JaMarcus Russell Busts

April 30, 2011

NFL fans love talking about draft busts.

Ask any fan about the biggest draft busts of all-time, and he or she will rattle off Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Tony Mandarich, and Lawrence Phillips without even thinking about it. Ask who the best draft picks of all-time are and the same fan will say Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round and…um…

This shouldn’t be surprising: draft busts get way more coverage. A Google search for “best NFL draft picks” pulls up 75,000 results. “NFL draft busts” pulls up 504,000.

I’m not exactly sure why we love talking about busts. Maybe it’s because busts are easier to quantify. We could go back and forth on which team got the better end of the Eli Manning/Phillip Rivers trade in 2004, but we can all agree that the Colts made the right move in selecting Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in 1998.

Or maybe we just like picking on teams when they screw up. Sure, it’s easy to pick a Hall of Fame quarterback with the first pick of the draft – it’s the first pick! – but to destroy your team’s playoff chances for five years by screwing up the second pick? Now that’s worth talking about.

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There are two basic types of busts. The first kind are the retrospective busts. Retrospective busts are the busts that no one saw coming. Only after the pick flamed out of the league do we realize why the pick is a failure.

Ryan Leaf is an example of the retrospective bust. Every NFL fan knows this story – Manning and Leaf were neck-and-neck heading into the draft. One was going to the Colts at #1 and the other was going to the Chargers at #2.* It was pretty close to a coin flip. You know how the story ended. The Colts made the playoffs 12 of 13 years following Manning’s rookie season and won Super Bowl XLI; the Chargers drafted Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers before they returned to the playoffs and Ryan Leaf was last seen getting arrested for selling painkillers to West Texas A&M football players (Go Buffaloes!).

* Interesting sidebar that no one seems to mention any more: the Chargers traded up from #3 to #2 to pick Leaf. The Cardinals picked DE Andre Wadsworth at #3, who turned out to be almost as big of a bust as Ryan Leaf. The #4 pick? Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the Ryan Leaf pick went so wrong. Manning is the consummate professional – not only does he have a great arm, he works and studies more than anyone else. Leaf is a socially awkward crybaby who you wouldn’t trust to coach your kid’s Little League team, let alone lead an NFL team. At the time, we didn’t know that. We thought he could be just as good as Peyton Manning.

The list of these picks are endless: Brian Bosworth and Tony Mandarich (too much ‘roids), the aforementioned Wadsworth (noodles for knee ligaments), Andre Ware and David Klingler (before teams realized that being a system quarterback is a bad thing), and Heath Schuler (couldn’t throw).

These busts aren’t that fun to pick apart. Sure, we can get mad at our own general manager for these picks, but we would have made the same move. This is the same reason why no one talks about busts in the MLB draft. In every draft in every sport, teams work with incomplete information. You can’t really know if a high school senior can hit a breaking ball because no high school pitcher can throw a particularly nasty curve. NFL busts get more attention because we have three or four years of college to work with. But even with those extra years, teams miss qualities that haven’t shown up yet. It happens.

The more interesting busts are the prospective busts – the busts that you can see coming from a mile away but, for one reason or another, teams pick them anyway. I’ll call these the JaMarcus Russell busts.

I find these picks fascinating. They are the equivalent of going to a restaurant and having a large piece of cheesecake after you’ve already destroyed two plates of appetizers and a steak. You know that there’s no way you’re going to feel like living within about five minutes after you’ve eaten it…but damn it looks tasty.

JaMarcus Russell is the MVP of the JaMarcus Russell All-Star bust team.* The Raiders couldn’t help but pick him at #1. He could throw the ball farther than any other quarterback in the league and he was extremely hard to sack. Never mind that he could barely beat out Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job at LSU. Or that LSU fans spent the majority of his career ripping on him, save for the last seven games of his Tiger career. Or that he looked impressive in exactly one career college game against a decent opponent (the 2007 Sugar Bowl at home against an overrated Notre Dame team). Or that giving $32 million guaranteed to a 265-pound guy with no discernible work ethic might not be the best idea.

* Thank goodness…might have been awkward if someone else won the MVP award on his own team. Who knows how many cheeseburgers JaMarcus would have eaten in his depression.

I remember thinking that Russell was going to be a colossal bust at the time. If I was blogging back then, I would have devoted 1,500 words to the subject. Pretty much every single red flag was there, but the Raiders just couldn’t help picking that cheesecake (neither could Russell), simply because he could throw the ball really, really far.

For my own team, the Packers’ best known bust is Tony Mandarich in 1989. The Packers selected Mandarich with the second overall pick, just ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders. Those three players make the Mandarich pick exceptionally painful for Packers fans. Yet the guy was the cover story of Sports Illustrated’s NFL Draft people. Pretty much everyone thought he would be a great NFL lineman. No one knew about the detriment his massive steroid use had on him, just how abrasive his personality was, or how he much he liked drugs and alcohol.

The bigger JaMarcus Russell-style bust happened in 2001 for the Packers. The Packers traded up to the tenth pick in the draft to pick defensive end Jamal Reynolds.* More precisely, they drafted the 6’3″, 265-pound defensive end Jamal Reynolds. With that size, Reynolds would have been an excellent pick in 1978. Not so much in 2001. Predictably, he played 18 games and had 3 career sacks before exiting the league following the 2003 season.

* The Packers traded Matt Hasselbeck and the #17 pick (Steve Hutchinson) to Seattle, which worked out fairly nicely for the Seahawks.

