2010’s All-Overrated College Basketball Team

March 7, 2010

Last March, I unveiled a college basketball squad featuring five players that I believed to be the most overrated in the nation. The purpose of the exercise was less to single out and humiliate individual players (although Greivis Vasquez has never been a favorite of mine), and more to educate about the deceptive nature of certain basketball statistics. As I mentioned then, traditional per-game statistics can be awfully misleading about a player’s performance. Points, assists, and rebounds per game do not account for factors such as pace and efficiency. Because of this, I have begun looking at players like Monta Ellis in a whole new light. Ellis’ 25-5-4 line is superficially impressive, but when you realize that he plays in the NBA’s fastest-paced offense, shoots mediocre percentages, and turns the ball over as often as he assists it, his value takes a tumble. Ultimately, that’s why I single out these overrated and underrated players – so that you and anyone else who reads this can learn to evaluate players more intelligently using metrics that shed more light on players’ true ability.

Here are my selections for the 2010 All-Overrated Team and the honorable mentions. As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms, as long as you don’t use terrible statistics, selective memory, and mysticism to back them up. Read the rest of this entry »

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Where Are They Now?

March 2, 2010

Last March, I put together two teams of college basketball players: one made up solely of players I thought were overrated, and one made up of underrated players. Recently I’ve begun to narrow down my initial list of candidates for the 2010 editions. But because that’s not quite done yet, I thought it would be interesting to run through the members of the 2009 teams and see what they’re up to today.

OVERRATED

A.J. Abrams, G – Texas

My knock against Abrams’ game was that he contributed little to the Longhorns other than shooting, and even that strength was limited to three pointers. He shot well from the line, but didn’t get there enough to make that skill a huge asset. Lastly, he finished his senior year with more turnovers than assists. So, other than shooting, getting to the basket, and creating opportunities for his teammates, Abrams had all the skills you’d want in a guard.

Currently, Abrams appears to be playing for the Greek club AS Trikala 2000. I say “appears” because that looks like him second from the right, but I can’t find him anywhere here (but I found Tyrell Biggs!). His statistics in Greece actually indicate improvement. He’s averaging 17.3 ppg on 54.7% shooting from two and 37.8% from three. His free throw percentage has dropped to 74.4%, but that’s acceptable given his improved shooting on shots worth twice as much. Abrams still, however, is not much of a creator for his teammates, averaging one assist per game (turnover numbers are unavailable).

Greivis Vasquez, G – Maryland

Last year, I criticized Vasquez’s game because it was recognized as great when it was, in fact, merely good. I thought his playmaking skills were a little overrated – Vazquez was just as likely to make a brilliant pass as a boneheaded one – but my main gripe was with his shooting. He hit 45.2% of his twos last year, which is fine, but 32.7% of his threes, which is not great but even worse if that rate comes on 202 attempts. The result was a True Shooting % of 51.2, which ranked 34th in the ACC.

Vasquez has improved tremendously this season. He currently sports the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career (1.96 : 1) and a significantly higher assist rate than last year. Most importantly, both his shot selection and shot results have gotten much better. Vasquez is now hitting 46.9% of his twos (a slight improvement) and 37.9% of his threes on only 153 attempts (a huge improvement). Factoring in his typically efficient scoring from the free throw line, and he can no longer be called overrated.

E’Twaun Moore, G – Purdue

As I put it last year, Moore “much like Abrams, is an inefficient scorer taking a large percentage of his team’s shots.” Moore’s balanced per-game statistics were a nice shiny object, but distracted the viewer from his 33.7% three-point shooting on 166 attempts.

Like Vasquez, Moore has gotten much better in 2010. Moore is taking a higher percentage of his team’s shots when he’s on the floor (30.2% this year versus 26.3% last year), so it’s a good thing he’s become more efficient. He’s stopped launching so many threes (37.2% on 113 attempts), preferring twos and hitting them at a very good 52% clip. He’s also increased his free throw and assist rates slightly, making him a vastly more efficient player than last season.

