The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s hottest team through the first two months of the season and currently hold a Western Conference-leading 25-5 record. Until last night’s loss to the Lakers, one in which MVP candidate James Harden casually dropped 51 points, the team had won 14 games in a row and had also gone 15-0 with point guard Chris Paul in the starting lineup. Paul, though, left last night’s game with an adductor strain and is currently considered day-to-day.
Now that we enjoyed that little bit of fun, it’s time to return to reality and consider whether or not the Rockets can seriously stack up with the Warriors if the two meet in the playoffs.
Much of Houston’s success to this point in the season has been due to the acquisition of Paul from the Clippers this past summer. While Harden has been one of the league’s best players this season, the Rockets are a different monster with CP3 on the floor. To show you just how good Paul has been in just 16 games this season, I give you this table from the good people at Basketball-Reference that provides point differentials and field goal percentages of the Rockets’ lineup combinations to this point in the season. I have modified the table to remove the most common five-man lineups that feature Harden. The point differential, per 100 possessions, of some of these combinations may shock you:
In reality, though, this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Paul has been a plus/minus god for the better part of ten years and is, for my money, one of the three best point guards in the game today. That makes his injury last night, the second significant one he has suffered this season, all the more concerning. While he isn’t expected to miss much time at the moment, the Rockets cannot possibly win a championship without him. After all, we’ve seen what can happen to the Rockets in the playoffs without him and it wasn’t pretty.
All that being said, this is not at all an affront to James Harden’s abilities. It is, however, a testament to the state of the NBA today that having just one of the best players in the league is not nearly enough to get a team into serious championship contention. The other problem for the Rockets last season was that Harden, without the presence of a true point guard, played the position admirably and nearly won Most Valuable Player honors. The issue was that, by the time the Rockets faced off against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Harden was asked to create his own offense and initiate most of Houston’s, as well. He barely shot over 41% in the series and the Rockets were dispatched despite the Spurs’ loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 5. The Rockets don’t have that problem anymore, and while Harden can put the team on his back for periods when Paul is injured or on the bench, the team hopes that they won’t completely need him to come playoff time.
Since we seem to keep coming back to it, let’s address this next issue head-on. Can the Rockets dethrone the defending champions and beat the Warriors in a playoff series?
For starters, let’s take a slightly closer look at the performance of both teams to this point in the season. The Dubs are currently just a half-game back of Houston for the top spot in the West, and while much of the attention has gone to the Rockets’ start, the Warriors have ripped off 25 wins in their first 31 games with little to no fanfare. And you could argue that Golden State has not yet hit its stride, as superstar point guard Steph Curry will be out until the end of this calendar year with an ankle injury.
Simple Rating System, a statistic that rates teams based on point differential and strength of schedule, has the Warriors and Rockets rated just about identically, with Golden State holding the advantage by one one-hundredth of a point. If you want to be skeptical of this metric, you have my full permission; it currently has the Raptors rated as the top team in the East and made the exact same mistake a season ago. But while it may not be perfect, it does take into account most aspects of a team’s performance and gives a number correspondent to the strength of that performance. And according to SRS, the Rockets’ success has been impressive, but it still isn’t enough to put them past the Warriors as the Western Conference’s best team.
There is also no guarantee that the Rockets will keep up this pace, one that has them winning 83% of their games, for the rest of the season. While the Rockets’ offense shouldn’t be a problem as long as Paul and Harden are healthy (they currently lead the league in offensive rating), their defense could become a concern. A team coached by Mike D’Antoni for a full season has never finished in the top ten of the league in defensive rating; the lockout-shortened 2011-12 New York Knicks, a team D’Antoni resigned from with 24 games to play in the regular season, finished fifth in that category that year. The Rockets currently sit in 7th in the league in defensive rating, and while this may very well be the best team he has ever had in his coaching career, there is also reason to believe that their defensive performance could suffer as the season goes along.