Then there is former Husker Lawrence Phillips, who the Rams selected with the #6 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. Phillips is batshit crazy. He missed most of his final season at Nebraska because he pushed his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. He was such a terrible person that Husker fans were upset when he was allowed back on the team. To most teams, that would be a red flag. The Rams couldn’t help themselves. Unsurprisingly, he finished with almost three times as many years sentenced to prison (41) than NFL touchdowns (14).

The other reason JaMarcus Russell busts are interesting is that sometimes they work out. Donovan McNabb was booed at the 1999 NFL Draft by Eagles fans clamoring for Ricky Williams. That pick turned out pretty well for the Eagles.

I thought Josh Freeman would be a colossal bust for Tampa Bay after three unimpressive years at Kansas State. It’s still early, but it certainly looks like I am wrong about that one.

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That brings us to this year’s NFL Draft and the four quarterbacks drafted in the first 12 picks. I’m sticking with quarterbacks because this post is getting too long already. And if you think I analyzed the top four so I can make fun of the Vikings in about four paragraphs, you know me too well.

Cam Newton was selected first, but I don’t think he qualifies as a Russell bust. He’s certainly got some concerns, but the guy is a winner. He didn’t lose a game in college. Maybe he has accuracy issues, but he has more natural leadership, poise, and confidence than any quarterback I’ve seen in years. I just can’t picture a guy like that as a loser. He might be a bust, but not a Russell bust.

Eighth overall pick Jake Locker, on the other hand, kinda sucks. Locker is a strange case, because I’m not entirely sure why he was ever projected to be the #1 pick in the draft, other than Mel Kiper told me so. Certainly I wouldn’t have thought that by looking at his Washington Husky team that went 16-34 in his four seasons, including 0-12 in his sophomore year. And I definitely didn’t see it in the first full game I saw him play, when he went 4-20 passing for 71 yards and 2 interceptions in a 56-21 loss to Nebraska last season. I am not persuaded that Locker was even a good college quarterback, let alone an NFL prospect worthy of the eighth overall pick.

Likewise, I’m not sold on tenth overall pick Blaine Gabbert, but I’m a bit torn. Gabbert and Josh Freeman both committed to Nebraska before they changed their minds and attended a different Big 12 school. Both weren’t all that impressive in college, but were high on every NFL expert’s draft list. I expected Freeman to fail in the NFL, just like I expect Gabbert to fail. But now Freeman is actually pretty good and I’m all kinds of confused. Let’s just move on…

To Christian Ponder. I applaud the Vikings’ strategy, but only because I’m a Packer fan. Apparently their thinking was that we need a quarterback, so why change things up when all the good quarterbacks have already been drafted?

I admit to not following the draft as well as I should have beforehand – I’m just too bummed about the lockout. I didn’t read a lot of Mel Kiper or Todd McShay before the draft, so I don’t know how high Ponder was on their draft boards. However, I do watch a lot of college football and I can say that at no point over the last four years did I think Ponder was an NFL quarterback, let alone a top 12 draft pick.

I briefly questioned my own thoughts when I looked back at his stats. He clearly isn’t bad, although he was injured much of his career. But I shouldn’t have to do that for the #12 pick in the draft. Before the draft, Ponder was just another in a long line of disappointing, highly recruited Florida State quarterbacks.

Judging by the comments on the Minneapolis Star Tribune website, Vikings fans agree with that sentiment. Ponder makes this year JaMarcus Russell bust All-Star team.

And I get to make fun of the pick for years.


The Unfortunate 2011 Twins Season

April 29, 2011

You’ve probably noticed a lack of baseball posts for me. This is partly because I’m working two jobs, partly because no one wants to hear about my fantasy baseball teams, but mostly because the Minnesota Twins suck.

The Twins started off the season slumping, haven’t gotten much better, and show no signs of being any good at all.

This is what it must feel like to be a fan of the New York Mets, who are perpetually terrible despite a ridiculous payroll and optimistic preseason expectations.

Before the season, most Twins fans were cautiously optimistic. Granted, they lost several contributors from last season’s team. But they returned Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, two of the best hitters in the league. And they did flat-out dominate the AL Central last year and flirted with the best record in the majors until late September, when a 2-8 finish dropped them to 94-68 on the season.

Then the 2011 season started.

In stunning fashion, every single one of the organization’s many missteps over the past year was exposed in stunning fashion.

It started at the trading deadline last year, when the Twins’ brass decided to deal catching prospect Wilson Ramos for reliever Matt Capps. This trade was stupid on many levels, none more so than the overvaluing of the save. Twins’ fans have largely come to terms with the organization’s complete shunning of advanced statistical analysis, mostly because the team still wins fairly consistently. But this situation was a different situation altogether: not only were the Twins not paying attention to valuable statistical tools, they were actively paying attention to the wrong ones. They paid $3 million and gave away one of their top prospects to get a guy who was decent at accumulating a statistic invented out of thin air by a guy named Jerome Holtzman in 1960.

Of course almost anything is defensible and you can certainly defend the trade on its merits. After all, Capps is probably the best reliever on the team this season, his 3.55 ERA and $7.15 million paycheck not withstanding.

Then you remember that Joe Mauer had offseason knee surgery and is currently dealing with bilateral leg weakness, which sounds and awful lot like one of those nebulous injury definitions that last forever.

And that Ramos (who is making $415K this season) has a beautiful looking .373/.421/.569 line this season so far.

And that the Twins also traded away one-time backup catcher Jose Morales in December for a single-A reliever.

And that Drew Butera is the worst hitting starter in the league, with a .125/.167/.175 line that makes you wonder if you couldn’t get on base in the majors 17 out of every 100 times.

And that Butera’s backup is 31-year old Steve Holm, a career minor leaguer with 53 major league games under his belt.