Earl Clark, F – Louisville

In hindsight, Clark’s inclusion was unjustified. As usual, the reason for his inclusion was shooting. Clark hit a 49.3% of his twos in 2009, which in itself isn’t so bad, but is a little paltry for a 6’9″ monster like him. Then there was his 32.6% three point shooting on nearly a hundred attempts and his sub-par performance from the line. But really, that was all a little nitpicky. especially considering his blocking and rebounding prowess. This was a bad pick.

Following last season, Clark was drafted 14th overall by the Phoenix Suns. He rarely plays, so it’s probably too early to draw any conclusions about his ability, especially because he’s on a win-now playoff team. For what it’s worth, Clark is shooting 35.4% from the field and 63.6% from the line in the NBA.

Luke Harangody, F – Notre Dame

Last year, I criticized Harangody’s game for the same reason I did Vazquez’s. Both players were discussed reverentially in basketball circles, which in fact their games had notable flaws. Harangody’s stats were inflated both by his team’s fast pace and a shooting rate that ranked 11th in the country. He shot an astounding 615 twos in 2009, but hit only 46.5% of them. His three point shooting was a superficially-good 36.8%, but he only took 38 of them. Harangody’s major redeeming qualities were his ability to draw fouls (68th in the country) and his defensive rebounding (17th). Still, his large volume of wayward shots warranted inclusion on this team.

Harangody’s per-game totals in 2010 are almost exactly the same as 2009’s, but one major factor has changed. Notre Dame is playing at a significantly slower pace this season, down to 226th in the nation. In order for Harangody to maintain such high numbers in games with fewer possessions, it would follow that he’s become a more efficient player. This turns out to be true. Harangody is hitting 52.1% of his twos this season and has improved his free throw percentage very slightly. His three point shooting and fouls drawn have declined somewhat, but he remains a high-percentage free throw shooter. The biggest story here, though, remains his two point shooting. Last year he shot 46.5% on 615 twos, and this year he’s shooting 52.1% on 388 twos – a huge, huge difference. The result is a TS% that has increased to 55.5% and him having absolutely no chance of holding onto his spot on my 2010 team.

UNDERRATED

Jerome Randle, G – California

The best player on the Pac-10’s best team, Randle’s 2009 season was one of the more unheralded great seasons in recent memory. His per-game averages certainly passed the eye test: 18.3 points, 3 rebounds, and 5 assists. But the remarkable thing was his efficiency. Despite being generously listed at 5’10”, Randle hit 53.4% of his twos, 46.3% of his threes, and 86.3% of his free throws. Those are staggering numbers, and good enough for 14th-best TS% in the country last year.

If you finished reading that paragraph thinking “there’s nowhere for him to go but down,” it turns out that you’re right. Randle is still a very good player, but his efficiency has dropped off a little. He’s now hitting exactly 50% of his twos, 41% of his threes, and 92% of his free throws. Furthermore, his assist-to-turnover has declined from a good 1.74 : 1 to a more pedestrian 1.26 : 1. Right now, it’s hard to classify Randle as “underrated.” Unknown, yes. But not underrated.

Darren Collison, G – UCLA

Like Randle, Collison earned his way onto last year’s team on the strength of his shooting. The point guard finished the 2009 season having hit 55.8% of his twos, 39.4% of his threes, and 89.7% of his free throws. He also took good care of the ball (1.91 : 1) and earned some bonus points by finishing fifth in the Pac-10 in Steal %.

Collison was drafted 21st overall by the New Orleans Hornets, where his basketball career has continued with remarkable similarity. He’s hitting 47.2% of his twos, 33.8% of his threes, and 84.9% of his free throws in 23.2 minutes per game. Of course, Collison will play less once Chris Paul returns, but his fifth-ranked PER among rookies (15.75) is quite good in its own right.

