Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

The 2015 Yankees will not be a good team.  Certainly not "good" by typical Yankee standards.  Much of that is due to some odd acquisitions this winter and a sudden fiscal responsibility.  One choice the frugal Yankees made this off-season was to let incumbent closer David Robertson depart for the White Sox rather than attempt to resign him.  Though it left a Mo-sized hole at the back of the bullpen, the Yankees are prepared to fill that hole with a very big body. 

Newly-acquired reliever Andrew Miller, a 6'7" lefty, join's last year's 6'8" set-up man, the right-hander Dellin Betances, to form the last line of defense for New York.  How those two will be deployed is one of spring training's early story lines.  I would advocate moving away from the traditional (and some would say silly) model of having one guy designated as the closer and one as the 8th-inning set-up man.  I'm not the only one with this idea, and Joe Girardi has even been asked whether he'd consider a closer tandem:
It would not be my first choice, but it’s something you can definitely think about.
Okay, Joe, let's think about it.  For one, both Betances and Miller present the same interesting fact: neither one is appreciably better (or worse) against lefties or righties, making the two of them virtually interchangable:


PITCHER2014 VS. LEFT2014 VS. RIGHT
AVGOPSAVGOPS
Betances.163.405.135.482
Miller.163.467.145.446

You can still play lefty vs. lefty and righty vs. righty, figuring that even perceptibly hitters are less comfortable facing a guy throwing from the same side.  Then it's up to Girardi: who's coming up in the 8th?  Is Robinson Cano slated to bat second?  Let Miller start the 8th.  (The lefty Cano is 1-for-12 against Miller.)  Won't see Miguel Cabrera until the 9th?  Save Betances for the end, as Cabrera has come away with 3 strikeouts in 3 trips against him.

Another benefit of an interchangeable 1-2 punch: gone are the days of the too-tired closer.  Some nights, even the infallible Rivera was unavailable if he'd pitched in three straight games.  With a pair of arms to choose from on any given night, there should always be a powerful (and fresh) arm to close out a game.  It also makes the lives of opposing managers more difficult.  If you can't guarantee who's pitching in the 8th or the 9th, you can't effectively line up your late-game pinch-hitters. 

There's also something to be said for sharing the burden.  Neither Betances nor Miller has been a full-time closer before, and certainly neither has done so in the pressure cooker of Yankee Stadium.  Knowing that the whole world isn't riding on your shoulders has to be a relief.  If an anointed Betances blows a couple of April saves, how would that affect his confidence moving forward?  How would it affect him if Miller got the next save opportunity?

But if each pitcher knew that the manager was going to use each pitcher to the best of his abilities, dictated by the situation, each would know that his role was safe.  A blown save on Tuesday and an 8th-inning role on Wednesday wouldn't portend anything for Thursday.  That's not to say that one player won't excel in the closer role and make him the de facto choice.  But why force the issue before we really know?

It's an interesting "problem" to have, and I wonder how it will work out.  With a team that's likely to struggle for runs again, protecting a late-game lead becomes even more important.  The Yankees would seem to have the weapons.  How those weapons are to be deployed is the real question.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Shut It Down!

In what came as less a surprise than an unfortunate (but perhaps necessary) inevitability, Carmelo Anthony indicated that the NBA All-Star game would probably be his last game of the season.  Like Liz Lemon used to say, "SHUT IT DOWN." 

Citing a sore left knee that has kept him out of action at times this season, Anthony told ESPN Radio it's "very likely" he won't be back on the court after Sunday's game.  In fact, Anthony may only make a token appearance, wave to the fans (well, to the laughably small contingent of fans in attendance) and shuffle off the court.  Like most Knicks' fans, Anthony has had enough.