I truly want to believe that the Houston Rockets could dethrone them as the best team in the NBA. I really believe that they are the second-best team in the league right now, and I don’t see that changing, barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, before the season ends.
But I’ll believe in the Rockets as a championship contender when I see the Warriors lose a playoff series. I wouldn’t bet on it.
But let’s go to an imaginary world where Roger Goodell doesn’t exist and everything else is the same, except yours truly is the league’s new commissioner. My confidence in myself is very low on this one, but here are a few things I’d do to fix some of the NFL’s biggest problems.
Ban Thursday Night Football
Believe it or not, there are actually fewer injuries on Thursday night than there are on Sunday or Monday, but the moral of this story is that there are too many injuries in general. However, if injuries are not a good enough excuse for getting rid of Thursday Night Football, then its quality of play certainly is.
Of the 26 teams that have played on TNF this season (this excludes Thanksgiving and the first game of the season), exactly nine of them would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Last year, the league went an astounding 9-for-28 in scheduling playoff teams for Thursday night. If you’re keeping track at home, just one-third of all teams that have played on Thursday Night Football in the past two seasons have made the playoffs. If you want a little more context on that, here you go: while the league picked just 33% of its best teams to play on Thursday nights, Houston Astros star Jose Altuve got a base hit in 34.1% of his at-bats in the last two seasons. Getting hits on the best pitchers in the world shouldn’t be easier than picking good teams to play in prime-time. But keep this in mind: the league often uses Thursday Night Football as a way to get every team on prime-time television at least once; Goodell even copped to that in 2012, when the TNF schedule expanded to what it is now.
All this, of course, is to say nothing of the fact that teams cannot possibly create an adequate game plan in three days and the league’s over-saturation on television, which Thursday Night Football has heavily contributed to, is a big reason why its ratings have begun to hit the skids over the past couple of seasons.
So while there may not be more injuries on Thursday Night Football, the weekly fixture’s terrible quality of play and lackluster matchups would, in an ideal world, be enough to scrap the idea completely.
Decide What a Catch Is or Is Not
What is your definition of a catch? Unfortunately, it depends on who you ask.
For example: is this a catch? What about this? Or this? Don’t feel any pressure to answer these questions correctly, because no matter how you answer them, you will have the same understanding of an NFL referee as to what a catch actually is.
Just to show how confusing the catch rule is to some people, I put out a Twitter poll earlier today asking my followers if they thought Steelers tight end Jesse James made a legal, NFL catch at the end of yesterday’s bonkers, off-the-wall Patriots-Steelers game (a contest that drew a 17.0 rating, the highest of the NFL season to date). I was expecting at least something approaching a clear consensus, and while we’re still waiting on Alaska and Hawaii, that’s not exactly what I got:
Time for the annual “what on Earth is a catch?” experiment. Did Steelers tight end Jesse James make a legal catch at the end of yesterday’s Pittsburgh-New England game?
If you show 30 people something and you ask them if what they just saw was a catch or not, it shouldn’t finish in an 18-12 vote. While I didn’t think James completed the process of the catch, the league should be as clear and concise as possible in the future with this rule. The other thing the league should do is throw out whatever precedent it has set in recent years, because this one is as bad as it gets.
Seriously Examine Other Alternatives to Painkillers
We’ve all heard stories about NFL players becoming addicted to painkillers, and according to court documents revealed in March, the league violated federal law in distributing these medications to its players. The solution to this problem is simple: stop distributing these addictive drugs and find a viable solution for them.
This includes doing serious research into alternative, non-opiate remedies that can help players heal quickly. One of them, kava, was recently the subject of an article on ESPN.com, while another, medical marijuana, has been recommended by multipleretiredplayers as a better alternative to pain pills. The NFL should probably listen to these people because they very well may be on to something.
