Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Straight Cash, (Or Some Draft Picks) Homie!"

John Elway has to be feeling the pressure. It's been building since training camp, and it's going to get worse with every sack Kyle Orton takes, every pass he fails to complete, every Broncos loss. Those #15 jerseys he sees in the stands every Sunday aren't going to slowly recede into the background, and the fans who wear them aren't going to become any less vocal. If anything, the jerseys and the noise are going to increase on an exponential scale. Because Denver isn't going anywhere this year. It's still a young season, and 1-2 isn't exactly a death sentence in the NFL, but in a division with the Chargers and a suddenly-formidable Raiders team (never thought I'd type that phrase), odds are the Broncos are in for a long, joyless ride. The fans know this. They can see it unfolding already. And because John Elway (and the organization) has made it clear that this ride will be taking place with a certain highly-drafted quarterback buried on the bench and beyond-buried on the depth chart, the jersey sales and the noise from the bleachers are being continually amplified.

"Tebow!!! Tebow!!! Tebow!!!"

John Elway has to be ticked off. He didn't ask for this mess. The polarizing figure who's generating all this fan backlash wasn't his choice. When Denver selected Tim Tebow with the 25th overall pick in the 2010 draft, a lot of eyebrows went up around the league. A few pundits opined that Tebow might "revolutionize the quarterback position" or something similar, but most everybody else was adamant that he wasn't even close to ready to play the position at the NFL level. Quite a few people didn't (and don't) think he'd ever be ready. He hasn't come out and explicitly said it, but there's strong evidence that John Elway probably belongs that last group. The guy has two Super Bowl rings and is a card-carrying member of the elite "best QB's of all time" club. He probably assumes (and who is anyone to gainsay him?) that he knows everything there is to know about playing that position successfully, and Tim Tebow does not fit his conception of that success.

Since the rest of the Denver front office apparently agrees with Elway, Tebow continues to ride the pine, and to play the good soldier in every interview, and every game, even if it means lining up spread wide right. He's not even holding the clipboard; that job belongs to Brady Quinn. (I'm not sure it's possible to subject any NFL quarterback, much less a two-time National Champ/Heisman winner/first-round draft pick to a more ignoble fate than "third on the depth chart behind Brady Effing Quinn.") It's entirely possible that the Denver brass are 100% correct in their assessment of Tim Tebow. The thing is, the fans aren't being allowed to find out. Orton and Quinn are known quantities, and what's known, primarily, is that neither one is going to bring the franchise to the Super Bowl. As long as Tebow remains an unknown, sitting on the bench every Sunday, he's going to be perceived as a potential savior who is being unfairly kept from doing his job by the people in the front office. Whether or not the reality is anywhere close to that doesn't matter to the fans. Until it's proven otherwise to them on the field, Tebow is Clark Kent and Elway has locked him out of the phone booth, unable to don his cape. And so the proliferation of those #15 jerseys and those "Tebow!" chants will continue. John Elway has a first-round albatross on his bench.


Tony Sparano has to be feeling the pressure. His team essentially went shopping for a replacement head coach in plain, cold-blooded sight, this off-season. When they were unable to sufficiently woo anyone they actually wanted, they glossed over the whole mess in the media and slouched back to their front office desks: "Tony, you've still got your job ... but don't get comfy." Now the Dolphins are 0-3 and Sparano's seat is decidedly of the toasty persuasion. In an AFC South that features the Patriots, the Jets, and the suddenly-unstoppable Buffalo Bills (yet another phrase I never thought I'd type), the Dolphins are pretty much a lock for yet another season of Divisional Doormat status. Miami is about as far from Denver as a human being could get and still be in the continental United States, but a few weeks ago, the fans have been chanting about a quarterback there as well. The very same quarterback whose presence under center is causing all the ruckus in the Mile High City.

"We want Orton!!! We want Orton!!!"

Tony Sparano has to be ticked off. He, also, didn't ask for this mess. Miami's preseason window shopping for his replacement essentially killed his credibility and any semblance of locker-room command. Lame duck isn't even the proper term to convey his current impotence. Lame ... emu? Ostrich? Flightless birds seem like apropos metaphors. Then the front office compounded the problem by failing to complete the much-discussed preseason trade for Orton, leaving the team and their fans with Chad Henne calling the signals. Henne is competent. Mostly. And that's about where the superlatives end. Tony Sparano has a mediocre albatross under center.


It's like one of those annoying SAT logic problems. Two teams have quarterback problems. One team has a third-sting QB they don't want and a terrible second-string QB. The other team has a starting QB they don't want but they do want they first team's starting QB. Which QB should be traded?

A. Denver trades Kyle Orton to Miami for whatever they can get and starts Brady Quinn.

B. Miami trades Chad Henne to whoever will take him for whatever they can get and tanks for the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.

C. Denver trades Brady Quinn to whoever will take him for whatever they can get.

D. Denver trades Tim Tebow to Miami for whatever they can get and Miami trades Chad Henne (or backup Matt Moore) for whatever they can get.

