Thursday, March 31, 2011

Live Chatting

I'll be live chatting for most of the day today for So Much Sports, covering Opening Day, so feel free to stop on in and talk some baseball and likely many other things.

"Small Ball"


Growing up, I was convinced small ball was an important part of baseball at every level. When I played, I made sure I could do all the things associated with "small ball" because everyone associated with baseball had always told me that small ball was a huge part of the game and a team that could do "all the little things" could beat a much better team.

As I get older, I find this sentiment idiotic. This is not to criticize any of my former coaches, teammates, or even kids I've coached. I don't blame them one bit, because "small ball" works better the younger the players are. For example, in an in-house city league full of 7-year-olds, bunting and stealing are likely to be against the rules. That's because there's going to be a plethora of kids who have no idea how to play baseball and it's simply much easier to just make the game simple at the age level. Also, these people simply didn't know any better; if the majority of 'baseball people' think something is true, chances are casual fans are just going to agree.

Once they do allow bunting and stealing and all the other important parts of small ball, though, small ball gets tougher and tougher as you get older because more advanced players can routinely make difficult plays look easy.

The Twins open up the season in Toronto tomorrow (Friday), and I couldn't be more excited. However, the Twins decided this off-season to build a more "small ball" lineup around their home-run threats. Speed, bunting, bat control, etc. were all cited by the team's front-office and manager this off-season when discussing potential moves. The team traded JJ Hardy because Ron Gardenhire wanted more speed in the lineup; which would be fine, except stolen bases are among the most overrated statistics in all of sports. And Alexi Casilla sucks, but I've been over that enough.

I suspect we will see a lot more bunting this season than last season, and most fans think that's a good thing. Unfortunately, it's not. I recently purchased The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom Tango and others. I wouldn't have found it without the help of Wet Socks blogger Derek Wetmore (who also writes for other places, so check it out) and I appreciate it.

Anyways, "The Book" is fantastic. Run Expectancy is my favorite statistic in the book. Basically, it's the chances a team has to score in specific situations, based on how other teams have fared in the same situations. On average, when a team starts an inning, they will score about .555 runs before the inning ends. Obviously teams can't score half runs, but basically a team scores a little more often than once every two innings. A single to lead-off the inning moves it up to about 0.95 runs before the inning ends. Every situation will change the chances a team has to score, and for each new situation there is a new percentage chance that the team will score.

You may be thinking that these statistics are flawed, though, because obviously every situation is different. You may want to bunt Nick Punto with a runner on first and no outs, while you would never ask Joe Mauer to do that. When teams need just one run late in the game, they always seem to bunt a runner over as long as the guy at the plate isn't a middle-of-the-order type bat. However, this is statistically the wrong decision. Every single season for more than 100 seasons has provided the data necessary, and the fact is more runs have scored with no outs and a runner on first than one out and a runner on second. When you bunt, you are actually LOWERING your odds to score. The only exception is bunting a pitcher, because chances are they are such poor hitters that they are likely going to strike out or hit into a double play.

Since 1969, your chances for scoring one run are also statistically higher with no outs and a runner on first than they are with one out and a runner on second. That's just for one run, which is important. This means that the data isn't being influenced by high scoring early innings--but rather that even if your team ONLY needs one run, bunting is statistically incorrect.

So, basically, not only did the Twins give away an above-average shortstop on a below-market one-year deal for two minor league relievers, they replaced him with a mediocre bench player because said mediocre bench player can run fast and bunt. That means the Twins are going to try to steal more bases, which is worrisome. A team needs to be successful on 75% of their steal attempts to break even. Alexi Casilla over his major league career is a fantastic 35 for 39, which is about a 90% success rate. If he could maintain that, his speed would be an asset. However, those numbers are scattered over five seasons and the sample sizes each year are small enough to suggest Casilla picked his spots (which is smart) and if he runs more often, he's likely going to get thrown out more. In the minors, Casilla was just 164/219, which is a 75% success rate. Because most major league teams are much better than minor league teams at holding runners, usually a minor leaguers stolen base success rate will drop by 4-8% at a minimum. That would put Casilla below the required success rate to break even, which when combined with his below average offense and likely below average defense, makes you wonder why the team seemed so willing to move JJ Hardy.