And that Mauer knew all of this, so hurriedly came back before he was ready. Those aren’t my words, those are his trainer’s words.

Suddenly that trade doesn’t look so hot.

Then you consider the rest of their offseason moves. For non-Twin fans that happen to be reading this, I did not make any of these terrifying details up:

They traded SS J.J. Hardy to the Orioles for minor league reliever Jim Hoey. Hoey has managed to work his way from the minors to a high leverage bullpen role to a low leverage bullpen role in just four weeks and four major league games. Seriously.

They turned the shortstop position over to Alexi Casilla, who somewhat uniquely has been below replacement level OFFENSIVELY and DEFENSIVELY over the past three years. Yes, italics and caps were completely necessary. And no, it doesn’t matter that Hardy is hurt. Hardy will eventually be healthy and Casilla will still suck.

They chose not to re-sign the always solid Orlando Hudson at second base after winning the bidding war for Japanese batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nishioka promptly broke his leg. This sounds like a tough break, until you realize that the Twins already had Nishioka work all spring training on not getting his leg broken on breakups of double plays.

Even this wouldn’t be too bad…except that the Twins finally decided to ditch Nick Punto this offseason after paying him $4 million each of the last two seasons. Apparently the $750,000 that the Cardinals pay him was too much for the Twins to match.

The preceding four paragraphs serve as the long-winded answer to the trivia question: how do you end up with guys named Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla, Luke Hughes as your middle infielders? It’s probably not a good sign when none of those three guys would crack a starting lineup in a 12-team AL-only fantasy league.

There was the decision to guarantee Nick Blackburn a rotation spot in Spring Training despite a brutal 2010 season that saw him briefly get demoted to the minors. Even after a decent September, he still finished with a 5.42 ERA and an ugly 68-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the season.

But that pales in comparison to the team’s inexplicable handling of Francisco Liriano. Liriano was the Twins’ best pitcher last year, with a 3.62 ERA (despite having the highest BABIP in the league) and a stellar 201-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of course the Twins weren’t content with this, so pitching coach Rick Anderson decided that Liriano needed to learn how to “pitch to contact.” Somewhat predictably, Liriano was shelled in two of his last three starts and is reportedly one start away from heading to the bullpen. Again, this was their best starting pitcher last season.

Middle relievers are fairly interchangeable. This is why everyone understood the Twins’ decision not to re-sign Brian Fuentes the huge paycheck that he expected to be paid as a potential closer. No one could argue with that.

Then they decided not to re-sign Matt Guerrier. And Jesse Crain. And Jon Rauch. And Pat Neshek. And Ron Mahay. And Rob Delaney.

Instead, they went with a reliever so bad that the Kansas City Royals let him go (Dusty Hughes); a guy clearly not fully recovered from Tommy John surgery (Joe Nathan); a converted crappy starter (Glen Perkins); and well…I gotta be honest, there isn’t even really a whole lot else to say about the remaining relievers. I’m not even sure what their plan was, other than just letting a bunch of below average pitchers duke it out in spring training.

All that maneuvering adds up apparently.

Twins fans were optimistic because the team returned all of the “good” players from last year’s AL Central champions. Yet the “bad” players and the unknowns contribute too. Enough of those silly moves, and you end up with box scores like this one. A whopping eight of the fifteen players the Twins played on Thursday had little or no role on last year’s squad. They lost 15-3.

Sometimes baseball sucks. Twins fans are in the rare position of being fans of a small market team expected to contend…at least until the season started and all of our worst fears came true.

At least the Royals’ fans have the minor league system in their 30-year rebuilding project. Pirate fans are happy with 70 wins. The Marlins and Rays don’t have any fans to be upset. Clevelanders are used to their bad luck; so long as Travis Hafner doesn’t sign with the Yankees in an offseason special, they’ll bend over and take what the Indians give them. And so on.

Maybe being a fan of all those teams is far worse than having unmet expectations. I have no real argument about that. I just know that I can’t handle watching this team much longer.


How Did College Basketball Experts Fare with their 2010-11 Predictions?

April 12, 2011

My most popular post of all-time  (by far) was this post from last January in which I rated each NFL expert on how well they projected the season.

95% of the hits on that article came because two ESPN writers – Paul Kuharsky and Pat Yasinskas – stumbled upon the post and plugged it on Twitter and the NFC South blog. Sadly, it still would have been my most viewed blog simply because of all the Google searches. People apparently just want to know how experts did with their predictions.

As expected, most of the experts weren’t anywhere close (although Green Bay was the most popular Super Bowl pick). I noticed that the spectacular failures tended to be the same picks across the board and theorized that the experts were simply scared to deviate from the norm. At the end of the season, they will look silly if anyone bothered to check, but no one expert will stand out from the rest.

I made it a point to write a similar article after every major sports season. After all, I gotta give the people what they want. Unfortunately, the college basketball season doesn’t really lend itself too well to a points system like I used for the NFL. So instead I have a bunch of random thoughts about the experts’ predictions, organized in some vague order.

For this article, I looked at the ten experts on ESPN.com (Jay Bilas, Eamonn Brennan, Pat Forde, Fran Franschilla, Doug Gottlieb, Andy Katz, Diamond Leung, Joe Lunardi, Dana O’Neill, and Dick Vitale), the three on CNNSI.com (Seth Davis, Doug Winn, and Andy Glockner) and the two on CBSSports.com (Gary Parrish and Jerry Palm).

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Once again, bold predictions weren’t the strong suit of the experts. Unfortunately for them, this year required bold picks: not a single expert picked UConn, Kentucky, Butler or VCU to reach the Final Four.*

* Jerry Palm does get the award for most amusing selection. He picked #4 seed Butler and #13 seed VCU to meet in the first round of the Southwest Region. At least he had the right idea.