Get Rid of Grass Fields
If you play in one of these 19 NFL stadiums, your risk of injury on any particular day may depend on the weather and be significantly higher than it would be otherwise (NOTE: the team that plays its home games in each stadium is in parentheses):
Arrowhead Stadium (Chiefs)
Bank of America Stadium (Panthers)
EverBank Field (Jaguars)
FedEx Field (Redskins)
FirstEnergy Stadium (Browns)
Hard Rock Stadium (Dolphins)
Heinz Field (Steelers)
Lambeau Field (Packers)
Levi’s Stadium (49ers)
Lincoln Financial Field (Eagles)
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Rams)
M&T Bank Stadium (Ravens)
Nissan Stadium (Titans)
Oakland-Alameda County Stadium (Raiders)
Raymond James Stadium (Buccaneers)
Soldier Field (Bears)
Sports Authority Field at Mile High (Broncos)
StubHub Center (Chargers)
University of Phoenix Stadium (Cardinals)
And about that thing I mentioned regarding the temperature of the field:
A 2016 study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that the incidence rate of concussions and ankle injuries on grass surfaces was nearly two times as likely in games with an outdoor temperature of 50°F or cooler than if the game was played on a natural grass surface at 70°F or warmer. Translated: if you’re playing in one of those 19 stadiums and the temperature is below 50°, you’re in serious trouble.
That same study found that at any given time, an NFL player is 1.36 times more likely to suffer a shoulder injury on natural grass than he would have been on artificial turf. Of course, many athletes object to playing on a synthetic turf because of fears about the long-term health of their knees (take, for example, FIFA’s much-maligned decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf). That being said, football does not require as much running as soccer and another one of the main concerns with the latter (turf burns) does not often apply to football.
Starting in December, your choice as an NFL player is simple: play on a surface where you may have slightly more risk of a knee injury or play on a grass surface, upon which you definitely have more risk for a shoulder, ankle, or head injury. I would go with the former.
Guarantee Players’ Contracts and Don’t Pay the Commissioner $40 Million
This one is self-explanatory.
Matthew Stafford is the NFL’s highest-paid player, and he makes $27 million per year. However, even though he signed a contract for five years and $135 million, only 68% of the contract ($92 million) is guaranteed. Therefore, Stafford will be making, with the league’s richest contract, around $18.4 million of guaranteed money per year. Is your humble new commissioner more than twice as valuable as the league’s best quarterback? Somehow, I doubt that. It’s time for the NFL to adopt guaranteed, no-cut contracts. It’s not like the league is about to reach $14 billion in yearly revenue, or anything.
Of course, I could likely never be an NFL commissioner and I obviously respect the work that all sports commissioners do on a regular basis. But the NFL has serious problems that need serious solutions. And if Roger Goodell is looking for a successor after this deal is up, I have ready-made fixes for issues he likely won’t tackle anytime soon.
What if I told you the sequel could be even better than the original?
There is a college football player who has been his team’s starting quarterback for the past three seasons. His past two years, though, have been some of the best in the sport.
Here are his numbers from 2016 and 2017, respectively. Before I show you this table, I am obligated to tell you that the player started all 13 games for his team last season and has only gotten to play in 11 games this year.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that those numbers are ridiculous. It also doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, in many respects, this individual is having a better season this year as opposed to his 2016 campaign.
And, unless you don’t believe in reading headlines because they contain spoilers, you’ve already figured out that the player I’m talking about is 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. And again, he very well may be having a better season this year than last year. Oh, snap!
Jackson won the Heisman Trophy a season ago due to a profound lack of other award-worthy options. The alternatives to Jackson last season were Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson (15 interceptions), Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers (no legitimately great stats), Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who put up exorbitant numbers in a conference that, as a general rule, does not play defense, and Oklahoma wide receiver Dede Westbrook, who had a great season that largely piggybacked on his quarterback’s success. Jackson faded down the stretch a season ago, as he barely averaged over 200 yards passing in the final five games of the year (Louisville lost its final three contests last season). Despite Jackson’s rough November and December, he was still able to bring home the hardware, and his Heisman victory was particularly impressive when you consider that he led the race from week three on.
