Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Army got it right

A little over two years ago, I wrote a post titled, “Go Army! Beat Someone!” The point of the post was to encourage the military academies to grant exceptions to graduates who had the opportunity to play football professionally. Although a number of benefits exist for such a change, the one that I was particularly advocating in that post was an improved football program. The once legendary athletic prowess of the academies (Army and Navy initially and Air Force much later) had turned to levels bordering embarrassing over the last few decades. Talented high school athletes no longer had any reason to even consider the academies as an option for school since it would mean a mandatory five-year commitment in the military and—even worse—five years of athletic prime down the drain. The academies have shown no interest in moving down to a lower division where they would be on a level playing field talent-wise with other schools that have recruiting handicaps. They have chosen to continue to attempt to compete with other D-1 schools that don’t require military commitments. The results are seasons like Army going 0-13 in 2003. Air Force and Navy have had some success but both programs have very defined ceilings and rely totally on deception to compete. Even when Navy was at its pinnacle over the last few years under Paul Johnson, losing to I-AA opponents was not only a possibility but a reality.

I respect the athletes at the academies immensely. The grueling academy-coursework is demanding enough as it is. Trying to fit that same coursework into college football preparation means very little free time, if any. Their lives are more stringent than most can imagine. That aside, it doesn’t make sense for the academies to pretend they’re football programs are good enough to compete with teams they’re not good enough to compete with. So, something about its culture needed to change. The options for change were to either drop down a division, or allow athletes to play professionally immediately upon graduation. I don’t think the first option is a realistic consideration at this point for pride and morale purposes. So, option #2 seemed like the best choice. Questions like—would it be fair to other cadets who don’t play a sport, and, would there be some sort or reserve commitment incurred?—would need to be answered but dealing with those issues would be better than keeping things the way they were.

Well, West Point finally adopted such a plan. The new “alternative service option program” allows academy graduates to play professionally in exchange for two concessions. First, the athlete must act as a recruiter for the military for the first two years of the program. Then, if a continued athletic career is an option, the athlete can buy out of the remaining three years of the initial commitment by agreeing to six years of reserve duty. I’m sure there are a multitude of reasons why West Point has implemented this plan but the primary principals involve making it easier to build a winning football program and to capitalize on the notoriety of West Point alums in the NFL for military recruiting gains. I don’t think this program will start to attract top 100 high school talent but there will surely be an increase in the caliber of player willing to attend West Point. If you can make the NFL, you are free to go. If you can’t, you’ll have a first-rate education and a fantastic career waiting for you. That is a much sexier recruiting pitch than, “come to West Point where you’ll never play in the NFL even if you get drafted.”

This policy looked like a winner on Draft Day when the Lions selected Army’s Caleb Campbell in the 7th round making him the first Army football player to take advantage of West Point’s new policy. Matt Millen was praised for the selection by more than a few editorials. However, it hasn’t been a winner in a number of forums, military and non-military alike. Resentment for “favoring athletes” is commonplace amongst the academy student-bodies. Football players are essentially sequestered from the rest of the student-population at the academies causing some mixed feelings about “special treatment” for athletes. So, it is no surprise that a number of alums feel burned by this policy. The policy is being viewed by many as “weaseling out of service to country.” It is true that West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy are not breeding grounds for football players. Those schools are meant to produce officers. That is the goal. However, it is also true that those schools should not be playing D-1 football. If they are going to continue to play D-1 football, then embarrassing seasons that result in zero wins need to stop. Those sorts of seasons are not good for anyone—especially an institution as proud and talented as West Point. So, before anyone starts bashing individuals—i.e. Caleb Campbell—for doing absolutely nothing wrong, it would be kosher to ask why the military academies continue to play D-1 football.

The number of idiots who have attacked Campbell’s patriotism over the last week is mind-numbing. You’ll find Campbell-bashing going on in military forums, local opinion columns, and in the comment-section of ESPN.com articles. One of the arguments for attacking both Campbell and the policy go something like, “it’s not fair that a football player at West Point gets an exemption but a talented artist at West Point does not”. What people are failing to realize—or admit rather—is that there is a huge difference between professional athletic aspirations and virtually every other career. Professional sports are age-sensitive professions. Most athletes are done by the age of 30. Requiring an officer to serve a five-year commitment before moving on to a professional athletic career means the average academy-graduate wouldn’t start a professional career until the age of 27. That service-time cuts an athletic career in half. Add on to that the fact that it’s nearly impossible to mimic the peak athletic condition that is required to play in the NFL for five years while at a military post and not having an exemption essentially eliminates an athletic career for anyone who could have had such a career. Artists and the like do not have such age constraints. How fair is that for the athletes? Honestly, arguments of this nature are among the classier that you’ll find. After that, it gets downright ridiculous.

The opposing viewpoint is riddled with ignorance and hypocrisy. Most people don’t know this—and if you have never been connected to a service academy there would be no reason for you to know this—but cadets are allowed to leave the military academies after two years without having to honor any military service or incurring any penalties. Why aren’t the people who walk away after two years not labeled “cowards trying to weasel their way out of military service” like Campbell has been? Why is it OK for Anthony Schlegel to play two years at Air Force and then transfer to Ohio St. and play professionally with no penalty, yet it’s not OK for a four-year academy-athlete to do the same? Do those two years really make that big of a difference between being patriotic and not patriotic?