We will give most of these guys the benefit of the doubt. As we saw this year, the tournament is a crapshoot; picking a Final Four team at the start of the year is an even bigger crapshoot. So I’ll dish out points for experts whose Final Four picks received #1 seeds in the tournament.

All four #1 seeds – Fran Franschilla

Franschilla wins this year’s contest going away. His Final Four teams – Kansas, Duke, Ohio State, and Michigan State – all earned #1 seeds in the tournament. Well done.

Three #1 seeds – Gary Parrish (Duke, Ohio State, and Pitt)

Only one other expert even managed to correctly predict three #1 seeds. The Michigan State bandwagon (see below) stopped Parrish from getting all four picks correct.

The frustrating part for Parrish is that we can see the rest of his bracket, unlike the experts on ESPN and CNNSI. I would assume that he would just prefer to have us put out hand on the screen to block out his #2 seed for Villanova, #3 seeds for Baylor and Memphis, and his #12 seed for Notre Dame. But whatever – Parrish still gets credit for picking three of four #1 seeds.

Two #1 seeds – Seth Davis, Luke Winn, and Jay Bilas (Duke and Kansas); Pat Forde, Andy Katz, and Diamond Leung (Duke and Pitt); Eamonn Brennan and Dick Vitale (Duke and Ohio State)

And now we get to the groupthink. None of these guys bothered to think independently of one another. Fifteen experts times four Final Four teams equal sixty potential teams. Here is the distribution:

Duke – 14 picks
Michigan State – 13 picks
Kansas State – 7 picks
Ohio State – 5 picks
Pittsburgh – 5 picks
Kansas – 4 picks
Gonzaga – 3 picks
Syracuse – 3 picks
Florida – 2 picks
Illinois – 2 picks
Villanova – 2 picks

Live a little guys! Coming into the season, there certainly were more than eleven teams in the running for #1 seeds. And that’s not even considering the fact that 13 of these 15 guys were picking Final Four teams rather than #1 seeds.

I’m also a little bitter about this whole Michigan State thing. Prior to the season, I bought a small amount of this Spartan hype. This was inadvertent, because I tend to despise all Big Ten teams, but it didn’t stop me from stupidly picking the Spartans to reach the Elite Eight as a #10 seed this year.

I get the idea on the preseason predictions – they were a Final Four team in 2010 and returned the majority of their lineup for this season. The reality is that they were a #5 seed last season and received a ridiculously favorable draw to reach the Final Four. They beat the #12, #4, #9, and #6 seeds in their region by a combined 13 points. They simply were not that good last year and they were even worse this year.

Ditto for Kansas State. At least the Wildcats at times showed they belonged after their surprise Final Four run in 2010.

Hard to tell where the experts that picked Illinois and Villanova got their intel from. Maybe  Gottlieb and Glocker (Illinois) and Vitale and Glockner again (Villanova) saw something the rest of us didn’t in those teams. The rest of us saw historically underachieving teams that were bound to underachieve again. Of course, this being a groupthink situation, at least they had each other’s predictions to fall back on.

Doug Gottlieb, Joe Lunardi, and Seth Davis all picked Gonzaga to make it to the Final Four. Gonzaga is an enigma. They set the standard for all mid-majors in their one run to the Elite Eight as a #10 seed in 1999. Since then, they have qualified for the tournament every season but have yet to make it out of the Sweet Sixteen again. They have actually been upset by a team seeded three spots or lower four times in that span and own an average 13-12 tournament record.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, Gonzaga is always a popular sleeper pick. This is bizarre. I’m not knocking on the Zags: they are a very good mid-major program, and virtually every other mid-major team not named Butler would kill to own a 13-12 record while qualifying for 13 straight tournaments. But I can’t seem to figure out why they are a sleeper Final Four team every year. Imagine if VCU was picked by three experts to qualify for the 2024 Final Four. I don’t even have to look into a crystal ball to find that ridiculous.

One #1 seed – Jerry Palm, Andy Glockner, Dana O’Neill, Doug Gottlieb (Duke); Joe Lunardi (Ohio State)

Now we get to the whipping boys and the award for worst picks of the college basketball preseason.

I’ll let Palm off easy – he picked an entire bracket before the season. Although his seedings were a bit of a mess, he generally got most of the teams that made the tournament, so we gets somewhat of a pass.

Gottlieb picked the stellar threesome of Kansas State, Illinois, and Gonzaga to reach the Final Four. I’ve pointed out his incompetence before though. And that was before his cell phone went off in the middle of a live SportsCenter. I assume that just putting his pants on every day is a victory for Gottlieb, so picking one #1 seed was far better than we could have expected.

O’Neill picked Duke and Michigan State like everyone else, but his other two Final Four picks were Kansas State and Syracuse. Not nearly the train wreck as some of the other experts in this group, so we can’t give him the award either.

That leaves Joe Lunardi and Andy Glockner.

In a close battle, the award for worst picks goes to Lunardi. As much as I like Lunardi’s Bracketology column, his predicting skills leave something to be desired.

Glockner shouldn’t feel bad though. Despite a potentially record-setting Final Four train wreck of Duke, Michigan State, Villanova, and Illinois, he had two things working against him. First, I’ve never heard of him, so I can’t set the bar too high. For all I know, he could be a random guy with a blog like me. Second, CNNSI had their experts predict a few other categories; Glockner picked UNLV as a surprise team, Virginia Tech as a flop, and Butler as the best mid-major team. Not a bad track record…enough to pull him out of the cellar.

