Friday, June 12, 2009

Crazy eights and other observations

Eight in a row after an eighth inning comeback.

Are the Red Sox in the Yankees' heads? Maybe. Maybe not. I think it's as much the fact that the Yankees just aren't constructed to hang as anything else. Yes, there are a lot of big names in there, but let's really look at this. And just for symmetry, lets look at eight reasons why the Yankees are looking up at the Red Sox after dropping eight in a row to their arch-rivals to start the season (and nine total going back to last season)...

1. CC Sabathia, the would-be ace to get the team over the hump - 5-4 with a 3.68 ERA. Only 50 percent of his starts qualify as quality starts. Solid, yes. Dominating the way an ace should be? Hardly.

2. The revamped bullpen - The Bronx Bombers are 19th in ERA after the 7th inning so far this season with a team ERA of 4.33, and the team as a whole is also 19th in ERA with men in scoring position and 2 outs at 19.73. Sure, no one has a spectacular ERA in that position (the Dodgers lead the league with a 15.86, and the Red Sox are 5th at 16.96, almost three runs better per nine innings than the Yankees). As good pitching will almost always overcome good hitting, this does not bode well for the Bombers as the season progresses.

3. Counting on Wang and Burnett - The Yankees were counting on Chien-Ming Wang to bounce back from a year in which he struggled due to injury during the first time in his career. Wangs' issues, reportedly, had to do with a foot injury. Even if he's healthy, working back from a foot injury is going to affect a pitcher's mechanics. They have also counted on the idea that AJ Burnett would dominate like he did last season. But outside of contract years, Burnett is an imminently mediocre pitcher. AJ was signed with the expectation of being the number two or three guy in the rotation. He would be the four or five guy in the Boston rotation.

4. The New Yankee Stadium - A raucus home park gives any team an advantage. A home park that can't sell a significant portion of its seats due to overpricing gives visiting teams an advantage, particularly when the team is already starting with an overrated pitching staff and has redesigned the home park to be a launching pad.

5. Better depth overall - Without starting center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, back-ups Mark Kotsay combined to go 3 for 11 (.273) with one run scored against the Yanks. On top of that, both made spectacular defensive plays in the field on what looked like sure extra-base hits. Instead, Yankees found themselves walking back to their dugout, failing to reach base. For all the talk about the Yankees combating injuries, the Sox played the series without their aforementioned outfielder, started their back-up catcher in one game, and continue to play without their starting short-stop. The back-ups thrust into starting roles this series went 9 for 26 (.346), with two home runs, 3 RBI, 7 of Boston's 17 runs scored. This doesn't even deal with the fact that the Sox bullpen can overcome a bad outing by one of its members. The Yanks' pen can't.

6. David Ortiz - Before anybody reads a whole lot into a potential resurgence of the Boston slugger, it should be noted that Ortiz is batting .263 against the Twins and then it drops again to .235 against Baltimore. There are four AL teams against which Ortiz is batting .160 or below. He's been strong batting .364 against Texas and .313 against Cleveland. He has been a Yankee killer, however, batting .321 with 8 RBI against Yankee pitching.

7. The starting rotation - The Yankee starters are a respectable 21-16, with six starters putting that record together. The Sox, with six starters, racked a 28-18 record. Both teams have logged 60 starts with Sox starters qualifying for 46 decisions and averaging just under 8 decisions per starter as well as 4 wins per starter. NY starters are averaging just a shade over 6 decisions per starter and 3.5 wins per starter. In essence, the Yankees are having to go to their bullpen with greater frequency. During the series, at least 8 of the Boston runs crossed the plate with a Yankee reliever on the mound while Sox starters logged 18 innings in three games to the Yankees' 12.1.

8. Timing - for all the to do made regarding the Yankees errorless streak, it seemed that whenever the Yanks needed a big defensive stop, or a clutch hit, the team came up short while Boston made the plays. Whether it was A-Rod's double clutching leading to unearned runs, or the Sox relievers coming up with the big stop when NY relievers couldn't, the Yankees in the first eight games of the series against the Sox have made mistakes or failed to come through at the worst possible times.

