The 2017 MLB Awards

Bob Levey/Getty Images

The baseball season is over, but the intrigue is not.

Every year, the Baseball Writers Association of America votes on Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, and Manager of the Year awards. Every voter has a different methods for choosing his or her winners; some voters are more sabermetrically inclined, others are very old-school, and others vote in a more random fashion; if you don’t believe me, the same people vote on Hall of Fame enshrinement and three of them don’t think Ken Griffey, Jr. deserves to be in Cooperstown. Yeah, I don’t know, either.

Anyway, about those methods: I’m trying a new one this year. I’ve gone back and forth over the past few years on the value of sabermetrics, but I’ve recently decided that they are essential to understanding why certain players and teams are successful and why others aren’t. That relates to this discussion because I’ll mainly be using a sabermetric, analytically-inclined system to determine who I would give baseball’s major awards to this year (except for Manager of the Year) instead of picking the winners randomly, which is what I had always done in the past.

I actually rolled out some of the winners near the end of September to great Twitter fanfare; things went so well that the proceedings ended with me commencing quite possibly the largest Easter Egg hunt in my young Twitter existence. Anyway, I’ve even tinkered with my system since then, and I have finally come to what I feel like is a fair and understandable structure for handicapping the awards. And these adjustments have changed some of the victors since that time, even though many players’ statistics did not.

Here’s how this will work: there will be nine metrics used to measure player performance. If the player ranks first in his league in batting average, for example, he gets one point. The player’s rank in each of the categories is added up and divided by the number of statistics used (nine). The player who comes out with the lowest number after that process wins the award. These are the statistics I used for position players and pitchers:

Position Players

Pitchers

For pitchers in the MVP discussion, I only used WAR and WPA for their final results and divided that number by two. And if a position player did not play enough innings at one position (e.g. the Indians’ Jose Ramirez), then DRS was removed from his final total and that individual’s DRS would not be considered. The same was true for the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz, the only full-time designated hitter considered for the American League MVP. Finally, if a closer was included in Cy Young consideration, his rank in all categories except for RA9-WAR and WPA would be among closers. In the two aforementioned figures, he would be ranked along with all other qualified pitchers in his league. The point in doing this was to tilt the playing field ever so slightly toward starting pitchers, as they throw at least 100 innings more than their ninth-inning counterparts, while still leaving the opportunity for a dominant closer to take home the hardware. Basically, this provision would leave the door open for a Zach Britton-esque season to still receive the recognition it deserves.

If this explanation is insufficient, the charts I used to calculate the MVP and Cy Young for both leagues can be found here and here (WARNING: Both links contain spoilers). While I’ve tried to explain this as best I can, I am, like many of you, a visual learner, and seeing the calculations that went into this process may help you better understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

One last thing: I’m going to list several honorable mentions with the award winners. They are listed in the order they finished in my calculations.

So, hopefully, that explanation suffices. Here now are my 2017 MLB Award Winners. If you’re on the internet, please don’t judge me.


National League MVP

Winner: Joey Votto, 1B/Cincinnati Reds

Stats

AVG OBP SLG OPS RE24 wRC+ DRS (1B) WAR WPA
.320  .454  .578  1.032  69.12  165  11  6.6  4.96 

Put simply, Joey Votto is the best hitter in baseball.

He has been for some time, actually, but this year he solidified that label even further.  In 2017, Votto’s statistics were at or near career highs in home runs, runs scored, on-base percentage (.454 is the highest mark in the league in two years), batting average, wins above replacement, slugging percentage, and OPS. There is no other hitter in the game that compares to Votto. The Reds star first baseman finished first in the league in on-base percentage, OPS, RE24, wRC+, and Defensive Runs Saved. And in every other category, Votto finished no lower than sixth, which is where he finished in slugging percentage, behind  Giancarlo Stanton, Charlie Blackmon, Cody Bellinger, Freddie Freeman, and Nolan Arenado.

But there is no hitter as consistently good and diversely talented as Votto. And before you come in with the argument that the MVP has to come from a winning team, remember that the Cincinnati Reds won 68 games with Votto in the lineup every day. No, seriously. Every. Day. Don’t blame the best player on the team for his organization’s incompetence.

And we should really appreciate Votto’s greatness while we still can. The superstar turned 34 last month and history has shown us that most hitters rapidly decline around their 35th birthday. If this was Joey Votto’s last season among baseball’s elite, he’ll go down as one of the greatest hitters of all-time. If you don’t believe me, the proof is in the pudding.

This may seem like a far-fetched analogy, but think of Joey Votto like Slash. You already know that he’s great at his craft, but then you hear that song, and that solo, and come to think of it, you realize that he’s one of the all-time greats. Joey Votto transcends any particular award or single season, and he’s undoubtedly the best player in the National League right now.

Honorable Mentions: Charlie Blackmon, Giancarlo Stanton, Max Scherzer, Nolan Arenado, Justin Turner, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rendon, Kris Bryant

American League MVP

Winner: Mike Trout, CF/Los Angeles Angels

Stats

AVG OBP SLG OPS RE24 wRC+ DRS (CF) WAR WPA
.306  .442  .629  1.071  55.95  181  -6  6.9  5.58 

Let me ask you a question: if you knew someone was clearly the best player in the game for several years running and he just had possibly the best year of his career, why would you deny him his just due?

Mike Trout just posted career highs in OPS, OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS, to say nothing of the fact that he set a career low for strikeout percentage over a full season. And did I mention that he played just 114 games this year after suffering a UCL tear in his thumb at the end of May and cleared the threshold for stat qualification by just four plate appearances?

This was no bother for the best player in the league. While many were distracted by the exploits of Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve this year (don’t get me wrong, they were fantastic), Trout led the American League in RE24 and he led the entire league in Win Probability Added. The best part about this is both of those measures are cumulative statistics that are very dependent on how many plate appearances a hitter gets in a season. Trout, with over 150 fewer plate appearances less than Judge and Altuve, matched or, in many ways, exceeded their value.

A counterargument for Trout’s MVP case would be that the Angels went 19-20 during his midseason absence and, despite his post-All-Star break return, finished the season at 80-82. That may seem fair, but other players actually stepped up when Trout was sidelined, and those pieces did not perform quite as well after the All-Star break. Also, Trout’s only support in the Angels’ lineup, aside from August acquisition Justin Upton, was Andrelton Simmons and the living, breathing, worst player in baseball. Denying Trout the award this year would be like refusing to give the country’s best nurse Doctor of the Year because she didn’t get the chance to save someone’s life.

You have no idea where the Halos would be without him. Just thinking about it frightens me.

Honorable Mentions: Corey Kluber, Jose Altuve, Chris Sale, Aaron Judge, Nelson Cruz, Justin Upton, Jose Ramirez, George Springer

National League Cy Young

Winner: Max Scherzer, SP/Washington Nationals

Stats

ERA WHIP K/9 FIP SIERA RE24 K/BB RA9-WAR WPA
2.51  0.91  12.02  2.90  2.98  41.82  4.87  7.1  4.14 

Unlike the American League (more on them shortly), the National League’s Cy Young race was fairly clear-cut for most of the season.

The award came down to the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, with Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen trying to kick down the door to no avail in the latter stages of the year. Scherzer has the modest advantage here, though, after finishing no lower than third in any of the nine statistics used to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness in this exercise. That consistency catapulted him over Kershaw for the award, as the Dodgers’ lefty was a full point behind Scherzer on average.

In my Utopian baseball universe, this would be Scherzer’s third career Cy Young Award, which would make him just the tenth pitcher to achieve that milestone. The other nine pitchers to accomplish this feat either are, should be, or will be in the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to deny Scherzer the hardware this time around considering that he just had the best year of a remarkable and legendary career.

We are blessed with great pitching in baseball nowadays. We should make sure Max Scherzer doesn’t slip through the cracks, and that starts with giving him the 2017 National League Cy Young Award.