This year, Jackson is having a better statistical year but has not received the same amount of attention or respect. Why is this? The answer is twofold.
First, Jackson was already fighting an uphill battle as a defending Heisman winner. Out of the 82 Heisman Trophy winners since 1935 (and yes, that includes Reggie Bush), only 26 were underclassmen when they won the award. Furthermore, just 13 of these players returned to college to defend their title, with some of the most recent examples being Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston, and Tim Tebow. Only one returnee, Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, won the award in back-to-back seasons (1974-1975). Jackson would have done well to simply make it back to New York as a finalist for this year’s Heisman. but the numbers he’s put up this year should put him back in the conversation for the award in most circumstances. This, though, is not a regular situation.
The other, major negative for Jackson’s 2017 Heisman candidacy is the lack of success his team has had in spite of his absolute brilliance. While you may think that a great player would be able to overcome his team’s ineptitude and win a major award like this, that is not necessarily the case. Louisville currently finds itself at 7-4 with their annual rivalry game against Kentucky to close out the season tomorrow. The last Heisman winner to take home the hardware on a four-loss team was Oklahoma fullback Steve Owens in 1969. In those 48 years, college football has evolved so much that many offenses have simply gotten rid of the fullback. And let’s say that, hypothetically, Kentucky defeats the Cardinals tomorrow, as they did last year (you probably forgot about that because you were too busy watching this at the exact same time). If you want to find a Heisman winner on a five-loss team, you would have to go all the way back to 1956, where you will find Notre Dame and Packers legend Paul Hornung, who starred on the 2-8 Fighting Irish that season. The Heisman Trophy is, rightly or wrongly, one of the most team-centric awards in sports. While that may not be fair, this precedent is not on the side of a Jackson repeat.
This, of course, is not to say that the Louisville junior should take home the hardware. Baker Mayfield has thrown for 543 more yards this year on 49 fewer pass attempts and should be the clear favorite for the award, in spite of his profanity and, well, Michael Jackson-esque gesture toward the Kansas sideline last week. But if Heisman voters view Mayfield’s actions as a disqualification for giving him the award, Jackson should be next in line to win. That’s how good he has been this season.
This is also not the first time a Heisman Trophy winner has come back to have a better year the season after. Johnny Manziel put up better numbers in 2013 than he did in 2012 only to finish fifth in the Heisman voting that season. Manziel had the best overall numbers of the four quarterbacks (Jameis Winston, A.J. McCarron, Jordan Lynch) but his Texas A&M Aggies finished just 8-4 that season. If there is a precedent for the season Jackson is having after being college football’s best player a season ago, it belongs to Johnny Football, and it’s a bad sign for the Louisville star’s candidacy.
Lamar Jackson, barring unforeseen circumstances, will be heading to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. He won’t get the award, but you should appreciate him just for completing the long road back from last year’s victory.
Many others have failed in their defense of the Heisman Trophy. Lamar Jackson has been a smashing success.
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Joey Votto, 1B/Cincinnati Reds: 3.0 (WINNER)
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B/Arizona Diamondbacks: 3.1
Bryce Harper, RF/Washington Nationals: 4.4
Charlie Blackmon, CF/Colorado Rockies: 4.8
Giancarlo Stanton, RF/Miami Marlins: 6.0
Anthony Rendon, 3B/Washington Nationals: 7.0
Justin Turner, 3B/Los Angeles Dodgers: 8.0
Max Scherzer, P/Washington Nationals: 9.0
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.
Justin Upton, LF/Detroit Tigers/Los Angeles Angels: 9.1
Nelson Cruz, DH/Seattle Mariners: 12.6
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.
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 draftlotteryvoodoo, 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.
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%:
A couple of thoughts:
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.
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 firstin 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 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 usRyan 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 showdating 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.
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.
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.