Sunday, May 19, 2013

Conference Finals!

Spurs/Grizzlies Game 1 is set to start in 20 minutes, so I better get on with this.

Miami vs. Indiana: I correctly pegged the Heat as winning in 5 games. On the other side of the coin, I got the number of games right, but backed the wrong team. Is this a lesson to always bet on defense?

I don't think it much matters here. Miami beat Indiana last year, while missing Chris Bosh for a portion of the series. While the Pacers' starting unit was actually able to outscore the Heat, the Pacers were torched any time their bench got involved. Problem is, the Pacers have not significantly improved their bench since last year. Certainly not enough to make up for the fact Miami does have Bosh, and are, on the whole, a better team than last year. I expect that the Hibbert/West frontcourt duo will give Miami some trouble, but those two can't be on the court all the time (especially if the refs are babying the Heat), and when they aren't I expect the Heat will take the pacers apart. Heat in 5.

San Antonio vs. Memphis:  So I was right last round, I wasn't giving Memphis enough credit, they won one game faster than I predicted. On the other side, the Spurs took an extra game to dispatch Golden State. I guess they need more time to figure out the proper counter. Now they have to face an entirely different challenge.

This one's trickier. The Grizz beat the Spurs in the playoffs two years ago. I would Memphis is even more comfortable in their style of play now than they were then. At the same time, this is the Spurs, who seem more adept at shifting styles to meet challenges than practically any other team. What's more, I think Tiago Splitter is considerably improved from where he was two years ago, so the Spurs can actually bring two big men to the party who might be able to play Gasol/Z-Bo to a draw. If the Spurs can manage that, I like their chances.

The thing is, I'm not sure they can do that. Splitter's better, but he's not on Marc Gasol's level, and I'm not sure Duncan, at his age, can match Zach Randolph every game. I don't really think Memphis gains much by slowing things down, since the Spurs have proven quite content to slow it down and grind themselves. However, I think Memphis is just a little better suited for it now than San Antonio.

Look, whichever team I pick, I'm going to end up fearing I'm not giving the other enough credit. Let's call it Memphis in 7.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Baseball At The Quarter Mark

We have another day until the Western Conference Finals start, so hopefully the Pacers will finish off the Knicks. In the meantime, the baseball season has reached the one-quarter mark, so it's time to look in on the Cardinals.

To my surprise, they're in first place in the NL Central, with the best record in the league. The first place thing, doesn't necessarily mean much. They've been in first place at the end of April for 6 consecutive seasons now, and only won the division once (2009) in the previous five. That's that whole bit about baseball being a marathon, not a sprint. Cincy and Pittsburgh are each only 2 games back, so I'd expect them to stay close all season, even if they don't catch up.

As to the Cardinals, their offense has been fairly middling. While they are 4th in runs scored (and runs per game), it's due to a probably unsustainable run of good hitting with men in scoring position. They're 3rd in batting average, but only 5th in OBP, and 9th in slugging. If you're going to be good in one of the two, it's better for it to be on-base percentage, but they need to crank up the extra-base hits. 7th in doubles, tied for 12th in triples, 13th in home runs.They're dead last in stolen bases too (though also dead last in being caught stealing), so they aren't making up the difference there.

For most of the first month, the Cards had 4 hitters they could rely on: Molina, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Matt Carpenter. Currently, their OPSes all reside somewhere in the 800s. If he could get in the lineup, you could add Matt Adams to the list. Unfortunately, injuries (and Adams' defensive limitations) have held him to 37 plate appearances. But he has 3 HRs, and a slugging of .824 in those 37 PAs. Allen Craig and Jay have started to heat up (or get some better luck on balls in play). Craig's up to .796, and Jay's at .763. Somewhat surprising is that Jay is currently third on the team in home runs with 4, behind Holliday (6), and Beltran (10). Currently, there are 5 Cards with slugging percentages between .415 and .460. Matt Carpenter's isolated power is .152, which is better than I'd have expected from him. Holliday's is at .169, but he's notorious for being a slow starter. As I mentioned, Craig's picking up so I'm not too worried about him. Molina does concern me, since his ISO is only .113 so far.  That's pretty far down from the .160 and .186 of 2011 and 2012. It's still above any of his years prior to that, but I had kind of hoped the increased power of the last two years (averaged 30 doubles, 18 HRs vs. 19 and 6.5 from '05-'10) was a permanent fixture. Hopefully the ball will start traveling for him as the weather warms up.

