Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Threepeat

There are two competing three-peat efforts going on right now. I haven't really lived through this, at least during any sentient part of my life as a sports fan. I guess there was the 2000 - 2002 Lakers, or the 1998 - 2000 Yankees, teams I have vague memories of, but those were, in the sports sense, lifetimes ago. No, right now I'm living through it for the first time in a sense, or at least the opportunity for one. Both the Pittsburgh Penguins, as a write this up 3-1 in their first round series, and Real Madrid, as I write this setting up for their Champions League Semifinal tie against Bayern, are on the chase, and I can't wait to see if they pull it off.

Obviously, I have a more vested interest in Real Madrid, and if they can pull it off, it would be incredible. Until last year, no team had even repeated in the Champions League era, so for them to do it, even in a year where they've struggled in La Liga, would be unbelievable. For the Pens, in a way the same. No team had repeated for 19 years until the Penguins did last year. No team has done three in a row since Gretzky's Oilers. Odds are against either for pulling it off - even Madrid who is one out of 4 left, but I'm just invigorated to see it happen.

To be fair, I've watched teams attempt it, but few even came close. The first was the 2005 Patriots, of course with any Patriots team I would be actively rooting against it. Their run ended in a weird night in Denver where they made every mistake possible. The next was the 2011 Lakers, who were hilariously swept by the Mavericks, fit with Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum getting ejected in the 4th quarter of the Game 4 blowout that coupled as Phil Jackson's last game. The next was the 2014 Heat, who again due to their opponent being the Spurs, I was rooting against, and their run ended with the most devastating three game stretch of basketball ever.

These two feel different, in a way, though. We are still far away from either actually doing it, but I have a feeling both will give good runs. The Penguins look absolutely unstoppable, tossing aside Philadelphia like nothing (game 2 aside), with their offense humming, their top two guys playing as well as ever (honestly, how good are Crosby and Malkin?), and Matt Murray getting two shutouts in the first four games.

For Madrid, it is a bit tenuous, getting somewhat lucky to get past Juventus in the Quarterfinals, but at some point these lucky wins become more of a sign of their mental strength. I truly believe that Madrid believes that this is their competition, opponents be damned. Even in the face of  Bayern Munich, they have the mental edge (it helps they've knocked out this iteration of Bayern twice recently), and of course they have Cristiano, soccer's nice answer to Sidney Crosby, a player far too hated for someone so incredibly good.

Looking past whether they can, I want to talk about whether they should. Are dynasties, especially ones like this where it is three in a row, actually good? Sure, some of the reaction is skewed by my feelings about the teams, but in these cases, sure, excellence is great at times. Especially here. No hockey team has done this in 35 years. No soccer team has done this in close to 45 years. Every now and then we need this type of dominance. To remind ourselves what greatness is. For both, these are grueling competitions, especially hockey where the length you go in the playoffs directly reduces the length of the offseason. For both teams to be potentially on the cusp of it, and with the same core each of the three years, is remarkable.

We are too often annoyed by such success, and sure there is a certain societal gain by spreading the wealth, but too often we overlook what incredible dominance can teach. For the Penguins, it is just how good Crosby and Malkin are historically - specifically Malkin who was hilariously left off of the NHL's league-sanctioned Top 100 players list in 2017 commemorating the league's 100th(-ish) season. Sidney Crosby, a man so maligned for years despite being the league's best, most gifted player throughout, reaffirming his status as truly one of the best ever.

For Madrid, it is that raised even higher, for Ronaldo, who is as good at soccer as Crosby is at hockey and far more maligned than Sid the Kid, finally getting the respect by blowing out the competition in the Champions League to a truly hilarious degree. We can debate who the best player is or who is better between Messi and Ronaldo, but there is no debate in Champions League play.

Even with the coaches, it is interesting to note that neither has gotten the requisite credit even at this point. Oddly, both were hired mid-way through the first title season, and sheperded their teams as something of a hired hand. That is somewhat understandable. What is less so is after both Mike Sullivan and Zinedine Zidane won the second straight title, they still lag behind in credit. As someone who follows these types of debates too much, it is glaring how little either man is mentioned in 'Best Coach' in his sport - specifically Sullivan (it is somewhat easy to overlook Zidane since he is still Ziendaine Fucking Zidane - it is still unnatural to think of him as a great coach). Their time will come.

This may be all for not. There is, again, a decent chance neither team pulls it off, but as someone who railed against these types of streaks, it's odd how much I want both to do it to some degree. Again, with Madrid I openly just want them to do it as a Madridista, but with the Penguins, ostensibly a division rival of my team, I'm fully in support of them doing it. In Crosby increasing his trophy case, in Malkin doing the same - and hopefully getting the credit he so readily deserves as being closer to Crosby historically than people think. I won't be too sad if they don't get it done (and to be clear, I did pick them to lose to Philly), but there is a lot to like about the Penguins rise these last three years.

In the end, this is just a continuing theme of me being drawn more and more to sustained greatness as I've gotten older (again, Patriots being a giant, glaring exception). It happened with Federer, with LeBron, with Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw. Greatness in sports should be celebrated, and the rarest of achievements, the threepeat, even more so. We were spoiled by Phil Jackson, thinking this is somewhat natural. It still has never happened in the NFL. The few teams that have done it in baseball and hockey are among the most celebrated groups ever. It has never happened in the modern Champions League, and when it has in the prior iteration that was the European Cup, it too were clebrated groups. We may just be having two more, with more similarties than you would thin, about to do it both at the same time.

Monday, April 16, 2018

What the NBA playoffs can learn from the NHL and vice versa

The debate of when the best time of the year is in the sports calendar is a hotly debated one, but most, especially those that like either/both basketball or/and hockey seem to agree the period of April - June when both hold their playoffs in parallel is right up there. And it is, both sports having 2-4 games on a night for weeks on end, until each coalesces to Conference Finals and true Finals. This truly is a special time, especially since both give such different advantages. I'm not going to argue for one over the other. Of course, the NBA is more popular. Hockey is probably more celebrated for being a grueling tournament. I just want to point out a few areas where each seems to excel, not even necessarily over the other, but just in general. Things one would be good to pick up from the other.

