Friday, March 30, 2007

Friday Round-Up

There's actually too much going on right now for one column. Add in that I couldn't post yesterday because I was dealing with some familial health woes (fear not, everyone is now fully operable again), and I'm almost overwhelmed. (By the way, has anyone ever been just "whelmed?" Everyone is always overwhelmed or underwhelmed. No one is ever whelmed.) So, I'll purge some random thoughts from my brain, and we'll call it a week.

The Sox open their season Monday, and only one of the three youngsters I was rooting for before camp opened has made the team. Yes, Ryan Sweeney's and Josh Fields's demotions to Charlotte are old news. I was happy to see that John Danks was named the fifth starter. Still, he's the least exciting of the three, in my opinion, so while it's nice that he's with the Sox, I'm still a little bummed that youth will not be served more generally. I'm down on the Sox right now, so I hope I'm proven wrong about this team.

Elsewhere, I'm feeling pretty good about the Bulls right now after their win over the Pistons. Obviously, one game doesn't tell you more than an entire season, especially when Detroit was missing two key starters, but still it's always fun to beat Detroit. And, last night aside, I do think the Bulls are the second best team in the conference, especially if Nocioni gives them something when he returns. Speaking of which, I do have two questions. One, how will the minutes be distributed once Nocioni returns? Most people are asking whether Tyrus Thomas will lose minutes to the Argentinian, but if Nocioni is healthy, the guy whose minutes should vanish is P.J. Brown. Brown has done some good things, but both Thomas and Nocioni contribute more. Second, why was the national crew from TNT obsessed with Kirk Hinrich last night. They acted as if he was the Bulls' lone superstar. Everyone here in Chicago has figured out that Luol Deng and Ben Gordon are this team's best players. The portrayal of Hinrich as the team's key player is out-dated and lazy on the part of the national press. (The same criticism goes to whichever "personality" it was on The Score last night who said it would be near impossible for the Bulls to be the number two seed in the East because they would have to win their division. The NBA changed the seeding system for the play-offs this season. This is basic stuff.)

Turning to a third, local, pro team: one "mainstream media" type who does deserve credit today is the Sun-Times Greg Couch. Couch has bucked local trends by analyzing the Lance Briggs-Chicago Bears showdown from a football perspective instead of a moral one. And, I agree with his conclusion: the Bears have the money to get Briggs signed long-term, and from a football perspective, that's the best thing they could do.

Finally today, outside of Chicago, all three of the big pro sports are dwarfed nationally be anticipation for the Final Four. I love this Final Four. Four of the top six teams in the country are here. Kansas and North Carolina are probably the two best teams, and I was looking forward to their showdown, but a Final Four without a single weak link will do nicely. Ohio State against Georgetown is a true toss-up game. Greg Oden versus Roy Hibbert, the outstanding point guard play of Mike Conley, the outstanding all-around play of Jeff Green: there is a lot to like about this game. Ohio State needs to do two things: force turnovers and avoid foul trouble. They struggle without Oden on the floor, so he needs to avoid fouls, which won't be easy against Hibbert. Plus, their defense thrives, in part, by never giving up freebies. When they aren't their usual stingy selves with opponent's free throw attempts, that's when they falter on defense. Georgetown's offense and defense struggle when they turn the ball over, and unfortunately that's something they do all-too-often. Georgetown shoots a preposterously high percentage and grabs a ton of offensive rebounds. When they turn it over before a shot goes up, both advantages are lost. Plus, it often denies their outstanding shot blockers to get involved at the defensive end. Ohio State doesn't force a ton of turnovers, though. As good as these teams are, the game will come down to weakness against weakness. Can Georgetown protect the ball better than they usually do; can Ohio State force and take advantage of turnovers better than they usually do?

In the other semi, Florida meets UCLA. Again, both teams are excellent, but unlike the other match-up, this game has an actual favorite. Florida is the most balanced of the Final Four teams. They're also the best offensive team remaining, relying on a combo of dunks and threes to dominate opponents. But UCLA is far from a significant underdog. When I say Florida is a favorite, I mean a one point favorite. It's that close, it's just not a pick 'em like the other game. UCLA can win this game. There's not much fancy too it either. UCLA plays great defense. They're not great on offense. If Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison are excellent, UCLA will win. If they're not, then UCLA will lose. The match-up between Florida's attack and UCLA's defense will be fun. I'll pick Florida because their defense is better than UCLA's offense.

The baseball season starts, the Bulls play the Cavs for the number two seed in the play-offs, the Bears-Lance Briggs showdown approaches resolution, and oh yeah, the Final Four. Have a fun weekend everybody.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"Bear" Knuckle Brawl

Gee whiz, that's a clever title. Anyway, the time has come for me to comment on a distasteful story I have thus far avoided: Lance Briggs vs. the Chicago Bears.

The consensus around town seems to be that the Bears have done everything right so far, and thus not only have the high road in this show down, but all the leverage as well. But I'm not sure this is as clear cut as people are making it out to be.