There are all sorts or ridiculous arguments being bandied about like questioning the use of taxpayer money. Since cadets receive a $500,000 education for free in exchange for five-year military commitments, some say that taxpayer money is wasted if a cadet doesn’t end up paying back the money with a five-year commitment. What about the money spent on all of the cadets who leave after two years free and clear of any obligation? Why isn’t anyone leading a campaign against taxpayer money wasted by that policy? Also, who says those two years as a high-profile recruiter and six years in the reserves aren't worth the $500,000 education? The military says it is and I don’t think there is anyone who can effectively argue that it isn’t. Don't forget that Campbell will be required to buy out his final three years of active duty while still serving in the reserves.

Other arguments question the effectiveness of Campbell as a recruiter since he was exempted from his military-commitment as if he were so some sort of a draft-dodger. Again, Campbell has two years of an active-duty committment and a six year commitment as a reserve. Just because he isn't serving in Iraq (and trust me, reserve units--the same kind of unit that Campbell will have his six-year commitment in--were much more likely to have served in Iraq than not) doesn't diminish the fact that he is, in fact, a soldier. If not fighting in a war diminishes service to country, then every member of the armed forces in the 80s should be equally discredited since there were no major military conflicts. To minimize the effectiveness of Caleb Campbell as a recruiting tool to the military is to use highly unintelligible reasoning. Campbell can do so much more for the military as a recruiter than he could have ever done as one person on the battlefield. Campbell prepared for four long years at West Point to be a leader of men in battle. He didn’t slack. After four years of going to school and playing football, it became apparent that he might be good enough to play professionally. For him to be able to preach to similarly-minded high-schoolers that an athletic career and a military career can co-exist—that you’re either going to play in the NFL or get the best education in America by signing on at an academy—is a huge recruiting tool for the military. That’s just the effect that he’ll have on high school athletes considering the academies. His effect on the recruitment of enlisted soldiers will be substantial as well. Campbell is likely in the 99th percentile in a multitude of categories among soldiers. He is exactly the kind of person you want introducing the military to prospective recruits.

It's also disheartening to see the sheer number of idiots who speak as if Campbell hasn't dedicated his life to the military. Four years at a military academy are more intense than most could possibly imagine. It is four years of an in-your-face, military-centered, education. People who enter the military via an academy have already dedicated more of their lives to their country than the vast majority of the popluation--and that's before they are even recognized as official members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Campbell has already done more in the name of "duty" than a moron like Bill Simonson will ever do. Then there's the fact that Campbell will be an active-duty member in the military which is something that idiots like Simonson strategically neglect to mention. Campbell's calling as a soldier will be different--but no less important--than every other American soldier. To pretend it isn't is to be foolish.

There are certainly fairness issues that need to be addressed. For instance, I can envision a situation where NFL teams draft newly-commissioned officers over other qualified athletes as a “favor”. The positive praise that Matt Millen received for drafting Campbell in the 7th round will only encourage other NFL franchises to do the same. It’s good publicity. A 7th-round pick is often a throw-away pick anyway so why not make the best of it with a good-publicity pick? Millen’s son played with Campbell on the West Point football team. Millen claims that didn’t influence his decision to take Campbell but that isn’t believable in the slightest. The odds that it was purely a coincidence that Campbell would be drafted by the only franchise in the NFL with a GM whose son played with Campbell at West Point are slim at best. There is no question that Millen’s familiarity with Campbell via his son had at least a minimal impact on his decision to draft him. Now, Campbell was graded as a late-round draft pick. I don’t think the Lions did anything wrong by drafting him. In fact, I think it was a great move for all parties. However, it is easy to envision a similar situation where a player in Campbell’s position who wasn’t graded as a late-round pick might get drafted and thrown on special teams for five years to “save” a player from military service. I can even see an NFL franchise favoring an academy-alum for the wrong reasons subconsciously. Another "fairness" issue that needs to be addressed is the fact that Navy and Air Force graduates are not afforded the same policy.

There are two ways of looking at the benefits of this policy. The easiest and most obvious is that it benefits the football program. It makes it easier to attract more skilled athletes. However, I think the most important benefit is fairness. To deny an NFL-career because of inflexibility is obtuse. It doesn’t make sense. It’s simply not fair. This policy doesn’t reward as much as it prevents punishment. There is no reason that a cadet capable of being a professional athlete should be punished by having their professional aspirations destroyed. The opposing viewpoint is mostly fueled by ignorance and jealousy. The only acceptable opposing viewpoint is to argue that the academies should not recruit any athletes because its purpose is not to produce professional athletes rather it is to produce officers. That would mean a reduction to D-2 status and the marginalization of all academy-athletic programs. To be honest, that’s not a terrible argument. But, nobody ever argues for that. Finally, I’d like to welcome Caleb Campbell to Detroit and wish him a successful NFL career. He has earned the opportunity.