Honorable Mentions: Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Grienke

American League Cy Young

Winner: Corey Kluber, SP/Cleveland Indians

Stats

ERA WHIP K/9 FIP SIERA RE24 K/BB RA9-WAR WPA
2.25  0.87  11.71  2.50  2.68  48.32  7.36  8.5  4.26 

Corey Kluber trailed Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale in this race for most of the season. He began to pull ahead of the Sox ace, however, with a second half in which he gave up three or more earned runs in just three of his fifteen starts.

Kluber and Sale ranked first or second in the American League in every statistical measure used here except WPA, where Sale finished fourth. Kluber gained the slight edge, though, by finishing first in ERA, WHIP, and strikeout-to-walk ratio, as well as RA9-WAR, where he held a 1.2-win advantage over Sale. It is crazy to consider that the first pitcher to finish a season with 300 strikeouts since 2002 would finish a clear second in the Cy Young race, but here we are.

And after one of the best seasons by two different pitchers in the same league, Corey Kluber comes out on top, playoff performance notwithstanding. His staggering second half is enough to get him my vote for AL Cy Young.

Honorable Mentions: Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel, Carlos Carrasco, Luis Severino, Justin Verlander

National League Rookie of the Year

Winner: Cody Bellinger, OF/Los Angeles Dodgers

Cody Bellinger

Stats

AVG OBP SLG OPS RE24 wRC+ DRS (1B) WAR WPA
.267 .352 .581 .933 35.97 138 2 4.0 4.30

I’m not here to reinvent the wheel.

Bellinger broke the National League rookie record for home runs in a season (39) and was clearly the best rookie on the National League side. There was no one else even approaching Bellinger’s value this season, and he clearly had the National League’s best freshman effort, even if some of his broken records are less auspicious than others.

Honorable Mentions: Paul DeJong, Austin Barnes, Rhys Hoskins

American League Rookie of the Year

Winner: Aaron Judge, RF/New York Yankees

Stats

AVG OBP SLG OPS RE24 wRC+ DRS (RF) WAR WPA
.284  .422  .627  1.049  54.83  172  8.2  2.38 

Again, I’m not here to insult your intelligence.

Aaron Judge is a contender for the American League MVP, let alone Rookie of the Year. He broke the league’s rookie home run and walk records, and despite his league-leading 208 strikeouts, there isn’t another rookie in the American League who approaches Judge’s value. This is proven, too: Judge led the league in Wins Above Replacement (8.2) this season.

All rise.

Honorable Mentions: Matt Chapman, Andrew Benintendi, Mitch Haniger

National League Manager of the Year

Winner: Torey Lovullo, Arizona Diamondbacks

In his first season as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Torey Lovullo quite literally engineered a 180° turnaround in the desert.

Last season, the D-Backs were 69-93 and finished just one game ahead of the San Diego Padres, the worst team in the National League. Arizona’s fan base had one of the best players in the game and absolutely nothing else to cheer for. Worst of all, the team traded future All-Star Ender Inciarte and top prospect Dansby Swanson the season before for Shelby Miller; you don’t need me to tell you how that went.

Fast forward a year later, though, and the Diamondbacks were one of the best teams in the league. Despite an abrupt playoff exit at the hands of the Dodgers, Arizona won 93 games and Lovullo’s arrival is no small reason why. While most of the Diamondbacks’ resurgence centered around improved performances from pitchers Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, in addition to the presence of A.J. Pollock in center field and the midseason acquisition of Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez, Lovullo deserves credit for his leadership in guiding the Diamondbacks to their first playoff appearance since 2011.

Honorable Mentions: Craig Counsell, Dave Roberts, Bud Black

American League Manager of the Year

Winner: Paul Molitor, Minnesota Twins

Last year, the Minnesota Twins were baseball’s worst team at 59-103 and did not appear to have any hope of being a contender this season. Enter Paul Molitor.

Molitor has managed the Twins since 2015 and has had the team in contention in two of his three seasons at the helm; this year, though, marked his first playoff appearance. How the Twins got there, however, is what makes the job Molitor did all the more impressive.

At the trade deadline, the Twins found themselves at 50-53 and five games back of the second wild card spot. Thinking that the team’s chances of reaching the playoffs were fading with two months to play, GM Thad Levine shipped closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals and sent Jaime Garcia, after one start and three days with the Twins organization, to the Yankees. Many, including myself, counted Minnesota out of the race.

Instead, the team finished the year 35-24 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2010. To add to that, they gave the Yankees, a team that was later one win away from the World Series, an honest-to-goodness fight in the AL Wild Card game. The emergence of young stars such as Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, and Byron Buxton is a great sign for Minnesota, and hopefully they can keep Molitor on the top step of the dugout for the foreseeable future. It’s worked out well so far.

Honorable Mentions: Joe Girardi, A.J. Hinch, Kevin Cash


How did I do? Let me know in the comments section or debate me on Twitter, but please be ready to back up your arguments.

The Rams Are Unleashing Jared Goff, and Not a Moment Too Soon

Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times

For a guy who doesn’t know how the sun works, Rams quarterback Jared Goff played extremely well in Week 3.

We should probably forgive Goff by this point for his lack of knowledge about as minor a topic as the universe. We should let him off the hook because he doesn’t appear to be nearly as confused by NFL defenses this season.

In this week’s installment of Thursday Night Football, Goff and the Rams defeated the San Francisco 49ers in a game that had all of the makings of a snooze-fest but turned out to be a fantastic contest. The 2016 #1 pick finished 22-28 with 292 yards and three touchdowns. The 41-39 victory was the highest-scoring game in the NFL this season, and if before the season you had quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Jared Goff leading their teams to a combined 80 points in the most exciting game of the NFL season to date, please collect your winnings. You’re probably crazy but you’re definitely right.

Goff, though, is the quarterback I want to talk about here.

Last year, Goff started just seven games for the Rams in their return to Los Angeles. When he was handed the reins to the offense in Week 11 of last season, he struggled mightily. The game before Goff was named the starter, the Rams defeated the Jets by a score of 9-6. It was L.A.’s last victory of the season; Goff’s squad went winless in the final seven games of the year.

And Goff was one of the main reasons for the Rams’ late-2016 failures. Last year’s #1 pick only eclipsed 200 yards twice in the last seven games and the Rams averaged all of 12.1 points per game in that span. Goff finished the year with five touchdowns and seven interceptions; among players with at least seven starts last season, Goff came in 31st in passing yards per game. His passer rating of 63.6 would have put him dead last in all of football, and yes, he would have been behind both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler. Those are two names you never want to be associated with as an NFL quarterback.

Of course, part of the problem was the weapons, or lack thereof, at Goff’s disposal. Last year, the team’s two leading receivers were Kenny Britt and Brian Quick. This year, Britt is playing for the Browns and Quick is playing for the Redskins. Despite their services to the team last year, they simply didn’t get the job done, as neither were able to create the separation that Goff needed to get them the ball. We’ll revisit the wide receiving corps in a little while.

The other issue for Goff and the Rams was, to be quite frank with you, the coaching staff. Head coach Jeff Fisher, who was one of the longest-tenured and most mediocre coaches in NFL history, simply did not provide his franchise quarterback with the right coaching for him to succeed. Last year’s offensive coordinator was Rob Boras, who was in his first year as the team’s permanent offensive coordinator. It showed, as the Rams scored the fewest points (224) in the league a season ago. In fact, the Rams’ offensive futility was almost impressive; their 224 points in sixteen games was the fewest points scored in an NFL season since the 2012 Kansas City Chiefs, who were spearheaded by Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn, put up all of 211. Fisher was fired with three weeks to go in the season; to show how much things have changed, last week, a Twitter user spotted Fisher at his local grocery store. Much more importantly, Fisher was reportedly seen by multiple patrons shopping in the vicinity of aisles seven and nine. I just got off on a tangent and I apologize. Actually, no I don’t.

