Monday, June 29, 2009

Mindless in Florida

I will not be posting over the next two weeks. I am on vacation and—as a result—my brain is only functioning at half capacity. If something truly incredible or revolutionary enters my mind—nearly impossible even when I’m not on vacation—then I’ll probably post something. Otherwise, enjoy the holiday and be sure to turn off the TV when Joel Zumaya is pitching. For all of the naysayers out there who said I didn’t have it in me to write a short post, who’s talking now? That’s what I thought!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Don't sleep on this draft

It had become cliché over the last few weeks to rip this year’s crop of NBA draft prospects. Clearly, this draft isn’t going to threaten ’84, ’96, and ’03 as the three greatest draft classes of all-time but I’m not buying this draft as a failure. First of all, there is a bona fide, can’t miss superstar at the top in Blake Griffin. His size, quickness, and athleticism is something beyond what the likes of Carlos Boozer and Chris Bosh can offer. Griffin is going to be a match-up nightmare in the way Kevin Garnett used to be. Even the Clippers won't be able to stop him from wreaking havoc on the NBA.

One reason why I think this draft has a chance to be very, very good is my belief that there is more than just one superstar in the making. It’s hard to argue that Hasheem Thabeet is overrated when he went 2nd overall but I think people are underestimating the impact that he is going to have in the NBA. He’s the closest thing the NBA has seen to Shaq since "The Diesel" entered the league 17 years ago. At 7’3, 265 lbs, Thabeet is a beast. Like Shaq, he finishes at the rim for high percentage shots. He doesn’t have Shaq’s footwork or explosiveness, but he will overmatch most NBA centers. He is better offensively than Dikembe Mutombo—not saying a whole lot there—but most importantly he’s just as good defensively. Thabeet is going to be a perennial all-star and could challenge Dwight Howard for center supremacy in the NBA in just a few short years. In my opinion, Thabeet is almost as much of a can’t-miss superstar as Griffin although very few people seem to agree.

I’m as uncertain on Ricky Rubio as everyone else seems to be. He could end up being the Spanish Pistol Pete or he could end up being the Spanish Influenza. Much of the uncertainty has to do with the fact that—aside from a brief introduction in Beijing—nobody has seen him play. He is a wild card. Someone who is not a wild card, in my opinion, is Stephen Curry. I think people have made the mistake of assuming that he is the next in a long line of undersized, sharpshooting, college off-guards who are incapable of making the transition to the NBA ala Shawn Respert and J.J. Redick. The difference between Curry and the guys who couldn't transition is like the difference between Ice Cream and Yogurt. In other words, it's enormous. Curry can make every shot on the floor. He is a potent ball-handler and an incredible passer. He doesn’t have an impressive physique or crazysexycool athleticism which is probably the only reason he wasn’t a top-five pick. However, he is quick, has handles and mad range. He is a shooting guard who can play the point. It is difficult to imagine a player with his repertoire not becoming--at the very least--an all-star.

I’m not as sold on James Harden’s upside but it would be silly to say he can’t hack it in the league. He is a Mitch Richmond-type who certainly will be able to score. He doesn’t have the all-around game but he is a polished scorer who is unlikely to be a bust.

I’ll reserve judgment on Tyreke Evans, Johnny Flynn, Jordan Hill, and DeMar DeRozan since I haven’t seen enough to warrant any sort of a prediction. I did get to see Flynn at Syracuse quite a few times and he was certainly impressive. It’s hard to imagine all four of these cats being busts.

There is too much “upside” in this draft to warrant the negativity that has surrounded it. Very few drafts in recent memory have produced as many solid point guard prospects alone as this one. Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague and Darren Collison went 17th, 18th, 19th, and 21st respectively not to mention Brandon Jennings who went 10th.

If nothing else, this is a deep draft. The talent leaked deep into the second round with the likes of DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, Dajuan Summers, Patty Mills, Jodie Meeks, Chase Budinger and Patrick Beverley. It’ll obviously be a while before we find out how good this draft really is but I would be surprised if it isn’t above the 50th percentile of all-time NBA Drafts which is a far cry from the “one of the worst drafts ever”-moniker that had been thrown around by a lot of different people in recent weeks. R.I.P. Michael Jackson.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Scott Boras thinks U R are stupid

Scott Boras is giving Billy Mays a run for his money. Perhaps no human being on the planet aside from Mays can pitch a terrible offer better than Boras. His attempts to sell Magglio Ordonez as an $18 million dollar player for 2010 rival anything Mays did with the Awesome Auger or the Samurai Shark. Boras graced our lovely planet with the following beauty of a statement

"I admit to you that Magglio had a rough April (.240) batting average," Boras said. "But if you want to talk about why his production is down in 2009, it's about one thing and one thing only: His home runs are down by seven. I submit to you that's not compelling information for declaring failure."

That’s it? This is all about seven home runs? Let’s go to the chart:

Good Mags vs. Awful Mags


*2009 numbers based on 146 game pace

Clearly, Boras has issues comprehending multiple variables because there’s a lot more going on here than a reduction in home runs. How about the fact that Mags is on pace to drive in 47 fewer runs? What about the fact that he went from an OPS 27% above the league average to 18% below? Better yet, what about everything? Mags has clearly significantly regressed in virtually every measurable way. I would love to watch Boras try to sell Charles Barkley to an NBA team right now. I think it might go something like this, “the only difference between Charles Barkley now and Charles Barkley 15 years ago is that he’s pushing 350 pounds and can’t post-up--or defend--a flag pole. That’s it! Everything else is still in perfect condition. His elbows still bend. He can still put on his own uniform. Plus, he can say "Anything less would be uncivilized" with a British accent while riding a horse. How does $20 million per game sound?” Don’t get Boras started on "The Splendid Splinter." According to Scotty Baseball, the only thing keeping Ted Williams from starting in left field for the Red Sox is the fact that his head is frozen in a cryogenics lab in Arizona.

