Doug Gottlieb shows us how not to make an argument

February 28, 2011

I normally don’t like to make fun of announcers and TV analysts – partly because I think I can do their job (when I really would be awful) and partly because it is too easy. But I was watching College Basketball Final on ESPN yesterday and Doug Gottlieb made a series of preposterous arguments on why Texas should be a #1 seed over BYU. I’m not saying that Texas shouldn’t be a #1 seed over BYU; I’m only saying that Gottlieb wasn’t even in the ballpark of anything close to a rational argument.

Unfortunately, I could not find the original video on ESPN.com. He made a refined version of the same argument today in a panel discussion with Joe Lunardi, which is at this link. I highly recommend watching it. It is marginally better than his original argument, but he makes the same terrible points. For your convenience, I’ve broken down these arguments:

1. The #1 seed is a reward for what you do on the road.

Gottlieb immediately rebuts his own argument, saying that Lunardi will come back with “BYU’s road numbers.” Oh those pesky stats. I hate when they get in the way of a perfectly fine argument. By the way, BYU’s road record is 10-2 and neutral court record is 2-0. Texas’s road record is 7-3 and netural record is 1-1.

2. The #1 seed is a reward for what you do in your non-conference schedule.

I have never heard this argument before. Maybe the #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is in fact a reward for a strong non-conference schedule…but it’s definitely the first time I have ever heard anyone advance this argument.

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that a #1 seed is a reward for a strong non-conference schedule. Texas played five teams in their non-conference schedule that are currently in Lunardi’s field of 68 – Illinois, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, UConn, and Michigan State. They went 3-2 in those games. BYU played four teams currently in Lunardi’s field – Arizona, UCLA, Utah State, and St. Mary’s. They went 3-1 in those games. Apparently that extra loss is worth a reward in Gottlieb’s mind.

Then there is this little tidbit that Lunardi rebuts Gottlieb with: BYU’s non-conference schedule is ranked 14th in the nation; Texas’s non-conference schedule is ranked 73rd. BYU went 14-1 in those 15 games; Texas went 12-3. Oh those pesky numbers again.

3. Even if the numbers don’t work in Texas’s favor, the Longhorns “schedule up” and challenge themselves.

Gottlieb admits that BYU had a decent non-conference schedule, but he isn’t quite done with this point yet. Texas deserves credit for constantly challenging themselves in their non-conference schedule. In order, he cites the following games:

A 2-point loss to Pittsburgh at the Madison Square Garden in November. I’ll grant Gottlieb that playing a team as good as Pittsburgh to a two-point loss at a neutral site is a plus. But Texas didn’t schedule Pitt – they met in the final of the 16-team 2K Sports Classic. I’m guessing they got a pretty good sum of money just for appearing in the tournament. I’m also guessing that BYU would gladly have played in the tournament if they were invited.

A 2-point win over North Carolina in December at a “neutral” site location in Greensboro. Nothing wrong here – that’s a very good win, even if the Tar Heels were only 7-3 at the time.

A 12-point win at Michigan State. Now Gottlieb is stretching because the Spartans kinda suck. He argues that the Spartans were a preseason Top Ten team, which would be fine except that Texas played them on December 22, after the Spartans had already started to fall apart. Since then, Sparty has continued their nosedive and are barely hanging on to a NCAA Tournament spot.

A 17-point loss on the road at USC. Whoa. The Trojans currently sit at 17-12. They are not a good team. I have absolutely no idea how this could in any way be considered a plus on an NCAA Tournament resume. As best as I can tell, Gottlieb’s only argument is that “the same thing would have happened to BYU.” Well then.

4. Texas’s conference schedule is better because they had to go to Lawrence to play Kansas

I am not sure what Gottlieb is going for here. He says that Texas doesn’t get the benefit of having Kansas coming to Austin to play. Instead, the Longhorns had to go to Lawrence and picked up a monster win over Kansas. I agree with the second sentence, but I’m not sure what the first sentence has to do with anything. That’s just the way the Big 12 conference schedule is set up. Next season they will in fact have the “luxury” of having Kansas come to Austin. Will that make Kansas a #1 seed if the Jayhawks win? My head is spinning.

Five other Big 12 teams besides Texas are projected to make the tournament field. The Big 12 schedule gave Texas a home-and-home with Texas A&M and Baylor, sent the Longhorns to Kansas, and sent Missouri and Kansas State to Austin for one game. So this “luxury” that apparently hurts Texas has actually helped them.

In his original appearance, Gottlieb hammered home that Texas’s best win was over Kansas and BYU’s was over San Diego State. His exact words were: “Where is it harder to win? At Kansas or at San Diego State? I arrest my case.” Stunning logic. I like Lunardi’s response: “If it was close, I would absolutely take Texas and their win at Kansas, putting Texas to the top line, but it’s really not close.”

The interesting part is that Gottlieb is almost certainly right: Texas’s conference schedule is more difficult than BYU’s conference schedule. But if we only used the logic that he took to get there, we could actually make a better argument for BYU than Texas.

5. They have a chance to win versus Kansas State and at Baylor.

At first I wasn’t sure that this was an actual point that Gottlieb used to support his case. After watching it a second time, it is clear that he is actually using wins that haven’t happened yet to support his argument. In his words, “I still think Texas is the #1 seed, especially since they have a chance to win at Baylor, Kansas State at home tonight.” How does one even argue with that?

6. Texas has more pure wins than BYU does.

Again, I might argue this, but I have no idea what a pure win is. Either Gottlieb is thinking on another level than the rest of us mere mortals, or he just made up an NCAA tournament qualification on the spot.

7. Texas’s recent 1-2 stretch is okay because of their far more difficult schedule.

Lunardi points out that those that draw up the NCAA Tournament field like the “what have you done for me lately factor.” Texas hasn’t delivered, losing to Nebraska and Colorado and beating last place Iowa State. Gottlieb thinks this is justified because Nebraska and Colorado are on the bubble…never mind that neither team was actually on the bubble until they beat Texas.

For the Cougars’ part, they are 7-0 in their last seven games, with a home win over tournament bound UNLV, a road win over potential #2 seed San Diego State, and a home win over bubble team Colorado State. And Texas’s schedule was better how?

8. Eight of BYU’s ten road wins came over a team with an RPI higher than 100.

Gottlieb is a total failure. BYU has actually beaten four top 100 teams on the road – San Diego State  (#4), UNLV (#26), Colorado State (#47), and Air Force (#96). Then he goes on to dismiss the UNLV and Colorado State WINS because they are bubble teams…never mind that not more than ten seconds previously he justified Texas’s LOSSES over bubble teams Nebraska and Colorado.

Now I am rooting for BYU to get a #1 seed, if for no other reason that we can all laugh at Doug Gottlieb’s shaky logic in a few weeks.


The Hasheem Thabeet Problem

February 26, 2011

Hasheem Thabeet – the #2 draft pick in last year’s NBA Draft – was shipped from Memphis to Houston on Thursday in a trade that barely registered on anyone’s radar screen. The Rockets dealt Shane Battier and Ishmael Smith for Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll, and a first-round pick.* Smith does not figure into the Grizzlies’ future plans and Battier’s contract is up in four months, so they essentially traded away the second pick in the 2009 draft, the 29th pick in the 2009 draft, and a first round draft pick in 2013 to rent Battier’s services for a potential playoff push. Wow.

* Carroll was the Grizzlies’ 29th pick in the 2009 draft. He has scored eleven points this ENTIRE SEASON. Not a good draft for Memphis. These are things that happen when Chris Wallace is your GM.

I am not sure what is more stunning: that Memphis gave up on a #2 draft pick that soon or that the trade was completely lost in the shuffle over the weekend. It’s fine to be overshadowed by the Carmelo trade…but it’s pretty sad to see Thabeet being overshadowed by Baron Davis to Cleveland for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams.