The correct answer is D. Think about it. Denver doesn't intend to give Tebow a fair shake unless everybody else gets injured and they don't have any other choice. He's just going to keep sitting on that bench and while he's there, a few things are going to happen. a) Every Kyle Orton incompletion is going to insight more acrimony from the fans.* As the losses pile up, the media is going to get in on the snowballing criticism, and the heretofore mostly-academic "should they be playing Tebow?" debate is going to get some real venom behind it which is eventually going to be divisive in the locker room, the front office, the stands, and everywhere else. And b) Eventually, those "Tebow!!!" chants are going to get loud enough to start legitimately disrupting Orton's concentration and possibly harming his psyche. You can't expect anyone, even a professional NFL quarterback, to consistently trot out there and do his job well while a healthy chunk of his team's erstwhile supporters are declaring, loudly, that they'd rather be placing their faith in someone else. Not only will it mess him up, but I'd bet your teammates start buying into the negativity if it's sustained over a long enough time at a long enough volume. That situation would rattle Tom Brady, much less a journeyman like Orton.

*On the whole, of course, it's a terrible idea to make personnel and tactical decisions based on fan sentiment. But in a case like this, when that corrosive atmosphere is permeating the organization on multiple levels, it may be prudent to listen to act accordingly.

So if the Broncos aren't going to play Tebow, and his presence is only going to cause more and greater problems the longer he stays, why not trade him? And who better than the Miami Dolphins to bookend that transaction? The team that badly wanted Kyle Orton a month ago, that is literally desperate, front office, fans, and everyone in between, to have anyone other than Chad Henne under center.

Here's what this would accomplish if it's done right:

The Broncos get rid of Tebow. Initially, the fans are going to be outraged, but they'll calm down when they realize how much more cohesive Denver can be without him. Everything I just wrote about the fans torpedoing Orton's confidence would become moot after everyone understands that Tebow isn't coming back and they need to get on with the season. You need chemistry and a unity of vision to win in the NFL, especially with an under-talented roster like Denver's, and getting Tebow out of town before the disruption he's creating can escalate is the best way to maintain the status quo. (Note: I in no way meant to imply that any of this is Tebow's doing or his fault. It's the organization who drafted him so high and put these expectations in the minds of his teammates, the fans, and the media, then refused to play him. Denver's front office, and former head coach Josh McDaniels, are the culprits here. Nor am I saying Denver should play Tebow. But his mere presence is proving detrimental to the team, and if they're not going to use him, a change needs to be made.)

Aside from righting the team's mental/emotional ship, Denver can get some assets back from this. Probably not notable current players, mind you. Miami doesn't have anybody on their roster to offer in return that would be a definitive upgrade over what Denver already has except maybe Brandon Marshall who, call me crazy, probably won't go back to Denver. Ever. (Though the Broncos might consider asking for Devon Bess as part of the deal. I think he'd be a nice fit for their system.) Again, we don't know what Tebow's actual NFL worth is. However, the Broncos could probably get a mid- or lower-level draft pick, some added (if not especially inspiring) depth, and/or cash considerations back from the Dolphins in the exchange. That's not exactly a compensation that sets the sky on fire, but it'd be a steal in exchange for exporting the problem at hand. Admit you made a mistake, fix it, and move on. The Broncos weren't going anywhere this year anyway; the prudent course is to keep building around Orton and see what happens.

So what does Miami gain from this transaction? Well, everything I wrote a few paragraphs ago about fans verbally eviscerating Kyle Orton to the point where he just falls apart holds true for Chad Henne as well. Maybe even more so in his case. At this juncture, just seeing a fresh face is going to work wonders. And it's not like things can get worse than, you know, Chad Henne. But more than simply overwriting the negatives, Tebow could be a legitimate boon for Miami even if he doesn't perform terribly well on the field. After all, this is the only football city in America that's become famous for its' home-field disadvantage. (1-11 in their last 12 games at Sun Life Stadium.) Tebow could change all that.

Remember, leading up tho the 2010 draft, there was a fair bit of speculation that Jacksonville would draft Tebow. They needed a QB, and what better solution (at least from a revenue/draw standpoint) than bringing a kid who's already an all-time football legend in Florida back to his hometown? Miami isn't Jacksonville, and the "poignant homecoming" angle would not be strictly applicable, but Tim Tebow back in Florida, anywhere in Florida, is going to produce some bona fide electricity. There must be tons of Gator alumni in Miami who would go absolutely bonkers if Tebow suddenly showed up wearing green and orange. The reputation of that stadium and those fans would turn on a dime. All of a sudden, Miami would be a fun place to play football for the home team. Yes, games must be won on the field, but injecting some verve and hope into a usually-despondent home crowd could be a lot more beneficial than you'd think. Think about it: in the hundreds of interviews you've read/listened to/watched with athletes and coaches, aren't they usually pretty aware of the psychological effect a dead-air negative or enthusiastically raucous crowd can have? It's not the most important thing in the world, but it does matter.

Beyond just changing the culture in Miami, Tebow might bring some tactical assets to the team if Sparano and OC Brian Daboll are gusty and savvy enough to put him to use. Remember, it was 2008 when Sparano took the helm and promptly turned a 1-15 disaster zone into an 11-5 team with its first playoff birth in 7 years. And he did it by applying a healthy dose of unconventional thinking to the offense, dusting off the Wildcat and flummoxing defensive coordinators across the land. Even the Mighty Hoodie got spanked good by Miami that year. Since he's already within a few more losses of losing his job, why not go all out? The first piece I ever wrote in this space dealt with the evolving nature (and possibly evolving usage) of the NFL quarterback. The essential thrust was that, with college game largely producing non-traditional QBs these days, those are the athletes that OCs are going to have to build their concepts around in the future, and the offensive game will probably evolve to fit their skill sets. I thought Michael Vick would be the ultimate test case for this, and that Eagles/Redskins game last season seemed to prove the point. Of course, the concerns about putting a multi-million dollar player in physical jeopardy by running him outside the pocket are always present, and the abuse Vick is taking this year suggests maybe it's not such a good idea after all.