Anyway, the Rams hired Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay in January; at the time, McVay, an offensive wunderkind who spent three years as Washington’s offensive coordinator, was just twelve days short of his 31st birthday, making him the youngest head coach in NFL history. Under McVay’s tutelage, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins finished in the top seven quarterbacks in passer rating for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The new Rams coach hoped to do the same with Goff, and the front office, for a change, helped the offense’s cause.

Remember the depleted wide receivers group from last year? Los Angeles and general manager Les Snead signed former Bills wide receiver Robert Woods to help the passing game. Woods is a perfectly acceptable second option; he’s never had more than 700 yards in a season but he would help the Rams this year. Until August 11, however, Woods was set to be the team’s number one pass-catcher, a role that likely did not suit him. But on that August day, the Rams traded for Woods’ Buffalo counterpart, Sammy Watkins, to provide Goff a legitimate downfield threat. While this put some pressure on Goff to perform, it also gave him a significantly better supporting cast than he had a season ago.

That newly-potent offense has been on full display in the first three weeks of the season. Goff’s passer rating, which ranked dead last in 2016, is third in the league this season among passers with multiple starts. He’s currently first in the league in yards per attempt, a category he would have also finished at the bottom of had he qualified for the statistic last year. The high-flying Rams are averaging 35.7 points per game in the first three contests of the season. Granted, there are defenses far better than the Colts and the 49ers in the NFL. But this isn’t the 2016 Los Angeles Rams.

And that has a lot to do with the play of Jared Goff. To show you how he’s utilizing his new offensive toys, I give to you this absolute dime from Goff to Watkins in the third quarter of Thursday night’s game:

I don’t remember the last time I was a downfield passing play that was that perfect on both the passing and receiving ends. More to the point, though, the 2016 Rams’ offense has no chance of making that play because it doesn’t have Watkins. That offense also didn’t have as good of an offensive line; this offseason, Los Angeles signed veteran linemen Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, both of whom, ironically, are older than head coach Sean McVay. This offensive line has been more than effective; Goff has been sacked just three times in as many games. Last year, the Rams offensive line conceded 49 sacks, the second-most in football. This is consistent with McVay’s offense, one that emphasizes the quarterback releasing the football quickly after the snap. To support this, McVay’s Washington offense finished in the bottom four in the league in 2015 and 2016 in sacks allowed. That is as much a function of the teams’ offensive lines as it is a function of McVay’s offense.

That offense is now one of the best in football, and, improbably, Jared Goff is its centerpiece. While Todd Gurley has been more effective this year and the Rams’ offensive line has done a far better job protecting its franchise QB, Goff has been the most impressive and surprising part of the team’s success.

That being said, he hasn’t been perfect. The Rams lost their Week 2 game to the Redskins in large part because of this mind-numbing fourth-quarter pick-six from Goff to Redskins linebacker Mason Foster. The Rams also have accomplished defenses such as the Seahawks (twice), Giants, and Texans on their schedule for later in the season. All of those defenses are far better than the Colts and 49ers. But the Rams’ resurgent offensive is strikingly stellar this year; the team has scored 40 points in two of the first three games of the Sean McVay era. The Rams crossed that threshold twice in 77 games under Fisher.

The Los Angeles Rams have gone from being the NFL’s worst offense to one of the league’s best. That has everything to do with the new offense of head coach Sean McVay and second-year quarterback Jared Goff.

The combination of the two has meant offensive success for the Rams. And regardless of whether the sun goes down in the east or the west, know that it will be setting on one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, one who finally has the weapons around him to be successful.

An Update on Major League Baseball’s MVP Races

Getty Images

NOTE: I started college last week and have not gotten the chance to post anything since then. I will try to post when possible in the future, and this post was made possible by a day off from school and work.


There is one month left to play in the Major League Baseball season and both the American League and National League Most Valuable Player races are heating up.

I had a post dedicated to the MLB award winners back in July, and needless to say, a lot has changed since then. I’ll have another such post after the regular season concludes. I’ll be using several advanced metrics (which I’ll explain shortly), and the player’s rank in each individual category will determine my hypothetical vote for each league’s MVP. I’ll be using these eight stats as my barometer for hitters and I’ll throw in another one (Win Probability Added) to gauge pitchers in the MVP race. These are the statistics I’ll be using, with some links that further expound on their meaning:

  • Batting Average
  • On-Base Percentage
  • Slugging Percentage
  • OPS (on-base plus slugging)
  • RE24 (Run Expectancy for the 24 base-out states)
  • wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus)
  • Defensive Runs Saved (DRS)
  • Win Probability Added (WPA)
  • Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

For pitchers, I’ll only consider WPA and WAR for their MVP chances. For hitters, I’ll consider every category but WPA; I’m using eight statistical categories for hitters and I wanted to fit WPA in but I decided against it because it has its flaws. For example, it fluctuates wildly for even the most consistent players from year-to-year and it penalizes players who don’t get the opportunity to come to the plate in big moments. It is useful for pitchers, though, because the pitching leaders in WPA are often aligned with the best pitchers in the league for that particular season.

I will also use a point system for this award based on each player’s average rank in his league in each statistical category. The player with the lowest figure is my current MVP winner. I’ll have more on this in the post I’ll publish after the season. Does all of that make sense? Okay. Let’s dive right in.

National League

  1. Joey Votto, 1B/Cincinnati Reds: 3.0 (WINNER)
  2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B/Arizona Diamondbacks: 3.1
  3. Bryce Harper, RF/Washington Nationals: 4.4
  4. Charlie Blackmon, CF/Colorado Rockies: 4.8
  5. Giancarlo Stanton, RF/Miami Marlins: 6.0
  6. Anthony Rendon, 3B/Washington Nationals: 7.0
  7. Justin Turner, 3B/Los Angeles Dodgers: 8.0
  8. Max Scherzer, P/Washington Nationals: 9.0
  9. Corey Seager, SS/Los Angeles Dodgers: 12.4

Votto comes in first or second in the National League in five of the eight categories used for this award. His earth-shattering brilliance, even while playing for one of the worst teams in baseball, is something to behold. If the season ended today, I would be perfectly fine with either Votto or Goldschmidt winning the award, as both would be ultimately deserving of the hardware. Harper will be dropped from consideration for this award if he does not return from a knee injury in the very near future, an outcome that currently looks like a strong possibility.

Of course, the leader in the clubhouse here is likely Stanton, with his league-leading 52 home runs and 111 RBI, which tie him with the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado for tops in baseball. If you look more closely, though, you can pretty clearly see that Votto and Goldschmidt are the National League’s two best hitters.

Whether or not they are appreciated as such, though, is a very different story.

American League

  1. Chris Sale, P/Boston Red Sox: 1.5
  2. Jose Altuve, 2B/Houston Astros: 1.8
  3. Aaron Judge, RF/New York Yankees: 6.0
  4. Corey Kluber, P/Cleveland Indians: 7.0
  5. George Springer, OF/Houston Astros: 8.0
  6. Justin Upton, LF/Detroit Tigers/Los Angeles Angels: 9.1
  7. Nelson Cruz, DH/Seattle Mariners: 12.6
  8. Jose Ramirez, 3B/Cleveland Indians: 13.4

Just like the National League, this is a two-player race. Unlike the National League, however, there is a starting pitcher involved at the top.

Chris Sale is, according to WAR, baseball’s Most Valuable Player. He is second overall in Win Probability Added, trailing only Cruz. And I don’t even need to mention to you that he is currently on pace for well over 300 strikeouts, which would make him just the 35th player to reach that milestone since 1900. If you think that’s a routine Cy Young Award-caliber season, it’s not. And if you think pitchers shouldn’t win this award because they have their own award and only see the field every fifth day, then good for you. But in more ways than one, Sale has been the most valuable player in baseball this season, and he deserves the award of the same name to show for it.

As I said earlier, I will come back to this discussion, as well as give out the game’s other awards, after the season concludes.

Let me know what I got wrong and right in the comments section.

An Analysis of the Celtics-Cavaliers Trade

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

The NBA has officially lost its mind.