On the other hand, at least Molina's being somewhat productive. Freese has been a disaster so far. His OPS is still below .600, he's striking out in 23% of his PAs, has a grand total of 4 extra base hits, and has fewer total bases than Matt Adams in about 3 times as many PAs. Now they could just plate Carpenter at 3rd, but that means putting Descalso in at 2nd, and he's been. . . well about the same. His OPS is .562, 3 points better than Freese's. That's kind of the problem. Carpenter can only play one position at a time, so the Cardinals need at least one other competent player to man the other position. Currently, neither Freese nor Dirty Dan qualify. Of course, Descalso, is merely fitting in with everyone on the bench not named Matt Adams. Shane Robinson has an OPS+ of 57 (despite an OPS over 20 points worse than Descalso's). Wigginton's is 33, Tony Cruz' 23. Robinson has at least managed 10 walks in his 44 PAs (somehow), giving him a .364 OBP. Too bad he's only managed 6 hits, all singles.

As for Kozma, a few weeks ago, his OPS was in the .650s. It was actually a bit higher than Craig's. At the time, I considered that to be about the best I could have hoped for from the Kozmanaut. Since then it's dropped to .636. His power has vanished (if it ever really existed), and I would guess most of his 12 walks are a result of hitting in front of the pitcher. Now normally, I wouldn't care as long as his defense was OK. And according to Baseball-Reference, he's been worth a couple of runs over an average SS already. But with the current ineptitude of Freese/Descalso, to say nothing of what happens when Matheny spot starts Wigginton or Robinson, they need Kozma to do a little more. It's one thing for him to be the only hole in the lineup, it's quite another for him to be one of two. Or three.

Speaking of defense, I'm pleasantly surprised to see Carpenter being rated as above average at 2nd. In theory, it was going to be easier for him than Schumaker, if only because he's used to playing in the infield. Still, it's a shift to a harder position, so there was room for concern. It's nice to see it working out in the early going. I hope Descalso gets his glove work back on track, since that's really the only thing he has going for him. Beyond that, Holliday and Craig are both doing alright in LF and at first, respectively, but Jay and Beltran are disasters so far in center and right. Beltran I maybe should have expected, given his age and past knee problems. Jay on the other hand, I thought had done pretty well last year. Maybe it's just the variability of defensive statistics. Even one season's worth are necessarily indicative, and this is a fraction of a season.

What's keeping them up is their pitching. First in runs per game and ERA, first in complete games, complete game shutouts, and team shutouts (they have 7 of those, no one else has more than 5). They've allowed the fewest home runs, the fewest walks, issued the fewest intentional walks. I'm not sure if that last one is relevant, but strictly from an aesthetic point of view, I approve of the Cardinals not handing out free bases. They have the 4th most strikeouts, the 5th best K rate, and the second best K/BB ratio. At 3.2, they're just behind the Reds (3.21), and well ahead of 3rd place Washington (2.85).