But here's the thing: Tim Tebow is not Michael Vick. Vick may be the most superior athlete in the game, but he's also kind of lithe and willowy and not built to take repeated hits. Tebow, on the other hand, is built like a tank with decent cruising speed and an arm. He's 6'3" and 240 lbs. of power. I think he could take the abuse. Yes, his mechanics are terrible. Yes, he needs a better pocket presence. But seriously, what would Miami have to lose? Heck, aside from his cushy broadcasting gig, Urban Meyer isn't doing a whole lot these days; have him come down for a week and install some of Florida's offensive playbook from the Tebow years, see where it gets you. If things don't work out, Tebow's current contract only has him on the books for $8.4 million total through 2014, so it's not like he could financially sink the franchise. Sparano had his best Dolphins season by thinking outside the (tackle) box. He could save his job by doing the same. (And while he's at it, ditch either Henne or Matt Moore for whatever he can get.)

Of course, it's all hypothetical. Tebow is still on the bench in Denver, Henne is still in Miami, and neither team's future looks, to state things politely, particularly rosy. But if Denver wants to unify its organization and fans, and Miami wants to re-energize its organization and fans, I say Tim Tebow is the key.

The trade deadline is October 18. Think it over, fellas.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Counting (Wild) Cards, No Safe Bets.

The fire alarms went off in earnest about 10 days ago. The veneer went from showing a few cracks to peeling off altogether and revealing a whole lot of instability underneath. Now, with the end of the regular season at hand, the Braves, the Red Sox, and their fans, are facing a kind of potential finality that would have been inconceivable as the calender flipped into September.

I'm not nearly mathematically savvy enough to actually answer this question, but I have to pose it anyway: what are the odds? Because, seriously, I've been thinking about this, and for everything to have transpired exactly the way it has, they have to be staggeringly tiny. How unlikely was it, a month ago, that these two teams would simultaneously douse themselves in gasoline, strike the matches, and engage in some of the most mind-bending self-immolations ever witnessed in sports history? Where would the line have had to be for you to take a Vegas bet on the Sox falling apart? How about the Braves? How about both? You'd have been out of your mind to take that action, right? Granted, neither club was exactly hyper-dominant at the time, though the Sox were only a half-game back of the Yankees when this mess started. They were, however, the (presumably) unassailable Wild Cards. And they just flat-out lost it.

The reasons for these mammoth, mirrored/symmetrical tailspins are obvious. Boston's starters, even their stalwart aces, apparently can't really pitch right now. The Braves' starters (save Tim Hudson) who could actually pitch are either on the DL or over the hill. Boston's bullpen is unpredictably shaky at best and a disaster at worst. The Braves' trio of young bullpen studs have been mercilessly overworked and might very well be out of gas. Boston's bats are making a habit of going cold at the wrong times. The Braves' bats ... wait, the Braves have actual bats? Huh, you could've fooled me.

Since September 5th, the teams have posted a combined record of 13-31. That embarrassing numerical palindrome is all the more awful when you place it in the context of so many articles and radio/TV rants from right around that date. Remember the baseball media's thematic content from that window of time? The majority of it revolved around one of four commentaries:

1. Justin Verlander deserves (or at least merits consideration for) the AL MVP. Insert lots of angry, pedantic shouting here.

2. Justin Verlander does not deserve (or even merit consideration for) the AL MVP. Insert more, angry, pedantic shouting.

3. Discussion of the other potential end-of-season awards, with slightly less angry, pedantic shouting involved.

4. This is horrible. Baseball is boring. Every playoff spot is pretty much a lock. No one has anything to play for. The game could sure use some drama to keep it from becoming completely irrelevant, now football's started and all.

Basically, everyone considered the question of playoff teams so air-tightly resolved that they were not practically, but actually, begging the Baseball Gods for a race to somehow materialize. One, just one, would have been a nice gift to the writers and fans. Two drama-filled, to-the-wire stretch runs? No way it could happen, right? That would be crazy. Because in order to manufacture two climactic races out of impossibly thin air, you'd need not only two apparently steadfast, playoff-bound teams to completely fall apart, but you'd need their foils as well. Two relatively mediocre teams that suddenly start playing inspired baseball. And not just any two teams, either. Some dead-last, way-out club going on a tear in September wasn't going to matter a lick. These teams would need a legitimate chance at catching their collapsing counterparts, and they'd also need schedules that were commensurate with that aim.

Enter the heretofore lackluster Cardinals and Rays.

Everyone (except Braves and Red Sox fans) got their wish. Baseball certainly has been rather more interesting than it was just a few weeks back. During the aforementioned 13-31 cumulative stretch for the Braves and Sox, the Cards and Rays have gone a combined 29-14, nearly the inverse of their formerly superior rivals. Those win-loss totals have brought us to tonight, the last night of regular-season play. And because some ethereal force (or, you know, just random coincidence) was apparently determined that baseball fans get their wish in the most insane way possible, the Cards have been permitted to close out the season with a final six games against the woeful Cubs and the far, far beyond woeful Astros. Tampa Bay got the gift of a final six against the pitiful Blue Jays and a Yankees team that's pretty much resting everyone important in preparation for the playoffs.

