Friday, September 29, 2006

The Little Things Count

The Bears and Seahawks go into their Sunday night showdown pretty evenly matched. The Bears have played better so far this year, dominating two out of three opponents, while the Seahawks have won without consistently outclassing their opposition. But three weeks only mean so much, and my expectations were much higher for the Seahawks before the season started than they were for the Bears. I'm not quite willing to name the Bears the NFC favorite yet.

Offensively, Seattle has been an average team so far this year. Their outburst against the Giants is offset by their struggles against the Lions. They've been better passing than running. Still, Matt Hasselbeck only ranks 18th in the league in PAR (Football Outsiders' overall performance metric). That slots in with names like Brad Johnson and JP Losman. Darrell Jackson has been a stud for him so far, however, and he's gotten good play from ex-Bear Bobby Engram too. The running game has struggled. Former MVP Shaun Alexander ranks 38th among NFL running backs in PAR. And, he won't even be playing Sunday night. By FO's metrics, the Seattle line ranks 25th in run blocking and 22nd in pass protection.

Seattle has made their mark this year on defense. They're seventh in the league, and would be higher but for the 2nd half of the Giants game. (You can only discount garbage time scoring so much). Their pass defense has been good; their run defense has been outstanding. They're 5th in the league in stopping the run near the line of scrimmage, and they haven't given up the homerun either. The only red-flag, and it can largely be written off to small sample size, is that the Seahawks have yet to make a single stop in a short yardage situation (3rd or 4th down and two or fewer yards to go, or any play within two yards of the goal line).

I've spent ample time on the Bears already this week, but a couple of points of comparison: (1) the Bears' defense has been just as dominant as Seattle's, and (2) the Bears' offense has been consistently better than Seattle's. While that defensive dominance comes as no surprise, it may take another week or two of offensive consistency before I fully commit to the Bears' offense.

So why do I think the Bears will win this game, when I still think the Seahawks are a slightly better team? Well, it is in Chicago. Homefield advantage hasn't meant much so far this year, but it is an advantage, hence the name, and it is one small thing that will tilt this battle in the Bears' favor. Perhaps the most important difference is on special teams. The Bears have the best special teams units in football -- from kick and punt coverage, to place kicking, to explosive return units. The Seahawks don't. They have poor place kicking and average punt and kick units, both in coverage and on the return. And, this is nothing new. They were poor last year too, so don't expect it to change suddenly. That's a lot of hidden yards for the Bears there. Also, the Seahawks have relied on their passing game this year, and figure to continue to do so without Alexander. But the Bears' D-line has been applying some of the best pressure in the league, and the team has been sound against the pass overall. Finally, there is the matter of Alexander. The argument goes that the Seahawks weren't running the ball well with Alexander, so it's no loss to not have him out there. But last year, when the Seahawks were running the ball well, Mo Morris wasn't as effective as Alexander on a per play basis. So, what little chance Seattle had to run the ball against the Bears is likely lost. It's hard to win as a one dimensional team, on the road, against a great defense.

So, I'm going with the Bears, close, in what to me is a bit of an upset. And, then maybe, I'll begin to believe that the Bears deserve the status of favorites in the NFC, unless of course, the Eagles really crush the Packers on Monday. Speaking of Monday. Monday is Yom Kippur, so I'll be back Tuesday. Enjoy the football and have an easy fast.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Running Man

Suppose before the season started, I told you that the Bears' flashy, big play starter was going to be one of the worst performers in all of the NFL through three weeks. Going into the team's week 4 showdown with Seattle, you'd expect everyone to be clamoring for the Bears' grind-it-out back-up to be handed the starting job. Afterall, the team paid a pretty high price to have that kind of depth.

Right now you should know three things: (1) I wanted that scenario to sound like I was talking about Rex Grossman and Brian Griese; (2) I'm not actually talking about the QB situation; and (3) I'm really talking about the RB situation. I mean, given the title of the post, if you haven't figured that out, then there's nothing I can do for you, son.

I know there are some differences between the QB depth chart and the RB depth chart. Griese is a veteran who has a proven record of success. Cedric Benson is essentially still a rookie, and one who appears to mope around when success doesn't come as easily as he expects. It's starter Thomas Jones who is the proven veteran in the RB hierarchy.

Nevertheless, it is still strange that there is no call for Benson to start given how bad the rushing attack has looked. The Bears are ranked 30th in the league in rushing efficiency. Only the Packers and Raiders are worse. To me that screams, time for a change.

But is Jones the problem, or is it the offensive line? The Bears are 28th in the league in power rushing situations -- 3rd or 4th down with one or two yards to go, or anytime the team is within 2 yards of the goal line. They succeed only 33% of the time in those situations. That has to reflect badly on the line. Additionally, the Bears are outright stuffed on a running play -- think no yards on 1st down, 2 yards on 2nd and 8, 1 yard on 3rd and 4, that kind of thing -- nearly a third of the time. Only 7 teams suffer that ignominious fate more often. Again, that doesn't look good for the guys in the trenches.

But it turns out that there is plenty of blame to go around. Football Outsiders came up with this nifty stat called Adjusted Line Yards. Using regression analysis, they figured out how much credit for each yard gained on the ground should go to the line versus the runner. The Bears have an ALY of 3.3 yards per carry. Not good. In fact, 29th in the league. But the Bears' overall yards per carry is only 2.9. That's even worse, implying that as little as the line is accomplishing, the running backs aren't doing anything on their own. In fact, the runners aren't even taking advantage of what little the line is providing. Nor have Bear runners been able to hit the homerun. Only 9% of the Bears' rushing yards are coming more than 10 yards downfield. That too, ranks 25th in the league. One more strike against the running backs.

