Thursday, July 31, 2008

Make room for "Moose"

There is little question that we’ve seen the greatest collection of elite pitchers in any one era in MLB history. Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez are four of the ten best pitchers of all-time. John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Johan Santana and Curt Schilling aren’t in the same league as the aforementioned four but all are among the top 75 players in MLB history. With such a brilliant group of hurlers, it’s easy to see why Mike Mussina might get tossed aside. Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, and Martinez have been so good that it’s easy to dismiss pitchers who don’t equal their dominance as not worthy of the HOF. Heck, it’s happened with Schilling who has clearly had a Hall of Fame career. It’s important to remember that those four pitchers are pitchers for the ages. They are so much better than most Hall of Famers that to judge a pitcher like Mussina against them is simply unfair. Mussina deserves to be judged on his own merit. So, I’ll attempt to do that.

Most baseball people (fans, analysts, executives etc.) would probably tell you that Mussina is not a Hall of Famer without giving it much thought. Mario Impemba and Rod Allen advocate the “look test” to judge whether a player should be in the HOF or not. The “look test”, of course, refers to looking at a player’s name and coming up with an answer in three seconds. Thankfully, the “look test” isn’t mandatory for election. Unfortunately, too many people use the “look test” as legitimate research. Impemba and Allen have used it numerous times to give the “thumbs down” to Jim Thome. If Thome isn’t a Hall of Famer then they’ll have to start rescinding membership starting with Harmon Killebrew. If the “look test” keeps a player like Thome out of the HOF, then it’s not worth Nate Robertson’s ERA (6.06). I suspect Mussina will fall victim to the “look test”. I’m not saying he deserves to be elected. I’m just saying he probably won’t get a fair look unless he reaches 300 wins.

Mussina has had a long and successful career that should continue for a number of years now that he has evolved into a finesse/command pitcher. He has been maligned for a). not having a 20-win season and b). not winning a Cy Young. Certainly, it helps your case to accomplish those feats. However, no pitcher has ever finished in the top six of the Cy Young voting as many times as Mussina (8) and not made the HOF. There are a number of Hall of Famers who a). never won a Cy Young and b). didn’t come close to finishing in the top six of the Cy Young voting eight times. Plus, a strong argument could be made that Mussina should have won the Cy Young in 2001 when he had better numbers across the board than his teammate, Roger Clemens. So, it would be nice if the notion that not winning 20-games and not winning a Cy Young precludes a pitcher from reaching the HOF. Look no further than Juan Marichal.

Mike Mussina1222633488.7.635274881.19
Juan Marichal1232433507.33.631230301.1

Mussina is definitely not a “slam dunk” HOFer. In fact, it takes a bit of research—research that Mussina deserves—to come to the conclusion that he probably should be a HOFer. This discussion may become moot as Mussina inches closer to the 300-win plateau. However, if Mussina pitches three more seasons (almost a formality barring injury) he’ll reach 4,000 innings pitched. At that point—even without 300 wins—Mussina will have reached a mark that should guarantee his inclusion into the “Hall”. No pitcher in MLB history has pitched at least 4,000 innings with an ERA+ of 120 or better and not been elected into the Hall of Fame. Mussina is at 122. Similarly, no pitcher in MLB history has pitched at least 4,000 innings with a winning percentage of at least .630 and not been elected in the Hall of Fame. Mussina is at .635.

The only way I see Mussina not deserving is if he pitches horribly over the next two seasons, doesn’t reach 300 wins, and falls below a 120 ERA+ and a .630 winning percentage. He would then lose all the precedent that is currently on his side and his case would go the way of Tommy John’s. Ironically, even if that does happen, his numbers will be as impressive as Bert Blyleven who currently holds the title as “best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame.” If Mussina falls off, I don’t expect him to get the same grassroots support as Blyleven but I could be wrong. Although, anyone who thinks Blyleven should be in the “Hall” probably should think the same thing about Mussina.

Mike Mussina1222633488.7.635274881.19
Bert Blyleven1182874970.534370131.2

As for the odds of Mussina reaching 300 wins, they are really good. He should be close to 270 wins by the end of this season. If he continues to pitch for the Yankees or another "good" team, then that would put him 2+ years away from the milestone. So, it might be a good idea for baseball fans to start preparing for Mussina, the Hall of Famer.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Army got it horribly wrong

(sequel to "Army got it Right")

Last week, the Department of Defense (DoD) reneged on its policy that allowed elite athletes like Caleb Campbell to pursue a career in professional sports. When questioned by the local media, Rod Marinelli had to give the “politically correct” response to that asinine decision because a). he is an NFL head coach and b). he is a military veteran. So, I’ll be frank in his place. The fact that “military intelligence” is almost always the first example given when defining “oxymoron” should suggest that the DoD doesn’t need any more bad publicity. Apparently, the geniuses at the DoD thought otherwise.

Here is a quick rundown on how things went for Campbell. The DoD passed an Alternative Service Option (ASO) program in 2005. The program gave athletes who were good enough to play professionally—like Campbell—the chance to do so while filling their military obligations as recruiters. It became apparent early in the 2007 college football season that Campbell had a realistic shot at making an NFL roster—a requirement for the ASO—in 2008. He went to the scouting combines and pre-draft workouts following the NFL season. He was selected by the Detroit Lions in the 7th round. Campbell agreed to terms on a contract with the Lions on July 22, one day before training camp. He was issued a helmet and jersey and was set to fulfill his dream. Then, the ad-wizards at the DoD gave him a call. Apparently, the DoD had changed the policy on July 8th but didn’t think it was necessary to inform Campbell of the change until July 23, the day training camp was to begin.