When I say stunning, I mean theoretically stunning. On a personal level, I am not at all surprised that Thabeet has been an absolute train wreck. I knew he was going to be a huge bust on February 16, 2009 – a full four months before he was drafted. On that date, I had my longest career ESPN Streak for the Cash streak going. Sitting on eleven consecutive wins, I went with #1 Connecticut at home against #4 Pittsburgh. A couple minutes into the game, this happened:

DeJuan Blair finished with 23 points and 22 rebounds, while Thabeet put up five points, four rebounds, and two blocked shots. And just like that, my streak went up in flames. So did my faith in Thabeet.

What NBA team could watch that video and not realize that Thabeet’s CEILING was a Tanzanian Shawn Bradley? Blair is 6’7″ and 265 pounds and put up 22 rebounds on Thabeet – what made anyone think he could handle the bigger and taller centers in the NBA?

I understand the arguments for drafting him. You can’t teach height. Even if he can’t rebound, he will block and re-direct shots. He has only been playing basketball since he was 15, so he will learn more. And so on. I get the arguments. I just think they are all stupid.

It is true that you can’t teach height. I should know – I am pretty deadly from three-point land, but no NBA team has drafted me yet because I am only 5’10”. If I could grow nine more inches, I would absolutely be playing in the NBA or be the top porn star in the world, depending on where that nine inches went. It is also true that you can’t teach instincts in the NBA. You can try, but you probably won’t be successful. Try to name a skinny, raw young center that actually filled out his frame to become a dominant center after being thrown around for his first couple of years int he league. Seriously…I’ll wait.

Moses Malone maybe? He was a skinny high school center. I’m not even sure he counts though, because he had some of the greatest rebounding instincts of any player in NBA history. Beyond that, the list of “project” centers is littered with a bunch of stiffs. I didn’t think Thabeet would be any different, so I’m not sure why any other team would think Thabeet would be any different?

I swear I don’t mean to sound like Bill Simmons, but Thabeet is a perfect example of the upside phenomenon in the NBA Draft. NBA teams are obsessed with upside, but there is a catch-22. An NBA team can only carry 15 players, 12 of whom are active for each game. Realistically, an NBA team cannot develop a raw player with upside other than by being patient as he gets torched by better players. The NBA Developmental League is not a feasible solution. It could be, but there is a stigma with sending draft picks to the league. Look no further than Thabeet’s two-week journey to the Dakota Wizards last season for proof of that. The media KILLED him.

All American sports leagues are obsessed with upside, but none more so than the NBA. Just watch an NBA Draft – as Simmons observes in his annual NBA Draft Diary, they speak in code words: wingspan, great feet, long arms, incredibly athletic, etc. NBA teams love players with upside. They look to what players can be, rather than what they already are.

Unlike the NBA, other sports leagues actually have the ability to develop players. MLB teams are well aware that every single draft pick is a developmental project, hence the five levels of minor league baseball. Rarely do you see any top pick make an impact in the majors in less than three years, so busts don’t really hurt teams. Similarly, the NHL draws players from leagues all over the world. Other than a few standout prospects each year, a team does not really know what they are getting, so busts really don’t sting these teams either. In the NFL, a team can carry 53 players plus another eight on a practice squad. If a player isn’t ready, you let him learn and watch from the bench for a couple of years while playing on special teams.

Most NBA teams play nine or ten man rotations. That really only leaves two spots for a developmental prospect. But you really can’t even use those for an extended amount of time because of the stigma attached to them. Analysts expect top draft picks to contribute right away. When they can’t, they are forced into action when they aren’t ready. They don’t learn anything but getting destroyed constantly and their confidence is shot.

To top that off, if a team is actually a contender, they cannot even afford to develop a project. Memphis drafted Thabeet knowing that he was an extremely raw center they would have to develop his skills to make him an NBA center. The team turned out to be surprisingly good this year but are a piece away from contending. Project over. Now it is the struggling Houston Rockets’ turn to try to develop him into an NBA center.

All of this leads to a unique phenomenon in the NBA in which you can actually pick out the busts before they happen, and teams draft them anyway. In the last five years, I saw the biggest three busts from the top three picks well ahead of time. In addition to Thabeet, I had a long debate with a Portland fan at my work on why they should draft Durant over Greg Oden in 2007. Sadly, I could not find a video of Oden running, but any 19-year old that runs like a 38-year old probably shouldn’t go first overall. Portland drafted him anyway because they did not want to be the team that let a franchise center slip away. Four years later, Oden has played 103 career games, Durant will win his second scoring title this year, and “Oden over Durant” has already joined “Bowie over Jordan” in Portland lore.

Adam Morrison with the #3 pick in the 2006 Draft was also a bust waiting to happen. This one is just a matter of common sense. Watch this video for all the proof you need:

How many unathletic white guys who wore a t-shirt in college and cried on the floor after a game were worthy of a #3 overall pick in the NBA Draft? Zero. Adam Morrison was no exception.

Before that, there was Darko Milicic in 2003 and Michael Olowokandi in 1998. Both Detroit and the Clippers took raw prospects in an attempt to hit a home run. Both failed miserably. Their failures are only exasperated by the players drafted after them: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade for Milicic, and Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce for Olowokandi.

As these failures keep adding up, you’d think that NBA teams would forget it out. But I doubt it. Taking a big swing to try to hit a home run is always more exciting than a base hit.

In the meantime, I will get to brag that I saw all these busts coming before they happen. Now I even have a blog to commit these predictions to writing.


Twenty-five Years of #1 High School Recruits

February 24, 2011

ESPN the Magazine ran an interesting “where are they now” story a few weeks ago about the #1 ranked high school recruits over the past 25 years. The top recruits ranged from solid NFL players like Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, and Anquan Boldin; to NFL busts like Tim Couch and Kevin Jones; to college busts like Randy Fasani and Kyle Wright; to busts in all walks of life like rape and incest suspect Xavier Crawford.

Top recruits have certainly met varying degrees of college and professional success. Some are still too young to tell how good they will be. Off the top of my head, the list of successful pros would look like this:

1. Hines Ward (WR, 1994, Georgia) – still active with 2 Super Bowl rings, 4 Pro Bowls, and 11,702 career receiving yards
2. Ricky Watters (RB, 1987, Notre Dame) – rushed for 10,643 yards and made 5 Pro Bowls in 10 seasons
3. Anquan Boldin (WR, 1999, Florida State) – one of best active receivers in NFL, has 8,357 yards, 51 TDs, and 3 Pro Bowls in 8 seasons
4. Shaun Alexander (RB, 1995, Alabam) – rushed for 9,453 yards and made 3 Pro Bowls in 9 seasons; briefly held single season rushing TD record with 27 TDs in 2005
5. Amani Toomer (WR, 1992, Michigan) – an above average receiver for 13-year career, retired with 9,497 career receiving yards
6. Jeff George (QB, 1986, Illinois by way of Purdue) – passed for 27,602 yards (154 TD, 113 INT) in 12 seasons
7. D.J. Williams (LB, 2000, Miami) – a solid starting linebacker for Broncos for last 8 seasons
8. Terry Kirby (RB, 1989, Virginia) – accounted for 8,471 yards as a returner/third down back for 4 teams in 10 seasons
9. Vince Young (QB, 2002, Texas) – two-time Pro Bowler has below average stats and may be on way out of Tennessee
10. Tim Couch (QB, 1996, Kentucky) – #1 draft pick bust wasn’t as horrendous as people remember (11,131 yards, 64 TD, 67 INT in 62 games)
11. Eugene Monroe (LT, 2005, Virginia) – already an established left tackle for Jaguars in second year in league
12. Kevin Jones (RB, 2001, Virginia Tech) – ran for 3,067 yards as starting running back for Lions for 4 seasons
13. David Givens (WR, 1998, Notre Dame) – 166 catches over 5 NFL seasons
14. Ted Ginn Jr. (WR, 2004, Ohio State) – #9 draft pick in 2007 is used primarily as a returner and is edging dangerously close to the “bust” label
15. Da’Quan Bowers (DE, 2008, Clemson) – projected #1 draft pick in 2011 Draft; that’s already a bigger accomplishment than everyone below him on this list
16. Chris Weinke (QB, 1990, Florida State) – after minor league baseball career, went 1-14 in 1 season as starter before riding the bench for his last six years in the league
17. Joe McKnight (RB, 2007, USC) – 189 rushing yards in rookie season as Jets backup (4.8 yards per carry)
18. Randy Fasani (QB, 1997, Stanford) – 44 passes thrown (0 TD, 4 INT) in 1 NFL season
19. Myron Rolle (DB, 2006, Florida State) – rookie spent year on Titans practice squad
20. Marquette Smith (RB, 1991, UCF by way of Florida State) – drafted but never played a regular season game
21. Ron Powlus (QB, 1993, Notre Dame) – saw some action in three preseasons; never played a regular season game
22. Kyle Wright (QB, 2003, Miami) – saw some action in one preseason; never played a regular season game
23. Xavier Crawford (RB, 1988, Memphis State) – never played in pros; currently an alleged rapist

