Monday, April 24, 2017

Bye, Bye Blackhawks

By the end of it, they looked slow and old and, more than anything, tired.

The Blackhawks were swept aside, this from a team that had never gone away without a fight. This isn't the first time the Blackhawks have lost in the playoffs, in this run as a modern dynasty. But the first time they looked outmatched, and outworked. They lost in 7 games to a, frankly, better team in 2011, but there they came back from 0-3 down to force a game 7 against the President's Trophy winners, and even forced OT in that Game 7 before Vancouver finally beat them. That was the height of the Blackhawks fight, forcing a Game 7 with probably the worst team in this run.

The next year they lost in 6 to the then Phoenix Coyotes, but four of the games went to OT. In 2014, they fought back from 1-3 down to force Game 7 against the LA Kings, and while they somewhat blew Game 7 (they were up 2-0 and 3-2 in the game), they lost to the team that won the Cup. And then last year again down 3-1, again forcing a Game 7 against St. Louis. The Blackhawks have been very good for a long time. They were a dynasty, becoming something the league tried to marshal away during the 2005-06 lockout. They did it anyway, and now it is over.

For the first time, the Blackhawks did not have any answers. Their lack of depth has been a problem for a while, but in the past their stars could make up for it, and they would summon 3-4 imports and random rookies and have them contribute more than anyone could expect. The vets struggled, the rookies even moreso. In the end, the Blackhawks bag of tricks was empty and crinkled as the Predators feasted on the older, tired, shallow Hawks in four quick games.

When the Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup they were something of a superteam. They brought in a bunch of veterans to supplement a ridiculously good young core (the same core that would headline the team ever since). That was a great risk but a brilliantly calculated one. The Hawks knew how good, and how cheap, their core was at that moment so they brought in free agent after free agent (Andrew Ladd, Brian Campbell, John Madden, Thomas Kopecky, Brent Sopel, and on and on) to provide ridiculous depth. That team cruised, and then they had to face the music for the first time with a summer cap crunch immediately following that forced all of those names along with other homegrown talents (Dustin Byfuglein, Troy Brouwer) out the door. The Hawks had to rebuild.

Of course, rebuilding is easier when you have the core they did, and while it took them a couple years to shore up the depth, when they did the Hawks had the most dominant season we've seen. It was a lockout season so the dominance was hidden, but the 2012-13 Blackhawks got 71 points in 48 games - a pace for 131 which would be the most in the post-lockout NHL. They had their core at a perfect age, a new wave of younger, cheaper but sitll great depth (Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Nick Leddy, etc.) and that wave crested that year and the next where they came so close to making back-to-back Cup Finals (and in all probability back-to-back Cups). The team that won in 2014-15 was mostly the same, but now with a more glaring depth problem (especially on the blueline) washed over by a still in-their-prime core group. That third Cup was the one that was most 'won' by the stars. And that lies their biggest problem: those stars aren't good enough any more to mask holes.

There were seven players on all three Blackhaws cup teams. The names float easily off the tongue for most hockey fans: Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson. Six of the seven are still here - with Patrick Sharp sacrificed after the 2015 Cup Win to Dallas. Those six are all great players. They include four guys that are essentially locks for the Hall of Fame (Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith), and another that may make it with a pro-Blackhawks bias (Seabrook) and another quality player (Hjalmy). However, the biggest issue with the Blackhawks come down to these three lists of numbers:

Jonathan Toews: 28, 10.5 MM, through 2022-23
Patrick Kane: 28, 10.5 MM, through 2022-23
Marian Hossa: 38, 5.3 MM, through 2020-21
Duncan Keith: 33, 5.5 MM, through 2022-23
Brent Seabrook, 31, 6.9 MM, through 2022-23
Niklas Hjalmarsson: 29, 4.1 MM, through 2018-19

Those six players, the six guys that were (Hossa aside) youngsters for Cup #1, square in their primes for Cup #2, and about to leave their primes for Cup #3, are now at a point where their salaries will start outmatching their production, and the length of the deals along with the hefty price tag will make it really hard for the Blackhaws to reload like they have in the past. This was a calculated risk to keep this core together, and in some cases overpay for long-term contracts partly to reward the key guys that made this renaissance possible. It is always hard to fault that approach from a moral point of view, but when a team has no money to get additional players in it puts a huge onus on player development, one area the Blackhawks have struggled mightily in.

Player development as much as the key seven won the Blackhawks the 2012-13 Stanley Cup, and for Saad and Terevainen, the 2014-15 Stanley Cup. But now, with those guys shipped out as cap casualities (with very little in return), the Hawks had to try to do it again and it didn't work. This was especially stark on the blue-line, with Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson looking tired at best or old at worst. In truth, the Blackhaws defense core was 3-deep in 2014-15 as well, but two years is a big difference - the difference between Keith in his prime to starting his decline.