Whether the ASO was a good idea or not has been hotly debated over the last six months. Some suggested it was unpatriotic. Most felt otherwise. Personally, I think the program would be mutually beneficial as the athlete would get the opportunity to fulfill the dream of playing professionally while the army would get the benefit of having a professional athlete as a high-profile recruiter. David Robinson is probably the greatest recruiting tool the Navy athletic department could ever dream of. However, whether the ASO was right or wrong is irrelevant. The only thing that matters here is how coarse the DoD was in handling this situation.

Anybody who is familiar with life in the military knows that the army does this sort of things to its soldiers frequently. Whether it’s instituting stop-loss a month before a soldier’s ETS (End Term of Service) or extending deployments, the military does a good job of sticking it to its soldiers. In fact, if a business tried to treat its employees the way the army treats its soldiers, nobody would want to work for it. The army actually forces its soldiers to count Saturdays and Sundays when taking leave. If a soldier wants to take leave from a Friday through the next Sunday, he/she would have to use 10 personal/sick days (including two Saturdays and two Sundays) instead of the six days of work that are actually missed. Unions would have a field day if a business ever tried doing that to its employees. The DoD also weaseled its way out of paying six years worth of money that was rightfully owed to its civilian employees. The DoD failed to pay COLA (cost of living allowance) for 12 years even though it was mandated by congress in 1995. Instead of copping to the mistake and paying 12 years worth of COLA, the DoD said that six of the 12 years would not be paid because the statue of limitations ran out. It’s amazing that the DoD treats men and women who sign up to defend America worse than any legitimate business would treat its employees. These are the people who should be treated with the most respect.

The military can do this for a number of reasons. First, few people care about the trials and tribulations of the average soldier. A letter to a congressman might help remedy a situation or two but, for the most part, the army can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants without having to answer for it. Second, there is no watchdog organization to bring attention to such injustices. In the real world, a Human Resources Department acts as a liaison between the lower-level employees and management. The army has an HR Department but its responsibility is to process paperwork. Soldiers have little to no recourse. The government owns them and it certainly acts like it.

So, it was no surprise at all to see the army “railroad” another one of its soldiers with its treatment of Campbell. However, it was a surprise to see the army do it in the “public eye.” I am shocked that anyone in government thinks what the army did to Campbell was acceptable. I cannot believe there hasn’t been a public outcry against such a ridiculous decision. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that the army’s decision was some kind of sick joke. The day before training camp? You’ve gotta be kidding me.

The DoD, for its part, is playing the “confuse people into indifference”-game and it seems to be working. Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb pretty much sums up the army’s incompetence at handling this matter. She said, “We want to take care of soldiers and dashing their hopes is not what we intend. But it is what it is.”

It is what it is? What is that supposed to mean? A non-sequitur is what you would expect in a situation like this and a non-sequitur is what we got. It is what it is because the army made it that way. Dashing Campbell’s hopes is exactly what the army did. In fact, there would have been no “hope” to dash if the army didn’t institute the policy in the first place. It made the rule; it should be responsible enough to live with the consequences. Instead, it took the easy way out by going back on its word. It sounds like the army is setting a real good example for its soldiers. Duty. Honor. Country. I’m not sure how this decision could be even remotely classified as honorable. The DoD not only screwed over Campbell but it also screwed over the Detroit Lions. An NFL franchise took the army at its word and used a 7th round draft pick on a player who was eligible to play in the NFL according to the army’s own ASO program. There is no question in my mind that Marinelli has to be disappointed that his brethren mislead him into believing Campbell was available. He might not publically admit his disappointment but it would be impossible for him not to be.

Soldiers are held to a higher standard. Right or wrong, that is the way things are. However, a person who chooses to risk their life to defend the freedoms of America deserves to be treated with a higher standard. Campbell’s situation is just another example to show that the army has no interest in doing that. I realize that this will all blow over and nobody will care about it six months from now just like every other instance when the military does something totally crappy to its soldiers. I just want to go on record saying that this isn't right.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Recruiting efficiency should improve under Rich Rodriguez

Much has been made of Michigan being better under Rich Rodriguez in a multitude of areas including conditioning, scheming, and preparation; and for good reason. Another area that I think RR can improve is recruiting. Lloyd Carr was a very good recruiter. He put together classes that were among the best in the country. I’m not necessarily talking about RR bringing in higher-ranked classes. That might happen but it’s pretty hard to beat what Carr accomplished. I’m talking about being more effective at identifying strengths and weaknesses before recruits are offered scholarships regardless of their star-level. While Carr certainly brought in highly-touted recruits, all too often he didn’t see those recruits materialize on the field. Carr was good at getting four-star recruits to commit to Michigan. What he wasn’t good at was picking the right four-star recruits to come to Michigan. Four and five-star recruits are important because they are what make Michigan "Michigan" and not, say, "Michigan State."

Recruiting services aren’t perfect. Braylon Edwards—perhaps Michigan’s best offensive player of the last 60 years—was only a three-star recruit. A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis—two of Ohio St’s best players ever—were also only three-star recruits. For the most part, though, four and five-star recruits turn out to be better college players and, in turn, make teams who routinely get commitments from those players the upper echelon of college football.

Carr signed 64 four-star recruits or better from 2002-2007 according to the Rivals database. Of those 64, a whopping 20 left the team for non-NFL related reasons so far. None of the 20 had careers that could even remotely be considered productive. My point here isn’t to blame Carr. Players see their football careers end early for a litany of reasons. My point is that there is major room for improvement in maximizing the effectiveness of recruiting. Just think about the significance of 20 four-star recruits amounting to nothing. Just to compare, Michigan St. only signed 25 four-star recruits total over that same time period. Michigan has essentially wasted enough four-star prospects to supply the entire Michigan St. football program.

