Friday, May 29, 2009

Helm's heroics punish Wings

The Detroit Red Wings have some of the best players in the NHL. Nicklas Lidstrom is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history. Henrik Zetterberg is the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner and could be working on another. Pavel Datsyuk is the reigning Selke Trophy winner and is a finalist for the Hart Trophy this year. Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen are two of the best goal-scorers in the NHL. Without such a bevy of elite talent, the Wings would surely not be as good as they are. However, that top-tier talent isn't necessarily what separates the Wings from the rest of the teams in the NHL. Most good NHL teams can roll out two quality lines. Sure, the Wings top two lines are probably the best in the NHL but it's not by a considerable margin. What separates the Wings from the rest of the NHL is depth--crazy amounts of depth. Few teams can boast a third line as talented as Detroit’s trio of Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, and Mikael Samuelsson. They have combined for 32 points so far in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s third line has combined for 19 points and gets articles like this written about them. Even fewer teams can boast fourth liners as impactful as Detroit’s Darren Helm. Helm is one of a glutton of players who frequent Detroit's fourth-line carousel and his perfomance in Game 5 against Chicago is yet another example of why it's so difficult to beat Detroit.

The Wings entered Game 5 in bad shape physically. Two of the best players in the NHL—Lidstrom and Datsyuk—didn’t play (Imagine what would happen to Pittsburgh without "The Kid" and "Gino"). Jonathan Ericsson had an emergency appendectomy. Kris Draper didn’t play. The Wings were desperate for production. Enter Helm. The Wings and Blackhawks played to a defensive stalemate for the first two periods but that might not have been the case if it weren’t for the heroic penalty killing of Helm midway through the second period. After a penalty to Brett Lebda left the Wings shorthanded, Helm embarked on what has to be considered one of the greatest penalty-kill performances in NHL history. He rushed the puck out of the Wings zone and proceeded to hang on to it for 25 seconds which would be an eternity at even-strength let alone down a man. All told, Helm’s efforts kept Chicago out of the Wings zone for roughly 40 seconds single-handedly eating the last 1/3 of Chicago’s power play. Check it out:

Helm, of course, went on to score the game-winner in overtime capping off a remarkable game for anyone let alone a fourth-liner. In fact, I’m not sure how he didn’t get the "First Star." For me, “greatest individual PK of all-time” + “OT Game-Winner” = First Star. Helm now boasts arguably one of the most peculiar and unique careers in NHL history. He has played in 23 career regular season games and 34 career playoff games. He has seven times as many career playoff points as he has regular season points. He is +4 all-time in the playoffs and -9 in the regular season. He has five career playoff goals and zero career regular season goals. He has more game-winning goals in the playoffs than he does career regular season goals. Enjoy these oddities while you can because Helm will very likely not see the minors again.

Interestingly, Helm's heroics were quickly followed by a). a Pittsburgh lovefest and b). the Wings getting screwed big-time. Many experts and "Crosby lovers" have jumped on the Pittsburgh bandwagon. I can only assume there are people out there picking the Wings to beat Pittsburgh but I actually haven't read/seen a national analyst pick the Wings, yet. In fact, there is plenty of fodder for conspiracy theorists given the NHL's recent highly questionable actions. Gary Bettman moved the Stanley Cup Finals up six days after Detroit and Pittsburgh breezed through the Conference Finals. Detroit is badly in need of rest--rest it rightfully earned by swiftly taking care of business against Chicago. Instead of getting rest, Bettman not only moved the series up but he promptly scheduled back-to-back games. Keep in mind the NHL has not scheduled back-to-back games in the Stanley Cup Finals in 54 years. Think Bettman would've moved the Finals up six days if Crosby and Malkin were injured? The irony--and subsequent stupidity--here is that if the Wings lost to Chicago in Game 5, and still won the series, they would've had until Friday, June 5th to rest for the Finals. Only the NHL could figure a way to punish a team for winning.

If that's not enough to get you fired up about the pro-Pittsburgh movement spearheaded by the NHL, take a look at the NHL's official 2008 Stanley Cup recap (shoutout to Nick for passing this along). Didn't Detroit win the Cup last year? Now read the recap for the 2007 Cup Final just below. Anaheim won the series and is rightfully the focus of the recap. Anaheim is mentioned by name six times in the recap and also has eight players mentioned by name. The Senators were only mentioned by name twice and had only three players mentioned. Conversely, in last year's Cup Final recap--a series in which Detroit won--Pittsburgh is mentioned 13 times and has 11 players mentioned by name. Detroit is mentioned 10 times and has 7 players mentioned by name. Bettman should probably stop writing the recaps.

With the Wings banged up and forced to play back-to-back games on short-rest, this series appears to be a toss-up. However, while Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa have spent the better part of the playoffs struggling, the one consistent for the Wings has been its depth. Expecting Detroit's depth to magically disappear for the Stanley Cup Finals is ignoring history. That depth may also be the one thing Bettman cannot do anything about.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Holy pitching!

Last week a Chicago Sun-Times writer was on ESPN proclaiming that the acquisition of Jake Peavy would give the Chicago White Sox, far and away, the best pitching staff in the AL Central--an opinion shared by this guy--not just because of Peavy’s talents but because of how poor the pitching is in the division. Peavy is a very good pitcher. I have no desire to argue otherwise. I do, however, wish to argue the notion that the addition of Peavy would give the White Sox the best rotation in the American League since that’s how much of an impact Peavy would need to have for the White Sox to be the best rotation in the AL Central. You see, the Tigers reside in the AL Central and they have, without a doubt, the best pitching staff in the AL. Care to retract your statement, Mr. Sun-Times Writer?