So here we sit; Boston and Tampa Bay at 90-71 each, Atlanta and St. Louis at 89-72. Everything hinges on four baseball games. As I said, I have no idea how to calculate the odds of an 8.5-game Wild Card lead evaporating in less than a month. Especially not when it results in identical records with exactly one game left. I definitely can't do that, much less devise a weighted calculation that could have predicted the specific teams involved, their run differentials, and all that. Much, much less an equation that does everything above while simultaneously accounting for a second scenario that is almost exactly identical to the first one in timing and win-loss variables. All I know is that the percentage odds can't possibly be large. And the real kicker is, because of the records and the fact that none of the four teams involved are playing head-to-head tonight, the possibility of two additional one-game playoffs tomorrow is in play, which really is the cherry on the unpredictability sundae.

I don't know the math, I just know that no one saw this coming, because seeing it coming would have been like counting cards in a casino where every blackjack table uses random groups of, say, 387 cards that bear no relation whatsoever to nice, neat, complete decks with four of every card value in one suit each. In other words, damn near impossible, because the odds are laughably against any one scenario, particularly one this convoluted, successfully becoming a reality.

One of the great things about sports is that no outcome is guaranteed, no result 100% predictable. This is truer in baseball than anywhere else, because each pitch represents its own, separate set of probabilities, and there are far more pitches in a baseball game than plays in a football game or possessions in a basketball or hockey game. In a few hours, four first pitches will be thrown. The possibilities from there on out, within the confines of the game, are limitless. However those probabilities are eventually made outcomes, nothing that happens tonight could be more improbable than the events that got us here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"For The Love Of God, Montresor!"


Yesterday I was out for a walk, and my meanderings took me past a local sports bar. Outside the door, on one of those folding, sandwich-board deals restaurants often use to advertise the day's specials, events, etc. On said board was written, proudly in big letters (paraphrasing):


Um ... two questions.

1. Are they being intentionally mean to hoops fans? Is this some kind of sick joke?

2. How in the hell does anyone get made Manager of a sports bar if you have no idea that one such sport is currently locked out and in all likelihood will not commence play until January at the earliest and then, in blithe ignorance, advertise your establishment as a venue in which to enjoy that selfsame, currently-nonexistent, sport?

Sigh. Grumble. Grumbly sigh. Of Doom.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cy Jung: (Hopefully) Changing the Pyschology and Logistics Behind Baseball's Awards

Three weeks can be a lifetime in the stretch drive. Before the Braves and Red Sox started their simultaneous, precipitous spirals and made things interesting (or terrifying, depending on your perspective) again, the only thing baseball folks had to talk about was whether or not Justin Verlander ought to win the AL MVP. And talk they did. A lot. Now that the sporting media's gaze has shifted, like the Eye Of Sauron, to the Wild Card excitement/disaster zone, everyone is debating, pontificating, and making a big ol' fuss over the Sawx disintegration and, you know, occasionally mentioning that Atlanta is also choking. (That's definitely enough Beantown-centricity out of you, ESPN. I'd like to thank Drew Magary for handing you your butts already and saving me the trouble.)

East Coast bias notwithstanding, as a lifelong Braves fan who also has many dear friends in Boston, allow me to speak on behalf of both our fair cities: We miss the Verlander-saturated days of yore. God, do we miss them.

And because life was so much more joyful back then, and thinking about the present state of Wild Card affairs makes me want to cry like a small child who just dropped a brand-new ice cream cone on the sidewalk before licking it even once, I'm going to rant about Justin Verlander and the MVP some more.

The crux of the debate surrounding Verlander's candidacy for the award is essentially this: an awful lot of the people who vote on these things are predisposed somewhere between reluctance and obstinate refusal when it comes to handing a pitcher the MVP. Which is silly. I'm not going to rehash the same tired statistics that have been trotted out to make Verlander's case. Nor will I sit here and discuss the relative merits of his 2011 impact as compared to Jose Bautista, Curtis Granderson, Dustin Pedroia, and the rest of the guys in contention. You know the numbers, and you know what he's meant to the Tigers this year. The semantics of how "valuable" should be defined are interesting to debate, but it's plausible, at the very least, to say that Verlander has been at least as valuable to his team as anyone else has to theirs. And I don't think anybody who has a vote would especially disagree with anything in this paragraph. The problem here is that a little thing called the Cy Young Award also exists.

The pervading ethos seems to be that the Cy Young, which Verlander will almost certainly win in the AL, should be sufficient for a pitcher, and that concurrently winning the MVP is overkill, not to mention depriving some worthy position player of the honor. Apparently, Roger Clemens winning both awards in '86 was some sort of sin against the spirit of the MVP. Or something. Never mind that there is absolutely no hard policy, anywhere, that precludes a pitcher from winning the MVP. In fact, after Pedro Martinez was left entirely off of two voters' ballots in 1999, thus depriving him of the award that year, MLB changed the instructional language to specifically include pitchers for consideration. Which hasn't done much of anything to alter the anti-pitching prejudice of the voters, but still, the point was made. In an ESPN interview on the topic, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins summed up the mindset of position players and voters alike:

" ... the MVP for the pitcher is the Cy Young Award. That's why they came up with it. That's their award. But the MVP -- that's for the most valuable player. And is he one of the most valuable players in the league? Yes -- for 35 games." (courtesy of

It's unclear whether Rollins intended "they" to mean MLB in general, or the pitchers themselves, or the writers who vote, or what. In any case, it's the wrong pronoun. In 1956, following the death of Red Sox pitcher Cy Young the preceding year, then-MLB Commissioner Ford Frick created the award in his honor, to be given to the best pitcher in baseball as voted upon by Baseball Writers Association Of America. So historically, it was not invented as a pitchers-only substitute for the MVP.