And, of course, the running backs on most of the carries has been Thomas Jones. So, why isn't he getting more of the blame? On a per play basis, Jones ranks 38th among NFL running backs. In terms of overall contribution, he ranks 40th. Among the guys who rank ahead of Jones in total contribution: Chris Brown, Kevin Barlow, and Ron Dayne. Some runners mix homeruns with getting stuffed at the line when their team needs 1 yard. Willie Parker, for example, ranks 10th in overall running back contributions, but he only succeeds (4 yards on first down, 3 yards on 2nd and 5, 2 yards on 3rd and 2, that kind of thing) 41% of the time, 29th best in the league. So maybe Jones deserves some credit for getting a yard or two when that's all the Bears need, even if he's rarely getting more. But here too, the numbers betray him. Consider success to be 40% of the yards needed for a first down on a first down carry, 60% of the yards needed on a second down carry, and 100% of the yards needed on a third down carry. Jones only succeeds 35% of the time. That's worse than little Willie Parker. In fact, that's worse than 39 other running backs.

This is the equivalent of Grossman being down there in the Kerry Collins and Charlie Frye area. Bears fans wouldn't stand for it. Is Benson an answer? Maybe. In limited carries this year, he has succeeded at a slightly better clip than Jones, 38% of the time. In fact, his overall contribution is slightly better too. But not by much in either category. After 21 carries in three games, we don't know enough to say whether Benson is the answer, which is part of the problem. But we do know that Jones isn't getting the job done right now. If that's the case this week too, then no matter how mopey and unlikeable Benson is, it may be time to find out if he can.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

There are Bears in the Midweek; Run for Your Lives!

Actually, running anywhere would be a good thing where the Bears are concerned right now. The Bears are playing great football overall, and while I haven't reached any conclusions, I'm leaning towards picking them over the Seahawks on Sunday night. However, the running game is an awfully bright red flag.

First the good news: based on VOA, Football Outsiders all-around performance metric, the Bears have been the third best team in the NFL this year. Only San Diego and Baltimore have been better. We're far enough into the season that actual 2006 performance now accounts for about 1/3 of a projection of performance the rest of the way. Blend that with 2/3 pre-season projections, and you get DAVE, FO's newest stat. DAVE is basically an early season blend of performance and projection designed to determine the real strength of a team without being blinded by one or two early results. Think of it as FO's power rankings. Anyway, the Bears rank 3rd there as well, behind the Chargers and Seahawks.

The Bears have played well in all three phases of the game. Both the offense and defense are ranked 6th in the NFL, and the special teams remain #1 overall. The defense is in the top 10 against the pass, and top 5 against the run. On special teams the Bears have been head and shoulders better than everyone else. Only Carolina has gotten better place kicking, only Indy has had better punt returns, and no one has had better kick-off coverage. The punt coverage is above average too.

It's when you break down the offense's success that the only warning sign emerges. The Bears have had the 3rd most effective passing attack in football, and only the 30th most effective rushing attack. 30th! They're the Chicago Bears, people. They run the football. It's what they do. Payton, Sayers, Nagurski, Grange -- you get the idea. Identity crisis, indeed. The offense is producing overall, and as Ron Jaworski likes to say, points come from the passing game. (Is that really true? Maybe I'll look into that at some point down the road.) But some production out of the running game would be a good thing. Is it Thomas Jones' fault, the offensive line's? (This is definitely something I'll look into down the road -- like tomorrow). Whatever the cause, addressing this one concern could push the Bears over the hump and make them this year's truly elite team.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Turn Out the Lights at Comiscular

It's official. The White Sox' defense of their 2005 World Series championship is over. It's too bad. This was a really talented team, probably more so than the 2005 edition. But people also shouldn't overreact to the team's elimination.

Of course, when there is ignorant overreacting to be done, Jay Mariotti will be there. And he is today, being, as usual, a complete ignoramus. He blames arrogance for the Sox' downfall, and calls their demise "embarrassing." Everything about this statement is wrong.

Let's start with the assertion that the Sox were embarrassing this season. The White Sox currently have a .554 winning percentage. But a team's actual winning percentage only tells part of the story about it played. The White Sox' expected winning percentage -- based on hits, walks, homeruns, etc., both given up and allowed, and then adjusted for strength of opposition -- is .546. In other words, the White Sox won more games than they had a "right" to given how they hit and pitched this season.

Compare this to last year, when the White Sox had a .611 winning percentage. Clearly a much better year than this. But last year's squad only "played" .537 baseball, applying the same metrics discussed above. Obviously, all that matters in retrospect is that the Sox won 99 games, made the post-season, and won the World Series. But looking at it objectively and analytically, rather than through the lens of Mariotti's ass (where his head, and thus eyes, are firmly planted), one sees that this year's team played better ball than last year's. It just didn't get as lucky. Unless one is embarrassed by the fortunate nature of last year's club, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. You can curse the luck, or a lack thereof, of this year's club, but the Sox have won about as many games this year as they deserved to win. You can't expect to outperform your metrics by 12 games every year. And if luck were truly eliminated, the Sox would sit in fourth right now behind the unluckiest team in baseball: the Cleveland Indians.

Which brings us to point two: it wasn't arrogance that kept the Sox from making the post-season this year. It was pitching. Mariotti says GM Ken Williams fell in love with the team he put together, and killed that team's chances when he failed to deal Brandon McCarthy for Alfonso Soriano. Soriano had a great year, putting up a WARP3 of 9.6. In other words, adjusting for difficulty of opposition, Soriano contributed 9.6 more wins over the course of the season than a replacement player would have. But the Sox wouldn't have had Soriano all year. They would have had him for 60 games at the most. In that time, Soriano could be expected to contribute about 3.5 wins. Probably not enough to put the team over the hump, but not bad. But Scott Podsednik, who presumably would have been replaced by Soriano, also contributed more than a replacement player (although not by much). Reasonably, Pods contributed about a win himself in this period. So, Soriano would have been worth 2.5 wins for the Sox had they acquired him at the break. They'd still be on the outside looking in. Is that worth giving up your top pitching prospect for? It wasn't arrogance that prevented Williams from making the deal, but rather a realistic understanding of the impact made by deadline acquisitions.

No, the Sox problem, plain and simple, is that their pitching wasn't quite as good as last year. Last year, the Sox pitchers allowed 3.93 runs per game. The team's defense-adjusted ERA (league average is always 4.50 for DERA) was 3.97. This year, Sox pitching gave up 4.95 runs per game. Their DERA was 4.52. In other words, Sox pitching was more than a half run better than the league average last year, and a little worse than league average this year. Overall, the team gave up a run more per game than a year ago. The offense was so much better in 2006 that it hid this reality for much of the season, but in the end, the team's below average pitching did them in.