Wesley Matthews, G – Marquette

I’m mere moments away from gloating, so please brace yourself. Last year’s Marquette team received a ton of publicity for its triumvirate of explosive guards. The group was led on the court by senior guard Dominic James, a really, really poor shooter who took excellent care of the ball. The typical adjectives given to diminutive senior point guards were assigned to James: fearless, gutsy, smart, etc. Next was Jerel McNeal, who was the flashy one. He had no exceptional skill but many good ones, and his 19.8 points per game earned him the most praise. Then there was Matthews, who was characterized as smart (but not as smart as James) and skilled (but not as skilled as McNeal). Even though Matthews bested McNeal in 2P%, 3P%, ORtg, TS%, OR%, DR%, TO%, FD/40, and FTRate, and James is every significant category but Assist Rate, he remained the least-recognized of Marquette’s senior guards.

Guess which one of the three is playing in the NBA right now. Yes, while James is playing in Turkey and McNeal in Belgium, the undrafted Matthews is playing 22 minutes a game for the 38-21 Utah Jazz. Matthews is hitting 52% of his twos, 35.2% of his threes, and 78.2% of his free throws – numbers that are right in line with his production at Marquette. I’m confident that he’ll never be a star, and probably not a career starter either. But Matthews has all the makings of a quality guard off the bench for the next several years. And I’m proud to call him an alum of the 2009 All-Underrated Team.

DeMarre Carroll, F – Missouri

Carroll made last year’s team on the strength of his excellent two-point shooting (57.9%), his infrequent but useful three-point shooting (36.4%), his ability to draw fouls, and his guard-like proficiency at stealing the ball and not turning it over himself.

Surprisingly, Carroll was drafted 27th overall by the Memphis Grizzlies. He hasn’t performed well in limited duty, shooting 39.2% from the field, making none of his six shots from distance, and continuing to hit free throws at a poor rate (61.7%). I like Carroll as much as anyone, but given the relatively high value of the 27th pick, I think he’ll be a disappointment.

Patrick Patterson, F – Kentucky

Patterson might have been the most underrated player in the nation last year. While his teammate Jodie Meeks was garnering well-deserved accolades, Patterson kept on doing what he’s always done – scoring with great skill. In 2009, he hit 60.5% of his twos and shot 76.8% from the line (where he got frequently). His TS% of 63.7% ranked 39th in the country and first in the SEC.

While his free throw shooting has inexplicably fallen off a cliff, Patterson has become an even better player this season. He’s continued to nail his twos (62.2%) and, shockingly, has revealed a real ability to hit threes (40.8% on 49 attempts). This new skill has offset his decline in FT% to keep his TS% at 62.8%, just slightly worse than last year’s. Lastly, Patterson is 35th in the country and second in the SEC in TORate, which is impressive for a big man that plays so many minutes. Teammates DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall get much of the publicity – and deservedly so – but Patterson is equally important to the team’s success.



2009’s All-Overrated College Basketball Team

March 3, 2009

While baseball will always be my first love, basketball has recently been giving it a run for its money as my favorite sport to analyze. I still enjoy baseball season more than basketball season, particularly because of the former’s forgiving duration and, let’s be honest, the Yankees’ traditional success. What has made basketball’s push possible, however, are the new and fascinating ways people have begun to analyze the game. Thanks to the work of pioneers such as Ken Pomeroy, John Gasaway, and Kevin Pelton, the way fans understand basketball is very slowly beginning to change. More specifically, basketball analysis is shifting its focus from simple box score numbers to the efficiency with which players perform. 

As was also the case with baseball, my brain has been completely reprogrammed in the way it processes basketball statistics. The focus is now solely on efficiency, not gaudiness. For example, I would have lauded Stephen Jackson‘s 2009 season in years past. His line of 21 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds per game would have seduced me into making false proclamations about his skill. Now, I see his ghastly shooting percentages and his team’s league-leading pace, both of which reveal something about his actual ability. Context and efficiency are the newest and most important factors in intelligent basketball analysis. 