Matt Barkley (QB, 2009, USC) and Ronald Powell (LB, 2010, Florida) are still active in college. Barkley has had an ugly USC career: the team is 17-7 in the 24 games he has started after going 72-7 in their previous six seasons (although we can’t really blame Barkley for all of that). Powell made the All-SEC Freshman Team as a linebacker in his first season with the Gators.

Interesting stuff. I don’t really have a whole article on the list, but I had a bunch of random thoughts.

*******************

Five of the 22 #1 high school recruits that already graduated have made a Pro Bowl. I’m not sure if that’s a high number or a low number. On one hand, it seems low, as it seems to imply that 18 of the kids were busts. But on the other, that actually seems really high. Eugene Monroe seems like a great bet to make a Pro Bowl in the near future; D.J. Williams certainly might (he was an alternate in 2009). So we could be looking at seven of the best 18-year old football players in the country that could make Pro Bowl.

That’s really not too bad. Imagine picking 22 very good 18-year old football players that would make good professionals at some point in the future. If five actually ended up making the Pro Bowl, I feel like you’d consider that a success.

*******************

I am sure that high school scouting overall has improved. It has become a huge industry in the Internet era: Rivals, Scouts, and every random football fan on the street has an opinion. I actually watched a game on ESPNU this year in which a potential Nebraska quarterback recruit played. High school recruiting is a BIG DEAL.

But with that said, these recruiting agencies have sure whiffed on a lot of #1 overall prospects. The six best pros on my list all graduated high school before 2000. Some of the #1 players from the past decade could potentially still crack the list, but that would be a long shot for most of them. D.J. Williams seems to have fallen into a role as an above average, but not great linebacker. Vince Young might be looking for a new team this offseason to try to resurrect his career. Eugene Monroe probably is a good bet to keep rising higher, but there’s not much of a chance for the rest of the #1 recruits of the 2000s. Kevin Jones and Kyle Wright have already left football; Ted Ginn Jr. has all the makings of a bust; Myron Rolle could not crack the Titans’ 53-man roster this season; and Joe McKnight is the Jets’ third-string running back. Da’Quan Bowers looks promising, but Matt Barkley hardly looks like a pro quarterback. That’s an awful lot of busts from this industry.

Compare that to the earlier years of recruiting, before the Internet turned recruiting into an entire industry. Jeff George, Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, Ricky Watters, and Amani Toomer all put together great college and pro careers. At the same time, the busts were bigger than they are now. Marquette Smith, Randy Fasani, Xavier Crawford, and Ron Powlus were all huge busts. In the last twelve years, only Kyle Wright has been an overwhelming bust.

*******************

I have an interesting theory on the type of college program these recruits go to. The highest picks in the NFL draft on the list were Jeff George and Tim Couch (#1 overall in 1990 and 1999), Da’Quan Bowers (will be top-three pick in 2011), Vince Young (#3 in 2006), and Eugene Monroe (#8 in 2008). Here are the records of the college teams that these players went to in the three years previous to each player’s first college season:

Illinois (Jeff George): 3-7-1, 4-7, 6-5-1
Kentucky (Tim Couch): 4-7, 1-10, 6-6
Clemson (Da’Quan Bowers): 9-4, 8-5, 8-4
Texas (Vince Young): 11-2, 9-3, 9-5
Virginia (Eugene Monroe): 8-4, 8-5, 9-5

All five of those schools struggled prior to signing the #1 overall recruit. Only Texas really carried any kind of national prestige at the time.* So far, George, Couch, and Young are considered busts, while the verdict is still out on Bowers and Monroe.

* I could count Clemson, but Bowers joined the Tigers in 2008. Clemson really hasn’t been relevant for the past couple of decades.

Each of these players was a rousing success in college. As a result, they were all drafted high. They have had better NFL careers than most of the #1 high school recruits, but how much of that comes from the simple fact that they were a high draft pick? Teams are much more willing to give their top draft picks a longer leash – what if these players really weren’t better than their fellow top high school recruits, but they just stood out in college more because their teammates weren’t that great?

On the flip side, look at the schools of the top five players on my NFL list:

Georgia (Hines Ward, 92nd overall pick in 1998): 5-6, 10-2, 9-3
Notre Dame (Ricky Watters, 45th overall in 1991): 5-6, 5-6, 7-5
Florida State (Anquan Boldin, 54th overall in 2003): 11-2, 11-1, 11-1
Alabama (Shaun Alexander, 19th overall in 2000): 12-1, 9-3-1, 13-0
Michigan (Amani Toomer, 34th overall in 1996): 10-2, 9-3, 10-2

Notre Dame and Georgia are the weak links, but all five of those players went to schools with a fair amount of national prestige. We have a really small sample size here, but maybe this tells us something about which schools a top ranked player should go to. Better schools and better competition prepares players for the NFL more than lesser schools. But there is a huge risk and reward with going to a top school: leaving aside certified headcase Xavier Crawford, the other three players who never played in the NFL went to:

Miami (Kyle Wright, undrafted): 12-1, 12-0, 11-1
Notre Dame (Ron Pawlus, undrafted): 10-1-1, 10-3, 9-3
Florida State (Marquette Smith, 142nd overall pick in 1996): 10-2, 10-2, 11-1

I have a hunch that Matt Barkley (12-1, 11-2, 11-2) joins them soon. The common theme is that those top recruits that go to powerhouse schools are battle-tested. Those that have the talent to survive to make it to the professional ranks are likely to thrive. Those that don’t will be badly exposed in college.

On the other hand, it is quite a bit easier for the top recruits to stand out at lower programs. This is somewhat obvious – look no further than Matt Barkley and Joe McKnight for proof. Both were #1 recruits, both went to talent-laden USC, and neither has done much to show he was worthy of being the #1 recruit. If McKnight went to UCLA instead of USC, we could very well be talking about him as a first round NFL running back. Instead of focusing on his inadequacies, it would have been much easier to blame his teammates for his lack of production. The same goes for #1 picks Jeff George (16-7-1 in two seasons as a starter) and Tim Couch (12-11). Neither were battle-tested and both are considered among the biggest busts from the #1 draft slot.

*******************

Finally, I was curious as to how far these players traveled to school. College away from home sounds good on paper and these guys have a chance to go anywhere in the country that they want. That can certainly lead to trouble: an 18-year old kid leaving to a different part of the country, living on his own for the first time, and pretty much being worshiped by everyone around them? Talk about a recipe for disaster.

But remarkably most of these players were not intrigued by the possibility of being a hero/partier in a different part of the country and instead stayed closed to home. Here is the list of players that went to school more than 500 miles away from home:

D.J. Williams (Miami): 3,033 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Kyle Wright (Miami): 3,020 miles from Monte Vista High (Danville, CA)
Ronald Powell (Florida): 2,346 miles from Rancho Verde High (Moreno Valley, CA)
Amani Toomer (Michigan): 2,340 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Joe McKnight (USC): 1,889 miles from John Curtis Christian (River Ridge, LA)
Chris Weinke (Florida State): 1,330 miles from Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, MN)
David Givens (Notre Dame): 1,132 miles from Humble High (Humble, TX)
Myron Rolle (Florida State): 1,064 from The Hun School (Princeton, NJ)
Ricky Watters (Notre Dame): 568 miles from Bishop McDevitt High (Harrisburg, PA)
Ron Powlus (Notre Dame): 566 miles from Berwick High (Berwick, PA)

That seemed surprising to me at first, but I suppose it really isn’t. A kid that has worked hard enough to be the best high school football player in the country probably has a college in mind already. He is likely to stick close to home to go to the school he has been idolizing.

