Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Raiders GM, A Lions GM, and a Knicks GM walk into a bar...

Once these people were at the top of their respective games.

Al Davis was Jerry Jones long before Jerry Jones was even a blip on the NFL radar. The maverick owner of the Raiders liked to cultivate his outsider's personae, often flipping a metaphorical finger at collectively bargained NFL deals.

The difference was that Davis was a football guy rather than a businessman like Jones.

He wasn't just any football guy, either. He was, once, highly respected both as a coach and a talent evaluator. After working his way up through the college ranks, he took over a Raiders franchise that had only nine wins in its first 42 games. That translates to a pitiful winning percentage of .214.

In Davis' first year at the helm the team went 10-4 and was unanimously voted AFL Coach of the Year for his efforts. In three seasons as a coach he put together a respectable 23-16-3 record, an increase of .333 over the team's previous winning percentage.

For roughly two decades (ending 1985), the Raiders, under Davis, won the division 13 times, and have for Championship rings (one AFL, three Super Bowls). Like him or hate him, he was once one of the foremost football minds in the NFL.

Matt Millen, picked in the second round of the 1980 draft by the aforementioned Davis, was among the best inside linebackers during a 12 year career in the 1980's and early '90's, mostly with the Oakland Raiders. He made the Pro-Bowl once (1988), was a two-time All-Pro('84, '85), and walked away from the game with four Super Bowl rings. Of the 180 games that he appeared in, he started 166. Not quite Hall of Fame, but it was good enough for people to remember who he was years after he retired.

From 1981 until his retirement in 1994, Isiah Thomas was one of the best point guards in the business. The leader of the Detroit Pistons, Thomas was as good as they come, being named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history when the league celebrated its 50th anniversary.

The point guard was an integral piece to the puzzle in Detroit, making the All-Star Game 12 straight years while donning two championship rings and being named MVP of the Championship Series in 1990. Among his other honors is Olympic Gold and enshrinement in the NBA Hall of Fame.

Pundits speak of him as being part of a Golden Age of basketball, along with peers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Larry Bird.

Now, all three of these people are both joke and punchline.

While Matt Millen might finally be showing some signs of growth as a general manager, a hint of learning, he now owns a record that no football insider believes will ever be approached - he has more seasons of double digit losses than any GM in the history of the sport.

The reason it's believed that Millen will always have that dubious honor? None of the insiders around the sport believe that anyone else can last this long without getting fired.

Since Millen's hiring, the Lions have compiled a 31-81 record, worst in the NFL. Last season was the team's best showing with him selecting the players and coaches. They won seven games. Previous to last season, his teams averaged a paltry four wins per season.

Since the Raiders loss in the 2002 Super Bowl to the Buccaneers, Davis has played musical coaches and made questionable player moves...at best.

The amazing thing about Davis' personnel moves is that they were questionable when he made them. With the exception of the acquisition of Randy Moss, there were virtually no moves that Davis made that weren't followed by the phrase, "what's he thinking, giving that guy that sort of contract?"

And he appears to have done it again, committing an obscene amount of money...the money you spend on difference makers, on middle of the road sort of talent - has beens and never will be's.

The result? Nineteen wins over the last five seasons. Less than four per season.

Thomas? Since coming to New York, he's been an absolute train wreck of an executive.

Twenty years after being presented the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, Thomas was found guilty of sexual harassment, and did nothing to help his image with his testimony in the case, and subsequent comments to the press. During the course of the trial, it was also testified that Thomas made racist comments on more than one occasion in regards to white people.

He has finished with 42 or fewer wins in five of his six full seasons as a coach, and has put together a brutally bad Knicks team with the highest payroll in the NBA. That team has gone a combined 52-100, with only 19 of the wins coming this season. They are on a pace for 22 wins and 60 losses. Only Miami is on pace for fewer wins in the East.

If the entire NBA finishes on the current pace, that will be the highest payroll in the league with fourth worst record, and average of only 27.5 wins per season for Thomas as GM and coach.

While a joke, even a pitiful punchline to fans of other teams around the respective leagues, these guys have been nothing more than nightmares to fans of the Raiders, Lions, and Knicks.

The error cost them the game, and other observations

A [satellite] dish best served up cold...

This morning I woke up and turned on the television with the expectation that I would be getting the Red Sox season opener live from the Tokyo Dome on ESPN2. For those without DirecTV, that's channel 209 on my dial, direct from what my receiver calls satellite 2.

Rather than the game, I was receiving a message that I was not receiving signal from that particular satellite.

At first I thought the issue might have been my recent attempt to upgrade to HD and the replacement of my dish...that is until I began receiving a placard with the following message on all the affected channels...