Lame jokes aside, Mags has been terrible this year. The Tigers were very, very smart four years ago to put a clause in his contract that would prevent them from having to pay an obviously diminished player $18 million in 2010 and $15 million in 2011. Those salaries would be guaranteed if Mags reaches 270 combined games between this year and last. There isn’t a math wizard on the planet who could successfully argue that Mags is worth that sort of money over the next two season. Boras, of course, is looking out for his own butt. He gets paid commission based on his clientele’s earnings. A five percent-cut (or whatever his rate is) of $33 million is a lot more money than a five percent-cut of $10 million (or however much Mags could sign for on the free agent market). That's a $1.15 million loss for Boras. So remember, the next time Boras impersonates a failing "Logic 101" student, it’s because he stands to lose money.

The only legitimate question here is whether the Tigers should release Mags or keep him benched until he can’t reach his contract kicker. The latter would allow the possibility of a return for the playoffs assuming a). the Tigers reach the playoffs and b). he has his act together by then. However, that could also be a public relations nightmare. As moronic as Boras sounded in the above article, he represents a lot of pretty important people in baseball. The Tigers don’t need him as an enemy. That’s why I think the Tigers should just release Mags. He could sign with a contender, he would still get paid—and paid well—by the Tigers for the remainder of this season. The daily bad mouthing that would surely last as long as Mags remains benched would go away. Oh, and if you’re wondering what $18 million could buy the Tigers next season, the best answer I can come up with is, “all but nine players in MLB.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Five prescriptions for an anemic offense

The Tigers need an upgrade at the back-end of the rotation like the NHL needs a new commissioner. Fortunately, there is an obvious internal candidate—Joel Zumaya—to bolster the rotation issues. Unfortunately, there is no such internal candidate to help fix what has become an anemic offense. The Tigers haven’t scored more than four runs in eight consecutive games. Even worse, they have averaged just 3.3 runs per games since May 28 (20 games). Seattle—the worst offensive team in the AL—averages nearly a half-run more per game that what the Tigers have managed since late-May. Not surprisingly, the combination of rotation issues and offensive futility has had a painful impact on the standings. The Tigers are just 10-15 in their last 25 games after starting 24-16. Something will need to be done—and done soon—if the Tigers are going to have a legitimate chance of beating Minnesota, Chicago, and a resurgent Cleveland for the division. On Monday, I presented Zumaya as a solution for the rotation. Let’s see what we can do for the offense…

Before I get started, I just want to point out how much easier it is for the rest of MLB to upgrade their offense. The Tigers have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Chicago White Sox. The ChiSox have three perfect pieces for a team looking for an upgrade. Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, and Jermaine Dye—all members of the ChiSox—are like having a supermodel for a sister. It’s great for everyone else but there’s not much you can do with it. If I’m an NL team in contention, I would have Kenny Williams (White Sox GM) on speed dial. Anyhow, let’s see if we can find some players outside of the division who could be available at a reasonable price. Remember, teams can’t simply say, “I want Albert Pujols” when they’re looking to add a “bat.” Obviously, a trade partner needs to be out of playoff contention and the player needs to be old, in a contract-year, or both. Here are five in order of preference…

1). Adam Dunn

Dunn plays for the Nationals. They may threaten the mark for worst record in MLB history. I think it’s safe to say he is available. Dunn has one year left on his contract beyond this season and it’s at the reasonable price of $12 million. You would be surprised how difficult it is to find someone who meets the simple criteria of a). being worth trading for, b). playing for a bad team, and c). having a favorable contract. Dunn is one of the few. It helps that he is an impact player. He has been discussed amongst the Tigers fanbase quite a bit over the last few years mainly because he is a run-producer who doesn’t cost $100 million. Dunn was the target of some interesting comments by J.P. Ricciardi (Blue Jays GM) last year. Ricciardi basically said that Dunn’s lowly batting average and high strike out totals make him a player to avoid. The good news for the Tigers is that Ricciardi’s opinion is likely shared across baseball. That means that Dunn’s value should be relatively low for a middle-of-the-lineup stalwart. While Ricciardi chose to focus on strikeouts and batting average, I’m going to focus on walks, runs, RBIs, home runs, on-base percentage, and OPS. Over the last five years, Dunn has averaged 111 walks, 98 runs, 100 RBIs, 41 home runs, a .382 OBP, and a 133 OPS+. Those are Hall of Fame numbers. Since 2004, no player in MLB has more walks than Dunn and only Albert Pujols has more home runs (228-224). For those fearing a drop-off in production, he’s on pace to surpass all of those marks this season with the exception of runs; and he’s doing it while playing for a horrible team. In fact, Dunn has done most of his damage over the last six years with very little protection. Imagine how he might feel hitting in front of, or behind, Miguel Cabrera. Hopefully Dave Dombrowski can get something Dunn. (weee!)

