Wednesday, March 24, 2010

'Big' Again

It only takes a cursory look at the historical records of the RPI to understand the cyclicality of college basketball conference supremacy. The SEC had a four-year run as the best conference in America from 2000-2003. The ACC followed that with a two-year run. Then the Big Ten took the reign for a year before the ACC regained supremacy for three more years. The Big XII was tops in 2010. Of course, when conferences have rough patches—especially the Big Ten—you can bet that the alarmists will be quick to pronounce the demise and irrelevance of a struggling conference. Perspective is not a valued or commonly held trait in the sports world. However, overreaction doesn’t change the fact that conferences fluctuate. The year before the Big Ten was the #1 rated conference in the RPI in 2006, it was the #6 rated conference. Clearly, what conferences do from year-to-year can be pretty random.

However, what they do over time is not. For as much criticism as Big Ten basketball has received over the years, the conference sure seems to show up with authority in March. This March has been no different. Three Big Ten teams are in the sweet 16 and the conference has compiled a 7-2 record with at least three more wins likely to come this weekend. Despite its consistent success in the NCAA Tournament, the media has hammered Big Ten basketball so much so that its reputation of “slow and ugly” has usurped anything it has done on the court. The comparative “flash” of the ACC, Big East, and Big XII has left the Big Ten as the clear loser of the public relations battle. Coaches and players within the conference (not to mention the fans) are constantly forced to defend its value because the jabs have been lathered on so thick for so long.

The media thrives on building things up and then destroying them and vice versa. So, it pays to pretend last year never happened and next year never will. Obviously, that yields some pretty heavy distortions on reality. In the case of the Big Ten, it has ended in one of the most successful basketball conferences being the most maligned. Fortunately, there is another option other than living in the narrow-mindedness of year-to-year overreaction. A thorough look at the whole college basketball picture reveals something that looking at one pixel at a time won’t: Big Ten basketball is a beast.

By nearly every measure, the Big Ten has been extremely successful in the NCAA Tournament. Since 1998, only the ACC has produced a better winning percentage. The Big East—with all of its 16-team might—has been outperformed in every equalizing measure by the Big Ten as have the rest of the big six conferences. It’s hard to argue against the ACC’s success. The Big Ten has received more bids and produced more wins while the ACC has compiled the best winning percentage. However, the ACC’s advantage in winning percentage isn’t exactly “case closed.” It’s important to note that since 1998, the ACC has been awarded 15 #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Conversely, the Big Ten has received just six. That’s not all that unexpected considering North Carolina and Duke are two of the five best college basketball programs of all-time. Not surprisingly, they account for the vast majority of those #1 seeds. The Big Ten—even with Michigan State’s run of success—hasn’t had an equivalent at the top. The result has been nine additional 1 vs. 16 matchups in the NCAA tournament for the ACC over the Big Ten. That means nine guaranteed wins that considerably bolster the ACC’s tournament winning percentage. It’s not the ACC’s fault that it has performed well enough in the regular season to receive so many #1 seeds. However, when looking at which conference has actually performed the best in the NCAA Tournament taking Strength of Schedule into consideration, the Big Ten has been more impressive than the ACC.

Since 1998, the average seed of an ACC team in the NCAA Tournament is 4.53. The average seed of a Big Ten team is 5.62. That means that, on average, ACC teams that have made the big dance over that time have been considered to be “better” than the average Big Ten teams. However, since 1998, the average seed of the teams the ACC has defeated in the NCAA Tournament is 9.12. The average seed of the teams the Big Ten has defeated is 8.72. That means that despite having “worse” teams in the tournament, the Big Ten has compiled “better” wins. For example, the Big Ten has beaten 28 teams seeded 1-4 since ’98. The ACC has beaten just 23. This is to take nothing away from the ACC. Even though the Big Ten has received more bids than the ACC and has received more bids per team from its conference, the ACC has answered the call in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. I’m not interested in arguing that the Big Ten is better than the ACC. I’m merely interesting in pointing to the fact that the Big Ten has been every bit as successful as the ACC in the NCAA Tournament which speaks heavily about its place in the college basketball world.