Last month, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving requested a trade out of Cleveland to play outside of LeBron James’ shadow. When he did so, he listed the Spurs, Knicks, Heat, and Timberwolves as his four preferred destinations in a future deal. Rumors had periodically appeared about the Phoenix Suns trying to work out a deal that would have centered around Irving and Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe. But other than those five teams, it didn’t sound like anyone else would be involved in the Irving proceedings.

So naturally, Irving eventually was shipped to none of those aforementioned teams:

Wow. If you think there’s a lot to digest here, you’re right. Let’s start with the trade’s headliners (Thomas and Irving) and then branch out from there.

Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas entered the league at the exact same time; in fact, Irving was the first pick in the 2011 Draft while Thomas was the last. This trade marks the first time in NBA history that the first pick in a draft has been swapped for the last pick in that same draft. Because they have played for the same amount of time, we can conveniently and easily compare their careers to this point.

Possibly the best NBA stat to encapsulate a player’s full value is VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). Since the 2011-12 season, Irving has a slightly higher VORP than Thomas (16.2 to 14.9). Thomas, though, started his career with the Sacramento Kings and was traded to the Celtics at the 2015 trade deadline after a brief layover in Phoenix. Starting with Thomas’ first full season in Boston, though, he has a far higher VORP than Irving (8.2 to 4.4). Thomas, in fact, finished fifth in NBA MVP voting last season and was incredibly valuable to the Celtics in their, at times, seemingly improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Where Thomas is docked by critics, and rightfully so, is for his defense. Among those who played at least 1,500 minutes last season, Thomas was tied for third-to-worst in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), coming in ahead of only Shabazz Muhammad and Nick Young. DBPM measures a player’s contribution to his team in points per 100 possessions, and Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM) does the same thing on the other end of the floor. Part of the problem is that, in case you haven’t heard, Thomas is all of 5’9″ and is the shortest point guard in the league. There are very few matchups, if any, that Thomas can possibly win at the defensive end with his height. What some may not tell you, though, is that Irving, standing at 6’3″, isn’t significantly better at the defensive end. Despite his six-inch height advantage, Irving finished just one point better in DBPM last season, which tied him for fourteenth-worst in the league. Offensively, both players have been pretty much even since coming into the league, with Thomas having a slight advantage in Offensive Box Plus/Minus. If this trade were simply player-for-player, I’d probably call it about even with (maybe) a very slight advantage for the Cavaliers.

The issue for the Celtics, though, is that they didn’t just give up Isaiah Thomas in the trade. Let’s move on from Thomas and Irving and look at the other cool toys the Celtics forked over to get Kyrie.

Crowder is an enticing sixth-year player and the advanced metrics are largely split on how good he actually is. While VORP has him as a slightly above average player, win shares (which is exactly what it sounds like) is very high on him. That statistic rates his value very highly and says that he contributed fourteen wins for the Celtics over the past two seasons, a number slightly better than Irving’s win shares (13.9) over the same period. Another figure that casts Crowder in a very positive light is True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account all of a player’s field goal and free throw attempts. Crowder pulled in the top 20 in TS% (61.3) last season, and both he and Thomas finished in the top 20 and ahead of, wait for it, Kyrie Irving.

While Crowder’s exact value seems to be kind of hard to peg, his presence gives the Cavaliers plenty of lineup opportunities. If the team wishes to go small to try to directly mirror a lineup like the Warriors’, they could start Crowder at small forward, LeBron James at power forward, and then have a choice between Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson as the team’s starting center. The other option for the Cavs is to leave their starting lineup as is, with both Love and Thompson starting, and have Crowder come off the bench to spell James. This choice may be more likely, as James played over 42 minutes per game in last year’s NBA Finals. Either way, the Cavaliers and coach Tyronn Lue have no shortage of options for using their new wing.

And don’t forget that the Celtics also included Croatian big man Ante Zizic in this deal. While Zizic probably isn’t NBA-ready just yet, he is an interesting big man who averaged a double-double per 36 minutes in the Turkish Euroleague last season. When he declared for the 2016 NBA Draft, I compared him to Nikola Vucevic and noted his 25.7 PER in the Adriatic League, a league that features teams from several countries, most notably those comprising the former Yugoslavia. Zizic could be an interesting piece for the Cavs’ future, and even though he struggled at times in the Summer League, he could be a fascinating component of the Cavaliers’ haul for Kyrie Irving. He’s expected to play in the United States this year and will likely spend most of his time in the G-League, formerly known as the NBA’s Developmental League.

Last, but most certainly not least, the Cavaliers received the Celtics’ all-important and unprotected 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets were the worst team in the league a season ago and the Celtics received their first-round pick in the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade, otherwise known as the gift that keeps on giving the whole year round. The Nets are showing very few signs of improvement for next year, and if the team again has the worst record in the league, then the Cavaliers will have the best chance at acquiring the #1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. Assuming owner Dan Gilbert and his son, Nick, can work their almost biennial draft lottery voodoo, the Cavs will have very good odds at reeling in the first pick.

While we’re likely a little ahead of ourselves with this one, if the Cavs have the first pick, they could choose from Missouri’s Michael Porter, Jr., Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, and a host of other intriguing prospects. Even if they don’t have the first selection, they could still get a very good player in the first few picks. This is all assuming that the Nets don’t somehow make a run to the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which seems extremely unlikely with the state of their current roster.

Of course, this trade will lose value after next year if James leaves for greener pastures in free agency next summer; Thomas is also a free agent next year and may look to relocate if James leaves. Still, a superstar, a proven starter, a potentially solid international big man, and a potential #1 pick is just about as well as the Cavaliers could have possibly done.

The Cavs’ front office deserves all of the credit they could possibly get for pulling off this deal. When Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge, many assumed that Cleveland would get less than market value for him because Irving would be desperate to leave and the front office would be desperate to move him. Instead, the Cavs actually got above market value for him and the assets they received in the trade could appreciate over time. It is surprising, though, that Celtics GM Danny Ainge decided to pull the trigger on this move when he could have let the Cavaliers trade Irving elsewhere and take his chances going against a Cavs team likely led by James and Kevin Love. That being said, the Celtics still have a lot of assets in tow and Irving will give them valuable and significant contributions. But hats off to new and, until yesterday, relatively unproven Cavs GM Koby Altman for getting as much as he could for his disgruntled star point guard. And while this move probably isn’t enough to close the gap between Cleveland and the Warriors, it looks like the Cavs may have gotten better with yesterday’s trade.

The Cavaliers were in a situation with Kyrie Irving that could best be described as impossible. And yet, somehow, someway, they came out on top when they decided to deal him.

Was Aaron Judge a One-Half Wonder?

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

28 days ago, I proudly advocated for Yankees rookie Aaron Judge as the American League’s Most Valuable Player. At the time, he looked like the best hitter in baseball by a wide margin, as he tore his way to 30 home runs and, at one point, held the league lead in every Triple Crown category. Since then, though, things have changed a little.

At that point of the season, Judge was a strikeout victim in thirteen straight games. The streak, at the time, was interesting but not necessarily newsworthy; Judge had struck out in just over 30% of his plate appearances and that number was the only serious hurdle to look past when examining his season. He had been utterly dominant in just about every other important offensive category and his high strikeout numbers came with the territory.

But again, things have changed significantly.

Since the All-Star break, one in which Judge won the Home Run Derby, hit the Marlins Park roof, and broke NASA, he is hitting just .169 with seven home runs in 155 plate appearances. And about those strikeouts? He’s now broken the MLB record for consecutive games with a strikeout with a grand total of 37. The previous record was held by the Expos’ Bill Stoneman for his own dubious strikeout streak in 1971. The problem here is that Stoneman was a pitcher.

Remember when I stumped for Judge to win the MVP? Well, even on July 24, his strikeout rate was a serious problem. It’s always been a major characteristic of his that you would have to reconcile before voting for him to win a major award. And, as precedence has demonstrated, his high strikeout total may preclude him from reaching new heights.