It's unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected. In a much stronger division this coming season, the Twins gave away multiple wins by replacing Casilla with Hardy, and if they use small ball as much as I expect them too, they'll probably give away three or four wins that way too. I will obviously be cheering for the Twins, but I'm certainly more down on the team than most. I'd love to be wrong, of course, but the numbers don't usually lie.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mistakes


Sometimes, mistakes can be good. The chocolate chip cookie, for example, was invented by mistake. I think most people would agree that was a good mistake. Mistakes can turn out well, but that doesn't mean it wasn't still originally a mistake. I mention this because yesterday, VCU beat Kansas to go to the Final Four. VCU was an 11-seed that had to actually win a 'play-in' game just to be the 11-seed. Despite VCU's amazing run, there's no arguing that putting VCU into the tournament based on their resume was a mistake.

The committee who selects the tournament teams has said for years that all that matters is the team's resume for that season. Injuries and suspensions are factored in, but only to determine how good or bad a team is without said player. This is why despite BYU's gaudy record and fairly strong resume that they were the three seed in their region behind Florida. BYU had to dismiss their second best player, Brandon Davies, for breaking the BYU Honor Code. The committee determined that without Davies, BYU did not deserve to be ranked ahead of Florida. Injuries, player dismissals and suspensions are a grey area, and can create some confusion on Selection Sunday, but ultimately it's important that the committee factors that in. Of course, the committee does this with team's that are already into the tournament, and the injuries/suspensions/dismissals just effect the seeding of a team. Getting into the tournament is based on a full season of consistency, or at least being less inconsistent than a few other bubble teams.

The fact is putting VCU into a play-in game based on their resume to that point was a mistake. It turned out well, and everyone loves an 11-seed making a run to the final four, so it's been great to watch for the majority of college basketball fans. I'm sure Kansas fans would disagree, but I'm also sure Kansas fans are convinced they would beat VCU 49 times out of 50. Count me among those.

I'm growing tired of seeing experts and fans alike saying "VCU proving they deserved to be in this tournament" or something along those lines. VCU did NOT deserve to be in the tournament, but they do deserve credit for taking advantage of the opportunity presented to them, and they deserve even more credit for making Kansas look like the mid-major yesterday.

But again, the committee's job isn't to put in the 68 most talented teams in the country, or the 68 teams with the best chance to win a national championship. If that was the case, the Minnesota Golden Gophers would have been in the tournament. They were great early in the season when Al Nolen was healthy, and they beat UNC fairly convincingly without DeVoe Joseph. The team was ranked as high as 11 at one point this season. But then Nolen got hurt and the team collapsed down the stretch, not even making the NIT. However, Nolen would have likely returned for the opening round of the tournament, and that would have made the Gophers a much better team than their resume would suggest.

However, the fact was the Gophers didn't do enough over the second half of the season to deserve an NCAA tournament bid. Nobody would ever argue differently. VCU obviously had a better resume than the Gophers, because pretty much everyone did, but the Gophers were just an example. Just because a team could make a run, or just because a team does make a run in the tournament does not change the fact that Alabama, Virginia Tech and others had better resumes than VCU.

Obviously, VCU has exceeded everyone's expectations, and it's made for great entertainment. Whether the committee made a mistake or not, VCU clearly has played exceptionally well. I'm not writing this to belittle VCU's amazing run, but rather to hopefully put a stop to people consistently referring to VCU as a team that "clearly deserved to be here." They did not deserve to be in the tournament. That is a fact. But sometimes even obvious mistakes at the time turn out better than anyone could have hoped. VCU is just the latest example.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Baker Wins Final Rotation Spot



As expected, the Twins have decided on Scott Baker as the #5 starter, which means Kevin Slowey will start the season in the bullpen, if he isn't traded. Picking Baker over Slowey is the right decision, as Baker is actually one of the team's better starting pitchers, but having the pair battle for the final rotation spot is not only misguided but it's downright stupid.