Lunardi’s Final Four was Ohio State, Florida, Michigan State, Gonzaga. I give him props for being the only expert to buck the trend of Duke as a #1 seed. Of course with that said, if you were going to follow the pack with any team, shouldn’t it be the defending champion who returned most of their players and picked up one of the most heralded high school recruits (Kyrie Irving) in the country?

And Gonzaga over Michigan State in the final…well there’s just no defense for that.

UPDATE: Andy Glockner e-mailed me after this was published with “a link to his full predictions. He deserves more credit than I originally gave him credit for: he nailed much more of the bracket than I gave him credit for. As a mid-major fan, I’m impressed that he nailed the multiple bids for the Atlantic Ten, Colonial, and Mountain West (though less so that he whiffed on my alma mater Creighton). And he was quite nice on the e-mail, even though I came off like a dick in my original post.

So it’s all you Lunardi. At least you have something to work on this offseason.


Meaningless Opening Week Statistics

April 11, 2011

Subtitled: Why the Red Sox and Rays should or shouldn’t panic.

Or why the Orioles should or shouldn’t be excited.

The Opening Week of the AL East inspired this post. The Red Sox and Rays both came out of the gate and immediately fell flat on their faces with 0-6 starts.  Both teams’ worst fears were realized: the Red Sox’ weak pitching gave up 38 runs in six games and the Rays’ biggest free agent signing retired six games into the season.

Meanwhile, Orioles’ fans are cautiously optimistic for the first time since the late 1960’s. The Orioles started out 6-1 and will enter April 12 in first place. Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, the Orioles will consider the season a victory after that first week.

The general consensus is that Opening Week is meaningless. Teams have played either six or seven games of a 162-game season. It stands to reason that 4% of a season has very little baring on the rest of the season.

Or does it?

Curious, I went back and looked at the standings after the first week of each season since the league expanded to three divisions in 1994. These statistics are almost certainly meaningless, but they are fairly interesting.

As a tiebreaker, I used run differential to determine which team was in first and last place a week into the season. Not a perfect tiebreaker, but the idea is to pick which teams got off to a hot start and which got off to a cold start, so run differential will do.

Teams that were in first place after Week One:

1st place – 35
2nd place – 25 (13 wild cards)
3rd place – 18
4th place – 17
5th place or last place – 7

Teams that were in last place after Week One:

1st place – 12
2nd place – 12 (4 wild cards)
3rd place – 20
4th place – 14
5th place or last place – 44

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Starting out hot is certainly no guarantee of a playoff appearance, but it doesn’t hurt: 48 of 102 first place teams ended up making the playoffs. And the 48 isn’t limited to teams that were predicted to be good. Five examples stand out – the Marlins in 1997, when they rode a hot start to a wild card and World Series championship in only their fifth year of existence; the White Sox in 2005, when they won their first World Series since 1917 (and the Astros, the very same year, when they made their first World Series); the Tigers in 2006, when they shocked everyone to make the World Series just three years after finishing 43-119; the Brewers in 2008, when they eventually qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1982; and the 2010 Giants, who finally won their first championship in San Francisco.

Only six teams that led after the first week ended up finishing last. Even that is a little deceptive though. The 1994 Angels (4-3), 1999 Angels (3-3), and 2002 Mets (3-3, 5-way tie for first) all happened to be leading the division after the first week despite being near .500. Only the 1997 A’s (4-2), 2001 Expos (5-1), and 2008 Orioles (4-1) fell all the way to last after solid starts.

On top of that, starting with the league’s best record is a pretty solid indicator of a playoff team, which should bode well for this year’s Rangers. In twelve of seventeen years, at least one team that had the best record after one week qualified for the playoffs.* Only the 2001 Expos (5-1) started off with the best record in the league yet finished last in their division.

* In several years, teams were tied for the best record after one week. Last year, for example, the Phillies, Giants, Tigers, and Blue Jays all started 5-1. The Phillies and Giants both went on to division titles, while the Tigers and Blue Jays missed the playoffs in emphatic fashion. In other years, like 1997, both teams that started out with the best record – the Marlins and Astros at 5-1 – both made the playoffs.

So that’s good news for this year’s first place teams. Teams that start off hot tend to at least contend for a playoff spot well into the season.

The news isn’t as bad for this year’s train wrecks. While a whopping 44 of 102 last place teams have finished fifth or worse in their division, sixteen of them have come back to make the playoffs.

Most of these teams were around .500 and just happened to be in last, but the Red Sox and Rays can take heart with several other teams. The 1995 Reds started off 0-6 before winning the NL Central by nine games in the 144-game season. The 1999 Diamondbacks won the NL West in their sophomore season by a whopping 14 games after finishing 100-62 after starting the season 1-5.

Then there is the 1998 Yankees. One of only a handful of teams in the conversation for the best team ever, the Yankees actually started the season 1-4. Lucky for them, they close well: they won 113 of their next 157 games en route to a 114-48 record. The wild card Red Sox finished 22 games back.

On the down side, only two of the 23 teams that were tied for the league’s worst record after one week managed to come back and make the playoffs: the aforementioned 1995 Reds and 1999 DBacks. A ridiculous 17 of those finished fourth or worse in their division.

Hard to tell what this means for the Red Sox and Rays (other than nothing). Most of the teams on that list were all expected to be terrible. After it turned out they actually were terrible, it is no surprise that they kept sucking. The Red Sox and Rays were not expected to be that bad, so who knows how they will react.

