Friday, July 23, 2010

Expectations




This morning started like every other morning... with my bladder screaming at me to wake up while I tried to sleep for an extra few minutes. Eventually I did indeed listen to my screaming bladder and I woke up. As I looked through my e-mails, I had a random email from someone who has clearly read this blog in the past. The subject was simply 'Please link me to you eating your words about Delmon Young' with the body of the e-mail just a link to his stats. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Despite the tone of the email clearly being 'Admit you're an idiot!' I was happy to get an email from someone who has read this blog enough to know I've been very critical of Delmon Young.

Last October, while trying to breakdown what the Twins should do in the off-season to improve the club, I was fairly critical of Delmon and said the Twins would be wise to keep Gomez over Young. Was I incorrect to say the Twins would have been better off with Gomez than Young? We'll get to that. But it's worth mentioning yet again that the Twins didn't seem to have a choice between Delmon or Gomez... the Brewers clearly wanted a young center fielder from us for Hardy, something Delmon isn't.

So far in 89 games, Young is hitting .316/.349/.511, good for an .860 OPS to go along with 11 long balls and 70 RBI. His K:BB ratio has improved drastically from last season, going from 8:1 last season to just over 2:1 this year. That's great to see, because that was always Young's weakness, and I really do hope he can continue the trend. However, it's hard to sit here and clearly state that Young has turned a corner. While I do believe he has, it's worth noting that this 89 game sample is quite a bit different than his previous 452 games in the big leagues. Many will say he's finally come into his own and learned the game and is excelling now. I hope that's the case and we continue to see this Delmon as long as he's a Twin.

Gomez, after starting out fairly well in the first month and a half, has been terrible since June and his stats show that. He's hitting just .242/.294/.365 in 65 games this year, which is a .659 OPS. His offense has been as inconsistent as it was while he was here, although he has stolen 10 bases in 12 tries. Young's clearly been a far superior offensive player this season, although their difference in positions means Young should always be a superior offensive player.

Of course, offense is only half the equation. My biggest problem with the Twins playing Young over Gomez late last season was because of how much better the defense was when Gomez played instead of Young. Gomez was among the best defensive center fielders in baseball according to UZR in 2008, as he was more than 17 runs better than the average center fielder, 17.3 to be exact. That same year, Young posted a UZR/150 of -18.6 as a left fielder. In a vacuum, Gomez's defense was about 36 runs better over the course of a season. That's not actually how large the gap was though, because Span was a below average center fielder defensively while he was a fantastic defensive corner outfielder. His sample size in '08 was simply too small to use as a basis for his center field defensive abilities, though. UZR/150 had him pegged at -32.7, but he only made 23 plays in center field all year. Now that Span is playing full time in center, it's much easier to estimate what Span's UZR/150 would have been. He's at 3.4 this year, after sporting a UZR/150 of -11.5 last season in a similar number of plays. We'll just say Span's UZR in center full time in '08 would have been around one run better than the average center fielder, while he was 16 runs better as a corner outfielder. That means in '08, when Gardy chose to play Young over Gomez, he was conceding 51 runs over a 150 game season. That said, if Young was 51 runs better than Gomez offensively, it would be a wash and any decision would be correct. Unfortunately in '08 Young wasn't able to separate himself offensively from Gomez, despite Gomez hitting .258/.296/.360. Young hit .290/.336/.405. Young was about ten runs better than Gomez offensively over 150 games, making Gomez far, far more valuable in '08 because of his position, and the drastic defensive improvement playing him in center field led to.

2009 wasn't much different. Young hit .284/.308/.425, very similar numbers to his 2008 season, while Gomez hit just .229/.287/.337. Defensively, playing Young over Gomez cost the team a little over fifty runs, almost exactly the same amount as in 2008. Young was about 20 runs better offensively in '09, but still the offensive improvement wasn't worth enough to give up so many runs defensively. It seemed foolish last off-season to listen to people calling for Gomez's departure while at the same time claiming Young was going to break out. These fans were simply believing the hype that the Twins brass bestowed upon Young when he first arrived and ignoring the facts.

This season, Gomez has actually been below average in center field, costing the Brewers about a run more than the average center fielder. Because his offense has been so bad, Milwaukee may not give Gomez a ton more at bats this year, which would mean even more limited sample sizes in center. However, I feel safe saying if Gomez plays consistently from now until the end of the year, his defense will end up closer to what it was the last two seasons.

