December 1, 2018

Totally Topical Titillating Trivia Time, Dudes!

Alright, who wants to play a little game of What Do They Have in Common? Some of the answers will be incredibly straightforward and dull, and others will be ridiculously specific and obscure, so this promises to a rip-roarin' good time! To get you comfortable, we'll do the first one together. Remember, while the answer might in some cases be painfully obvious, it will be football-related, so nothing like They're all Capricorns with a cleft chin and a last name that ends with a vowel. Ready? Alright, if I were to ask for Question 1just as I'm doing right nowwhat do the following players have in common:

Raymond Berry (2)
Fred Biletnikoff (3)
Charlie Joiner (3)

You would say, They're all Hall of Fame receivers! You might also say, What do those parenthetical numbers mean?, but we'll get to that in due time, my friend. In due time. For now, are you ready for the rest of the trios (answers after the last of 'em to prevent spoilage):

Question 2:
Donald Driver (2)
Ahman Green (1)
Jordy Nelson (4)

Question 3:
Davante Adams (4)
Antonio Brown (4)
Adam Thielen (2)

Question 4:
Dave Casper (4)
Tony Gonzalez (4)
Shannon Sharpe (2)

Question 5:
Rod Smith (3) 
Reggie Wayne (4)
Roddy White (3)

Answer 2:
Scored 60+ touchdowns for the Packers. With Sterling Sharpe, the only players not in the Hall of Fame to do so.

Answer 3:
Pro Bowl wide receivers last season (and likely again this one). Or, three of the six players (with Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, and DeAndre Hopkins) with 220+ receptions,  2800 yards, and 15 TDs since the beginning of 2016. Duh.

Answer 4:
They're tight ends. And for all practical purposes, Hall-of-Fame tight ends, although Gonzalez is technically as-yet unenshrined.

Answer 5:
800+ receptions, 10,000+ yards while playing entire career for one team. Also, they all managed to average the exact same yards per catch (13.4).

Well that was a bunch of pointless BS, you're potentially saying to yourself right now, perhaps in a somewhat less genteel manner. But it wasn't, exactly. Because if you look at the players from the five lists, all of them have something in common, and it's that stuff in the parentheses. In their first two seasons, those 15 playersalong with other offensive stalwarts like Cliff Branch (3), Harold Carmichael (2), Derrick Mason (3), Muhsin Muhammad (1), and Wes Welker (1)each had fewer than the five touchdowns scored by second-year Bears safety Eddie Jackson.

That's right. Eddie Jackson, who does not play offense, mind you, has scored more touchdowns in his first two seasons than 20 of the more prolific offensive players in the league's history.

Full disclosure: I'm not exactly the president of the Eddie Jackson Fan Club. His tacklingand, seemingly, his effortsometimes leaves a lot to be desired. I mean, watch No. 39 here:
That's ... not good. Nor was it much better on Wilson's 75-yard TD later in that maddening loss to the Dolphins. And so, after some similar play during the New England game, I sent this text which has aged particularly well:

It's apparent at this point that it's me. Because subpar tackling or no, the good clearly outweighs the bad with Eddie Jackson. And since none of the retired players on the list scored fewer touchdowns than Casper's 53, it's guaranteed that we have at least 48 more Jackson TDs to look forward to.

October 2, 2018

Worrisome? More Like Worried a Lot

There's something I've been extremely concerned about with this Cubs team throughout the second half.

Is it the inconsistent starting rotation? Well, on the season the starters put up just 8.9 WAR, topping only the Giants, Padres, Reds, and Marlins, not coincidentally the four worst teams in the league. That 11th place finish is quite a fall from their Jake-Arrieta-fever-dream heyday:

Ouch. But that's not it.

How about the injury-ravaged bullpen? I mean, I have already posted one extremely well-received bullpen-related complaint. And while the relievers did finish fifth in WAR (4.0), more than one-third of that total is currently unavailable with Pedro Strop (0.8) and Brandon Morrow (0.6) out.

Still, that's not it, either.

So it's gotta be the bats, right? Despite being of an age where, if they're not going to improve, they should at the very least not decline, five of the Cubs' seven (semi-)regulars age 26 or younger actually got worse this season.

*Tom Hanks voice* WILLLLLLLLLLLLLSON! Anyway, you can see that thanks to Javier Baez's 33-point gain, the average wRC+ only dropped three points. But the Average-No-Javy dropped by nine points, to just barely above league average.

Most of this was caused by a severe power outage.