I want to dedicate this post to a friend who was recently killed in a car accident that also claimed the life of her two year old son. Carrie Pedersen was a Major in the Air Force and a graduate of the Air Force Academy. We were classmates in the same graduate program in Germany. This post reminded me of her.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Wish-list for pick #15

Before I get started, I would like to do a little advertising for the Detroit Chapter of SABR’s Symposium Weekend that is happening this Saturday and Sunday. Details are here. The weekend includes a tour of Detroit’s historical baseball scene and a brunch featuring Willie Horton and Gates Brown.

Two years ago, I did a mock draft. Last year, I covered all of the “acceptable” scenarios. This year, I’m just going to throw out my wishlist keeping in mind that the Lions don’t have much say at pick #15. I also promise not to make any wide receiver jokes (unless this sentence counts as one) because I can’t handle another joke of that nature even if I’m the one making it. ESPN apparently hasn’t reached its limit yet.

First, let me say that this isn't a prediction-list. According to Tom Kowalski Rod Marinelli has already decided he is going defense with the first pick. In fact, he goes on to say that it will either be Derrick Harvey or Jerod Mayo. Mayo is guaranteed to be available at #15 so apparently it will be one or the other and nobody else. However, that won't stop me from wishing on a different outcome.

I’ll first rule out the positions that the Lions shouldn’t be looking at with their first pick. With Brian Kelly and Leigh Bodden in the fold, I think it’s safe to say the Lions need not look at cornerback in round one. Wide receiver is obviously out. QB is likely out with Matt Ryan gone (count me in the camp who doesn’t want Ryan anyway) and the rest of the QB’s not #15-worthy. Tight end is clearly out. That leaves the offensive and defensive lines, running back, and linebacker. I would prefer the Lions not take a running back. Rashard Mendenhall might end up being good but good running backs can come from all sorts of rounds and avenues. Mendenhall reminds me an awful lot of Kevin Jones and he didn’t amount to much even when he was healthy. The Lions need to finally address the foundation after years and years and years and…you get the idea…of neglect.

Defensive line would be nice but the Lions had one of the top defensive tackles (when he was able to breath) in the NFL for the last few years and that didn’t help much. So, I’m down with an offensive lineman. Kitna gets sacked a gazillion times per game and that needs to stop. Marinelli wants to run the ball and that won’t happen with the current cast of characters on the line. The team’s most pressing need since I’ve been alive—this includes pre-Barry, Barry, and post-Barry—has been the offensive line. That is my preferred position of choice for pick #15. After that, I’d go linebacker and then defensive end in that order. The top three tackles in the draft could be gone by pick #15 which means the Lions should strongly consider trading down especially since Marinelli has all but admitted that taking Jerod Mayo at #15 might be a reach. So, considering my preferences, here is my wish-list for pick #15…

1). Chris Williams OT Vanderbilt
2). Ryan Clady OT Boise St.
3). Jeff Otah OT Pittsburgh
4). Jerod Mayo MLB Tennessee (trade down)
5). Keith Rivers OLB USC

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bench or Bust

So Flip Saunders spent 82 games molding and incorporating the bench into the game-plan for that? Flip swore things would be different this year. He swore that the Pistons would need to use the bench to have success in the playoffs. I’m not shocked that he didn’t stay true to his word. I didn’t actually believe him. It’s just disappointing to have to go through this crap yet again. As far as I’m concerned, Flip’s primary purpose of giving so many minutes to the bench in the regular season was just one giant ploy to get Lindsey Hunter ready for game one of the NBA playoffs. Hunter only played 12+ minutes in five games all season. Yet, there he was in game one against Philly as the primary backup to Billups playing 12 minutes. Don’t be misled by the box score that says Rodney Stuckey played 13 minutes. Stuckey did, in fact, play 13 minutes but don’t confuse that with a vote of confidence or an actual meaningful contribution. Stuckey took all of one shot in those 13 minutes. He averaged 19 minutes per game in the regular season and was the catalyst for the second unit all season. Jarvis Hayes averaged 16 minutes per game in the regular season. He played five minutes against Philly and took all of one shot. Amir Johnson didn’t even play. Jason Maxiell played 30 minutes but that was out of necessity rather than choice. Don’t let Max’s minutes fool you. Antonio McDyess and his sudden irrelevance meant Max needed to play for the Pistons to have any presence on the glass or in the paint. The rest of the bench combined to play 36 minutes. Bottom line: the bench was predictably shelved for game one of the playoffs.

I’ve been saying all season that this team cannot win without using the bench heavily. The Pistons’ bench is the most influential second unit in the NBA for one reason and one reason only: it actually motivates the starters to play well. Most first units in the NBA don’t need to be manipulated into playing well. The Pistons—as everyone knows by now—are a different story. They have proven time and time again that they cannot find their own motivation. They are bored of themselves. All season, the second unit has been the antidote to that problem. The bench has infused energy and excitement into the second and third quarters. They have kept the starters fresh and—most importantly—motivated for the fourth quarter. The Pistons lost to Philly in game one because Flip didn’t use the bench. The starters built a 15-point lead and didn’t have the urgency to finish it off. The bench wouldn’t have exploded for a million points or saved the Pistons at the end of the game. The bench merely would’ve kept the starters from losing total interest in the game in the fourth quarter which clearly happened. When Philly punched Detroit in the mouth in the 4th quarter, the starters responded with as much fury and effectiveness as a toothless, dead, squirrel. They never respected Philly enough to actually think they might lose. The longer the starters are out on the floor, the more disinterested they become. They had hammered Philly all game and didn’t feel threatened even when the game got close. I believe they would’ve been hungrier and sharper had the bench gotten its fair share of minutes throughout the game. The starters are head cases. They need to be treated as such. They need to be tricked into playing well.