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The full list of teams that finished first after leading one week into the season: 1994 Reds (5-1), 1995 Red Sox (4-2), 1995 Mariners (5-1), 1995 Braves (5-1), 1996 Rangers (6-0), 1996 Padres (5-1), 1997 Orioles (4-2), 1997 Indians (4-2), 1997 Astros (5-1), 1998 Indians (6-0), 1999 Yankees (5-1), 1999 Indians (5-1), 2000 Braves (4-2), 2000 Cardinals (5-1), 2001 Indians (3-2), 2001 Mariners (4-2), 2001 Astros (4-2), 2002 Yankees (5-1), 2002 A’s (5-2), 2003 Yankees (5-1), 2003 A’s (5-1), 2003 Giants (6-0), 2004 Angels (4-2), 2004 Dodgers (4-2), 2005 White Sox (4-2), 2005 Braves (4-2), 2006 A’s (5-2), 2006 Mets (4-1), 2007 Angels (5-2), 2007 Diamondbacks (5-2), 2008 White Sox (4-2), 2008 Angels (4-3), 2009 Cardinals (5-2), 2010 Phillies (5-1), and 2010 Giants (5-1).

The full list of teams that finished last after leading one week into the season: 1994 Angels (4-3), 1997 A’s (4-2), 1999 Angels (3-3), 2001 Expos (5-1), 2002 Mets (3-3), 2008 Orioles (4-1).

The full list of Opening week first placed teams that qualified via wild card: 1994 Indians, 1994 Braves (were both in position when season canceled), 1995 Rockies, 1996 Orioles, 1997 Marlins, 1998 Cubs, 1999 Mets, 2000 Mariners, 2002 Giants, 2004 Red Sox, 2005 Astros, 2006 Tigers, 2008 Brewers.

The full list of teams that finished first after being stuck in last place after one week: 1994 Expos (3-4), 1995 Reds (0-6), 1995 Dodgers (3-4), 1997 Giants (4-2, only 1/2 game back), 1997 Mariners (2-4), 1998 Yankees (1-4), 1999 Diamondbacks (1-5), 2001 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2003 Braves (2-4), 2006 Padres (1-4), 2006 Twins (1-5), 2008 Phillies (2-4).

The full list of wild card teams in last place after one week: 2001 A’s, 2005 Red Sox, 2008 Red Sox, 2009 Red Sox (Take heart Red Sox fans!)

The full list of last placed teams that stayed in last: 1994 Padres (1-6), 1994 Tigers (2-5), 1996 Royals (2-4), 1997 Cubs (0-6), 1997 Phillies (2-5), 1997 Blue Jays (2-3), 1998 Tigers (1-5), 1998 A’s (1-4), 1998 Pirates (3-3), 1998 Diamondbacks (1-5), 1999 Marlins (2-4), 2000 Cubs (2-6), 2000 Phillies (2-4), 2000 Devil Rays (2-5), 2001 Devil Rays (1-5), 2002 Padres (1-5), 2002 Rangers (1-5), 2002 Tigers (0-6), 2003 Brewers (0-6), 2003 Rangers (2-4), 2003 Tigers (0-6), 2003 Devil Rays (2-5), 2004 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2004 Mariners (1-5), 2004 Blue Jays (1-5), 2005 Rockies (1-4), 2005 Pirates (2-4), 2005 Mariners (2-4), 2005 Royals (3-3), 2007 Giants (1-5), 2007 Rangers (2-4), 2007 Royals (2-4), 2008 Mariners (2-4), 2008 Tigers (0-6), 2009 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2009 Nationals (0-6), 2009 A’s (2-4), 2009 Indians (1-5), 2010 Royals (2-5), 2010 Orioles (1-5).


Ten Predictions for the 2011 MLB Season

April 4, 2011

Four days into the season and I finally am getting around to writing a prediction column for the upcoming/ongoing MLB season. I had grand plans for long division previews for each division, but decided to go a different route when I realized that there is not really anything I could write that hasn’t already been written by someone else already. So instead here are ten, somewhat bold predictions for the year:

1. The Yankees will win the AL East.

I made fun of the Yankees’ train wreck of an offseason in this fun post back in February. I stand by that: it was an absolute mess of an offseason.

They will still win the AL East.

The Yankees’ batting order is fine. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are getting older and figure to keep slipping. But Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are due for huge bounce back seasons. Their one good offseason move landed them Russell Martin – only one of the best catchers in the league up until two years ago and someone they can easily replace with Jorge Posada if he does not pan out.

Pitching is weak after C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes. A.J. Burnett is a 50/50 proposition. Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova round out the starting rotation…but does anyone actually think those two (and Burnett, if he struggles) will be in the rotation after the trade deadline? Not a chance – they will make a trade for one or two starters. Their pitching will be fine too.

Meanwhile, 45 of 45 ESPN.com experts picked the Red Sox to win the division. 33 of 45 picked them to win the World Series.

Um, what?

Lost in the shuffle of all the news of the high profile acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez is the fact that the Red Sox weren’t really all that good last season. Granted, injuries were a problem, but at no point did they seriously contend for a playoff spot.

Crawford is a great pick up for the Red Sox – he will make the team appreciably better. Gonzalez is a great player and the Red Sox made the right move to pick him up. But I fail to see how Gonzalez makes the Red Sox that much better. Offense and defense considered, is Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis really that big of a step up from Adrian Beltre and Youkilis? I guess a lot of that depends on how well Gonzalez hits in Fenway and how well Youkilis plays third, but I just don’t think they will be that much better.

As good as Crawford and Gonzalez are, acquiring both didn’t really address their biggest problem: pitching. After Jon Lester, is any Red Sox fan really thrilled about John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Dice-K? I know I wouldn’t be.

Looking at their roster, I see a very good team. I do not see a team so good that they should be a unanimous pick to win the AL East and a runaway favorite to win the World Series.