Just seven days ago in an attempt to convey just how solid Tigers pitching has been this year I said, “The Tigers are in the top-five in most pitching related statistics.” In retrospect, that statement was more of a “slap-in-the-face” than a compliment. The Tigers are actually #1 in the AL in most pitching related-statistics. Check it out:

Tops in the AL

AL Rank1211111111

While I appreciate Jake Peavy’s talent, I’m willing to call “B.S.” on anyone who thinks he would make the ChiSox the best starting rotation and/or pitching staff in the American League. The Tigers clearly own both distinctions despite having a mediocre bullpen. Tigers relievers are below average in the AL in most pitching statistics the worst being IS%, or percentage of inherited runners scored. Tigers relievers rank dead last in the American League yielding an atrocious 45% of inherited base runners to score. The league average is 37%. The Tigers bullpen has yielded five earned runs above what the average AL bullpen would’ve allowed. Those runs, of course, are charged to the starting pitchers as earned runs. Tigers starting pitchers have a collective 3.81 ERA which is tops in the AL. With an average IS%, that number drops to 3.63. The Tigers are also tops among starting rotations in WHIP, OBPa, BAa, K/9, and H/9. The Tigers have the best pitching staff in the AL because they have the best starting rotation in the AL.

It’s no coincidence that the Tigers are pitching and subsequently winning like it’s 2006. The Tigers had the best pitching staff in MLB in 2006 before the nuclear meltdowns of ’07 and ’08. Interestingly, the only pitcher in Detroit’s current starting five who was in the rotation in 2006 is Justin Verlander. Dave Dombrowski deserves a ton of credit for totally revamping Detroit’s pitching staff with nearly the same results. In fact, the Tigers now have the youngest pitching staff in the AL (tied with Oakland). There is no question that the Tigers have put on an impressive pitching display through the first two months of the season. The most encouraging news may be yet to come, though. Dontrelle Willis has risen from the pitching graveyard to give the Tigers a fourth solid starting pitcher. If Willis continues to pitch like he’s pitched through his first three starts, the Tigers may be even better moving forward. Willis took over for Zach Miner who was his normal underwhelming self through four starts. Willis replacing Miner may not be Detroit’s final magical switcheroo. One final move may (big emphasis here) give the Tigers the starting pitching depth to legitimately contend for a World Series.

Obviously, I’m talking about replacing Armando Galarraga with Jeremy Bonderman. Galarraga has been horrible. He burst onto the scene last season to stymie hitters throughout the American League. His success was a bit of a mystery since a). he was never considered a top prospect and b). was discarded by the Texas Rangers (never a good sign). Still, Galarraga was without a doubt Detroit’s best pitcher last season. This year has been a different story. He is walking a considerably higher percentage of batters and his batting average against has skyrocketed. Galarraga was certainly good last season but I think some of that may be attributable to being unfamiliar to hitters in the American League. Whatever the reason, Galarraga is getting rocked and clearly sticks out in an otherwise splendid starting rotation…

One of these pitchers is doing his own thing…

Edwin Jackson2.551.107.55967%
Justin Verlander3.551.117.25960%
Rick Porcello3.551.258.35350%
Dontrelle Willis3.571.368.25167%
Armando Galarraga5.741.559.44633%

There is no doubt in my mind that the Tigers can win the AL Central even if Galarraga stays in the starting rotation. They’ve built a four-game lead with him. I’m more encouraged by what they could potentially do without him. If Jeremy Bonderman can return with his usual stuff, he would be a gigantic upgrade over Galarraga. Assuming Dontrelle’s renaissance is for real, the Tigers would not have a single weak link in the starting five. That means few losses and even fewer losing streaks. It should also mean baseball in October.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Favre the Viking

I know I’m going to catch a lot of heat for this post and I’m at least somewhat prepared for it. I’m a sucker for drama. Not the forced kind that we see far too often from the likes of Terrell Owens, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez. I’m talking about the kind that comes naturally. Willis Reed “playing on one leg”, the Cal Ripken “streak”, and Boise St. beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl are all examples of the kind of drama I can’t get enough of. For me, Brett Favre going to the Minnesota Vikings would beat them all.

In fact, if Brett Favre signs with the Minnesota Vikings it would be one of the biggest stories in sports history and--unlike many of the other "biggest" stories--it would actually deserve to be. Favre played 16 seasons with Green Bay. He is the icon of icons in Wisconsin. Take the way people feel about Barry Sanders in Detroit and multiply it by ten and that is the way people feel about Favre in Wisconsin. He stands (or he stood) alone as the sports icon in the state. Contrast that to Detroit where five or ten athletes share icon status none really more than the other. Green Bay fans are perhaps the most loyal and rabid fans in sports. The Packers are the only franchise in professional sports to be publically owned and they are owned by their season ticketholders. Every Packers game has been sold out since 1960. There is a 35-year waiting list to get season tickets. There are 74,000 people on the waiting list which is more than the capacities of 25 of the 31 NFL stadiums. Brett Favre is (or was) the epicenter of that fandom.

Of the 31 NFL teams, there are exactly two franchises that Favre could play for that would absolutely enrage Cheeseheads alike: the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings. The fact that Favre is even contemplating playing for the Vikings is drama in itself. The 24-hour Favre-cycle on ESPN certainly qualifies as overkill to the extreme. I could absolutely do without the false and repetitive reporting from the media and the lies and half-truths from Favre. In fact, I don't want to hear another media story about Favre unless it begins with, "Brett Favre has officially announced..." The incessant media coverage of basically nothing--I mean has anything actually been substantiated since this whole Favre-to-Minnesota began?--has gotten so ridiculous that reports don't even last a day before being refuted by other reports. One minute Yahoo! is reporting that Favre has not met with Brad Childress and that he is definitely retired for good; the next minute someone else is reporting that Favre is sending his medical information to the Vikings. One minute a report surfaces that Favre is set to undergo surgery with Dr. James Andrews this week only to be followed by a report hours later saying that Favre has most definitely decided against surgery and will rehab. That stuff is obnoxious and as much as the media is at fault for sensationalizing things far too often, Favre is ultimately responsible for these reports because he doesn’t tell the truth. Instead of getting the truth, we’re forced to listen to story after non-credible story claiming to be “breaking news.” That sort of thing is why so many sports fans have become disenchanted with ESPN and it’s also the reason why—despite being one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time—nobody cares about Favre anymore. I am 100% on board with all of the criticism directed at Favre for creating the circus atmosphere.