First let's start with the shorter list (sadly), what the NBA can learn from the NHL in their playoff format:

= An actual functionally appropriate schedule

It is mindless how long the first round of the NBA playoffs takes. I get they want to avoid having 4 games on per night, and limit it to 2-3, but that means so many teams have two days off in a row throughout the first round. There's one series that started Sunday (yesterday, as I write this), will have its Game 2 on Wednesday, and Game 3 on Saturday. Yeah, there's no reason for this. The NHL will rarely have two off days, but most of the time it is one night off. It creates more of a rhythm, takes away the idea that 1st round games will be played 19 days into the playoffs of certain series go seven games. The endless length of the hockey playoffs is hailed, for basketball, it is mocked, partly due to this initial malaise.

= Re-Seeding

Look, I applaud the NBA for taking a practical approach to some of the seeding issues that have crept up over the years. First, after teams tanked to get the #6 seed in 2006 to play the #3 seed-by-right-of-winning-a-division Denver team, they decided that the #3 seed would not automatically go to a division winner - instead, the division winner would at worst be #4. Then, in 2015, the Trail Blazers ended up with the #4 seed despite a weaker record than all other playoff teams. Now they are seeded 1-8 by record. The only issue left is there is no re-seeding, something the NHL nicely did for years before going to their new NCAA Tournament-esque regional format (which has its own problems). 

= Get a better trophy

Look, the NBA trophy will never have the cache of the Stanley Cup, but the Larry O'Brien trophy is incredibly bland. It is not a memorable shape, has no real redeeming qualities. They need to re-design it. I realize trophies rarely get re-designed, but it's not like anyone considers the current trophy untouchable. The also need a better name. 

= Get some better branding about the tournament in general

Look, the NHL is not popular, I get that; but if you ask anyone to describe the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they will likely say something about how grueling and tough it is, how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup, to earn it, and all that stuff. For the NBA, the length is mocked. The early rounds are seen as a bit of a bore - the lack of upsets (relative) hurts. Anyway, they need some better branding of it is a tournament rather than a series of inevitable matches until LeBron vs. some Western Power happens.

Now the reverse

= Schedule your games better

Look, I'm against the scarcity approach of the NBA (2-3 games a day) but it does allow the games to be played independently. The NHL does the opposite, staggers them in such a dumb way. First off, before we get to the staggering, over the weekend they literally twice started two games at the exact same time. This makes absolutely no sense. Then, when they do decide to stagger, it is 30 minutes apart, which way too often ends up with games running concurrently way too much. Look, the hockey overload (3-4 games a night) is great, but the NHL is so stupid in their scheduling patterns.

= Better halftime/post-game shows

OK, this is a huge gripe in general, but the NHL's between period and post-game production is just so terrible. I'm not saying they should copy the NBA on TNT approach - that's a once in a lifetime combination that just works too well for the NBA. But apart from the comedy, what the NBA also does is focus on other games, not the one we were just watching like the NHL does. Oddly, the NHL's B team of Kathryn Tappen, Anson Carter and Random Third Guy (it rotates) is so much better than the main crew. Anyway, just do a better job NHL.

= Better team playoff branding

We The North. Fear The Deer. The current 76ers Snake. The NBA's annual playoff branding that teams take up is so well done. The NHL does a bit of this ('Rock the Red'), but it is usually just limited to the shirts they hand out to fans. The NBA takes on a collective approach, things that permeate just the game action. That is the way it should be done.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs - 1st Round Picks

Atlantic Division

(A1) Tampa Bay Lightning (113 pts)  vs  (AWC) New Jersey Devils (97 pts)

Cool Fact: The Lightning's 296 goals this season is the most since the 2010 Capitals, who rolled to a President's Trophy with over 300, and summarily lost in 7 games to the Jaroslav Halak show. Somehow, I think the Lightning will fare better here. Actually, even as a Devils fan, I don't want to ruin this Tampa season. Let them win. We'll have our fun in future. I don't think they'll need luck anyway.

Lightning in 5

(A2) Boston Bruins (112 pts)  vs  (A3) Toronto Maple Leafs (105 pts)

Cool Fact: People obviously will point to the 2013 1st Round series, when the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in Game 7, which they probably should. But I'll go with a different one. With this series, the Bruins will have played every Original 6 team in the playoffs since 2013, including three of them (Leafs, Canadiens, Rangers) twice. If they lose here, they'll actually get a chance to lose to a fourth original 6 team since then. I think the Leafs pull it out. Just haven't really trusted the Bruins all year.

Maple Leafs in 6

Metropolitan Division

(M1) Washington Capitals (105 pts)  vs  (MWC) Columbus Blue Jackets (97 pts)

Cool Fact: John Tortorella has played the Capitals in the playoffs a lot. Like a whole lot. One came before Ovechkin was around (2003), but then they played again in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014 and now this year. Each series has been entertaining in their own way, specifically those Capitals vs. Rangers series. I think this one will be interesting, because the Capitals find it impossible to ever win a series cleanly anymore, but ultimatley in a year where they seem to have little real pressure on them, I think they'll still pull it out.

Capitals in 6

(M2) Pittsburgh Penguins (100 pts)  vs  (M3) Philadelphia Flyers (98 pts)

Cool Fact: These two haven't met since 2012, a memorable series where goal upon goal was scored, Marc Andre-Fleury gave up 8 goals in a game (and that wasn't the worst goalie performance), and the Penguins memorably lost their mind, with Aaron Asham cross-checking a guy in the neck, James Neal taking run after run on Flyers players, and even Sidney Crosby getting penalized. I don't expect that many fireworks, but I do think the Flyers can win it. They're offense has been on fire of late, and something seems off about the Penguins.