Rollins does raise one valid point: Verlander (or any other starting pitcher) only playing 35 games a year yet being considered for a year-long honor decidedly merits a pause, and apparently the BBWAA takes it seriously. (This is pure personal opinion, but that argument falls apart when a pitcher has been as transcendent and critical to team success as Verlander has this season.) Interestingly, in Cy Young voting, it's apparently the paucity of innings, not games, pitched that seems detrimental to candidates. In the past 20 years, only two relievers have won the award; Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and Eric Gagne in 2003. How in the hell has Mo' Rivera never won a Cy Young? Or an MVP, for that matter?

Pardon that digression. At any rate, as I said, "the MVP for the pitcher", as Rollins put it, is not "why they came up with" the Cy Young Award. It was intended as a tribute to a legendary player who had passed away, not to relegate an entire position out of consideration for the MVP by giving out a separate award. You can see why it might feel that way to a position player, though, and Rollins is merely giving voice to that feeling. It's not as if the BBWAA might award him the National League Cal Ripken Jr. this year for being the best NL shortstop in 2011. Pitchers are alone in their special-award-getting status. In that light, the Cy Young does seem to have an unfair cast to it, and everyday players' resentment over pitchers possibly also winning the MVP is understandable. To them, it accentuates the age-old Hatfields/McCoys scenario between the guys on the mound and everyone else on the diamond.

But those sentiments shouldn't be echoed by the writers voting on these awards. Per MLB, they are supposed to consider every relevant player, and doing otherwise, which they clearly are in the case of pitchers, is disingenuous.

So here's a crazy thought: if the Cy Young is being interpreted as a separate, special MVP for pitchers, and that interpretation is largely responsible for elite pitchers being denied proper consideration for the actual MVP, why don't we just change the meaning and/or context of the awards in question?

I know, I know. Baseball people hate and fear change. No game clings more fiercely (and ofttimes irrationally) to its history and traditions, and the mere suggestion of altering something ingrained in baseball's fabric like the Cy Young can earn a body the torches-and-pitchforks treatment. Just bear with me.

There are three ways in which pitcher-for-MVP parity could be achieved.

Door # 1: Vote on Everything. Voters choose the Offensive and Defensive Player(s) Of The Year in football; why can't baseball adopt a similar tack? The BBWAA already votes to award the Cy Young and the Gold Glove (basically subsets of the DPOY). Why not have them vote for the best offensive player as well? That way each category of performance (hitting, pitching, fielding) gets a unique, voted-on award, and the MVP vote can be reserved for the player who most fully and directly contributes overall to his team's success regardless of position. This could work, but if we get the writers voting on everything under the sun, the end-of-season awards are going to become as convoluted and debatable as the BCS system, and it's likely more quirks and biases would emerge in the voters' thinking than would be solved. Moving on ...

Door # 2: By The Numbers. Since the whole MVP/Cy Young problem resides with the BBWAA being crotchety grumblers about their voting in the first place, we could take this thing completely out of their hands and expunge all subjectivity from the awards process. Best batting average gets the Batting Title, best ERA gets the Cy Young, best UZR gets the Gold Glove, and best WAR gets the MVP. Quick, clean, easy ... and wrong. Not only would this be phenomenally soulless and boring, but the metrics crowd is going to pitch a fit about how ERA and batting average are quasi-meaningless stats and can't possibly be the criteria for major awards. Then they're going to want to turn it all into some kind of hyper-complex algorithm and it'll be 3 years before we settle on the efficacy of a "correct" equation. Drat. OK ...

Door # 3: Compromise. It's my belief that the MVP, by necessity, has to be voted on, so in our grand hypothetical awards shakeup, we're leaving its process of determination unaltered. In general, the voters are highly knowledgeable and observant people who try to take into account not only the relevant statistics but also the psychological impact that players can have on their teammates. As hackneyed and overused as these words can be in the wrong hands, "leadership", "guts", "heart", and their ilk pretty much have to be weighted properly if your intent is to accurately assess the "value" of an individual in the context of his team. Those words don't show up in box scores, so we need thoughtful human analysis to account for their importance. So much for the MVP; it's fine as is.

Now, let's address the Cy Young problem. Awarding it seems to bias the BBWAA pretty heavily against pitchers when it comes time for the MVP vote. The question is: does the Cy Young, in fact, need to be voted upon? I say no. Advanced metrics have been refined to the point that a thorough perusal of Baseball Prospectus can pretty much tell you who the dominant pitchers are in a given season. All we need is an equation to determine the most dominant guy from each league, preferably one that gives relievers equal consideration, and we're good to go. I'm no statistician, but surely some clever baseball junkie/MIT grad somewhere can come up with a crazy amalgam of WHIP, ERA+, K/BB, FIP, and whatever else they deem necessary to accurately determine the "best" NL and AL pitchers in a given year. If someone baseball- and math-savvy could get on this, please, I'd be ever so grateful. There would likely be a few stumbling blocks and more than a few misplaced awards early on if we implemented this. The working-out-the-kinks period would undoubtedly yield some flawed results. However, I believe that in the long run, it would result in MVP voters bringing less bias and skepticism to the table regarding pitchers.

Now, here come The Baseball Writers. "But, but ... we VOTE on this award! We've ALWAYS voted on this award!" To you I say the following:

First of all, the "We've always done it this way!" argument is quite possibly the dumbest, least sensible stance to take on anything. It's infuriating. As I noted earlier, baseball loves its traditions, but maintaining tradition at the expense of improvement is flat-out ridiculous.