However, there is a huge distinction between the circus drama that everyone hates so much and the drama of Favre actually suiting up and stepping under center for the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. That would be the single greatest sports traitor moment in professional sports history. A report surfaced recently that Favre is still fuming at the Packers for running him off and that he’ll do whatever it takes to stick it to them. He wouldn’t just be signing with a hated rival, he would be doing it on purpose simply to exact revenge. That's just cold. There have been other players who have played for rivals (Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Chris Chelios, Deion Sanders, Terrell Owens, and even Babe Ruth) but none can touch the drama that Favre to Minnesota would generate. The only one that is even close is Roger Clemens who despite being a huge crowd favorite in Boston never reached the status of Favre in Green Bay. Don’t get me wrong, Clemens going to New York was huge. In fact, unless Favre actually does play for Minnesota, Clemens-to-the-Yankees is probably the incumbent #1 traitor moment in sports history. Like Favre, Clemens was unceremoniously thrown to the curb by management. However, Clemens didn’t start pitching for the Yankees until 2.5 years after he was shown the door by the Red Sox. Favre reportedly began speaking with the Vikings even while he was still a Packer! The Packers were hell bent on filing tampering charges against Minnesota last year when reports surfaced that Favre had spoken to Brad Childress about playing in Minnesota. The very thought of Favre playing in Minnesota freaked out Green Bay so much that when they finally made a deal to send Favre to the NY Jets, they included a clause that would heavily punish the Jets to the tune of three first round draft picks if they turned around and traded him to Minnesota. All of this makes Favre-to-Minnesota the biggest double cross in sports history. Just to clarify: I'm not taking sides. The best part is that there's no need to. Just sit back and watch it all unfold.

The “icing on the cake” here is that everyone knows Favre can still play. It’s not like he’ll be an old gunslinger with one bullet left in his chamber playing out his last days in Minnesota. The Vikings would immediately become one of the top two or three favorites to reach the Super Bowl out of the NFC. Minnesota has needed a top-tier quarterback almost as long as the Detroit Lions. The Vikings are already very close to being a Super Bowl contender. In 2008, they had the best rush defense in the NFL and the 5th best rush offense in the NFL. That’s generally a recipe for the Super Bowl. Except, the Vikings are missing one thing: consistency at quarterback. In 2008, the Vikings were 25th in the NFL in passing yardage and 24th in completion percentage. Favre would only need to play as well as he did for the Packers in ’07 and the Jets for the first half of ’08 to give Minnesota exactly what it needs to be a true Super Bowl contender. Green Bay—on the other hand—pushed Favre out the door because it wanted to move in a different direction. The twisted irony of Favre playing in a Super Bowl for one of Green Bay’s two hated rivals after being pushed out the door is something usually saved for movie scripts. The fact that year one of the Aaron Rodgers era featured a seven-win drop-off only makes Favre’s possible return to the NFC North even more incendiary.

Anyhow, I realize I’m probably the only person in the known-universe (maybe there's an unknown planet somewhere out there full of creatures who absolutely worship the idea of Favre playing for the Vikings) hoping this happens but I’m enthusiastically rooting for Favre to sign with Minnesota. Not because I hate the Packers or love the Vikings—neither are true—but because as much as I love sports, I equally love unforced, unplanned, and unsolicited drama. Go Lions!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More gas

The Tigers currently lead the AL Central by a game over the Royals. They certainly have the talent to be in such a position considering many cogs remain from the ’06 team that led the American League in pitching and went to the World Series. However, based on the last two seasons in which the Tigers had one of the worst pitching staffs in the AL, I don’t think most fans would have predicted such a rebound in pitching proficiency. The Tigers are in the top-five in most pitching related statistics. They’ve shaved more than a half-run off their ERA and have significantly reduced their WHIP. Other than “pitching better”, I was curious to see what has led to such an improvement.

2008 vs. 2009


* All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference

The most obvious differences between this year and last year aside from ERA and WHIP come from vast improvements in strikeouts per nine innings (SO/9) and hits allowed per nine innings (H/9). Although the Tigers have slightly reduced their BB/9, their significant reduction in WHIP can be largely attributed to giving up fewer hits. The Tigers are giving up nearly one fewer hit per nine innings which is a big enough improvement to move them from 10th in the AL last season to 3rd this season. Based on the total number of hits and runs scored in the American League in 2008, one hit is roughly the equivalent of a ½ run which is almost exactly the difference between Detroit’s 2008 and 2009 ERAs. Clearly, the Tigers are pitching much better this season because they’re giving up fewer hits.

How/why are they giving up fewer hits? The Tigers are striking out 1.2 more batters per game. More strikeouts mean fewer balls in-play (Tigers “in-play%” has dropped from 70% to 68% from last season). Fewer balls in-play mean fewer hits. Fewer hits mean fewer runs. Fewer runs mean better pitching. Better pitching means, well, you get the idea!

I was curious to see exactly how/why the Tigers are striking out more batters this year so I decided to take a look at strike % and first pitch strike % to see if a significant increase in either number may be leading to a higher SO/9. Surprisingly, the numbers from 2008 are nearly identical to what they’re doing this year. The Tigers had a strike % of 61% last year and are at 62% this year. Their first pitch strike % for both this year and last is right at 58%. If the Tigers are throwing nearly the same number of strikes and the same number of first pitch strikes, then how are they racking up 1.2 more strikeouts per game than last year? My only guess is that they’re eliciting a higher percentage of strikes via the “swing and miss” and/or “looking” variety. In fact, the Tigers are causing hitters to "swing and miss" more often this year. They lead the league in total percentage of strikes that are "swings and misses." Equally important to consider, though, is that "balls put in play" count as "strikes." If a team throws the same number of strikes but reduces the number of "put in play" strikes and increases the number of "swing and miss" strikes, then the result is more strikeouts which is exactly how the Tigers have done it. To summarize, the Tigers are striking out more hitters this year not necessarily because they're throwing more strikes but because they're throwing more of the right kind of strikes. Translation: more gas.