So, how do they fix this very real problem? That's a post for another day. For now, how 'bout Da Bears?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Bears Steal One From Vikings

Kind of ironic, isn't it? All the jokes about Vikings and their thieving ways, and it was the Bears that stole the game Sunday. Maybe that's not ironic at all. I get confused about that. (Speaking of which, at Rosh Hashanah dinner Saturday a friend and I discussed the fact that the only irony in Alanis Morissette's song, "Isn't It Ironic," is that none of the situations she describes in the song are actually ironic. So, maybe that's the irony to which she refers, which means that rather than her being the dolt I've always assumed her to be, she may be absolutely brilliant. Probably not though.)

Stolen or not, retrospectively, a win is a win. As the week goes on, we'll have plenty of time to analyze how the Bears played, and what it tells us about their upcoming games. One of the side effects of the White Sox fading before the Bulls start the pre-season, is that there is extra pressure on the Bears to carry sports conversations during the week. (Unless you're on the Sports Writers on TV. They could talk about 16" softball for 10 minutes. I love Bill Jauss. Sports Reporters just sucks in comparison.) But for now, enjoy the fact that the Bears are 3-0 with wins over each divisional foe.

Not only have the Bears beaten all three divisional opponents, but they've beaten two of them on the road. And one of those teams is the Minnesota Vikings, who are playing much better D than expected, and may be around for the long haul. Divisional wins are big, even when they come at the beginning of the season. The teams know each other well, which makes even big underdogs dangerous. There is animosity and intensity that is missing from some regular season games. And most of all, a win is a full game swing in the standings. The Bears have already created separation with all 3 division foes. That's a good feeling.

Also, one very important fact has emerged over these first three weeks. It deserves more analysis, but it's obvious to the naked eye. The Bears are great on special teams. Robbie Gould has been perfect thus far, Brad Maynard is booming the ball, the coverage teams are outstanding, and the return game is explosive. The capacity for this unit to execute was on display on the Bears' first kick return of the game, when Rashied Davis executed a perfect fake lateral, freezing two coverage players, and allowing Davis to flow easily up a seam opened by his blockers. The 35 yard return set up the Bears nicely to answer the Vikings' opening score. If you don't think special teams can win games, just ask the Colts or Jaguars.

Finally, one of my favorite moments of the game came when Vikings' end Ray Edwards came running onto the field late, reaching the line of scrimmage just as the ball was snapped. I, like Fox analyst Darryl Johnston, thought it was a well timed blitz from very deep in the secondary. My favorite part though was that John Tait, who presumably realized something odd was happening when (a) no one lined up across from him and (b) a defensive lineman arrived on a blitz from deep behind the line of scrimmage, calmly turned Edwards aside. The play never happened, but outstanding "blitz" pick-up by Tait ne'er-the-less.

Like I said, there will be plenty of time to analyze what happened Sunday, and look forward to next week, but one remark along those lines right now: The Bears and Seahawks are the two best teams in the NFC, and Shaun Alexander and Brian Urlacher may be the two best players in the conference. The real test arrives at 7:00 Chicago-time on October 1.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Vikings Rob and Pillage

Property is anything of value, and therefore anyone who obtains something of value by way of deception has committed theft. At least, that's what I say. So, as I see it, the Vikings are thieves. An NFL win is undoubtedly something of value, and the Vikings have acquired their wins by means of deception.

You see, the Vikings record says they are 2-0, and that this weekend's meeting with the Bears is a match-up of undefeated teams. Technically true. And looking back, a win is a win. But looking ahead, how a team performed tells you more about whether that team will win again than the final score. And the Vikings are lucky to be 2-0.

The Vikings have won two games because the Redskins went penalty happy and field goal sad, and the Panthers just went plain crazy, trying that punt return lateral. The Vikings had given no indication that they would be able to drive down the field and score if the Panthers just chewed up the clock and punted. Everybody gets some undeserved wins when the other team self-destructs or the ball takes a lucky bounce, but at best the Vikings deserve to be a .500 team right now.

Actually, saying that the Vikes are essentially a .500 team that has gotten some lucky breaks is giving the team more credit than it deserves. According to DVOA, Football Outsiders' all around measure of a team's performance, the Vikes are ranked 17th so far this season. They're 19th on offense and 22nd on special teams. Only their 12th ranked D is above average.

Brad Johnson, the veteran "game manager" who helms the Vikings' ship, was terrible last week. Yes, he completed 20 of 31 passes, but he threw no touchdowns, did throw an interception, went 2 of 11 on 3rd down, was sacked on another 3rd down, and on the team's 13th third down ran for 1 yard. It was third and 2.

So what does this mean for Sunday's "showdown"? The Bears should dominate the Vikings. Bears fans have been beaten down by a decade plus of mediocrity and failure, so it's unfamiliar and frightening to say that the Bears should dominate a non-sucky opponent on the road. But it's true. The Bears have been one of the top 3 teams in the league so far. DVOA ranks the Bears' offense at #4, their defense at #7, and their special teams as the best in the league. Think the Bears' top-ranked unit will be able to take advantage of the Vikings' crappy special teams?

All of this could mean nothing this week. Any given Sunday, and all that jazz. At home, the Vikes could upset the Bears this weekend. But by the end of the season the Vikes will be a .500 team because that's what they are. The Bears, on the other hand, will be competing for home field advantage, and challenging for the Super Bowl. And, if the teams play to their abilities this weekend, then the Bears will put an end to the Vikings' thieving ways.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Olympic Sized Question Mark

On the surface it sounds great. Bring the Olympics to Chicago and host them at a brand new south side stadium, and you return Chicago to the international stage and the south side gets an economic boost. It'll be just like the 1893 World's Fair. Indeed, Washington Park, the proposed site of a collapsible Olympic stadium for the 2016 games, is just down the street from Jackson Park, home of Daniel Burnham's White City in 1893. The 95,000 seat stadium would be within walking distance of the Midway and the Museum of Science and Industry.