I was hoping that Flip would understand the importance that this particular bench has to this particular team. For most teams, the bench is a device to give starters rest. For the Pistons, the bench is a device to keep the starters focused. The various mix-and-match lineups the Pistons played throughout the season gave the starters an obvious boost of excitement. The starters seemed to enjoy playing with the younger, more energetic bench. When Joe D refused to take note of the huge, neon signs pointing to irrevocable complacency the last two seasons and came back with the same stale team in 2007-08, he had to know that this team needed a catalyst. The most ridiculous thing about this whole deal is that the Pistons have the perfect bench to be that catalyst. The starters responded to the bench’s contributions all season. The starters looked to have more fun and played some of the best per-minute basketball of their careers. Flip had constructed the perfect balance between the starters and bench. It was all set up perfectly for the playoffs.

I don’t want to eliminate the possibility that there was some actual thought behind muting the bench in game one. There is one reasonable explanation for what transpired against Philly. The Sixers are a “run ’n gun” team. They like to get out in transition and push the ball up court. The Pistons’ bench just so happens to be a “run ‘n gun” bench. So, it is possible that Flip feared that Stuckey and Co. would get tricked into playing Philly’s style and blow it. I don’t agree with that reasoning. Stuckey, Amir, Hayes, and Max have been running all season and they are every bit as good as Willie Green, Louis Williams, and Reggie Evans. They are more than capable of holding their own against a 40-42 basketball team. If Flip can’t trust his bench against those guys, then they shouldn’t even be on the roster. However, at least that sort of reasoning would be above caveman-level thinking. I fear that the actual explanation doesn’t have anywhere near that sort of insight. If I had to guess, the reason Flip benched the bench in game one was because he didn’t think the bench could handle playoff-basketball. If Flip hasn’t realize by now that the starters have irreparable motivation issues, then this team is in serious trouble and Flip needs to be canned. More of the same doesn’t work when “the same” sucks. If Flip doesn’t start dishing out major minutes to the bench in game two and beyond, he is much worse than I ever thought possible. As much blame as there is for Flip, Joe D deserves some as well. If this season hasn’t proved that he needs to make a major move, then I’m not sure he is a slick as most—including myself—think he is. The Pistons starting five is the most boring collection of basketball players that I have ever seen. It hurts to watch them attempt to have fun playing with each other.

The Pistons can and will beat Philly with their tired lackadaisical attitude. They can and will beat Orlando in the second round with the same indifferent disposition. However, instead of winning in four games and five games respectively like they should, they’ll be pushed to the brink in both series. Boston will destroy Atlanta and Cleveland and they’ll be rested and waiting to do the same to the Pistons. The only way the starters are going to be rested enough and motivated enough to have a chance against Boston is to get the bench involved now. Flip should make it a point to not play his starters more than 32 minutes each in game two. He is coaching as if he has something to lose. This team hasn’t won anything since 2004. This team is stale and ineffective. It’s time for Flip to stop acting as if he’s got the ’86 Celtics in his lineup. The Pistons don’t have the best starting lineup in the NBA. That hasn’t been the case since 2004. Flip’s only chance is to go with what worked in the regular season. It’s bench or bust, baby.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lions dealt dream schedule

I’m writing this post in a make-believe world where people actually care about the Lions. I have never been less excited for an NFL Draft in my life. Thankfully, we all have the power to create “make-believe worlds” where that doesn't have to be true. The 2008 schedules were released this week and, thankfully, ESPN was there to bore everyone to death by hyping match-ups that won’t take place for seven months. Last season—well before the season started—I took a look at the 2007 schedule and concluded that the Lions couldn’t possibly win 10 games, make the playoffs, or even finish above .500. The schedule was simply too difficult. Jon Kitna looked at the same schedule and saw 10 wins. The moral of that story is: listen to me and don’t listen to Jon Kitna.

In the NFL, “the schedule” is everything for mediocre teams. A mediocre team with a difficult schedule has no chance of making the playoffs. However, a mediocre team with an easy schedule can make a run. That’s good news for Lions fans because the Lions ’08 schedule is quite possibly the easiest NFL schedule I have ever seen. I can’t remember the last time the Lions had what could be described as an easy schedule. It definitely hasn’t happened since the NFL instituted its new scheduling policy. I was blown away as I looked down the list. It featured beatable team after beatable team. Even the “good” teams aren’t that good. Granted, the Lions are terrible and will be underdogs in most games no matter how good the opponent is but this schedule is as accommodating as it gets.