The Big Ten and the ACC have easily been the most productive conferences in the NCAA Tournament over the past 13 seasons. They are tops in winning % and Final Fours. The fact that the ACC has performed so well in the NCAA Tournament should surprise nobody. It’s what the Big Ten has accomplished that should be an eye-opener especially to the folks outside of the Midwest who enjoy ripping the Big Ten at every opportunity (and subsequently enjoy being wrong about it). Interestingly, I wrote a similarly themed post about Big Ten Football during the bowl season that revealed nearly an identical result. Apparently, the sports world is littered with people who refuse to let facts get in the way of ignorant stereotyping when it comes to the Big Ten.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Attack of the Mid-Majors

The only thing more certain than Mid-Majors ruining brackets all over America is the uncertainty of exactly which Mid-Majors are going to do the ruining. That’s why I can never bring myself to pick an “upset.” Sure, they’re going to happen but if you miss on your upset picks, you get beat twice. This year is harder than ever because of the sheer volume of Mid-Majors in the tournament. In many cases, you have to pick against the mid-major to qualify for the “upset.” More so than ever, parity has taken over college basketball. We knew this was coming when the NBA required players to be one year removed from high school to be eligible for the NBA Draft. While the rule meant more talented players would be playing college ball—and in the vast majority of cases they would be playing at powerhouses—it also meant that traditional powerhouses would suffer from a lack of continuity. This created a major contrast in program building. Mid-Majors looked to build veteran laden, mistake-free teams while major programs looked to fast track championships with “one and done” stars.

The “one year removed from high school” rule has given more teams more opportunities to advance in the NCAA Tournament than ever before. It’s eye-opening to count the number of mid-majors in the RPI 50. Mid-Majors consist of 20 of the RPI 50 and 52 of the RPI 100. The latter is a five-year high. Not surprisingly, the impressive RPI numbers have translated into impressive seeds in the NCAA Tournament. All told, 32 Mid-Majors* received bids in the 2010 NCAA Tournament which is the highest total ever. The average seed for the 32 Mid-Majors was 11.56 which is also the best total ever. It’s not just that there are more Mid-Majors than ever before; it’s that there are more “good” Mid-Majors than ever before. Keep in mind that Memphis significantly reduced the average Mid-Major seed with its run under John Calipari. Memphis didn’t even make the tournament this year and there wasn’t a Mid-Major anywhere near as dominant as Calipari’s crew. Yet, this crop still produced the best average seed on record. That mark was achieved by a litany of single seeds including #3 New Mexico, #5 Temple, #5 Butler, #6 Xavier, #7 BYU, #7 Richmond, #8 Gonzaga, #8 UNLV, and #9 N. Iowa. That group doesn’t even include some of the more “dangerous” Mid-Majors in the tournament like Siena, Cornell, San Diego St., Old Dominion, Houston, UTEP, Utah St., St. Mary’s, and New Mexico St.

Of course, your guess is as good as mine in determining who out of this group is going to be a national news story a week from now. I’m not even going to venture a guess. Just beware that there are more obstacles to a perfect bracket than ever before and those obstacles are more dangerous than ever before. Unless you’re in a 500 person pool, all that matters is picking the elite eight anyways and you can rest assured that I’m not brave enough to pick any of the above cats to make it that far.

* Conference status is not static. Before Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, and DePaul left for the Big East in 2006 and Charlotte and St. Louis left for the A-10 the same year, they were all members of Conference USA. C-USA received a total of 14 bids in 2003, 2004, and 2005 including six in 2004. Before the mass exodus, C-USA was hardly a Mid-Major conference. I did not count it as one until 2006. Likewise, the A-10 routinely received 3+ bids in the 90’s and was hardly the 14-team monstrosity of a Mid-Major conference that it is today.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nathan's Famous Injury

Last week I wrote that barring significant injuries in the AL Central, the Tigers had a 0% chance of making the playoffs. Well, it looks like we’ll never see that prediction come to fruition because we’re at one massive injury and counting. Perhaps the best player in the division over the last six years—and one that has been particularly abusive to the Tigers –is likely out for the season. Joe Nathan a has torn ligament in his right elbow. While not official, yet, it looks like there is a very good chance that he will miss the season. It’s hard not to appreciate Nathan’s resume even though he makes a habit of destroying the team that I root for. He has been one of the best (if not the best) closers in baseball since 2004. Irrespective of team affiliation, it’s always disappointing to hear about season-ending injuries. Hopefully, Nathan comes back better than ever regardless of his prognosis and uniform color. Nonetheless, this is an incredibly fortuitous injury from a Tigers perspective.