Mayor Richard Daley offers a host of explanations as to why this plan is good for the city and the south side. Share the wealth, he says. Da' Mayor's theory is that while it would be nice to have a stadium downtown, the only way the Olympics can have a lasting legacy for the city is to move the venues out into the neighborhoods. After the games, 85,000 seats would be removed, leaving behind a 10,000 seat, landscaped, below-ground amphitheater for concerts and cultural events. Lighting, security, parking and landscaping would be improved for the rest of the park as well. Even neighborhood streets and local stops on the L's green line would be overhauled.

It's actually a very admirable sentiment. It's also convenient for Daley that, facing criticism from U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and other potential challengers in the upcoming mayoral election, that the Olympics would only benefit downtown Chicago, the Washington Park plan will earn Daley points on the city's largely African-American south side, where Da Mayor seems most vulnerable.

And, all of this would be privately funded. At least, so say Daley and his backers today. There has been no discussion of how exactly it would be funded, or even how much it would cost. It's a virtual guarantee that whoever funds it will be rewarded handsomely via tax incentives, loan forgiveness or some other municipal incentive.

And here's where an important question is being overlooked. If there is a benefit to building this stadium, I'm all for that benefit going to the city's too-often ignored south side. But should the city be building a stadium at all? Are the Olympics worth this commitment? Are the Olympics worth any commitment? It's tough as a sports fan to answer these questions objectively. I would love to see Chicago host the Olympics, as a sports fan. But I'm not sure I feel the same way as a citizen of the city.

On the surface, sports facilities appear to be great vehicles for economic development and urban renewal. But the evidence overwhelmingly shows that if the goal is economic development and urban renewal, then building a sports stadium is an entirely useless way to go about it. They neither increase per capita income in cities, nor decrease unemployment. Once the Olympics leave town, any money spent at the new facility will likely be money not spent at some currently existing entertainment venue in town. Studies have found that cities see zero lasting increase in tourism after hosting the Olympics. However much public money is spent on this project, whether its directly or by way of subsidies; tax breaks; loan, lease, and interest forgiveness; or some other government largesse, that money could generate more economic development and urban renewal if spent elsewhere.

And the pay-off isn't much brighter just because this stadium is attached to a "mega event" like the Summer Olympics. There is some evidence that events like the Olympics or a Super Bowl help a city's economy. Certainly, the evidence supports building a stadium for a mega event rather than for a professional sports team. But all of this evidence seems to flow from Atlanta's experience hosting both an Olympics and a Super Bowl within two years. Elsewhere, the evidence suggests that money made on the mega event is offset by money lost in other parts of the city's economy. A study by economists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, found: "The evidence of positive economic benefits from mega sporting events should be considered weak at best." It seems to remain the case that if the idea is to promote economic growth, then there are better ways to spend the city's resources (roads, schools and job-training programs jump to mind).

Prospective economic studies (as compared to studies that look back at actual data) are notoriously optimistic. Still, I'm open to being convinced that bidding on the Olympics and building a stadium in Washington Park are good ways to spend the city's time and money. But for now, I'm a little put off by all the excited discussion about how we should go about getting the Olympic games when no one seems to have explained whether we should want to get them at all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hooray Bear!

The Bears have played really good football so far. That's not exactly earth shattering analysis, but fear not, I'll break it down in excrutiating and deadly-dull detail momentarily. First off, let me point out that we know the Packers and Lions are weak, but it's too early to know exactly how weak, so no real adjustments for strength of schedule is yet possible.

The Bears have been the third best team in football so far, at least according to Football Outsider's DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) formula. Only the Chargers and Ravens have been better. Unlike the Ravens, who have excelled on defense and been merely average on offense, the Bears have posted top 10 performances on offense, defense, and special teams (the Chargers have also dominated in every category). In fact, the Bears are ranked #4 in the league on offense, and only 7th on defense. Who would have predicted that kind of start to the season? The special teams, for the record, have been the best in football.

Breaking down the offensive production further, we find another unexpected split: the Bears have had the most productive passing offense in the entire NFL, while the running attack ranks only 27th. As odd as that may sound to fans of a franchise that still pines for Sid Luckman, it makes sense. Teams gear up to stop the Bears' rushing attack because the Bears have never been able to exploit passing opportunities. Now that they can, they've out scored opponents 60-7.

Rex Grossman has been the third best quarterback in football the past two weeks. Last year, Kyle Orton ranked 45th in the league. That's all the difference in the world, and it's making all the difference for Bears' receivers. Desmond Clark has been the most productive TE in the NFL (#30 last year) and Muhsin Muhammad is the #8 WR (he was #81 in 2005).

Eventually other teams will pick up on this and take away some of Grossman's effectiveness. But there is reason to believe that the Bears' rushing attack will be able to compensate. Cedric Benson is the #38 ranked RB and Thomas Jones is ranked #43 this year. But I don't think that's a condemnation of either one. When teams adjust to take Grossman and the air attack away, there is every reason to believe that Jones and Benson will respond. Last year, Jones was the #11 ball carrier in the NFL, and while the O-line ranked just 15th in the league for Adjusted Line Yards, the Bears were ranked 4th in the NFL for busting long runs. If we assumes Adj. Line Yards are mostly attributable to the line, and 10+ runs are mostly attributable to the RB, then these numbers demonstrate that Thomas Jones made the Bears' rushing attack last year moreso than the line's play. Jones is back, he's healthy, and there's no reason to believe he can't generate a similar rushing attack this year once teams are forced to back off the line of scrimmage and respect the threat of the pass. He did it last year even when the Bears had no aerial attack.

The addition of a good offense -- and the Bears' O appears to have skipped right past respectable into the good category -- to their excellent D and special teams, positions the team as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Factoring in what we know about teams from previous seasons' performances, along with how everyone has played thus far this year, I'd say the Bears are the #2 team in the NFC right now. They've outplayed Seattle so far, but the Seahawks' play has done nothing to cost them their position as pre-season favorite in the conference. Not only have the Bears out-played the Eagles, Falcons, and Saints, but none of those teams were as good as the Bears last year, so the Bears remain ahead of them.