To prove that, I’ve created this handy-dandy chart of every MVP winner since 2000 along with their strikeout rates. On this table, there are two pitchers (denoted with asterisks), plenty of players who probably shouldn’t have won the award, and more Human Growth Hormone than I previously thought you could pack into one table. When you read this, keep in mind that Judge’s strikeout rate is 32.1%:

Year League Player K%
2000 NL Jeff Kent 15.4
  AL Jason Giambi 14.5
2001 NL Barry Bonds 14.0
  AL Ichiro 7.2
2002 NL Barry Bonds 7.7
  AL Miguel Tejada 11.7
2003 NL Barry Bonds 10.5
  AL Alex Rodriguez 17.6
2004 NL Barry Bonds 6.6
  AL Vladimir Guerrero 10.9
2005 NL Albert Pujols 9.3
  AL Alex Rodriguez 19.4
2006 NL Ryan Howard 25.7
  AL Justin Morneau 14.1
2007 NL Jimmy Rollins 10.9
  AL Alex Rodriguez 16.9
2008 NL Albert Pujols 8.4
  AL Dustin Pedroia 7.2
2009 NL Albert Pujols 9.1
  AL Joe Mauer 10.4
2010 NL Joey Votto 19.3
  AL Josh Hamilton 16.6
2011 NL Ryan Braun 14.8
  AL Justin Verlander* N/A
2012 NL Buster Posey 15.7
  AL Miguel Cabrera 14.1
2013 NL Andrew McCutchen 15.0
  AL Miguel Cabrera 14.4
2014 NL Clayton Kershaw* N/A
  AL Mike Trout 26.1
2015 NL Bryce Harper 20.0
  AL Josh Donaldson 18.7
2016 NL Kris Bryant 22.0
  AL Mike Trout 20.1

A couple of thoughts:

  1. Say what you want about Barry Bonds, but he won four MVPs after the age of 35. And before you call him a juicer who wouldn’t have been successful without the help of steroids, remember that he averaged 189 walks and 60 strikeouts per year in the four consecutive seasons he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. For his career, he averaged 1.66 walks for every strikeout. My apologies as we get back to the matter at hand.
  2. While there are some aberrations, it’s very hard to win the MVP with a strikeout rate much higher than 20%. And even to get down to Trout’s 2014 strikeout rate, Judge would need to go without striking out in his next 119 plate appearances. So he probably won’t come away with the MVP this year.

To bookend the Most Valuable Player discussion, I would say that my front-runner for the award right now would be Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale, who is currently first in baseball in Wins Above Replacement; in fact, Sale is a full win better than the second-place player (Jose Altuve).

But even if he can’t come away with hardware this year, can Aaron Judge return anywhere close to the form he showed in the first half of the season?

For starters, if Judge sustains his current strikeout rate, he would come in the top fifteen qualified hitters of all time in strikeout percentage. Out of the players ahead of him on that list, none hit higher than .261 (Tim Jordan, Jake Stahl) or had more than 194 career home runs (Russell Branyan). This is a problem that many of us (including me) likely ignored in the first half of the season because, at that time, his strikeout rate was just below 30%, he hit 30 home runs before the All-Star break and he hadn’t yet broken any ignominious, long-standing baseball records. This is also to say nothing of the fact that he looked like baseball’s best rookie hitter since Ichiro.

Here’s something else we ignored: in his 366 plate appearances during the first half of the season, Judge had a wild, and possibly unsustainable, .426 batting average on balls in play (BABIP, for short). This was unsurprisingly tops in the league for the first half of the season, but it becomes slightly suspicious when you consider that a league-average BABIP is .300. Obviously, the best hitters in the league naturally have higher BABIPs because they make better and harder contact, but because Judge is still a rookie, we didn’t know for sure if his hard contact was sustainable.

And, in possibly the least surprising news ever, Judge’s BABIP has dipped to a meager .233 in the second half. His true BABIP talent is likely somewhere in between his first half and second half performances, but it’s far from shocking that he couldn’t sustain the ability to convert nearly 43% of his contact into base hits. That is something no hitter has done for a full season since 1900 and you had to know that Judge wouldn’t be able to sustain that success.

As for what the future holds, it should have everything to do with Judge’s strikeouts. If he can corral his K habit and get his strikeout rate down to somewhere between 20 and 25%, then he has a real chance to be one of the league’s best players.

But if he doesn’t, you can expect more results that more closely mirror his last 35 games than his first 84.

The NFL’s Hard Knocks Problem

David Kohl/USA Today

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently being featured on HBO’s annual Hard Knocks series. The show takes a look at a different team’s training camp exploits each year and has aired intermittently since 2001, when the then-defending-champion Baltimore Ravens starred on the show. The series provides access you can’t find almost anywhere else, from meetings with players and coaches to the day-to-day minutiae of being on and running an NFL team.

Hard Knocks is a good show and almost always an entertaining watch. The high point in the history of the series was undoubtedly in 2010 when the New York Jets, led by head coach Rex Ryan, were on the show. The most legendary scene in that year was this speech from Ryan in which he called out his team’s lack of leadership, said, “I’m not a great leader”, and ended his diatribe with “let’s go get ourselves a g–d—- snack”. The speech is, simply put, one of the funniest things I have ever seen. And that’s not the only hilarious/ridiculous moment the show has spawned; Hard Knocks has given us Ryan Mallett blaming his alarm clock for his lateness, Vince Wilfork’s overalls, Chad Ochocinco, and, possibly most unforgettable of all, Antonio Cromartie floundering to the finish line of barely naming all of his children (at the time). In 2010, he had eight kids and he’s had another five since then. Antonio Cromartie now has thirteen children. More importantly, Antonio Cromartie is just 33 years old.

You would figure that with all this, Hard Knocks is the occasionally serious laugh factory that keeps on giving. Unfortunately, though, that’s not all there is to the show; in fact, it sometimes shows the dark side of football training camp. This was never more evident than in this past week’s episode.

Some background: in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bucs traded their third and fourth-round picks to the Kansas City Chiefs to jump to the 59th pick in the draft and select Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round, making him the earliest-selected kicker in the draft since 2005. The team, clearly not following the fantasy football precept of waiting until the last round to take your kicker, likely based their decision on his college career, one in which he made nearly 90% of his field goal attempts over three seasons. That success, however, didn’t quite translate to the pros.

Last season, Aguayo ranked dead last in the league in field goal percentage as he went just 22-of-31 with no made field goals past 43 yards; he also missed two extra points. To make matters more interesting, Tampa Bay signed former Jets kicker Nick Folk in the offseason to challenge Aguayo after his disastrous 2016 campaign. Folk is a ten-year pro who has made at least 80% of his kicks in each of the last four seasons. Folk is a better kicker than Aguayo and he was clearly brought in to push Aguayo and ultimately steal his job, assuming the latter’s fortunes didn’t change in a hurry. And after Aguayo missed an extra point and a field goal attempt in the team’s first preseason game against the Bengals, the outcome became clear for all parties; Aguayo was going to be released.

And, because of the presence of HBO’s cameras, one of the worst days of his life was about to be watched by millions of Americans.

On Tuesday’s episode of Hard Knocks, Aguayo learned his fate in a heartbreaking moment between player, coach, and general manager. The team’s GM, Jason Licht, explained to Aguayo that he needed to make more of his kicks to be of service to his team. No, really.

The good news for Aguayo is that he was acquired by the Chicago Bears after Tampa Bay cut ties with him. And, to be fair, Aguayo was likely compensated for his being featured on the show; NFL Films, the production arm of Hard Knocks, has paid certain players who appear on the show dating all the way back to 2001. But still, the only people who didn’t watch Aguayo get fired either weren’t interested or didn’t have basic cable.

And even those people may have had the chance to see it because the NFL’s Twitter account proudly trumpeted the video of his release to only, let’s see, 23.9 million Twitter followers.

In fairness to the league, the NFL is not necessarily in the real world and has never pretended to be. After all, this is the same league that suspended Josh Brown for one game after he admitted to abusing his wife but banned Josh Gordon indefinitely for substance abuse violations. That’s not to defend Gordon’s actions, but it’s not like the league operates like any other company would in this type of situation.