Michigan’s Four-Star duds from 2002-2007

YearPos. PlayerStarsReason for leaving
2002QBMatt Gutierrez4Transfer to Idaho St.
2002DLLarry Harrison4Legal issues
2002DBQuinton McCoy4Academic issues
2002RBPierre Rembert4Transfer to Illinois St.
2003DBRyan Mundy4Transfer to West Virginia
2003LBJim Presley4Academic issues
2003QBClayton Richard4Professional baseball
2003OLJeff Zuttah4Health issues
2004OLBrett Gallimore4Retired
2004RBMax Martin4Transfer to Alabama
2004OLAlex Mitchell4Medical issues
2004LBChris Rogers4Transfer to Penn St.
2005WR/QBAntonio Bass4Medical issues
2005DLEugene Germany4Legal issues
2005DLJames McKinney4Transfer to Louisville
2005OLJustin Schifano4Retired
2005DLMarques Slocum4Academic issues
2006OLJustin Boren4Fat issues
2006LBCobrani Mixon4Transfer to Kent St.
2007QBRyan Mallett5Transfer to Arkansas

If you go down the list of 20, each has a plausible reason that exonerates Carr. For instance, Ryan Mallett transferred because Michigan moved from a Pro-Style offense to a Spread offense under Rich Rodriguez. Larry Harrison was dismissed for exposing his peeper. Antonio Bass had a freak-injury that ended his career. Just about every instance seems reasonable/unavoidable. However, what doesn’t necessarily seem reasonable is the big picture. Carr is ultimately responsible for picking the right players. The fact that he has seen so many scholarships wasted inevitably falls on his shoulders. Sure, some it has to do with bad luck but a lot of it has to do with not recognizing needs and potential. That’s where Michigan could see a big change under Rodriguez.

One can only imagine how much better Michigan would’ve been if either a). Carr was able to get more out of those 20 four-star recruits or b). Carr recruited different players who would’ve actually contributed. Rodriguez knows his system. Hopefully, that means highly-touted recruits will have more defined roles once they get to Ann Arbor. Rodriguez also recruits a different kind of player; one who is more athletic and explosive than bulky. That increases the likelihood that a player will make some impact down the road either at his initialy position or via a position-switch.

Unexpected attrition is a given in college football. There is no way a coach can expect to run a college football program without losing a few players along the way. However, I do think a coach has the power to minimize such occurrences. Ironically, Ohio St. had exactly 64 four-star recruits or better from 2002-2007.So far, Jim Tressel has only seen 10 of those players leave the program for non NFL-related reasons. That is a significant difference from what Michigan has seen. I don’t know if that difference can be attributed to Tressel’s ability to identify players who fit his system or Ohio State’s strength and conditioning program but I highly doubt that it’s simply “luck”.

Ohio State’s four-star duds from 2002-2007

YearPos. PlayerStarsReason for leaving
2002TER.J. Coleman4Retired
2002DBE.J. Underwood4Transfer to Campbellsville University
2003DBIra Guilford4Legal issues/Transfer to Troy
2003DBDareus Hiley4Academic issues
2003TELouis Irizarry4Legal issues/Transfer to Youngstown St.
2004WRAlbert Dukes4Seeking Transfer
2004TEChad Hoobler4Transfer to Ashland University
2004DBDevon Lyons4Seeking Transfer
2005QBRob Schoenhoft4Transfer to Delaware
2005DERyan Williams4Transfer to San Diego St.

Again, I realize recruiting is not exact. Michigan and Ohio St. lose a number of three star players for various reasons as well. Those losses can be equally important. However, Michigan and Ohio State’s big advantage over Wisconsin, Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten is that they have the liberty of recruiting better football players. Michigan has struck out way too many times on those “better” football players. Were some overrated coming out of high school? Of course. But, that doesn’t alleviate Michigan from responsibility. It’s part of the job to identify talent and skill-sets. Unfortunately, Michigan has done a pretty terrible job at doing so over the last 5-10 years.

This is an area that I believe Michigan and Rodriguez can make up ground in. Just about everyone expects Michigan to be in better shape and be better prepared. Almost everyone expects Michigan to maximize talent and be less predictable. This is an area that might get overlooked but has the potential to be significant down the road. It sounds a lot like maximizing talent but it’s clearly different. Maximizing talent refers to getting the best out of your players once they get to campus. This refers to picking and choosing the right players to focus on early in the recruiting period without necessarily improving your recruiting rankings. More efficiency in recruiting should yield better results.

Michigan can afford to strike-out on a number of four-stars and still keep up with Michigan St. It’s much more damaging when two schools bring in the same caliber of talent and one sees twice as many elite recruits amount to nothing as the other. In an "arm’s race" between elite college football programs—especially when it’s between two bitter rivals like Michigan and Ohio St.—that difference is substantial. That is an advantage that Michigan can’t afford to keep giving to Ohio St. RR has given Michigan a facelift in so many areas but the likely increase in recruiting efficiency might be one of the most dramatic changes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In Defense

It’s still mid-July but my efforts to contain my excitement about the college football-season have failed. This year—more so than any other—has intrigue. The Ohio St./USC game is one of the most anticipated non-conference matchups ever. In an era that sees teams rewarded for putting together a buffet of cream puffs on the non-conference schedule, Ohio St. continues to impress by playing everyone from Miami (FL) and Texas to USC, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma. I’m also looking forward to seeing what Paul Johnson accomplishes at Georgia Tech. I don't think there's any doubt that he'll give opposing defensive coordinators fits immediately. Combine that with a defense led by All-American and likely top five draft pick Michael Johnson and the ACC could have a new king sooner than later. The SEC race is going to be as exciting as ever with every team but Vandy, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Mississippi St. poised for a run at the SEC Championship. However, by a trillion billion light years, the most exciting thing about college football this season will be watching Michigan football with no expectations for the first time in my lifetime. Every negative can be slid under the rug and every positive can be littered with hyperbole. This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to just sit back and enjoy. Thankfully, due to what should be a spectacular defense, this season could be every bit as successful as Urban Meyer’s inaugural season at Florida. Remember when nobody thought Meyer could win right away using his system with Florida’s personnel? Sounds familiar.