2). Matt Holliday

Scott Boras will have his work cut out for him following the season. Holliday will be a free agent and he was set to virtually name his price on the open market. That was before his numbers tanked in Oakland. Holliday still has substantial name power so even in the midst of a disappointing ’09 campaign, the A’s will still make it hurt to trade for him. The important question is: how much will it hurt? Even though Holliday put up massive numbers in Colorado, his success away from Coors Field leaves no doubt that he isn't a one-venue pony. Plus, the arrival of the humidor in 2002 changed things quite a bit. In fact, Coors Field is no longer the top hitter’s park in baseball according to ESPN’s Park Factor. That distinction goes to the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. It didn’t help Holliday that he was traded to the Oakland A’s who play at the Oakland Coliseum which is one of the worst hitter’s parks in MLB. Holliday’s statistical plunge has no doubt been exacerbated by going from one extreme to the other in terms of ballparks. It's true that he has always hit substantially better at Coors Field than anywhere else. That might be cause for concern when considering whether to offer him $100 million or not, but I don’t think it should be much of a concern when trying to decide if he can hit away from Colorado. In the last three years, Holliday has put up road OPS+ marks of 116, 130, and 145, respectively. Holliday can hit anywhere. Hopefully, the Tigers contact Oakland before they figure that out.

3). Aubrey Huff

Huff has “Renteria Syndrome” which is a condition that spawns rapid fluctuations of inconsistency. Huff was a superstar last season with Baltimore when he hammered the American League—not the least of which was the Tigers—for 32 home runs and 108 RBIs. He makes just $8 million and he is in the last year of his contract. The Orioles have no chance in the stacked AL East. Huff has struggled this year with an OPS+ of 94 through 62 games. However, he would come cheap and he would give Miguel Cabrera some protection. Part of the gamble on Huff would be the hope that he would regain some of his ’08 form. If he could put up anything close to that, the Tigers would likely see a vast improvement in offensive production. Huff also has the added bonus of being a left-handed bat which is something the Tigers have needed since 1842—or thereabouts.

4). Derrek Lee

The Cubs are definitely in playoff contention but I don’t think they would be against moving Lee. I’m assuming, though, that they’d want something that would help them win the division. I don’t think there’s a whole lot the Tigers could offer in the name of everyday help for a playoff contending team. That ship sailed when they released Gary Sheffield. Then again, if they didn’t release Sheffield, we might not even be talking about this but I digress. Anyhow, unless the Cubs are interested in something like Marcus Thames, Jeff Larish and a prospect, I don’t think Lee is an option. There is the possibility of Aramis Ramirez getting moved to first base upon his return from the DL—grasping at straws here but I would think players coming back from a dislocated shoulder should probably not being diving on said shoulder at 3B—allowing Josh Vitters to take over at third base. I suppose that would make Lee expendable. Or, maybe they would be fine with someone like Jake Fox replacing Lee. Still, there would be the question of whether the Tigers have anything the Cubs want. Lee’s best days are in the rearview mirror but, like Huff, he is better than what we’ve got going on right now. Oh, did I mention he has a no-trade clause? I probably could’ve saved you two minutes by putting that in the first sentence.

5). Jason Giambi

This is the point when I started to wonder if it’s even worth making a trade to get a guy like Giambi. Bear with me for a minute. There’s no question that he’s a poor man’s Adam Dunn which likely means that J.P. Ricciardi would rather fight a polar bear than even consider bringing him to Toronto. Still, last year Giambi hit 32 bombs with 96 ribeyes with a very respectable 128 OPS+. Sure, he has struggled in his return to Oakland but considering what has happened to Matt Holliday, there might be something in the water out there (or maybe just a tough pitcher’s park). Giambi still draws mad-walks and he has hit 32+ home runs in each of his last three full seasons. He would probably come pretty cheap from an Oakland-team that flat-out stinks. He would be a free agent at the end of the season (Oakland has a club-option) so he pretty much fits all of the basic criteria for trade feasibility. He is a lefty-bat that would give the Tigers a different look in the middle of the lineup. The Tigers could probably get away with trading two or three mid-level prospects. I would actually be excited if the Tigers got this done. Yes, I am aware of how sad that statement sounds. Just imagine how I’d feel if any of the first three options went down.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Make Room for “Zoom Zoom” (please.)

The Tigers are entering a crucial stretch that will heavily influence their chances of winning the AL Central. Oh, and it has nothing to do with the schedule. The front office has to decide what to with the #4 and #5 spots in the rotation and they have to do it soon if playing in October is an organizational goal. Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, and Rick Porcello have spearheaded the Tigers to the top of the division but lately their work has been almost entirely undone by the struggles of Armando Galarraga and Dontrelle Willis. Over the last six weeks, the Tigers are 4-14 when Galarraga and Willis start and 19-8 when Verlander, Jackson, and Porcello start. That’s essentially .500-baseball with arguably the best trio of starters in the AL.

The Tigers absolutely cannot afford for either Galarraga or Willis to remain in the rotation beyond June. Both Willis and Galarraga can’t find the plate and when they do, they're getting hammered. Most fans and writers support a demotion for Willis. Galarraga has been just as bad, though. He has allowed 3.6 more baserunners per nine innings this season over last. He has allowed 21 walks to just 20 strikeouts in his last nine starts. Opponents are blasting him for a .375 OBP and he has an unfathomable WHIP of 1.61. A team as offensively challenged as the Tigers cannot afford two horrible pitching performances every time through the rotation.