Through three and a half seasons in Minnesota, Slowey has posted a 39-21 record with a 4.41 ERA, to go along with a remarkable 4.5/1 K:BB ratio. Slowey doesn't possess the stuff to consistently be an elite starter and for that reason he will never be a top of the rotation starter, but his impeccable control makes him a solid mid-rotation type starter.

I'm not nearly as high on Brian Duensing as some Twins fans. I will be shocked if Duensing posts an ERA under 4 this season, and I think it's much more likely that he's terrible than elite. I at least understand why, though, he was given a rotation spot. He was great last season when the team finally gave him a chance to start, so naturally the team believes he deserves a shot to prove it's for real. And considering the team seems to hate advanced statistics, chances are the team actually thinks Duensing is for real.

The battle, in my opinion, should have been between Slowey and Blackburn, rather than Slowey and Baker. Liriano, Pavano and Baker are clearly the team's three best starters, and as mentioned above Duensing is going to get an extended look to try to do what he did last season. However, Ron Gardenhire made it clear early on in the spring that Nick Blackburn had a rotation spot. I understand the team gave Blackburn an extension and they want to justify the money paid to him over the next two seasons, but the fact is Kevin Slowey has been considerably more effective than Blackburn.

Blackburn has thrown 100 more innings than Slowey over the last four seasons, has posted a 4.50 ERA to go along with a 32-36 record. Win-loss records are meaningless to me, so I'm not saying Slowey is a better choice because he's managed to post a better record despite a very similar ERA. While every advanced statistic would suggest that Slowey is much more likely to be successful this season than Blackburn, I realize using those stats in this situation is a lost cause because clearly the Twins didn't use them to make their decision.

However, even if the team was just using the 'traditional' stats like ERA, Slowey was much better last season. Blackburn went 10-12 with a 5.42 ERA while Slowey went 13-6 with a 4.45 ERA. But Blackburn did post a 3.57 ERA in 6 September starts. Slowey's was 5.19.

The team seems to believe because Blackburn was more effective at the end of last season he's going to continue that success into the 2011 season. Unfortunately, it's been proven time and again that the way a player ends one season very rarely has any effect on the way he starts the next season. Blackburn is an extreme ground ball pitcher, which is why the losses of JJ Hardy, Orlando Hudson and even Nick Punto are likely going to hurt both Blackburn and Pavano. Alexi Casilla is almost certainly going to be below average defensively at short, and despite Danny Valencia's strong defense last season he still needs to prove that a strong second half last season wasn't a fluke. I have no idea how good Tsuyoshi Nishioka will be defensively at second, but early reports seem to suggest he has great range but a well-below average arm. We'll see.

Of course, Kevin Slowey is an extreme fly ball pitcher, but because the Twins corner outfielders are so terrible defensively, I'm not sure what kind of pitcher would be better off. I think Blackburn will struggle much like he did last season, and while the team could trade Kevin Slowey and still replace Blackburn with Kyle Gibson at mid-season if needed, I don't think that's the right decision.

After an off-season of poor decisions, picking Blackburn over Slowey without even a battle between the two shouldn't be surprising, and it's not. But it is frustrating, and if the team is unable to win a third straight division title, it will be because of the series of poor moves the team made between getting swept out of the playoffs by the Yankees and opening day 2011. I really hope I'm wrong, but 2011 doesn't look like it's going to be the Twins year. The worst year in my lifetime for Minnesota sports fans continues.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

AL Central Preview

My AL Central Preview is up over at So Much Sports, so please take a look. Comments are welcomed--the division is definitely a toss-up this season.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Looking Ahead: The NBA Draft

In a lost season, fans of rebuilding teams always have one glimmer of hope, even if it's months away, in the NBA draft. I don't check the standings to see how close my beloved Timberwolves are to making the playoffs, but rather how many more wins the Cleveland Cavaliers need to give the Wolves the worst record in the league, and therefore the most ping pong balls on lottery night.

