhaps the single greatest article that I’ve read so far in my attempt to became a more intelligent football fan is this piece by a writer/blogger named Chris Brown.  He runs a website called SmartFootball.com and it is the single greatest place on the internet to actually learn about what happens during a football game.  Comparing ESPN’s NFL shows to his work is like comparing arithmetic to AP calculus.  It’s outstanding.  Go there now.

In that piece I linked Brown comes up with a great theory debunking the notion of “NFL offenses” versus those in college.  He basically says that the NFL is so profit-oriented and so well produced now that there is basically no incentive anymore for coaches to be progressive in developing new ideas.  There is simply too much at stake financially for these teams to go out and dare to be innovative.  It’s the same problem Hollywood is going through right now and how they’ve been reduced to making remakes, sequels, and board game-inspired movies.  He estimates that 80% of what every NFL teams use in their playbooks are the same basic routes and running concepts that have been around forever in the modern game.  For the most part teams stick with that old 80% of plays and it’s likely to stay that way forever.

In this respect the NFL isn’t the most Moneyball league of all time.  Throw in the obsession with horrible drafting techniques and you have what appears to be the least progress-oriented professional sports league in the world.

On the other hand though Brown focuses the large part of his article devoted to that other 20% of NFL offenses.  He doesn’t quite come out and say it, but what he hints at is that the 20% of new innovative ideas and plays are exactly what make the NFL the most popular sport in this country.  It’s those 20% of bold and radical gimmicks, trick plays, and creative new offensive sets that have the potential to forever change the game.  Brown indicates that the beauty of the NFL is that there is always the potential for any single one of these radical concepts to be so effective that it might one day actually make the transition over to the negatively connoted 80% of plays that teams rely on.  But don’t just take my word for it.  Listen to how Brown describes the Wildcat:

I will have a future post delineating how I think the wildcat will be used and expanded upon this fall. Unfortunately, I don’t see the storyline being quite so rosy as the NFL finally breaking down and going all out with Eric Crouch types at quarterback. I can safely predict that some of the teams that are discussing their wildcat will be completely inept with it: they will do things like going five-wide with their quarterback split out, their runningback or wideout alone in the backfield, call for no motion or faking, and then expect him to plunge into the line for some kind of great effect. That team, its coaches and its fans, will declare the Wildcat a bust. Some other team, maybe the Dolphins again, will expand the package and see success with it. But then what? The worst case — though possibly the most likely — will be this:

The offense will fade from prominence, and will be relegated to NFL Films productions about the “WACKY WILDCAT” days of yore, where they will show somebody running free downfield while they speed up the footage and play Benny Hill music. Then they will show a clip of someone stuffing a particular play, and the voice-over will announce that the Wildcat, like all other gimmicks, was figured out and defeated. The NFL types will nevertheless congratulate themselves for having discovered it in the first place. Someone will be called on air to talk about how it was a travesty of the game, in some bizarre platonic ideal sense.

But there is a slight counter narrative. One is that the wildcat, as some kind of hype-machine and maybe even explicit look will die down, but the concepts will infiltrate the NFL and it will finally, and slowly, co-opt ideas that have been successful in every level of football elsewhere. Some will still deride the flashes as gimmicky, but seeing as that most didn’t understand it to begin with, most probably won’t even notice. Take a look at the clip below: the Ravens, using Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith ran the zone-read, and the highlight guys began a small war on what to call it. (Smith also takes a rather bizarre inside angle with his run.)

And in that sense the NFL is the most Moneyball league of them all.  Think about how you have the theme pounded down your throat every week how the NFL is a “copycat” league.  While cliche and boring, it’s definitely one of the universal truths of the modern game.  The fascinating part though is that at any moment something that might seem crazy and outlandish today might just become tomorrow’s must-have offensive weapon.  You know like the forward pass, catching running back, and now the ultra-athletic tight end were before it.  There’s not really much else teams can add to the games of basketball or the games of baseball anymore.  But football?  Hell, have you heard about the A-11 offense?  The possibilities are endless.

And I guess in a nutshell I actually just described the process of innovation in any sport and why its important that every league continues to embrace the possibilities of thinking outside of the box. 

In the wake of Steve Jobs tragic death last night, what could be more appropriate?

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