Solving both rotation problems will not be easy. Fortunately, solving one can be and should be. Joel Zumaya needs to be in the rotation like yesterday. I know some will be quick to dismiss this but we need to get rid of the superficial reasons for not wanting him in the rotation. Zumaya is a starting pitcher. He was brought up through the minors as a starter and he was absolutely devastating. The Tigers didn’t have room for him in the rotation coming out of Spring Training in 2006, but the Tigers liked him so much that they felt they could not break from Lakeland without him. That’s the reason why Joel Zumaya is a reliever today. Bilfer from the Detroit Tigers Weblog feared such a fate back in March of 2006 when he said that he was happy that Zumaya made the team but hoped that it would not “pigeon hole” him as a reliever moving forward. That fear proved to be warranted. Zumaya has not started a single-game for the Tigers despite countless opportunities. He has been “pigeon holed” and it hasn't really mattered until now. If it continues, however, it will be to the detriment of the team. For those of you who have forgotten the path of destruction that Zumaya left in the minors as a 20-year old, here’s a reminder…

Zoom Zoom in the Minors


Zumaya has been a fairly successful relief pitcher for the Tigers boasting a career 2.81 ERA in 160.1 innings. However, with ample opportunity, he has not been trusted as the closer despite having the perfect repertoire for the job. The statistical reasons for why he hasn’t been trusted with closing duties yet are pretty easy to cite. He has an uncomfortable 1.32 career WHIP. He has a dangerously high 5.1 BB/9. He also has an undependable 56% first pitch strike percentage. It would be tough for any manager to routinely trust a pitcher with those splits in a pressurized, end-of-game situation. However, I think there is an explanation for those numbers. Anyone who watches Tigers games on a regular basis has no doubt seen Zumaya’s demeanor when he enters games. He is so "jacked-up" that it appears an impossible endeavor for him to pitch with composure. He becomes an adrenaline fueled machine with one goal in mind: throw 100 mph every pitch. The results have been predictable. His command, or lack thereof, often leaves him visibly frustrated on the mound. To his credit, batters haven’t exactly solved him but they’ve realized that if they’re patient, they’ll get a good pitch to hit. It’s not hard for a major league hitter to hit a 100 MPH fastball when a) he doesn't have to worry about an off-speed pitch and b) he has seen the same pitch four times in a row. That’s likely why Zumaya also sports an incredibly high H/9 of 9.0.

The “role” of 8th-inning stopper has thwarted Zumaya’s progress as a pitcher. He could—and likely would—thrive in a less stressful situation; a situation in which the Tigers happen to sorely need him right now. He would have the opportunity to pitch under the same circumstances in which he dominated the minor leagues as a 20-year old. He would also have the chance to mix his pitches and become less predictable. He has a wicked knuckled-curve that he rarely uses when he forces himself to play the role of the prototypical flamethrowing reliever. He would also be forced to vary speeds on his fastball which is something he rarely does now. Gone would be the days of throwing as hard as possible every pitch. Ideally, that would allow Zumaya to play the role of "a pitcher" which I think suits him better anyways. Zumaya has the make-up to be a dominating starting pitcher. MLB GMs would take that over a good reliever 10 out of 10 times; especially when the back of the rotation is threatening to ruin a playoff-run.

There are two important questions to ask yourself if you’re still on the fence: 1) What do the Tigers have to lose? and 2). Do you really think Zumaya won’t give the Tigers a better chance of winning games—and thus winning the division--over Galarraga and/or Willis? I don’t think there’s any doubt that Joel Zumaya is a better pitcher than Armando Galarraga and Dontrelle Willis. He proved it in the minors and he has proven it as a reliever.

I expect a number of fans to cite “injuries” in their rebuttals. It’s important to put Zumaya’s injuries in perspective. Of the four injuries that I am aware of, three had nothing to do with “workload” or “mechanics”. He famously hurt his wrist while mired in an obsession with Guitar Hero. He hurt his shoulder rushing to move boxes out of his family home in the face of a forest fire. He also ruptured a tendon in his hand in a freak bullpen accident. He has had horrible luck but let’s not confuse that with an abnormal workload/injury relationship. There is no reason other than the same increased risk of injury for any starting pitcher to believe that Zumaya could not physically handle a move to the rotation. In fact, if “workload” is a concern at all, the Tigers would be justified to put him on an 85-pitch or six-inning limit. That’s more than what they’re getting from Galarraga and Willis anyways plus it would come with the added bonus of not being a guaranteed loss.

I don’t think the Tigers will do this. I am fearful that this isn’t even on the radar. It should be, though. Unlike a trade, this move would cost the Tigers nothing instead allowing them to focus on trading for a "bat" to upgrade a moribund offense. The Yankees made a near idential decision to bolster their rotation by inserting Joba Chamberlain from the bullpen and it has paid off substantially. Like Chamberlain, Zumaya was a top-flight starting pitching prospect who saw his role change out of inopportunity. That’s not the case anymore. Nothing has happened along the way to suggest that Zumaya should be anything other than a starting pitcher. He couldn’t make the rotation in ’06 because there weren’t any spots available. Now, there are two glaring openings. The sooner the Tigers fill one with Zumaya, the sooner the odds of making the playoffs increase. There are no more excuses for keeping "Zoom Zoom" out of the rotation. Plus, the Minnesota Twins are about to fire-up the “streak” machine.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Conn Smythe Reboot