Conversely, Young has drastically improved his defense from the last two seasons. After being 40 runs below average over the last two seasons, Young has a UZR/150 of -5.4. That's a 17 run improvement from last season, but he's still over 5 runs below average defensively. However, a -5.4 UZR/150 paired with an .860 OPS is still good, while Gomez's below average UZR coupled with his terrible offensive slash line makes him nothing more than a bench player.

Luckily, Young decided that his 2010 season was his biggest (having a major raise looming undoubtedly played a major part in that) season yet, and he needed to come into camp ready to play. He shed between 20-30 pounds in the off-season, and he looked like a far more athletic, fit player from the first day of spring training. I've been hard on Young and in my opinion rightfully so. Why did he have to wait until 2010 to lose 20 pounds? He couldn't have come into spring training in 2008 looking like he does now? Of course he could have, he just didn't think he needed to.

For the 2010 season, it's very, very clear that Young will be the more valuable player than Gomez. However, despite a taunting email wishing I would eat my words, I'm not ready to sit here and say I was absolutely wrong. Gomez was more valuable in both '08 and '09, while Young is better this season. Young is going to make more than $5MM next year after another arbitration raise, while Gomez will likely make 700k at most. If Young continues to play at this level the rest of this season and next year, he will be well worth the money. However, if he regresses at all to the '07-'09 versions of himself, Young is going to be nothing more than another overpaid corner outfielder for the Twins.

As a Twins fan I really hope that Delmon has turned the corner and won't take any steps back from here on out, but I can't be certain that's what's going on. When Young is a more valuable player than Gomez for more years over their careers, I will gladly admit I was wrong. Until then, let's continue to watch Young with cautious optimism, and remember that 90 games this year, while the most recent, are still a lot less games than his career numbers suggested, so a regression seems possible. Delmon is young enough where a breakout season and major improvement isn't impossible, so that's why I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope this season is a sign of big things to come for the former #1 overall pick. If it is, I will eat my words with a side of crow, please.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Front-runner




I learned several things last night, but most notably I learned that LeBron James is a front-runner. Hindsight being what it is, we all should have always known that LeBron James was a front-runner. A little kid from Akron, Ohio and his favorite teams growing up were the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, and Chicago Bulls? Yeah, the writing was pretty clearly on the wall that LeBron was just a fancy way of saying front-runner. Last night, Front-runner just confirmed our biggest fears as sports fans. They don't care about us. That, of course, was also almost always true, regardless of what happened last night. But last night was the first time we could so clearly see someone toying with multiple cities at once, and eventually ripping out not just the heart of Cavs fans across the country, but millions upon millions of sports fans.

This isn't about LeBron leaving Cleveland for Miami from a basketball standpoint. I understand why LeBron wanted to go to Miami--the goal as an athlete is always to win championships. Some experts argue that should have led him to Chicago, not Miami, but that's flawed logic. We all played pick up games when we were younger, in any sport. You always wanted to be with the next best kid, regardless of who else was on your team. We learn at a young age that two elite players, in any sport, can be the basis for a great team. LeBron James chose to go to Miami to play with two of his good friends that he considers to be among the best players in basketball. I fully understand the decision from a basketball standpoint, although I don't agree with it. One title in Cleveland would have been worth ten in Miami.

What I will never understand is the way LeBron handled it. This was the first high-school phenom in my childhood that actually made it. There were different kids featured every year on Sports Illustrated, and they always seemed to fail. Then LeBron came in and exceeded all the hype--he grew up with the media, and he seemed to learn very quickly how to handle them the right way. That's what made last night so much more shocking. I understand having an hour long special to announce you're going to stay in Cleveland. It's a celebration, to show your loyalty, to give back to the fans that helped you become the mega-star you are today. That would have been understandable. But to have an hour-long special in which you A) Ripped out every Cavs fan heart in less than ten seconds and B) Didn't apologize or thank the Cavs fans for your time there... instead you simply uttered 'I hope they understand.' They won't, and never will. I'm not a Cavs fan by any measure, but I won't ever understand what you did. I will never understand how someone who should be so media savvy by this point, could butcher such a major PR opportunity.

Two positives came from last night though; The Timberwolves got Michael Beasley, former #2 overall pick, for essentially nothing. That was just a footnote, obviously, on the major events of last night. The other positive? Dan Gilbert's fantastic letter to fans shortly after LeBron announced he'd be going to 'South Beach.'