And when I say pitching, I mean primarily the starting pitching. The bullpen's coming around, the demotions of Boggs and Scrabble certainly helped. They'd allowed 23 runs on less than 19 innings, Boggs was walking over a batter per inning. Joe Kelly's numbers still don't look good, but he hasn't allowed any home runs in his last 5 or so innings, so that's bound to help. I'm a little concerned that Randy Choate's faced 26 batters, walked 3, and only K'd one, but it's 26 batters, so I'm not sure what conclusion I can draw from it. Rosenthal had some bad luck early, fly balls leaving the part at unusually high rates, but that's stabilized and he seems to be on track. Salas, I don't know, his numbers say he should be better than he is. Doesn't give up many walks or hits, but he's just little prone to hard contact at the wrong times, I guess. Mujica's done very well so far, though I don't expect his WHIP to remain around 0.5 for long. The team called up Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez to fill the holes. Martinez had a good first couple of appearances, then go cuffed around in one, but that's OK. Maness had much the same, though he seems to be getting more run than Martinez. Not sure if they feel the need to be more cautious with Martinez' arm, or if Matheny just trusts Maness to throw strikes more consistently. I'm pretty sure that was why he was called up, they got tired of watching Boggs miss the plate, and wanted someone who could find it regularly.

As to the starters, well, first things first, Wainwright taught me the error of doubting him based on one start. It's kind of crazy he can K 8, walk 1, and it hurts his K/BB (currently at 12.6). He's already thrown 2 complete game shutouts. Shelby Miller damn near threw a perfect game against the Rockies, has a WHIP of less than 0.9, 10 K/9, and a K/BB of 4.75. Garcia got battered some by the Brewers (or maybe just Aramis Ramirez) last night, but otherwise, he's been steady. Second on the team in innings, probably the only member of the rotation not benefiting from an unusually low HR rate (He's at 1, the other 4 are all 0.5 or lower). Lynn's been fine, a little more erratic from start to start, but nothing to worry about. Westbrook lost whatever ability to strike people out he'd gained last year, but was compensating by allowing no homers. Then his elbow flared up, and they put him on the DL to be sure. John Gast got to start and had a little trouble, but pitched well enough for the Cards to win. Can't argue with that.

I expect the rotation will slip some, if only because I doubt Westbrook and Miller can keep their ERA below 2, or that Lynn can keep his below 3 (I'm not ruling that out for Wainwright, though). At the same time, if the bullpen can continue to improve, that should compensate. It should certainly be well rested up to this point. Additionally, I think the offense will start to carry more of the load. I think Holliday and Craig can both hit more than they have so far, I hope Molina has some power in that bat, and that Freese will get things sorted. If those guesses are right, the Cardinals won't have to throw a bunch of shutouts to win, though if they want to, that'd be fine.


Sunday, May 05, 2013

NBA Second Round Predictions

The first round of the NBA playoffs ended last night, and the second round starts today. Not much turnaround time. At least we got some competitive series. For awhile there it looked like everything was going to be a sweep.

Miami vs. Chicago: So the Heat swept the Bucks, like I (and everyone other than Brandon Jennings) predicted. As for Bulls/Nets, I got the # of games right, but the winner wrong. The whole time I was typing that entry, I kept feeling like I wanted to pick Bulls, but didn't trust it. I basically convinced myself they were too banged up, and the Nets 3 best players were good enough it didn't matter how bad the rest were. Obviously, that was a mistake. At least Deron Williams' number of trips to the second round of the playoffs (3) still exceeds the number of coaches whose careers he's killed (2)!

As for this series, even if the Bulls were completely healthy, meaning they even had Rose, I'd still pick Miami. With no Rose, hobbled Noah, hobbled Hinrich, who the hell knows about Luol Deng (bad side effects of a spinal tap), the best I can do is figure the Bulls will win one. They'll make a game effort, and surely slow down Miami's offense a bit. But Miami's D is pretty good, too, and the Bulls' offense isn't nearly the same challenge. Heat in 5.

New York vs. Indiana: Did we travel back to the '90s? Are Reggie and John Starks going to be firing away from beyond the arc? The Knicks dicked around just enough that my prediction wound up being on the nose, while the Pacers took an extra game to finish Atlanta. What is it with Atlanta and unwatchable playoff series? Practically every game in this one was a blowout. It was like that first-rounder they had against Orlando a few years ago. At least the Pacers managed to win one on the road eventually.