But let’s say we were dealing with a real-world enterprise here. Let’s say that a McDonald’s employee was fired for inconsistent performance and cameras caught everything on tape. Let’s then say that in addition to a TV show airing the employee’s ouster, the McDonald’s Twitter account proudly tweets a video showing the same scene as the show. That would be pretty embarrassing for the employee, right? It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it’s not necessarily unlike what happened with Aguayo and many other members of the team who have been cut in the first two episodes of the show.

And yet, scenes like Aguayo’s demise make me want to watch Hard Knocks. Think about it: two men are signed to the active roster and you absolutely know that one of them is not going to make it to the end of camp with his job. The other will win the starting job but is not guaranteed success and will face continued scrutiny from the media and his team. If the Oscars were like that, I’d watch.

Here’s the problem, though: getting fired is a humiliating, degrading experience and having cameras around to capture it and display that to people around the world can’t help, either. Getting traded is a similar ordeal; one of the most memorable moments in the history of Hard Knocks came courtesy of the Miami Dolphins in 2012. Near the end of camp, the team traded cornerback Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts for two draft picks. The seminal moment of the show’s seventh season was general manager Jeff Ireland telling a dazed, confused, and possibly blindsided Davis about what had just transpired. Davis has since turned in five excellent seasons with the Colts, but the scene was completely cringe-worthy and difficult to watch.

This is also a discussion that goes beyond Hard Knocks; Amazon’s original series All or Nothing is a behind-the-scenes look at an NFL team during the regular season. Season 2 of the show was filmed last season with the Los Angeles Rams and it showed Jeff Fisher’s firing on December 12 of last year. Like the Aguayo and Davis clips, watching Fisher explain to his assistants that he’s just been canned is awkward. And, like they did with Aguayo, the NFL’s Twitter account used a grown man losing his job as an opportunity to plug a TV show. Lovely.

Just so we’re on the same page here, I’m not telling you not to watch Hard Knocks or, for that matter, All or Nothing. Frankly, I watch the former because it’s good television and it gives us a look at the inner workings of a team that we would not otherwise receive. I’m not even suggesting that HBO and NFL Films shouldn’t have shown Aguayo getting released; while you know what the outcome is going to be, the tension and drama surrounding the occasion plainly cannot be replicated.

But when you watch the show next week and beyond, think of the players as human beings instead of numbers that will be quickly removed from the Buccaneers’ training camp roster.

Has Anything Actually Changed with Rick Porcello?

Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello is not having nearly the same level of success he did a season ago.

In 2016, Porcello went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA en route to his first career Cy Young Award. The hardware likely should have gone to the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, the Indians’ Corey Kluber, or (my personal choice) the Orioles’ Zach Britton, but that’s a different subject for a different time. The reason why Porcello won the award was simple: he led the league in wins a season ago and was near the top of the league in most of the major statistical pitching categories. It goes to show you that the win is still very powerful in baseball circles, even when a pitcher getting one is heavily influenced by the run support he gets from his offense (more on that later). But despite the fact that he received an award he probably didn’t deserve, Porcello had an excellent 2016 and would look to build off that for this season.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

This year, the year after he led baseball in wins, Porcello, in an ironic and tragic twist of fate, is leading the league in losses. Even with last night’s victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, he has a 6-14 record with a 4.63 ERA so far in 2017. This is seemingly a far cry from last year’s campaign, and the shift in fortunes has been so dramatic, in fact, that he could become the eighth pitcher in MLB history to lose 20 games in a season after winning 20 the year before. This should go to show you that not all statistics are interesting, useful, or important.

But aside from the obvious depreciation of his production from last year to this one, what has actually changed in Porcello’s performance from 2016 to 2017?

For starters, if you believe in the three true outcomes (walk, strikeout, home run) then Porcello’s numbers provide an interesting look at his recent struggles. For instance, his strikeout rate is the highest it’s been in his entire career (8.25 per nine innings). This is in part because baseball’s hitters are striking out more than they ever have; Porcello’s strikeout rate is also the highest in his career. The troubling thing is that his home run rate per nine innings is also a career high (1.66). He’s allowed at least one home run in a whopping 17 of his 24 starts this season; last year, he allowed at least one home run in 17 of his 33 starts. He’s even already allowed more home runs this season (28) than he did last year (23). And yes, there’s still seven-and-a-half weeks of baseball yet to be played.

As for his walk rate, the change from 2016 to 2017 has been significant, if not necessarily as pronounced. Porcello is walking an average of .49 more batters per nine innings. While that may not seem like a big deal, Porcello is just two walks away from reaching his 2016 total. That’s concerning, as well.

But there’s also another important thing to address in this discussion that has nothing to do with the pitcher: run support.

Last season, Porcello led Major League Baseball in run support per nine innings (7.63). The man who was second in run support last season, the Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ, also won 20 games. If you think these two events are coincidental, you’re fooling yourself. In Porcello’s 33 starts last year, the Boston Red Sox scored 189 runs, or 5.72 per start; no wonder he won 22 games. In the other 139 games the team played in 2016, Boston’s offense averaged 5.34 runs per game. While the Sox had the best offense in baseball a season ago, they were even more fearsome with Porcello on the hill. While those two things have nothing to do with each other, it does help to explain how the owner of a career 4.24 ERA now has both a 22-win season and a Cy Young Award to his name.

Sure enough, Porcello’s run support luck has run dry in 2017 and I’m sure you could’ve seen that coming from miles away. Out of 70 qualified starting pitchers, the Red Sox hurler ranks eighth-to-last in the league in run support, as Boston’s offense has scored all of 3.92 runs per nine innings in each of his starts. In 24 starts this year, the Red Sox have scored a total of 66 runs; that works out to 2.75 per outing. To make matters even weirder than they already are, the Red Sox have scored 5.3 runs per night in the games Porcello hasn’t pitched this season. So on average, Porcello is losing three full runs of support from his offense. And while everyone is shocked over his supposed demise, it turns out that his struggles have at least as much to do with his offense as they do with the man himself.

SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA) is a statistic that attempts to measure how well someone is actually pitching over a period of time. It is measured the same way regular ERA is. And, just like most other statistics, SIERA says that Porcello’s 2016 campaign wasn’t quite Cy Young-worthy and his 2017 season isn’t as bad as some are making it seem. As a matter of fact, his 2016 SIERA was 3.78, a full .63 points higher than his actual 2016 ERA. This year, his SIERA is 4.09, .54 points lower than his real ERA. SIERA says that the difference from last year to this one is .31 runs per nine innings. However, his real ERA has increased by 1.48 runs per nine innings. The difference is staggering, and the truth is that Porcello’s real talent is somewhere in the middle between last year and this one.

Of course, this is to say nothing of the fact that Porcello simply isn’t having as good a year as he did last year. His ERA, his FIP (fielding-independent ERA), home run rate, and walk rate are all up from last year. Significantly, though, his run support is dramatically lower and his advanced metrics show that he isn’t faring that much worse than he did last year.

Porcello’s story also goes to show you just how powerful wins and losses still are in modern baseball. Even though a “win” or a “loss” is handed out largely based on how a pitcher’s offense supports him, we still view a pitcher’s record, for some reason, as a major indicator of his success or failure as a player. If you don’t believe me, 32 of the 34 Cy Young Award winners in this millennium won at least 15 games the year they won the award. The two exceptions were the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez in 2010 (13-12) and the 2003 NL winner, Dodgers closer Eric Gagne. While we can dispel of the notion that a pitcher’s record means something (#KillTheWin), wins and losses still hold a rather shocking amount of power in the baseball world.

Wins and losses are the reason we expected Rick Porcello to do better this season. Wins and losses put him on a faux pedestal as one of the best pitchers in baseball, and we shouldn’t be so flabbergasted that he hasn’t lived up to that billing this season. The Cy Young Award recognition probably didn’t help him out in this regard, either.