Last week, I summarized the race for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Well, things have changed and you’re probably not going to like it. It was my contention that if Detroit wins the series, the award would go to Chris Osgood or Henrik Zetterberg, and if Pittsburgh wins the series, the award would go to Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Unfortunately, do to the brilliance of the NHL, it might not matter who wins the series. Consider the following explanation of the Conn Smythe voting procedure courtesy of ArmchairGM:

“The vote is conducted during the 2nd period of an elimination game in the
Stanley Cup Finals. If the finals is not over in the game [sic], the votes will
be discarded and the procedures will be repeated until a Stanley Cup winner is

If there's a special procedure for a "game seven", I haven't seen it. If there isn't, then that does not bode well for a Wings player taking home the hardware. Generally, a player from the winning team wins the Conn Smythe Trophy. A player from the losing team has only won the award five times in 43 years. So, if the Wings win the cup, then a Wing will likely win the Conn Smythe Trophy, right? Well, not so much. Since this is a “game seven” and the NHL has condoned a voting system that crowns a playoff MVP before the playoffs are even over, it is quite likely that a Penguins player will win the Conn Smythe even if the Wings win the Stanley Cup.

This is how it could go down…I’m going to error on the side of extreme caution and say that the Wings have a 50/50 chance of winning “game seven”. I realize that the home team is 12-2 in Stanley Cup Finals “game sevens” and the home team has won every game of the series so far. Even if it is greater than 50/50 in favor of the Wings, what are the odds that the Wings are more than one goal ahead to start of the third period? If the game is close, voters (members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association (PHWA)) will be forced to ignore the “winning team” element and simply pick the player with the best statistics. Of course, that would either be Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Clearly anyone who closely follows hockey knows that neither has been as impactful as the two-way superiority of Henrik Zetterberg. Zetterberg is +13 in the playoffs which is more than the combined total of Crosby and Malkin. Still, Crosby and Malkin have sexy point totals and without being able to pick a player from the winning team—a phenomenon that only exists in a “game seven”—those “point totals” will probably be the basis for voting. Another way of saying this is; there is no way that voters would hand the Conn Smythe to Henrik Zetterberg if they thought Pittsburgh had at least a 50/50 chance of winning at the time of voting. In the wake of a Pittsburgh-win, that selection would be heavily scrutinized. On the other hand, if Detroit wins, nobody would “bat an eyelash” if Malkin—whose 35 points are the 7th most in Stanley Cup Playoff history—were awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. If the game is close, voters will probably “hedge their bets” by going with the “safe” pick.

The only scenario in which it’s likely for a Wings player to win the Conn Smythe is if the Wings are ahead by at least two goals entering the third period. It could happen but it is not “likely.” Another scenario in which a Wings player could win is if the game goes to overtime, and as the PHWA is asked to re-vote, the Wings win. Other than a blowout, that’s really the only way the PHWA could vote knowing that the Wings were the winners.

The fact that we’re even talking about this is ridiculous. Computers and cell phones were invented in the 1940s. Text messaging was invented in the 1990’s. It's 2009! Is it really that difficult for voters to email, text or phone their votes within five minutes of the completion of the game to a person with basic “addition” skills? Maybe the NHL plans to do something different this time around but considering Gary Bettman’s recent decisions that seriously infringed on the integrity of the game (see; scheduling back-to-back playoff games for the first time in 54 years with just three days notice), I highly doubt the brain capacity exists at NHL headquarters to actually wait for the playoffs to end before voting for the MVP of the playoffs. Apparently, this was supposed to be discussed back in 2002. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Dwight is no Diesel

In April, Phil Jackson was asked who he would start a team with if he could take any active player in the NBA not named Kobe Bryant. He went with Dwight Howard over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul. I’m not arguing the merits of his selection rather I just want to simply point out that Howard was Jackson’s #1 choice. Howard is an exploding NBA superstar having secured a second straight selection to the All-NBA First Team as well as an NBA Defensive Player of the Year Trophy. The fact that he was the #1 overall vote-getter for the 2009 NBA All-Star Game and has unexpectedly led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals has only helped enhance his status as the league’s most dominating big-man.

Howard is an amazing athlete. He physically dominates the center position and has clearly catapulted his team beyond expectations this season. However, I think that Howard’s success gives us an opportunity to revisit and, hopefully, truly appreciate and understand Shaquille O’Neal’s dominance. In my opinion, Shaq is one of the least appreciated superstars in NBA history. That doesn’t mean that people think he was terrible. I think given the opportunity to name the 20 greatest players in NBA history, most would put Shaq in that group. What I’ve found, though, is that few people are willing to put Shaq in a more elite group. In fact, I am convinced that Shaq is one of the top five players in NBA history even though—based on reader-comments from my top 100 Basketball Players of All-Time list—that claim has been met with a tremendous amount of resistance.

Much of the opposition to Shaq’s place in NBA history comes from a perceived lack of “style points.” He wasn’t a ballet dancer in the post like Hakeem or a masterful technician like Tim Duncan. He was just brutally overpowering. The impact on the record books and trophy cases is undeniable but his impact on NBA fans remains tenuous. It’s unfortunate that people have forgotten so quickly how truly revolutionizing Shaq was to basketball. However, I think Dwight Howard gives us a chance to re-appreciate just how thoroughly dominating Shaq was.