Since 2004, Nathan has been an elite, Hall of Fame-caliber, closer. Over that time, he put up a 1.87 ERA, a .934 WHIP, and a .182 BAA in 418.2 innings. He has also had more saves (246) than any closer in baseball over that time. If you’re a Tigers fan, then you probably know he has been even better against the home team. Since joining the Twins in ’04, Nathan has piled up a 1.55 ERA, a .955 WHIP, and a .153 BAA in 52.1 innings against the Tigers. He is a big reason why the Twins are 60-52 against Detroit over that timeframe. Having Nathan in the AL Central is a tough enough obstacle in itself. The fact that the Tigers have had nobody close to Nathan’s ninth-inning dominance closing out their own games makes his presence in the division even more meaningful.

It remains to be seen how Jose Valverde will perform in the closer role for the Tigers. Fernando Rodney and the other cast of characters who have attempted to close out games for the Tigers over the past six years have been abysmal compared to Nathan’s steady brilliance. If Valverde performs well as Detroit’s closer, then Nathan’s injury could have what amounts to twice the impact on the Central Division race. The Twins have always had the upper hand at the end of tight games within the division. Now, instead of possibly narrowing the gap with an effective closer like Valverde, the Tigers may very well have the upper hand with the sudden absence of Nathan to anchor Minnesota’s bullpen. That is quite a change in fortune.

Of course, this all depends on who the Twins are able to find to replace Nathan. No organization in MLB has been more resourceful than the Twins. It would not surprise me to find they have a capable closer already sitting in their bullpen. Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Jose Mijares, and even, former All-Star, Pat Neshek come to mind. However, even if the Twins are able to find a functional replacement, they aren’t going to be able to come up with someone to duplicate Nathan’s success anytime soon.

This is where things get interesting. The impact of Nathan’s injury is not concrete. For instance, if the Twins make a trade for an elite-level closer (i.e. Heath Bell), then the impact could be fairly small. Bell won’t match Nathan’s success but he’ll be better than anything the Tigers have had over the last six years. That would also allow the Twins to maintain their bullpen depth. However, it won’t be easy to snag an elite closer during spring training. This just happens to be the month of infinite hope. Every team in MLB thinks “this is our year.” It’s doubtful that San Diego—fresh off a better than expected ’09 campaign—is looking to blow up its bullpen before the season even begins. Although not a certainty, it’s likely that the Twins will try an internal candidate first. This is where Nathan’s injury reaches its maximum impact potential. Let’s say the Twins look to Guerrier first by yanking him from his regular set-up role. The impact of Nathan’s absence becomes substantial as it essentially weakens two areas that Minnesota considered strengths last season. Guerrier—even with an above average season— would be a huge drop-off from Nathan. Additionally, the Twins would then have to replace Guerrier—one of the most effective set-up men in baseball last season—with an unproven commodity. The Twins have had success in the past promoting players within the organization but predicting success in late-inning pressure situations is no sure thing. Once upon a time, Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney were quite effective in set-up roles. You know how that turned out.

Clearly, an injury to Justin Morneau or Joe Mauer would have had a greater impact on the division race since they happen to be AL MVP winners in their primes. However, Nathan has owned the Tigers in tight games. If he is forced to miss the 2010 season, then his void in Minnesota’s bullpen would increase Detroit’s chances of competing for the division significantly. If Valverde ends up being a substantial improvement over Fernando Rodney, then that would help it even more.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

10 Things We'll See from the Tigers in '10

1). Johnny Damon will be injured early and often.

While there is no question that Damon has been one of the most productive top-of-the-order hitters in baseball throughout his career, there is even less of a question regarding his status as an injury machine. Perhaps only the fragilely fragile Chipper Jones can compete with the awesome variety of Damon’s injuries. Here is an abbreviated list of injuries that have caused Damon to miss games over the last four seasons…

I feel stupid for not knowing that “fluttering eyes” was an actual condition. Damon has played in an average of 146 games over the last seven seasons. Just to compare, Ichiro—another aging, top-of-the-order, lefty—has averaged 159 games over the last seven seasons. Damon hasn’t played over 150 games in a season since 2002. He hasn’t played fewer than 141 games in that same timeframe, either. So, there is a very good chance that Damon will miss between 12 and 21 games in 2010. The good news is that, despite his litany of injuries, he has only been placed on the IR once in his career. The bad news is that Damon’s presence in the lineup on a regular basis is unreliable at best. Plus, he has spent 92 games as a DH over the past four seasons and I’m sure that a good portion of those DH starts involved playing around injuries. That means the Tigers will have to plan on Damon occupying the DH spot more than you’d expect from a starting outfielder. With Carlos Guillen already slotted as the DH because of defensive and injury issues of his own, the Tigers may have a hard time keeping Damon and Guillen in the lineup at the same time.