The Vikings should provide more of a challenge than the previous divisional foes, but the truth is the Bears are a lot better than the Vikes too. The Vikings could pull off an upset, but it would be just that, an upset. Despite their 2-0 record, the Vikings have yet to win a game. Each of their games was essentially a tie. Washington committed stupid penalties and the Panthers committed a stupid turnover, otherwise the Vikes could easily be 0-2. If the Bears play as they're capable, the game won't be close enough for the Vikings to allow a third straight opponent to beat itself. We'll have to wait for the Seahawks to come to town to really find out how good the Bears are, and who is the best team in the conference.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Jay Mariotti, First Rate Tool

Ok, the fact that Jay Mariotti is a first-rate tool isn't news. And, I'm aware each time his blathering annoys me that I have no one to blame but myself. Afterall, why do I read his crap? As Mariotti himself has pointed out, all the hating on Mariotti just serves to increase his fame. The truth is, I agree with Mariotti that the Chicago sports media is essentially too chummy with the franchises and athletes it covers: too slow to criticize, too willing to accept lame excuses for failure. Mariotti would probably be attacked for failing to join the ladies' auxiliary (comprised of the rest of the local media) to the Chicago Sports Club whether or not he was any good as a journalist or columnist. I'd love to root for an outsider like Mariotti for the same reasons I do root for Tony Kornheiser to remake sports media is his own image.

But Mariotti is a tool, and he makes it impossible to like him. Here's today's affront to our intelligence: "This won't be found in any Elias Sports Bureau statistical package, but on June 20, the night Ozzie Guillen called me 'a [bleeping] fag,' the Sox were 45-25. Since then, they area a sloppy 39-41." WHAT?!? Did he really just blame the White Sox' struggles on his own "feud" with Ozzie Guillen? Guillen is an idiot sometimes, and his use of a homophobic slur is inexcusable, but it has NOTHING to do with why the Sox will finish third in the AL Central this year. In fact, no one other than Mariotti is still talking about it. But Mariotti's ego is so inflated that he gazes at a fairly clear picture -- the Sox' pitching let them down this season -- and somehow sees his own reflection. Like I said, Jay Mariotti is a first-rate tool.

By the way, while we're talking about one nexus at which the Chicago Sun-Times and Deadspin predictably meet, here's a more surprising conjunction: the Sun-Times actually covered Kyle Orton's induction into the Deadspin Hall-of-Fame. Orton was inducted for the fun he facilitated by being repeatedly photographed with bottles of Jack and random women. Orton himself has also taken the exploitation of his exploits in good humor.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Requiem for a Season

The White Sox season is over. I'm not prepared to allow some irrational hope that the Sox might sweep the Tigers and the Twins obscure the reality of the situation here. According to Baseball Prospectus, the White Sox now have a 1 in 20 chance of reaching the post-season. Given the Sox' history, especially pre-2005, it's fitting that the season ended in Oakland. And, I suppose there is something fitting about Frank Thomas effectively putting the final nail in the coffin.

Actually, I've heard a lot of talk recently about this Sox team resembling those pre-2005 squads "led" by Thomas. There seems to be a growing conventional wisdom that the Sox offense this year, while higher scoring overall than last year's team, was less consistent because it relied too heavily on the long ball. The answer, then, would be to bring in more guys who do the "little things" well. This strikes me as the kind of conventional wisdom that makes up for what it lacks in wisdom by being extra conventional.

Before I condemn this thinking, I need to ask an obvious question: is there any truth to the argument? The Sox' break-even point this year is 4 runs a game. They're 13-11 this year when scoring 4 runs in a game. Score more than 4 runs and the Sox win almost all the time. Score less than 4 runs and the Sox lose almost all the time. So, have the Sox been held under 4 runs more often this year, even as the offense has been more productive overall? They've scored less than 4 runs 45 times this year. That's 30% of their games in which they have virtually no chance. They're 6-39 in those games. Last year the Sox were held to fewer than 4 runs 60 times. That's 37% of their games. The Sox offense was far more likely to go dormant last year than this. It seems relying on the long ball has produced a more consistent flow of runs than the World Series champs featured last season.

So what is the problem? (And, can I ask another rhetorical question? I hate rhetorical questions, but I'm feeling lazy this morning). In those 60 games when the 2005 Sox were held under 4 runs, they went 22-38. That's a .367 winning percentage, as compared to a .133 winning percentage for the 2006 Sox when the offense grinds to a halt. Last year's pitching was so good, that the team managed to win 1 out of 3 games in which the offense was shut down. In fact, the break even point for the 2005 Sox was 3. The team was 7-4 when scoring 3 runs. Heck, the 2005 team won more than 40% of the time when held to only 2 runs. This year's team was 1-11 when held to 2 runs.

So, rather than worrying about acquiring more guys who can bunt, run, and do other "little things" right, Sox' GM Kenny Williams should spend the off-season upgrading the pitching staff. The staff's failings this year put too much pressure on the offense. When the offense wasn't clicking, as rare as that was, the pitching staff almost never gave the team a chance to steal a win. I'd love to see Josh Fields replace Scott Podsednik in left, and I'd love to see an upgrade at short, but mostly I want to see a significant improvement on the mound.

In any event, the Sox have been reduced to playing spoiler in the AL Central. The division winner will likely be favored over the Oakland A's in the first round, while the wild card is headed for the juggernaut New York Yankees. There is still much at stake for the Twins and Tigers, and each team plays the Sox three more times. As for Chicago, well, at least we have the Bears.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

With the White Sox taking last night off from their pursuit of the Detroit Tigers, we turn our attention to the Bears today. Hooray Bears! Anyway, who should be coming to town this week but that other rival from the D, the Detroit Lions. One might presume this is another fairly soft divisional match-up, especially as the Bears open their home slate at the Space Ship formerly known as Soldier Field.

Indeed, the Lions managed only a measly 6 points last week, and the Bears put up the 6th best defensive performance of Week 1 according to Football Outsiders. The Bears also put up the 8th best offensive performance and the top special teams performance last week. So, the Bears played well last week -- only Baltimore played better. In fact, Seattle, who beat the Lions 9-6 last week, is the only team in the NFC I would rank ahead of the Bears overall. And the Lions played poorly last week. Their offense was obviously inferior, and despite blocking a couple of field goal attempts, FO figures the Lions had the third worst week on special teams in the entire league. Nor are the Lions likely any better a football team than they showed against the Seahawks.

