Saturday, June 28, 2008

MLB Halfway Review

Well, at least some of the teams are 81 games in, and I'm sure as hell not waiting for the rest to catch up. So let's look at the majors as a whole. The American League is dominating interleague play - again. The AL has 9 teams with winning records after last night. The AL East has 4 of them, including the *sigh* Yankees, who have fortunately slowed down a bit after the 7-game win streak they had a week ago (they've only gone 3-4 since). Hank Steinbrenner is still an imbecile, having bitched about his pitchers having to hit when they play in NL parks because Wang injured himself running the bases. Oh golly, Hank, how awful that your pitchers were forced to participate in all facets of the game! Additional idiot points go to Mike Mussina, for claiming AL pitchers aren't used to having to run and turn at the same time. Really, how difficult is it to practice running around the bases? Based on that line, I'm through trying to defend Mussina to the Yankees' fans at the comic store. You're on your own, Moose. The AL Central isn't particularly impressive, though the ChiSox and the Twins could have an interesting battle for the division, and Detroit might even get back into it, seeing at they're only a game under .500. In shocking news, the Texas Rangers have a winning record. In less shocking news, they're still in the bottom half of their division, 4 games behind 2nd place Oakland. At least they aren't the Mariners.

The NL, embarrassingly, only has five teams with winning records, and the D'Backs are leading their division with a .500 record. The Phillies and Marlins aren't looking all that impressive either, but the Braves have moved within a game of .500, so that might be an intriguing, if mediocre race. The Brewers have climbed back into the NL Central race. OK, not really, they're 5.5 games back, but they sure look like they have a shot at the Wild Card. Truly, the only team that looks good is the, cripes, Chicago Cubs. Edmonds is playing well, Zambrano and Soriano's absences don't seem to have slowed them down much yet (certainly hasn't hurt their lead in the Central), it's a little maddening.

As for the Cards, well they'd be a lot a better off if a) their bullpen didn't keep fouling up, and b) they quit playing the Royals. They're 0-4 against the fucking Royals! I try to remind myself that I said I'd be impressed if they finished at .500, but seriously, 0-4 against the Kansas City Royals. That is pathetic. Last year's suckass Cardinals team at least managed a 3-3, and they had Kip Wells in the rotation, what's this group's excuse? {Edit: Hey, they managed to win on Saturday! Now they're only 2-4! Hurrah!} Whatever, I'm calm, moving on.

Rotation: Well, for the most part, I can't complain about the 5 primary starters. With the exception of Pineiro, every one of them has an ERA+ of 100 (league average) or better. And Joel's is 97, so he's only 3% below average, and he was doing better before last night's start. All five of them have a pitching VORP of at least 10, so they've each been good for at least one win above replacement level on the basis of their pitching so far this year (every 10 runs above replacement is good for 1 win). Wainer's got 23.6 (and another 2.7 with his bat), Wellenmeyer has 19.9 (Dave Duncan man *shakes head in disbelief*), Kyle Lohse has 17.7 (but he's cost himself 2.6 runs with his bat), Looper's at 12.3 (+ 8.3 hitting, which actually makes him the second most valuable starting pitcher on the team), and Joel has 10.2 (and a -1.3 hitting). There are some issues. Lohse, Welly, and Joel are all averaging less than 6 innings a start, though none are below five and two-thirds. Lohse, BLoop, and Joel are striking out less than 5/9IP, 6 usually being the lowest you can have and still be consistently successful. Below that and you're just too reliant on defense, but that seems to be how LaRussa and Duncan like it. Hell, Looper's only K'ing 3.94/9IP. That's Tewksburian. On the positive, Welly has the worst walk rate of the bunch, 2.85BB/9IP, and this is from a guy with a career 4.88BB/9IP, including this season.