The NBA Lottery is also a glimmer of hope. If you fail to make the playoffs, you have a chance to end up with the #1 pick. Sure, the team slotted into #14 has an extremely small chance of jumping to #1, but there's still a chance. When a team is in dire need of a star, fan bases across the country all dream of that star rookie taking their team back into contention and hopefully eventually a world championship.

As Wolves fans, we know this feeling. Every year of the NBA Lottery, we watch, secretly optimistic that this will be the year the team finally secures the #1 pick. But it never happens. When the team finished with the worst record in 1992, that meant they had the best chance at the #1 pick, which was Shaquille O'Neal. And even if someone passed them, they'd likely end up at #2 and get Alonzo Mourning. Instead, two teams jumped the Wolves, and picking third they selected Duke big man Christian Laetnar. It's really not fun to be a Timberwolves fan.

However, just because Wolves fans have dealt with numerous draft-day debacles and lottery failures doesn't mean we don't look to the draft with the same optimism every year. This year is no different. Here's a look at some of the players the Wolves should target.

Currently, the Wolves have the league's second worst record, sitting at 15-47. There are several teams the Wolves could still catch, though, if they start to play better basketball. The Cavaliers currently have the league's worst record with just 11 wins, so it seems unlikely that they'll win enough games to surpass the Wolves in the standings.

New Jersey is likely going to be much better than the Wolves over the last 20+ games thanks to the arrival of Deron Williams, but Toronto, Washington and Sacramento are all bad enough to possibly finish with a worse record than the Wolves. So, even if we are projecting an absolute worst case scenario, the Wolves would finish with the league's fifth worst record. Then, continuing with the "worst case scenario" the Wolves watch three teams that finished with better records land the top 3 picks, moving the team back to #8. 

Even in this scenario, the Wolves retain their first round pick, because it is protected inside the top 10. If somehow the Wolves had finished outside of the top 10, the Clippers would have received the pick. Instead, the Wolves 2012 first rounder is now going to the Clippers, with no protections, so the team really needs to improve a great deal next year or it's possible the team could give up the #1 overall pick. And Sam Cassell. For Marko Jaric.

With the 8th pick the worst possible scenario for the team in my opinion, I'm going to look at who I would have as my top 8 players in the draft for the Wolves. If two players are very similar talent-wise, the position they play in regards to the team's needs will be factored in, which is why Jared Sullinger isn't listed here. I think he could be a good player in the right system, but his strengths and weaknesses are much too similar to Kevin Love for the Wolves to even consider drafting him.

Top 8

8. Enes Kanter, C, Kentucky (Ineligible)


I'm not a big fan of Kanter, but that's for no real reason. I've never seen him play, and scouts that have seem to be high on him, but I just can't get excited about an international center I haven't seen play. However, most experts agree he's certainly a top 10 player, and with most teams in need of a true center, it's possible Kanter could sneak into the top 5 with solid workouts in a few months. 

He's reportedly very strong and athletic, so if that's the case he should wow NBA scouts and jump up many draft boards. For now, though, he's a huge question mark and he only makes the top 8 because the draft is fairly weak outside of the top 4 players.

7. Terrence Jones, SF, Kentucky

At 6'8, Jones has good size for a small forward. He's not a great shooter, which could be worrisome at the next level, but he's getting to the line nearly 7 times a game. He's only shooting 66% from the charity stripe, though, so to be an effective slasher at the next level he's going to need to improve his free throw shooting.

He has good athleticism but his shooting woes may make him a tweener at the next level, which is basically what has happened to Michael Beasley. But that's not fair to Beasley, because he was a much more efficient scorer and a much better rebounder while in college. Jones is talented enough to warrant a top 8 pick, but if the team comes out of the draft with a poor man's Mike Beasley I won't be too excited about the upcoming season.

6. Jimmer Fredette, PG, BYU

I've only seen Jimmer play once this season, but I've heard about the hype all season. I don't think he's going to be a star at the next level, but his ability to score should translate to the next level. He's a great shooter, but he also has a knack for creating space and getting an open shot. He may be a 6th man and backup point guard at his absolute best in the NBA, but for a team who is banking on a European point guard who to this point has shown no ability whatsoever to shoot, Fredette would appear to be the perfect change of pace player.