So, why should we watch this game -- I mean other than to potentially see the Bears wipe out another traditional, divisional rival? Well, the Lions D played ok last week. They weren't as good as 9 points allowed suggests, but they were above average. Leading the way is the Lions' D-line, which recorded five sacks against a solid Seahawks O-line. Yes, this is the group led by Joe Cullen, who was busted for Driving While Nude a while back. He also apparently ordered Wendy's while nude, and for all we know, he coaches while nude. Whatever he's doing, it seems to work. It also helps that he has Shaun Rogers, who one Seahawk compared to Shaq for his dominance last week. So, Cullen's unit, uh, I mean D-line of course, should pose a legitimate challenge to the Bears' veteran, and somewhat hyped, O-line.

The truth is that while the Bears should win, this will probably be a pretty low scoring game, and unless the Bears' D or special teams put points on the board, which is a real possibility, this game will be a lot less comfortable than last week's outing.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Almost Perfect

Sorry for my unexplained absence the last two days. Let it be unexplained no longer. I was in Springfield, Illinois, arguing my first case in front of the Illinois Supreme Court. So, no, I did not just fade away into Bolivia. Anyway, I think it went very well, thanks for asking. Of course, my day didn't go quite as perfectly as Freddy Garcia's.

Garcia's near perfection got me thinking about the White Sox' history of no-no's. The strangest game I've ever watched live was July 1, 1990 at old Comiskey Park. That day, Yankee pitcher Andy Hawkins no-hit the White Sox. And, he lost 4-0. Hawkins walked 5, and the Yanks also made 3 errors. Lance Johnson, Robin Ventura, Sammy Sosa, and Ozzie Guillen all managed to cross the plate for the White Sox, without the team recording a single hit. Meanwhile, Greg Hibberd gave up 4 hits in 7 innings, but kept the Yanks off the board. Barry Jones pitched the 8th, and picked up the win when those 3 Yankee errors, and 2 of Hawkins' walks, plated the Sox' 4 runs. Ron Karkovice led off the eighth inning for the Sox, which clearly gave the team the karmic juice it needed to break the scoreless tie. Scott Radinsky pitched the 9th, and nailed down the strangest Sox win I've ever seen.

Wednesday, Garcia was chasing the Sox first perfect game since 1922. That gem was hurled by Charlie Robertson in the fourth start of his career. The last White Sox' no hitter was thrown by Wilson Alvarez. Interestingly, it came in only his second big league start., back on August 11, 1991.

Obviously, no hitters are a funny animal. White Sox pitchers seem to come by theirs before they're old enough to know better. Some franchises, like the Marlins have one every couple of years. Other franchises, like the Mets, have never had one, despite having a rich pitching history.

Anyway, winning 2 out of 3 in LA has to be seen as nearly perfect from the White Sox perspective too. And yet, the Sox are still 3 games behind the Tigers and 2 behind the Twins in the loss column. The Sox' chances of reaching the post-season remain mired at about 20%. For no logical reason, I feel more optimistic today than before the Angels series. I attribute it to Garcia's near-perfection and the Sox winning a series on the west coast. But the numbers don't lie, almost perfect may not be good enough the rest of the way.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

The Bears win over the Packers wasn't as great an accomplishment as it seems, nor was the White Sox weekend a true disaster, but it definitely feels different to be a Bears fan than a White Sox fan at this moment. I'd love to dwell on the Bears successes, but the fact is, analyzing the impact of this weekend's AL Central battles is far more interesting, so I'll brace myself and face the White Sox' future.

On Friday morning, the Sox had about a 1 in 50 chance of catching the Tigers, and a 1 in 3 chance of winning the wild card. I argued that Sox fans needed to become Tigers fans for the rest of the weekend. I also pointed out that it didn't really matter what happened in the Tigers-Twins showdown, if the Sox didn't take care of the Indians. Well since then, the Sox took 2 out 3 from the Indians over the weekend (I'm just talking about since Friday morning), and the Twins won 3 in a row against the Tigers. So, what the heck does that mean? It's never a good sign when you have to engage in statistical analysis just to figure out whether or not to be happy with the weekend's events.

Today, the White Sox have a much better chance of winning the division: anywhere from about 1 in 25 to 1 in 20 according to Baseball Prospectus. That's an improvement, but hardly the odds one wants to hang the team's post-season hopes on. Unfortunately, the Sox best chance of reaching the play-offs -- winning the wild card -- has dropped to about 1 in 5.

With the team on its way to the west coast, it's time for Sox fans to start making peace with an early off-season. Overall, the Sox still have a 1 in 4 chance of making the post-season, not much worse than where things stood on Friday. And, I hope I'm wrong about this upcoming trip, and the unexpected happens this week in California. But this thing is slowly slipping away from the Sox, and it's pretty painful torture right now. Oh well, at least it's Bears season.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I'm Rooting for a Blimp Accident

Ok, maybe that's insensitive these days, and I certainly mean no harm to the fans attending this weekend's Twins-Tigers series, but figuring out who to root for has become something of a conundrum for White Sox fans. So, can I at least root for a major brawl resulting in injuries and suspensions for both teams? Anyway, this is the kind of dilemma a team faces when it finds itself in third place in its division. No one to blame for that but the White Sox.

In the Trib today, their Sox reporters debated this very issue. Mark Gonzalez said we should root for the Twins because the Sox can take care of their own business in a tight AL Central race. Dave Van Dyck said we should root for the Twins because it will be easier to catch the Tigers than the Twins at this point.

They're both idiots. I kid, but they are wrong. First, I'm not sure the White Sox have shown any capacity to take care of their own business against the Twins and Tigers. Yes, we've handled the Tigers well this year, but the Sox can't seem to beat anyone else. That, of course, could make this whole discussion moot, but we certainly can't count on playing well enough to beat out two teams in a tight divisional race. More importantly, Baseball Prospectus's latest post-season odds report says the Sox have a 1 in 50 chance of catching the Tigers for the division title. And that's allowing for a full regression to the mean by the Tigers over the remainder of the season.