Michigan would have had a pretty good defense this year regardless of whether it was fueled by pizza (bad) or by chocolate milk (good). Fortunately, the switch was made from the former to the latter in the off-season. As a result, we should expect—I did say no expectations earlier but that was in reference to wins and losses—to see the most punishing Michigan defense since 1997. Michigan boasts four players who should be at the very least locks as All-Big Ten selections. Morgan Trent, Donovan Warren, Terrence Taylor, and Brandon Graham were already pretty good. I suspect new D-Coordinator Scott Shafer’s aggressive approach on defense combined with the strength and conditioning gospel provided by Mike Barwis will help these four players reach their potential. That is something that almost certainly would not have happened under the previous regime. Need evidence? Vernon Gh…er, I mean…Brandon Graham.

The rest of the defense is pretty much a giant question mark. The linebackers are untested and unknown. Taylor’s tag-team partner on the D-Line is Will Johnson and a bunch of guys with the initials TBD, and Tim Jamison is entering his 15th consecutive season on the “poised for a breakout” team. However, it’s important to remember that the Michigan roster is scattered with four-star recruits. There is more talent on Michigan’s defense this year than Rich Rodriguez saw in his seven years at West Virginia combined. The days of seeing Pierre Woods, Prescott Burgess, and Shawn Crable toil around for four years underachieving and surviving solely on their natural-born athleticism are over. Remember the envy that built up inside every time you watched Ohio St. since 2001? Remember wondering why nobody on Michigan has ever looked like Vernon Gholston? Remember wondering how it was possible for Ohio St. to take essentially the same caliber recruit as Michigan and turn him into a much, much better football player? Those days are over. You can expect to see heralded and unheralded recruits alike pop-up out of nowhere with guns (figurative guns, or large biceps) and speed to burn under Rich Rodriguez. The days of hearing about players blowing up in practice like Chris Graham and Markus Curry only to see them fizzle on the field are over. The college football world is about to find out how good Michigan can be when it combines the best players with the best conditioning and coaching. In just a year or two it’s going to be something like (Ohio St. + Florida + USC)/3.

I’m not ready to make any predictions about the offense in year one. It could be anywhere from average to historically bad. I do know there will be a lot of talent but most of it will be in the form of freshmen. The fact that Gerry DiNardo predicted Nick Sheridan to be Michigan’s starter on August 30 makes me a little queasy. My guess would be that regardless, Michigan’s offense will be unspectacular but not horrible a la Florida ‘06. Georgia Tech has proven in recent years that a truly horrible offense combined with an elite defense is enough to make a seven-win season all but guaranteed. In fact, there is no reason to think that Michigan—with better players and a forgiving schedule—will perform any worse than Georgia Tech did over the last decade or so. A Georgia Tech-level performance is worst-case scenario, IMO. Considering Georgia Tech has won at least seven games and made a bowl game in 11-straight seasons, that’s not too bad of a worst-case scenario. First table ever in 3…2…1

The Georgia Tech Precedent

YearOffensive RankDefensive RankWins

If you're concerned about Michigan this year, you're not alone. The rest of the country has the spectrum of predictions covered and a lot of it is “death by offense.” Michigan opened as a 16-point underdog to Ohio St. last week. Kirk Herbstreit predicts a 6-6 record. I can understand how the uncertainty of a totally new coaching staff combined with the loss of virtually all offensive contributors could be worrisome. However, that same uncertainty has me jovial. In the event that you can't contain your nerves, just remember Georgia Tech. It might also make you feel better that Georgia Tech had five players who were four-star recruits when it won nine games in 2006. Michigan will suit-up 41 on August 30.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A little Jamie Moyer love

I first saw Jamie Moyer when I bought my first pack of Topps baseball cards in 1987. I went through my collection a few years ago and came across that same baseball card. It was not in great shape but the picture with his Cubs hat virtually floating on top of his head was exactly as I remembered it. Moyer also sported a mad flat-brim two decades before flat-brims became cool.

Moyer will be 46 in November. He has a 112 ERA+. That’s plenty good to be an effective starter in the majors. In fact, he’s easily the second best pitcher on Philadelphia’s staff and it certainly isn’t a fluke. Moyer learned to survive a long time ago by varying the speeds of his pitches and, equally important, locating them. His fastball tops out in the low 80s which is among the slowest in the league. As a result, there doesn’t appear to be any physical limitations to Moyer playing until he’s 50 unless his arm falls off. Moyer seems to realize this. He has repeatedly stated that he plans to pitch as long as possible. He recently reiterated this in an article on by saying "I am not at the end...This isn't my last year."

Moyer won eight games before the All-Star break this year. It’s reasonable to assume he’ll win approximately six games after the break. That will give him 244 career wins. If he intends to play four or five more seasons, he’ll have a legitimate shot at 300 career wins. It’s unlikely that Moyer will last that long but not out of the question. I wrote a similar post about Julio Franco (who was 48 at the time) last year and he was released this season ending his career. The difference between Franco and Moyer is that Moyer is a workhorse who has been thriving with the same repertoire of pitches for the last 13 years. Franco was just a part-time player over his last eight seasons. At least half the teams in MLB would love to have Moyer on their staff.

I realize that I might be getting ahead of myself just a bit here, but, in the highly unlikely event that Moyer hangs around long enough to reach 300 wins, Hall of Fame voters would be faced with the most difficult decision of their voting lives. No pitcher has ever been kept out of the HOF with at least 300 wins. Conversely, no pitcher has ever made the HOF with an ERA over 4.00 (Red Ruffing has the highest ERA among HOFers at 3.80). It’s not as if his numbers are awful. He has been one of the best pitchers in the majors over the past 13 years. He has the 6th most wins in the majors since 1996 behind only Greg Maddux, Andy Pettitte, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, and Tom Glavine. He has pitched the 4th most innings since 1996 behind only Maddux, Glavine, and Mussina. He is 179-108 since ’96 with a .623 winning percentage. He has also led the league in age three times. Still, I don’t think there’s any doubt he would be the least qualified pitcher in the HOF if that ever happened. I wonder if the members of the 300 win-club are rooting heavily against Moyer’s membership.