Like Shaq was before him, Howard is a 23 year old, physically imposing Orlando Magic center who has led his team to the NBA Finals. Howard’s raw athleticism and physically imposing frame gives us a perfect comparison for Shaq. Howard is the best big man in the NBA. Tim Duncan is old. Shaq is older. Yao is a walking saltine cracker. KG’s offensive game has moved farther and farther away from the basket leaving Howard as the preeminent post presence in the NBA. Phil Jackson thinks so and so do most NBA fans.

If Shaq’s dominance can’t be fully appreciated at face value, maybe it can be appreciated via a comparison with Dwight Howard.

Dwight vs. Shaq at 23

PlayerAgePPGPPG (Playoffs)FG%PERUsg%usg% (Playoffs)APGRPGBPGSPGTO/PG
Shaquille O’Neal2329.325.7.58328.631.930.12.711.
Dwight Howard2320.621.0.57225.426.123.91.413.

Dwight Howard is an exceptional player. Physically, he may be the closest thing the league has seen to Wilt Chamberlain since, well, Wilt Chamberlain. He also might be the most athletic big man the league has seen since “The Big Dipper.” His Slam Dunk Competition exploits attest to that. However, there is a difference between being Amare Stoudamire-great, and Shaquille O’Neal-great. Another way to look at it is to recall a simple geometry concept: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Athleticism takes you on a journey to the basket. Size and physical superiority takes you straight to the basket. The shorter the path to the basket, the fewer things can go wrong which is one reason why despite a much higher Usage %, Shaq turned the ball over fewer times than Howard. Whereas Howard tends to need to complete a move or exhibit fancy footwork to shake a defender, Shaq simply took it to the rim with authority. It was much, much easier for Shaq to score.

At age 23, Shaq averaged 29.3 points per game to Howard’s 20.6. Shaq did it with a higher field goal percentage. Shaq was also the focus of Orlando's offense leading the league in Usage % at 31.9%. That means that Orlando relied more on Shaq than any other team relied on any other player in the NBA. Howard’s 26.1% is nothing to be ashamed of but compared to Shaq it’s underwhelming. Shaq also wins the PER comparison, 28.6 to 25.4. Howard’s “specialty” is defense. Notice that Shaq was no slouch defensively. He became an incredibly effective defensive player as his career progressed but even at 23, Shaq was no pushover.

At 23, Shaq had a similar build to Howard. Shaq was a little thicker but he was much more slender early in his career. As Shaq bulked up, his dominance only magnified which came with four NBA Championships, three NBA Finals MVPs, and an NBA MVP (he should have won at least three MVPs). If Howard can’t touch Shaq at 23, then he’s got a heck of a hill to climb to catch him in his prime. Howard is a beast and deservedly receives league-wide accolades for his paint prowess. However, if Howard truly is the most important player in the NBA as Phil Jackson contends, then that should help clarify just how dominating and important Shaq was. Howard is 6’11, 240. Shaq was 7’1, 330 in his prime. Unless Howard puts on 60 pounds (not sure his metabolism will let that happen), then no matter how good Howard gets, it will likely never be as good as Shaq.

Through two games of the NBA Finals, Howard has scored six total field goals. The Lakers have a fairly formidable front court offensively but certainly do not have the defenders to contend with Howard’s size and athleticism. Shaq—in his first foray into the NBA Finals at 23—found himself opposite one of the five or six greatest centers in NBA history who happened to be in his prime. Hakeem Olajuwon was an offensive powerhouse but he is also arguably the greatest defender at the center position in NBA history. Shaq lit Hakeem up on the offensive end in the '95 Finals. Revisionist history has rendered Shaq a less effective version of Chuck Nevitt in that series but that’s just not how things went down. In fact, compare what a young Shaq did against one of the greatest centers of all-time in his prime to what Dwight Howard has done against Pau Gasol.

Shaq vs. Hakeem in ’95 Finals

Shaquille O’Neal232812.5.5956.52.5
Hakeem Olajuwon3132.811.5.4835.52.0

Dwight Howard vs. Pau Gasol in ’09 Finals

Dwight Howard2314.515.5.37533
Pau Gasol28209.5383.01.5

Barring injury, Dwight Howard is destined for greatness. He is a superstar at the most important position in the NBA. Five years from now, he will probably be drawing comparisons to the greatest post players who ever played. In comparison, though, Shaq was in a league of his own.

Friday, June 05, 2009

AL Central fear factor

The AL Central doesn’t appear to be it’s usual stout self this season with just one team playing better than .500 baseball. Lucky for us, that team is the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers own a 2.5 game lead over the Twins. However, considering the prowess of the division over the last few years, forgive me if I’m extremely worried about a team in the division catching fire. Since 2005, every team in the AL Central has made it to the playoffs with the exception of Kansas City. Since 2007, the Tigers are 74-90 against the AL Central and 116-93 against everyone else. Even when the Tigers led the division by ten games in August ’06, Minnesota went 71-33 over the last 2.5 months of the season to steal the division. As long as there are games to be played, the fear of some random AL Central team blowing up will always be on my mind Willie Nelson-style.