The real problem is, those guys are starting to fall apart. Wainwright, undeniably the staff ace, hasn't started since June 7, and with his "strained finger ligament" may not be back until August. He's currently 15th in Pitcher Abuse Points, but every guy above his has made at least two more (and in some cases 4 more) starts, and so have most of the guys immediately below him, which is discouraging. Welly had to skip at least two starts between June 13-26 because of elbow discomfort. Not that it should be a surprise. He's already reached a new career high for innings at the major league level, and based on Looper's performance last year, that doesn't bode well. The Colonel has better stuff that BLoop, but he's more reliant on velocity, so fatigue could be a bigger factor. Pineiro was out between May 20 and June 12, with shoulder problems, I believe. Dangerous portents, especially given the replacements. Brad Thompson made one start in there (5 IP, 2 ER), then he got hurt, or just got sent back to the minors, hasn't been seen since. Mitchell Boggs has made three starts, none of them impressive, but he's faced the Reds, Phillies, and BoSox lineups, so perhaps he can be forgiven for that. He gets his ass kicked by KC today, though, forget about leniency. Then there's Mike Parisi. He sucks, end of discussion. But I'll continue anyway. His ERA is over 8, and he has a VORP of -9.4. On the plus side, he has a 0.6 VORP with the bat. Ooooooh. I'm not advocating trading for someone, but for the love of God, no more Parisi this year.

Oh, and Carpenter had a small setback, so now we might be lucky to see him by the end of the year. I'd just like for him to get a couple of starts against major league hitters by the end of the season, to get him back in the swing of things for next year.

Bullpen: Where it was the lone bright spot for the team last year, it's been a blight upon the Earth this year. They could have gone 6-0 during the Boston/Detroit swing, instead of 3-3, except the bullpen blew leads late in all three games. The problem is, the Cards only seem to have a few decent relievers, and everything else is crap. Since he came back on June 17, Izzy's given up only 1 run in 8.67 innings, and his ERA is still 5.74. His VORP's -1.2, which is probably an improvement. Both the Cards' primary lefties, Flores (5.12) and Villone (5.76) have ERAs above 5, and lefthanded hitters (you know, the guys LaRussa brings in lefty relievers to get out?) have an OPS of .864 against Flores (.391 OBP, .472 SLG). Villone has a much more acceptable .620 against lefties, but a .919 against righties. The problem is, Villone seems to do poorly if the game is closer than 4 runs. His opponents' OPS when the margin is greater than that? .617. When it's 4 runs, it's .923. It's .955 when the margin is 3 runs, .941 when it's 2, 1.012 when it's a 1-run game, and .952 when it's tied. This might explain why St. Louis is his 11th team in 14 years. Ron should be the Cal Eldred Role "Last Guy Out of the 'Pen", to be used when it's a blowout, one way or the other. Oh, but never fear, due to their crappy rehab stints, both Matt Clement and Mark Mulder are being considered for reliever roles with the big league club. Geez, that's terribly depressing.

Where are the highlights? Well, Kyle McClellan is striking out 8/9IP, has an ERA of 2.61, and a VORP of 14 (4th among pitchers, behind Lohse, ahead of BLoop). That's encouraging. Franklin, who took the closer role when Izzy started punching TVs, has a 9.1 VORP, but he's averaging 5.89K/9IP, and 4.17BB/9IP. Not a recipe for success. He has WXRL (wins expectation above replacement) of 2.153, which is best of the Cardinals relievers, for what that's worth (McClellan with 1.248 is the only other reliever on the team above 1). Russ Springer started kind of rough, spent about 3 weeks on the DL in mid-April, but he's turned it around, with an ERA of 2.28, a VORP of 8.9, and 7.61K/9IP. 3.8BB/9IP is a bit higher than I'd like, but I can't quibble with the results too much. He's better against righties (their OPS is a measly .486), and I'd rather see him face lefties (.736) than Flores, that's for sure. He doesn't seem to be getting many of the clutch innings, though. Chris Perez has only thrown 17 innings, he's already got a VORP of 3.7, and he's averaging almost 8.5 strikeouts per 9 innings. Unfortunately, he's also averaging almost 6BB/9IP. Control seems to be an issue for Cardinals relievers. Well, that and general lousiness.

Catching: Yady's defense doesn't seem as good as it has in years past, though he's still been good for 16 fielding runs above replacement (FRAR) so far this year. And hey, he's been worth 9 batting runs above replacement (BRAR) so far too (VORP says 7.3 with the bat so far). He's even got an OPS (.739) within 3% of league average. Wild. He did miss some time with a concussion he received blocking home plate. In his absence, Jason LaRue remembered how to hit a little. His OPS is only .677, but he was looking at one of the worst offensive seasons in history earlier this year (his OPS was easily below .500), so almost anything is an improvement. VORP says he's worth 0.1 runs offensively, BRAR says he's a +2, and FRAR says a +5. So in every respect he's inferior to Yadier. Which is why he's the backup, I suppose. I'm just glad he decided to hit a little. I figured he had to be able to field, since Tony won't tolerate crappy fielding catchers.