Many are searching for the answers for why Rick Porcello has disappointed in 2017. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll find that the high expectations for his performance were even more highly unjustified.

Jay Cutler and the Dolphins Make Sense for Each Other

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

On Sunday, the Miami Dolphins, not long removed from learning that starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill may be done for the year with a knee injury, decided to replace him with former Bears quarterback and recent retiree Jay Cutler. The deal is for one year and $10 million, which allows Miami to get out from under it if Cutler falters. This is good leverage for the Dolphins to have, as they’re dealing with the man who was once benched for none other than Jimmy Clausen. Yes, that really did happen.

Invariably, with Cutler’s signing came the renewed calls for an NFL team to sign former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, as you’ll recall, has not been signed in free agency after spending last season protesting the national anthem in response to his concerns about what he views to be racial inequality and police brutality in the United States. Politics and social issues aside, Kaepernick, who threw for sixteen touchdowns and just four interceptions last season, is objectively one of the 64 best quarterbacks in the league and deserves to be employed. In fact, his supporting cast was so bad last year that his best receiver was once released by the Jets.

With the Dolphins bringing in a walking, talking meme as their starting quarterback, many are using this opportunity to bash the league for not being inclusive of Kaepernick’s social activism. Here is what Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman had to say on the matter:

That brings us to the other, unavoidable part of this story: Colin Kaepernick.

I’ve tried to not make every football conversation about Kaepernick, but damn if the NFL makes that impossible.

And now the Cutler signing, once and for all, exploded any and all myths about why Kaepernick isn’t signed.

The number of excuses made by pro-NFL forces, both in the league and the media, has been extensive and ridiculous.

Freeman is right that teams have seemingly looked for reasons not to sign Kaepernick this offseason; after all, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Brock Osweiler, and Jay Cutler are all currently employed while Kaepernick still isn’t. The anger and discontent around his NFL shunning are both so great that we have now reached the Spike Lee support rally portion of the Kaepernick proceedings.

And while it’s absolutely true that Kaepernick should have a job right now, this is the one situation in which a team bypassing his services looks to have made the right decision. Let me explain.

The head coach of the Dolphins is Adam Gase, who was once the offensive coordinator of the Broncos and Bears. Gase’s one year in Chicago (2015) was spent with Jay Cutler as his starting quarterback. These were the numbers Cutler put up in fifteen games with Gase calling plays for the Bears:

COMP% TD INT YARDS QBR
64.4 21 11 3659 65.9

The 2015 season was the best of Cutler’s career and he threw a career-low eleven interceptions that year. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, consider that before Gase’s arrival in Chicago, Cutler twice led the league in interceptions. In seasons in which he played at least fifteen games before 2015, Cutler averaged nearly eighteen picks per year. Gase undoubtedly led Cutler to the best season of his career and that logic assuredly played into the Dolphins’ decision to sign him.

Let’s assume that Miami will get something similar to the production Cutler gave the Bears two years ago. And let’s assume that the team will lose something along the lines of Tannehill’s average production over his first five NFL seasons. What is an average Ryan Tannehill season, exactly? Well, based on his first five years in the league, it would look something like this:

COMP% TD INT YARDS QBR
62.3 21 13 3691 54.7

If this is to be believed, then the Dolphins may have just gotten better. Of course, there are other factors at play here.

The first of these facets is that Cutler was retired until 48 hours ago. He was slated to be a color commentator for FOX’s NFL coverage this year and was reported to have had reservations about leaving that gig for the Dolphins. While he has insisted that he is in good enough shape to still be an NFL quarterback (even without having the slightest conception of what that means), he still needs to ensure that he is in shape, learn the Dolphins’ playbook, and get to know his teammates and in particular his wide receivers. All of those things could take significant amounts of time, and the Dolphins’ regular season begins in just 33 days.

The second component of this is rather simple: we’re dealing with Jay Cutler, the man who once cursed out a ball boy, refused to talk to his offensive coordinator, and treated NFL officials like children. Another true story: while it has nothing to do with his football exploits, Cutler proposed to his wife, reality star Kristin Cavallari, by sending her a wedding ring through the mailHe literally mailed it in! When you think about it, though, Jay Cutler mailing in something incredibly important makes perfect and complete sense. And the fact that there is proof he did all of these things should give Dolphins fans at least some pause when it comes to his arrival.

And yet, after all of that, I’m still inclined to think that his signing was a good move for both he and the Dolphins. Cutler had the best season of his career with his current head coach calling the plays two years ago, and his return to Adam Gase’s offense should signal something of a return to form provided that he can develop chemistry with his wide receivers.

And as for that pesky Kaepernick question? If this were literally any other team and any other organization, signing Colin Kaepernick would have made far more sense. This, though, is the one time and place where a team made the right decision by signing someone else. While Kaepernick would have helped Miami, he doesn’t have the familiarity that Cutler does with Gase’s offense. That’s not his fault (Kaepernick never played under Gase) but it is the reality of the situation.

One more thing to consider: even if Ryan Tannehill was healthy, the team likely would have been relegated to being the AFC East’s second fiddle behind the gargantuan monolith that is the New England Patriots. The Dolphins’ main goal this year should be getting one of the AFC’s two wild card spots and reaching the playoffs.

The Dolphins suffered a significant blow to their team with Ryan Tannehill’s knee injury. In response, they’ve formed a union with Jay Cutler, an old friend from head coach Adam Gase’s celebrated offensive past.

It’s an arranged marriage that could work out for both sides.

The Most Underrated Player in Baseball

David Kohl/USA Today

Baseball is a uniquely individualistic and yet intrinsically team sport.

Teams must build a complete roster around multiple star-caliber players to win and contend for championships. The pitcher who starts the game is rarely the same one who finishes it. Lineups centered on just one batter often fail because that hitter does not have to be pitched to.

Baseball is, among other things, a team sport. And the performance of one player isn’t necessarily enough to carry a team to success. As a player, though, you can be superhuman even if your team isn’t.

Such is the case with Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto.

Votto, who turns 34 next month, is still somehow the best-kept secret in the sport to many casual observers. Part of the problem is that he plays in Cincinnati for a team that, since his first full season in 2008, has averaged just under 80 wins a year. In his career, Votto has played in all of nine postseason games. Even with this lack of organizational success, though, Votto won the 2010 National League MVP with 37 home runs and a hitting line of .324/.424/.600 (AVG/OBP/SLG). Votto has played at or near that level on a consistent basis since then with the exception of his 2014 season, one in which he was limited to 62 games because of a left quadriceps injury.

Since that year, however, he’s truly been one of the best hitters in baseball. Let’s take a look at the top five hitters in OPS (on-base plus slugging) since the 2015 season started. You’ll probably recognize all of these names:

  1. Mike Trout (1.020)
  2. Joey Votto (.997)
  3. Bryce Harper (.984)
  4. Paul Goldschmidt (.971)
  5. David Ortiz (.967)

Quick side note: 2015 and 2016 were Ortiz’s age-39 and age-40 seasons. He was a raging machine long after he was supposed to be in decline. I digress.

One of the things Votto has been known for in his career is his ability to get on base. Impressively, he’s first in the league over the past two-and-a-half seasons in on-base percentage, but what’s even more impressive is his ability to draw walks without striking out. Since 2015, there are only three hitters in baseball with more walks than strikeouts (Votto, Ben Zobrist, Buster Posey). But in the category of wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), this is how these three hitters stack up:

  1. Joey Votto (163)
  2. Buster Posey (129)
  3. Ben Zobrist (115)

So Votto walks a lot and is also insanely productive to boot. Votto walks so much, in fact, that he leads baseball in total walks since and including the year 2006. That is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that his big-league career didn’t begin in earnest until 2008.

Let’s look at win probability added, a numerical figure given to a player’s ability to impact the game both positively and negatively. Over the same time span, these are the top five players in baseball:

  1. Mike Trout (15.94)
  2. Anthony Rizzo (14.99)
  3. Bryce Harper (13.73)
  4. Clayton Kershaw (13.24)
  5. Joey Votto (13.18)

Wow. You hear about the first four players on that list rather often, and rightfully so. But Votto is right up there with them as one of the very best players in the entire league.