The following is true: NFL players get the shaft relative to owners under the league's collective bargaining arrangement with the players' union. But the franchise tag arrangement actually seems to be one of the deal's more even-handed arrangements. And, regardless of how you feel about the franchise tag, it is part of the deal. It's a tool for teams to use when they feel a player is worth the average salary of the top-five guys at his position, and the Bears have used it here. The Bears have done nothing wrong. They even offered Briggs a long-term deal a year ago. It wasn't for as much as Briggs wanted, but the Bears had all the leverage at the time. Why? Briggs was under contract for one more year either way, and after that the Bears could use the franchise player tag.

So far, this is exactly how the system was designed to work. But the system is designed to give an inordinate amount of leverage to the teams. So Briggs, and Briggs's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, got frustrated. Every player does when he gets franchised. And Briggs and Rosenhaus have unveiled the list of threats that every player uses in this situation. "We're going to hold out." "We're only going to play the last six games. That way we don't risk getting hurt, but we still get a year's service time." (Notice how the agents always uses "we" in these situations, as if his livelihood is actually at stake along with the players? Rosenhaus has cost his clients millions in recent years. When will he finally lose credibility with the players?) Anyway, these threats are all the leverage the player has, and its usually not worth spit.

That's why if a team plays its cards right, it can grab all the leverage and the moral high road. The Bears have played their cards right. They just keep saying that they want Briggs in a Bears uniform next year, they think he's a great player, and if you need proof, just check out the 7 million dollar deal they've offered for next season. As long as a team doesn't cave to the pressure and trade the guy, they'll usually win out. It's hard for the player to really turn down a big, guaranteed salary for the upcoming season. NFL careers are too short to take that risk. (It's easy for Rosenhaus to take that risk because his career will last more than six years, and he's getting a bite of every player's deal who he represents. Rosenhaus repeatedly plays these situations with his interests in mind, rather than his client's interests.)

And here's the deepest, darkest secret of all -- one no NFL player will admit to himself -- NFL general managers know that just about every player, even one good enough to franchise, is replaceable. The replacement might not be quite as good, but this isn't baseball or basketball, and for the most part, no individual can make that much of a difference, especially if he doesn't have talent around him. So, it's certainly not worth it to overpay to keep a guy long term just to ensure he takes the field next year. The biggest mistake an NFL GM can make is to overpay for a replaceable part.

But here's where Briggs v. Bears gets more complicated than most of these situations. The second biggest mistake a GM can make is refusing to pay market price for a difference-maker. There are very few irreplaceable parts in the NFL, but Briggs might just be one of them. According to Football Outsiders, Briggs led the league last year in stop rate among linebackers. In rough language, that means he gets to the ball carrier before the ball carrier gets where he needs to go more than any other linebacker in football. He creates second and nines, third and sevens, fourth and ones. Those are the defensive plays that win football games.

The Bears should definitely not trade Briggs for less than value "just to make sure they get something for him." I suspect that if the Bears keep playing this the way they are, Briggs will end up playing the entire season. Within the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and even morally, the Bears don't appear to have done anything wrong here. But from a football perspective, shouldn't they be offering the moon to this guy to get him signed long term?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Contenders

I've heard two interesting theories about the Chicago Bulls this week. One held that the Bulls aren't really contenders because their only true scorer is Ben Gordon, and thus they're too dependent on jump shots. The other held that Ben Gordon hasn't really grown as a player since he came into the league.

Last night's game brought both theories into focus. The Bulls beat the Portland Trailblazers 100-89. Gordon had only 17 points, and shot just 1 of 7 from 3-point range, but the Bulls won anyway because Luol Deng had 38. It was a pretty ordinary game for Gordon. But the Bulls won anyway because Deng was dominant. Deng shot 18 of 25 from the floor for 38 points. So, how much has Gordon grown as a player? And, are the Bulls too dependent on him to really contend?

The argument that Gordon hasn't grown as a player is premised on the theory that his numbers only look better this year because he's getting more minutes. So, to compare, we need to look at rate based stats -- stats that don't depend on playing time. Across the board, Gordon has improved as a player. In his first two seasons, Gordon shot 41 and 42%. This year he's shooting 45%. His true shooting percent (TS%), which accounts for free throws and the extra value of three pointers, has risen from around 53% his first two years, to 57.0% this season. As a result, his points per 40 minutes is a career high 26.1. That has nothing to do with extra playing time. Gordon is more productive per minute than ever before. He's also setting a career high in assists per 40 minutes at 4.4. It's still not great for a guy who sometimes plays the point, but it's a full half assist better than his previous best. Overall, Gordon's player efficiency rating has jumped from 14.59 last year (league average is 15.00) to 18.37 this year. Gordon didn't grow much from his first to his second year in the league, but he has unquestionably developed significantly this year.