Without Anthony, a Knicks' team that already has the worst record in the NBA will be, somehow, even worse.  But for Knicks' fans who had already given up on the season, that's okay.  Because the light at the end of the (Lincoln) tunnel is the Draft Lottery.  The biggest dreamers among us will remember that first draft lottery.  Much has changed since 1985 -- now we have ping pong balls, weighted odds, and a lot more teams.  But seeing Dave DeBusschere nearly topple over with glee when David Stern revealed the Knicks to be the winner of the Patrick Ewing sweepstakes is the sort of thing that makes losing, if not palatable, then a means to an end.  The Melo-less Knicks would certainly have the inside track to that 25% chance at the #1 pick.

Speaking of wihch, many early mock drafts have Duke's Jahlil Okafor as the top pick.  With Jason Smith and Cole Aldrich sharing time in the middle, the Duke center would look mighty fine in orange and blue.  Even if the Knicks don't land that top pick, PG Emmanuel Mudiay, SG D'Angelo Russell or another top prospect will be on the board when the Knicks make their selection.

It's safe to say that Phil Jackson will get a rehabilitated Anthony some help when the (post-surgery?) forward takes the floor next October.  Add a star free agent to the mix -- the Knicks could have some $30 million in cap space -- and all this losing may not seem so bad after all.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Playoff Win

Chalk one up for the inaugural College Football Playoff championship.  Even before Ohio State dispatched Oregon for the title, the playoffs were a success.  Highly-anticipated match-ups brought record-breaking ratings and great football to the semi-finals, setting up last night's championship game.  But until this season, it could never have happened.

In past years, we would likely have seen #1-ranked Alabama face off against undefeated (but not highly acclaimed) Florida State.  By some chance, if the BCS voters and computers thought better of Oregon, we might have seen the Ducks jump over the Seminoles to face the Crimson Tide.  The most unlikely scenario, though, would have been for the Buckeyes, a one-loss team in a downtrodden conference playing with a 3rd-string quarterback, to get a shot at the title. 

Thanks to the new (and, naturally, controversial) Selection Committee rankings, FOUR teams were chosen to play in the first playoffs in major college football history.  No longer would it be settled on paper ballots -- the champion would be decided on the field.  And a team that last season would have been on the outside looking in has busted through.  While a 10-1 team hardly fits the bill as an underdog, #4 Ohio State was not expected to beat Alabama, and certainly not in the way they pounded the Tide into submission.  Even then, the Buckeyes weren't the favorites against the high-flying Ducks, either. 

But there they were, Ezekiel Elliott breaking off huge chunks of yardage, Cardale Jones finding open receivers downfield.  The Buckeyes defense causing fits for Marcus Mariota and the Oregon receiving corps.  And even though I didn't personally care for the outcome, I could certainly appreciate the ride.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Slow News Day

It's the baseball off-season, the Hot Stove!  But not every day is a big news day.  Yet columnists still need stories to write.  Let's file this one under "Interesting Item that will be Quickly Forgotten".  According to Michael Axisa at River Ave Blues, the Yankees are considering hiring Jeff Pentland for their vacant hitting coach position.  Who is Jeff Pentland?  He's a 68-year old veteran who's bounced around the majors for the last couple of decades and presided over some pretty bad teams with mostly lousy hitting.  Here's a look at those teams, their records when Pentland was acting as hitting coach, their league rankings in both Average and OPS, as well as the standout from that season.

TEAM YEAR RECORD Rank AVG Rank OPS Team Best
Marlins 1996 80 82 9 10 Sheffield, .314-42-120
Cubs 1997 68 94 5 12 Sosa, .251-36-119
1998 90 73 5 6 Sosa, .308-66-158
1999 67 95 14 15 Sosa, .288-63-141
2000 65 97 13 12 Sosa, .320-50-138
2001 88 74 8 6 Sosa, .328-64-160
2002 67 95 15 11 Sosa, .288-49-108
AVG 74 88 10.00 10.33
Royals 2003 83 79 4 7 Beltran, .307-26-100
2004 58 104 13 14 Sweeney, .287-22-79
2005 56 106 10 12 Sweeney, .300-21-83
AVG 66 96 9 11
Mariners 2005 69 93 14 14 Sexson, .263-39-121
2006 74 84 10 12 Ibanez, .289-33-123
2007 88 74 2 6 Ibanez, .291-21-105
2008 61 101 9 13 Ibanez, .293-23-110
AVG 73 88 8.75 11.25
Dodgers 2010 80 82 10 12 Ethier, .292-23-82
2011 82 79 6 10 Kemp, .324-39-126
AVG 81 81 8 11