The Red Sox will falter under the heightened expectations and the Yankees will win the division.

2. The Rays will be better than people think…or not.

Speaking of the AL East, the Rays are by far the most confusing team in the league. They could win 100 games or lose 90 games and I wouldn’t really be surprised. For the record, I think they will be a lot closer to 100 wins than to 70 wins.

The general consensus seems to be that the Rays’ time has passed, until they rebuild through their farm system. Only four of the 45 ESPN experts picked the Rays to win the wild card. Like most small market teams, the thinking goes that they had a three year window where they were dynamic, but now they are doomed to irrelevancy because they cannot afford to keep all their players.

Their offseason was even weirder than the Yankees. Their two big moves consisted of signing Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon (combined age: 114) to one-year deals. Those would have been bizarre moves for any team, let alone the perpetually young Rays. Their roster looks like a bizarre Kansas City Royal-like experiment: two superstars (Price and Longoria), two participants in the 1979 All-Star Game* (Damon and Ramirez), one very good, but incredibly inconsistent player (B.J. Upton), and a bunch of random role players.

* Citation needed.

But here’s the thing: that lineup isn’t really that different than the 96-win AL East winning team from last year. They will miss Carl Crawford in left and their bullpen could easily be the worst in the league. Besides that, their team is pretty much the same. Reid Brignac replaces Jason Bartlett at shortstop – can’t imagine anyone will notice. Dan Johnson replaces Carlos Pena at first, but that can’t be a big step back either, since Pena batted .196 and finished 20th of 22nd in OPS among qualifying first basemen in the majors last season. If the Rays get anything out of ManRam and Damon, they can’t possibly be that much worse than last season.

Then they go out and get swept by the Orioles at home in the opening series. This could be a fun roller coaster ride.

3. The AL Central will again be the worst division in the majors.

I wanted to write something about the Twins winning the division, but I think that would make me a homer. To be honest, I think they had a terrible offseason. I disagreed with every single move they made other than re-signing Jim Thome. Seriously, every move. In what might be a first, I even disagreed with every single trade rumor they were involved with.

The best thing that the Twins have going for them is that the Tigers and White Sox don’t impress me either. The Royals are still a year away (although they might surprise some people if their prospects move up fast).* The Indians might be historically bad both on the field and in the stands (they drew a ridiculous 9,800 in their second game of the season – even the Marlins are embarrassed).

* Soon, the Royals might dominate the Central division. They have five of Baseball America’s top 19 prospects and a record-setting nine of the top 100. Most of them will start to hit the big leagues in 2012. They might be very, very good, very soon. The counter to that argument is that they are the Royals. So who knows?

The AL Central has not won a playoff series since 2007. That will continue this year – the division winner takes the division with a 84-78 record, good for seventh best in the AL, and are promptly dispatched in three games by the #2 seeded Yankees.

4. The Rangers will be really, really good.

The #2 Yankees, eh? That’s right – the Rangers finish with the best record in the American League and become only the third AL team since 2005 (2008 Angels, 2009 Yankees) to win 100 games.

Everyone is making too big of a deal about the Rangers not re-signing Cliff Lee. These people do realize that they didn’t get Lee until the trade deadline, and they had already essentially locked up the AL West at that point, right? The loss of Lee will hurt come playoff time, but the Rangers pitching staff was the toast of the league last season well before they traded for Lee. If they come up with anything close to last year’s performance, the Rangers will be dominant.

The real story shouldn’t have been Lee, but the fact that they got BETTER this offseason.

Joe Posnanski helpfully pointed out this week that five of the last 15 AL MVPs have played with the Rangers, a team that was pretty terrible up until last season. He was nicer about it than I was, but there is only one conclusion to draw from that: the writers are too stupid to realize that the Rangers’ offensive stats are ridiculously inflated in Arlington.

With that said, Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli are huge pickups for Texas. Those guys are going to mash the ball. Mostly because of these two guys, the already potent Rangers offense will be even better this season.

And we haven’t even mentioned the quietest offseason pickup in the entire league. The Rangers snagged Brandon Webb after he missed the last two seasons with shoulder problems. If he gives the Rangers anything close to his Cy Young winning-form of a few years ago, that will be a major coup, especially in an offseason in which neither the Red Sox or the Rangers added to their starting pitching staffs.

5. Indians and Pirates battle for the worst record in the majors; the Rust Belt weeps.

Hard to imagine that the Indians were only one game away from the World Series just four years ago. They got really terrible, really quickly. I seem to recall that they had a lot of really good young players. Now…well…

Their third baseman was the worst position player in the majors early last season for the Mariners before he was cut at the end of May. The Mariners, by the way, finished with the worst record in the AL.

Their Opening Day starter gave up ten runs in three innings, and no one was even a little bit surprised.

They have Adam Everett and Orlando Cabrera on their roster. I couldn’t decide on just one joke, so I’ll just go with this. Combined age: 70. Combined teams since 2007: 11.

On the bright side, Carlos Santana is one of the top young catching prospects in the league. So there’s that. It won’t be enough – the Indians finish an AL worst 61-101.

As for the Pirates? They have been one of the three worst teams in the NL every year since 2005. The other teams that periodically join them in the cellar (Nationals, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Cubs) all tend to make concerted efforts to get better. The Pirates do not. They again finish with the worst record in the NL at 59-103.

6. The Phillies will be the best team in the majors.

When I wrote my NFL prediction review column a few months ago, I pointed out that there tended to be a groupthink thing going on with NFL experts. The analysts seemed to make the same picks over and over, and my theory was that they were all scared to look stupid at the end of the season. Turns out they did all look stupid for the most part, but at least they looked stupid together.