I've heard people say this was a poor decision by Dan Gilbert. The theory seems to be that other stars are going to see this letter, and refuse to play for someone who would degrade their former star like that. That's not terrible logic. However, it seems to be forgotten how rarely star players actually switch teams via free agency. Before this year, Shaq was the last superstar to switch teams via free agency... back in 1994. So, ultimately, the Cavs next star is going to have to be drafted. Players don't have as much power as the casual fan seems to believe.

I loved the letter because it's exactly what I would want to see as a Cavs fan. Gilbert was clearly upset, felt betrayed, and made sure the fans understood that. His words were so concise, so to the point, that the anger was easy to spot. The letter was absolutely correct in almost every way. (The only falsity will probably be that the Cavs will win before James does... but hey, anything can happen.) Last night, LeBron James alienated more fans than he ever imagined he could. He still doesn't understand why people were turned off by his decision. Not to mention Dwyane Wade will, more than likely, always have more championships than LeBron. So much for being better than Jordan, Front-runner.

Monday, July 5, 2010

LeBron and his Legacy



LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. I feel as confident about that as I do saying Lionel Messi is the greatest soccer player in the world* or Albert Pujols is the greatest baseball player in the world. I no longer argue with people who swear Kobe is better, because anyone who looks at the statistics will see just HOW MUCH better LeBron is than Kobe and anyone else in basketball at this point. Of course, some people hate statistics, using their eyes to make judgments. I think people need to have a combination of both to come to reasonable conclusions, but in this case it doesn't matter because even if you just watch a LeBron game, and then a Kobe game, it's clear that Kobe is working very hard to score his points. LeBron makes everything look so easy. Kobe makes shooting look easy, but everything else he does looks difficult. There is nothing wrong with that... Kobe is no longer in the prime of his career and he's still an elite player by any measure.

*I don't know very much about soccer, and simply watching the World Cup hardly makes me an expert on soccer players. However, Messi is pretty clearly the best player in the world, because even the announcers during Argentina's matches refused to call Lionel Messi by his given name, instead consistently saying things like "The Greatest Player in the World with a fantastic pass there." LeBron is in this kind of league.

Everyone knows that sometime in the near future, possibly later today, LeBron James is going to make a decision on where he will spend at least the next five or six years of his basketball career, but more likely the remainder of his career. The Cavs, Bulls, Heat, Knicks and Nets have all made their pitches to try to get LeBron to sign with their team. It's up to LeBron now to decide what he deems best for his career. If he wants to win as many championships as possible, it's either going to be Chicago with Bosh, or Miami with Wade and probably Bosh.

I believe that would be a mistake. I understand that LeBron wants to win more titles than Jordan, but I think many people will consider LeBron a chicken. He couldn't do it in Cleveland, so he ran away to let some other guys carry the load. There's nothing wrong with that if LeBron decides to do it... strictly from a winning standpoint, it makes the most sense. If we were machines, incapable of emotions, LeBron would have already signed in Miami with Bosh and Wade. Unfortunately for Heat/Bulls fans, we're not machines.

LeBron's legacy isn't going to be just how many games or titles he wins. If LeBron decides to stay home, and eventually can bring one or multiple titles to a city that hasn't had a major sports team win a title since 1949, he'd be more than a legend. As a Twins fan living in Minnesota, the day Mauer signed his huge contract, Joe Mauer became more than a man. He is the most beloved Minnesota athlete in my lifetime, by a wide margin, and that won't change at all in the near future.

LeBron is an even bigger star than Mauer. He has the opportunity to be the guy that passed up the 'easy' decision to go play with more stars to stay at home, continue to outwork everyone on the court, and eventually bring a title to tortured Cleveland.

It's this simple: If LeBron stays in Cleveland, he'll instantly be my favorite athlete in sports. If he leaves, he'll be my least favorite. That's probably unfair--but it's how it is. Loyalty is the most important quality in a person in my opinion. If someone's loyal, it's a lot easier to look past some of their flaws because you know they'll always have your back. I've always thought LeBron was a loyal person. He hired his friends to run his business(es?) right when he got his first paycheck and continues to have a business relationship with them today. I was positive LeBron would be in Cleveland for his career.

If I had to guess, I'd still say LeBron stays in Cleveland. As enticing as Chicago or New York or even Miami may be, being a legend in the place he grew up should be more than enough to keep the Greatest Basketball Player in the World at home.