I say all this because the topic of this post may initially come off as a little cruel. This is, after all, essentially a declaration that these players do not deserve the amount praise they receive. I would choose, however, to look at this piece as an effort to educate rather than chastise. The players on this list are here largely because they are inefficient, which burdens their respective teams. Most analysts either ignore or are unaware of these players’ shortcomings, instead choosing to focus on their traditional statistics instead of their inefficiency. Here they are:

Read the rest of this entry »


No, He’s Really Not

June 8, 2007

As a Yankee fan, I get sick of the constant Miguel Cairo ballwashing. He’s like the Yankees’ answer to David Eckstein, except he’s much, much worse. Sure he looks like he’s trying hard (and he is, because it takes every bit of his marginal ability to be bad), but he’s not this scrappy sparkplug gamer that the YES guys would have you believe.

Anyway, after Cairo catches a foul pop-up in tonight’s game against the Pirates:

Michael Kay: “I’ll tell you what, Miguel Cairo is just a solid, veteran player”.

Let’s define “solid” as “average”, even though people are increasingly using “solid” when they mean “very good”. So solid = average, right? “Solid” can’t mean worse than average, so my task is to prove that Miguel Cairo is below-average at baseball.

Miguel Cairo has a career OPS+ of 76, which means he has hit 24% worse than his peers throughout his career. He also has a career .246 EqA, which is significantly lower than the average EqA of .260. His average WARP3 is 2, which means he is only slightly better than the AAA scrub a team would call up if an injury occurs.

He sucks, which is fine, because most backup utility unfielders suck. But most utility infielders aren’t spoken of as a transcendent athletic and competitive force, as is the case with Cairo.


How Do You Say “Reckoning” In Japanese?

May 3, 2007

Daisuke Matsuzaka’s numbers on the year following tonight’s start against the Seattle Mariners:

7 games
38 innings pitched
35 hits
15 walks
39 strikeouts
31 groundball outs
35 flyball outs
2 home runs
23 runs (all earned)

Good strikeouts, but he has a 1.31 whip and a 5.45 ERA. Are we allowed to call this a disappointment, if not an outright disaster? Red Sox fans, how can you not be severely disappointed with this performance? For serious.

And while we’re at it, can we stop refering to Josh Beckett as “Bottle Rocket?” Roger Clemens pretty much came flying out of the gates and has been dominant ever since; Beckett has padded his resume with several decent years in the weakened National League. I know, I know: he’s changed his approach and loves to play the game the right way and will plunk you if you try to bunt, but come on.


Tim Kurkjian Hates The AL

March 20, 2007

A friend who has a minor philosophical disagreement with our blog sent us this recent piece by Tim Kurkjian. It’s clobberin’ time!

Outfielder Billy Butler is one of the game’s best hitting prospects and, by most accounts, the best hitter in Royals camp.

The first paragraph is not finished and there’s already a major factual error. Butler is good, but Alex Gordon is the number-one position player prospect in all of baseball, and Mark Teahen is pretty money also.

There’s no doubt he’s ready to hit in the big leagues, but by all accounts, he is a bad defensive player. He’s a good kid who tries, cares and wants to improve, but if he were better defensively, he’d play every day for the Royals at age 20.

Fair enough. Even sabermetrics people agree on this, but his projected .279 EqA in Kansas City should more than make up for it. Let me see a better example.

Third baseman Ryan Braun was the story early in Brewers camp: He hit three homers in his first two exhibition games, and in batting practice sessions he regularly tore holes in the sky. Third base was an open competition coming into camp, and if Braun were more adept defensively, he might have been the Brewers’ opening day third baseman. But he has throwing issues, mostly because he rushes his motion. “He’s a good athlete; I’d put him in center field,” one GM said of Braun.

Wow, that’s pretty much the exact same story you just told me: a good player whose hot bat should easily negate his crappy glovework.