The Lions had the good fortune of being paired up with the NFC South and the AFC South plus San Francisco and Washington. Obviously, the Lions will lose to Indianapolis but that game is on the road. The Lions also play Jacksonville but that game is at home and Jacksonville at home is much more winnable than Indy on the road. The Lions also get Tennessee, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and Washington at home. That brings me to my next point. The Lions schedule isn’t just easy because there aren’t a ton of great teams on it. It’s easy because the Lions play all of their toughest opponents at home and their weakest opponents on the road. The home/away aspect of the schedule couldn’t be more perfect if the Lions designed it themselves.

Home/Away Breakdown

Away Games

@ Atlanta
@ San Francisco
@ Minnesota
@ Houston
@ Chicago
@ Carolina
@ Indy
@ Green Bay

The Lions play two road games against teams that were above .500 last year. One of those teams—Green Bay—will be playing with an unproven quarterback. The other is Indy which will be a loss no matter where the game is played so it’s a bonus that the Lions don’t have to waste that loss at home.

Home Games

Green Bay
Tampa Bay
New Orleans

Name a team on this list that the Lions will most definitely lose to. Every team on the list has major flaws. Washington, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and Tennessee don’t score points. They are decent teams—all made the playoffs in ’07—but they are all very beatable. New Orleans has no defense—unless Dan Morgan and Jonathan Vilma are set to do their best Sam Mills and Rickey Jackson impersonations. Minnesota will run for 200+ yards per game but—without a passing attack—they will continue to be beatable. Green Bay, again, will be unproven at the most important position on the field. There is no way another 14-2 season is in the cards for the Pack.

My point here isn’t that the Lions will win 10 games or even break .500. My point is that there is only one game on the schedule that the Lions most certainly won’t win. The rest are up for grabs. Every road game sans Indy is winnable. Every home game is winnable. Even though the Lions really only added Tampa’s scraps to the defense this year, I think those scraps are better than what the Lions originally had. I think the defense will be better. Hopefully, Millen and Marinelli have enough foresight to address either the defense (any position) or the offensive line. With Martz out of the picture, the Lions may actually be able to play ball control offensively and take advantage of Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson’s size and strength to move the chains and score in the red zone. Neither unit will be flashy—or great. But, I think both units can be effective. That sort of reminds me of Tampa Bay, Washington, and Tennessee all of which made the playoffs last year. The result? I think the Lions are going to shock the world in ’08 with an 8-8 season.

Monday, April 14, 2008

How many MVPs should Babe Ruth have won?

It’s rare now days that a player with an historic baseball season is robbed of an MVP Award. Sure, there have been questionable MVP choices. We only need to look to last season to find one of those. My point is that superstars like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez usually win the MVP when they should win the MVP. A strong argument could be made that Bonds should have won the MVP in ’91 over Terry Pendleton. Still, Bonds has seven MVPs and he should have won no more than eight. A-Rod has three MVPs. He probably should’ve won in ’92 and ’02 but he has won three and he should have won no more than five. There are injustices but the best players end up with their fair share of MVP Awards.

Unfortunately for Babe Ruth, that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, of the 28 players who have won multiple MVPs, you will not find Ruth’s name on that list. You may be even more shocked to find out that the greatest player who ever lived only finished in the top three of the MVP Voting once in his entire career. Most of that has to do with the outrageous manner in which the MVP was awarded in MLB at the time. Two rules in specific made the MVP a joke. First, voters could not vote for more than one player on a team. That meant teammates, more often than not, cancelled each other out. Second, no player could win the MVP more than once...ever. This led to some highly questionable winners and results like Babe Ruth winning one MVP.

Ruth’s shortage of MVPs is a result of terrible luck—the same sort of terrible luck that got him one measly batting title despite having the 6th highest batting average in MLB history (min. 3,500 at-bats after 1900). The MVP wasn’t awarded during Ruth’s career until 1923 which meant his first five prolific seasons couldn’t result in an MVP. There also wasn’t an AL MVP awarded in 1929 or 1930. The rule about no repeat winners meant that once he won the inaugural MVP in 1923, he was never allowed to win the MVP again. As you might have imagined, the MVP didn't last long in that format. Obvious concerns about the validity of an MVP that wasn't actually awarded to the MVP took over and change was afoot in 1929. Even then--when the Baseball Writer's Association of America gave out an MVP in '29 and '30--Ruth was robbed. Instead of the award going to Ruth--who had easily been the best hitter in the game--the award was given to Lew Fonseca and Al Simmons in '29 and Joe Cronin in '30. I’m convinced—although I don’t have proof of this—that voters purposefully voted against Ruth. I’m not sure what their motives would’ve been but an in-depth look at Ruth’s career shows that even with the voting-rules in play, Ruth should have won the BBWAA’s MVP in 1929 and 1930.

Here is a breakdown of the seasons in which Ruth was productive enough to merit consideration…

The Six that Ruth deserved

From 1923-1930, Ruth flat-out deserved six MVPs. The award existed and he should have won it. He won it in ’23 and should have won it from ’26-’30. During that five-year stretch, Ruth was unquestionably the best player in MLB. A comparison of Ruth’s numbers to the actual winners (in order; George Burns ’26, Lou Gehrig ’27, and Mickey Cochrane ’28) isn’t even close. Ruth was the victim of another stretch of bad luck when the AL MVP was inexplicably vacant in '29 and '30 instead of simply having the voting rules amended. He was easily the best player in the majors in '29 and '30 ahead of Gehrig. There was an NL MVP in 1929 which makes the AL not having an award that season curious at best.