Flyers in 6

Pacific Division

(P1) Vegas Golden Knights (109 pts)  vs  (PWC) Los Angeles Kings (98 pts)

Cool Fact: Obviously, this is the first expansion NHL team to make the playoffs in its first season. Of course, they draw the team that still seems to have some Stanley Cup mysique despite having a resume since their last Cup win of missing the playoffs twice and getting drummed by the 2016 Sharks in five games. Not really anything much to say about the series, but it will be interesting to see a notoriously night-life loving Kings team in Vegas for the playoffs. I think the Kings, and Jonathan Quick, will show up, but the Knights are this good for a reason.

Knights in 7

(P2) Anaheim Ducks (101 pts)  vs  (P3) San Jose Sharks (100 pts)

Cool Fact: They haven't actually met in the playoffs since 2009 (the other two 'Battle of California' series have happened multiple times), a year where the Sharks won the President's Trophy and lost in the 1st round to the Ducks in six games. The Ducks are the team with, in some ways, more experience than any other in the West, making the playoffs for a 6th straight season. The Ducks should be able to take advantage from a Sharks team that is still recovering.

Ducks in 6

Central Division

(C1) Nashville Predators (117 pts)  vs  (CWC) Colorado Avalanche (95 pts)

Cool Fact: The Predators won their first President's Tropy, and get to play the first NHL team ever to go from lowest points one year to the playoffs the next year. The Predators will have to duck history. The last team to lose the Cup Final and make it back was the 2009 Penguins. Thing is, they are too good to get tripped up here. And the world wants to see Predators vs. Jets.

Predators in 5

(C2) Winnipeg Jets (114 pts)  vs  (C3) Minnesota Wild (101 pts)

Cool Fact: This used to be one of the great rivalries, when it was the first incarnation of the Jets and the Minnesota North Stars. Of course, neither of those franchise still exist technically (Dallas and Arizona have yet to meet in the playoffs). The Jets also haven't won a playoff game in their current iteration, getting swept away in 2015 by the Ducks. Me thinks they'll win one, and get the chance to at least get wins 5-8.

Jets in 5

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Cup Playoffs Are Here

The best playoff tournament is about to start. Yes, better than March Madness. Better than the World Cup to come this summer. Better than the NFL playoffs that triumphantly ended with New England failing to win 3 Super Bowls in 4 years (for the second time). The Stanley Cup Playoffs are better than all of these things. It may last too long (but actually does better than basketball, which hilariously makes its first round go on for like four weeks). But it never fails to disappoint. Endless and energetic, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are perfect.

There is truly nothing like the intensity of playoff hockey, or at least nothing that combines the drama and the speed. There is nothing as grueling, to a point where generally everyone in the Stanley Cup Finals is playing hurt to some degree. There is no greater test or gauntlet. There is no long playoff format that mixes both spates of upsets each year with generally having a deserving winner each time out. And there's no playoff tournament that crowns a tournament (and not finals/Super Bowl/World Series) MVP - even if that is done out of tradition than actual implementation. There really are so many incredible elements that combine to create a perfect cocktail.

My favorite part of the playoffs is the first and second rounds, when there is hockey multiple times each night. The endless celebration of the sport. I remember when I was a kid, I would stay up and watch the late games, just putting them on the background, inevitably falling asleep to the beautiful sounds of a stadium cheering and chanting. I loved learning the line combinations of the random Western Conference teams I never really watched or cared about. I learned the various goal songs and celebrations. The noises of the game, rhapsody on ice.

This year is no different, and if anything should be better. This was one of the more enjoyable regular seasons in a long time, including a sudden rise in scoring to a limit not seen since the 2007-08 season. We had a Lightning team score 296 goals, the most by any team since the 2009-10 Capitals. We had others in the 270 range. We had Ovechkin hit his usual quota of goals, but neo-Ovechkin nearly match him in Patrik Laine. And of course, we had Vegas.

The story of the Vegas Golden Knights is one of the most incredible sports stories in recent memory. There were a lot of reports that the league would be more forgiving in the expansion draft process, not wanting Vegas to be as badd as the exapnsion teams of the 90's in the first few seasons, but even then few saw them even challenging for a playoff spot. Instead, they win the division wire-to-wire, and have the best home record of any team, with the mystique of the Vegas nightlife (no pun intended) being a far better home ice factor than even the wild fanbase that showed up constantly.

There is no real bad team in this years playoffs either, with the most anonymous or fogettable of the 16 probably being my Devils, who return to the playoffs off the back of potential Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall (that Hall for Larsson trade looks a lot different a year later) for the first time in 6 years. But outside of them you have Boston getting back in, against Toronto in a great revival of a dormant rivalry. You have the battle of Pennsylvania (during a time when I'm on a project near Philadelphia, will definitely be going to a local sports bar for a few of their games). You have the Battle of California (Sharks/Ducks), the aforementioned Vegas Knights trying to beat teh Kings playoff mystique (last seen four years ago), and even a nostalgic battle between Winnipeg and Minnesota (apparently, the previous iteration of the Jets and North Stars used to be big rival). This first round should be an insane whirlwind of 8 concurrent series.

Honestly, the playoff field is great every year; but this year just seems to set up for more fun than ever. Sure, not having Chicago around feels a bit odd (what a quick, stunning drop for a team who led the Western Conference in points just one season ago), and not having Connor McDavid is sad, but everything else is there to enjoy.