And other observations...

Vince Young wants his starting position back. I suggest he fight for it on the field rather than in the press. I suspect that he's not the only "quarterback of the future" that will end up riding the pine this season. My guess, Matt Leinart continues to ride the pine, as does Tavaris Jackson, and that Jamarcus Russell loses his starting job to Jeff Garcia.

And finally, I suspect that Michael Vick will land somewhere, but not anytime soon, and I can hardly venture a guess as to where he will land. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if no one signs him, but I think someone will at some point. Someone will think that he will make for a good option in the Wildcat, or might help their team out in some way or other. However, given a little bit of time removed from the "excitement" that is the Vick experience, I think that most personnel people have realized that he's not going to be the answer at quarterback, and for all the excitement he might bring on the field, that he's not worth the headache and lack of dedication off of it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rejected headlines

Yanks' Wang flaccid

Limp Wang removed early

Yankees' Wang impotent and ineffective

Yankees kicked in their Wang

Wang's balls help Bombers knuckle under

Sox knock Yanks' Wang

Okay, admittedly this is among my more juvenile posts, but I couldn't resist. Back again when the Sox-Yanks series concludes, and some observations about other NFL happenings like the boneheaded comments of Vince Young and other thoughts.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Story lines

There are some interesting story lines developing around sports right now. Some short term, some long term. I wanted to look at some...

Short term...

The Orlando Magic are one blown alley-oop away from being up 2-1 in the finals. Can they actually come back from down 2-0, or are they just making the NBA finals interesting?

Can the Penguins actually go into Detroit and pull off the upset?

Longer term stories to watch...

At some point this season the Yankees are going to win a game against the Red Sox. It could be tonight, it might not be until the next series. But will the Yankees inability to beat the Sox early in the season come back to haunt them late in the season? And on the flip side, how much could this early dominance by Boston play into the team winning the division?

Is David Ortiz actually showing signs of breaking out of his slump? He's riding a seven game hitting streak, and has had hits in 9 of his last 12. Even though it's the only time this season that he's had a hitting streak last more than three games, he hasn't exactly been tearing the cover off the ball. He's had only one multi-hit game in that stretch, and is 10 for 48 (.208) - even if you just look at his seven game hitting streak, he's a respectable 8 for 29 (.276), not exactly tearing the cover off the ball, but better. Right now it's a more compelling story than the Red Sox trials and tribulations at short stop. Will he or won't he?

As bad as Ortiz has been at the plate, Chien-Ming Wang has been worse on the mound for the Yankees. How far can they expect to go with a completely ineffective (defective?) Wang. They're already keeping their fingers crossed that AJ Burnett and Joba Chamberlain can stay healthy, what is their future (this season) going to look like if they have to rely on an imminently hittable Phil Hughes? And how long can Andy Pettitte go, with batters hitting over .280 against him?

I can't help but think over on the gridiron that the Patrick Pass signing was more or less to add depth at the position for training camp. Does he have a shot at the team? Sure, but I would be surprised if he were on the roster on opening day. Honestly, I would be surprised if he made it to the final cuts. It should be interesting to watch.

Of course, there's always the question of Tom Brady's knee, and how he will respond in game situations. A lot of people are talking about early season issues due to shaking the rust off, and while possible, I think Brady will get the time and reps to do that during the preseason games. What people aren't talking about is how the Patriots' schedule might impact their high-octane offense.

After the bye week in 2007, on the team's way to the only 16-0 regular season, the Patriots played seven consecutive cold weather games, four of which were in Gillette, the rest of which were at the Meadowlands, at Buffalo, and at Baltimore. In the coming season, after the bye the Patriots will play nine games. Four games are at home - Miami on November 8, the Jets on November 22, Carolina on December 13, and Jacksonville on December 27. Of those, only the Jets game starts later than 1:00, and the Miami game is early enough in the season that the weather may or may not be a factor.