So, without further ado, here is my fear factor for each AL Central team and its prospects of foiling Detroit’s surprise run at the division (from most to least fearful):

1). Minnesota Twins

ESPN forgot to tell us before the season that Babe Ruth himself was going to be playing catcher for the Twinkies. If you have been following baseball, then you already know that Joe Mauer is currently putting together one of the greatest seasons in MLB history. Granted, it has only been a little over 100 at-bats. Still, his OPS+ is 262. Barry Bonds allegedly injected his way to a record 268 but nobody else has even come close to that number. Mauer has 12 home runs through 110 at-bats. His previous high was 13 in 2006 but that took 521 at-bats. He’s also hitting .436—and it's June! If Mauer has truly found his power swing—and this isn’t some sort of Ruthian spirit possessing his body for a month or two—then he could be a once in a generation player. He is well on his way to winning his third batting title—as a catcher no less. Oh yeah, and the guy who hits behind him--Justin Morneau--won the AL MVP in ’06 and came in second last season. This team can rake. Plus, they’re the frickin’ Twins. They’re always good. Francicso Liriano being absolutely atrocious makes them slightly less terrifying but not enough to keep them out of my nightmares. It would take intervention at the highest level to keep the Twins from winning the division. They are really, really scary. Like, a 10-year old watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -scary.

2). Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are the heaviest team in MLB. They are one of the oldest teams in MLB. Pitchers all across baseball—well, maybe just two—are vetoing trades to the South Side. This team started deteriorating the minute it won the World Series in 2005. Or, at least that’s what everyone thought. Despite being universally projected to finish no better than third in the division, the Sox won the AL Central last season. They were projected to be even worse this year and still have managed to hover around .500. Apparently “old and fat” doesn’t prevent a team from being good. The ChiSox have dominated both the Tigers and the rest of the division in recent years. Since 2005, the Sox are 51-26 against the Tigers and 186-129 against the division. In that same time frame, Chicago is only 189-197 against everyone else. They have truly been a bully to the division and to the division only. The reason why I’m not as fearful of the Sox as I am the Twins is that a). they don’t have Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and b). they don’t seem to beat up the rest of the American League in the same way they torture the Tigers and the AL Central. Still, the Sox are a dangerous team. Kenny Williams is feverishly looking for a top-of-the rotation pitcher. If that happens, look out. Until then, the fear factor here is more like a psychological thriller. There's a lot more trepidation than action. Think The Silence of the Lambs just not nearly as good.

3). Cleveland Indians

Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner are two of the deadliest left-handed hitters in baseball. Fortunately for the Tigers, they can’t stay healthy. Things have been downright brutal for the Indians ever since they jumped out to a 3-1 series-lead over the Red Sox in the ’07 ALCS. The Indians, of course, lost three straight to Boston which went on to win the World Series. If that wasn’t bad enough, C.C. Sabathia was shipped away, Fausto Carmona became the worst pitcher in the American League, and Travis Hafner has only played in 74 games. The offense was expected to carry Cleveland this season but Sizemore is out for two months and Hafner hasn’t played since April 28. Poor Cliff Lee is pitching admirably but even the 2008 AL Cy Young winner hasn't been able to pitch Cleveland out of the basement of the division. The fear factor here reminds me of, Scream. The Indians are good for a few isolated scares but they're a spoof and everyone knows it.

4). Kansas City Royals

The scariest part about Zack Greinke isn’t his 1.10 ERA through 11 starts; it’s the fact that he’s figured out the pitching matrix at 25 years old. Even Greg Maddux didn’t put it all together until he was 26. Greinke is very likely going to waltz to the AL Cy Young this year. Anyone thinking this is all a fluke might want to reconsider. Flukes don’t throw down a .90 WHIP and a 407 ERA+ (!!!) through 82 innings. Greinke is the real deal and he’ll likely keep KC afloat at least for a little while. However, Randy Johnson proved that all-time great pitching seasons don’t necessarily have to coincide with good team seasons. The Big Unit went for 245 innings with a 2.65 ERA and a .90 WHIP in 2004. He also threw down an incomprehensible 10.6 K/9 and a 1.6 BB/9. Even though he didn’t win the Cy Young that year, he was easily the best pitcher in the National League. Still, the D-backs only mustered 51 wins in one of the worst seasons in MLB history. KC is obviously better than that Arizona-team but my point is that Greinke’s brilliance alone won’t be enough to put KC into the playoffs. Thankfully, Greinke doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of help. KC led the AL Central on and off through May 15. However, the Royals have plummeted since going 5-19 in their last 24 games. Aside from Greinke, KC’s rotation has been absolutely atrocious posting just 17 quality starts in 41 starts. Offensively, the Royals have been offensive. KC is second to last in runs scored per game and has only scored more than four runs once in its last 13 games. The fear factor here is straight from, Killer Klowns from Outer Space. As a chic pick to win the division, the Royals were supposed to be scary but actually turned out to be kind of funny.

Thankfully, this post wasn’t “AL East Fear Factor.” I think that would’ve been too scary to write. Fortunately, the Tigers are in the AL Central and, as a result, actually have a chance of playing October baseball. Now I just need to tell my wife to wake me up immediately if I start mumbling something about “Joe Mauer” and “a 15-game winning streak."

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Conn Smythe favorites

The Wings are 87.5% of the way to another Stanley Cup. So, I think we have enough statistical information to start talking about who is going to win the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Wings end up winning the Cup. If Pittsburgh comes back and wins the series, it’ll go to Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin so there’s really nothing worth discussing there. Since only three non-Canadians have won the trophy in its 45-year history, my bet is on Crosby. If the Wings hold on to win the Cup, then the Conn Smythe Trophy is more “up in the air” than any Cup Final I can remember. The Wings have marched through the playoffs as a cohesive team getting contributions from virtually every player on the playoff roster including three players—Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Ville Leino—who played a combined 15 games during the regular season. That formula has resulted in massive success throughout the playoffs but it hasn’t resulted in a clear-cut favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy which, unfortunately, does leave open the slight possibility of a Pittsburgh player winning in a losing effort.

