January 27, 2010


Screw an introduction, too, as I'm pressed for time -- I'm leaving on a family vacation today and won't be back until the day before the Super Bowl. So let's get right to a review of the championship games and my SB pick.

All week, I didn't feel very good about having picked the Jets on Monday. I wanted to switch it up, but decided not to since: A. That would be lame; and B. Just like when setting my fantasy lineup, if I make a change and then have the original choice be the correct one, I am much more pissed off and regretful than if I don't make a change and the other option proves to be better. So I left it alone.

I was feeling decent (but not great) when the Jets went up 17-6 on a 48-yard Jay Feely field goal. Mark Sanchez looked sensational and the Jets D was getting to Peyton Manning and causing turnovers. However, all of the things that had been going in the Jets favor during their run -- from a plethora of missed field goals to avoiding injuries -- had already begun to turn. Jets kicker Jay Feely chunked a 44-yarder, and New York was having trouble keeping healthy defensive backs on the field, not the sort of problem you want against the Colts. When Manning sliced through the Jets with a 4-play, 3-Austin-Collie-reception, 80-yard drive in just 58 seconds to pull the Colts within four immediately following the Feely figgie, that was all she wrote for New York. The Shonn Greene injury and another Feely miss -- both on the opening possession of the second half -- proved to be the final nails in the coffin, but there was no doubt in my mind Indianapolis would win after the surgical precision with which they took the Jets apart on that drive.

The end of regulation turned into a battle of things I hate. Just inside the 2-minute warning, the Saints -- after limiting Adrian Peterson to two yards on consecutive snaps -- called timeout with the Vikings facing a 3rd-and-8. I despise this move. Most commonly done at the end of the first half, this strategy almost always comes back to haunt the defensive team. For starters, it takes heat off the opponent's offensive coordinator, allowing him the time to choose his very best play for the given moment as opposed to doing so under duress. Plus, it's just greedy, as the D should just hold the timeout, see if they actually prevent the team from converting the 3rd down, and then spend it if they do. Nine times out of 10 -- sure that's pseudo-scientific, as I have no data to back me up -- it helps the offense, and that's exactly what it did here, as Bernard Berrian made a nice play to pick up 10 yards and the first, leaving the Vikings plenty of time to leisurely make their way down the field. Where the second thing that I hate came into play.

With just over a minute to go, Chester Taylor picked up 14 yards to bring the ball to the Saints 33, into the outer range of kicker Ryan Longwell. The Saints then called another timeout, hoping to preserve a bit of clock after a Minnesota score. With a 1st down and 1:06 remaining, the Vikings ran Taylor up the middle for no gain. They then basically allowed the entire play clock to run down, snapping the ball with just 25 seconds left for an Adrian Peterson run up the middle, which was also stuffed. Now the Vikings, with 19 seconds left, called a timeout (their second) then got their beyond-idiotic 12-men in the huddle penalty.

It's clear that the Vikings' coaches -- or at least uber-genius Brad Childress -- thought, Gee, I know it's only to go to the Super Bowl, but a 50-yard field goal [roughly a 50-50 proposition under the best circumstances, as NFL kickers were 55-of-104 (52.8%) from 50+ in the regular season this year] under the most pressure any kicker could possibly face is surely a gimme. I'm aware that I've railed on this strategy before (most notably in item #7 here), but NFL coaches are still doing this crap. I realize Childress' choice to go conservative may have seen justified when Brett Favre threw that crazy Brett Favre interception on the 3rd-down play, but by then the circumstances had changed. At that point, the Saints knew Minnesota would pass. Plus Favre then had the pressure to make a play to put the Vikings back into field goal range, whereas he could have been conservative -- and yes, I realize I'm talking about Brett Favre here -- on a pass on first or second down.

As for the overtime, the Saints can thank the wording of the instant replay policy for the win. While I've heard a lot of people bitching online and on ESPN about the refs somehow screwing the Vikings, that simply didn't happen. While the pass interference penalty on Ben Leber was questionable, so are a huge percentage of the PI calls I see during games, so that shit just happens. As for the other calls that supposedly screwed Minnesota -- the Pierre Thomas 4th-down conversion/fumble and the Robert Meachem 12-yard "catch" to put the Saints in field goal range -- these plays looked exceptionally close even after viewing several slow-motion replays, and the calls on the field went New Orleans' way. Because of that, there was basically no way the rulings would be overturned.