Now let’s put some faces behind the numbers. Last year, the Tigers had two starting pitchers who were among the worst in the AL in H/9. Those two pitchers were Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson. They yielded 11.0 and 11.6 H/9, respectively in 2008. The Tigers replaced Rogers and Robertson in the starting rotation with Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello. Jackson and Porcello have given up 7.4 and 8.2 H/9, respectively. That is a significant difference. One of the main reasons Jackson and Porcello aren’t giving up nearly the number of hits that Robertson and Rogers did is because they are striking out many more hitters. Robertson and Rogers combined for 10 SO/9. Jackson and Porcello have combined for 12.8 SO/9. Jackson and Porcello are clearly upgrades over Rogers and Robertson and they come with the added bonus of being a combined 28 years younger.

The Tigers replaced to below average starting pitchers with two above average starting pitchers. Those two changes are almost solely responsible for the monumental improvement in pitching from last year to this year. While it’s encouraging to see Jackson and Porcello pitching so well, it’s important to remember that Jackson is having the best year of his career by a landslide and Porcello is only 20. If either or both struggle for an extended period of time, then the Tigers’ chances of winning the division likely evaporate.

As for the rest of the rotation, Justin Verlander is much better, Armando Galarraga is much worse, and Zach Miner is/was Zach Miner. Miner has been replaced by Dontrelle Willis but “the Big Smile” won’t last much longer in the rotation if he continues to yield more runners than a Columbian drug cartel. The Tigers have pitched very well over the first 1/5 of the season. However, winning the division is an unlikely proposition if Galarraga remains abysmal and the fifth-spot continues to produce like the Potato Famine of 1845. That’s why I think the return of Jeremy Bonderman to at least a serviceable level is absolutely crucial if the Tigers have any shot at pitching their way to the Central Division title. We've seen how big of an impact replacing two below average starters with two above average starters has had. If the Tigers can do that one more time by eventually getting Bondo back into the starting rotation, then that could be the difference between merely contending for the division and winning the division. Of course, Willis going from a below average starter to an above average starter would work, too.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The healing power of Edwin Jackson

In 2007, the Tigers made an absolutely atrocious trade when they sent Jair Jurrjens to Atlanta for Edgar Renteria. I believe the only two people who supported the trade were Jim Leyland and whoever got to take over Jurrjens’s spot at (AA) Erie. Jurrjens was one of Detroit’s most talented minor league prospects. The Tigers brought him in as a 17-year old and watched him methodically march through their minor league system. He was called-up in August of 2007 and put together an impressive string of performances including a four-start stretch in which he pitched 18.1 innings with an ERA of 1.96. He had impeccable command often working the corners with the precision of a veteran hurler. Jurrjens was the real deal and the Tigers were lucky to have him. Except, I don’t think the Tigers knew that. They shipped him off for the incredibly inconsistent and average Renteria. The eventual impact of the trade was not surprising. Renteria was so terrible in Detroit that he lasted just one season before he was mercifully asked to leave. Jurrjens, on the other hand, is already arguably the ace of the Atlanta-staff.

I was pissed about the trade then and--whenever I feel the need to sabotage my day--I still get pissed about it. It could be the John Smoltz-trade all over again except instead of getting the equivalent of “Doyle Alexander’s 9-0 record”, we got the equivalent of nothing. Jurrjens has quite a ways to go before he can be compared to John Smoltz but if the Tigers were looking to duplicate the worst trade in franchise history, they definitely picked the right players.

Recently, though, something has been making me feel a little bit better about the trade—or I should say a little less bitter. Don’t get me wrong. Nothing will ever change the fact that the trade was horrible. In fact, it was worse than horrible because Dontrelle Willis ended up taking Jurrjens’s spot. However, as I mentioned, there is some atonement to be excited about. Dave Dombrowski—a man not accustomed to making bad decisions—seems to have made up for violating the number one rule in baseball by trading a minor league pitcher to the Atlanta. If the Jurrjens/Renteria trade was deplorable, then the coup of Edwin Jackson was brilliant.

In a move that went under the radar last winter, the Tigers sent Matt Joyce to Tampa Bay for Jackson. The Tigers quickly and smartly capitalized on Joyce’s unexpected power surge in 2008. The fact that they were able to nab a 25-year old fire-baller coming off a pretty good season is certainly a testament to Dombrowski and his scouting team. Even though there was a lot to like about the trade at the time, nobody could’ve expected that Jackson would be as good as he has been. Through seven starts, he has a 2.60 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP. His Batting Average Against (BAA) is a paltry .222 and his OPS Against is only .629. He is having a career year across the board which could be a sign that he has figured out how to pitch in the majors after 500 innings of on-the-job training. I suppose it could be a fluke, too, but considering his age and repertoire, it’s equally likely that we’re seeing the maturation of a talented pitcher. I’m not sure this trade makes up for the Jurrjens debacle—Jurrjens is pitching even better than Jackson and is three years younger—but my “days ruined per month by the Jurrjens trade” is way down.

Thanks, in part, to the addition of Jackson and the return to dominance of Justin Verlander, the Tigers have quickly ascended to the top of the American League in pitching. They lead the league in shutouts. They’re fifth in ERA, On Base Percentage Against, and Batting Average Against. They’re also fourth in WHIP. All of this despite the average age of the staff being just 26 years old which is tied with Oakland and Florida for the youngest in MLB. The turnaround from just last year has been nothing short of remarkable. Just a year ago, the Tigers were the third worst pitching staff in the American League despite being the second oldest. Maybe this thing ain’t over after all.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bang for the puck

If there is one complaint that virtually every Red Wings fan has uttered at one time throughout their fandom, it’s that the Wings often dominate in shots on goal without dominating on the scoreboard. I know I’ve felt that frustration. So, I’ve researched every game the Wings have played over the past ten years just to see if this phenomenon is true. On a per game basis, how many shots do the Wings take per goal and how does that ratio compare to their opponents? This is what I discovered…

Shots on Goal vs. Goals

TeamShots on GoalGoals
Wings7 trillion3

The above chart tells us that the Wings take 2.3 trillion shots per goal while their opponents take just one shot per goal. I'm not 100% certain on the calculations but I’m pretty sure those numbers are fairly accurate. All kidding aside, there is the perception that the Wings have a bit of bad luck when it comes to turning shots into goals. Let’s look no further than the current Anaheim-series to see why fans might feel that way. The Wings have outshot the Ducks 223-138 and only have a 3-2 lead in the series. In games two and three combined, the Wings outshot the Ducks 83-47 and lost both games. So, what gives? Let’s dig a little deeper.