More importantly for the Bulls' chances, they're still not especially dependent on Gordon, his jump shooting, or jump shooting in general. First, Gordon is not the Bulls' best player. Deng is. Deng's PER is 19.09, among the top 50 in the entire NBA. He's shooting 52.3% from the floor. His TS% is 56.5% and he is scoring 20.1 points per 40 minutes. He also grabs 7.4 rebounds per 40 minutes. Deng takes 40% of his shots from near the rim. As a team, one-third of the Bulls' shots come near the basket. Neither the Bulls, nor their best player, are especially dependent on jump shooting. Sixty-seven percent of the Bulls' shots are jumpers. Sixty-five percent of their opponents shots are jumpers. And the Bulls' effective field goal percentage on those jumpers is 46.1% to just 42.8% for opponents. The Bulls take about the same number of jumpers as their opponents and are considerably more efficient than their opponents in that aspect of the game. All of this goes to show that it's no fluke that the Bulls are more than 10 games over .500.

We've established that Gordon is a legitimately better player this year than last. And, we've established that the Bulls are no more dependent on jump shooting than their opponents in general. I'm pretty comfortable in saying that we've debunked both myths, and that the Bulls are absolutely legitimate contenders in the East. The only remaining hurdle is whether the other contenders are especially not dependent on jump shots. A quick tour through the six of the top teams in the conference -- Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Chicago, Washington, and Toronto -- reveals that each takes between 61-68% of its attempts as jump shots. Cleveland is the least jump shot dependent, while Washington and Toronto are the most dependent on jumpers. But it's all pretty close. It seems that this is just one more example of conventional wisdom that is bigger on convention than wisdom.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Big Man on Campus

As I was driving to work this morning, the wacky odd couple duo of Mike and Mike began discussing the following question: which player in the NCAA Final Four is most likely to carry his team to victory? Their top two were Joakim Noah and Jeff Green, in that order, with Arron Afflalo and Mike Conley, Jr., following, although they couldn't decide who was two and who was three. On its face, the choice of Noah for number one struck me as preposterous. But my subjective judgment may be clouded by my general dislike for the pony-tailed one's tired act. So, I decided to come up with an objective way to answer this question.

To carry a team to victory a player needs to be on the court. You can't be on the bench, whether it be because of foul trouble, fatigue, match-ups or simply a coach prone to over-use of his bench. So, we'll start narrowing down the list by focusing on guys who play at least 74% of their team's minutes, which is just below the cut-off for the top 500 players in the nation in percent of team minutes played. That gives us at least two core players from each team: Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey from Florida; Jamar Butler and Mike Conley from Ohio State; Jessie Sapp, Jeff Green, and Jonathan Wallace from Georgetown; and Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison from UCLA. While Noah is a good player who might carry his team to victory, he isn't the guy most likely to do so because too often, whether it's because of foul trouble or Florida's general depth, he's not on the floor. He only plays about 26 minutes a game. A couple of other contenders can't top our list -- such as Al Horford, Roy Hibbert, and Greg Oden -- for the same reason.

Most people associate carrying a team with offensive production. To measure our contenders' offensive contributions we'll use Dean Oliver's "Offensive rating" stat (ORtg). Good players can become great players for a short period of time, but someone with limited offensive skills can't be considered "likely" to suddenly carry his team. Run all the numbers through Oliver's complex equation, and anything above a 110 is good (we're going to trust Ken Pomeroy's math on that one), and therefore a candidate to get hot and carry his team. This cut off knocks off Jessie Sapp, which conveniently leaves every team with two contenders because Green and Wallace remain in contention for Georgetown.

Of course, being on the court and being effective on offense aren't likely to add up to much if you're never a go to guy for your team. We remember the guys who make things happen on the court -- good, such as hitting shots or making great passes, and bad, such as turnovers or tons of missed shots (call it the John Starks effect). The guy most likely to "carry" his team, and be the face of this Final Four, is going to be someone who is out there trying to make things happen, not someone prone to fading into the background. Percent of possessions used measures how often a player is involved in the final action of a play -- from made basket to missed basket to turnover. A player needs to be above 20% in %Poss to be even above-average here, which will be our cutoff for being involved enough on the offensive end to potentially be remembered as "The Guy" for the 2007 Final Four. Drawing this line in the proverbial sand gives us our top five contenders (in no order, yet): Taurean Green for Florida, Mike Conley for Ohio State, Jeff Green for Georgetown, and Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison for UCLA.

It seems that other than Noah, Mike and Mike's list wasn't bad. Three of their top four will make our top five. So, how do we sort out the best of this group? Well, this is the Final Four, the paradigm of bracketology. And, I just watched a fascinating story of CBS Sunday Morning about the book The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything. It advocates determining the best of the best in any category -- for example, Best Bald Guy (Gandhi wins) -- by making a bracket. We will follow its lead.

First, a play-in game for UCLA's spot. Arron Afflalo plays 82.3% of his team's minutes, has an ORtg of 114.5, and uses 23.6% of his team's possessions while on the floor. Darren Collison's numbers are nearly identical, but slightly lesser, in each category: 79.0 %Min, 114.1 ORtg, 23.2 %Pos. Afflalo plays more, is more productive on offense, and is more of a go to guy. It's all very close, but since Afflalo gets the edge in each category, he moves on.