It won’t be long before Butler and Braun are marvelous hitters in the major leagues, but these stories of defensive inadequacy are too familiar. The Devil Rays are trying to find a position for B.J. Upton, but it doesn’t appear that it’s going to be shortstop, third base or second base. “I saw him in right field this spring,” a scout said, “and he looks like he belongs [there].”

Okay. That makes sense: put your worst fielder in the least demanding outfield position where he can do the least damage. Why is this even an article?

Toronto outfielder Adam Lind, Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick and Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff came to the big leagues more advanced as hitters than defenders.

All three of these guys are actually adequate fielders (in the range of plus/minus 3 Fielding Runs Above Average). Kurkjian, you impress me less and less with each sentence.

Two of the largest free-agent contracts in this offseason went to Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee, who can really hit, but do questionable work on defense.

Are we just picking on players who came up in the AL now? Soriano actually had a good glove in left field last year, thanks to his speedy range and aggressive outfield assists. Carlos Lee will be playing in front of the Crawford Boxes in the craziest outfield ever (good luck with that). But they can both “really hit.” So, yeah.

The best young power hitter in the game, Ryan Howard, is also nothing special defensively at first base.

Has anyone ever been anything special defensively at first base? It’s first base. It’s like playing catch. Sometimes you have to jump, and sometimes you have to bend down a little, but it’s pretty simple. This is where you put beasts like Ryan Howard (.344 EqA), Albert Pujols (.353), and Lance Berkman (.337).

One of the best young hitting catchers in the majors, Victor Martinez, has trouble throwing.

Really? Is it like crazy Knoblauch-style trouble? Oh, people just stole on him alot. That’s not really “trouble,” it just means he doesn’t have a sick arm like Yadier Molina (who I love despite his exquitely bad .209 EqA). By the way, aspiring sportswriters, now you know: exalt non-hitting catchers with great arms/game-calling ability, berate well-hitting catchers with subpar defense.

Baseball always has had its share of hitters only,

They’re called “designated hitters.”

but this is the most confusing part: the game is an athletic sport — highly underrated in that respect — and today’s players are bigger, stronger and faster than they’ve ever been.

You’re right – that was the most convoluted sentence I’ve ever seen on ESPN.com. Are you trying to say baseball is underrated or less popular compared to other sports? That the atheticism in baseball is underrated compared to the athleticism in other sports? Are you designating it an athletic sport, as opposed to an unathletic sport like stock car racing or golf? Simply put, what?

So, why aren’t more young players better defensively? Why don’t more of them run better? And why don’t more of them throw better?

Oh God. Is this going to turn into a reactionary ode to smallball?

“Where are all the athletes?” Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes asked last year.

Um, there are 25 of them on each club’s roster. Sometimes 40. Based on this quote, I’m officially changing my NL East Division pick to the Mets.

“We’re losing them to other sports,” says Royals GM Dayton Moore.

Hopefully the athletic sports.

“In the draft, impact position players are off the board by the fifth round: we see an athlete, we take him.” One GM said there will be only 20 shortstops — usually great athletes — in this June’s draft. But there will be plenty of hitters.

Isn’t there some saying about how the hardest thing to do in all of sports is hitting a major league fastball? So why is it bad that there are plenty of people who can do that?

“For some guys, their bat is two levels ahead of their defense,” said Brewers GM Doug Melvin. “You look in the yellow pages, you see ads for batting cages and hitting instructors. But you don’t see many for infield instruction.”

Who hasn’t been to batting cages? It’s fun as hell. Endlessly taking groundballs is a good idea for professional athletes, but it’s probably pretty boring for John Q. Citizen. Next time I’m at the minigolf course or batting cages, I’ll pass on the idea for the ball-shagging field. Get a prize for a .962 fielding percentage!

We’re in an era of prodigious slugging, of ESPN highlights, of raising the roof after a 450-foot home run.

Tim Kurkjian just got payed $350 extra for mentioning the parent company within his column. Good work, Tim!