Infield: Well, Albert's back after about a two-week absence. Probably came back too soon, but that's Albert for you. Getting to spend some time at DH probably helps ease him back in. He's got the highest VORP on the team (44.8, so his bat's been worth 4.5 wins so far), he's hitting .355, with an OBP of .484, and a slugging of .632, for a fabtabulous OPS of 1.116 (OPS+ of 195). Holy crap, that's awesome! Meanwhile, Troy Glaus has lived up to his own predictions by actually hitting home runs as the weather warmed up. He was at 2 on May 30, now he's at 11, and his SLG is up to .450. How nice to have a 3rd basemen with some power, and he's got an OBP of .366, even with an AVG of only .264. Good for you Troy. Your above average Range Factor (2.89 vs. 2.59 for the league) and 14 FRAR are also encouraging, since us Cardinals fans figured we were sacrificing defense to get a 3rd basemen who could still hit. Aw, I'm not being far to Rolen. His VORP is 12, Troy's is 12.5, and Scott been worth 10 FRAR, so it's pretty much a wash. Of course, Scotty's first on the Jays in hitters VORP, Glaus is 5th on the Cards, which explains a lot about Toronto's poor record.

So those are the two infielders who can hit. Unfortunately, that leaves the middle infield, full of slap hitters. Kennedy's OPS is .646, Izturis is .628, with an OBP of .315, as pitchers have stopped walking him. I figured they'd get a clue sooner or later. Izturis is on the DL now. Brendan Ryan has a .696, but his AVG is .295, compared to his .344 OBP, and .352 SLG, suggesting his numbers are highly dependent on singles. Miles leads all the MIs with a .726 OPS, which surprises the hell out of me. Not that he's leading the other three, that it's over .700. Like Ryan, I think a lot it's his batting average (.317), but I'll take what I can get. Kennedy and Izturis both have -0.2 VORPs, Ryan has 4.2, and Miles 5.8. Plus, Miles has a 0.6 for his relief appearance this season, so 6.4 total. Gooooo, Grit! Wisely, Tony is largely restricting him to 2nd base, where his Range Factor is close to average (4.37 vs. 4.89), leaving SS (league average 4.43) to Izturis (4.46) and Ryan (4.45). As a quartet, they've been worth 11 BRAR and 19 FRAR, which is pretty sorry considering it's split between four guys, but none of them have actually been below replacement level in either category (Izturis is exactly replacement level offensively, O BRAR, though). Hopefully one day the Cardinals will fix that deficiency.

Outfield: Ludwick has cooled off from his ludicrously hot start. His OPS is down to .937, and his VORPs at 23.1. It was around 27 a week ago, not a good sign. Maybe having Albert back will help. Ankiel's OPS is .820, but his defense, which a lot of fans have been lauding isn't loved by the stats. His RF is 2.46, versus the league's 2.66, and he's -2 in FRAR. I don't know what the other defensive metrics say. Skip Schumaker continues to surprise, with an .813 OPS. He's even drawn 27 walks. I am stunned. Chris Duncan (or "Dipcan" as some of the bloggers have dubbed him) has dropped to .667, which is only acceptable if you play in the middle infield or catcher on this team. Pick up the pace Chris, or vastly improve your defense, though you are rated at +5 in FRAR. Consider me surprised again, but that +2 in BRAR is no good. Apparently, he's getting under the ball, and popping up a lot. Not sure how you fix that. Brain Barton has a .723 OPS, and 2.3 VORP in sporadic playing time.

As a Rule V draftee, the team has to keep Barton on the roster all year if they want to keep him, and I do. He's got speed to burn, and this team could use a little of that. He just needs more playing time, but I don't know where it'll come from. He's only had 137 plate appearances (PAs) this season, 52 against righties (OPS of .682), 85 against lefties (.746). There are more righthanded pitchers than lefties in the league, so more PAs would have to come against RHPs. One problem, or more accurately, three problems: Skip (.940 OPS in 221 PAs), Rick (.912, 200 PAs), and Thudwick (.992, 177 PAs) all hit righties well, so he's stuck playing against lefties, since neither Duncan (.340 OPS, yes OPS, not OBP, in 17 PAs), Skippy (.428 OPS in 75 PAs), nor Rikki-Tiki-Tavi (.633 OPS in 82 PAs) hit lefties well. To complete the picture, Ludwick has an .844 in 107 PAs against LHPs, Duncan has a .721 in 174 PAs against RHPs. So it's hard to justify Barton getting more at-bats against right-handed pitching. He doesn't do that great against it, and there are three outfielders who do really well against it. But that seems the way for him to get more playing time. Unfortunately, he's not helped by the fact LaRussa doesn't trust his defense, so if the game is close, Barton frequently gets yanked, which strikes me as a little stupid. I can't buy that LF is that important of a position defensively, I've seen TLR leave Dunc out there before, and he's the perfect example of a guy who needs a defensive replacement. Barton has to learn at some point, right?