For our Final Four match-ups, I'm borrowing the NCAA's match-ups. So Afflalo next matches up with Florida's Taurean Green. Green plays 81.7% of his team's minutes, has an ORtg of 114.5, and uses 20.6% of his team's possessions. His offensive production is identical to Afflalo's, and the difference in court time is negligible. Afflalo dominates the ball more while he's on the floor, but Green's team is more likely to win this game (although it's nearly a toss-up), and no one who's team is knocked out in the semis can be the face of the tourney. Still too close to call. So, here's the tie breaker: Green is much more turnover prone than Afflalo. I only mention this because a fair share of Green's %Pos is turning it over. Taking that into account, it becomes apparent that Afflalo is much more likely to take over a game for his team, than Green is for the balanced Gators. I think Florida is the favorite to win it all now (although none of the four teams would be a shock), so it pains me not to have a contender from the Gators. But is it any surprise that no one player on the deepest team in the Final Four stands out as the most likely to carry his team? Anyway, Afflalo makes our finals.

In the other semi, Jeff Green matches up with Mike Conley. Ohio State's freshman point is a stud. Conley plays 77.2% of the Buckeyes's minutes, has an ORtg of 117.1, and uses 21.2% of his team's possessions. Green is slightly less productive on offense, with an ORtg of 113.6, but he plays more (81.6 %Min), and he is more of a go to guy (25.6 %Pos). The game itself is a toss-up, so how can we separate these two? Conley's ability to pass the basketball is the single best skill of any of the players in this bracket. No matter who is scoring for Ohio State, it's likely to be because Conley is getting him the ball (when he's not doing the scoring himself). So, Conley moves on.

In fact, that passing ability, and general edge in offensive production (117.1 to 114.1 in ORtg), gives Conley the overall edge over Afflalo. Add in that I think Ohio State is slightly more likely to win it all than UCLA, and we have our winner. So, here's my list of the guy most likely to carry his team to victory: Mike Conley is first, Arron Afflalo is second, and Jeff and Taurean Green are third and fourth. Mike and Mike never settled on an order for third and fourth, so I won't either. Obviously, there's a lot of overlap. Conley, Afflalo, and Jeff Green make both lists. The order is different, and I replace Noah with Taurean Green as the most likely contender from Florida, but given the number of talented players in this Final Four, I'm actually surprised by how similar these lists are.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Hoop Dreams

I would have called this Basketball Diaries, but in deference to Fornelli at Foul Balls, I sought out another overly obvious cultural reference for this collection of basketball related thoughts.

I went to the Bulls-Nuggets game last night. It was one of the more exciting games I've seen in quite a while. I must admit that I turned to the Red Head with about six minutes remaining and declared the game over. The Nuggets were up seven, and the Bulls were showing no signs of life. Then Tyrus Thomas re-entered the game. In that final 6:13, Thomas scored five points and grabbed four rebounds, including of course, his tip in with 0.2 left to give the Bulls a one point win. It was a perfectly appropriate ending to the game, as the Bulls collected 21 offensive rebounds to 28 defensive rebounds for Denver. Nearly half the time when the Bulls shot and missed, they grabbed the rebound and got a second opportunity. Anyway, after his tip-in Thomas went insane for several seconds. I mean, he looked like all he was seeing was white noise as he made strange facial expressions and even stranger, circular hand motions.

On the night, Thomas was a plus-seven. In comparison, Ben Wallace, who sat out the entire fourth quarter, was minus-10. The Bulls were down only two when Wallace left the game for the last time, and yet every Bulls run had occurred with him on the bench, every Denver run with Big Ben on the floor. He sleep walked through the game. It was obvious to everyone, including Scott Skiles, and it's why PJ Brown and Tyrus manned the middle in crunch time. Wallace finished with six points, six rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals. But he also finished with four turnovers and a whole lot of moping around. I'm pretty sure that we'll see Brown and Thomas finishing play-off games, as well. And, even if there are nights when Ben is everywhere, at his price, anything less than consistently controlling games on the defensive end makes Big Ben a the Big Problem for this team. The challenge of the off-season for John Paxson may be fixing this, and I certainly can't think of a valid solution.

As a quick, final note, one other "player" in last night's game stunk up the joint. I've never witnessed a ref melt down the way Violet Palmer did last night. As bad call after bad call mounted up, and her frustration mirrored it, she entirely lost her self-confidence. Yes, Denver attempted 24 free throws to the 13 for the Bulls, but it's more than that. She T'd up Skiles about 3 seconds into an argument about one especially egregious call, and then refused to allow Nuggets reserve Eduardo Najera enter the game because he headed to the scorer's table a few seconds too late. How many times have you seen a player bounce up just before the ref hands the ball to a player to inbound it, and be waved into the game? Palmer had lost control of her whistle. Fortunately, her crisis of confidence caused her to fade into the background somewhat after the first quarter or she could have destroyed the flow of what turned out to be a great game.

Speaking of great games, last night's NCAA action was full of them. I still control my own destiny in my pools. Regardless of who wins the Ohio State-Memphis game (where we know it won't be my pick -- Texas A&M), and the Oregon-UNLV game (again, Wisconsin is not a likely candidate), I still win both of my pools if my remaining picks work out. Nice, right? Anyway, I correctly picked three of last night's winners, and as I said yesterday, Memphis-Texas A&M was the only toss-up game of the Sweet 16.