And second of all: the reason you vote on this award has nothing to do with your being the "best way" to determine its recipient. You vote on this award because when Ford Frick implemented it, he was desperately trying to avoid a repeat of the Chalmers Award disaster, and having you do it instead seemed like a good idea at the time. It does not automatically endow you with the right to select the best pitcher from each league in perpetuity.

An objective, statistically-based Cy Young would, hopefully, disabuse the BBWAA of their MVP anti-pitching bias and force them to fairly evaluate pitchers as MVP candidates. If we render the Cy Young objective and the MVP subjective, that should at least recalibrate things in a positive direction, right? The voters wouldn't think twice about awarding the MVP to a position player who won the Batting Title, so if we can objectify the Cy Young with raw statistical data, it will hopefully be perceived in a similar fashion to that award, and cease to be a perpetual obstacle to the MVP.

Please understand, I'm not saying every 20-game winning pitcher should automatically receive MVP consideration. I think the "only plays every 5 days" mentality is fairly legit. But in a case like Verlander's (or Pedro's in '99) it seems ludicrous to ignore their contributions simply because they're not everyday players. If you have someone who makes you feel completely bulletproof every time they take the mound, whose mentality/invincibility/swagger is consistently off the charts, that absolutely has to be considered in a discussion of the Most Valuable Player. This is particularly relevant in Verlander's case, as he ended 16 separate Tigers losing streaks this season by pitching lights-out for a victory the following game. His very existence prevented several potentially season-ending skids. How is that not "value"?

Extended side note: why is the Batting Title still awarded to the highest batting average holder in each league? As long as we're vigorously reshuffling the Baseball Awards deck, we may as well amend this to be commensurate with modern times, starting with the name. It's inane to have something called "The Batting Title" while its counterparts are dubbed the "Cy Young" and (officially, although nobody calls it this) "The Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award." Also known as the MVP. To level the playing field, let's call it the "Rogers Hornsby Award." I went with Hornsby over everyone else for two reasons: 1. he won the Batting Title six consecutive times, along with two Triple Crowns, and 2. I liked the symmetry of having one award named for an AL player and one for and NL guy. (The only player with more Batting Titles? Ty Cobb, with either 11 or 12 titles and either 9 or 5 consecutive, depending on which sources you believe regarding the 1910 Cobb/Nap Lajoie dispute. From a purely baseball-oriented standpoint, his name would be the best choice, but I don't think this award should be fake-rechristened by a guy who was, by nearly all accounts, a total jerk, do you?)

Anyway, someone can ameliorate this award too, and cook up an equation involving BA, BABIP, OPS+, etc. for "The Hornsby." I'm not nearly math-y enough to synthesize the correct formula out of the numbers, but someone is. The Hornsby/Batting Title could have actual statistical meaning in the future. Let's make this happen.

Extended side note part deux: As for the actual Triple Crowns, let's leave them be. Sure, some of their core stats have been proven to be quasi- irrelevant, but we can afford to let them alone. It's a nod to Venerable Old Baseball Tradition, which we certainly don't want to dismiss completely. The mythology and scarcity of Triple Crown winners is just ... well, cool. We can live with the statistical shortcomings. Also, if you actually win a Triple Crown, you are qualified for all time as "really effing good at baseball." To lead the league in batting average, homers, and RBIs (or) ERA, Wins, and K's simultaneously is insanely difficult. Yeah, yeah, BA, RBI, Wins, and ERA are dependent, to varying degrees, on factors that the player in question does not have direct control over. (Actually, so are homers, if you take Park Effect into account.) I don't care. The rarity of the event justifies its significance. It is very, very hard to garner a Triple Crown Award. So there.

After that extremely protracted diatribe, the rant ceases. I'm not saying Justin Verlander deserves the MVP, but if people aren't considering him because he happens to be a pitcher, that's a problem. You get the idea, and I'll shut up now. Go Braves. And, for my Boston brethren, go Sawx.

At least playoff spots aren't voted on.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Open Letter To Texas A&M From SEC Fandom

*A note to new readers perusing the archives: this post went up before Texas A&M had been officially accepted to the SEC.

Dear Texas A&M,
This really isn't a good idea. We know you think it is, and we think that's cute, but trust us, it's a phenomenally bad plan of action. Don't come to the SEC.

Allow me to exercise Southern Hospitality to the fullest and phrase it this way: your wonderful school has many fine attributes and traditions, but we postulate that y'all might not be real comf'table here, and bless yer little hearts, we'd just hate for y'all to feel ill at ease.

Or, to be less polite: We don't want you. More importantly, you don't want to be here.

We know you think you do. We know some of the power conferences are already unrecognizable from, say, fifteen years ago, and the entire paradigm of NCAA conference alignment may undergo some quasi- to hyper-dramatic shifts towards "super conferences" sometime soon. You don't want to get left without a chair when the music stops. You want to play the kind of teams that command national attention and respect, so that if you manage to go undefeated, you won't be kept out of the BCS Title Game on the "strength of schedule" argument. If Texas and Oklahoma vacate the Big 12 and you fail to get out in time, you're going to be stuck in a TCU-esque purgatory. And yes, it wouldn't hurt you (fiscally) to move to this conference, where we command truly staggering quantities of TV and marketing revenue, of which you would presumably get a share. You want a sort of preemptive contingency plan so that when your conference collapses, you're already in a safe harbor full of prestige and money. Fair enough.

But Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier are not the droids you're looking for. (We'll let you figure out which one is R2-D2.)

Let us break this down for you. Residents of your state are exceedingly fond of the phrase "Don't mess with Texas." It's a mantra, a battle cry, a protective incantation, and (in your minds) a factual declaration. Let us assure you now, if you come to the SEC, Texas, or at least College Station, is going to get messed with. You have no conception of the messing-with that will occur.* We don't mean to unduly disparage your program, but if you have to play a schedule loaded with 'Bama and LSU and SC and Ole' Miss and Auburn every season, you're going to get slaughtered. If you think this attitude is out of line or maybe overdosed with swagger, well, who won the last five National Titles?

*I'm talking primarily about football here, but even if you decide, for some crazy reason, to prioritize your school's athletics around basketball, let us cordially remind you: that would still entail facing a conference schedule with Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee involved. Just saying.

But it's more than just the actual games, A&M. So much more. See, with all the hopscotching being done, there's the side effect of identity/misnomers to deal with. Geographical and numerical monikers for conferences are becoming increasingly erroneous. The Pac-12 only has it right because they had the good sense to change their name when they added teams. Nothing else makes any sense anymore. And really, all the chaos is OK. It's ... charmingly quirky that the Big 10 now has 12 teams and the Big 12 has 10. I suppose it's also an homage to the history of the conferences. Michigan and OSU have always been "Big Ten"; Texas and Oklahoma have always been "Big 12." Can't let a silly thing like basic math dissociate such storied programs from their respectively traditional "Big Whatevers." All the jumping around and mucking up the names and numbers is fine.

Unless you're talking about the SEC.

More than any other conference, we have a deeply vested cultural identity here that transcends scoreboards and recruiting and Heisman winners and draft picks and BCS bids. This is about what it means to be in the South Eastern Conference. We know, we know. We Southerners share many things with the Great State of Texas. Obviously, an obsessive love of college (and high school) football is right near the top of the list. There's also BBQ and Country Music, deep-fried-everything and moonshine, the Blues and guns whose names include hyphens followed by the word "gauge." On the surface, the rest of the country probably views us as culturally very similar, if not exactly the same. (Yes, the preceding paragraph was meant to be semi-satirical. Also kinda true, though.)

However, being a Southerner is more than just the stereotypical trappings. There's a geographical swatch of territory that runs (roughly) from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean to Louisiana's western border, and extends in latitude from the Mason-Dixon Line southwards to right around Ocala, Florida. Within that approximate region lies the SEC, and Sounthern-dom, for lack of a better term. It's a specific and powerful aura that permeates every facet of our cognitive and emotional existence. Trying to define it is a fool's errand. Like a good bourbon, you know it when you see, smell, taste, and experience it. It simply is.

And you don't feel that Southern thing, Texas A&M. You know how we know that? For one thing, by no stretch of any cartographer's imagination would your school be considered as within the Southeastern United States. But more importantly, as Texans, you've told us you don't feel "Southern." Your state is vehemently insistent that it is an entity unto itself. You don't want to be associated with us. You're too good for us, aren't you? "Everything is bigger (and by implication better) in Texas." That's another one of your mottoes, right? Well, one of our favorites goes like this: "American by birth, Southern by the Grace of God." We admire your state pride. It just doesn't jibe with us, because we're Southerners first. Not Georgians or Virginians or Floridians.


Now you're thinking, "but this is about a football conference. We're not invading or trying to impose Texan-y things on you or anything, we just want a respectable place to play."

Well, consider our position to hinge upon a philosophy very similar to the old square/rectangle axiom: being Southern isn't entirely about the SEC, but the SEC is entirely about being Southern. The games and their attendant hoopla are just how we express that through an understandable cultural meme. (While we're kicking your ass, of course.)

So Texas A&M, if you value your Texas-ism, and your not-a-doormat-in-your-own-conference status, rethink this one. Between your Texan ego and our Southern pride, it could only have ended badly between us. We hope you find a great conference, and wish you all the success in the world, so that one of us can beat you in the National Championship game six years from now.

-The SEC Fans.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Brief Reprieve On The Field Of Battle

It's been a tremendously disappointing eight months if you've been following the state of NCAA football. Not actually surprising, mind you, but disappointing. Oregon has a recruiting scandal on its hands. Miami is living an extended encore of everything that made The U infamous the first time we went through this nonsense, only they upped the debauchery quotient in Round 2. A lot. Ohio State is a mess because Jim Tressel found it convenient to ignore several of his players strutting around with ill-gotten folding money and shiny new ink. In an incident that, if true, trumps everything above, LSU starting Jordan Jefferson QB allegedly kicked a United States Marine in the face during a bar fight. Call me crazy, but that's a tad more concerning than kids hawking tiny gold pants for cash and free tats. And of course, hanging over everything, we're still locked in a fairness and efficacy debate over the current BCS system, how it awards championships, and how it perhaps ought to (fiscally) award the athletes who make it profitable.

Overall, not a strong showing for NCAA gridiron-related activities of late.

With all the overarching negatives drifting about, I don't want to attach any undue attributes or superlatives to last nights' Baylor/TCU game. On-field exploits, no matter how spectacular, can't hide or alter the fact that the BCS is a broken system, and the NCAA needs to figure out how to prevent, or at least reduce, the kind of behavior that has some people clamoring for the Death Penalty in regards to The U. Unfortunately, the games, the only things that still function like they ought to in college football, are not magic elixirs for the sport as a whole.