The Conn Smythe has not gone to a forward or d-man from a losing team since Reggie Leach won it with the Flyers in 1976. When a player from a losing team wins, it’s almost always a goalie. Marc-Andre Fleury has been pretty good throughout the playoffs but not as good as Chris Osgood and definitely not good enough to win the Conn Smythe. Crosby or Malkin could snag the trophy since many Wings will likely split the vote; however, neither has been particularly dominating through the first two games of the Finals. If that continues, look for a Red Wing to take home the Conn Smythe despite Crosby and Malkin’s absurd point totals.

Now the question is, which Red Wing would win the trophy? Here is my list in order of most likely and not necessarily who deserves it the most.

1). Chris Osgood

“Ozzie” has been brilliant throughout the playoffs. His save % is an outstanding .930. He has allowed only one goal in each of the last four games and has allowed one goal or fewer in eight of Detroit’s 18 playoff games. He has been extremely consistent throughout the playoffs with only one or two “bad” performances. He hasn’t been quite as good as he was last year when he was a heavy sentimental favorite to win the Conn Smythe but his numbers are close. His save % is exactly the same at .930. His GAA (Goals Against Average) is up a bit from 1.55 last season to 1.95 this season. Still, 1.95 is an outstanding number good enough for second among all playoff goaltenders. Nobody will ever admit to voting this way—and I don’t think voters even necessarily know when they’re voting this way—but Osgood has received so much criticism over his career that I think there is the possibility of voters viewing him winning the Conn Smythe as somewhat of a “Lifetime Achievement Award.” In a close race, sentimentality cannot be overlooked.

2). Henrik Zetterberg

Osgood would have won the Conn Smythe last season if it weren’t for Zets’s two-way domination. His statistics aren’t as gaudy as they were last season but, in my opinion, he has been Detroit’s best player throughout the playoffs. His defense has been suffocating. He has once again put the clamps on Sidney Crosby holding him to zero points and a -1 +/- through two games. Zetterberg is showing why many believe him to be the best two-way player in the NHL. His offensive output is down from last year’s playoffs but he’s still second on the team in points, goals, assist, and +/-. He leads all Detroit forwards in TOI (Total On Ice) by nearly two minutes per game. He also leads Detroit in FO% (Face Off Win %) with a blistering 55.3% as well as time on the penalty kill among forwards. With Pavel Datsyuk struggling through most of the playoffs and missing the last few games, the onus has fallen on Zets to deliver and he certainly has. In my opinion, Zets has been the most outstanding player on the Red Wings throughout the playoffs and deserves a second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy.

3). Nicklas Lidstrom

Nick is the darkhorse candidate at this point. His numbers are every bit as good as they were when he took home the Conn Smythe in 2002 except he missed two games which could end up costing him. Still, his performance has been good enough to garner consideration and a big finish could put him in position to snatch the trophy from Osgood and Zetterberg. Nick leads the Wings in TOI per game, as well as per game minutes on both the penalty kill and power play. He is tied for fifth on the team in points and tied for third in assists. He has played mistake-free hockey and has shutdown some of the best lines in the NHL. In my opinion, Lidstrom should be second in line for the Conn Smythe just behind Zets and just ahead of Osgood.

4). Johan Franzen

For the second consecutive year, Franzen jumped out as an early Conn Smythe favorite posting eight goals through Detroit’s first 10 playoff games. He has since cooled off going for just three in his last eight games. Still, Franzen leads the team in goals, points and shooting %. His production has cushioned the impact of both Datsyuk and Marian Hossa’s struggles. Franzen has been an important piece to Detroit’s march through the playoffs but his game is just not as well-rounded as Zetterberg’s.

5). (Tie) Dan Cleary/Valtteri Filppula

I would not have a problem if someone wanted to put Clearly and/or Filppula ahead of Franzen. Cleary’s forechecking has been instrumental in driving Detroit’s offense and puck-possession game. He has also been a crucial part of Detroit’s penalty kill spending more time on that unit than any Detroit forward not named Zetterberg. He’s second on the team in hits and leads the team in +/- with a whopping +18. That’s +6 more than the next closest player. He’s third on the team in goals, fourth in points, and has notched two game-winning goals. Cleary doesn’t have a realistic shot of winning the Conn Smythe but he has been one of Detroit’s five best players in the playoffs.

Filppula has had an outstanding postseason. He leads the Wings in assists while being one of Detroit’s penalty kill stalwarts. He is also third on the team in points and +/-. Most importantly, the vast majority of his production has come at even strength. Detroit’s third line—led by Filppula—has been a juggernaut in the playoffs giving Detroit three legitimate scoring lines.

In the end, if it’s a Wing it’ll be Ozzie or Zets. If it’s Osgood, then the Hall of Fame talk can stop because he’ll be in. If it’s Zets, he’d become only the sixth player in NHL history to win two Conn Smythe Trophies. That list would go; Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Patrick Roy, Bernie Parent, and Henrik Zetterberg. Zets would also become only the second player in NHL history to win it back-to-back. That list would go; Mario Lemieux and Henrik Zetterberg. Whether it’s Ozzie or Zets, someone would see their company and legacy increase dramatically.

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