Looking at the list again we can discount the three players who went to Notre Dame because the Irish have such a large national presence. Wright, Weinke, and Rolle come from areas of the country where professional football is far more important than college football. Williams and Toomer both went to De La Salle, which fancies itself as the best high school football program in the country – in a way, high school football is the biggest game for De La Salle. So that really only leaves Powell and McKnight as surprising college choices.

Both Powell and McKnight were the #1 recruit in the last five years. Will the surprising college choices continue in the future now that recruiting is a huge nationwide industry? Or will local colleges still dominate recruiting? I’m not sure. That might be a post for another day.


UEFA Champions League Predictions (Part 2)

February 22, 2011

Apparently it was too early for Chelsea to be written off. Although they aren’t out of trouble completely, their 2-0 victory in Copenhagen all but assured they would progress to the quarterfinals and Spurs’ loss to Blackpool in the Premier League means that Chelsea is now only two points back of the final Champions League slot with a game in hand. A rare good day for the Blues.

Meanwhile, in Lyon, Real Madrid was held to a draw against Lyon. Although the 1-1 draw gives them the edge going back home, Real certainly has to be frustrated with their seventh consecutive game against the French squad without a win.

Here are my predictions for Wednesday’s Champions League action:

Manchester United (4-2-0, 1st place Group C) at Marseille (4-0-2, 2nd place Group F)

How fantastic are Wednesday’s Round of 16 games that Manchester United versus the French champions is only the second best game of the day?

Through mid-January, Man U was one of the hottest teams in Europe. Then they needed three late goals to avoid a stunning defeat to Blackpool on January 25. Two weeks later, they were stunned in a surprising 2-1 loss to cellar dwellers Wolves, ending a 29 match unbeaten streak in meaningful competitions. The squad seemingly regained momentum after Wayne Rooney’s goal of the year candidate gave them a win over Manchester City the following week, but they were lucky to pull out an FA Cup win against fifth division Crawley Town last week.

Like Lyon, Marseille struggled in the early part of the Ligue 1 season. The squad put it together eventually and have climbed all the way back into second place in the league table, one point behind league leaders Lille with ten games to go. But last Saturday’s win against Paris St. Etienne turned a bit scary for Marseille fans when three of their top offensive threats all left with an injury. André-Pierre Gignac, who scored three goals in four group stage games, is out with a strained groin. Brandão and the team’s scoring leader Loïc Rémy also left with injuries, but the team hopes they will be back for this game.

Marseille isn’t a bad team – they beat Chelsea in the group stage and are unbeaten in their last twelve games at home. Yet the only thing that really matters is which Man U team shows up. Will it be the unbeaten team from the first half of the season or the team that has shown chinks in the armor in recent weeks?

I am going to go with the first option for three reasons. First, the Red Devils have won nine of their last eleven Champions League road games outright. Second, Nani, Wayne Rooney, and Dimitar Berbatov are good for at least one goal between them (the team has been held scoreless in only two of their last 26 games). I can’t say the same about Marseille’s injured strikers.

Finally I think those that see a Marseille upset here are over-thinking things based on a couple of recent games. Three weeks ago, no one would have predicted a Marseille win. Now people are questioning Man U because of the Wolves loss (which wasn’t as bad as it looks – Wolves beat Chelsea and Man City at home this season) and the Crawley Town escape (when only two of the team’s typical starting XI started). They are still the same great team. Manchester United wins it 2-0.

Bayern Munich (5-0-1, 1st place Group E) at Inter Milan (3-1-2, 2nd place Group A)

The marquee matchup of this week’s action is a rematch of last year’s Champions League final. Both Bayern and Inter entered last year’s game with a chance to win the treble. Inter cruised to the title with a surprisingly easily 2-0 victory. Both teams enter this game with a decidedly less impressive resume, but I think these two legs will be much closer.

Bayern currently sits in third place in the Bundesliga, a full 13 points back of leader Borussia Dortmund. They are still alive in the semifinals of the DKB-Pokal, but have still struggled for large parts of the season. Most of this is due to injury – star midfielders Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben have only played in the same game four times this season. But in their absences, young striker Mario Gomez has stepped up with 27 total goals this year and Thomas Müller has added 13 more.

Inter has endured similar struggles in Serie A this season. The squad was in seventh place on the table as late as January before winning nine of their last eleven games to pull back into third place, five points back of leaders AC Milan. Like Bayern, they have reached the semifinals of the domestic cup. They finished in second place in their first round Champions League group, but they get a little bit of a pass for that performance because they played in one of the toughest groups in recent memory: the top teams from Pots 1 through 3 (Inter, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur) and the second team from Pot 4 (Twente) were drawn into the Group of Death. A second consecutive treble remains a longshot, but remains a possibility thanks to their current form. Inter is again led by Samuel Eto’o, who has been sublime this year with 27 goals, including seven in six Champions League games.

In last season’s final, Bayern mustered little offense against Inter and only forced goalkeeper Júlio César to make one save. Their offense consisted of Arjen Robben trying to find seams that weren’t there until he was either stripped or forced an off-target shot. Müller had a few opportunities, but I distinctly recall thinking within the first half hour of the match that Bayern was not going to score. I looked up player ratings from this game to confirm what I thought I remembered and they sort of did. This quote from Eurosport sums it up:

“Arjen Robben 7 – forced a great save from Cesar but Bayern were too reliant on him”

That seems to confirm what I recall, although I remember thinking that Robben was also forcing the team to rely on him. He tended to force things instead of making an extra pass for most of the second half when Bayern became desperate to get a goal. I don’t think that will be a problem this season. Bayern’s offense has become more complete and less reliant on Robben after he spent the first half of the season injured. Gomez has emerged as a goal scorer up top next to Müller that the team sorely lacked. Although Croatian international Ivica Olić was decent as a stopgap solution last year, a healthy Gomez gives the team a threat up top that they simply did not have in last year’s final and Robben will not have to force the action from the wing.

Inter’s key player is Eto’o. As Eto’o goes, so goes Inter, as no one has stepped up along side the Cameroonian star this season. He has scored 27 goals for the team; midfielder Dejan Stanković is next on the list with seven. Diego Milito, the hero of last year’s final, has struggled with injuries and is not expected to play in the rematch. Inter will rely on their defense as they try to work the ball up to Eto’o. That could get scary for Inter fans, as the team gave up a whopping 11 goals in six group games, including an ugly 3-0 in their group stage finale against last place finisher Werder Bremen with first place on the line.

All that equals Bayern revenge. I see a draw in Milan this game before Bayern takes the home leg in Munich. I’ll go with a 2-2 draw here.


UEFA Champions League Predictions

February 21, 2011

We’ll give the Champions League predictions one more try for this week’s four Round of 16 first legs. The post started to get a little bit lengthy, so I’ll post my Tuesday predictions today and will post my Wednesday predictions tomorrow.

My predictions last week went poorly, to say the least. I give myself one point out of four because I predicted that Shakhtar Donetsk would step up against Roma. Not only did they step up, they actually won on the road against the Italians (I predicted a draw).

That means there is no place to go but up. Here are my predictions:

Chelsea (5-0-1, 1st place Group F) at Copenhagen (3-1-2, 2nd place Group C)

What can I say about Chelsea that hasn’t already been said? I recall reading an article about Chelsea on ESPN in September in which the article wondered if any team could beat the Blues this season. This seemed plausible at the time because it was shortly after they had won their first two games by identical 6-0 scores. Hard to tell who should be more embarrassed – the author of the article or Chelsea themselves. Since starting the Premier League season 9-1-2, they seemingly hit rock bottom several times. Each time, they find a way to dig a bigger hole.