Ruth vs. Triple Crown Pitchers

It’s easy to prove that Ruth was the best hitter in the game in ’24 and ‘31. It’s not easy to prove that he was the best player in the game in ’24 and ’31. In ’24, Walter Johnson—who ended up winning the MVP that year—won the Triple Crown and his team won the AL Pennant and World Series. Johnson was certainly a worthy candidate. However, Ruth had one of the greatest offensive seasons in MLB history. Ruth deserved it as much as Johnson, if not more. Johnson's ERA+ was 149. Ruth's OPS+ was 220. Ruth wasn’t even eligible because he won it in ’23 so Johnson won. It’s worth noting that Johnson barely beat out Eddie Collins for the award. Collins’s season didn’t come remotely close to Ruth’s season.

1931 was a repeat of ’24 in the sense that Ruth’s main competition was a pitcher who won the Triple Crown and played for a team that won the AL Pennant. It was different in the sense that Ruth was now eligible to win the MVP for the first time since 1923 because voting rules were mercifully amended. Lefty Grove ended up winning the award, however. Grove’s season was certainly worthy of MVP consideration but Ruth’s season was again one of the greatest in MLB history. The fact that Ruth only managed a 5th place finish in ’31 reeks of collusion by the voters. I’m not going to say Grove didn’t deserve it. His season was phenomenal. I just think Ruth had just as much right to it as Grove.

Pre-MVP years

The MVP was awarded before Ruth’s career from 1911-1914. It was vacated from 1915 through 1922. From 1918-1922, Ruth was the best player in baseball at least three times and possibly during all five seasons. In 1918, it would’ve been a toss-up between Ruth and Cobb. In 1922, I think Ruth had the advantage but it probably would’ve been a toss-up between Ruth and George Sisler. From 1919-1921, it would’ve been all Ruth.

The “Unofficial” total

Assuming the MVP existed over the entirety of Ruth’s career (remember, there was no AL MVP in 1918-1922, 1929, and 1930), and voters a). didn’t have to follow ridiculous rules and b). didn’t hold some sort of grudge against Ruth, I believe Ruth would have won nine MVPs. That is the “bare bones” minimum total. I didn’t count 1918, 1922, 1924, and 1931. Ruth would have had at least a 50/50 shot in each of those seasons under the above mentioned conditions. By my tally, Ruth should have won the MVP in the following seasons:


The current record for most MVPs is held by Bonds who has seven. Had Ruth played under the same voting conditions as Bonds, he would’ve won nine and possibly as many as 13. It would be interesting to look into Ty Cobb's career as well. Under today's voting conditions, I think he would've won close to nine MVPs as well.

I'll leave you with this…

In 1921, Ruth hit 59 home runs. However, balls that hit the foul poll in the air were considered “ground rule doubles” and balls that went over the fence in fair territory but hooked foul after passing the foul poll were considered “foul” balls. This guy re-calculated Ruth’s homerun total that year based on present-day rules where both instances are home runs. The result? Ruth actually hit 104 home runs in 1921.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bondo on pace for greatest pitching season ever

The leading candidate for AL MVP and Cy Young after ten games of the MLB season is, unequivocally, Jeremy Bonderman. No player in the majors this season—and perhaps MLB history—has meant more to his team. Consider he has 100% of the Tigers wins. That is unprecedented. If he can keep that up over the course of the season, he would have the best single-season in sports history. So, be sure to keep an eye on that.

In other news, the Tigers have sent Metro Detroit into an area-wide depression with their 1-8 start fueled by anything and everything going wrong. I had on my Old English D cap the other day and a man said to me, “do you feel good about wearing that hat?” Clearly, he forgot about 2003 but this man was burned about the start. No single event sums up the Tigers early season futility more appropriately than the fact that Placido Polanco broke his MLB record consecutive errorless streak by committing an error in two straight games. When Polanco is making mental mistakes, you know you’ve got issues. Polanco’s errors might be the most shocking faux pas of the season but they certainly aren’t the worst of Detroit’s problems. Of the following group—Gary Sheffield, Miguel Cabrera, and Placido Polanco—who is hitting over .200? Unfortunately, the answer is none. Of the following group—Sheffield, Cabrera, Polanco, Marcus Thames, Jacque Jones, Pudge Rodriguez, Edgar Renteria, and Magglio Ordonez—who has an OPS above .750? Unfortunately, the answer is none. The hitting has been atrocious and, not surprisingly, the Tigers are last in the AL in runs scored.

The Tigers have actually scored more runs per game than the Yankees by .01 runs per game and the Yankees are not 1-8. What does that mean? It means that the Yankees have pitching. Tigers-pitching has been awful. In fact, it has been even worse than the hitting. The Tigers are last in virtually every measurable pitching statistic. That’s what makes the hitting drought so damaging. Everyone knew coming into the season that the Tigers had big-time question marks with the starting rotation and bullpen. The offense was supposed to mask those problems until some moves could be made to sure up the staff (whether those moves were going to come this season or next is a different story). The hitting hasn’t masked anything and the Tigers have no chance of winning until it does.