Honestly, I'm just ready to sit back and enjoy. I don't even want to make picks, to try to analyze this too much, just want to enjoy the carnival of hockey, the never ending run of incredible drama, draining, endless overtimes. Playoff hockey truly is the best, and the 2018 vintage has the chance to be something special. Can Ovechkin and the Caps finally get to a Conference Final, in a year when they seem a bit under the radar for once. Can the Penguins three-peat? Can the Lightnings finish their dream season off in style, or similarly can Vegas or Winnipeg (NBC probably hopes the answer is a hard 'No'), can the Preds finish off their incredible year? All the possibilities exist, and I just want to start this drama off now.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

On Cristiano

What Cristiano Ronaldo did today, expunge any chance that Juventus was going to end Real Madrid's run of eight straight trips to the Champions League Final, doing so with a most ludicrous goal that drew a standing ovation from the crowd in Turin, and a look mixed equal parts bemusement and agape wonder from Zidane, was another sign that this man is not done yet. And with him in such imperious form, neither is Real Madrid.

This has been a season of oddities at the Bernabeu. A year after seemingly conquering Spain along with Europe, setting into action a new period of Madridista rule, they are looking way up at Barcelona in La Liga, and Zidane's job seemed to be holding on for dear life. So many odd, lifeless performances. So many times when all seemed lost, a year after it all seemed like it would never end. But now that the business end of this tournament, their tournament, has reached, the old stars are back, the team is fighting, and Ronaldo is doing Ronaldo things.

Ronaldo started the season suspended, and then distracted and disorientatingly average, but once the calendar flipped to 2018, his has returned with all sorts of vengeance, looking to corral Leo Messi for the La Liga scoring crown, and doing things only he does in the Champions League. This is his tournament. There was a ludicrous stat mentioned today, that he has scored more goals in quarterfinals matches in the Champions League (22) than Juventus as a club (21). The stats are boundless, but that has always been there. What we saw today was the magic however.

The ball seemed suspended in midair, carving towards Ronaldo, who readied himself. It was over in one seamless flash, him contorting himself perfectly, striking the ball perfectly, hitting the corner of the net. For a few seconds, no one really could make sense of what happened. Gigi Buffon just stood there, Leo Bonnucci shrugged his shoulders, with a look of 'what was I supposed to do.' Ronaldo himself acted more restrained than usual, almost as if to say he let the goal do all the work for him. And then they started clapping, and clapping.

I've longed heard about this age old story of the Bernabeu crowd giving Ronaldinho a standing ovation after a goal worth of the man. I've never seen such a thing happen in my time watching, but I did today. Ronaldo had just killed off Juventus, but the fans had nothing to do but stand and applaud. Zidane's own meme-worthy, rubbing his head in amazement, was almost as good. He's a man who has scored some amazing goals in his lifetime, one in this very competition that will go down in history (a goal he would openly say was better than Cristiano's when pressed on it), but even he had no idea what he just saw.

The best part of this is Ronaldo, especially over the last three years, has become known for being the worlds greatest 'right place, right time' goal scorers ever. Optimists and fans say it is due to his preternatural sense of where to be; the pessimists call him a poacher who specializes in 'tap in' goals. That's what made this so crazy, a goal that would make the Man United Ronaldo blush at its audacity, its sheer brilliance, technically perfect and so dramatic.

Some day he really will slow down, he really will stop scoring goals. The investments Real Madrid made last offseason and probably will make this upcoming one will take centerstage. But until then this supernova star is still burning so bright, enough to bring wonder to a man on the touchline who has seen it all, and fans that have had joy beaten out of them at times. Ronaldo is still a legendary player, and moments like today's in Turin are just more brushstrokes to that perfect canvas.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

MLB 2018: 30 thoughts on the Season, Pr. 2

... Can the Astros work their magic on Gerritt Cole

Last year, the Astros signed a Pirates pitcher who had some decent stuff, had him re-jigger slightly, and turned him into a very capable #3 starter and the guy who shut the door in Game 7 of the World Series. Charlie Morton ended up exceeding expectations. Now the Astros get to try it again, but this time without someone who potentially has quite a bit more upside. Gerrit Colts was the #1 pick in the 2011 draft. He had an amazing 2015 season, but was just slightly above average the last two years. The stuff is all there, and the Astros have done a great job recently of taking damaged goods and turning them around. If they can run it back again with Cole, they might have a truly scary starting rotation.

... Strasburg's rise

Speaking of scary rotations, the Nationals best pitcher may not even be their guy who won the Cy Young award the last two seasons. Stephen Strasburg did the following in the second half: 12 Starts, 72 IP, 1.11 ERA, 82 Ks, WHIP of 0.85. Strasburg was a demon. He was even better in the playoffs with two dominant starts against the Cubs. Strasburg finally seems healthy, seems stable, and should do even better this season. His career is a strange one in that he had such outrageous hype it is hard to call him anything but a relative disappointment, but his actual seasons have been strong, and he seemed to put it all together last year. Despite being one of the 'superteams' there does seem to a bit of tension around the Nationals, probably in large part due to Harper's impending free agency, but with guys like Strasburg (and Scherzer, and Gio, and on and on), they still should shine from the mound.

... The Red Sox vs. Yankees

It's been a while since there was a real fun AL East race. I guess last year somewhat qualifies, but the Red Sox never seemed in too much jeopardy. But this year? It should be great. Both teams seem on paper better versions of the ones from last year, with the Sox getting much needed power into that lineup, and the Yankees getting even more power into theirs. I grew up on baseball in the early 00's and while there was nothing as overmarketed as the classic Sox Yanks games in 2003-2007, few rivalries actually delivered either. The best part right now, especially for a Boston hater like me (though not really regarding the Red Sox) is that the edge seems somewhat planted on the Yankees side of things. They got farther last year, got the bigger offseason acquisition, and now look set to add a major piece in the upcoming season. Oh, and they have the better farm system. NY is on the front foot at the moment.

... The Giants 2013 All Star Team

Watching the Giants last year was painful. In Spring, Bumgarner got hurt again and may miss a few months so that pain is continuing. That said, with the depressed state of the NL, the winnability of one of the Wild Card slots, and the acquisitions they made, there should at least be fun baseball in San Francisco. The idea of adding Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutcheon is a lot of fun, even if it is a few years late for both to actually make a meaningful difference. Then again, Longoria is only one year removed from a 127 OPS+ season, and McCutchen was at 121 OPS+ just this past year. The Giants, if they can get health from a few guys that were uncharacteristically down or hurt last year, have a clear path to .500, but what they really need is for the 2013 All Stars to still be good five years later.