No, Phil Rogers has it right. He argues that "the Sox's goal is making the playoffs, not winning the division, and the wild card remains the easier way to get there." And, as I pointed out yesterday (not that I'm gloating or anything), the Sox still have a 1 in 3 chance of catching the Twins according to BP. That's a lot better than 1 in 50. So, go Tigers! And, maybe, if the Sox can actually hold the Indians to single digits, we can put the Twins in our rearview mirrors for good this weekend. But I'm still rooting for suspensions and injuries.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Last Best Chance?

The White Sox may be entering their last, best chance to make the play-offs. That's not so bold a statement with only 23 games to go. But time really is running out. As Baseball Prospectus sees it, the White Sox now have about a 37% chance of making the play-offs. That number doesn't get any better when it's adjusted for PECOTA, ELO or any other strange combination of letters.

Phil Rogers speculates today that the Tigers may be falling even faster than the Sox, opening the door not only to the play-offs, but maybe to a division title. Even allowing for a complete and total regression to the mean, the Tigers have a 98% chance of making a post-season appearance. Rogers is wrong, the Tigers are still sitting pretty. They're better off in fact than the A's, who have a bigger divisional lead, because the Tigers would have to be passed by two teams to miss the play-offs.

No, the White Sox have a less than 1 in 20 chance of catching the Tigers. The team's only real shot at the post-season is to win what is now a two team race for the Wild Card against the Twins. Because of schedule, and a one-game lead in the loss column, the Twins are about twice as likely to win that race as the Sox.

Still, there is real hope. The Sox have a better than 1 in 3 chance of playing into October, which is more than anyone in the AL can say other than the Twins and the division leaders. And, the Tigers do have some real problems. Dmitri Young was giving them nothing, and has now been cut. Chris Shelton has returned from Toledo, where he continued to struggle. In fact, only Carlos Guillen has an on-base percentage over .340 for this team. They could easily be held to three runs a game for the rest of the season.

Plus, the schedule gives the Sox a few gifts. The most important may be this weekend, which is why I say the Sox have come upon their last, best chance. The Twins and Tigers meet four times this weekend, so come Monday, the post-season odds report could look very different. Given the odds of catching the Tigers, I'm actually rooting for Detroit to bludgeon the Twins.

But regardless of what happens in Minnesota, the Sox will be in a much better position Monday if they just take care of business against the Indians. And, no I don't care if the Indians are hot, or have won 7 of 12 against the Sox so far this year, the Sox need to be able to take 3 of 4 at home against a sub-.500 team. They've scored more runs than the Indians and allowed fewer this year. That should be a recipe for victories.

So this weekend, forget the out-of-town scoreboard. Whatever is happening there can only help the Sox, as long as they're collecting victories at South Side Park. And, hopefully on Monday, those post-season odds will look a whole lot better.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Cloud For Every Silver Lining

The White Sox blew it last night. Going against a winless, rookie pitcher with an ERA over 5.00, the Sox somehow wasted a remarkable performance by Javier Vazquez, lost to the Red Sox 1-0, and fell two games behind the Twins in the loss column. To make matters worse, Johan Santana demonstrated once again that he is by far the best pitcher on the planet today. If the Sox do manage to stay in this race through the final weekend of the season, they'll still have to overcome the fact that one game in their three game series with the Twins is a guaranteed Sox loss. Maybe they'll get lucky and it won't be Santana's turn in the rotation.

But look, in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's a silver lining. Actually, it's Ryan Sweeney, who after going 2 for 3 in his big league debut, is now Ozzie Guillen's favorite ballplayer ever. Not only did Sweeney go 2 for 3, but he moved up on a pitch in the dirt, taking what proved to be a meaningless base when Captain Konerko hit into his 417,576,693 double play of the season. This quickly became Guillen's favorite play in baseball history. Guillen promised that Sweeney would start somewhere Wednesday, after watching his Tuesday night performance.

Fixing the Sox' offensive problems will start at the top of the lineup. Scott Podsednik is no longer the answer, and everyone sees it. I wish I believed Sweeney was the answer. I wish he could take over left field and the lead off spot and solidify those two positions. But this is a guy PECOTA projects as having a .313 on base percentage as a big leaguer this year. Heck, Pods has gotten on at a .331 clip this year. Plus, Sweeney's projection is 60 points lower than another left handed hitting option who Ozzie has ignored as a solution in left field all season long: Rob Mackowiak. Even at AAA, Sweeney had a .350 on-base percentage, lower than what Mackowiak has done in the bigs.

I do think Sweeney offers a slight upgrade over Brian Anderson offensively. But right now, defensively Sweeney is a slightly above average corner outfielder. Anderson is an outstanding defensive center fielder. Is that a trade off you're willing to make for a slight offensive upgrade? If so, then why is everyone opposed to Mackowiak's presence in center? We've all seen how his corner outfield skills translate to center. I think Anderson helps this team more than Sweeney would at the bottom of the every day line-up.

Ryan Sweeney is barely old enough to drink, and may have some upside. But right now, Sweeney should be the White Sox' sixth outfielder. He's not the answer to any of the Sox' problems. Beyond hoping that one or two more members of the staff remember how to pitch, Ozzie needs to be focusing on finding guys who can consistently get on base at the top of the order. Making Pablo Ozuna the right handed half of a platoon is a nice start. But Sweeney is not the answer as the left handed counterpart. Ozzie says Sweeney reminds him of himself. It may not be a bad comparison. I just hope Ozzie remembers he had a lifetime .287 on-base percentage.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Fleeing the Zooperstars

Minor league baseball: where all of the taint of money, drugs and entitlement are washed away, leaving nothing more than a game played by 19 year olds and former bonus babies paid millions to hit .220 in the Midwest League. Ok, so the minors aren't perfect either, and yes the Kane County Cougars have a former bonus baby in left field who the A's paid millions as an 18th round pick, and who is hitting .220 or something. In fact, he had some of the worst at-bats I've ever seen this weekend. But who cares?