Of the other five games, one is in Buffalo, three are either in domes or stadiums with retractible roofs (Indy, New Orleans, and Houston), and the other is in Miami. With about half of their remaining games being played either indoors or in warm places, the Patriots offense has a chance to really light things up...assuming Brady is perfectly healthy.

Outside of New England, these are the things to watch -

The play calling of the new staff in Indianapolis. This is going to go a long way towards determining where the Colts end up this season. Will it be a seamless transition from last year? Do all the coaches have a good instinct for the right defense at the right time? Will they find they have the right people at the right positions?

Is Rex Ryan the right man for the job in New York, and are they really going to make any noise with their current quarterback situation?

Can Chad Pennington stay healthy for the entire season? Pennington has struggled his entire career to put together back to back healthy seasons. When healthy he's a top ten QB in the league - no, he doesn't rack up big statistics, but he's smart and doesn't turn the ball over a whole lot, and wins, even with sub-par talent. If Pennington can't stay healthy, the Dolphins have no chance. Healthy, they can still get to the playoffs.

How is the Buffalo soap opera going to play out? Sure, they managed to get an extra weapon in Terrell Owens, but he's paired with, easily, the worst quarterback of his career (after dealing with Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb, Drew Bledsoe, and Tony Romo), and they open the season without their star running back for three games. If the team starts off 0-3 or 1-2, what's the likelihood that Owens will hold his tongue? The Bills are on the verge of becoming the AFC East's Bengals, or Raiders.

Speaking of the Bengals, after admitting to the press that he mailed it in back in 2008, are there any teammates that are going to trust Chad Ochocinco?

How's Jay Cutler going to fare without any legitimate, top-flight receivers?

How are teams like Denver, Cleveland and Kansas going to fare under their new regimes?

Will Lance Armstrong be ready for the Tour de France coming off his injury?

Off-hand, those are just some of the ones I can think of. Should be a fun year.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Catching up, yet again

As you might be able to tell, I have been busy lately. I have about a half dozen story proposals or so floating out there with various magazines, have been working on home improvements, looking into going back to a staff position somewhere now that my youngest daughter is closing in on two - all of that has taken away from my time here at TAF. There have been a lot of things to comment on that have come and gone in the five days since my last blog post. Here goes...

Overall, I have no vested interest in the NHL finals and little more than that in the NBA finals this year. At least if Carolina had made it to the Stanley Cup round of the post season on the ice, then I would at least have a former New England team to root for, but we have the Penguins and the Red Wings. Eh.

Over on the hardwood...well, let's just say that the entirety of my interest there would be in seeing the Lakers lose. I don't think it's going to happen now that Los Angeles is up 2-0, but I would love to see them lose.

The Lakers are one of those teams that I love to see lose, they're up there with the Yankees, Cowboys, and Raiders. Being a Patriots fan, some might be puzzled that I haven't picked division rivals like the Jets and Dolphins, or even the rival Colts, but there's something different with them.

If the Raiders went 0-16, I would enjoy that, and while I kind of rooted for the Dolphins to match that mark two seasons ago (but only when they were in the 0-13 territory), I much prefer it when the Jets and Dolphins are decent for a couple of reasons - one: better games. Two: I much prefer seeing those teams come close and get knocked out at the hands of the Patriots then to watch them struggled and be eliminated from contention before Halloween.

Speaking of football, I didn't like Peyton Manning's public criticism of the new coaching regime. I don't know if it was more a reflection of the new staff still finding its feet, or a reflection of how spoiled Manning has been due to virtually no coaching defections during his career. In theory, there should be little to no change in how the Colts play the game since the entire coaching staff was there under Tony Dungy, but there's no telling if Pete Metzellars is going to be as good at coaching up line men as Howard Mudd - yes, he did well in the middle of the year taking over for Mudd when Mudd was dealing with health issues, but how does he do starting with a free-agent rookie from scratch like Mudd did with Jeff Saturday? He may be fine, but we just don't really know.