2). Jeremy Bonderman will not be an effective starter.

The Bonderman Experiment is going on its eighth and possibly final season. When Bondo was a 20-year old fireballer with a wicked slider, the sky was the limit. By most accounts, he was just two steps from becoming an elite pitcher; 1). Harness command and 2). Develop a third pitch. Since those steps tend to come naturally to maturing pitchers, Bondo’s future looked promising. Eight years later, he hasn’t made any headway on either front. Bondo is the equivalent of a professional “Paper, Rock, Scissors” competitor who can only throw down “paper.” Eventually (or more likely immediately), opponents will realize you can only throw “paper” and will simply choose “scissors.” Bondo has a meaty fastball that hitters daydream about. If he doesn’t get a strikeout, very bad things happen. He can’t throw his out-pitch (the slider) for a strike which means disciplined hitters are basically extended a welcoming invitation to first base. He also struggles to find the plate in 3-ball counts which, of course, is a recipe for disaster. His career WHIP is a horrid 1.40. However, despite all of those unfavorable statistics, Bondo—when healthy—has managed to survive as a decent starting pitcher because of his strikeout rate. Considering his recent injury history, however, it’s reasonable to assume that his K/9 will drop precipitously from his career best of 8.5 in ‘06. It has already dropped in each of the past four seasons. Since that was his livelihood as a pitcher, a Bondo renaissance is less likely than a fair and balanced story from the Detroit Free Press.

3). The bullpen will be a strength.

The bullpen probably looked a lot better than it actually was last season. Nobody was truly horrible in the ERA department but it was an unreliable bunch. Most of the primary players had putrid WHIPs and BB/9. Fernando Rodney, Ryan Perry, and Zack Miner all had WHIPs over 1.46. That level of inconsistency at the back of the bullpen is a disaster waiting to happen. This year’s cast should be much better. Perry—with a year under his belt—should be more reliable. Jose Valverde—Rodney’s long awaited replacement—has been far less precarious with late-inning leads. Bobby Seay—despite a less-than-stellar ’09 campaign—has been the Tigers most reliable reliever over the past three years. Phil Coke was a solid reliever for the World Champion Yankees and there’s no reason to think he won’t be one for the Tigers in ‘10. I don’t want to factor in Joel Zumaya and Nate Robertson too much considering how inconsistent and/or downright horribly they have pitched. However, if either can put together a productive 2010, then the bullpen could easily be the strength of the team.

4). The offense will be better than last year (if it can remain healthy).

At any given time, the Tigers seem to be one hitter away from having the best offense in the AL and one hitter from having the worst offense in the AL. When Gary Sheffield was healthy in 2007, the Tigers were an offensive machine. When Sheff went south the next season, the offense was putrid. As much as I enjoyed rooting for Curtis Granderson and as much as I respect what he is capable of as a player, the Tigers need Johnny Damon more than they need Granderson. Damon’s bat—most notably his ability to hit lefties and righties equally—is going to be a godsend for the Tigers. Damon’s eye will be, too. It’s not that he walks more than Granderson—they’re pretty much a wash there—it’s that he strikes out far less. Damon has never struck out 100 times in a season. Granderson has never struck out fewer than 111 times in a season. Those extra balls in play should make a big difference. Scott Sizemore should give the Tigers more activity on the base paths considering he walks more and steals more bases than Placido Polanco. All of that should set up nicely for Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen to drive in more runs than last season. Of course, this is all on paper. If/when Damon and Guillen start falling apart limb by limb, this offense could get bogged down in a hurry.

5). Austin Jackson won’t last six weeks at leadoff (if that).