Back to reality. Moyer is the last active player from the 1987 Topps set (Greg Maddux was in the ’87 Topps Traded set). There is something comforting about Moyer keeping the candle burning from the first baseball pack I ever opened. As long as he’s pitching, I’ve got a direct link to my seven-year old self. As I did for Julio Franco and Brett Favre, I’m urging Jamie Moyer to play forever. Luckily for me, I get the feeling that he might actually do it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Howard's Snub

Jayson Stark wrote a piece on ESPN last week that included one of my “pet peeves.” He wrote, “Complaining about the All-Star Game sure is fashionable these days. Maybe not as fashionable as hanging out with Lenny Kravitz. Or hugging the nearest Wimbledon runner-up. But in serious vogue nonetheless. Well, here at World Rumblings Headquarters, we don't want to get lumped in with all those other All Star Game malcontents. Heck, we love the All-Star Game.”

Then, of course, he goes on to “complain” about the All-Star game by listing three ways the game could be improved. Just because you preface a complaint with “we don’t want to get lumped in with all those other All Star Game malcontents” doesn’t mean you’re not complaining. I like Stark. His enthusiasm for baseball is infectious. He is thorough and credible. I just don’t like the, “I don’t like it when other people do X but it’s OK if I do X” argument. It’s OK to love the All-Star Game and it’s OK to complain about the All-Star Game. They are not mutually exclusive. I know this to be the case because I love the All-Star game and I’m about to complain about it.

How can Ryan Howard not be in the All-Star game? Winning the Triple Crown is one of the all-time great accomplishments in baseball. It hasn’t been done in the AL since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967. It hasn’t been done in the NL since Joe Medwick did it in 1937. So, leading the league in two of the three categories qualifies as a big deal. He obviously stands no chance at winning the third category with his paltry .234 batting average. However, how telling can “batting average” be in this instance when Howard leads the NL in home runs and RBIs? Plus, for those people still hung up on batting average (this population is dwindling by the year), Howard is hitting .330 with a 1.079 OPS with runners in scoring position (RISP). He is hitting .184 with a .701 OPS with nobody on base. Isn’t that what you want out of your clean-up hitter?

It has been 60 years since a player led the league in both home runs and RBIs and didn’t make the All-Star Game. That distinction went to Hank Sauer in 1948. There is a reason why it has been that long: leading the league in both categories makes you an All-Star. If Howard keeps up his current pace (47 HRs and 142 RBIs), he’ll easily finish in the top five of the MVP voting and might actually win it. This probably sounds like a tall task—almost as tall as installing video replay mid-season—but there is no reason why Bud Selig couldn’t have simply said, “Howard not being in the All-Star game is a joke, I’m putting him in.”

Outrageously, Howard wasn’t even among the five players submitted for the “Final Vote”. He is easily one of the biggest snubs ever and we’re supposed to believe that he wasn’t even one of the five biggest snubs this season? By the way, the winner of the NL’s “Final Vote” was Corey Hart.

Here is a brief comparison of Hart’s numbers to Howard’s:


I realize that once Clint Hurdle (NL Manager) chose the five players for the Final Vote, the outcome was out of his hands. My question is: what was he thinking putting Hart in the Final Vote over Howard? That’s just ludicrous.

I do understand that a numbers-crunch made it somewhat difficult to make room for Howard. He does have the unfortunate distinction of playing at a position that features two of the best hitters in MLB. Phat Albert and Fat Elvis have put up monster numbers this season and deserved to make the NL squad ahead of Howard. The other NL first baseman on the roster—Adrian Gonzalez—made the team because he was chosen as San Diego’s lone representative. However, since the game is being played at Yankee Stadium, the DH is in play. Pujols is the NL’s starting DH. That frees up a first base slot for Howard. There was easily room for Howard to make the squad as either a manager’s selection or a “Final Vote” selection. Instead, the NL leader in home runs and RBIs is sitting at home (or wherever he’s sitting) for the All-Star Game.

The worst part about Howard not being in the game—other than it not being fair to him, of course—is that the leading home run-hitter in MLB was not a participant in the Home Run Derby. Can you imagine how historic a Josh Hamilton/Ryan Howard duel would’ve been in the first round?

I thought the sporting world would be all over the Howard-snub but apparently few people even know about it. I was listening to Doug Karsch and Scott “The Gator” Anderson (the most enjoyable sports radio show in Detroit, IMHO) on 1270 AM yesterday. A listener called in and said something to the effect of “It’s a shame that Lance Berkman didn’t make the All-Star Game. He leads the NL in home runs. He’s had a monster season and I can’t believe they didn’t have room for him.” Since you’ve been reading this post, you will clearly realize that there are a number of things wrong with that statement. Instead of correcting the caller, Karsh and Anderson agreed with him by saying Berkman should be an All-Star and marveled at how well he had been hitting this year. A few minutes passed and Karsch made a correction by saying that Berkman did not lead the NL in home runs. A few more minutes passed and Karsch made another correction by saying that Berkman was, in fact, the starting first baseman for the NL. Ryan Howard’s name was not mentioned once in the segment.

Once again, baseball—led by Bud Selig—has proven why it has been the butt of so many jokes in recent years. I can’t think of another sport that would allow a player who leads the league in two of the sport’s most important categories to miss its All-Star Game. Howard is the biggest snub in All-Star Game history in any sport. All I can say about his absence in the Home Run Derby is, “Thank God for Josh Hamilton!”