The Wings clearly dominate their opponents in “shots on goal.” They have led the NHL in shot differential in each of the past four seasons. It hasn’t been by a small amount either. On average, the Wings have outshot their opponents by nine shots per game. That shot differential is more than twice that of any other team in the NHL.

The Wings also clearly dominate their opponents in “goals.” The Wings have the highest goal differential in the NHL over the past four seasons. They are the only team in the NHL to finish in the top five in “goal differential” in each of the past four seasons. Over that span, the Wings have outscored their opponents by an average of .84 goals per game.

Since the Wings have been, far and away, the best team in the NHL in both “shot differential” and “goal differential”, then it is pretty clear that their significant advantage in shots is leading to a significant advantage in goals as would be expected. That should at least somewhat calm fears that the Wings are somehow cursed with bad luck. More shots have definitely meant more goals. However, have more shots meant the expected goal differential? Over the past four years (regular season), the Wings have averaged one goal for every 10.22 shots. Using that ratio and some nifty cross multiplication, the nine-shot advantage that the Wings have had per game over that span should yield a .88 per game goal advantage. Instead—as referenced above—the Wings have had a .84 goal advantage per game. The difference between Detroit’s expected goal differential (.88) and actual goal differential (.84) is pretty small. In fact, it does more to prove that the Wings are winning by roughly as many goals as they should be winning by based on their shot differential than it does prove that the Wings are victims of “bad luck.” These numbers are based on the regular season. I did the same calculations over the last four postseasons just in case this “phenomenon” of not capitalizing only shows up in the playoffs. The Wings expected goal differential based on their shots advantage is 1.02. Their actual goal differential was 1.05. That means that in the playoffs, the Wings are actually winning by more goals than they should be based on their shot differential. Again, though, the difference between 1.02 and 1.05 is hardly significant. Whether it’s the regular season or the playoffs, the Wings are winning by as many goals as they should be winning by. Conspiracy theorists can rest easy if for only tonight.

I’m going to happily move away from the mathematical portion of the post and begin to discuss the primary reasons why people seem to think the Wings don’t capitalize as often as they should based on their shot differentials. I’m pretty sure there are at least two factors in play. One explanation has to do with “shot quality.” All shots are not created equal. High quality shots obviously yield more goals than low quality shots. If the Wings are outshooting their opponents with low quality shots, then clearly that shot advantage will not yield much of an advantage on the scoreboard. Let’s go back to the Anaheim-series for a look at how “poor shot quality” may negatively impact expected goals. Just so we’re all on the same page, “Higher quality shots” are taken closer to the net than “lower quality shots.” Here it is in chart-form. In Game 2, the Wings outshot Anaheim 62-46 and lost 4-3 in 3OT. That game seemed to fit the bill of the classic “Wings outshoot opponent by seven trillion and still lose”-game. However, a quick look at the shot chart from ESPN Gamecast shows us the shot distribution by distance and location. Check it out (Black “X”=Shot by Anaheim; Red “X”=Shot by Detroit):

Notice that the Wings’ shots are somewhat evenly distributed throughout their zone while Anaheim’s shots trend closer to the net. In fact, take a look at the substantial difference in the number of shots each team fired from just in front of the net. That area produces the highest probability of a goal according to the goal probability chart I referenced above.

Now let’s check out Game 3 in which the Wings doubled up Anaheim in shots 46-23 and lost, 2-1:

Again, notice how many of Anaheim’s shots are right in front of the net. The Wings took 18 shots above of the circles. Anaheim took just five. The Wings took a lot more overall shots but they also took a lot more low quality shots. All shots are not created equal and games two and three certainly proved that.

It’s important not to assume the Wings are doing something wrong by firing so many low quality shots. In fact, it’s part of their game-plan. The idea that the Wings are able to fire so many shots on goal suggests that they spend quite a bit of time in the offensive zone which means they tend to dominate puck possession and, thus, games. The Wings aren’t good simply because they fire so many shots on goal. They’re good because they can fire so many shots on goal. Their opponents rarely get the opportunity to do the same.

The other explanation for why fans seem to think the Wings don't score enough goals considering their lofty shot totals has to do with faulty reasoning. The Wings almost always outshoot their opponent. In fact, in 82 regular season games this year, the Wings outshot their opponent 70 times. So, if we're expecting "shot advantage" to translate into a win, then we would've expected the Wings to win 70 games. That's 19 more games than the Wings actually won. That's 19 instances in which the Wings outshot their opponents and lost. That's 19 opportunities for fans to say, "why do the Wings always seem to outshoot their opponents and lose" not to mention the playoffs in which such instances are magnified. They can't win every game no matter how many times they outshoot their opponent.

There are games in which the Wings dominate in “shots on goal” and lose. However, based on the numbers that we calculated above, those games are the exception rather than the rule. In games in which the Wings dominate in “shots on goal” and lose, the likely culprit is “shot quality.” All in all, there’s not too much to complain about there. So, next time you’re cursing the hockey gods for keeping Detroit’s shots out of the net, remember two things, a). the Wings are probably firing low quality shots and, b). while some games don’t go as planned, most games resemble this

Friday, May 08, 2009

AWA in the house

I’m not sure if I’m bored of talking Detroit sports or if I’ve got the Swine Flu but I’m not feeling the normal routine today. I’ve been spending some spare time over the last few months catching up on my wrestling history. The Chris Benoit-fiasco ruined present-day wrestling for me but I can never get enough of the old stuff. The interest in the old stuff was dormant for a while, too, until I realized that ESPN shows old school AWA programming weeknights at midnight. The timeframe runs from 1985-1988. My family was not privy to cable TV until roughly 1990 so the only federation that I was familiar with before that was the WWF.