For starters, as I've said before, spot-of-the-ball calls are almost impossible to change, because of the vagaries of camera angles and whatnot. While it appears that Thomas' losing control of the ball pushed him back short of the 1st down, with him up in the air, we can't tell for sure. Do we know the sideline camera was completely even with the marker? Can you tell exactly where the ball should be spotted? Because the rules state that there must be "indisputable visual evidence" that the call on the field was erroneous in order for it to be overturned. That simply did not exist on the Thomas play.

The same goes for Meachem's catch. The ball can touch the ground if it is controlled by the receiver, and you simply could not tell whether Meachem's hand was underneath it as he slid across the turf. On some of the replays it looked like he didn't have control, and on some that he did, with his hand pinning the ball to his body as it hit the ground. Again, not enough evidence to overturn.

And referee Pete Morelli basically said as much. Note that following each review he said, "The ruling on the field stands," as opposed to the more-definitive "The ruling on the field is confirmed." Because the replays were inconclusive. Had Thomas been called short or Meachem's catch an incompletion, those too would have been upheld. But they weren't, and it helped the Saints reach the Super Bowl.

So where does that leave us?

Super Bowl XXVVVIIIIIIIII: Colts over Saints
I really, really want the Saints to win. I've never liked the Colts, and have already professed my love for fellow Naperville Centralite Sean Payton. Plus, how can you not root for New Orleans?

But one thing keeps ringing in my head: The Colts have now lost just once in the last 26 games they were trying to win (I'm throwing out their "We Surrender in the Name of Health" defeats at the end of this year's regular season.) That's 25-1, with the only loss being in overtime (to the Chargers) in a game in which they never got possession in the extra session. Combined with the fact that the Saints looked awfully shaky at the end of the NFC Championship, with Brees throwing wobbly passes that receivers double-clutched/bobbled/dropped, I simply can't justify picking the Colts to lose.

But I sure would love to see it.

January 20, 2010

The Blackhawks' Fatal Flaw

Note: For the second time in 85 posts, I am writing about hockey. I'd change my name to Mr. Hockey Know-It-All, except I'd have no idea how to pronounce "Mr. HKIA". Actually, it'd probably sound like 'hockey-ah', which I suppose would be pretty badass.

The Blackhawks are a seriously good hockey team. As the NHL's points-leader (as of right now, they're actually tied with San Jose, but whatever) there's really no denying that. But the Hawks will not win the Stanley Cup -- and won't really have much of a shot at it either -- if they don't start getting some better goaltending.

The shocking thing is, from looking at the stats, goaltending would seem to be among the least of the Hawks' problems -- right up there with finding a way to sell the 17 standing room tickets they have left for the rest of the freaking season (seriously, try getting a ticket to a Hawks game right now) -- as their 114 goals allowed are the third fewest in the league. But that's only because they play great defense. They allow just 24.0 shots per game, by far the top mark in the league; the second-best Kings are at 27.6. To give you an idea how big of a gap that is, a team that had allowed 3.6 shots/game more than the Kings would rank 23rd in the league.

So -- duh -- the Hawks don't allow very many shots. In fact, they've only been out-shot eight times all season. And yet, the Hawks have 16 losses (I'm including shootout losses here); of those 16 losses, they actually out-shot their opponents 13 times. These numbers don't even seem possible, especially when the actual shot differential in these games is taken into account. Take a look at this dirty dozen (minus a deuce):

Score Shots
Panthers 4, Hawks 3 (SO) Hawks 55, Panthers 24
Red Wings 3, Hawks 2 Hawks 34, Red Wings 23
Coyotes 3, Hawks 1 Hawks 32, Coyotes 23
Avalanche 4, Hawks 3 (SO) Hawks 32, Avalanche 22
Kings 2, Hawks 1 (SO) Hawks 33, Kings 22
Predators 4, Hawks 1 Hawks 35, Predators 23
Sharks 3, Hawks 2 Hawks 47, Sharks 14
Stars 5, Hawks 4 Hawks 37, Stars 24
Ducks 3, Hawks 1 Hawks 43, Ducks 12
Senators 4, Hawks 1 Hawks 30, Senators 18
Record: 0-10 Total goals: Opponents 32, Blackhawks 19

Total shots: Blackhawks 378, Opponents 205

Save %: Opponents .950, Blackhawks .844

And the problem has been especially glaring of late -- in the Hawks last four losses combined, they've been outscored 15-8 while outshoooting their opponents 157 to 68. That's a save percentage of .949 for the teams they're playing, and a piss-poor .779 for the Hawks.