After last night's close games, all won by favorites, you'd have to figure there will be at least one blow out and one upset tonight, before the round is over. The most likely blowout candidate is UNC over USC, I believe. The canonization of Tim Floyd aside, UNC is elite on offense and much better on defense than the Trojans. Anything can happen in a single game, but UNC is the heaviest favorite going into the night, and the team most likely to win by double digits.

As for an upset, UNLV over Oregon is the most likely contender. I expect that game to be close, and while it's not quite a toss-up game, a UNLV win would not surprise me. This is not an anti-Pac 10 thing. Oregon is very good, but Carolina, Florida and Georgetown are three of the five best teams in the country, so it is less likely that one of them gets upset. (Incidentally, of the three, I think Florida is the most vulnerable, though I expect they'll win by 7-10 points). As for USC, they were overseeded as a five, but deserve credit for taking advantage of the seed. I think, however, that if you flipped Arizona's and USC's spots in the bracket, Arizona would be playing UNC tomorrow, and USC would be home already.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Rock Chalk Part Two

We now resume our regularly scheduled March programming. Monday, we covered the Midwest and West regions. Today, we'll turn our attention to the East and South regions.

Like Florida in the Midwest and Kansas in the West, North Carolina is a true favorite to win the East region. However, North Carolina faces the toughest challenger of the three in the form of the red hot Georgetown Hoyas. Let's start with the Tar Heels against USC, and Chicago's old friend Tim Floyd. The Tar Heels are the best offensive team in the country, with a handful of dangerous, efficient offensive threats. The two best are Tyler Hansbrough, who seems to have fully recovered from having his face smashed in, and Ty Lawson, who may just be the best "little" man in the college game right now. The offense will do its part. The key for Carolina is it's defense. Their defense is also elite, but it can be vulnerable when an opponent protects the ball and hits the offensive glass. You need to maximize your possessions against these guys. Unfortunately for USC, they're just average when it comes to protecting the basketball, and they're pretty dreadful on the offensive glass. Truth be told, this Sweet 16 match-up is a total mismatch.

Should Georgetown await Carolina in the Elite 8, however, the days of Carolina blowouts will end. Georgetown's big, talented front line could pose problems for the team in light blue. Georgetown is also a tremendously efficient offensive team, though you might not notice because of the Hoyas incredibly slow pace of play. Seven-two center Roy Hibbert is an absolute beast, and that slow pace maximizes his impact on both ends. Georgetown's key is staying away from turnovers. At their speed, every possession is precious. Vanderbilt shouldn't pose much of an obstacle to the anticipated UNC-Georgetown showdown.

The South region is the only one without a clear cut favorite at this point. Ohio State is probably the best bet, but only because Memphis and Texas A&M have to play each other in the Sweet 16. I actually am picking A&M to emerge from this pack. Ohio State's advantage is in a soft match-up with Tennessee in the Sweet 16, but THE Ohio State University is also a very good team. Mike Conley is an elite distributor of the basketball and Greg Oden is an outstanding shot blocker and offensive rebounder. Tennessee was overseeded at number five, and was fortunate to find itself in a pod with an overseeded Virginia squad. The Volunteers are good, but not great on offense, and only average on defense. They were among the luckiest teams in the land when you compare their actual record to their expected record based on statistics. Chris Lofton is a stud, but he'll need to have the game of his life to carry Tennessee past Ohio State.

Meanwhile, Memphis and Texas A&M meet in the best Sweet 16 match-up. Obviously, since I'm picking A&M to win the region, I'm picking them in this game. Most people notice A&M's defense, which is good. But their offense, obscured by a slow pace of play, is even better. They're outstanding on the perimeter, both shooting the three and defending against the three. Josh Carter is one of the least known, most effective outside weapons in college basketball. And wide body Joseph Jones provides balance. Memphis plays at a different speed entirely. That's why, conversely to A&M, people don't often notice that Memphis's greatest strength is its defense. The force turnovers, block shots, and don't give up easy baskets. Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier are a very effective pair at protecting the lane. The game may be won by whichever team forces the other into more mistakes on offense, and I trust A&M's offense to execute more than Memphis's.

So, I'm picking Kansas, Florida, UNC and A&M. More chalk, basically. Some people think that's not exciting. I, however, love when the best team's meet in the Final Four. Other than Syracuse's win, my favorite recent Final Four was UConn over Duke because the level of play was so high. This year could set a new bar for quality basketball at the end of March Madness.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled March Programming

We interrupt our regularly scheduled March programming. Tomorrow, I promise, we'll return to the tourney. But last night marked the draft in the first ever fantasy baseball Sox Blogger Showdown. There are twelve teams:

Team (Owner @ Website)
Phil Bradley (Jim @ Sox Machine)
SSS Torpedo Boat (Cheat @ South Side Sox)
A Useful Perez (Keith @ South Side Sox)
Omaha Black Sox (Jay @ Black Sox Blog)
ChiSox Daily (Buda @ ChiSox Daily)
(Marc) Hill St. Blues (DT Kelly @ Life in the Cell)
Rock Raines' Rascals (Jeeves @ Life in the Cell)
Steve Kemp All-Stars (James @ Life in the Cell)
Craig Grebeck (Tom @ Foul Balls)
Zeke Bonura (Panger @ Foul Balls)
LeBilly Jo Robidoux (Jake @ The Bard's Room)
Uribe's Legal Defense (Me @ Here)

You can find links to all of these outstanding websites in the links list here at the Ron Karkovice Fan Club. Well, except of course to this site because, well, you're already here. Anyway, the list is right over there. No, there. To your right. Good.