Beyond all that, Joe Mather and Nick Stavinoha have each gotten a little playing time recently, with Albert hurt and Duncan ineffective, but neither one has done much in their limited opportunities (a total of 51 at-bats).

For the future, well, they have to start scoring more runs, to make up for the weakened rotation. Having El Hombre back helps, and the fact Miles, Ryan, Yadi, and LaRua are hitting a little could plus some of those lineup holes. The main thing is they need to get the bullpen straightened out. I'm still not sure Izzy is ready to rock, but I'd say he, Springer, Franklin, Perez and McClellan (not in that order) ought to be the ones they trust. As for Villone, blowout work only, and to fill the other bullpen spot (since this is Tony LaRussa, there must be 7 relievers), try any guy you've got at AAA. Bring Thompson back up, get Reyes off the DL. I find it intensely suspicious that basically one day after Reyes mentions that Dave Duncan didn't communicate with him the month of April, when Iron Bill was on the major league roster, he gets put on the DL with an "elbow injury", especially since Reyes said he was fine. But no Parisi, and no Kelvim Jimenez!

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Discussing The Concept Of Liberated Fandom

I was introduced to the term while reading Freedarko, which is a blog that discusses basketball, usually by comparing styles of play and/or players to film directors, schools of political thought, or psychological styles, to name a few. So you get posts and comments where the Phoenix Suns of 05-06 are compared to Godard, while the 07-08 Lakers are Bertolucci. As a biology major, most of that just goes right over my head. If it's going to make sense to me, compare the Suns trade for Shaq, and its subsequent failure to produce better results to the Biological Species Concept.

Actually, don't do that, because I've decided I will.

At any rate, "liberated fandom" as I understand it, is that a fan should not just be someone who always roots for a team, and does so because they've rooted for that team since they were a child, just like their father and grandfather (or mother and grandmother, or whatever). That kind of fandom is perfectly OK, but so is the Freedarko style of rooting for a team because of the way they play, or rooting for a player because of their style, or what they represent, and that can vary with each fan's personal taste.

To me, it seems that the later in life I became invested in a sport, the more my fandom incorporates the latter style. I started watching baseball when I was five or six, and for me it has been pretty much the Cardinals or bust*. There are players on teams other than the Cardinals that I like, or respect the skills of**, but it isn't enough for me to really root for their team due to their presence.

I started watching the NFL in 1993, and while I have stuck with the Arizona Cardinals through that, there have been a host of other teams I rooted for at various times, usually because of a particular player. In a lot of cases, that player was a quarterback, usually one with a fairly average arm, but good mobility. I rooted for the Chiefs because of Joe Montana, and I stayed with the Chiefs until they decided to go with Elvis Grbac as their starting QB, and let Rich Gannon go***. So I followed Gannon to the Raiders. When the Bills signed Doug Flutie, I had the opportunity to read a few articles about him, and so I rooted for the Bills as a result. When the Bills opted to dump Flutie to stick with Rob Johnson, I started following the Chargers****. I sort of idly watched the Rams during their first 2 "Greatest Show on Turf" years because I like high-octane football, and the Rams were providing it. I only actively rooted for the Rams when Arizona traded Aeneas Williams to them, because I wanted him to get a ring*****. When Vermeil took over the Chiefs, I went back to them because we got the best kind of football for my viewing pleasure: A team with a great offense and lousy defense, so everybody scores lots of points. Woo-hoo!

I didn't really start watching the NBA until 97-98 (also known as the 2nd year the T-Wolves lost in the 1st round). I was a Timberwolves fan for about 8 years, but when it became clear that it wasn't going to happen for them, I kind of lost interest and gravitated to the Suns and eventually the Warriors, with their run-and-gun style. I don't know what it means that I seem less loyal to teams as I get older, but that seems to be the trend. Maybe I figure I can't keep adopting sad sack franchises, when I've already got Arizona.