The same thing went on with the Red Sox and the Phillies. When the Phillies shocked the majors by picking up Cliff Lee this offseason, they were quickly anointed World Series favorites. Then at some point this spring every analyst talked themselves out of the Phillies. We heard many arguments for why the Phillies wouldn’t be as good as people thought. Pitchers won’t stay healthy, Chase Utley is on the DL with a mysterious injury, Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez are getting older, and so on.

My response to that: Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels.

Yeah, let’s not overthink this one. They are going to be historically good.

7. Five teams will be within eight games of the NL Central title. Nobody will care.

In the aforementioned ESPN.com article, only the Pirates weren’t selected by at least one expert to win the NL Central title. No other division even had four teams picked to win the division.

That can only mean one thing – mediocrity will rule in the NL Central.

I actually applaud the experts for this one. Judging by their track record, I would have expected all of the experts to pick one team and all go with that team. They didn’t, and that was the right move. I can’t really differentiate between any of these teams either.

When in doubt, go with the best players. The Cardinals have two of the three best players in the division in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. The Cardinals win by being the slightly better than the rest of the teams in the division.

8. The Giants won’t make the playoffs.

I think the Giants will be very good for a long time. They have the best young pitcher in the league (Tim Lincecum) and the best young hitter (Buster Posey). They will contend for a playoff spot for as long as they can afford to keep their current lineup intact.

Yet I see this team as a clone of the 2009 Rays. In 2008, the young Rays surprised everyone by coming out of nowhere to capture the AL pennant. In 2009, expectations were too high in and the Yankees and Red Sox were too good. The Rays came up short of the playoffs before making it back in 2010.

That should remind you of this season’s Giant team. Buoyed by young stars Lincecum and Posey, they came out of nowhere to win the World Series title. Expectations are extremely high coming into this season. The Rockies and Dodgers are both very good teams in the NL West.

I actually like the Dodgers to pull the minor upset and win the division. I have no rational reason for this – on paper the Rockies and the Giants are better teams by far. Just call it a hunch.

9. The Phillies and the Rangers meet in the World Series.

Every single person that watches MLB knows that the playoffs are a crapshoot. After 162 games, the league decides its champion by a best-of-five series followed by two best-of-seven series. The system has pros and cons (more cons, in my opinion), but we accept it.

So why in the world would 42 of ESPN’s experts pick the Red Sox to win the AL pennant? It is one thing to pick them to win the AL East. After 162 games, the best team will almost always win the division thanks to the law of averages. If you really think the Red Sox are the best team in the AL East, by all means, pick them.

But we know going in that each team has a roughly 25% chance of winning the championship series after they make the playoffs. Since the wild card era began in 1995, the team with the best regular season record has won only seven of 16 AL pennants – and three of those were the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even if the Red Sox do have the best record in the AL, they have less than a 50% chance of making it to the World Series…and only three people on ESPN.com picked a different team to make the World Series.

I suppose if no one else will step out on a limb, I will. The Rangers will become the first team since the Yankees’ 1998-2001 run to win back-to-back AL pennants. Last season, they proved that they could win in the playoffs. I think they are going to be even better this season. To top that off, I think they are probably the safest bet to make the playoffs. The AL Central is a mess and only two of the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox can make it.

My prediction for the AL: #1 Rangers over WC Red Sox, 3 games to 2; #2 Yankees over #3 Twins, 3 games to 0. Rangers over Yankees 4 games to 2.

And yes, I realized afterwards that if you replace the Red Sox with the Rays you get last season’s playoffs. Whatever. I’m still going with it.

**********

I already gave my National League pennant winner away with my discussion on the Phillies’ pitching staff. I look at that team and can’t figure out how any team will be able to beat them in the playoffs. You can argue that injuries and age will catch up with them in the regular season but, assuming they make the playoffs, how can they lose?

In 2001, the Diamondbacks rode Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to the title. This season’s Phillies have four pitchers they can ride to the title. What happens if they scale down to a three-man rotation for the playoffs? Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, with Roy Oswalt the first one out of the bullpen? Wow.

The Braves and Rockies are trendy picks in the National League. I don’t like picking the trendy teams, but even with my division winners, one of these teams has to make it as a wild card almost by default. I’ll go with the Rockies for the same logic as I used with the Giants above. The Braves are a very good young team, but will face some pressure after they surprisingly qualified for the playoffs last season. The Rockies were in that position last season after they were the 2009 wild card. They put it together and make it in.

My predictions: #1 Phillies over WC Rockies, 3 games to 1; #3 Cardinals over #2 Dodgers, 3 games to 1. #1 Phillies over #3 Cardinals, 4 games to 1.

Did I just pick two #1 teams to make the World Series after typing how stupid that is several paragraphs ago? Yes, yes I did. Hey, I never claimed that I was very good at following my own advice.

10. The Phillies win the World Series.

The poor Rangers make it back and meet a buzzsaw. No team has lost back-to-back World Series since the Atlanta Braves in 1991 and 1992. It will happen again this year after the Phillies’ pitchers mow the Rangers down, especially after the NL wins home-field advantage with their second consecutive All-Star Game victory. Phillies take the Series, 4 games to 1.

Bonus: Award winners.

Just for kicks, here are my picks for award winners. I suspect none of these will be anywhere close to correct at the end of the season; I will consider it a victory if any of these players picks up votes for their respective awards.

AL MVP: Mark Teixeira, Yankees
NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
AL Cy Young: CC Sabathia, Yankees
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Rays
NL Manager of the Year: Don Mattingly, Dodgers
AL Rookie of the Year: Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays
NL Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt, Giants