The problem, primarily, is Cristobal Huet. Though Crystal Balls is 6th in the league with a 2.24 goals against average, he's just 30th in save percentage at .904. And that's among qualified goaltenders. If you take every goalie in the league, Huet drops to 44th, and I don't think you can win the Cup with the 44th-best goalie in the league.

So what can the Hawks do? Huet clearly does not appear capable of being the #1 goaltender on a legitimate contender, and the Hawks (and since-dispatched Dale Tallon) clearly erred when signing him. But beyond reanimating the corpse(s) of Eddie Belfour and/or Dominik Hasek, their only option, really, is to make Antti Niemi their primary goaltender. Niemi, whose .921 save percentage is the same as Martin Brodeur's, has looked much better than Huet in his 16 games. In fact, Niemi's four shutouts equal Huet's -- tying him for fifth in the league -- and every other player with three or more has made at least twice as many starts as Niemi.

However, three of the above-listed games were Niemi starts, so he's not a cure-all, although there's a chance that his occasionally poor performance is due to a lack of regular playing time. But because Niemi is just 26 with a minor-league track record that doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence, there are definitely questions as to whether he can handle the every day rigors of being the man between the pipes for a Stanley Cup contender. But since it would definitely appear that Huet can't, what have they got to lose by finding out?

UPDATE: Apparently, Jeremy Roenick agrees with me.

January 17, 2010

Mr. SKIA's new idea: Post picks pronto

Because I've been so late to the party on so many different bloggable occurrences, I thought I'd get in early with my picks to make it to the Super Bowl.

New Orleans over Minnesota
I'm picking the Saints in part because it's the outcome I want. You see, while I hate the Vikings and I hate Brett Favre, I love Sean Payton. As I've mentioned before, Payton was the quarterback at my high school when I was in elementary school. Sure, many high schools have cooler people than a coach to root for, but when your other athletic -- and trust me, I use that word loosely -- claim to fame plays in the WNBA (Candace Parker), you take what you can get. So I'm a big Sean Payton fan. And, my fandom notwithstanding, Payton is a very, very good coach. And the fella he's facing -- Brad Childress -- ain't.

Besides, just like with Kurt Warner last week, I don't see Favre and the Vikings playing back-to-back perfect games, turnover-wise. They'll have to play error-free offensive football to beat the Saints, and I just don't see that happening.

Jets over Indy
I made the mistake last week of picking the high-flying passing attack and home field advantage (San Diego) over a punishing ground attack, stout defense, and superior coaching (the Jets). My justification then was the quarterbacks, because I felt more confident in Philip Rivers than Mark Sanchez. Well, Peyton Manning's ostensibly has an even larger edge over Sanchez -- and the Colts passing attack is higher-flying, and their home-field more advantageous, for that matter -- but I'm still going with New York.

Like my NFC pick, this one comes largely from the heart. One, I've never bought into Manning as a winner, and think it would be perfect poetic justice if his lone championship -- one which I had said again and again he would never win -- came courtesy of my Bears. But what would be even more poetic and infinitely justicier would be for the Jets to be the team that knocks Indy out of the playoffs. Because the Jets are only in the playoffs because the Colts handed them a victory in Week 16.

Or at least that's the common perception. While it's true there's no guarantee the Jets would have lost that game, then-unbeaten Indy did lead 15-10 in the third quarter (and had possession of the ball) when coach Jim Caldwell made the karma-annihilating call to pull Manning and the rest of his starters, sacrificing the chance to do something truly historic in the annals of sports. The decision was not a popular one with the hometown fans for obvious reasons; to not even try to maintain a perfect season is, well, a rather imperfect strategy. But I don't think anyone ever expected this: that the 29-15 comeback win would propel the Jets into the playoffs, and put them in position to knock out the Colts.