There is good news, however, and there is actually quite a bit of it. First, the Royals are leading the AL Central. There is no doubt that the Royals are an improved team but if the Tigers can’t catch the Royals by season’s end, then a lot of people need to be fired. Second, the Tigers haven’t even played 1/16th of the season. Last season, from May 25-June 1, the Tigers went 1-7. From July 26-Aug 5, the Tigers went 1-9. They still managed to finish 14 games over .500. They are only 4.5 games out of the wild card spot. Presuming the Tigers don’t let this slump adversely affect them more than any other slump simply because it's the start of the season, there is no difference between a slump in April and a slump in July. Third, Curtis Granderson is set to return as early as next week. His importance to the Tigers cannot be overstated. Remember, Granderson finished 10th in the AL MVP Voting last year and—if the voters had any idea what they were talking about—he would’ve finished in the top five. Granderson makes the Tigers offense go. No offense to Edgar Renteria—the only off-season trade that I wasn't ecstatic about—the Tigers don’t have the same effectiveness with Renteria leading off. Fourth, some of this stuff isn’t unfamiliar at all. Gary Sheffield hit .200 with a .675 OPS for the whole month of April last season. Over the next three months, he hit .320 with an OPS bordering 1.000.

There is no way that the offense will continue to be putrid throughout the season unless there is a rash of injuries. These players are just too good. The big question is, will the offense heat up soon enough to keep the Tigers from falling too far behind? Cleveland is a good team and possibly a great team. Chicago could be very good, too. It’s early in the season but the Tigers can only play so much better than the best teams even when they’re on a role.

Even though there are some things to take solace in, I don’t want to minimize the unacceptable nature of the Tigers porous play. It is disappointing to see the current level of effort and execution from a team that had so much promise coming into the season. My first guess is that they bought into the hype about how good they were going to be and that affected their mental and physical preparation coming into the season. There is just no other excuse for an entire team to be underachieving at such a ridiculous level. I could blame Jim Leyland for allowing such a malaise-attitude—and anyone who wants to do this would be more than justified—but I won’t. The players are responsible for their own preparation. They didn’t have it in Spring Training and they don’t have it now. The season is still young enough that a 1-8 start can be overcome but they need to start winning right now.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Celtics over Pistons is inevitable

I can’t say I’m happy to see the NBA regular season come to an end. The Pistons have had a brilliant season. They have already secured at least the 4th best record in franchise history and could reach 60-wins for only the third time in franchise history. The starters are fresh and rested for a long playoff run. Rodney Stuckey is turning into an impact player. Right now, the experts would say the Pistons have as good of a chance as any team to win the NBA Championship. From a fan-perspective, this is as good as it gets. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “this guy is crazy, winning the championship is as good as it gets.” Well, I agree if that were possible. This is where the record player comes to a screeching halt and everyone in the virtual room looks at me, venom spewing. The rest of this post isn’t going to be very popular in these parts but that’s OK. The Pistons have a chance of winning the NBA Championship like the Orlando Magic have a chance of winning the NBA Championship. Technically, both teams are going to the playoffs and have non-zero chances of winning the NBA Title. While I have no doubt that the Pistons are better than the Magic, I also have no doubt—like the Magic—the Pistons have almost no chance--by almost no chance I mean 10% or less--of beating the Boston Celtics in a playoff series. If LeBron and Co. can knock off the Celtics in the second round—which is also highly doubtful—then the Pistons might have a shot at making it to the finals. Until that happens though, the Pistons are going to come up short again for much of the same reasons they’ve come up short the last three years and a few new ones. Those reasons go something like this…

1). Go-to scorers count is zero

Everyone knows about Boston’s “Big Three” and Detroit’s “Best Starting Five in the NBA.” What everyone doesn’t know is that they don’t cancel each other out. Boston has a huge advantage and it has nothing to do with its bench. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen are big-time scorers who can create their own shots, demand double teams, and get to the line. Boston has it easy in crunch-time. They will hit big shots and they will not experience droughts at the end of games. The Pistons are a completely different story. The Pistons have no crunch-time scorers. They rely totally on jump shots. Sure, at times, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace can get hot and take over a game. But, they are nowhere near as reliable as Boston’s “Big Three”. If we assume that every game in a Detroit-Boston series is going to go down to the wire, then that means Boston will have the advantage in every game. Their points will come easier thus they will win. This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone especially Flip Saunders who subtly supports my assertion…

“We got players that are very unselfish, and we got players that know in order for them to be successful that other players have to help them make plays. And, we just don’t have that one guy that can isolate on the floor and go one on five, basically, and try to create an opportunity for themselves either on a score or at the free throw line.”

An “unselfish” team without players who can “create an opportunity for themselves” might be good enough to tear up the regular season on its way to 60 wins but it isn’t good enough to advance beyond the Eastern Conference Finals let alone win an NBA Championship—at least not this year. I know the Pistons won an NBA Championship in 2004 but that was clearly “right place, right time.” The ’04 Nets and Pacers are nothing like the ‘08 Cavs and Celtics. Or—more appropriately—Jason Kidd and Jermaine O’Neal are nothing like LeBron James and "The Boston Three Party."