Every single non-Baez returning player—even Ben Zobrist, who actually saw his wRC+ jump by a whopping 41 points (even more than Baez's!)—had their ISO drop from last year, by an average of 50 points. That's, uh, significant. For context, almost all of Baez offensive breakout can be attributed to an increase in power, as seen in both his HR/FB (up to 24.3% from 19.7 a year ago) and the resultant increased ISO (also buoyed by a career best 22.1% line-drive rate). Baez's ISO increased 57 points this year. Essentially, the average Cub regular lost as much power as Baez gained.

Double ouch. And yet, we still haven't hit on it. But it starts with this:

Those are first half records on the left, second half on the right. And the Cubs, who ended the first half with a .591 winning percentage, plummeted all the way down to a .580 winning percentage in the second half. That 11-point plunge can only mean one thing: they are clearly terrible and we might as well welcome them to they're "doom!"

Damn that was a long way to go to sneak in a Killface reference. Because by wins and losses, the Cubs have basically been the same team, although they did go from the best record in the NL in the first half to the fourth-best in the second. But take a closer look at the first half standings, this time with runs scored / allowed and the associated expected win-loss records:

In the first half, the Cubs had the best record, but were also quite nearly the league's unluckiest team in terms of run differential, as they underperformed their expected win total by three. They then followed it up with this:

I've sorted by Pythagorean expectancy, where the Cubs were the 10th-best team in the National League in the second half. While based on how the last few days have gone it might not have seemed like it, the Cubs were exceptionally lucky in the second half. The luckiest team in the entire league, in fact, and by a pretty substantial margin. And that is what has worried me the most: Since the All-Star break, the Cubs have the underpinnings of a decidedly average team.

Now, here's the beauty of it all: This team still won 95 games! They (essentially) tied for the best record in the National League! They've made the playoffs for the fourth straight year! Their run of success is completely unprecedented in my time on the planet, and, quite frankly, we've all been spoiled by it. Because despite the unreliable rotation, the thin bullpen, and the regressing bats, this is still baseball, and the Cubs have a shot to win the whole damn thing. And given that they've already won one more World Series than I ever thought I'd see in my lifetime, I'll most certainly take it. Worries and all.

September 14, 2018

Prior to a few weeks ago, I never thought it wood happen again

In what's news to literally no one at this point, Dusty Baker absolutely abused Kerry Wood and (especially) Mark Prior down the stretch of the 2003 season. I mean, just look at this insanity:

While pitch counts hadn't gone completely mainstream as we were still in the heart of the These-Nerds-and-Their-Damn-Computers-Are-Ruining-the-Game Era, plenty of people were rightly outraged at the time. And thankfully, in the relatively short amount of time since, we have made so much progress that there is a zero percent chance of something like that ever happening again.

Ummm. Well...

Allow me to rephrase: There is a zero percent chance of a manager overworking two young starters like that again. But there is something similar happening right now, a mere 15 years later. Right here in Chicago, too. Because except for the future value of the assets involved, what Joe Maddon is doing to his bullpen is just as unconscionable as what Dusty Baker did to Wood and Prior in 2003. I mean, just look at this insanity:

Joe Maddon has pitched Jesse Chavez, Steve Cishek, and Justin Wilson six times each in the last eight games, spanning nine days. Or, if you prefer: Of the seven days the Cubs have actually played games, each has pitched on all but one of them. (Meanwhile, lazy bones Carl Edwards, Jr. has been off twice, the goldbricker. Twice!) This is simply not enough rest, and someone is going to get hurt.

Someone, that is, besides Pedro Strop.

I started writing this post before Strop's injury, which was a somewhat fluky thing not related to being an abused bullpen arm. In fact, Strop was among the fresher guys in the pen, because Joe has him as The Closer and the Cubs, sadly, haven't had many leads of late. At the same time, batting Strop in that situation—up 4-3, one out, bases loaded in the tenth, where the very limits of his withered pitcher legs unaccustomed to sprinting might potentially be *ahem* strained—was a result of Joe's compulsion, as he had already burned through the four other guys he trusts the most, with two of them (Cishek and Wilson) coming in to get just one out.

Yes, I know these games are important. Yesterday's win was huge, as was Tuesday's. But for more than a week now, Joe has been managing every day like it's Game 7 of the World Series. And it's not. (Nor, if we're being honest, is that where Joe does his best work.) Even the strongest, most durable arms can only take so much, and these guys need more rest. Poor Jesse Chavez has pitched 13 times in the last 20 games and hasn't had two consecutive days off since August 22-23; he'd have more downtime if he worked at an Amazon warehouse. And so while I generally like Joe as a manager, he needs to start using his main arms less often and letting them work for longer. In short, he has to start trusting them, or there's not going to be anyone left to trust come playoff time.