Let's review:
1. Instead of pursuing immortality, the Colts essentially guaranteed themselves a loss, preferring to ensure the health of their starters for a prolonged playoff run.
2. Indy fans felt betrayed, and Caldwell -- who to that point had been unbeaten in his coaching career -- almost instantaneously became a bit of a pariah.
3. The Jets won that game, which ultimately allowed them to make the playoffs; their thrashing of the Bengals in Week 17 would have been meaningless had they lost to the Colts.
4. The Colts now face the possibility of being denied a prolonged playoff run by the Jets, a team they would never have seen in the postseason had they been focused on winning a football game -- and, by extension, making history -- instead of a misguided and overly-conservative agenda to stay healthy in order to make the prolonged playoff run that the Jets currently imperil.

I mean, the Jets winning, it has to happen, doesn't it? Rookie quarterback playing on the road be damned, it has to happen. The only thing that could possibly prevent it is that it's perhaps a little too perfect. But god do I want to see it.

So that's what I've got for Super Bowl 40-whatever-the-hell-we're-on: Jets vs. Saints. Of course, at last count this poll on ESPN.com had it as the least likely pairing, with only 9% of nearly 150,000 fans choosing it (compared to 42% for Colts-Saints and 38% for Colts-Vikings). Even in New York, only 41% of the people think the Jets will win, and most of them think that if they do, they'll face the Vikes. Truth be told, I see an interesting Super Bowl matchup regardless of the outcomes this week: Colts-Saints pits two great offenses and would-be undefeated teams that most people thought were the two strongest throughout the regular season; Colts-Vikings is two of the top-10 QBs of all-time trying to get that elusive second ring to propel themselves solidly into the top-5; Jets-Vikings would give us a lesser version of Favre vs. the Packers, with most players in the New York locker room reportedly not interested in joining one of Favre's Wrangler-clad pick up games; and finally Jets-Saints, which is the irresistible force vs the immovable object, to decide once and for all if defense really does win championships.

In truth, Jets-Saints is probably the least interesting matchup, story-wise. Which is exactly why it'll be the one we get.

January 15, 2010

Mr. SKIA gets caught up, the NFL

Now that we are down to the final four in each conference -- and the wild card round, wherein my picks would have been horrendous had I committed them to the eternity of this here blog, is mercifully over -- I can talk a little football.

I was feeling pretty good last week, as my NFC preseason top-3 were all in the playoffs, with 11+ wins each. Then the Eagles and, more importantly, the Packers (my preseason Super Bowl champs) got knocked out, and I'm back to looking like a chump; of the four teams I projected to be in the conference finals -- Packers-Saints and Steelers-Patriots -- exactly one of them is still alive.

So maybe I don't know much, but I'm still going with:

New Orleans over Arizona
Despite the way they played over the last month or so, I still like the Saints. In fact, the way they ended the season reminds me a lot of Arizona last year, and they did alright once the postseason began. As for the Cardinals, I just don't see another flawless Kurt Warner performance; instead, expect one of Arizona's patented turnover fests.

Minnesota over Dallas
Can I pick neither? I can't stand either team, and think both coaches are subpar, with Brad Childress significantly subparrer. But now that the Cowboys are no longer playing with the patented Bill Simmons no-one-believes-in-us edge -- suddenly, they're everybody's darling -- I expect them to vomit all over themselves. While I don't like the Vikings either, somebody's got to win.

Indianapolis over Baltimore
I want to pick the Ravens, I really do. I hate the way the Colts ended the season, giving up a chance at history just to rest guys for the playoffs, and I think that gives them awful karma. But given Joe Flacco's performance last week, I just can't see how he leads them to a win at Indy.

San Diego over Jets
This is the perfect barometer for what it takes to win in today's NFL playoffs: a high-flying passing attack and home field advantage; or a punishing ground attack, stout defense, and superior coaching? While I hate to go against Darrelle Revis (who might be the best player in football right now) and with Norv Turner, this one, for me, comes down to the quarterbacks. I feel much more confident backing Philip Rivers than I do Mark Sanchez.

Jesus, did I really just pick all home teams? Well, that ain't gonna happen -- if I had to pick upsets, I'd rank them Jets, Cowboys, Ravens, Cardinals in order of confidence -- but I'll stick with what I've got. What a hack I am.