We drafted 21 players in a relatively speedy two hours. There was no indication of collusion between the 47 representatives of Life in the Cell. Although, Panger from Foul Balls, did threaten to use her feminine wiles to get her way in future dealings, if need be. There was also a general display of displeasure when Keith drafted Michael "Boom Boom" Barrett. I'll have to punish him for that transgression when Uribe's Legal Defense meets A Useful Perez in the season opener. We also chided Cheat for not putting Mark Prior on his "Over My Dead Body" list, which resulted in the computer auto-drafting him when Cheat was unable to attend. I laugh in Cheat's general direction. Then, I realize that I somehow wound up with Orlando Hudson at second base.

Anyway, here's my team:
C -- Russ Martin
1B -- Prince Fielder
2B -- Orlando Hudson
3B -- Miguel Cabrera
Garrett Atkins
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki
OF -- Matt Holliday
Dave Roberts
Adam Dunn
Chris Young (who I took immediately after Jay took, uh, Chris Young. Very confusing.)
Util -- Frank Thomas
SP -- Curt Schilling
Kelvim Escobar
Anthony Reyes
Dave Bush
Freddy Garcia
Greg Maddux
RP -- Brad Lidge
Brian Fuentes
Pat Neshek

It's a good team, not a great team. As you can tell, I went after offense early. The pitching leaves a little to be desired.

Speaking, of which, we interrupt our interruption to ask the following very important question: who in the heck is Adam Russell? He's come out of nowhere to put himself squarely in the battle for the fifth starter. Baseball Prospectus did have the foresight to give this guy a PECOTA card. We know this: he's huge. Six foot, eight inches, 250 pounds. He's also fairly young, at just 24 years of age. His projection isn't pretty, featuring an ERA of more than 6.00 in 18 starts. I'm just as hopeful as the next guy that someone emerges to lock down the fifth starter spot. But I'm loathe to make the choice based on a strong spring. What happens in limited spring innings doesn't say much about what will happen over the course of a year. I thought Danks was the best choice before the spring started, and Russell's strong spring hasn't changed my mind.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled interruption. There's also something of a stars and scrubs approach to my roster, which is odd because it was a straight draft, rather than an auction. Anyway, now that you've got the background, rest assured that I will provide much anticipated updates throughout the season. I also will not hesitate to talk trash, even as my season inevitably goes down in flames.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Rock Chalk

No, I have not decided to become a Kansas fan. But higher seeds, chalk, are dominating this year's tournament. I had a fine, but hardly spectacular first weekend in my pools. I'm in 6th in Foul Ball's pool. Not great, but close enough that if my remaining picks are right, I win, no matter what else happens. In other words, I don't have to root for UNLV to upset Oregon just because I have Wisconsin in that game. So, that's nice. Anyway, other than Wisconsin, my Elite 8 picks remain in the tourney, so Thursday and Friday will be fun. By the way, I'm sure Camp Lambeau will have an appropriately angsty Badgers rant up soon enough. So, enjoy that as well.

Anyway, I'm going to go through the four brackets this week and share my apparently good, but not great, analysis. I'll do two today and two on Wednesday. Tomorrow, I'll take a break from my regularly scheduled programming to discuss the results of tonight's draft in the first ever Sox Bloggers Fantasy Baseball Showdown.

Let's start in the Midwest region, where Florida has the easiest road to the Final Four of any top seed. The Gators meet Butler in the Sweet 16, and they should handle the small conference "Cinderella" fairly easily. Florida may be the best offensive teams in the country, led by Lee Humphrey and Al Horford, who are two of the more efficient scorers in the NCAA at their positions. That's a theme for Florida, who leads the nation in effective field goal percentage. When Florida wins the rebounding and turnover battles, and they usually do, they're almost unbeatable. To pull an upset, Butler needs to control the pace. Butler is pretty efficient on offense too, but they play at one of the slowest tempos in the country. When they lose that battle, they can get in trouble.

Florida's Elite 8 opponent is likely to be Oregon, although the Ducks match-up with UNLV is much closer than the Florida v. Butler game. Oregon is another efficient offensive team, but they win when they force turnovers on defense. That allows them to cover for a half court defense that otherwise allows too many easy shots. Ken Pomeroy's favorite player, Maarty Leunen, sparks that defensive effort. What makes this match-up so interesting is that UNLV's key is protecting the ball. When they don't turn the ball over, they win games. So, the whole game may very well come down to one question, can Oregon force UNLV to cough the ball up?