... Ichiro in Seattle

Look, Ichiro is not good anymore. He hasn't really been good since 2012, though he was somewhat decent in 2016. Overall thought, him signing and going back to Seattle is purely a novelty play by both a franchise and a player who doesn't want to let go of the past. That said, sign me up immediately. Seeing Ichiro in Seattle just seems right. He may barely play, and when he does he will be a shell of the guy who left Seattle all those years back, but having him come home is just a great story for baseball. Ichiro is the most unique baseball player I've ever seen, and he was unconscionably good back in the day, and even if he just drums up memories rather than actual value, that's more than what Seattle has been given in recent years. 

... Harper & Machado: Contract Year

No surprise here; the upcoming free agency of both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will be a landmark moment for baseball. There is a very realistic chance we have the $400 million mark broken in American sports for the first time. This is such a rarity, a player entering free agency with still many years of prime performance ahead of time. Harper will be 26 in 2019, and Machado will be 26/27. These are not the ages of guys that hit the open market, with years of good performance already under their belt. Yes, Trout would get a contract blowing these two out of the water, but that's not the place we are in. With Harper and Machado, we are in an amazing moment in time, and their performance this year, especially if either has a truly outstanding season, could make even $500 million come into play.

... Can the Rockies pitching keep it up?

The 2017 Rockies were a strange team. They made the playoffs off the back of pitching, as their offense struggled. Of course, you have to adjust for Colorado to see these things, but essentially they were a pitching-first Rockies team. Their young pitchers are all back for 2018 too. Jon Gray is the star (25 years, 136 ERA+), but Kyle Freeland (24, 122), Tyler Chatwood (27, 107), Antonio Sanzatela (22, 107) and Tyler Anderson (207, 104) were all quite good and gave the Rockies something that they haven't ever seen before, young, cost controlled, successful pitching. Some of the more stats inclined people I've read seem to think a lot of it was smoke and mirrors apart from Jon Gray, but even then there is hope in Colordao for the first time in a long while. It will be very interesting to see if Freeland and Sanzatela, two of the more intriguing youngsters (apart from Gray) can keep it up in 2018.

... The sneaky FA champion Brewers

The Brewers were the NLs version of the Twins, a team that competed well before anyone expected them to. They couldn't hold off the Cubs for the entire season, but were competitive fairly deep into September. They had a lot of guys perform well, but few seemed to be having years they would be incapable of repeating. And of course now they add Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to the mix, both still young players that can produce 3-5 WAR easily. The Brewers didn't land the one big pitcher that they somewhat desperately need (assuming Chase Anderson is not the next Roy Oswalt), but being to add good defense and contact hitting to a power-hungry lineup is a great start towards repeating the 2017 season for a team still a year or two away from when most people thought they would be competitive.

... Astros year after and the Cubs year after the year after

All we heard last offseason was how the Cubs were too goo, too stacked, to fall victim to the year after effect. Well, they did, swimming aimlessly to a .500 record in the first half of the season. They caught fire in teh second half, finished with 93 wins, but were still a disappointment compared to the perfect 2016 version. This offseason was the same, but with my Astros, again hailed as being too good to get complacent, to get tired, to believe in the hype, to do all the things that normally happen (as the narrative goes) to World Series champs. Obviously, I think the Astros are too good, but it will be interesting to see if the same thing happens. For the Cubs, with a trim Schwarber, and the addition of Yu Darvish, it will be interesting to see if they can find their 2016 joie de vivre again.

... Does the mound visit limit actually change anything?

So after much show was made of ways to improve pace of play, all that was actually implemented in 2018 is a strange limit of 6 mound visits that don't end in pitcher changes. What was interesting was the analysis showed few games actually have more than six. The ones that did that caused the stir were mostly these playoff games when Brian McCann went out every 3-5 pitches. I get that was mind-numbing at times, but it was also the effing World Series. I honestly don't see how this will make a real change on pace. But it will be interesting that first time a team forgets and runs out of mound visits. I fully expect a pitching clock to come by 2020 and start making actual meaningful Iimpact on pace.

... The wonder of bullpen cars, and will other teams follow 'Zona's lead?

Yes, the Diamondbacks are bringing back the bullpen car. It is a perfectly cute one too, with a Diamondbacks cap on the top, and a white baseball structure in the middle. It is 100% awesome. This is one of the greatest developments in recent seasons. I truly hope other teams take thsi forward and we get bullpen cars reintroduced across baseball. I have no idea if it makes it any faster. I don't understand how there is not a negative imapct on the playing field. But I care zero percent about either of those two things, just to get these great bullpen cars back in our lives. Long live the bullpen car. 

... Correa, Seager, Lindor (but mainly Correa)

The 90's were ruled by shortstops, Messers Jeter, A-Rod and Nomar. The 2010s-2020s may be as well, with Correa, Lindor and Seager, all between 23-25 for this season. Lindor is the great fielder, whose power nicely spiked along with the rest of baseball. Seager and Correa are the more truly 5-tool gifted ones, and both have a chance to be truly special. Of course, my heart is with Carlos, a preternaturally gifted player that can be the next Harper/Machado mega-contract superstar. Seager is about 80-90% as good as Correa, and has a huge market to make a name for himself. Watching these three megastars grow together will truly be a great joy.

... Watching Joey Votto Hit

Slowly but surely, Votto has beaten down the haters and has started to get the credit and adulation he's long been due.