Friday, July 11, 2008

"Everybody, look at me!"

The media has always thrived on sensationalism. Despite various claims of “fair and balanced” reporting, the media has an agenda just like any other enterprise. Controversial and stupid opinions lead to increased readership. Thus, newspapers clearly have an interest in “lighting rod” opinions since they lead to increased sales. That was the case 10, 50, and 100 years ago well before blogs dented print-media’s “bottom line.” Now, with the print-media seeing its readership shrink to unsustainable levels, the motivation for sensationalizing is greater than ever. That’s why we see things like Michael Rosenberg’s pathetic hatchet-job in Thursday’s Detroit Free Press. In fairness to Rosenberg and the Free Press, their tactic certainly worked. Brian at mgoblog clobbered the ridiculous column paragraph by horrible paragraph but the Free Press, in turn, got what it wanted: attention. As of midnight Friday, Rosenberg’s column was still the most popular story on the Free Press’s website.

So, should we just say, “job well done” to Rosenberg and move along? Well, no. The problem is that reputable news sources have—or at least should have—two goals: 1). make money, and 2). be credible. Based on Rosenberg’s drivel, it’s obvious that the former takes precedence when revenue is shrinking. Rosenberg’s column is in such contrast to the average reader in Detroit—as well as the other Detroit columnists who opined about the topic—that it was clearly an attempt at attracting an audience. Ever since Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, there has been an internet “flame” war spearheaded by disgruntled West Virginia fans. The only people in the country who seem to want to talk about how awful Rich Rodriguez is are the people from West Virginia. This process has been so drawn out that it has become a non-issue with everyone who isn’t 1). from West Virginia and, 2). affiliated with MSU, OSU, and Notre Dame. Rodriguez has been universally accepted by the Michigan fan-base. So, a column attacking Rodriguez with as little substance as Rosenberg's comes off as incredibly forced. No reasonable, unbiased person, reporting for a Michigan newspaper, could have such a skewed take on reality. Even Jim Carty—notorious for his attempt to bring down the UM Athletic Department with accusations of academic improprieties—has a reasonable view on the settlement.

Sensationalizing to sell papers might temporarily help the "bottom line" but it does so at the expense of credibility. I have always felt that Rosenberg was one of the better columnists in Detroit. There are plenty of writers in this city who write god-awful opinions. It’s unfortunate to see Rosenberg "sell out" just to get the Free Press a few lousy advertising dollars. In the end, the hit that Rosenberg’s credibility will take outweighs the extra “hits” his paper’s website gained from being lambasted by mgoblog.

Just like the dwindling numbers of the print-media aren’t specific to Detroit newspapers, sensationalism isn’t specific to Detroit newspapers, either. While Rosenberg’s column provided a great starting point for my post, I actually started thinking about this topic when the irrational storm of Marian Hossa-bashing swept through newspapers across North America after he signed with the Red Wings. In case you missed all of that, you can find some of it here, here, here, and here. Hossa-bashing is as indefensible as Rosenberg’s column and it shows. Hossa-bashers struggled to put together coherent arguments but spewed venom nonetheless which leads me to suspect sensationalism. I have yet to read even a single valid point by a columnist attempting to disparage Hossa’s decision to sign with the Wings.

Any time we’re talking about the sports world, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Clearly, Hossa is no hero or saint for turning down one multi-million dollar contract in favor of another. But, in the world of sports, what Hossa did has always been considered admirable. In fact, it is so admirable that nobody in his situation has ever done it. Karl Malone and Gary Payton signed with the Lakers in 2003 for less than market value in an attempt to win the championship that had eluded them for a combined 31 years but that was after they amassed more than $100 and $90 million in career earnings. They were 40 and 35 years old respectively and were tag-alongs. Since their earning power was limited, they sacrificed virtually nothing. Hossa is 29 and will likely be a pivotal cog in the Wings’ chances of repeating. His earning power is at its peak. What Hossa did is what fans have been begging professional athletes to do for years: don’t make it all about the money.

Hossa isn’t going to go bankrupt with the $7.45 million he’ll make this year. In fact, he will actually make more money this year with the Wings than he would’ve made had he accepted Pittsburgh’s 7 year, $50 million offer. Still, Hossa did what nobody before him had ever done. Guaranteed money is the gold-standard in professional sports. Hossa turned down $81 million in guaranteed money from the Edmonton Oilers for $7.45 million and a shot at the Stanley Cup. If Hossa suffers a career-threatening injury next season, he’ll have sacrificed $70+ million. To suggest that his sacrifice wasn’t really a sacrifice at all—as many columnists have attempted to point out—is to be ignorant.

What makes the attacks on Hossa so frustrating is that had he signed the $81 million contract with the Oilers, he would’ve been lambasted in Pittsburgh—and everywhere else in the NHL—for being just another greedy athlete in it for the money. Instead, he took an incredible risk over guaranteed money and he was still blasted. That just goes to show you that columnists will find a way to bash anything if it is controversial-enough to sell a story.