Nonetheless, it was extremely gratifying to sit down last night, crack open a cold one, and forget all the junk for a little while. We had to wait all of a day for our first back-and-forth, shoot-out, upset of the 2011 season. Baylor. TCU. Barn. Burner.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't have much of a conception of Baylor's squad heading into this season. Because, well, they're un-ranked and hadn't notched a victory over a ranked opponent since beating Texas A&M in 2004. As they were facing the TCU Horned Frogs and their 25-game regular-season win streak, I just assumed that they would be steamrolled by the defending Rose Bowl champs.


Baylor QB Robert Griffin III, or "RG3" as the hip kids are calling him these days, ripped through TCU's secondary for 359 yards and 5 TDs on a 21-of-27 performance. The Frogs' secondary simply couldn't keep up with Bears receiver Kendall Wright, and they didn't have any first-half luck containing RB Terrance Ganaway either, as he racked up 100+ rushing yards before the half.

After the 45-10 drubbing the Bears received at TCU's hands last season, Baylor coach Art Briles wasted no time putting his foot on the gas. Dialing up a trick play just 2 minutes into the game, Griffin flipped it to Wright, who played QB in high school, and watched him complete a 40-yard touchdown strike to Terrance Williams. Both teams were firing on all offensive cylinders through the opening quarter, but Baylor clamped down on defense and took a commanding 47-23 lead on four straight TDs that bookended halftime.

As the clock began to run on the fourth quarter, it looked like a certifiable rout, but TCU was not about to go gentle into the humid, 100-degree Waco, TX night. Starting the final period on the Baylor 1-yard line, Frogs QB Casey Pachall went to work. He completed a touchdown pass to Logan Brock and ran in the 2-point conversion. 3 minutes later, he laced another scoring throw to Josh Boyce, then hit Boyce again for another two points. He rifled a 19-yard TD to David Porter. 22 unanswered points in just 7:12 of game clock, and TCU was back within two points.

They almost tied it up. The 2-point attempt found Boyce more-or-less wide open near the sideline of the end zone. Pachall's pass wasn't quite on the numbers, but it was a pretty catchable ball. Unfortunately for the Horned Frogs, "catchable" does not always mean "caught." As the pigskin hit the turf, you got the sense Baylor's offense, thus far stymied the final quarter, got a boost from that dropped ball. They were starting the next drive on their own 25, with a chance to salt the game away by eating the clock and putting some points on the board. Anyway, I got the sense they were ready to do that. Turns out that sense was either wrong, or the emotional boost of that missed 2 was too much adrenalin for Griffin, who promptly coughed up a fumble on the Bears' first play from scrimmage.

On the ensuing possession, Pachall drove TCU down to within field goal range, and Ross Evans booted through a 27 yarder to give the Frogs a one-point lead. The furious rally they'd staged to regain control of the game seemed indicative of the fact that this team had been in the National Championship discussion for the past two seasons, and after an inglorious start, they were hellbent on reminding everyone of that fact.

Problem: Baylor still had 4:27 of clock to work with. TCU's defense put the shackles on the Bears and forced them into a game-altering 3rd and 10 on their own 20 when Coach Briles decided that some more trickery was in order. Griffin took the snap, once again flipped it to Wright, and took off down-field on a shallow crossing route. He made the catch, got the 1st down, and promptly received a bell ringing to rival the biggest, baddest cathedral tower in the world. Rattled but unwilling to show it, RG3 led his squad down the field, finally pausing to let Terrance Ganaway to eke out a few last yards on the ground to set up a field goal attempt. Kicker Aaron Jones drilled a 37 yard shot through the uprights, and all of a sudden that missed TCU 2-point conversion moments earlier took on sinister implications. Baylor 50, TCU 48.

But Casey Pachall and the Frogs weren't done quite yet. Pachall rifled a ball down the right sideline to Michale Tucker, who made a spectacular catch over the back of a defender for 30 yards. With 17 seconds on the clock, TCU needed roughly 15 more yards to get within comfortable field goal range and a chance for the win. It was at this critical juncture that Pachall finally made a mistake. The QB (along with numerous other TCU players) had been suffering from leg cramps for much of the night. With trainers working on him every moment he wasn't on the field, it was obvious he wasn't 100% by this point. To be perfectly blunt, he was gassed. But Pachall has a tattoo on his right arm that reads "Sacrifice." By all accounts, he takes that word seriously, especially as it applies to his teammates, and he wasn't about to let a little fatigue and cramping remove him from the contest. Unfortunately, his pass attempt to Antione Hicks simply did not have enough juice on it coming off those weakened legs. The pass did find Hicks ... but it was Baylor's Mike Hicks. He scrambled around to kill time before taking a seat with 0:02 left. One knee later, the Baylor faithful were charging the field, eager to celebrate the school's most significant victory since the aforementioned A&M win in '04.

Wire to wire, this game was an adrenalin rush. Nine lead changes, just shy of 100 total points, and roughly 28 highlight-worthy plays, it had everything a fan could have wanted. (Except, you know, defense.) It was an incredible upset for Baylor, and a hyper-fast ending to TCU's title hopes. As I said up top, no game on the field can really conceal or ameliorate the myriad problems facing the BCS system as it is currently constructed. But this game, on this field, at least allowed me to forget that for a little while.

Now if only we could enjoy epics like last night without wondering who's on the take, and whether Casey Pachall's tattoo was paid for on the level.