2). Don’t buy the “Pistons + Road = Good” garbage.

I know the fans, media, and even the Pistons love to spout off statistics about how they are 3-1 when they don’t have home-court advantage in the playoffs since 2004. Sometimes statistics don’t mean anything and this one is one of them. How does the following statistic sound? The Pistons haven’t won a playoff series in which they didn’t have home-court advantage since 2005. Beating Boston is difficult enough but having to do it on the road is nearly impossible. The Pistons are good enough to not get rattled on the road but that will only keep them in the game at the end. I’ve already discussed Boston’s huge advantage if it comes to that.

3). The Pistons don’t have a “next level.”

Playoff basketball is much different than regular season basketball. I know I risk being nominated for the “most obvious comment of all-time” award by saying that but it’s worth noting. Other teams—like the Cavs—are much more difficult to beat in the playoffs than they are in the regular season. The Pistons had little trouble with the Cavs last year until the playoffs. The Pistons won the season-series 3-1 and looked to have a huge advantage heading into their Eastern Conference Finals match-up. The Pistons quickly found out that the Cavs are more intense and value each possession more in the playoffs. The same thing happened in the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons were caught off guard by Miami’s brand of playoff basketball. The NBA is a league of stars. Those stars—presuming they are on good teams—take over in the playoffs. Tim Duncan took over the 2005 Finals. Dwyane Wade took over the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron James took over the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. It doesn’t take a lot of imagining to get to KG or Paul Pierce, or Ray Allen taking over the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the Pistons had their own brand of playoff basketball. Unfortunately, they don’t. In fact, I think the Pistons actually play slightly worse in the playoffs. Maybe it’s just an allusion because other teams play better or maybe it’s because they don’t have a go-to player who takes his game to the next level but I don’t think the Pistons are equipped to succeed in the playoffs.

None of this makes me happy. I wish the regular season was infinite. I love watching the bench. I love watching two starters mesh perfectly with three reserves. All of that stuff will come to an end in the playoffs. Flip Saunders has said that the Pistons could go 10-deep in the playoffs but I’ll have to see that to believe it. Plus, Boston’s “Big Three” play the whole game. They are in amazing shape. They are more motivated than any team in the league. In past series, the Pistons have had the luxury of getting breaks when Shaquille O’Neal had to sit. That won’t happen in this series. It will be “all Big Three all of the time.”

Feel free to disagree right now and feel free to come back in two months and berate me for “not believing.” If the Pistons beat the Celtics—with both teams healthy—then I will deserve everything reasonable (tasteful verbal jabs) that comes my way. I just don’t see it happening and I’m not going to pretend that I do. Things would’ve been slightly different if Boston didn’t pull the trigger on the KG trade. The Pistons would be major favorites to advance to the Finals. Just remember, that was the case last year and the Pistons still couldn’t get it done. This year, the path is considerably harder. The most satisfying brand of Pistons basketball that you will see until next season will take place over the final six regular season games. There will be no stress and the bench will get major minutes. I highly suggest you tune in. I’m pretty sure I know how the playoffs are going to end. One last warning: don’t be fooled when the Pistons look like the ’96 Bulls in the first two rounds.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Depressed about the Tigers? Read a book.

The baseball season has begun and—even though it’s only three games young—everyone in Detroit is already depressed. The Tigers have not only started the season 0-3 but they have managed to do it against the Royals at home, no less. To make matters worse, the greatest offense in the universe scored a grand total of five runs against one of the worst staffs in the league. To make matters even worse than that, Miguel Cabrera is out with a pulled quadriceps to go along with Curtis Granderson’s broken finger. This is where I remind you that the baseball season is 162 games-long and the Tigers have one of the easiest second-half schedules in the league. But still, the Royals?

Thankfully, my mind is stuck in 1973. The folks at Sourcebooks were nice enough to send me a copy of John Rosengren’s latest book titled, Hammerin’ Hank, George Almighty & The Say Hey Kid. The story chronicles the 1973 MLB season which had more sub-plots than an episode of Lost. In the face of death threats that literally made him fear living long enough to play the next season, Hank Aaron was slowly chasing down Babe Ruth as the All-Time Home Run King. George Steinbrenner purchased a reeling Yankees franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1964—and he purchased it for $10 million! The World Series ushered out one of the greatest players of all-time (Willie Mays) and welcomed a new superstar named Reggie Jackson. Mr. October took the league by storm in ’73 winning both the AL MVP and the World Series MVP.

Rosengren provides a fantastic look into one of the greatest seasons—and time periods—in MLB history. It’s a virtual encyclopedia of all things baseball from the early 70’s including insight into the tumulteous race relations in MLB, Gaylord Perry’s transgressions with his “spitball”, the AL’s controversial decision to introduce the DH, and Orlando Cepeda’s love for Mary Jane. With brilliant baseball websites like baseball-reference.com, it doesn’t take much to look up statistics from 1973. But, you’ll have to look pretty damn hard to find something that adequately portrays the drama--and there was a lot of it--that encapsulated the sport in ’73 as much as Hammerin' Hank. My only complaint is that he hasn't written a book like this for every season.

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