On top of that, the team has new coordinators for pretty much the entire team - offense, defense, and special teams. The play calling will be different. Maybe better, maybe worse.

My guess is that the team shows some growing pains, but they miss the playoffs as a ten or eleven win team, finishing behind the Titans again in their own division.

The Colts enter the season not unlike the Patriots. While the key question for the Colts is "how the is the coaching staff going to perform," the Pats are rolling the dice on the rebuilt knee of their all-pro quarterback. If Brady can play without the knee getting into his head, he should be the same guy they've always had back there. With a very likely revamped and improved Jets defense in week two, the Ravens defense in week four and the Titans and Bucs all in the first seven weeks of the season, fans of the Patriots will find out quickly if Tom Brady is thinking about the knee, or about completing passes.

While the Pats defense was shaky last season, I'm less concerned there based on the moves the team has made, leaving the biggest question on the offensive side of the ball.

Over on the diamond I can't say that homer that David Ortiz had gave me any sort of hope that he's breaking out of that power slump. Big Papi just barely cleared the wall right at the Pesky Pole. In any other ball park that hit is a long single or maybe a double, but certainly not a home run.

Jon Lester's near no-no, however, might be cause for hope. I'm still reserving judgement on the Sox lefty for at least another two starts (he's failed to put together more than two good starts in a row, in spite of leading the team in innings pitched), before I say that he's turned the corner, but things have been encouraging lately.

Through his first eight starts Lester was 4-2 with a 6.51 ERA. He bottomed out in starts five and six, pitching a total of ten innings while giving up 13 earned runs over the two games. It was his worst two game stretch of the year, beating out his first two starts in which he pitched eleven total innings while giving up eleven earned runs.

In the four starts since, Lester has pitched 27.1 innings, gone 3-1 with three quality starts, all the while logging a 2.64 ERA. His next best four game stretch ran from his start on April 19 and ran to May 4. During that stretch he went 2-0, and gave up 10 earned runs over 26 innings for a 3.46 ERA. Like the recent stretch, Lester had three of four quality starts. So, yeah, I'm going with a wait and see approach on the Sox lefty.

While Lester has certainly had his issues this season, and almost all of the pitchers have faltered badly at one time or another, they have all been better than Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has struggled in just about every outing.

For all of Lester's issues, the Left is averaging 6.1 innings per start. Tim Wakefield and Josh Beckett are also averaging 6.1 innings per start. Even the oft maligned Brad Penny is pushing 5.2 innings per start, an average that would be higher were it not for two rough starts in his first three of the season in which he pitched for a grand total of 5.2 in those two starts. The Dice-man? Just a shade under 4.2 innings pitched per game. Yes, that includes a one inning/five-earned run fiasco of a start, that without he is averaging 5.1 innings per start and still has the highest ERA of the starters at 5.88.

While Matsuzaka's stats, sans the one terrible start, is only slightly higher than Brad Penny's 5.85 (overall), and slightly lower than Penny's IP per game, it might do better to look at the number of quality starts each of the Sox starters has turned in...

Matsuzaka - 0 for 6_00.0%
Masterson - 2 for 6*_33.3%
Lester - 6 for 12_ 50%
Penny - 6 for 11_54.5%
Wakefield - 7 for 11_63.6%
Beckett - 8 for 11_72.7%

*One note on Masterson's six starts - his first two starts he failed to go a full six innings, both times leaving after only 5.1 innings, but also leaving the game after giving up only one earned run. During Masterson's run of six starts in place of Matsuzaka, Masterson was 2-2 with a 4.59 ERA while averaging just under six innings per start. How long do they go with Matsuzaka in an effort to let him get his feet before they make a switch to Masterson, Buchholz, Bowden or someone else? How much time does their monetary investment in the Dice-man buy him?