The West is the second easiest bracket now. Truthfully, other than Florida, none of the top seeds have a cakewalk to the Final Four, which is one of the upsides of favorites dominating the tournament so far. Kansas though is a pretty good bet, thanks largely to the easiest Sweet 16 match-up. Kansas is in even better shape against Southern Illinois than Florida is against Butler. Kansas plays pretty fast, so their final scores can obscure the fact that they're the best defensive team in the country. They're third in effective field goal percentage against, and second in shot blocking. The defense is a given, so if Kansas doesn't turn the ball over, they win games. The danger is that they are fairly turnover prone. Russell Robinson, the team's best distributor, will be the key player, as he can't succumb to SIU's defensive pressure. And, SIU does apply a lot of defensive pressure to ball handlers -- they're 25th in the country in forcing opponents to turn it over. But if Kansas avoids that one pitfall, they'll move on.

The reason Kansas is not a Final Four lock though is UCLA, who figures to await the Jayhawks in the Elite 8. UCLA versus Pitt should be a fun game, but UCLA has some distinct advantages. UCLA is one of the better defensive teams in the country. Darren Collison is one of the better ball hawks in the game, and he gets help from Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, one of the better all-around defenders in college basketball. Ironically, Pittsburgh, who has more of a defensive reputation, has actually been a better offensive team this year. This is another case of slow tempo obscuring a team's real strength. Aaron Gray gets the most possessions and shot attempts on offense, which works out well, because he's the team's most efficient player. One x-factor who could key the mild upset: Ronald Ramon. Ramon has the all-around offensive game best suited to give Gray some support against UCLA. Two other keys to watch for with Pitt: control the glass on the defensive end and stay away from too many fouls.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Fine Start

Yesterday I overheard someone mention that there is no worse feeling than being the first team eliminated from the NCAA tournament. Similarly, from a tourney pool perspective, there is no worse feeling that watching one of your Sweet 16 teams go down to the first upset. And sure enough, there was Duke, who I had picked to upset Pitt and advance to the Sweet 16, losing to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round. It was the first real upset of the day.

Sure, Xavier beat BYU and Michigan State beat Marquette, but 8-9 games are really toss-ups, not upsets. Of course, I also got both of those games right. In fact, I got every game but Duke right yesterday. But they had all seemed pretty obvious to me, so I wasn't viewing this as any grand accomplishment.

Still, before getting too depressed about somehow convincing myself to pick Duke, who I despise, over Pitt, who I kind of like in the absence of Syracuse, I logged on to see how I was doing in my pools. I'm in three. One is run by a friend in the office. One is Foul Ball's pool (ok, that just sounds wrong). The last one is Deadspin's Pants Party Pool. Lo and behold, Scurvy (my entry reflects the absence of non-gendered citrus fruit in this year's tourney), is doing pretty well.

I'm in first in all three pools. It seems some of these obvious picks weren't so obvious. Anyway, this is like the contrapositive to the first team knocked out emotion. There is an irrational exuberance that goes with escaping the first round of the tourney. Similarly, there is an irrational exuberance to being in first after one day. Everything will obviously change between now and the final bell on this race. As soon as Texas A&M goes down in an all too predictable ball of flames, for example, I'll be starting my long slide to pool punditry mediocrity. But for one day at least, Scurvy is riding high.

Monday, March 12, 2007

We're All Gonna Get Scurvy

The NCAA tournament has a vitamin C deficiency, and we're all going to get scurvy. Ok, I may be overstating the impact of the snubbing of the Syracuse Orange. And, honestly, while the Orange do have a beef about missing the tournament, it's hard to get too worked up. If Syracuse beat Drexel or Witchita State at home, or Oklahoma State or St. John's in their second home (Madison Square Garden), then they'd be in. So Syracuse can blame themselves for getting snubbed.

What makes the tourney great is that one can say with complete confidence that the best team in the nation is somewhere on the bracket. No one who missed the tourney was going to win it. So, complaining about the last at-large bids is just picking at the technicalities on the fringe of the enterprise. Over- and under-seeding is a more serious error, but the committee's mistakes can be corrected by play. If an under-seeded team plays well, then they'll be the higher seed and move on. Still, analyzing the committee's mistakes on the edges of the bracket and in terms of seeding is part of the fun.

Let's start with the small conference over-seed. This is a recurring problem. The committee seems unsure how to sort out various small conference winners. But a 12 seed playing a five seed has a legitimate chance to move on. A 15 seed doesn't. So, sorting this out matters. This year Long Beach State got an inexplicably good 12 seed. The Big West champs managed such impressive feats as getting blitzed at Temple by 25 points, losing to Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine, and getting beaten by Hawaii by 15 at home. Does this sound like a team capable of winning an NCAA game.

Meanwhile, Oral Roberts got a virtual death sentence 14 seed. I don't think Oral Roberts is all that good, mind you. They too have six bad losses, including Utah State at home and Loyola-Marymount to open the season, but they did knock off Kansas and Seton Hall this year. Long Beach State's best win this year was at Cal Poly, and yet they get the higher seed.