They are out of contention for a fourth Premier League title in seven years; they are in danger of missing the UEFA Champions League next season for the first time since 2002-03 (they currently sit in fifth place and the top four qualify); they were eliminated from the FA Cup after only one win; and they were even eliminated from the lightly regarded League Cup in their first game. The Champions League is pretty much Chelsea’s last chance to salvage the season. The team knows it, hence the panic signings of Fernando Torres and David Luiz at the transfer window deadline last month for the ridiculous total fee of £71 million.

I have no doubt that owner Roman Abramovich will dish out another kajillion pounds this summer…but if Chelsea fails to advance or finish in the top four of the Premier League, he has to think twice right? Even for a billionaire, the Blues will lose a LOT of revenue if they are knocked out of this year’s Champions League early and don’t qualify for next year’s competition. According to this report, Chelsea’s matchday revenue fell £7.3 million last year because they were knocked out of European play early and lost out on two extra games. If they miss out completely, they lose out on six extra home games, let alone the money from the broadcasting deal.

Could we be seeing Leeds United all over again? That is probably a longshot because Abramovich has way, way, way more money than anyone that ever ran Leeds did. But if it does happen, we will look back at this three month stretch and say that the writing was on the wall.

As to this year’s Champions League, Chelsea will have more talent than any team they meet not named Barcelona. Not many teams have the luxury of bringing a striker like Didier Drogba off the bench. If your team can say that, there is a good chance that you have the most talented team. Still, the question remains: can we trust Chelsea? Public sentiment seems to say no. Their opponents, FC Copenhagen, opened up at +500 to win, but that number dropped to +400 almost immediately after Chelsea lost to Everton in the FA Cup. Copenhagen is certainly the trendy upset pick.

Last week I said that it is impossible to tell just how good Shakhtar Donetsk is because of their lack of top level competition. Shakhtar is nothing compared to the unknown Danish squad. They are minnows on the European scene and have the lowest UEFA coefficient among teams that advanced to the knockout stage. Although they had the third highest coefficient in their first round group, they were picked to finish fourth by most, even behind fourth seeded Russian side Rubin Kazan. But a surprising draw versus Barcelona, two wins against Panathinaikos and a home win against Rubin were enough to see the squad through.

It is safe to say that Copenhagen is the most lightly regarded team left in the competition. They are the polar opposites of Chelsea: while the Blues Starting XI reads like a potential World Cup All-Star team, Copenhagen is led by relative unknowns like Senegalese forward Dame N’Doye, Brazilian winger Cesar Santin, and Chelsea outcast Jesper Grønkjær.

But Copenhagen has put together a dominant season in Denmark. They lead the league by a whopping 19 points (only 16 points separate second place OB from last place AaB). The Danish League is still on winter break, but the team has looked impressive in five friendlies to prepare for this game, including a 5-0 victory last week over Norwegian side Rosenborg. Fairly weak competition, to be sure, but eventually that confidence starts to show.

I don’t quite have the guts to pick a Copenhagen win, but I think Copenhagen’s momentum and Chelsea’s lack thereof could mean a positive result for the Danish side. I’ll go with a 1-1 draw.

Real Madrid (5-1-0, 1st place Group G) at Lyon (3-2-1, 2nd place Group B)

In every domestic battle between two great teams, a football fan has to pick a favorite – it’s just a rule. You don’t have to root for the team, but you do have to think of it as a lesser of two evils kind of thing. Barcelona and Real Madrid fit that bill in Spain. For whatever reason, I prefer Barcelona to Real Madrid. I can’t be the only one, as Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham are two of the most polarizing players of the last couple of decades. Beckham played with the team from 2003 to 2007 and it was fun to root against them. After the 2008 season, Ronaldo signed with the club, so it was again fun to root for them.

For this reason, I take a perverse joy in watching Real fall apart in the Champions League every single year. Six times in a row they have been knocked out in the Round of 16, including last season to this very same Lyon team. In most of those games, they were the more talented team, as they are this year.

Meanwhile, Lyon is the chronically underrated French side. It seems like every year they are an afterthought to the sexier Spanish, Italian, and English sides, but every year they continue to impress in European play. This includes last season, when they made the semifinals of the Champions League just one year after their seven-year run atop the Ligue 1 table ended. This season looked to be the end of Lyon’s magical run from random provincial club to perennial favorites. They were in the relegation zone as late as the end of September with only one win in their first seven games. Since then, they have lost only once as they have climbed all the way back into European contention again.

This is the make-or-break year for Real. Last season, the two leg loss to Lyon spurred the team to hire two-time Champions League winning manager Jose Mourinho. Not only that, Lyon is the symbol for everything that has gone wrong with Real in Champions League play. Improbably, Lyon is undefeated in six games against the squad. To top that off, Lyon comes into this game without injured leading goal scorer Lisandro Lopez. This is the chance that Real has been waiting for – a road win against Lyon will take the monkey off their back.

And you know what? I think the pressure gets to them. On paper, there really isn’t much in the way of a rational reason to pick Lyon…but there really wasn’t a rational reason to pick them the first six times the two teams played either. Lyon pulls out the victory, 1-0.


Your Daytona 500 Winner: Trevor Bayne?

February 20, 2011

I don’t watch NASCAR. I am not one of those “durrr…it’s not a sport!” or “only rednecks watch” type of guys. I just don’t find it particularly entertaining, so I rarely pay attention to it.

I flipped by the Daytona 500 when there was nine laps left and stuck with it on the Man Rule that you watch ANY close game in the ninth inning (baseball), last four minutes or overtime (football), last two minutes or overtime (basketball and hockey), or last ten laps of an auto race. Even if it ends up taking a solid half hour, like the final ten laps of this race did, you have to stick with it. That’s just the rule.

Most times it doesn’t pay off, regardless of the sport. But this Daytona 500? Well, I’m glad I stuck it out.

I know very little about racing. I can name the top fifteen or so drivers. Beyond that, most of my knowledge comes from the Sweet’n Low scene from Days of Thunder. The best thing about NASCAR is that 95% of fans know about the same amount as I do. In this race, that was enough to appreciate the final two laps as they unfolded.

The race was won by some young driver named Trevor Bayne. Bayne is a 20-year old guy who was scheduled to race a part-time schedule of 17 races this season. Daytona was his second career NASCAR race. That in and of itself is beyond impressive, but the story is even more ridiculous than that quick recap.

The biggest reason why I don’t watch NASCAR is it seems like a waste of time to watch an entire race. The first 195 laps of a 200 lap race really don’t matter. Drivers in the top ten at the midway point of the race tend to bare little resemblance to the finishing order. That makes for a good mid-race nap, but I find it pretty boring. Someone wins the pole, some other people lead, and eventually one of the same eight or ten drivers or so inevitably wins the single race, but even that barely matters because Jimmie Johnson will win the Sprint Cup.

In a superspeedway race like Daytona, the race announcers tell me that being in first place with a couple laps to go can actually be a disadvantage. I don’t know if this is true. Maybe there are NASCAR sabermetricians out there somewhere working on this very problem. I assume there is at least a partial truth to this because one slip-up and the cars behind you rocket right on past.

This is why no one thought Trevor Bayne would win the Daytona 500 even though he led the race with two laps remaining. Even to the announcers, Bayne seemed like an afterthought.

No way could he hold off the talented drivers behind him. Not a kid that just turned 20 the day before and had one career NASCAR race under his belt. Not a kid who signed up for the Nationwide Series this year and wasn’t even officially considered a Sprint Cup rookie because he was not going to compete in enough races. And certainly not a kid who would have been a bigger story as a rare 20-year old driver if not for fellow 20-year old driver Joey Logano, who is actually nicknamed Sliced Bread.

Not for a cash-strapped team that plans on running only 17 races this season. Not a team that actually had to borrow their one car’s engine from another team. Not when the other team only gave the engine to them because they are one of the great teams in NASCAR history, even if they hadn’t won in ten years.

