It has been a hard week. My sixth graders are of the unwavering belief that I exist solely to torment them. I’m down to the final days of my early twenties (or perhaps not, as some think 23 still qualifies). There has been no baseball since Monday. I need cheering up, which is convenient, because I’ve been meaning to write a piece reminding my unsuspecting readers of out how right I was about these predictions. Well, I was on 80% of them. Here’s the long final word on these prognostications, in ascending order of accuracy. Read the rest of this entry »
I get much of my material from wrongheaded or outright stupid predictions. Without assertions like this, this, and this, Fan Interference would be reduced to the ramblings of a man with nothing against which to push back. So, since I’ve spent some time lambasting particularly ridiculous augury, it seems only fair that I take an objective look at my five strongest pseudo-predictions for the 2009 Major League Baseball season. Here they are:
THE YANKEES’ & RED SOX’ OFF-SEASONS
In early March, Jayson Stark argued that the Red Sox’ free agent signings did as much to improve their team as the Yankees’ did theirs. As usual, this story was reduced to the tale of the underdog Red Sox (and their $120 million payroll) valiantly persevering in the face of the monolithic Yankees and their infinite resources. My problem with Stark’s argument was his failure to grasp the idea of marginal improvement. At the start of the off-season, the Red Sox had a much stronger team than the Yankees. Therefore, their free agent signings (a fourth outfielder, a fifth starter, a bullpen arm, and more starting pitching depth) were good but only a slight improvement for an already wonderful team. The Yankees, on the other hand, had a flawed team that required serious work in important areas. So they signed C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira – three of the top five available free agents. These signings represented a significant improvement because of the team’s initial weakness. Stark failed to understand this, making his argument irksome and faulty.
Let’s take a look at how the Red Sox’ signings have performed in the first half of the season. Rocco Baldelli – signed as insurance for J.D. Drew and to hit left-handed pitching – has put up a .282/.358/.471 line in 85 at-bats. These are wonderful numbers for a fourth outfielder, but no one should be surprised that Baldelli has against had some problems staying healthy. Brad Penny was signed to be the team’s fifth starter, but he’s pitched even worse than that. He has a 5.02ERA and a 1.50 WHIP, with pretty good control but floundering stuff (118 hits in 98 innings). Takashi Saito was brought in to shore up the bullpen with an experienced power arm. He has been merely fine, striking out 28 in 30 innings but walking too many batters. Lastly, John Smoltz was supposed to be a late-season boon to the Red Sox rotation. At this point, we simply don’t know if the signing was a good one or not. Smoltz has thrown 20 innings in four starts, producing a 5.40 ERA. It’s just too early to tell. As you can see, the Red Sox imported a solid group of bit players, but nothing warranting emphatic commendation.
The Yankees signed C.C. Sabathia to replace Chien-Ming Wang, who was masquerading as the team’s ace. Sabathia has had an good but not great first half, posting a 3.66 ERA while struggling somewhat with his control. We must consider him a slight disappointment at this point, even if it is early. A.J. Burnett’s 3.81 ERA is deceptive. He’s walked far too many batters, but his ability to strike out batters has kept this number from getting out of control. He’s done what many expected – wild variance between dominating and worthless starts. Mark Teixeira has been wonderful. The durable first baseman has a .280/.381/.551 line with 23 home runs, even with a woeful first month of the season. He has fulfilled the lofty expectations.
There is simply no competition between these two groups of players. The Red Sox signed a group of useful parts that will play relatively minor roles in the team’s race for the pennant. The Yankees signed an elite group of talent that will make or break their attempt to make the postseason. Baldelli, Penny, Saito and Smoltz have been worth roughly two wins so far this season. Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixeira have been worth nine.
Both then and now, you could easily make an argument for Red Sox superiority over the Yankees. But if the debate is about the quality of talent imported during the winter, there is no contest. Stark’s assertion appears just as wrong now as it did then. Read the rest of this entry »
In a little over an hour, the greatest four days in sports will commence. Right now, there are 64 teams in college basketball that – rightly or wrongly – believe that they can win the six games necessary to be crowned national champions. Monday morning, there will only be 16 teams left after the frenzied weeding-out process has finished. Most people have one of the #1 seeds eventually emerging as the last team standing. This is by no means ridiculous, since Louisville, Pittsburgh, UConn, and North Carolina are each certainly capable of winning it all. Each team, however, also has an issue or two that I believe will eventually become its undoing.