In other football news, I just want to highlight this passage from a recent (for me, anyway) post of mine, which had been pulled from an ESPN.com chat with my comments added in red:
lawrence (stowe vt)
Why wouldnt the bears bring in someone that Jay cutler knows and trusts like Mike shanahan? Because the Bears are cheaper than a Wal-Mart sweater.

Jeff Dickerson (11:45 AM)
Fair point. My best guess is that Shanahan would cost roughly $10 million per season, and command about a 4-5 year contract. Then you would have to pay Lovie over $10 million sit out the next two years. Also remember that Shanahan would want a lot of control over personnel. How would he work with Jerry and his people? That's why it's not just a simple fix. In a perfect world, yes, the Bears would eat all that money and bring in one of these high profile coaches. But this isn't a perfect world. Alright, this is where I really started getting annoyed. According to Forbes.com, Lovie and Jeff Fisher are the two highest-paid coaches in the league. Both make $5.5 million per season. As stellar as Shanahan's reputation is, there is NO WAY IN FREAKING HELL that he commands a salary that's 82% higher than the most lucrative current deal. Especially not with fellow Super Bowl winners Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden, and Mike Holmgren also available to varying degrees. Shanahan will get in the $7 million range. Which is still way too rich for the Bears' blood.
In becoming the new coach of the Washington Redskins, Mike Shanahan agreed to a five-year, $35 million contract. Toot-toot goes my horn.

January 8, 2010

Mr. SKIA gets caught up, Vol. I

Yes, I know it's been a long time since I blogged at ya, so I'm going to use the next several entries to get caught up on events I may have missed. Today, we start with baseball, and...

Andre Dawson: Hall of Famer?

The short answer, No.

And yet, there he is. My ballot would have looked like this, in order of HofF worthiness:

Bert Blyleven
Tim Raines
Roberto Alomar

Barry Larkin
Alan Trammell

Dale Murphy
Edgar Martinez

Andre Dawson
Dave Parker

Lee Smith
Jack Morris

Bert Blyleven
It's a joke that Dawson finally got in this year while Blyleven will continue to wait. Blyleven is so far above the standards of the Hall of Fame that I can't even imagine how he feels when guys like Rice and Dawson get in. Actually, I can. I'm sure he feels the same way I did when I got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs in BOTH of my fantasy football leagues, after finishing with the best record and highest point total in each. No, that's not quite fair; my fantasy pain far exceeds his trifling Hall of Fame travails.


I think Blyleven has, in some quarters, been unfairly viewed as a 'compiler'; that is, a guy who just hung around for a long enough time to pile up some impressive career numbers. Like Jim Kaat or, if you prefer someone closer to (my) home, Harold Baines. But Blyleven was elite. Here are Blyleven's number of seasonal leaderboard finishes in his league in various categories:

Top 5 Top 10
ERA 7 10
ERA+ 7 12
WHIP 7 11
IP 6 11
K 14 16
K/9 9 14
K/BB 13 16
CG 6 12
Shutouts 9 10

Additionally, at the time of his retirement, Blyleven was third (3rd!) on the all-time strikeout list (he's since dropped to fifth) with 3701; every other eligible player in the top-15 is in the Hall. He was also ninth in shutouts, with 60; every other pitcher with 50 or more has been enshrined.

What's ridiculous is that in all likelihood, the biggest thing keeping Blyleven out is his failure to win 300 games (like Don Sutton), or have a signature postseason performance (like the markedly inferior Catfish Hunter). But Blyleven was 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA in the playoffs, including 2-1, 2.35 in the World Series. If only he'd gone by Barracuda Blyleven.

As far as the magical 300, wins are almost entirely team dependent, and Blyleven generally played on lousy teams -- and he still finished just 13 games short. Plus he has a better career ERA+ (118) than all but Tom Seaver among his 300-game-winning contemporaries: better than Gaylord Perry (117), Steve Carlton (115), Phil Niekro (115), Nolan Ryan (111), and Don Sutton (108). Toss in that Blyleven had a whopping 178 quality starts which he did NOT win, and keeping him out of the Hall for getting to 287 instead of 300 is absurd.

Granted, after garnering 74.2% of the vote, Blyleven should be in next year. But how in the world has he had to wait so long?