The Rosenberg-debacle and the Hossa-reaction are likely signs of things to come. Revenue is down. The existence of print-media as we know it is in question. The result will likely be in an increase in sensationalism and, thus, a decrease in both credibility and readability. Obviously, newspapers will attempt to cover the sensationalism in a veil of “fair and balanced” reporting. They can’t exactly admit that they’re flat out manipulating articles to promote more interest in their stories just like pharmaceutical companies can’t openly admit that they benefit by preventing cures or insurance companies can’t openly admit that they benefit by rejecting as many claims as possible. In fact, I’m sure editors have convinced themselves that there is no attempt to manipulate columns to increase sales. However, when a normally level-headed columnist like Michael Rosenberg comes out with something so over the top that it would make Sylvester Stallone proud, evidence suggests there is.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Eat, Drink, and Watch Tennis

The extended 4th of July weekend proved to be big on fireworks and even bigger on sporting events. Most of you probably heard about the thrilling and—at times—unbelievable five-setter at Wimbledon between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. I’ve watched a lot of tennis over the years and I’m pretty sure that masterpiece is the best tennis match I’ve ever seen. The aftermath saw columnists across the world proclaiming it not only the best tennis match of all-time but the best sporting event of the year (don’t forget about the Super Bowl which was one of the best ever). Those who are willing to toil in the obscure were treated to an equally phenomenal sporting event in the form of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. I postponed our ETD on a family trip 30 minutes to see the 10-minute sloth-fest and it proved to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

First, Federer/Nadal. Those who follow tennis even just remotely knew the back-story going into the final. Federer had won five consecutive Wimbledon titles one short of holding the open-era record by himself (Borg also won five). He hadn’t lost a match in 40 tries at Wimbledon and was within one victory of tying Bjorn Borg’s record of 41. Nadal has been primarily known as a clay-court specialist having won the last four French Opens three of which were over Federer. He had only reached the finals in two non-French Open majors before his year. Both of those were defeats to Federer in each of the last two Wimbledon finals. However, Nadal had been closing the gap. Two years ago in the ’06 Wimbledon Final, Federer hammered Nadal in four sets. Last year, Federer needed five sets. This year, both cruised to the final losing only one set between in 12 combined matches along the way.

There were countless factors that made this match such an astonishing event heading into the match. We were clearly watching the two best players in tennis. Federer was looking to tie Borg’s consecutive match streak and set the record for most consecutive Wimbledon Championships in the open era. This was the third consecutive year that these two were facing off in the final. All of the elements for a spectacular showing were present before a point was played. It was up to the competitors to add the requisite level of excellence to make this a match to remember. Anyone who watched knows what happened next. Nadal came out blazing in the first set. Federer seemed to be poised to tie it up at one set a piece jumping out to a 3-0 lead. Nadal fought back and miraculously claimed the second set. It looked at that point that this match was going to be over quickly. Nadal was in control. No player since 1927 had lost the first two sets and managed to win the title at Wimbledon. Then, Federer fought back by taking the next two sets in epic fashion. Both went to tiebreakers (7-5 and 10-8). Considering how well Nadal was playing, it is amazing that Federer was able to win those sets. That set up a fifth set with as much anticipation as any in the history of tennis. Fittingly, this set would go to overtime. The rules at Wimbledon state that there are no tiebreakers in the final set so it just goes on until someone wins by two. Nadal eventually broke Federer to take the title 6–4, 6–4, 6–7(5), 6–7(8), 9–7 to become the first player since Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back.

Those who claimed Federer had lost his edge heading into Wimbledon will certainly have fodder to bolster their argument. Likewise, those who felt Federer had plenty left in the tank will have ammunition for their viewpoint. Few doubt, however, that Nadal’s best days are ahead of him. Even though the match went five full sets, Nadal seemed to be in control most of the way. Federer probably holds the edge in more basic tennis-related skills including serving and ground stroking. However, Nadal has the equalizing combination of court-coverage and shot-making. He not only gets to more shots but he has the ability to put Federer on the defense on those shots. That was the difference in this match and that could very well be the difference that propels Nadal to the top of the tennis world. Federer broke Nadal once on 13 tries. Nadal won at least six games in every set. This was not a fluke. Nadal’s game is perfectly suited to combat Federer. The two players who are often cited as the best tennis players of all-time—Pete Sampras and Roger Federer—won a combined zero French Opens. The open era has not seen a player who flourishes and dominates on all surfaces. If Nadal can capitalize on his breakthrough on grass with a dominating three or four year stretch on all surfaces, he could grab the mythical title of “best tennis player of all-time”. Until then, Nadal’s victory at Wimbledon counts as just one. He has a long way to go before he can be talked about in the same breath as Roger Federer.

I realize that competitive eating doesn’t get the same fanfare as tennis. Since tennis doesn’t exactly get much fanfare itself, it’s safe to say that competitive eating is about as popular as professional lacrosse. However, those who have given it a chance have likely been pleasantly surprised by the suspense and skill required to excel at ingesting larges amounts of food. The Kobayashi/Chestnut rivalry is every bit as rooted as Federer/Nadal. They are the dominating eaters in the world of competitive eating holding numerous records between them. The big event on the IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating)Tour is Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Competition. Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut have finished 1-2 each of the last three years. Before Chestnut shocked the world last year, Kobayashi had won the competition six consecutive years. It’s safe to say that Kobayashi is the Federer of eating and Chestnut is the Nadal. Unlike tennis, though, the rest of the competitors are worth talking about. They have personalities and intrigue that the world of tennis simply cannot match. The competition—once ruled by 400-lb mammoths—is now littered with WWE-style, regular-sized, personalities. Tim “Eater X” Janus and “Crazy Legs” Conti (both of Cash Cab fame) are two such personas. “Eater X” has face paint ala The Ultimate Warrior and “Crazy Legs” just has, well, crazy legs and even crazier occupations. Patrick Bertoletti is a Mohawk-wearing, healthy food cook rendering him a walking contradiction. Sonya Thomas aka “The Black Widow” is the most logic-defying competitor on the tour. She weighs in at a whopping 98-lbs. She finished second to Kobayashi in ‘05 at Nathan’s having eaten 37 hot dogs in just 12 minutes. She holds 20+ world records including eating 65 hard boiled eggs in under seven minutes. While the cast is crucial for the long-term viability of competitive eating as a spectator event, there is no question that the Kobayashi/Chestnut rivalry is what brings competitive eating into the mainstream once a year.