That's the attitude that pervades a trip a minor league baseball game. Fans root for the home team, but they're not all caught up in the "other stuff". Tickets cost $10, parking cost $2, and a pop (soda, take your pick) still costs $4. The players throw t-shirts into the stands and return beachballs that drift onto the field. Pitchers collect walks and strikeouts by the basketfull.

This past weekend, my wife and I joined my colleague Scalia's Gavel (the name reflects his admiration of Justice Scalia, not my own) and Mrs. Gavel to go see the Kane County Cougars take on the Cedar Rapids Kernals, which is the only farm team in the Angels system entirely devoid of prospects. It was a great night. A beautiful little ballpark, and the game featured all of the attractions one expects from a minor league game, including free umbrellas for the first 2000 fans, and the post-game Retro 80's Fireworks Show.

But the highlight, by far, were the Zooperstars. Now I've wanted to see the Zooperstars ever since I first read of them on Deadspin. These are a group of truly frightening inflatable mascots that make grown men tremble, women faint, and small children flee in terror. They made their first appearance following the second inning, when Nolan Rhyno attacked Centipete Rose, splitting him in half. Apparently, it's some sort of punishment for Rose gambling on how many children would crap themselves in fear that evening. Anyway, this display was followed a few innings later by Cow Ripken, Jr., who terrorized a hapless umpire. (I missed part of Ripken's routine because I was getting a brat -- the Cougars have great food). Scalia's Gavel and I had the following exchange when we returned to our seats to find Cow Ripken cavorting on the field:
Scalia: What's Brady Quinn's sister's name?
Criminal: Laura.
Scalia: Yeah, she could be one of these Zooperstars.

The king of the Zooperstars however, is undoubtedly Clammy Sosa. Not only does Clammy combine the frightening visage of Sosa with a Clam, but his routine is the best of the night. You see Clammy is joined by this strange dancing guy. When the guy interferes with Clammy's shenanigans, Clammy eats him. Then he vomits up his clothes and shoes. Then he vomits the guy back up, who runs off, pants-less. This is comic brilliance. None of the remaining on-field antics would quite match the intensity of Clammy's performance. However, there was still one great highlight to come. As the crowd rose for the 7th inning stretch, we were greeted by that greatest of songbirds: Harry Canary. Unfortunately, I didn't realize in advance that I would be having this encounter with greatness, so I didn't bring my camera. Relying on my phone to document the excitement, I got few usable shots. Alas, Mrs. Appeal and I failed to get a quality family portrait with Canary following his rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Still, we shall never forget our run-in with pop culture greatness.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Time for a Little Irrational Exuberance

The pre-season is over for the Bears, and it is time to get fired up for the regular season. Yesterday marked the arrival of Deadspin's Chicago Bears preview. When Deadspin first announced its plans for a series of NFL team previews, I was pretty excited. But as a I read a series of depressing, woe-is-me style previews, I began to dread the impending Chicago version. Still, I hoped for the best when the Bears article went up. It quickly became clear however, that this was another preview declaring that the writer's "favorite" team sucked, and that the team and its fans tortured the writer mercilessly.

What is that all about? This is the NFL. Previewers should be irrationally overselling their teams for more reasons than I can count. The NFL is that magical land of milk, honey and parity where any given team has a chance to win it all in any given season. The NFL and ESPN have been shoving that nonsense down our throats for years. But true or not, fans' acceptance of this axiom on faith is a big part of what drives the NFL. Also, football is America's most tribal activity. Once a week, a huge chunk of the community gathers -- at the stadium or in front of the plasma screen -- to watch our warriors in battle. I know war metaphors aren't really appropriate to sports, especially when American men and women are putting their lives on the line every day in real battles. But sociologists who study sports have found that the rituals and societal bonding involved in supporting a football team are similar to those involved in a community supporting its warriors on their way to battle. The universal belief in the power of our team, and the maniacal chanting, singing and cheering in support of that team, is what makes football so integral to our communities (a phenomenon that is duplicated via soccer and Australian Rules Football in other parts of the world, incidentally).

All of this is a long winded introduction to say: it's time for some irrational exuberance.

The Bears are the best team in football because we have the greatest founding father in football. Papa Bear Halas founded professional football. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it says so right on the Bears' website, and no matter what your team's founding father accomplished, ours trumps it. He founded the whole f'ing show!

The Bears are the best team in football because of coaching. Again, it begins with Papa Bear. We'll never forget the way you thrilled the nation with your T formation, indeed. The guy invented the formation that dominated football strategy for half a century, sprung it on the Washington Redskins, and dropped 73 on them. Picture the Steelers pulling off something similar last year against the Seahawks. You can't. This feat will never be duplicated. More recently, Mike Ditka became the simultaneously most beloved and feared figure in all of professional football. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan reinvented defensive football, building a scheme around one especially versatile safety. Then, when that guy was no longer available, he kept the scheme, used the guys who were left, and created the greatest defensive force to ever take an NFL field. Now, we have the only coach on the planet cool enough and tough enough to succeed in life with the name Lovie.

The Bears are the best team in football because of defense. We invented the freaking middle linebacker position. Then we introduced the meanest (Butkas), smartest (Singletary) and fastest (Urlacher) men to ever play the position. Urlacher roams the field for the team today, and is the main reason why the Bears' D is once again the most feared in football.

The Bears are the best team in football because of offense. We introduced the star running back to the NFL landscape with Red Grange. Since then we've featured the greatest collection of running backs in the NFL. Grange, Nagurski, Sayres and Payton are merely the most recognizable names in a list that could run for pages. And I haven't even mentioned the greatest Jewish quarterback of all time, Sid Luckman, who piloted the Bears ship when they unleashed 73-0 on the Skins. This year, at running back the Bears can choose between Thomas Jones, a man who accomplished things last year that no one in a Bears uniform not named Payton has ever done, and Cedric Benson, a raw, second year player with talents not seen in Chicago for a decade. Rex Grossman and Brian Griese give the Bears depth and talent at the quarterback position, and a very good offensive line returns intact.

Yes, the Chicago Bears will kick your team's ass, make no mistake about it. Sports Illustrated says this team could go 14-2. That's not farfetched. Any less than 12 wins will be a disappointment. A division championship and homefield in the playoffs are the Bears' for the taking. The Super Bowl is once again within reach.