Tim Raines
Because he perhaps hung around a little too long, I think people forget how superb Raines was in the 1980's, when he was truly the NL's Rickey Henderson. And by that I don't merely mean he was the NL's best leadoff hitter, but that he was an absolute force at the top of the order who had a profound effect on the games in which he played. Just like Rickey.

Raines was an All-Star every season between 1981 and '87, a seven-year stretch in which he played in 1000 games (remember, the 1981 season was shortened by more than 50 games because of a players' strike*), banged out 1202 hits, posted a .310/.396/.448 (BA/OBP/SLG) line (for an OPS+ of 135), and walked 553 times while striking out 425. Not only that, but Raines also stole 504 bases while being caught just 74 times, a remarkable 87.2% success rate.**

* Raines '81: Playing in just 88 games (mostly because of the aforementioned strike), he nearly broke the rookie stolen base record (75, by Benny Kauff in 1914) with 71 (in only 82 attempts). He also batted .304 with a .391 OBP over 363 plate appearances, with 45 walks and just 31 strikeouts. Unfortunately, 1981 was also the rookie season of one Fernando Valenzuela, and between Fernando Mania and playing in Arctic France, let's just say Raines was a liiiiiiiiiiiiiiittle overshadowed.

** As a comparison, during Henderson's seven-season peak (1980 to '86) he stole over 100 more bases (627) but was caught more than twice as many times (155), meaning he was successful 80.2% of the time.

Building off that last asterisk but returning to non-italicized text, Raines' and Henderson's peaks are uncannily similar:

Raines Henderson
Games 1000 998
PA 4488 4445
Runs 719 813
Hits 1202 1086
Walks 553 674
Times on base 1772 1783
BB:K 1.30 1.29
HR 66 102
XBH 343 313
GIDP 56 56
BA .310 .292
OBP .396 .402
SLG .448 .441
OPS .844 .842
OPS+ 135 138

Now obviously, Henderson had more sustained excellence. But there's no shame in being not-quite-as-good as Rickey Henderson, only one of the greatest players in baseball history. With a lifetime .294/.385/.425 line, with 2605 hits, 1330 walks, 1571 runs, and 808 steals -- the fourth-most all-time -- Raines more than qualifies for the HofF.

Just two additional points about Raines:

1. His career stolen base percentage of 84.7 ranks first all-time among players with at least 300 attempts, though he barely cleared that benchmark with a mere 952 attempts. Just to put that in perspective, while Raines ranks fourth all-time in stolen bases, he's just 22nd in caught stealings. The players he's bracketed by on the CS list, Delino DeShields and Luis Polonia, combined to steal fewer bases (784) than Raines did.

2. I don't know where I first saw a similar comparison -- perhaps it was Keith Law on ESPN.com -- but:

Raines Gwynn
PA 10,359 10,232
Hits 2,605 3,141
BB 1,330 790
BA .294 .338
OBP .385 .388

In a career with a very similar number of plate appearances, Raines actually reached base more times than Tony Gwynn (3,977 to 3,955). Oh yeah, and Raines also stole nearly 500 more bases (808 to 319) while being caught just 21 more times. Gwynn, in case you're wondering, sailed into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, with 97.6% of the BBWAA vote. Raines received support from just 30.4% of the electorate this year, his best showing in his three years on the ballot.

Roberto Alomar
Quite simply, Alomar is undoubtedly one of the top-10 second basemen of all time, and if being top-10 at your position ain't enough to get you into the Hall, well... 12 consecutive All-Star selections, 10 Gold Gloves (most of them deserved), 4 Silver Sluggers, lifetime .300/.371/.443 with a 116 OPS+ and 474 stolen bases (in 588 attempts) from a premium defender at a premium defensive position sure sounds HofF to me.

There are only two reasons I can fathom for someone not voting for Alomar. The first is if a voter believes in some sort of First Ballot Mystique, and thinks that while Alomar is a Hall of Famer, he's not quite a first-ballot guy. The second is the John Hirshbeck spitting incident, which might have been a bit less dignified than most writers have come to expect from a Hall of Famer. In fact, it's possible that for some, Alomar's expectoration was exactly what prevented him from having First Ballot Mystique. Still, he got awfully close, and I'd bet a shiny new loogie he gets in next year.

More on the rest of my ballot to come.