He obviously wouldn't fit well in a backcourt with Rubio, at least theoretically, because neither player is athletic enough to guard an opposing team's 2-guard for an extended stretch. Offensively they complement each other fairly well, as Fredette certainly can play off the ball, but because of his lack of athleticism his ceiling is considerably lower than most top-10 picks.

5. Donatus Motiejunas, PF, Lithuania


The 7 foot Lithuanian was expected to be a top-5 pick last season, but struggles in Europe led Motiejunas to remain there for another year, as he didn't enter his name in the NBA draft last season. He's expected to enter the draft this year, and there's at least an outside shot that a team falls in love with his workouts and takes him as high as number 1.

He's been one of the best players in the Italian league this season, and at just 20-years-old he's one of the youngest players in all of professional basketball. He's reportedly extremely skilled, and his only real weakness over the last few years has been his strength. This season, he appears to have bulked up and become a more physical player, which is why he's performing so well in Italy.

In a best-case scenario, Donatus will be a hybrid of Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. More likely is a player similar to Andrea Bargnini of the Toronto Raptors. A solid player with lots of skills, but his flaws need to be covered up by another player on the team. In this case that would be an elite interior defender, so pairing Kevin Love with Motiejunas could be incredibly painful to watch on defense, although the offense would be a joy.

4. Derrick Williams, SF/PF, Arizona


Williams has emerged as a potential number one overall pick with his play this season as a Sophomore. There's no doubting Williams has been special both offensively and defensively, but there are enough question marks around his game that make me place him as the #4 player.

Basically he's a better version of Kentucky's Terrence Jones, but he's also a year older. He's shooting a ridiculous 63% on 3-pointers this season, but he's only taken 45 3's all season so that number needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It would appear he will never have the range to consistently hit the NBA 3. That's okay, because you can be a successful small forward in the NBA by doing other things well.

Williams does a great job getting to the line, and he's averaging 8 rebounds a game to go along with his 19 points, but comparisons to Terrence Jones and Mike Beasley would appear to be fair. He's a good, not great, athlete that is a solid defender but is probably overrated at the college level because of his knack for the crowd-pleasing block that he'll swat their way. He seems a little small to defend power forwards at the next level consistently, and he may not be athletic enough to be a good wing defender.

The Wolves certainly could do much worse than Williams, but for a team needing to find an elite player, they need to swing for the fences and hope for a player with a higher ceiling.

3. Harrison Barnes, SF, UNC


Harrison Barnes was my dream draft pick a few months ago. He was the most hyped incoming freshman in a long time, and he even was a pre-season All American pick without playing a single collegiate game. The coaches clearly respected Barnes and felt he was going to be an elite player from the day he stepped onto UNC's campus. It's been an up and down season, though, and Barnes is no longer considered the slam dunk number one pick. He easily could emerge on draft night as the top choice, but for now he's simply in the discussion with Williams and the next two players on the list.

Barnes game would fit extremely well with what the Wolves are trying to build, but that's silly to say because the truth is Harrison Barnes would fit extremely well with any team. He does everything great. I don't mean he does everything good (but nothing great, like they said about Brandon Roy), I mean he does everything great. He's a great shooter with range out to 25 feet. He's almost an 80% free throw shooter. He handles the ball very well, he can jump out of the gym, and he's exceptionally unselfish. Pundits tend to mention this as a weakness for Barnes, that he's so unselfish he won't take over the game when it's necessary, but that notion has always been dramatically overstated. The truth is, Barnes unselfishness is almost certainly going to make him one of the NBA's elite all-around players in the next few years.