Chicks dig the long ball, and the game has encouraged that for nearly 15 years.

I’ve always wondered where that phrase came from, and now I know. Despite the cute pop-culture reference, this is still misleading. It’s not like home runs were invented in 1992. The soon-to-be runner-up in all-time home runs, Hank Aaron, played half of his career in the relatively stagnant 1960’s, including a 29-homer year in the legendarily low-scoring 1968. And after the strike, did MLB really have any choice but to milk every last drop out of the 1998 home run race?

A generation of hitters have been raised who spend their day pumping tokens in a batting cage (or, more and more often, hitting in the cage in their back yard) rather than developing their entire game. Not as many complete players are being sent to the major leagues.

“Guys get paid to hit, and if you hit, you play,” said Cardinals hitting coach Hal McRae. “Over the years, base running has really suffered. Defense has suffered. Baseball instincts have suffered. I think it’s all the home runs, especially in the American League.

I’m really glad that they interviewed McRae for this article. Not only do I get to link to the best coach tirade ever a second time, but the quote undermines everything that has happened to this point in the article. If players “get paid to hit,” then why shouldn’t they learn to be really good at it?

“Having 30 teams has changed things. Back when I came through [McRae’s first year was 1968], if you couldn’t play defense, you didn’t play. They would send you back to the minor leagues.”

McRae was one of the first pre-eminent designated hitters because he was a also below-average fielder; he’s actually the all-time RBI leader as a DH. And again, there wasn’t much you could do in 1968 besides play defense because the league batting average was .243.

Throwing a baseball is a God-given ability, but a young player’s arm won’t get stronger if he doesn’t throw. “You should see Carlos Gonzalez throw,” said Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin of one of his young outfielders. “He can throw with Ichiro.” You just don’t hear that much anymore. Maybe it’s because teams rarely take infield before games. Without infield, when does an outfielder practice cutting loose and throwing as hard as he can to a base? The Cardinals are one of the few teams that work on it during batting practice, but it’s not the same as taking infield every day as was done in Larry Bowa’s day.

Oh, boy.

“If we didn’t have infield before a game because the tarp was on the field, I’d get nervous,” said Bowa, the current Yankees third base coach who during his playing days led the National League in fielding percentage six times and won two Gold Gloves primarily as the shortstop for the Phillies. “I’d go to an indoor cage and play pepper to get the feel for the ball off the bat.”

Flawed statistics and a meaningless award = Larry Bowa is the most experty expert on fielding ever. He also has a career .233 EqA and a smashing .300 OBA, so maybe he should’ve spent some time on the other end of the cage.

Players just don’t do that anymore. But the accent on offense seems to be changing slightly. Over the last few years, there has been a slow re-emphasis of pitching and defense rather than three-run homers.

Great. So why are you still complaining?

Albert Pujols has something to do with that: The best player in the game has developed into a terrific defensive first baseman, and other great young hitters are starting to take notice.

Albert was noticably great at first base last year, but is he really going to suggest that Pujols is responsible –

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley has gone from a subpar defensive player to average at worst.

Yeah, he’s giving Pujols credit for Utley’s marginal improvement in the field. Imagine the scene at this imaginary Phillies-Cardinals game: Utley hits the ball hard through the infield, but Pujols makes a great stab to rob him of a base hit. Crushed, Utley sulks back to the dugout. But as turns, Pujols makes eye contact, lifting his head in acknowledgment and pumping his fist against his chest. And Utley realizes: “Yes. I know what I must do.”

Reds outfielder Adam Dunn — once athletic enough to be recruited to play quarterback at Texas

— and still athletic enough to hit 40 home runs a year —

said this spring that he was determined to become a better defensive player. And then there is the story of Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur.

Oh no.

Francoeur is a phenomenal athlete.

That’s why he’s playing professional sports.

He was a great high school football player who could have played at Clemson. He is a fabulous golfer.

Neat.