It wasn’t until after 1990 that I started watching the WCW and even Global Championship Wrestling weekdays after school. So, seeing the AWA—even though it’s 20 years later!—is like striking wrestling gold. It never occurred to me when I was 10 years old that Curt Hennig wrestled somewhere else before he was Mr. Perfect. The same goes for all the guys that came to the WWF during that time. Among the wrestlers from the AWA that eventually made the leap to the WWF were Shawn Michaels (member of the Midnight Rockers), the Texas Tornado (Kerry Von Erich), Mike Rotunda, Yokozuna (Kokina Maximus) , DDP, Scott Hall, Big Van Vader (Leon White), the Nasty Boys, the Beverly Brothers (the Destruction Crew) among many, many others. I didn’t know it at the time but the WWF was just a part—albeit a big part—of the wrestling industry. Finding out that Scott Hall wrestled under his name well before he ever wrestled as the Diamond Stud in the WCW and Razor Ramon in the WWF is like finding $100 bills in the couch cushions. This is a world that I had no idea existed. Just last night in a segment called “Mat Classics”, the AWA showed a match from 1981 featuring Rick Martell and Tito Santana versus Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne. That was six years before Martell and Santana became the Strike Force in the WWF. When I got hooked on this AWA-thing, I began to look up old clips on YouTube! Pretty much every federation you could ever want to see is there.

Anyhow, the best part of my integration to non-WWF wrestling of the 70’s and 80’s has been my introduction to Bruiser Brody. Without cable, there was no way for me to see Brody. He was killed in Puerto Rico in 1988 so by the time I got cable, he was long gone. Brody wrestled under the name King Kong Brody in the AWA as a member of Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissie’s army. He frequently teamed up with Nord the Barbarian (aka The Berzerker in the WWF). You may remember Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissie from when he came to the WWF with Sgt. Slaughter in 1991 as General Adnan. Anyhow, Brody’s combination of size—6’5 and 300 lbs—and charisma—his promos were legendary—would’ve made him a mega-star in the WWF. A number of his matches—including a bloodbath against Abdullah the Butcher—are on YouTube! TV can be a weird thing. All of this happened 20+ years ago but to me this is all happening right now and I’m loving every minute of it. If you are a wrestling fan from back in the day, then do yourself a favor and—at the very least—DVR ESPN’s AWA programming. Right now, the action is from 1988 and Hennig just dropped the title to Jerry Lawler. This is just before Hennig left for the WWF and just before the AWA became totally irrelevant. If we’re all lucky, ESPN will start the loop over in 1985.

This isn’t from the AWA but here is an old school video just to get you in the wrestling mood. I’m sure some of you will remember from the WWF. Keep your eyes pealed for Koko B. Ware, Hulk Hogan, Superstar Billy Graham, Don “The Rock” Muraco, Billy Jack Haynes, Bam Bam Bigelow, Oliver Humperdink, The Honky Tonk Man, and a very young Vince McMahon. Don’t get piledrivered!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Is Chris Osgood a Hall of Fame goalie?

The Wings certainly have their hands full with Anaheim. This series could be the toughest test they face in the playoffs especially if they lose it. Having lost home-ice advantage, the Wings are definitely fighting for their Stanley Cup lives. Obviously, the team, the team, the team, is the most important thing. However, an interesting side story is the fact that Chris Osgood might be fighting for his Hall of Fame life.

The notion that Ozzie is a Hall of Fame goaltender is laughable for some. Different players develop different reputations throughout their careers depending on their specific playing circumstances. “Reputation” sometimes can be the difference between election into the Hall of Fame and coming up short (see; Albert Belle). Osgood has the reputation of a decent goalie who had the fantastic fortune of playing for a franchise going through one of the most dominating 15-year runs in NHL history. I have no idea if that “reputation” is stronger in Detroit or outside of Detroit. Personally, I don’t think his reputation is too far off base. If I could pick a goalie for the Wings, there are ten in the NHL right now I’d take over Osgood in his prime. If that reputation is more of a Detroit-thing, then maybe it’s not as damaging. If it’s a national-thing, then he is going to have a tough time getting support for the “Hall.” While “reputation” can be the deciding factor in a player’s candidacy, “statistics” should be—and usually are—the determining factor. By most accounts, Albert Belle was a jerk. However, he belongs in the MLB Hall of Fame. Voters are, unfortunately, extremely susceptible to bias and “reputation” when handing in their HOF ballots. If Ozzie is a HOFer, then it should show up on his resume. So, let’s take a look.

There is no question that most professional athletes and coaches need a requisite amount of “good luck” to garner election into the Hall of Fame. If Phil Jackson were not hired to coach the Chicago Bulls, he would not have won six championships with the Bulls. Those six championships are likely what got him hired to coach the Lakers which resulted in three more championships. Jackson might be a great coach but if his first job was with the Clippers instead of the Bulls, he would likely have zero championships instead of nine. A slew of HOFers in every sport have been helped immensely by their playing situations. The point is that Osgood’s resume should not be dismissed simply because he played for a dynasty. If we do that, then we have to dismiss the resumes of Grant Fuhr and Billy Smith—both of whom are HOF goaltenders whose resumes were built as a result of dynasties. I’m not arguing that Osgood hasn’t benefited considerably by playing with the Red Wings. That is undeniable. I’m merely saying that the “good fortune” argument has rarely been used as vehemently as it has been against Osgood.

Osgood’s resume is very impressive. I’m not sure an argument could be made that it’s not. He is 10th all-time in regular season wins. His next playoff win will put him 10th all-time in playoff wins. He is 4th all-time in playoff shutouts. He is 4th all-time in points percentage (goalie version of winning %). Osgood’s success has often been attributed to playing behind Detroit’s outstanding defense but even his save percentage—the statistic that has the least to do with the rest of the team—is good enough for 24th all-time. In terms of individual statistics, there isn’t a measure on Osgood’s resume that is not well above average.