Jackson was the highest rated player in the Yankees system so clearly he has promise. I just don’t think that “promise” is meant for 2010. Jackson doesn’t walk and he strikes out in bundles. Those happen to be the first two “rules” of how not to be a successful leadoff hitter. In fact, those are exactly the reasons the Tigers were so willing to part with Curtis Granderson. I have no idea why Jim Leyland would even entertain the idea of Jackson as the leadoff man. Maybe I’m an idiot. Maybe Jackson is about to become the second coming of Ichiro. Until that happens, though, I’m calling this experiment a terrible idea.

6). Magglio Ordonez will be much better playing for another contract kicker.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Mags has another kicker in his contract that puts him on the books for $15 million in 2011 if he reaches 562 play appearances in 2010. When his “guaranteed option” started looking precarious last season, Mags turned up the heat at the plate. I’m not gullible enough to think it was a coincidence. He put up a .961 OPS in August and a 1.057 in September after looking like Rob Deer for the first four months of the season. This time around, though, Mags needs to be in the lineup virtually every day to vest his option. He can’t afford to be benched for extended periods of time like last season. Mags is motivated by money. He’ll be back in 2010.

7). The Tigers will be at least five games below .500 on May 25.

The Tigers have a fortuitous nine-game stretch to start the season that includes six games against Kansas City and three against Cleveland. Hopefully, they’ll be over .500 heading into game #10. Unfortunately, that’s when the schedule gets brutal. The Tigers immediately head out west for an 11-game road trip against Seattle, Los Angles, and Texas. Then comes another brutal stretch of six games against Minnesota and three against the Angels. They follow that with a three-game breather in Cleveland immediately followed by a four game series against the Yankees and a three-game set against the Red Sox. It doesn’t stop there. They immediately start into a two-game series against the White Sox and then after two games against Oakland, they have to play the Dodgers and Seattle. Starting on April 16, the Tigers play 32 of the next 39 games against teams that were above .500 in 2009. The schedule is much easier after May 25 so if the Tigers are anywhere near first place entering June, then odds of a division title increase considerably.

8). Minnesota will own the Tigers in 2010.

The Twins owned the Tigers in 2009 which is why they made the playoffs and the Tigers didn’t. Detroit was just 7-12 against Minnesota including the one-game playoff in the Metrodome. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s dominance over Detroit will continue again in 2010. The Twins went out and signed the Tiger-killer, Jim Thome, to give them three lethal left-handed bats in the middle of their order. Thome has more home runs and a higher OPS against the Tigers than any other team in the American League. As if the Mauer-Morneau-Thome combination isn’t bad enough, the Twins can put together a lineup with seven lefties which is a nightmare for Detroit’s all-righty rotation.

9). Justin Verlander will be even better in 2010.

Justin Verlander was stellar in 2009. He finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting and had, by far, the best season of his career. However, it would’ve been even better if it weren’t for some bad luck. In his first three seasons, his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BAbip) was in the .280-.290 range. Last season it jumped to .323. BAbip is considered to be a measure of “luck”, meaning that pitchers have little control over the outcome of a ball put in play. JV became a bona fide elite pitcher in 2009 as he posted career bests in both K/9 and BB/9. The only thing missing was “luck.” Look for “luck” to either be on his side or a non-factor in 2010.

10). Better team=Worse record.

Bill James created a formula called the “Pythagorean expectation” that predicts the number of wins a team should have based on runs allowed and runs scored. Using that formula, the Tigers should’ve gone 81-82 last season. Instead, they went 86-77. Unlike the “bad” luck that Justin Verlander dealt with in 2009, the Tigers as a team had pretty good luck. In fact, of the 30 teams in MLB, only four had more wins above their “expected” total than the Tigers did. In short, the Tigers probably weren’t as good as their record which should surprise nobody. There’s a pretty good chance that the Tigers are going to be a better team this season based on expected improvements offensively and in the bullpen. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised to see their “expected” win total to be better than it was last season. However, it would also not surprise me to see their actual win total be lower.

10.5). One final thought…barring major injuries to elite players in the AL, the Tigers have a 0% chance of making the playoffs in 2010. They cannot and will not beat the Twins in the Central and there is no way that they’ll finish with a better record than both Boston and New York. This won’t be a lost season, however. Rick Porcello, Ryan Perry, Max Scherzer, Scott Sizemore, and Austin Jackson are vital to the future success of the organization. Tracking their progress will make 2010 worth watching not to mention expected Cy Young and MVP runs by Verlander and Cabrera, respectively.


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