He was in the major leagues at age 21 as a five-tool player who could do everything, especially throw. Last year, he had a good year, hitting 29 homers with 103 RBI.

He also had a VORP of -1 and an EqA of .249. And the third most outs in the National League.

But he had one stolen base, the same as Greg Maddux.

I think this is more indicative of the power of Greg Maddux than Francoeur’s lack of speed. (Try typing “Francoeur” five times fast.)

Francoeur is 23 years old and weighs 220 pounds.

This has more unnecessary biographical information than a George W. Bush appointment speech.

He can really run, but on a team that led the National League in slugging percentage in 2006, he stopped running. As he prepared for a spring training workout in late February, Francoeur said with regret, “I lost a step last year. I lost some of my athleticism. There’s no reason that I shouldn’t steal 20 to 25 bags.”

I know a reason! (You only got on-base 29% of the time.)

“I need to be more athletic.”

Tim Kurkjian has brainwashed Jeff Francoeur. I’ll spare you the unnecessary paragraph about Francoeur’s work with the NFL combine players; basically, in the space of four sentences, he gets his athleticism back. Woo-hoo.

Maybe this is the start of something. It is encouraging that a great athlete has determined that slugging isn’t enough.

Slugging isn’t enough; you have to get on base also. So it is encouraging, but not in the way Kurkjian thinks.

The game is an athletic one.

You said that already.

There is room to run, to throw and to play defense. Maybe others will follow.

When he says “others,” does he mean “other things” there is room to do in baseball, like getting on-base and hitting for power? Or “other young players” who will be obsessed with sheer arm strength and speed? I really hope it’s the first one. But I know it’s not. Sigh.

The game is great now, and the players are unbelievably talented.

I’m really surprised no one has said the PED-word yet.

But it’s time for some of them to become more complete.

This honestly could have been alot worse. It could have exalted some great fielders who can’t hit in both leagues. But this hang-up over the landscape shifting from fielding to offense seems a century too late.


The Central Concern: Will The Cubs Really Be That Good?

February 18, 2007

Hey you. Yeah, you, the casual Cubs fan on the North Shore who doesn’t actually bother to follow the Cubs unless they’re within five outs of the World Series (WHOOPS!). I’m talking to you.

I know you’re still recovering from your ill-fated fling with the Sex Cannon, but it’s time to move on. Lucky for you, pitchers and catchers reported to Mesa this week.* And Cubs GM Jim Hendry had himself quite an offseason.

kerry_wood_studio_cubs.jpg
*Except this one. Dumbass.

He smartly opted not to resign Dusty Baker as manager (he funneled too much of the budget into toothpicks and apparently doesn’t like his team to have baserunners), instead hiring Sweet Lou Piniella, a former Yankee with a winning managerial record and a great reputation. Solid move, and I can’t wait for potential fireworks between him and Tony.

Then Hendry had himself a bit of a spree, jacking the Trib Company’s credit card to the tune of $300,000,000. Yeah. Three hundred million. Seven (7) zeroes. Shopping list: Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Mark DeRosa, and Cliff Floyd. (Oh, and don’t forget to grab some Jason Marquis.) Never mind that in six years they’ll be paying a washed-up 38-year-old some odd $18 million: this is clearly Hendry’s make-or-break run at a title. And it seems most of the media and fans have fallen for the ruse, as the Cubs have been annointed the clear favorites to win the pathetic NL Central in 2007. The Pirates are bottom-dwellers, the Reds come up short, Houston has shown decline, and the Brewers are still a dark horse. Gotta be the Cubs. Wait, there are six teams in the division? Who’s the other – oh, right.