If there is a place where Osgood’s resume comes up short, it’s in the “accolades” department. He has never been selected to the NHL First Team. He’s only garnered one NHL Second Team selection. He has also not won a Vezina or a Conn Smythe Trophy. While that isn’t ideal, it’s certainly not a dealbreaker. It’s also important to note that Osgood has won three Stanley Cups (two as the starting goaltender) and could be headed for a fourth. That combined with his statistical prowess should be enough to cushion the lack of individual hardware.

Now that we’ve looked at Ozzie’s resume and found that there is a lot to be impressed by, let’s compare his career to a few goalies who are in the HOF and some who just missed. Statistical measures are important but equally important is how Osgood stacks up to his goalie brethren. This is by no means my official stance on the matter but three of the top goalies who are not in the Hall of Fame are Mike Vernon, Tom Barrasso, and Rogie Vachon. Any or all could still get elected but, for now, they are on the outside looking in. In order for Osgood to even be in consideration for the Hall of Fame, he’ll need to first distance himself from the three aforementioned goaltenders. Here is how Ozzie compares:

Osgood vs. HOF Candidates

PlayerWinsPlf. WinsShutoutsPlf. ShutoutsAdj. GAAPoint%CupsJenningsAll-NHLVezinaConn Smythe
Vernon385772762.83.575211-2nd 01
Barrasso369613862.95.563211-1st, 2-2nd 10
Vachon355235122.74.5412NA2-2nd 10

I think it’s pretty obvious that Osgood stacks-up pretty well with this group. He has the most wins and Cups. He has, by far, the best point percentage. He has the most Jennings Trophies (fewest goals allowed). If the Wings win the Cup this year, he’ll only trail Vernon by two playoff wins. He has the most shutouts and second most playoff shutouts of the group. His Adjusted Goals Against Average barely trails Rogie Vachon’s. Osgood doesn’t win every category but he has the best resume of the bunch and it’s not close.

Simply having a better resume than a group of goalies who are not in the Hall of Fame doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It just means that Osgood could end up being the best goalie not in the Hall of Fame. What it does do, though, is prove that Osgood’s candidacy is legitimate and certainly worth talking about. In order to take the next step and actually proclaim that Osgood deserves to make the Hall of Fame, he’ll need to fit in with goalies who are actually in the Hall of Fame. Osgood obviously is not one of the top 10 goaltenders of all-time. So, it won’t do us any good to compare him to Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, or Dominik Hasek. Likewise, hockey has changed considerably since the first half of the 20th century. So, it won’t do us any good to compare him to Tiny Thompson, Turk Broda, or Georges Vezina. We need to compare Ozzie to a group of Hall of Fame goaltenders who played under similar circumstances. We need pretty good goaltenders who played for great teams in the last half century. The goalies who best fit that description are Billy Smith and Grant Fuhr. I’ll also throw in Ed Giacomin since he is a Hall of Fame goaltender of the last half century who is clearly not one of the top 10 goaltenders of all-time. If Osgood compares pretty well to these three goaltenders, then I think he has to be considered a Hall of Fame goaltender.

Osgood vs. HOF Goalies

PlayerWinsPlf. WinsShutoutsPlf. ShutoutsAdj. GAAPoint%CupsJenningsAll-NHLVezinaConn Smythe
Giacomin289295412.75.5670NA2-1st, 3-2nd 20
Fuhr403922563.04.567411-1st, 1-2nd 10

I don’t think the argument could be made that Osgood is overmatched by any of these resumes. He doesn’t dominate the comparison like he did against Vernon, Barrasso, and Vachon but he certainly holds his own. He is well ahead of Smith, Giacomin, and Fuhr in points percentage. He is tied with Giacomin for the most Jennings Trophies (the Vezina before 1982 was given out to the goalie on the team with the fewest goals against as the Jennings Trophy is today). Ozzie is second in all-time wins, second in all-time shutouts. He’s first in playoff shutouts and barely trails Giacomin for second in Adj. GAA. He’s really only outmatched in one category and that’s “All-NHL honors.” He trails Smith and Fuhr by a decent margin in playoff wins but if the Wings win the Cup this year, Osgood could pull pretty close. In fact, if he’s still around next year, there’s a good shot he’ll pass Smith. I don’t know who has the worst resume of this group but I’m pretty sure it’s not Osgood. I also don’t know who has the best resume of this group but I’m pretty sure that if it’s not Osgood, then he’s pretty close.

Statistically speaking, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Osgood should be elected to the Hall of Fame based on the above comparisons. However, “statistics” aren’t always the deciding factor. Sometimes, all that matters is “reputation.” That’s why I think that while the Wings are fighting for their Cup-lives against Anaheim, Osgood is fighting for his Hall of Fame-life. He doesn’t just need to fit in with Hall of Famers, he needs to distance himself from them. A fourth Stanley Cup and 11 more playoff wins will go a long, long way in doing that. Osgood is only 36 years old. If he plays until he’s 40 or even just two more seasons with the Wings, he’ll move so far up the all-time statistical lists that he’d be getting very close to “lock” status. It’s rare that at the end of a career a player could go from “borderline” to “lock” status in just one season or even just one postseason but that pretty much defines Ozzie’s career.