For the most part, Pentland's teams were bad, the worst one being the 2005 Royals.  To be fair, Tony Pena walked away from the team in May and the coaches soon followed.  Remarkably, Pentland managed to find work quickly with the Mariners and led their hitters... well, nowhere.  The 2005 Mariners finished dead last in the AL in both average and OPS.  It only got slightly better in 2006.  But in 2007, the Mariners busted out and gave Pentland his best season as a hitting coach.  Led by Ichiro's .351 average and three players with an OPS over .800, the Mariners finished 6th in the AL in OPS.  By the next season, though, the M's OPS dropped to 13th in the league and Pentland was gone again.

Now, I don't know much about Jeff Pentland beyond these numbers.  He was apparently good enough to keep getting hired, in spite of the apparent lack of success he brought to his teams.  But if I'm looking to replace Kevin Long, a hitting coach with a long record of success in New York, Jeff Pentland is not first on my list.  Or second.  Or, well, you get the idea.

I happen to like the idea that was floated a few months ago: bringing back Jason Giambi to coach.  These aren't the Royals or Marlins.  Even an unproven coaching commodity like Giambi makes more sense than a small-town, semi-successful, retread like Pentland.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The More Things Change, the Yankees Don't

The Hot Stove season is underway, and the Yankees are making moves.  Underwhelming, head-scratching, and downright bone-headed moves. 

They began by re-signing Chris Young, a player the Mets didn't want.  (Let that sink in for a moment.)  But Young will be the 4th outfielder, a guy who can play all three OF positions, and someone who's not expected to do much.

Today, though, the Yankees addressed a much bigger need.  With a Derek Jeter-sized hole at shortstop, the Yanks traded for Didi Gregorius.  Gregorius is primarily a glove-first guy, having shown only marginal success hitting at the major-league level.  I would question the need to acquire a glove-first SS, considering they already have that in the form of Brendan Ryan.  But I will also agree with those who say Ryan cannot hit, while Gregorius has hitting potential

The head-scratcher, though, is that the Yankees chose to part with Shane Greene, a major-league ready starting pitcher, in exchange for Gregorius.  While his sample size was small from his rookie year, Greene put up good numbers: 81 strikeouts in 78 innings and an ERA under 4.  Sure, Greene might not rise very far above a 3rd or 4th starter.  But for a team with a question-mark riddled rotation, a Gregorius for Greene swap may amount to nothing more than patching a hole here while creating another over there.

But for me, the worst move of the off-season so far has been the signing of Andrew Miller.  While I think Miller is a good reliever (at least he was last season), in no way is he worth $36 million over four years.  Miller, you'll recall, is a failed starter.  No big deal there, as nearly every successful reliever is a failed starter.  However, successful teams don't pay $36 million for someone else's reclamation project.  There are cheaper alternatives to be found everywhere, and teams that put together those great bullpens with arms no one else wanted -- see Royals, Kansas City or Orioles, Baltimore -- reap the rewards.  (It's no surprise that Miller was part of that outstanding Baltimore pen, and also not a surprise that the O's didn't want to pay to keep him.)  It remains to be seen how long Miller remains an elite reliever and whether the Yanks will earn a return on their hefty investment.

It's only December, and the Yankees still have needs.  Third base, starting pitching, maybe second base, too.  But I don't see any obvious fixes or any evident plan that puts the Yankees on a course correction for 2015.  With other teams in the East getting better, the Yanks might be playing catch-up during the regular season, too.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Singin' the Maize and Blues

Back in March, I came across an article about Wilton Speight, a freshman QB prospect for Michigan.  Around that same time, I mentioned to my brother, a Michigan alum, that I wouldn't be surprised to see Speight in the starting lineup before season's end.  His response?