Last year the Cardinals won the National League Central with an admittedly embarassing 83 games. There’s a good reason for this: everyone on the 25-man roster was injured by the end of September. Not really, but it seemed like it. Now the Cardinals have seemingly stood pat as the entire rotation filed for free agency. Cards GM Walt Jocketty resigned the whole bench, found a real everyday second-baseman, and grabbed the best cheap pitching he could find, essentially planning to field the same team as last season. Jocketty has never been one to grab big free-agents in the winter, instead perfecting the crafty, how-the-fuck-did-he-do-that mid-August trades that have procurred such formidable thumpers as Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Will Clark, Scott Rolen, and Larry Walker. But now he was expected to defend the title. Couldn’t he have done something?! He saw what the Cubs were spending. Stupid, awful, mean Jocketty. He must hate the fans in St. Louis.

So let’s unbunch our collective panties and ask – how will the I-55 rivalry shape up this year? Obviously a lot of random, crazy shit can happen in a 162-game season. But we can make a reasonable guess. To the PECOTA cave!

Part One: The Hitters
2007 VORP, WARP and EQA projections in parentheses

Catcher: Yadier Molina (2.2, 3.3, .233) vs Michael Barrett (26.4, 3.7, .278)
No question Barrett is the superior established hitter. Still astounding that Yadi’s glove/arm make WARP that close though.
Advantage: Cubs

First Base: Albert Pujols (81.4, 9.2, .349) vs Derrek Lee (23.4, 4.1, .295)
This used to be a much closer match, but Lee is in decline (2005 was a peak, not a new plateau. Pujols, meanwhile, continues to improve a little each year. He looks like the new (better) Hank Aaron for whom consistency is king, but if he peaks, how scary will it look?
Advantage Cardinals

Second Base: Adam Kennedy (15.3, 3.5, .259) vs Mark DeRosa (13.3, 2.7, .265)
Both olderish guys moving from AL West to NL Central, so I wouldn’t be surprised if these estimates are a tad conservative. Kennedy’s line-drive swing is suited to the larger Busch Stadium.
Advantage: Draw

Third Base: Scott Rolen (40.9, 6.4, .298) vs Aramis Ramirez (46.0, 5.5, .299)
It’s a statistical dead heat. A-Ram has more power in hitter-friendly Wrigley; Scotty is one of the best fielders ever.
Advantage: Draw

Shortstop: David Eckstein (14.5, 3.8, .247)vs Ronny Cedeno (9.1, 3.5, .237)
The Spark Plug is hardly an ideal lead-off man, but Cedeno probably shouldn’t bat in any of the other eight spots.
Advantage: Cardinals

Right Field: Juan Encarnacion (11.3, 2.6, .262) vs Jacque Jones (12.3. 2.8, .270)
Tony favors experience and may do so at his team’s peril this year. Coming off wrist surgery, Juan may get shown up and hopefully benched in favor of the surprising John Rodriguez.
Advantage: Cubs

Center Field: Jim Edmonds (22.3, 3.9, .289) vs Alfonso Soriano (43.9, 6.1, .296)
The most interesting match-up so far. Soriano is the jewel centerpiece of the Cubs offseason, rewarded for a career year in which he joined the 40-40 club (one of those 40’s is ALOT more important). Despite being wildy overrated, and playing out of position again, he may singlehandedly push the club into contention (and will be paid more than Pujols). Jimmy Baseball, on the other hand, is in the twilight of his career, and while there’s no better place for that than St. Louis, he will be seeing less and less playing time. But he’ll still be good for some pop, defense, and clubhouse presence (for you traditionalists out there).
Advantage: Cubs

Left Field: Chris Duncan (22.5, 3.4, .290) vs Cliff Floyd (15.8, 2.9, .282)
It remains to be seen whether Duncan’s tear last August can be consistently recreated over a full season. Hope he did some outfield work, but I have a feeling he’ll be a productive Cardinal for years to come. Floyd, less so – his Achilles problems in Queens were a blessing in disguise as they benched him in favor of postseason near-hero Endy Chavez.
Advantage: Cardinals

Cardinals Totals: 210.4, 36.1 .278
Cubs Totals: 190.2, 31.3, .278

Looks like the Cardinals have a slight statistical edge for now. Can the Cubs make up for it by having more than one starting pitcher? Find out tomorrow!