If his career ended today without a fourth Cup or additional individual statistics, there’s a good chance that “reputation” would win out and keep him out of the Hall of Fame. If his career ends sometime after next season and the Wings win the Cup this year or next, then “statistics” will prevail. Here’s something to ponder…If Osgood plays for the Wings next season—which is likely considering Detroit’s salary cap situation and Osgood’s reasonable salary—he’ll likely climb to 8th in all-time wins. If he plays the season after that, he’ll likely climb to 5th. If the Wings win the Cup this year, he’ll climb to 8th in all-time playoff wins. If they win the cup this year and next, he’ll climb to 5th all-time in playoff wins. If he plays until he’s 40, then all of this will be moot. He’ll be a guaranteed Hall of Fame goalie. Last year, I wrote that Mike Mussina needed to play two more seasons with the Yankees to make the MLB Hall of Fame. That seemed like a reasonable task. Instead, he promptly retired and will very likely not reach the Hall of Fame. Let’s see how Ozzie handles the same scenario.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Way worse than the worst

This will be my fourth consecutive Lions post. I can assure you there will not be a fifth. There is speculation that five consecutive Lions posts could result in the formation of a Black Hole and I don’t like the Lions enough to find out if that’s true. Also, there will be no draft discussion in this post although—like the draft—it will feature all sorts of Lions ineptitude. The Lions have not made the playoffs since 1997. Believe it or not, that was 12 years ago or enough time for even the worst NFL to teams to make the playoffs with multiple regimes after multiple rebuilding efforts. The Lions, on the other hand, are still on their first rebuilding job. The Lions have not only been the worst team in the NFL, they’ve been lapped two and three times by the other “worst” teams.

It is not easy to miss the playoffs for 12 consecutive years. It isn’t just ineptitude that’s required to reach that level of futility. You either need incredibly bad luck or the opposite of divine intervention. I’m going to attempt to put into perspective the degree of difficulty that goes with maintaining such a severe level of incompetence for such a long period of time without even the slightest hint of a turnaround. I realize this has been done many times by many people—including myself on multiple occasions—but creating new ways to measure the Lions’ failures never gets old.

The Atlanta Falcons have historically been a putrid franchise. They own the second worst winning percentage in NFL history (min. 10 years) at .411. Only Tampa Bay has been worse. Since its expansion season of 1966, Atlanta has been atrocious over every 10-year period including the last 10 years. Since 1999, the Falcons are only 71-88-1 (.444 %). If there’s a team to measure Detroit’s recent futility against, it is Atlanta. Before I go any further, I want to quickly explain the comparison that I’m going to make. Obviously, the Lions have been far and away the worst team in the NFL for a long time. Comparing records of the Lions and other NFL teams won’t tell us anything that we don’t already know. The inspiration for this post is a thought that I had regarding how many times “bad” franchises have succeeded and rebuilt over the last 12 years. I theorized that there were probably teams that have been bad, good, bad, good, bad, and then good again with entirely different rosters. Twelve years is a long time especially in the NFL. The first team that came to mind was Atlanta. The Falcons have been horrible but they’ve sprinkled in playoff appearances over that horribleness. In fact, they’ve been to the playoffs four times since 1998. It’s not just the fact that Atlanta has been to the playoffs four times since the Lions last went, rather it’s who Atlanta has gone to the playoffs with since the Lions last went.

In 1998, Atlanta went 14-2 and lost to Denver in the Super Bowl. That team was the culmination of a rebuilding project that began with the hiring of Dan Reeves the year before. Atlanta regressed considerably under Reeves until he resigned in 2003. That started another rebuilding process that saw the team go 11-5 in Jim Mora’s first year. Atlanta again regressed under Mora before he was fired following the ’06 season. Atlanta started another rebuilding process that saw the team reach the playoffs in year one under head coach Mike Smith. In the 12 years that the Lions have been attempting to set the world record for “gaffes”, Atlanta has gone through three rebuilding processes under three different coaches (four if we count Petrino’s half-season) resulting in four playoff appearances. In fact, it wasn’t just the coaches who changed. Nearly the entire rosters turned over.

Atlanta's Offensive Leaders

199814-2Chris ChandlerJamal AndersonTony Martin
200411-5Michael VickWarrick DunnAlge Crumpler
200811-5Matt RyanMichael TurnerRoddy White

Not only did the statistical leaders change, nearly every meaningful contributor changed. In 1998, Atlanta was led by Chris Chandler, Jamal Anderson, Tony Martin, Terrance Mathis, and O.J. Santiago on offense and Cornelius Bennett, Jessie Tuggle, Ray Buchanan, Eugene Robinson, Chuck Smith, and William White on defense. Tim Dwight was the top kick returner and Morten Andersen was the kicker. Not a single player from the aforementioned group was still around for Atlanta’s ’04 playoff run. That team was led by Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler, Peerless Price, T.J. Duckett, and Dez White on offense and Keith Brooking, Patrick Kerney, and Roderick Coleman on defense. Allen Rossum was the top kick returner and Jay Feely was the kicker. Just four years later, Keith Brooking was the only guy left from that group. The latest Atlanta playoff team was led offensively by Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Jerious Norwood, and Michael Jenkins and defensively by Brooking, Erik Coleman, and John Abraham. Kick returning duties were shared by Norwood and Harry Douglass while Jason Elam did the kicking. Atlanta went through the equivalent of three brain transplants and—despite being one of the worst franchises in the NFL—still managed to make the playoffs after each “transplant.”

Even the worst teams in the NFL have successfully rebuilt their rosters two and three times since the last time the Lions made the playoffs. Atlanta has solved three puzzles while the Lions are still opening the package of the first one. Everyone knows the Lions have been bad. Simply counting wins and losses since 1998 tells us that. What has gone underreported on the national scene—even in the aftermath of an 0-16 season—is just how bad the Lions have been. It would be one thing if Atlanta just happened to be the only team to have built and rebuilt multiple times during the last 12 years but that’s not the case. Just about every team in the league has done it. I could’ve written nearly the same post on Tampa Bay, Chicago, and New Orleans. Arizona even went to the Super Bowl! It is one thing to be a bad franchise most of the time. It’s totally different and vastly more difficult to be a bad franchise all of the time. The Lions have failed so miserably over the last 12 years that they may be the most truly awful organization in the history of history regardless of the industry. There is major irony in the fact that “Restore the Roar” has been the unofficial team slogan since I've been alive. Who knows how long it was there before that!? I still don’t think the depth of futility has been properly put into context but I think we’re getting closer to fully educating the masses with each effort. Go Lions!

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