"No need to call us. We are aware this TV station is temporarily unavailable. We'll have this channel back as soon as possible. Sorry for the interruption."
Based on that message I could only conclude that there has been some sort of technical glitch at DirecTV's end of things. With the satellite that carried Major League Baseball's inaugural game of the 2008 season. Someone somewhere screwed the pooch on this one.

The future is now

The opening day line-up for the Red Sox included four starters (not including the pitching) that were under the age of 30, three of which had a year or less service time at the major league level. Including the starter and relievers, the Sox had eight players that were either under the age of 30, or with a year or less service time appear in the game - Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Brandon Moss, Jacoby Ellsbury, Coco Crisp, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, and Jonathan Papelbon.

While the speculation is that Crisp isn't long for the Red Sox, the tandem of Moss and Ellsbury could be a glimpse of the future of the Boston outfield.

For all the fanfare that has followed Ellsbury into the season after bursting on the scene with a memorable post-season, Moss was the hero in the opener. On a day when David Ortiz and Jason Varitek combined to go 0 for 8, and after the bullpen blew a one run lead, Moss led the way. Down to their final two outs, Moss launched a solo home-run to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

With JD Drew signed for the next couple of years, and Manny Ramirez's contract coming due, is it possible that the future of the outfield is Moss, Ellsbury, and Drew?

Guts and glory...

Okajima, the old-timer of the players entering only their second season (he's 32), struggled in the opener. The set-up man got the win while throwing 19 pitches, giving up no runs on no hits. However, he walked one and nine of his pitches were balls. Those 19 pitches garnered three outs and the win.

To put that into perspective, in last season's ALCS, Okajima had a 1 2/3 inning appearance, getting five outs on 18 pitches.

Bad pitchers give up the ghost when they don't have their A-game. Good pitchers find a way to win when they don't have their best stuff. Oki didn't have his best stuff, but still did his job.

That's the early season for you...still working out the kinks.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Land of the Rising Sun

It is a great public relations gimmick.

Send at least one of the league's premier teams from the previous season overseas, or to another country on the same continent to help cultivate the game in a country that's already baseball crazy.

It will be the fifth time since 1999 that Major League Baseball will start its season on foreign soil. In 1999 it was the the 1998 pennant winning Padres taking on the Rockies in Monterrey, Mexico. In 2000 the 1999 NL wild-card Mets, winners of 97 games, played the bottom of the NL Central barrel Cubs in Tokyo. Four years later, the capital of Nippon hosted the AL Champion Yankees against the bottom feeding Devil Rays. In 2001 it was the bottom scrubbing Rangers playing a Blue Jays team that missed the AL East title by a mere four and a half games.

This season it's the World Champion Red Sox opening against an Athletics squad that finished only a game out of last place in the AL West and 20 wins behind the Red Sox. Not exactly a marquee match-up.

But this is less about the match-up than about the impact of opening in a different country.

What does it really mean? Is it difficult for the team's involved to recover from the requisite travel? Or is the impact dependent on the team make-up, the manager, and any number of other factors? The numbers are less than telling.

The Yankees in 2004 got off to a horrible start, struggling in April and May, but recovered to win 101 games.

On the other hand are the 1999 Padres, just a season earlier with 98 wins and an appearance in the World Series, dropped to fourth place and 74 wins when starting the season in Mexico. Their opponents, the Rockies dropped from 77 to 72 wins.

In 2000 the Cubs slipped by two games from 67 to 65 wins, while the Mets still qualified for the wild card with 94 wins, down from their 1999 total of 97 after taking their first at-bats of the season in Tokyo. That same year the Rangers and Blue Jays won 71 and 83 games respectively. The following season, kicking off the season in (I know, technically American soil) Puerto Rico, those Rangers and Jays finished 2001 with 73 and 80 games respectively. An increase for the Rangers, but a drop-off for the Jays.

In 2004 the Yankees matched their previous season's win total, while the Rays increased their win total from 63 to 70 after starting it all in Tokyo.

Eight teams, a variety of results. Nothing telling. One team broke even. Two teams increased their win total by an average of 4.5 games, and five teams slipped a combined total of 37 games. Realistically, the Padres skew that number with a 24 game drop-off. Sixty-two-and-a-half percent of the teams experienced a drop in performance reflected in their win-loss record. The average drop, not including the Padres, is 3.25 games per team.

Assuming this is actually indicative of this season's performance, there's a 62.5 percent chance that the Sox will drop to 93 wins from last season's 96-win showing. Last year that would have put the team a game behind the Yankees in the final standings, and given the Red Sox the wild card.

What any statistician will tell you is that eight teams, eight results in over a century's worth of seasons is not a sampling that is indicative of anything.