Not as one of the afterthoughts in a NASCAR race – one of those many drivers each week that show up each week to try to qualify, collect some points, run a few laps, and leave the race with a paycheck big enough to ship the car to the next track, where they can do it all again the following week.

But somehow Bayne hung on and I found a car race exciting for the first time. Ironic that the very reason I don’t watch NASCAR – that only the last couple laps of a several hundred lap race matters – is the very reason why the last laps of this year’s Daytona were so exciting. Bayne was the longest of long shots at the start of the race…and was STILL a long shot even though he led with two laps to go.

Improbably, he held everyone off for two full laps around the track, staying on a perfect low line around each of the eight turns. As he held steady through turn 4 on the last lap, Carl Edwards’s last chance to pass him, FOX smartly cut to his radio. All Bayne could say was “Are you kidding me?!?”

Now that was awesome, even if it was NASCAR.


MLB All-Star Teams of My Lifetime

February 19, 2011

When I write my periodic sports lists, I usually try to come up with an original angle. Most of the time, an idea for a list pops into my head shortly before I fall asleep and I do my best to remember it when I wake up the next morning.

This list is not one of those. It is a shameless rip-off of Joe Posnanski’s idea from last week. Posnanski wrote about which players would make the MLB All-Star team of his lifetime. This is a brilliant idea. As he puts it, that’s just the way his mind works.

My mind works in a similar fashion, but not nearly as efficiently. This is probably why I have such a man-crush on Poz: my thinking and writing can best be described as “Posnanski without the talent.” So I decided it would be okay to steal the idea, but figured I’d better add some value, since my lifetime overlaps with Poz. I selected a full 34-man All-Star team from each league, based on their careers between 1984 and 2010. Although the number of players from each position varies from year to year, I went with an average team: two catchers, three from each infield position, seven outfielders, and thirteen pitchers. To mix things up, I used Fangraphs’ WAR for this post as opposed to my baseball-reference WAR from previous posts.

Catchers

American League: Ivan Rodriguez and Jorge Posada

The list starts off with one of the easiest selections: Ivan Rodriguez at AL catcher. Pudge was selected to the AL All-Star team 14 times between 1992 and 2007. No other American League catcher really comes close to his offensive and defensive prowess in my lifetime – his 73.4 WAR is third best among catchers all-time and by far the best in my lifetime.

The second spot on the team is a bit trickier. I gave Jorge Posada the slight nod over Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. Fisk was already 36 by the time I was born; although he had three of his better seasons (1985, 1989, and 1990), he was barely passable in 1986 and a part-time player in three other seasons (1988, 1992, and 1993). Posada has made five All-Star Games and no other catcher who spent the majority of his career in the American League during my lifetime even comes close to Posada’s 51.3 career WAR. The closest competitors are Lance Parrish (who was past his prime by 1984), B.J. Surhoff (ha!), and Joe Mauer. I wanted to put Mauer over Posada, but that would make me too much of a homer. According to WAR, Mauer’s best season is better than Posada’s, but Posada has four seasons better than Mauer’s second best season. I’d expect that by version 2.0 of this list in 2015, Mauer takes over for Posada.

Honorable mention goes to Matt Nokes because he was at the center of my favorite fantasy baseball story. I started playing fantasy when I was seven years old with the guys at my dad’s work and promptly dominated the league. I distinctly recall the 1994 draft when a guy named Bill brought his secret cheat sheet that the kept in his hat. Somewhere around the third or fourth round, he pulled that bad boy out and drafted Matt Nokes as the rest of us tried not to laugh. Nokes played 28 games as a backup for the Yankees that season. Bill did not return to the league the following year.

National League: Mike Piazza and Gary Carter

Like Rodriguez, Piazza is a no-brainer. Piazza is by far the best offensive catcher in baseball history. Quick tangent: I wrote a few weeks ago about how positions change over time, but we shouldn’t necessarily hold it against players. Piazza and Pudge ushered in a new era of young offensive-minded catchers. As a result, both are undoubtedly future Hall of Famers. The closest comparison to Piazza according to Fangraphs’ WAR? Joe Torre, who like Piazza was an offensive stud but struggled defensively. Torre lingered on the ballot for 15 years but did not top 15% of the vote until receiving a token 22% in his final year on the ballot. Piazza will take no more than a couple of ballots because offensive catchers are more appreciated. Poor Torre was just too far ahead of his time.

The second spot goes to Hall of Famer Gary Carter, mostly by default. Carter had two of his four best seasons in 1984 and 1985 but basically fell off a cliff after 1986 and was barely a replacement level catcher until he retired in 1992. Of course catching was in such bad shape in the 1980s NL that Carter still made five All-Star teams between 1984 and 1998. Carter’s main competition comes from three-time All-Stars Jason Kendall and Javy Lopez, neither of whom can top Carter. Kendall was merely an above average catcher for many years for the Pirates; he was never really even very good. Lopez, on the other hand, had a great season in 2003, but was just barely above average for a few more years. I’ll take Carters’ two great seasons and several average to below average seasons over those two guys.

First Basemen

American League: Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Rafael Palmeiro

Tough call for the three American League first basemen. First, there are four solid candidates for the three positions, including Eddie Murray (six if you want to throw in Fred McGriff and Don Mattingly). Second, all of the top four candidates spent a decent amount of time as a designated hitter. I chose to leave DHs out, so I named all of them as first basemen.

The unappreciated Thomas gets the nod as the starter. How good was the Big Hurt? According to Fangraphs batting statistic, the top four players that received at least 1,000 PAs at first base are Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Jimmie Foxx, and Frank Thomas. Yeah, that’s good company. Amazingly, he only made five All-Star teams.

Thome and Palmeiro get the edge over Murray for two reasons. All three of them had similar careers (Murray had a 78.8 WAR, Palmeiro 75.5, and the still active Thome 73.5), but Thome and Palmeiro both had their entire primes in my lifetime. But more importantly, I find Murray a bit overrated. Yeah he put up those numbers in the low-scoring 1980s, so he certainly deserves credit for that. But I can’t help but think that his birth date is the biggest reason he was a first ballot Hall of Fame selection. He had the luck of being born a decade before Palmeiro, Will Clark, Mark Grace, and the rest of the very good first basemen that dominated the late 80s and early 90s. The high-powered offenses of the 1990s and the steroid problem certainly had something to do with the fact that Murray was a first ballot selection and Palmeiro is considered a fringe candidate. But I can’t help but think that it was just that much easier for Murray to stand out.

National League: Albert Pujols, Jeff Bagwell, and Todd Helton

Pretty easy calls here. For why Pujols is the starter, look no further than my recent post regarding his contract negotiations. He is just that good.

Like Thomas, Bagwell is laughably underrated. He is the seventh ranked first baseman of all-time on Fangraphs’ WAR. Outside of Pujols (who is currently just behind Bagwell and will pass him this season), no other recent NL first baseman even comes close to Bagwell. The closest are Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell.

The third spot narrowly goes to Todd Helton over Mark McGwire. McGwire had a better career, but half of it was in the American League. Helton gets the edge because he put together more successful years in the National League – he has been selected to five All-Star teams, compared to McGwire’s three with the Cardinals.

Second Basemen

American League: Roberto Alomar, Lou Whitaker, Chuck Knoblauch

Recent Hall inductee Alomar is the clear starter – he made the AL All-Star team all eleven years in which he was a full-time AL starter. That’s not a bad track record, even if it was mostly because there wasn’t a single second baseman that could come close to breaking the run.

I have written before about how perplexing it is that Lou Whitaker received so little Hall of Fame support. His WAR is actually higher than Alomar’s, but seven of his years came before I was born. His prime was between 1983 and 1987, when he made five straight All-Star teams. He was by far the best second baseman of the 1980s and easily gets the second spot on this list.

And then it gets difficult. I’ve only reached the second basemen and I already want to change my own rules. But I said I would pick three from each position, so Knoblauch reluctantly gets the second backup spot.* I might be missing someone, but who else do you pick here? Alfonso Soriano? Ray Durham? Yikes. I doubt Knoblauch gets in my hypothetical All-Star Game unless it goes more than 15 innings.