"You think he's just going to leapfrog Morris?  And a QB with no experience over a 5th year senior with talent? No thank you, I'll stick with Gardner."

Fast forward a few months, or an eternity in Michigan football time.  Gardner's already been benched following a lackluster start.  Unfortunately, new starter Shane Morris didn't look much better.  It's probably less an indictment of Morris than of the Michigan offense as a whole.  Gardner was slightly better in his mop-up role, but ran for nearly as many yards as he gained passing.  It may take some more time before the team can effectively run Doug Nussmeier's new Wolverine offense.

And speaking of time, with the Wolverine's losing 3 games in September for the first time in their 135-year football history, has the clock started ticking on Brady Hoke?  Chants of "Fire Brady!" were heard in the waning moments of the Minnesota game.  Fanning the flames may be the additional controversy surrounding Hoke's handling of Morris during the game.  Though replays showed Morris was nearly knocked silly, he remained in the game for one more play.  Hoke was unapologetic in the face of the growing criticism.

I'm not a huge fan of Brady Hoke.  While he was a good, stable choice to step into the abyss following the Rich Rodriguez disaster, I don't know that Hoke is the long-term answer for Michigan.  His football team has gotten progressively worse -- from 11-2 in his debut season to last year's 7-6 mark, and then to this year's 2-3 campaign.  By now, the roster should be filled with Hoke recruits, players he brought in to play his style of football.  The team should be getting better, not going backwards.  I'd also be hard-pressed to recall another signature victory since beating Ohio State in 2011.

Of course, all this hand-wringing is over a football season that is only one-third complete.  There are many games left to play.  That said, how many games will this Michigan team win with the likes of Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State still on the schedule?  In fact, without going out on too much of a limb, I'll make another prediction: unless Michigan beats Ohio State, Brady Hoke will have coached his last game from the Michigan sidelines.  Of course, Hoke will need to make it to that point first.  And who knows who'll be playing quarterback?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Return of The King

To be honest, I didn't pay much attention when LeBron James entered the NBA.  At the time, the Knicks were one of the worst franchises in basketball and my interest in the NBA was pretty much zero.  You couldn't escape the hype or the headlines, of course, so it wasn't as though I didn't know about James' exploits and his takeover of the NBA.

But nearly seven years into James' career, the Knicks appeared to have a plan.  A plan, in fact, that prominently featured a certain free agent from the Midwest.  So when LeBron spurned the Knicks, made a "Decision" and trotted on down to South Beach to join D-Wade and CB, I officially joined the LeBron Haters Club.

When the Spurs prevailed in this year's Finals -- knocking off LeBron's Heat -- I was giddy.  Sure, the Heat were in four straight Finals but they only managed to win twice.  Not quite the LeBron guarantee.  And, I suppose, not quite what LeBron had in mind, either, because it became quickly apparent that a return to Miami was not a done deal.

For the past week, we were all caught in the Speculation Vortex, as theory after theory was floated about where James might land.  And then, to the surprise of most of us, King James gave us his answer: Cleveland.

I must tell you: whether it was genuine and heartfelt, or merely a manufactured P.R. smoothie, LeBron' open letter hit all the right notes.  "I'm coming home," he declared.  He didn't apologize for going to Miami, but said he'd "obviously do things differently" if he had to do it again.  While he still cares about winning titles, winning a title for Cleveland is most important of all.

To be honest, my hatred of LeBron was basically manufactured, a "He screwed my team and ran off to play with a bunch of other all-stars" grudge.  A Schadenfreude perfect storm.  But now I'm finding it hard to root against a guy who left the cushy gig to take on a real project in his home town.  I heard that the Cavs are now the favorites in the East next season, so it probably won't be so hard to win, but winning this way just seems right.

Don't get me wrong -- I'll still be rooting against LeBron and the Cavs, but only when they're facing the Knicks.  I'll take an Eastern Conference Finals matchup any time.