And what makes this story all the more amazing is how bad the Cincinnati Reds have been during this run of Votto’s excellence. Because while Votto has been over 13 wins better than average over the Reds’ past 432 games, the Reds have won under 41% of those contests. If the team holds its current pace for the rest of this season, they’ll win just 66 games. If the team performs as such, the Reds will have averaged 66 wins per season over the past three years. As bad as they’ve been with Votto on their team, it’s horrifying to imagine just how dreadful they would have been had Votto not been on the roster.

Interestingly enough, the Reds have Votto under team control until 2024. The good news about this deal is that to this point, he has been worth every penny and more of his $22.5 million average yearly salary. The bad news is that if he continues playing until the last year of the deal, Votto will end his contract at the age of 41. It’s the type of contract that just about never ends well. While Votto has been insanely productive over the first four years of his contract, what he does over the last six or seven years of his deal will determine its ultimate value. Meanwhile, the Reds front office has married itself to the dreadful contracts of disappointing players such as Homer Bailey (6 years/$105 million) and Devin Mesoraco (4 years/$28 million). For a team that already has the seventh-lowest payroll in baseball, spending foolishly on contracts that don’t match player production could be a backbreaking proposition for a franchise that hasn’t been to the World Series since 1990.

Another part of the problem is that Votto is not getting any younger. While his absurd production has been sustained over the course of his ten-year career, he is about to be a 34-year-old baseball player. Usually, player production, particularly for hitters, falls off a proverbial cliff by the time a player reaches the age of 35. While that hasn’t happened to Votto just yet, the prospect of his decline looms large for the Reds.

Right now, though, he is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s played in every single game for the Reds this season and is on pace to have 120 walks and just 81 strikeouts; those figures would give him a 1.48 walk to strikeout ratio. That would be best BB/K ratio in the majors since Victor Martinez’s 1.67 BB/K rate in 2014 and it would also be the second-best walk-to-strikeout ratio in a single season since 2010.

The sad part about all of this, though, is that Votto plays on a struggling team in the United States’ 34th-largest media market. Cincinnati is the 24th-ranked media market for baseball teams in the U.S. and would be 25th if Toronto was included in the rankings. Therefore, the only ways Votto would get major national attention would be if he reached the playoffs or were traded to a larger market such as Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York.

But neither of those possibilities look like they are going to materialize anytime soon. And until people start to take notice of his excellence, Joey Votto will continue to fly under the radar as one of baseball’s very best players on one of the sport’s very worst teams.

Part II: There You Go Again, NCAA

Leslie Plaza Johnson/Associated Press

Over six weeks ago, I told you the story of Central Florida kicker Donald De La Haye.

The story was about how the NCAA was trying to force him to shut down the profitability of his popular YouTube channel. I wrote that this power struggle between the kicker and the NCAA, some friends of mine who currently do the same thing De La Haye did, and how the organization was wrong to make him choose between creating popular videos and playing football. The story was a way bigger hit than I thought it would be partially because the De La Haye fiasco was, at the time, one of the biggest stories in sports.

Now, the scandal has reached what would appear to be an unceremonious end.

Yesterday, De La Haye revealed via (you guessed it) a YouTube video that he has been ruled ineligible to play for UCF because he refused to stop making money off his videos. Because the NCAA viewed him to be capitalizing on his status as a Division I football player to make a profit, which always has been a huge no-no in college athletics, De La Haye was ruled ineligible and lost his scholarship. NCAA president Mark Emmert will happily tell you that college athletes are not employees; instead, he will tell you that they are students. Inconveniently for him, though, regular students are allowed to make whatever they want through any business whatsoever; that includes, if they so desire, YouTube videos. College athletes cannot do this.

And the collective outrage about this happening? Today, it’s nowhere to be found. On ESPN’s website, De La Haye’s ineligibility did not make their “Top Headlines” banner at the top of the page. Stories that did make the site were Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski’s bumbling comparison of the Yankees to the Warriors and this story, which I can’t even properly explain without sharing part of it:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch and Detroit Lions defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson are being sued over a $9,332 nightclub bill from March.

According to court documents filed in Los Angeles, the two players were guests of Richard James Harrington at the Hyde nightclub in Hollywood. Harrington said that when it came time to pay the tab, both players’ credit cards were declined.

Harrington agreed to pay the bill, under the condition that both players would reimburse him. Harrington said they reimbursed him $4,000 via the Venmo app and cash, but says they still owe $5,332 and are now refusing to pay.

That’s right: they’re being sued for $5,332. The lawsuit came just $332 away from being eligible to be featured on Judge JudyAnd somehow, that’s still more important than this. Currently, the top story on ESPN.com concerns a public dispute between UFC president Dana White and fighter Tyron Woodley. That’s also more significant, apparently.

Of course, ESPN isn’t the only outlet completely ignoring the conclusion to this story. Most sports outlets have recently paid more attention to stories like the MLB trade deadline, the NFL’s CTE crisis, or Lonzo Ball’s father, who is essentially the sports equivalent of a white Ford Bronco traveling down Interstate 405; you really don’t want to watch but you also can’t turn away.

But this is part of why the end of this story is so anticlimactic: you could see it coming from a mile away. On June 18, De La Haye posted a video announcing that he would keep making videos and refuse to demonetize his channel. Once that shoe dropped, you absolutely had to know that the NCAA would not approve of his actions. That doesn’t necessarily make his actions wrong, but with the course of action he took, there was never a chance for him to get out of this with his scholarship and football career still in tact.

That being said, there is something noble about what De La Haye did here. Remember that one of the driving forces behind his videos was to make money to send back to his financially-strapped family, one that moved from Costa Rica to Florida when De La Haye was younger. While De La Haye cited the ability to create and bring happiness to his followers as his main reason for continuing to make videos, the plight of his family likely played a role in that decision as well. While he lost his scholarship, he’ll still have the ability to make money off his channel and, in turn, try to support his family. I don’t see where the issue is there.

And remember all those times Emmert famously said that college athletes are students and not employees? Well, regular students are allowed to make YouTube videos and profit off them. Those students are also allowed to do this without the time constraints of an athlete’s everyday schedule. When Emmert says that athletes are employees and not students, he’s wrong. College athletes are not your regular students because the demands and restrictions placed on them are so irregular that they would never be able to function like a “normal student”.

This, of course, takes us back to the argument of whether or not college athletes should be paid. Many who are against paying college athletes say that those who are in favor of compensating players are not necessarily looking out for the young men and women themselves. This is what Fordham University’s Athletic Director, David Roach, said last year about paying college athletes:

I think it’s ridiculous. All this talk is being driven by the Power Five conferences.  It’s not about the student-athlete not being able to afford the cost of living, it’s about all the money being made and where it is and isn’t going.

(Full disclosure: I will be attending Fordham University in the fall.)

Roach makes an interesting point here, and I’m not just saying that because he’s the athletic director at my college. In Central Florida’s case, though, it’s very easy to dispel of this notion because UCF’s head coach, Scott Frost, is making $1.7 million per year until 2020 and the school is currently receiving $3 million per year as part of the American Athletic Conference’s television contract with ESPN. Funny how that happens. And remember, UCF isn’t in a Power 5 conference. And yet, they’re still making boatloads of money even while the football team scratched and clawed its way to a 6-7 finish last season, one that ended with a 31-13 loss to Arkansas State in something called the AutoNation Cure Bowl.

The matter at hand, though, is that Donald De La Haye was forced to choose between his two passions: creativity and football. His viral videos were a vessel for his imagination as well as a way to repay his family for supporting him throughout his young life. The fact that the NCAA shut down his YouTube business is as hypocritical as it is wrong.

Mark Emmert will tell you that college athletes are students and not employees. His organization’s decision-making, however, would suggest that college athletes aren’t even on the level of the average student.