* There was a time early on where I chose the Blue Jays as my AL team, but then I decided I had no use for the DH, so that died a quick death.

** Jamie Moyer in the first category, Alex Rodriguez in the second. Mostly I feel bad for A-Rod. He takes so much shit when he doesn't merit it.

*** That certainly worked well for Kansas City.

**** Man, general managers are some dumb folks some time. Just because a guy has a big arm doesn't mean he's any good. Honestly, you'd think Montana would have taught them that.

***** He came so close, too. Stupid Martz and his refusal to run the football.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Thoughts Midway Through The NBA Finals

Man, that Game 4 was kind of crazy. I checked the score on ESPN's website sometime in the first half, saw "45-21", and figured we might as well write this one off as just another bad road game for the Celtics. Then I go and check the score again some time later and whoops, it's a five point game. What the hell, Lakers? I was happily watching Burn Notice, and now I've got to switch over to the game to see how this plays out, and my remote doesn't work so well anymore, so the button pushing gets a bit aggravating. Still, that was pretty cool how Boston pulled that off*.

After the game was over, I was perusing some of the Internet sports sites, and I started to think about whether the expectations we as fans, and the media as well, put on players is fair. I noted a lot of people after the game proclaiming that all those "Kobe/Jordan" comparisons need to stop right now. After all, Jordan's teams never blew 24-point leads at home in the Finals, though I'm curious what folks will say if Kobe leads his team back to win the Finals, down 3-1, and with such an ugly loss. What I've been thinking about is, was Kobe the one making those comparisons? Was he telling people, "Hey, I'm better than Jordan"? I'm sure he was, at least a little. Choosing 24 as his new number a few seasons ago, when Jordan was 23, certainly seemed significant**, but I'm still not sure who's really been pushing those comparisons. And if it isn't Kobe, is it really fair to dump on him for not living up to comparisons he wasn't making? I know, he's the best player on the team, one of the best in the league (possibly the best), he ran off Shaq*** and Phil****, and so I think it's fair to question why he couldn't help his team hold the lead, or retake the lead once they'd lost it (though, I'm not sure how weak interior defense is Kobe's fault).

Let's use another example, Kevin Garnett. The big rap on KG is that he usually doesn't step up his game in the 4th quarter. Most of the time he plays at the same (extremely high) level he played the first three, sometimes he looks panicked, and every so often he comes up big*****. But the games where he's not taking over on the offensive end outnumber the ones where he does, so he gets Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley dumping on him******, or Skip Bayless calling him Kevin GarNot*******. It raises the question if these people ever watch him play. Garnett likes to distribute the ball, get his teammates involved. Sure, there are times that's not a good idea, but is it worse than Garnett taking a lot more shots, regardless of how many players guard him? Garnett's biggest strength is his defense. if he starts taking more shots, then he probably has less energy for defense, and looking at some of the guys he's had as teammates (Wally, Cassell, Kandy Man, Nesterovic), that probably isn't advisable. Is it the money Garnett makes that causes people to expect him to dominate offensively? Is it that he has always been the most talented player on his teams, and one of the most athletically gifted in the league? I know Garnett tends to take responsibility for these things (such as admitting he needed to be more aggressive attacking Gasol after Game 3, which was true) , but I can't recall him saying he's the best, he should take all the shots, everything should run through him. That isn't the style of player he is, and you'd think that'd be recognized to the point people would stop giving him shit about it.

* I'd prefer to give credit to them for good defense, rather than harp on the Lakers for choking.

** Though didn't Kobe say it represented playing hard all the time, like 24 hours a day, or something to that extent?

*** Though Shaq was the one that demanded a trade, I believe.

**** For a little while, anyway.

***** Game 7 in the 2nd round against the Kings, being the prime example.

****** I would love to see Barkley beat the Spurs or some of those early Nowitzki Mavs' teams with Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson as his two best teammates, or Olowakandi at center. And I'm sure Magic's brand of "no defense" would have done splendidly against the Duncan/Robinson Spurs.

******* Skip, it isn't funny. At all. Nor was it ever funny. You are a feculent sack of regurgitated cud. And you could not get a hit off Randy Johnson, even at this stage in his career, because, if there is hope and love in the world, Big Unit would drill you in the kidneys with the first pitch, and assuming you stepped back in, plant the next one in your ribs, then your knee, feet, elbow, until you got the message.

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