Last year’s Nathan’s Final was mired in controversy. Kobayashi had jaw issues heading into the event which caused some to question the validity—or meaning rather—of Chestnut’s monumental win. Chestnut was poised to prove that last year’s win was not a fluke. However, he would have to contend with a game-plan changing rule amendment. Upon further review, it seemed that the Nathan’s competition had originally begun as a 10-minute competition—not the 12-minute competition that we have been accustomed to. This would have a similar impact of turning a long-distance race into a sprint. While I appreciate ESPN’s willingness to televise the event, it would do itself a favor by telling its announcers to avoid saying things like, “even with the reduction to 10 minutes, we think that 70 hot dogs is possible.” The previous world record was set by Chestnut last year at 66 in 12 minutes. Did they really think that he was going to eat four more hot dogs in two fewer minutes? Math skills aside, ESPN’s coverage is a blessing for food-lovers across America.

Once the competition started, Chestnut and Kobayashi took the lead as expected. Chestnut held the lead for the majority of the competition but Kobayashi came on strong to overtake Chestnut with just a few minutes left. At the one-minute mark, it looked like Kobayashi had it wrapped up. Chestnut was more than one hot dog behind. As the buzzer went off, Chestnut smashed as much food against his mouth as he could fit into his hand. The rules state that what you have in your mouth as time expires counts. Amazingly, the final count was a 59-59 tie. I think Kobayashi was robbed. As much as I was rooting for Chestnut, Kobayashi had more in his mouth as time expired. Chestnut had a decent amount in his hand pressed against his mouth which he inevitably ended up swallowing. There needs to be reform in the way the competition is judged. If it were up to me, once time expires, hands should be removed from the mouth. But, the ruling was official and, like Wimbledon, we were headed to overtime. The “dog off” is a 5 hot dog-blitz. Whoever eats five hot dogs the fastest wins. Chestnut won by a miniscule-margin and proved his win last year was not a fluke. He also went home with 20,000 extra calories. I can’t help but to think that if this competition were held in Japan Kobayashi would’ve been crowned the champion. There is just too much subjectivity in the judging. That will need to be cleaned up if competitive eating wants to go mainstream.

As far as which event was better, it all depends on how you judge it. I compare it to differentiating between the player who averages the most points per game in the NBA and the player who scored the most points. Which is more meaningful? Kobayashi/Chestnut gave us more bang for our time. That excitement only required ten minutes of our time. Federer/Nadal provided more fantastic moments but—with multiple rain delays—required six hours of our time. Regardless of your preference, these events were spectacular in their competitiveness and underappreciated in their obscurity.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Mats Sundin hates the Stanley Cup

The first thing that entered my mind when I heard that the Wings nabbed Marian Hossa for a 1-year, $7.45 million contract was, “what the hell is Mats Sundin thinking?” And to be clear, I’m psyched about the Hossa-signing. He has more goals than any other player under 30. He’s a fantastic two-way player who just finished playing the best hockey of his career in the playoffs. He was probably the most coveted free agent available. I just find it peculiar that Sundin didn’t jump at the chance to play for the Wings like Hossa did.

Hossa turned down an $81 million contract from the Edmonton Oilers to sign with the Wings. His motive wasn’t a mystery. He came to Detroit to win the Stanley Cup. What makes such a motive so astonishing, though, is that Hossa is only 29 years old. His career is only half-over. Yet, at the pinnacle of his earning power, he passed up $73.55 million guaranteed just for a chance at the Stanley Cup. If he suffers a career-ending injury next year—or even just career-altering—that will amount to paying more than $70 million for one shot at the Cup. I don’t want to make it sound like Hossa’s giving up every penny he owns to save the world. Counting his deal with the Wings, Hossa will have earned more than $34 million in his NHL career by next season. Decisions—like passing up $70 million guaranteed—are a lot easier when you have $30+ million in the bank. Still, there aren’t too many people—sane or otherwise—who would give up that much guaranteed money.

And then there’s Mats Sundin... Sundin is 37 years old. He has never even made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. By next season, he will have made more than $80 million in his career. If there’s anyone who should be Cup-hungry, it’s Sundin. If there’s anyone who should be money-hungry it’s Hossa. Half of this odd role-reversal can be attributed to Hossa’s desire to win the ultimate prize in hockey. People do crazy things to win the Stanley Cup. I just can’t figure out what the other half entails. Few would argue that the Wings will have, by far, the best chance of winning the Cup next season. It wouldn’t take more than one or two seconds for Sundin to realize the Wings were his best shot at winning the Cup. He should’ve contacted the Wings as soon as the season ended. Instead, he waited for Ken Holland to give him a call and when it came down to it, Hossa jumped at the offer and Sundin didn’t. Why?

Maybe I’m not fully informed on the way things transpired. I suppose that it’s possible that both Hossa and Sundin wanted to play for the Wings and Holland chose Hossa. However, if that were the case, I’m guessing we would’ve heard about it by now. Maybe it’s possible that Sundin just doesn’t value the Stanley Cup as much as the average NHLer. It could be all about the Olympics for him. He won four Gold medals with the Swedish National Team (three World Championships and one Olympic). Hossa has come up empty in his international-career with the Slovakian National Team. Maybe that’s the difference between Hossa’s willingness to give up $70+ million for a good shot at the Cup and Sundin’s apparent indifference.

Regardless, Hossa’s “sacrifice” (I don’t want to get too carried away here) is refreshing because too many professional athletes pretend that their number one priority is to win a championship only to sign the contract with the most zeroes attached. Hossa—amazingly and perhaps crazily—is not all about the money. I don’t fault Sundin for taking a more practical approach. If he can get $20 million over two years from Vancouver, then more power to him. I’ll be very interested to see what he ends up doing. If he signs with a team that gives him more than what the Wings were offering (which I’m guessing was $7.45 million) and then says his motive is to win the Stanley Cup, then you’ll know he’s blowing smoke up your ass. In the meantime, I wish the rest of the NHL “good luck” next season because it looks like it’s going to need it.

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