So with such high praise for the kid, how can I not have him number 1? Especially because he would fill a major need on the wing for the Wolves. For some reason, Barnes hasn't managed to use all of these skills on a consistent basis. He's shooting just 32% on 3's this season, but his shot is so smooth and his mechanics are so great and the shot was so pretty last year that it's clearly a fluke, or at least that's what all the experts will say. I'm not sure what the reasons are for him shooting 32%, or only averaging 5.7 rebounds, or only scoring 13.5 points--but whatever they are, they're worrisome enough to move him down below the next two players.

2. Perry Jones, SF, Baylor


Perry Jones reminds me so much of a young Kevin Garnett it's crazy. This isn't to say I think Jones will be nearly the player KG was, but simply that the potential is very clearly there for him to be that good. We never got to watch KG play in college, because he didn't qualify and then declared for the NBA draft. It obviously was a good thing for the Wolves, because they ended up with a franchise cornerstone, but I think if KG had gone to college we would have seen an inconsistent scorer who flashed absolutely brilliant stretches of basketball.

To me, KG would have been a great college player, of course. But he would have been more along the lines of Jones and Barnes as a freshman, I think, where his clear athletic gifts didn't quite result in the kinds of numbers people would expect. KG averaged 10.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in the NBA in what would have been his freshman year of college. When I watch Jones, I can't help but think he could come close to that kind of production.

Jones is a 6'11 player but his skills are very clearly those of a small forward. That gives him an extreme advantage, as even in the NBA most small forwards are 6'7 or 6'8. Jones handles the ball as well as any non point guard in the country, and there aren't even very many point guards that are considerably better ball handlers.

He's not a great shooter and his range doesn't extend all that deep, as he's just a 20% shooter this year on 3's. However, his athletic ability would suggest he will improve there over time, but it still probably won't be an asset. That's how I would describe KG's 3-point shooting ability during his career as well, so we'll see.

I have no idea if Jones will be anywhere close to the defender KG is. Kevin Garnett is one of the top defenders in NBA history in my opinion, so it seems unlikely Jones will be in the same league there. I don't expect Jones to necessarily be as good as KG was in his prime, but rather the skills he possesses are very similar. Jones would allow the Wolves to try a lineup that saw Kevin Love start at the 5 and Beasley at the 4 for stretches that would probably work extremely well offensively and not be entirely awful defensively.

1. Kyrie Irving, PG, Duke

I expected Irving to fall in around 5th when I started looking at these players. First, the Wolves have been banking their future on Ricky Rubio, who happens to play the same position as Irving, and has been hyped and hyped by some people. Secondly, Irving doesn't strike me as the same kind of athlete the previous #1 overall point guards were. That's of course unfair because almost nobody is the kind of athlete Derrick Rose or John Wall is, and then I watched one of Irving's last games before he hurt his foot and I was reminded of someone else: Chris Paul.

Paul is a great athlete, of course, he's an elite NBA point guard, so compared to most of the population he is a fantastic athlete. But compared to NBA point guards, Paul is slightly above average athletically. He's quick, but not lightning quick. He is an elite ball-handler, though, and he's one of the best decision makers around. He sees the court exceptionally well, and his other gifts allow him to use this skill particularly well. That's how I felt when I watched Irving.

He is averaging 2.8 turnovers per game, which seems somewhat high, but considering he's a freshman playing a ton of minutes it's not a big deal. It looks even less worrisome when compared to Wall's 4 turnovers per game last year for Kentucky. Rose turned the ball over 2.7 times per game his freshman year at Memphis,

Irving is shooting an impressive 45% from 3, and 90% from the free throw line, although he's only played in 8 full games so it's impossible to know if both are sustainable. Irving appears poised to become one of the league's best point guards, and as far as 'natural' point guards are concerned, he should be in the conversation with Chris Paul in the near future. I think he's going to be something really special.

If the Wolves manage to win the lottery, they would have lots of options, but as much as I love Rubio, I would suggest the team drafts Irving and trades Rubio to a team he actually wants to play for, getting hopefully a young, blooming 2-guard somehow.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

AL East Preview

I'll be doing a series of divisional previews over at So Much Sports, and the first one that's been posted is the American League East. Please, go read it. Or just click the link and don't read it, either works. It's much appreciated.