I think they'll find New York a tougher challenge in that department, but I really don't know. The Pacers are supposed to be a good defensive team, but so was Boston. The Pacers are certainly better offensively than the Celtics, but are they a lot better? Who guards Carmelo? David West, or Paul George? George would seem likely to get beat up, while I'm not sure West is fast enough? I'm not sure a dinged up Tyson Chandler can handle Roy Hibbert either, but Hibbert's not as likely to explode for 40 points as Carmelo.

So much of the Knicks is tied up in whether they hit 3s or not. If they go cold for an entire series, they're toast. If they got hot (say 45%) for an entire series, I'd bet they could beat anybody, including Miami. But you don't know how that's going to play out. Off hand, I'm going to say I trust Carmelo being the best player in the series, the Knicks' capacity to win on the road (compared to Indiana's), and I'm worried about the Pacers' offense. Knicks in 6.

Oklahoma City vs. Memphis:  I got the Memphis/Clippers series right on the nose, which I wasn't expecting after LA went up 2-0. The Thunder took a couple of extra games to win, but I wasn't expecting Russell Westbrook to hurt his knee. Neither was OKC, I'd imagine. Credit to the Rockets for not rolling over even after they went down 3-0. I was worried they'd just give up and say, 'Hey, at least we made the playoffs!'

I've seen some discussion about whether Durant can haul this team to the Finals the way LeBron did the Cavs in 2007. I'd point out Durant has a much tougher road to hoe. LeBron, by virtue of playing in the suckass Eastern Conference, drew the 41-win Wizards (outscored by their opponents by 0.6 points per game that year), the 41-win Nets (outscored by their opponents by 0.7 points per game, and then the 53-win Pistons (outscored their opponents by 4.2 points per game). Durant drew a 45-win Houston team in Round 1 (outscored their opponents by 3.5 points per game), a 56-win Memphis team (outscores opponents by 4.1 points per game), and if they make it to the Conference Finals, will probably face 58-win San Antonio (outscores opponents by 6.4 points per game). There's no question LeBron had an easier path, and if we recall, once he reached the Finals, and had to face a Western Conference team, the Cavs were swept.

All of which is to say, I'm not holding it against Durant when the Thunder get bounced in this round. Two years ago they needed 7 games to beat the Grizzlies. That was when OKC had Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Now they just have Durant, while Memphis still has Gasol, Z-Bo, and a much improved Mike Conley. Oh yes, and Tony Allen, probably the best perimeter defender not named LeBron. I'm picking Memphis in 6, and even that feels like I'm not giving the Grizz enough credit.

San Antonio vs. Golden State: Denver kind of let me down. I got the games right, but the team wrong. I really though the Nuggets had it, especially once David Lee went down, but what can you say about Steph Curry? And now Bogut looks like a force again. Meanwhile, it appears the Spurs looking 'off-kilter' as I put it, really was Popovich playing possum. Either that, or I gave the Lakers way too much credit. To be fair, they played the last two games mostly without their starting backcourt, and their backup backcourt. Once you're down to your backup backup backcourt, you're probably screwed.

I don't know, there's a part of me that thinks the Spurs should be worried. That the Warriors are a very athletic team, not unlike OKC last year, and that will enable them to overcome the Spurs movement and scheming. Then another part of me points out I'm underestimating the Spurs again, and that while Curry may be a shooter on par (or better) than Durant, he's probably not the athlete, and certainly not the defender Durant is. I feel like the Spurs are better equipped to take advantage of the Warriors' size deficit than Denver was, and that if the Warriors try to go small against San Antonio, well, that might mean Pop can get some playoff use out of Matt Bonner for once. I just can't see small-ball being enough to beat a healthy Spurs team. San Antonio in 5.