* Which in turn makes the lack of Whitaker support even more perplexing – in the 26 years since I was born, there were only two great second basemen that played in the American League and Whitaker was one of those two. Throw the man a bone.

National League: Craig Biggio, Ryne Sandberg, Jeff Kent

Much easier. Biggio, Sandberg, and Kent were by far the best second basemen in the NL and I can’t even think who would be fourth (Chase Utley maybe?). As players, these guys couldn’t be more opposite. Sandberg, while very good, is overrated. He made the Hall on his third try mostly because he played for the Cubs…the superior Whitaker played for the Tigers and couldn’t get a sniff. That’s not to say that he is not a Hall of Famer, just that he gets more appreciation than he should.

Kent is chronically underrated. He is rarely thought of in the same group as the great second basemen of all-time, but made five All-Star teams and won the 2000 NL MVP Award. Only eight other second basemen can say that (Joe Morgan won it twice). Seven of those eight are in the Hall of Fame and Dustin Pedroia is still active. Yet I can’t imagine a scenario in which Kent gets in and it is hard to pinpoint exactly why. My leading theory was that he was an asshole that the media hated to cover, but I’m open to suggestions.

And Biggio is properly rated. For a long time he was underrated because he was always solid and never stood out. But then he became overrated because he was an example of a player that supposedly “played the game right” in the steroid era. Now that he’s been retired a couple of years, those two things have combined to make him properly rated. He will go in to the Hall somewhere between his first and third ballots, and that seems just about right.

Shortstops

American League: Cal Ripken Jr., Derek Jeter, Alan Trammell

Ripken and Jeter would have been the top two shortstops on Poz’s All-Star team…and he was born 17 years before me. You could make a pretty good argument that those two would be the top two shortstops on the all-time AL All-Star team. Guess that means I don’t need to lookup any statistics to prove my case, which is nice.

Trammell gets the third spot because I classified A-Rod as a third baseman and Robin Yount was exclusively an outfielder by the time I was born. But he was a solid shortstop in his own right – his 69.5 WAR is 16th best in major league history for a shortstop.

National League: Ozzie Smith, Barry Larkin, Jimmy Rollins

Another couple of easy selections in the first and second spot. Ozzie Smith gets the starting spot over Barry Larkin because he has a slightly higher WAR (70.3 to 69.8), but really they are pretty interchangeable. Smith was the best defensive shortstop in baseball history and Larkin might be the most complete all-around shortstop in baseball history.

Like the American League, it gets tricky with the third spot. By career WAR, the third spot would go to Jay Bell. Seriously. I went with Jimmy Rollins instead because he won an MVP Award – the only shortstop not named Ripken or Larkin to win the award in the last 27 years.

Third Basemen

American League: Alex Rodriguez, George Brett, and Wade Boggs

You know a position is stacked when Paul Molitor gets left out…and it’s not even particularly close. Because A-Rod is such a douche, we often forget just how great the guy is. He already owns the second best career WAR among third basemen, and he will pass Mike Schmidt with one more merely average season.

Aside from A-Rod (who played the first half of his career as shortstop) and the aging Scott Rolen, there really aren’t many great third basemen left in the game. I find it interesting how third base and shortstop have basically switched positions. I remember when I first started playing fantasy baseball, third basemen were in demand and no one picked shortstops outside of Ripken and Larkin until the late rounds because they were all the same (I picked the immortal Kurt Stillwell in 1992 and actually felt good about it). Now the best shortstops are power hitters and some of the early picks in the draft (Tulowitzki, Ramirez, Reyes etc.). Third base is now as weak as shortstop was in the early 90s in that there isn’t much separating the very best from the average – the best third baseman by OPS last season was Adrian Beltre and tenth was Aramis Ramirez. Just not a whole lot separating those two. I think this paragraph made sense.

George Brett and Wade Boggs round out the top three. Both were easily first ballot Hall of Famers. Talk about a stacked position: the three third basemen on the AL team are three of the six best of all-time according to WAR. Honorable mention goes to Paul Molitor and Edgar Martinez, both of whom would have made the team as a designated hitter.

National League: Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Matt Williams

Chipper Jones and Scott Rolen are two guys who are easily forgotten as great third basemen. They are both extremely boring at what they do, but if you want to see a perfect fundamental swing out of a third baseman, you look no further than Jones; if you want to teach a third baseman how to play defense, you show them a video of Rolen. According to WAR, Jones is the 7th best third baseman in history and Rolen is the 12th. I think between these two guys and the AL third basemen, it is fair to say that the 1990s were the golden era for third basemen in major league history.

The third spot goes to Matt Williams, who like Knoblauch, doesn’t figure to see much playing time behind Jones and Rolen. Williams gets the nod based on a much higher career WAR (47.4) than NL MVP Award winners Ken Caminiti (38.0) and Terry Pendleton (29.9). Caminiti and Pendleton are two of the stranger MVP winners in retrospect. By career WAR, Caminiti is the 58th best third baseman ever and Pendleton sits at 104th. Those two must have had some damn fine single seasons. I’ll stick with the longer prime of Williams.

My favorite thing about Williams is that he stood a very good chance of breaking Roger Maris’s home run record in the strike-shortened 1994 season (he had 43 when the remaining one-third of the season was canceled). Can you imagine the retrospective outrage? Williams just looks like a guy who would ingest whatever drug came his way. I mean, I knew he was on steroids at the time…and I was 10 years old. I would have bet money on a Williams positive drug test before McGwire and his giant muscles. That’s saying something…I feel like we really got robbed with that strike.

Outfielders:

American League: Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez, Ichiro, Juan Gonzalez, Vladimir Guerrero, Kirby Puckett

I thought it would be difficult to limit my outfield to seven players. Instead, it was kinda hard to get to seven outfielders. Rickey and Griffey are no-brainers. There has not been a player like either one before or since.

ManRam and Ichiro are pretty close to locks. I’m actually not even sure why Ramirez isn’t a lock other than the fact that I’m falling into the same trap as the reporters who jump on him every time Manny be Manny. The dude is a flat-out offensive machine. And Ichiro doesn’t have the stats as the other guys on this list, mostly because he hits singles and little else, but he is an experience. I attended a Mariner game in both Los Angeles and Seattle and in both cases everyone stopped what they were doing to watch him take batting practice. There has never been a non-power hitter that can say that. That’s enough to make the All-Star team in my book.

Then it gets a little bit trickier. The AL has struggled with outfielders in my lifetime…not a single one of the remaining three made Posnanski’s top seven for each outfield position. The only AL outfielder on his lists that played in the past 25 years is Dave Winfield, but he was past his prime by the time I was born. I first went with Juan Gonzalez, who went from a nobody to a star to a nobody in a shorter period of time than most players can dream about. But he did win two MVP Awards. Even if his WAR (38.8) is probably less than any other player on this list, two MVPs is good enough for me.

Guerrero is actually the next outfielder on the WAR list that played his best years in the American League in my lifetime after Rickey, Griffey, and ManRam. I had to scroll down quite a bit and skip past Winfield (past his prime), Kenny Lofton, and Gary Sheffield (both bounced between leagues) to get to Guerrero. Still, not bad company.

The final spot goes to Kirby Puckett, who has been called overrated for so long that he has become underrated. Puckett was on his way to a Hall of Fame career before he had to retire because of glaucoma. No matter: the Hall voters elected him anyway, because they have a soft spot for players whose careers ended suddenly.* He instantly started getting railed on for being one of the worst outfielders in the Hall. Which might be true, but with a few more good years he would have been a deserving Hall of Famer. All that talk got to me, and I almost left him off completely, before I remembered that he was a great center fielder.

* There is no difference between Andruw Jones and Puckett, other than the fact that Jones suddenly hit a wall but kept on playing even though he wasn’t very good any more. Jones will get little Hall consideration because he struggled for the later years in his career. This makes almost no sense. Apparently, he should have gone out in his prime like Puckett.