... Watching Byron Buxton and Andrelton Simmons field

... Watching the Astros, again

Kansas v. Duke; a Modern Classic

Through two weekends of March Madness, this tournament had it all. It of course had the legend of a 16 beating a 1, but it also had now the run of Loyola-Chicago, a handful of buzzer beaters or last second shots to win a game, big collapses, and great performances. The one thing it didn't have was a truly memorable game. It had memorable moments, but no stand out game. Well, cross that off the list.

What Duke and Kansas did was provide one of the best college basketball games I've seen in years. Now, sure if this happened in the Final Four it would be even more meaningful, but that was a brilliant game, matching two blue blood programs, two Hall of Fame coaches, a number of great players from upcoming high draft picks to legendary seniors. Sure, it helps when Duke loses, and Grayson Allen has a terrible game including missing the game-winning shot, and Kansas gets back to the final four to vindicate their great coach, but as Bill Self said, even if the outcome was reversed, that would have been a ridiculous game.

18 lead changes. 10 other ties. The entire game was played between an 11-point range, from Duke up 4 to Kansas up 7, and Kansas up 7 only happened twice, once early in the second half which Duke answered with a 7-2 run, and then at the very end after fouling. Most of the game was essentially played between Duke up 2 and Kansas up 4, that was basically hte entire second half. No team ever felt comfortable with the lead, but both teams felt comfortable in terms of their actual play, and that is what makes this game special.

There have been other nice games in this tournament, from Michigan's ridiculous win over Houston, or the first three Loyola wins, or even the Texas vs. Cincinnati game back in the first round. But a lot of those were plagued with misses and defensive struggles and crazy shots. This wasn't. This was college basketball nirvana.

The coaching was insane, especially with Bill Self. He's now apparently 12-4 in his last 16 games against Duke, UNC and Kentucky. He gets up for big games. He had a team that plays basically 7 guys, five of which are guards, and somehow had his team outrebound Duke by 15. His offense was perfectly constructed to hit through Duke's heretofore great zone. Their defense was creative, doubling Bagley over and over again the second he touched the ball, which took Duke a while to get used to, and even going to a triangle-and-2 for a few minutes. This was one of Bill Self's msaterpieces, and it was so well deserved.

The game itself flowed so well, with big shots after big shots. Grayson Allen did nothing, but both Jr's, and Marvin Bagley were great. For Kansas, Malik Newman was a man possessed, and Devonte Graham was on fire. Svi Mykhailuk's huge three to tie the game was such a ballsy shot, especially after missing two wide open threes previously. The ball movement by Kansas was special in OT, whizzing it around to Newman with almost Spurs-esque precision. It was rhapsodic.

Another small piece of the game that helped was that it was played in a basketball stadium. The NCAA has started to somewhat walk back the constant use of football stadiums which started to become normal for some of the regional finals, and having it in a normal basketball arena made it so much better. The energy was palpable, even if it was a decidedly pro-Kansas crowd. The Duke fans came to make noise, and there were no real moments where either team had case to boo - other than maybe the blocking foul called on Wendell Carter, Jr., to knock him out of the game.

March Madness is sold as a way to watch the cinderella sotries, the ridiculous madness in a 64-team bracket happening simultaneously, and the 2018 vintage had both in spades. But what makes a great tournament are those types of games, whether it be the 2016 final between Villanova and North Carolina, or the 2005 Final between the top two teams all year that year (Illinois, North Carolina) which capped a ridiculous tourney preceding it. For this year, it may end up being this one, a classic between two bluest of the blue blood programs fighting down to the death.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

MLB 2018: 30 Thoughts for the Season, Pt 1

... The Astros defend a title

No big breakdown or much to this. Just a quick reminder my Boys won the World Series last year and get to tout that and lord that over every team all year long. Can't wait.

... Can Shohei Otani make the 2-way thing work?

The biggest story of the early part of the offseason has relatively disappointed to this point in spring training, not doing great from either side of the plate. Of course, it is spring training, and if there was a pitcher seen as a star with a bad spring training ERA, or a top hitter with a bad batting line, no one would care too much. That all said, it is a bit disappointing, but I can't imagine it really changes the Angels thinking. They are going to try this, and while I don't want Shohei to succeed too much (they are division rivals after all), I do want him to succeed enough to keep it going, to show that 2-way players are possible. It will be fascinating to see if the Angels pull the plug at any point, or if anything "rest" him from batting if his pitching performance is suffering. Honestly, the outcome I want to see is Shohei be a #2/#3 starter, and him bat .280/.330/.420, not good enough to hurt the Astros chances at a division title, but not bad enough to stop the experiment.

... How many home runs can the Yankees hit?

The Yankees are projected by Fangraphs to hit more home runs than any team ever. Projections usually aren't too outlandish, a median expectation with room on either side. Basically, there is a good chance based on this projection they blow the team home run record out of the water. And why not. They hit 241 last year, and they are replacing Brett Gardner and/or Matt Holiday (41 HR combined) with Giancarlo Stanton. Oh, and Greg Bird should be better in his 2nd season, and Gary Sanchez missed the first month. This team is ludicrous. That stadium plays it up even more. The Yankees may not even be the league's best offense, because a lot of their players are strikeout prone, but they will feel like the best offense no matter what. Injury is the only thing that may stand in their way from assaulting the record book.

... The next wave of prospects, Acuna and the Jr's.

The top three prospects, Ohtani aside, seem to have a decent consensus with Ronald Acuna (Braves) and then two Jr's of players I very much remember in their senior version, in Vladimir Guerrerro Jr., and Fernando Tatis, Jr. Acuna is 20. The Jrs are 19. Acuna seems like a lock to get up this season (and if not for the inanity of service time rules should have been an opening day starter, and Guerrerro and Tatis may see some action late in the year, each developed way beyond their age. Baseballs prospect scheme is a great way to sell hope, and even though I have no real affiliation or affection for the Braves, Blue Jays and Padres, but being a fan of a team who had to live through its prospects for a number of years, I will say it is still a fun exercise and lends a huge amount of fun enjoyment to otherwise dead baseball franchises.