Related is the BCS over-seed. This is the big conference team who should be on the bubble, but instead develops a buzz resulting not only in a ticket to the dance, but a preposterously high seed. Take Virginia, for example. The Cavaliers are a four seed. They're 2-3 in the their last five games with losses coming to Miami, Wake Forest and North Carolina State. Earlier this year they lost to Appalachian State and Utah. I'm not saying they didn't belong in the tourney, though I'm not certain they did, but a four seed?!? That's just crazy talk.

And this one can't be blamed on ACC bias. The most under-seeded major conference team is probably Georgia Tech. Tech is a 10 seed with a stronger resume than Virginia. Yes, Virginia finished ahead of Tech in the ACC. But we're told consistently that the committee ignores conferences and looks at individual team resumes in picking teams and seeding. Yes, Virginia beat Tech head-to-head . . . by six at Virginia. That doesn't tell me much about how the teams will perform on neutral courts. Tech's non-conference schedule includes wins over Purdue, Memphis, Georgia, and UConn. They also beat Carolina. Virginia's only good non-conference win was against Arizona in the season opener and they never topped the Tar Heels. Which one is a four and which one is a ten again? We're not talking about mis-seeding 7-10 here, Virginia is a FOUR seed!!!

Then there are the at-large teams that clearly don't belong. Maybe I'm not cool enough to appreciate the so-called mid-majors, but they're simply held to a different, lesser standard than big conference teams. Old Dominion has no business taking an at-large bid. ODU has losses this year to powerhouses Marist, Hofstra, James Madison, Virginia Commonwealth, and George Mason (not to be confused with last year's version, which was good), as well as a home loss to Winthrop. A big conference team would be toast with those kinds of losses on their resume. Plus, ODU has only one good win: against Georgetown.

Which brings us to Syracuse. Syracuse won six of its last eight, including wins over UConn, Providence and Georgetown. UConn and Providence may not jump of the page because they're only average by Big East standards, but they're far better than VCU, Toledo and Hofstra, who are ODU's most impressive recent opponents. And that's a serious understatement. If we made a conference with Syracuse, Georgetown, UConn, Providence, ODU, VCU, Toledo and Hofstra I know who I'd pick to finish in the top four every season (including this one). Anyway, Syracuse also has wins over Villanova, Marquette and DePaul. The DePaul win is probably Syracuse's fifth or sixth best win. It would be ODU's second biggest accomplishment (and I'd take DePaul in that game anyway). The Orange do have bad losses to Witchita State, Drexel, Oklahoma State, and St. John's. But those bad losses pale in comparison to ODU's defeats. Heck, Oklahoma State would have been ODU's fourth best opponent all year.

As I've said, this is all tinkering at the margins, but some of the errors are pretty egregious. Some of the blame can be directed at the terribly imprecise RPI. Objective statistical analysis is great, but the RPI is a blunt instrument, like using batting average, when we're capable of calculating WARP or VORP. And as a result, we're all going to get scurvy.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Super Bowl Shufflin' Out of Town

I've been gone too long. Sorry. I've been quite busy at work, which figures to continue through the middle of the month due to upcoming oral arguments at the Illinois Supreme Court down in Springfield. Anyway, the good news is: (a) that puts me back at full speed in time for the baseball season; and (b) I'm not gone for good.

Thomas Jones, on the other hand, is gone for good. (In the business, we call that a segue.) I think I'm happy with this trade. Jones carried 296 times for 1210 yards last year. He had six touchdowns and one fumble. Cedric Benson, who will replace Jones as the team's workhorse, carried 157 times for 647 yards. He also had six touchdowns, and did not fumble (until the Super Bowl -- nice time, Ced).

In terms of overall production above replacement level, Jones has a DPAR of 25.5, while Benson was worth just 17.9 DPAR. But Jones got the bulk of the work. To measure their per play performance, we need to look at their value over average, or DVOA. Here, Benson's 15.1% out paces Jones's 5.6% by a wide margin. It actually places Benson among the league's elite, just ahead of the now retired Tiki Barber.

And that's why the deal makes sense on it's own. The Bears up grade at running back by giving more carries to Benson. So, getting anything of value, and moving up 3o spots in the second round has a lot of value (at least according to Jimmy Johnson's well-groomed draft trade chart, which everyone in the NFL now uses), for a player who the Bears don't need, is a good thing.

Part of me wonders whether the Bears got as much as the market would have been willing to pay for a solid starting running back. Prices for running backs are inflated right now. The Broncos shelled out good money for Travis Henry. But how do we know what the market was willing to give? The Bears got an early second round pick for a late second and Thomas Jones. The Patriots got Wes Welker for a late second and a late seventh. Presumably an early second rounder is worth a lot more than Welker. It better be, otherwise the Bears got no more for Jones than they could have gotten for their seventh round pick.

Anyway, finding it beyond myself to deduce Jones's market value, I'll stick to looking at the trade in isolation. On that front, I'll take it. The Bears got something of substantial value in exchange for a player who either doesn't play, or keeps an even more valuable player off the field. That's a good trade, right?