The Cardinals have an enticing mix of factors working in their favor. They’re deep, balanced, and versatile. They have the apparently necessary “senior leadership” quota filled via Terrence Williams’ presence. They play exceptional defense and are hardened by the rigorous Big East schedule. Rick Pitino is an enormously successful and experienced postseason coach. Ostensibly, there is very little wrong with this mix. Then I am reminded of a text message I received from my Louisvillian friend very early in the season. It was bitingly accurate in its simplicity: “I hope we haven’t contracted Memphis Syndrome.”
“Memphis Syndrome,” in this case (are there other cases?), is synonymous with total futility at the free-throw line. As you may remember, last year’s Memphis Tigers shot 61.4% from the line, “good” for 329th in the country. In spite of this, the Tigers made it all the way to the national championship game, where this shortcoming finally did them in. All season, pundits had intelligently attached the “if they can hit their free-throws” caveat to any analysis of the Tigers’ chances. And all season, coach John Calipari had essentially said “we’ll hit them when we need them.” Well, they needed them against Kansas, and they didn’t hit them. The rest is history.
I bring this up, obviously, because I’m concerned about Louisville’s ability to convert at the free-throw line. They are not as inept as the 2008 Tigers were; the Cardinals shoot 64.3%, which ranks 302nd in the country. Samardo Samuels, Earl Clark, and Terrence Williams lead the team in free-throw attempts. They shoot 67.1%, 65.6%, and 57.3%, respectively. The rest of the gang is no great shakes either. I’m not sure why college basketball analysts aren’t hammering away at this deficiency the way they did with Memphis last year. I think some of it has to do with the seemingly perpetual quest to bring Memphis down from their lofty perch on top of Conference USA, but that’s an argument for another time. Ultimately, I believe the Cardinals will fall because of this shortcoming, although I am not rooting for it.
I can and will sum up Pitt’s issue in much fewer words than I did Louisville’s. Quite simply, the Panthers’ success is causally linked to DeJuan Blair’s ability to stay on the court and out of foul trouble. When he’s in the game, the Panthers are incredibly difficult to beat. When he’s not, they become an above-average team instead of an exceptional one. Small sample size be damned, I remain somewhat skeptical of coach Jamie Dixon’s decision-making with respect to his most important player. Like so many coaches, Dixon opts to sit his star player when foul trouble arises instead of letting him play through it because of his importance. To be fair, Dixon has done this in regular season games, when a loss doesn’t result in the end of the season. Perhaps Dixon will be more flexible in his management of Blair’s foul trouble, given the single-elimination format. In any case, I don’t think Blair can go six straight games against high-quality opponents and not run into serious foul trouble. Levance Fields’ iffy groin isn’t helping things either.
The Huskies don’t have one glaring issue, but two more moderate issues that could be disastrous if they occur simultaneously. The first and most obvious problem is the indefinite absence of guard Jerome Dyson. Perhaps Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie can continue to compensate for Dyson’s missing production, but it’s a tall order. The other and potentially exacerbating problem is center Hasheem Thabeet’s variance in performance. Thabeet is capable of both monster games and Grade-A stinkers. In looking at his game log, you also might notice that his performance tends to dip significantly when facing good teams. Of course, this can be said of virtually anyone. But UConn can ill-afford for this trend to continue, particularly with Dyson’s absence. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they face nothing but quality teams the rest of the way.
Ty Lawson’s toe. That’s it. It’s the most-watched digit in America right now, upon which the exchange of millions of dollars rests. If Lawson’s toe is truly fine, then this tournament is the Tar Heels’ to lose. North Carolina’s point guard is the most efficient offense in the country’s engine. He, not Tyler Hansbrough, is the team’s best player. He’s about as important to the Tar Heels’ success and DeJuan Blair is to Pittsburgh’s. I usually don’t put much stock in things like this, but some of the quotes seen here are pretty disconcerting. Teammate Bobby Frasor is saying “he’s not the same Ty we’ve all seen,” and Lawson himself is saying “it’s just pain when I’m cutting back and forth.” That’s cool, it’s not like there’s tons of cutting back and forth in basketball. I think you get my point. Much like the Blair situation, I don’t see Lawson physically holding up for six straight games.
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After long and serious thought (seriously), I’m picking Memphis to win the national championship. I’m not sure they’re as good as last year’s team, but that’s the whole point: I’m not sure. For each of the #1 seeds, I know of a serious danger or deficiency that could very well end their tournament experience. As for the Tigers, well, I don’t know. They spent another year absolutely annihilating everyone in their middling conference. Maybe this means they’re just picking on the little guys, or maybe it means they’re really good. Ultimately, that’s the reason I’m picking Memphis. I don’t know exactly what they are, but they might be exceptional.
Happy March Madness, everyone.