... Can Home Runs go back to normal?

This seems a bit counter to my Yankees point, but I do wonder if we'll see the home run numbers start retreating. I firmly believe a lot of the rise in home runs is due to a slight change in the baseball that if anything may have been unplanned. I think MLB knows this, and while I don't know if they actually think it is a negative, they may tinker back and make the HR levels return to normal. What's amazing is the overall offensive level in baseball hasn't really risen all that much if at all. The rise is only HRs. While some of this might be an optimization of launch angle, more seems to be driven by the ball. It is a bit ridiculous when career light-to-moderate hitters start launching 25-30 home runs. It definitely devalues the event. I'm not going to get on a soapbox and say the game is being ruined, and certainly I enjoyed Games 2 & 5 of the World Series no matter how many home runs were hit, but I also enjoyed Game 1, which was a taut 3-1 game. I do think we need more of the latter than the former.

... Which team makes the surprise run for those Wild Card spots?

It happens every year. Last year, it was the Twins, and both NL teams in Colorado and Arizona. This year? Who knows. There are some good candidates, but then yu wonder if the good candidates becme a bit too obvious. There's the Giants that brought in a handful of 2013 all stars who are still decent to match with a team full of players who should rebound. Or the Mets, who maybe could somehow get all their great pitchers healthy at the same time. Or the Royals with one last hurrah. Hell, I even heard some A's and Reds love out there. Nothing is too crazy. I don't know the last season that had no true surprise wild card (or in theory division winner) in the playoffs. What's amazing is because there are the core-7 "Super Teams" (Astros, Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, Dodgers, Nationals, Cubs) and a slew of teams that are more or less rebuilding (tanking), that middle is full of teams projected to win between 73-85 games. There's often variance there to easily swing any of them into playoff positioning.

... Max Scherzer's late HOF charge

We all know how great Kershaw is, but Max Scherzer has just as many Cy Young awards, winning in each of the last two seasons. Scherzer's career numbers are so interesting because this is a guy who didn't really do much until he was 25, but now, entering his age 33 season, he has 141 wins, a career 3.30 ERA, and 2,149 Ks over 1,897 innings. He has the hardware. The stats are off the charts. Scherzer has quietly put up what could easily be a HOF career, and seasons like this upcoming one are key to building up that resume. Of course, we have to say that the standards for starting pitchers seem absurdly high at the moment. A re-set will be needed, and hopefully Roy Halladay, sadly, can start that charge getting in with under 200 wins and without the conventional counting stats that were needed in the past. Back to Scherzer, he just had his best season, which is crazy, and has put up at least 230 Ks for six straight seasons. And it all seems so easy. It's amazing that the guy once known for having a condition where his eyes were different colors ended up being so good that is a fun fact lost in time.

... Surprises in Seattle (I actually think they'll be good)

The race for the second wild card spot in the AL seems to be the only real drama entering the season on the junior circuit - that and I guess who of Boston or New York wins the AL East. For the second wild card, it is a bit of a muddled mess, put let me posit Seattle for a moment. They are a team with a decent offense, with a still healthy and good Robbie Cano, next to Segura and Seager. I'm very curious also in their Dee Gordon experiment. I feel like King Felix may have a comeback year. Plus, the idea of Ichiro back in Seattle and making the playoffs with them for the first time since his rookie season is a thought that just makes me happy. Let me dream, for a minute.

... The Rays' 4-man rotation

I love when teams get creative, and nothing is more creative to me than three teams approaching the innings issues and slowdown in starting pitching workload in two separate but both fun ways. The Rangers and Angels have decided to go with six man rotations. The Rays, instead are going to a modified 4-man rotation, utilizing the increase in off days littered in the schedule and some opportunities to go full bullpenning to keep their arms fresh. The Rays approach is more fun. With the Rangers and Angels, 6-man rotations may be the future of baseball, but they're also boring, and are already brewing some discontent (Cole Hamels came out against the idea). The Rays, on the other hand, have what seems to be a genius idea. They'll throw Archer every fifth game, and throw their three other 'starters' the same, but most will get extra rest due to off-days. Then if there is a run of five straight games, they'll bullpen that fifth game. It is maximizing the use of your four best starters, and also bullpenning is probably no better or worse than throwing a 5th starter. Trust the Rays to be the first team to truly try this out. If it works, and they can keep Archer healthy and happy as the 'ace' to please, I can easily see other teams try this next year.

... The Mets health

Syndergaard's first game back he threw 99 and then flung a 92-mph slider by Jose Altuve. I want that Thor back. I want DeGrom healthy. I want all of them back. The Mets were such a scary looking team with that cost controlled rotation when they rode them to the 2015 World Series. We all know what's happened since, but there's still hope here. Of course, the Mets offense was also banged up last year with Cespedes and Conforto missing time at various points. The Mets should be healthy, and a healthy Mets team has a clear shot at a Wild Card berth. More than anything, it would be good to get a full season of Thor, and that pure filth he can throw. Add in an always good DeGrom, and at least 40% of the time the Mets will be can't watch.

... Cleveland's last great stand

What the Indians have done the last two years, and are set-up to do again this year, is just amazing. They get an easy division as an added bonus to make it fairly certain they'll make it back to the playoffs a third straight year. How much longer it continues past 2018 is cloudy, so it is best to enjoy this rennaissance while it lasts. The Indians pitching should once again be fantastic, with Kluber at the top, but even the other starters all capable and better than that fun to watch. The offense still has the beauty that is Francisco Lindor, and the nearly as beautiful Jose Ramirez as his infield mate. This really is a great time for middle-infield duos at the moment.