National League: Barry Bonds, Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount, Sammy Sosa, Larry Walker, Tim Raines, Andruw Jones

The National League was quite a bit easier than the American League. Barry Bonds was the easiest choice in the entire post – his 169.7 career WAR is second all-time among all players, behind only some guy named Babe Ruth.

Tony Gwynn and Robin Yount both got on base a lot. Yount had quite a bit better stats but Gwynn’s swing was more fun to watch, so I gave Gwynn the nod for the second spot on the list. Gwynn made ten All-Star Games, I assume because his swing was so sweet. Yount made only three All-Star Games, which is insane to me. What exactly were people watching in the 80s?

Posnanski had Walker three spots ahead of Sammy Sosa on his list. I think they both make the team, but come on…Sosa in his prime was something to see. I’m a big sabermetric guy, so I understand that Walker was statistically better than Sosa. At the same time NO ONE watching baseball in the 1990s thought Walker was better than Sosa. I think this is a perfect example of overthinking things. Walker was a great player and makes my All-Star team. Sosa was a great player and a cultural phenomenon. He finishes one spot ahead of Walker.

That leads us to Tim Raines. People more capable than me have written about his Hall of Fame case before, so I don’t really need to write it here. A Google search will lead you to better arguments than I could give you. As far as I can tell, Raines would be a no-doubt Hall of Famer if he did not have the misfortune of playing in the same era as the one-of-a-kind Rickey Henderson. His career WAR is 71.0 – one spot ahead of Willie Stargell. Not a bad spot to be in.

The final NL spot should go to a center fielder, as Yount is the only center fielder on my list.* Andruw Jones gets the small edge over Jim Edmonds. His WAR (70.5) is slightly higher than Edmonds (68.1) and Edmonds spent several of his better years with the Angels in the American League. Plus I just compared Jones to Kirby Puckett above so he seems like the logical pick here.

* As an aside, how weird is it that Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines were left fielders? Seems like two of the fastest players in major league history would have been center fielders. Alas, I guess you can’t teach instincts.

Pitchers

American League: Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, Nolan Ryan, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia, Bret Saberhagen, Bartolo Colon, Mariano Rivera, Francisco Rodriguez, and Dennis Eckersley

Like outfielders, I thought I would have trouble cutting the pitching staff to thirteen. Instead I had trouble getting to thirteen. I suppose this makes sense – we like to think that there are a lot of great pitchers at any given time, by thirteen in one league is a lot. Ten years ago, the 2001 AL All-Star team had Joe Mays, Eric Milton, Paul Quantrill, Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, and Freddy Garcia. Yikes.

Additionally, I was free-wheeling it since I don’t particularly like career WAR for pitchers. I am a big short-term greatness guy. Pitchers get hurt so often that a long, average career tends to skew things on a stat like career WAR. So I went with my own memories and the list of award winners.

I went with ten starters and three closers, which seems to be fairly close to the norm for All-Star teams. Clemens, Martinez, Halladay, Santana, Rivera, and Eckersley were the easiest choices. Clemens was the best pitcher in the early part of my youth (six Cy Young Awards), Martinez was the best pitcher of my teenage years (two Cy Young Awards), and Santana and Halladay (two and one) were the best pitchers in recent years. Rivera is the best closer of all-time and Eckersley is the only relief pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. I assume that those six pitchers would make pretty much anybody’s list of the best AL pitchers of the last quarter century.

Next come the pitchers that probably make most people’s lists, but that you could talk somebody out of: Ryan, Mussina, and Pettitte. Ryan was already 37 by 1984, but still pitched for another nine years. He did make two All-Star teams and threw two no-hitters in my lifetime, so he’s not a bad choice to the All-Star team, even if it feels more like a lifetime achievement award.

I have previously covered Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina before, so there is no real need to discuss them here. In short, my argument is that we need to lessen our expectations from modern technology. We have become so accustomed to Tommy John surgery and pitchers pitching until they are into their 40s that we don’t appreciate the statistics of guys like Mussina and Pettitte. Both were among the best pitchers in the AL for their entire careers (Pettitte’s short exodus to Houston aside) so they make my team.

The last four guys are the best I could come up with and I could easily be talked out of them. Bret Saberhagen was outrageously good over his short career. Clemens, Martinez, Santana, and Saberhagen are the only pitchers to win multiple AL Cy Young Awards in the last three decades. That’s select company – I’ll take Saberhagen’s prime before an average pitcher who pitched for a long time anyday.

Sabathia and Colon are interchangeable with pretty much any AL pitcher that was very good over a short period of time – Bob Welch, Pat Hentgen, David Cone, and Barry Zito, among others are in the conversation. I am not really set on either one of these two guys, but they came to mind first and I couldn’t think of any reason to bump them for any of the remaining pitchers.

Then we get to Francisco Rodriguez, who was fortunate enough to accumulate a lot of saves for an Angels team that played a lot of close games. He shattered the MLB record by saving 62 games in 2008. The save is basically a meaningless statistic, but it was good enough for the third relief spot on the team, mostly because I couldn’t think of a reason to bump him either.

National League: Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Roy Oswalt, Orel Hershiser, Dwight Gooden, Curt Schilling, Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, and Eric Gagne

I count five no-brainers among National League pitchers: Johnson, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, and Hoffman. The first four figure to easily make the Hall of Fame and Johnson and Maddux could easily cross 95% of the vote on their first ballot. Hoffman might not make the Hall of Fame but the conversation on best National League closer of all-time (if there is one) begins and ends with Hoffman.

Oswalt and Smith are really the only two pitchers on the next tier. I would guess that most people would put them on their All-Star ballot of the last 26 years, but you could talk yourself out of either one. Oswalt has quietly been one of the best pitchers in the NL over the last decade and has three All-Star Game selections to show for it.

Smith has inched ever so close to making the Hall of Fame and was the MLB career saves leader before Rivera and Hoffman blew him out of the water. I would have trouble coming up with two other relief pitchers that could knock Smith off this team.

Then it gets tricky. Hershiser and Gooden both were dominant pitchers for a short time in the 1980s. Gooden won the 1985 Cy Young Award and Hershiser won the 1988 Award. Gooden made four All-Star teams and Hershiser made three. If I use the same logic that I used on Saberhagen above, I have to include both of these guys.

I tried to have a fair balance of players from the late 1980s and early 1990s throughout this post. But it was almost impossible to do that with the NL pitchers. Check out this partial list of NL Cy Young Award winners between 1984 and 1990: Rick Sutcliffe, Mike Scott, Steve Bedrosian, Mark Davis, and Doug Drabek. I don’t even think any of those guys could crack the top 50 NL pitchers of my lifetime. After that, the 1990s were dominated by Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez (on the AL team), and the Atlanta Braves pitchers I already selected. So the remaining selections come from recent years out of necessity.

Curt Schilling was one of the best pitchers of the past two decades, but this was a tougher call than you would think. Although he pitched the majority of his career on a National League team, his best/most famous years came with the Red Sox in the American League. So think of Schilling as the Nolan Ryan of the National League – his selection to the team is sort of a lifetime achievement award.

Tim Lincecum has only pitched for three full seasons, but who really cares when you win two Cy Young Awards? The list of multiple NL award winners in my lifetime consist of Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, and Tim Lincecum. So yeah, he’s in.

Eric Gagne gets in as the third reliever because of two dominant seasons. Voters got a little carried away with voting relievers as Cy Young winners in the 1980s and early 1990s, back when the save was still a new, cool statistic. Now we realize that closers are overrated…and Gagne still won the award in 2003 because he was just that dominant. That’s good enough for me.

That leaves Chris Carpenter, Jake Peavy, and Brandon Webb as the one-time Cy Young Award winners of the 2000s. I went with Peavy for the final spot, but could be talked into either of the other two. They are all basically equal in my opinion, but Peavy had more very good years in the National League than the others.

And now that I’m breaking down subtle difference in the careers of three very similar and still active pitchers, it’s probably a good time to end the post.