... How the humidor impacts Arizona

Years later, it doesn't seem like the Humidor did much for Colorado, but it will be an interesting experiment in a place where the reason the stadium is such a hitter's park is purely dry air, no elevation involved. The Diamondbacks actually may stand to gain a lot from this, because their pitching staff could be great. Grienke, odd Spring Training velocity drop aside, still projects to be great. The rest of the rotation returns four pitchers who had ERA+'s of 119 (Corbin), 166 (Robbie Ray), 137 (Tijuan Walker), and 142 (Zack Godley). Yes, the Diamondbacks were quietly one of the better pitching staffs in recent memories. If they can control home runs (which they didn't do last year), they could be special. Hopefully for them,

... the sad end of Pittsburgh and Baltimore

It's just sad writing about this. With the rise of super teams, comes also the end of the teams that made 2012-2016 pretty fun as well. The Pirates and Orioles both had their moments, both can feign that they are still competitive, and both should know that lure of competitiveness is a misleading. The Pirates started accepting their fate in earnest when they traded both Gerrit Cole and more shockingly and sadly Andrew McCutchen. The Orioles have not been so accepting of their fate, shown by the recent signing of Alex Cobb, which is a nice deal but a bit meaningless for a team that might be destined for 82-80 as an upside. Both teams have been so fun these recent years, and have filled those beautiful ballparks they have with so many great memories; it is sad those cathedrals may return to staid emptiness very soon.

... Mike Trout's revenge tour

Mike Trout was having his best season yet before he got hurt. He came back and wasn't as good, but still ended the season with 6 WAR, in the Top-5 of the AL, and still finished with a few down ballot MVP votes, but that season should have been so much more. Well, Trout's healthy and rested now, struck out just one time so far in Spring Training, and looks amazing. The Angels themselves have built up a nice little team now, especially with Ohtani, Justin Upton, Simmons, and Calhoun all around Trout as the centerpiece. Trout has a chance to have one of the best seven year stretches ever if he gets another 8-10 WAR this year, and I think him missing part of last year made people actually appreciate him even more.

... Clayton Kershaw, now and forever

Mike Trout may be a better hitter than Kershaw is a pitcher (even if not, it is arguable), but being a starting pitcher, Kershaw's everlasting brilliance just feels more prominent and more enjoyable. Watching him pitch is one of the great joys. That brilliant curveball, one of the great pitchers of our lifetime, and the suddenly masterful changeup. His brilliant command, pinpointing corner after corner. I truly hope he doesn't get hurt again this year. He deserves a fourth Cy Young award, another brilliant season, and a ring at some point. Here's hoping 2018 is another memorable Kershaw year for the best pitcher I've ever seen.

Monday, March 19, 2018

On UMBC, just UMBC

For years, I remember hearing that it was somewhat inevitable that at some point a #16 seed would beat a #1 seed, that it was bound to happen. I mean, the talent difference between 16 & 1 is not that much larger than 15 & 2, and we saw a run of them since 2012, as it's happened four times since then, including twice in 2012.

Certainly, it was odd that it never had happened. And then it did; and not only did a #16 seed beat a #1 seed, they crushed them. They hung with them in the first half, ending tied 21-21, took an early lead in the second and never looked back. Virginia never made anything approaching a run all game. It was incredible. One of the last sports final frontiers has been reached, and they tore down that wall like nothing else.

I watched the game half-drunk at a New York bar filled with Syracuse fans cheering on their team during their game, but people slowly started directing their eyes to the one screen tucked in the corner end of the bar that was showing the Virginia game. At first it was 'Hey, that's cute, UMBC is tied at halftime.' Then it became 'Oh my God, they're up by 10+ deep into the second half.' At some point, it became 'You know what, this is going to happen!' and by then that one screen started to drown out the rest.

I've thought a lot about it. On the one hand, it is cool that a 16 finally won a game. Sure, it would have been more fun had it happen to a more blue-blood #1 than Virginia (there was a period on Thursday where it seemed like an over-seeded Penn might be able to do it to Kansas), but what was helpful was that this was no fluke, both in UMBC's ridiculous performance and the fact that UMBC very much deserved a #16 seed, and Virginia very much deserved the #1 overall seed.

Virginia was a great team all season long, losing just two games, going through the gauntlet of the ACC dropping just one, a 1-point loss to Virginia Tech in OT. The ACC sent four teams to the Sweet 16 (Duke, Syracuse, Clemson and Florida State). Virginia went a ridiculous 7-0 against those teams. Alas, none of it matters now.

Honestly, in my time watching sports, almost nothings seems so incredible unlikely as this. The only arena I can begin to compare this to is tennis, a similarly large bracketed tournament, with also similar displays of inequality even among its top 128. Maybe Sirgey Stakhovsky beating a gimpy Federer in Wimbledon 2013 in the 2nd round, or Rafael Nadal losing to Lukas Rosol in the same 2nd round in 2012? Maybe Novak Djokovic, when he was still the clear #1, losing to Denis Istomin in the 2nd round. That's probably the closest, but that is it.

This was more unlikely than Super Bowl XLII, or Super Bowl XXXVI, or any other football game. This is more unlikely than the 73-9 Warriors not winning the NBA Finals. Honestly, you could make the case that was more unlikely than the Miracle on Ice. People forget the USSR struggled at times in that tournament, and while they did humiliate the USA a few weeks before the start of the Winter Olympics, my guess is if Virginia played UMBC two weeks back they probably would have humiliated them too.

I think the last time I was this shocked about a result in a team sport was when Michigan lost to Appalachian State in the 2007 College Football opener. That may have been more stunning in theory, but that ended up being not so good a Michigan team, and that Appalachian State team had a few future pros on it. Still, I do have to think if this still was even more shocking.

It is so ingrained in your mind as a bracket-filler that #16s never come close to beating #1 seeds. I can even remember the few times it seemed remotely possible in recent years, with one of the most famous examples being in 2006, when UCONN struggled to put away Albany. Hell, as mentioned, Penn's brief 10-point lead in the first half was enough to make major headlines. The fact a team actually pulled it off, and dominated while doing so, is almost unconsciable.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.