The Blackhawks are not going to be a bad team next year. They will almost assuredly make the playoffs, and while they may not be the playoff favorite again, there is enough good players on the team to catch some luck and win Cup #4. It's not like they are markedly worse than some of the teams still alive in the playoffs, it is just they caught the wrong team fast enough and deep enough to expose them.

The Predators should be lauded for finally being the team we all expected them to be in the playoffs. When they brought in Subban adding him to an already great back-line (Josi, Ekholm, Ellis are all great defenseman) the Predators on paper appeared to be one of the best teams - goalies excluded. In many ways, the current Predators are a close match for the old Blackhaws, with great depth on the blue-line and deep, young talent on offense. Mostly through trade, the Predators have collected a great, deep roster that is young, fast, skilled, and while Pekka Rinne can easily turn back into regular-season Rinne next round, this team should be the favorite in any series until the Cup Final.

The Blackhawks were able to resurrect hockey in Chicago, show the league a dynasty is still possible in the post-lockout NHL, and set a stellar leading example of how to play calm, collected playoff hockey. My favorite stat for all time will be that from 2010-2015, 8 times the Blackhaws found themselves tied 2-2 in a series. Their record in the remaining games: 16-1. The Blackhawks did some unbelievable things, and participated in some of the best series I've seen in the last half-decade or so - the 2010 2nd Round against Vancouver, the 2013 2nd round against Detroit, the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals win against Boston, the 2014 Conference Final against LA, the 2015 Conference Final against Anaheim, the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against Tampa, last year's 1st round loss to St. Louis. All great series, all great moments provided by those guys in Chicago. 

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe their next set of development players turns out to be as good as the Saad/Shaw/Teravainen group. Maybe Stan Bowman pulls off some magic in the trade market, or gets someone to take one of the contracts. Maybe another year without two-and-a-half months of playoffs will help an aging, but still extremely talented core, rest up. But if not, if that was the end, it was a great ride.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Picks

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

(A1) Montreal Canadiens (103 pts)  vs  (EW2) New York Rangers (102 pts)

I for one am really glad that the Canadiens did end up with one more point than the Rangers. It would have been a little much if all four Metro Division playoff teams finished ahead of all four Atlantic division teams. The Rangers were a very good team for most of the season, essentially equal to the other three Metro division powerhouses, but tailed off somewhat over the second half to finish with a +36 goal differential. Of course, that is still a good 10 goals better than Montreal, as the Rangers offense had a great year (Top 5 in goals). The Canadiens begin and end with Carey Price period. Nothing is that great about the team apart form Price. Their supposedly next set of stars all struggled with Alex Galchenyuk having a middling 44 points in his 61 games and guys like Gallagher (29 pts), Shaw (29) and Danault (40) all doing the same despite playing a majority of the season. In the end, the Canadiens are their goalie – and Carey Price is really good. The Rangers used to be the team as recently as just two years ago who would enter any playoff series with the edge in goal. That is no longer.

The Rangers are a deep offense with quality across all four lines and great team speed (something that used to be said of Montreal fairly recently as well), but Henrik Lundqvist struggled in posting his worst season of his career. The .910 save % is not great, but the 2.74 GAA is even worse. Backup Antti Raanta far outperformed him and it will be interesting to see if Alain Vigneault, a man not unfamiliar to goalie switching in the playoffs, moves to Raanta if Hank struggles. The Rangers are the better team on paper with better performance from their four lines and more depth on defense, and neither team has any real edge on special teams. In the end, though, it is hard to go against a team with a large edge in goal.

Pick: Canadiens in 6

(A2) Ottawa Senators (98 pts)  vs  (A3) Boston Bruins (95 pts)

Let’s get this out of the way early, the Senators are the worst team in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They are the only one with a negative goal differential. They are the worst offensive team in the playoffs. Their defense depends on Erik Karlsson keeping the puck for all the minutes he is on ice and Craig Anderson performing miracles. The Bruins are living a charmed life, as the Maple Leafs loss on the last day of the season gave Boston this slot, an eminently more beatable opponent than what Toronto now gets to face (Washington). The Senators have a few nice spots, including the continued brilliance of Erik Karlsson who logged another 71 points in 77 games and continues to be underrated for his actual defensive abilities. Their top three forwards (Hoffman, Turris, Stone) all had nice years. And of course, Craig Anderson remains great. However, they have no discernable skills beyond these things, being both below-average on the PP and PK, and from a possession standpoint not too great 5v5 either.

The Bruins, on the other hand, parlayed a shockingly great season from Brad Marchand (85 pts – way above anything he’s done in his career), a breakout season from 20-year old David Pastrnak (70 points), and the continued brilliance of Patrice Bergeron into a really nice bounceback season from a team that missed the playoffs each of the past two years and fired their coach midseason. Tuukka Rask showed signs of slippage, but the Bruins did a good enough job limiting shots that it didn’t really matter as he ended up with a perfectly acceptable 2.23 GAA despite being below average in both general save percentage and quality save percentage (.493 – anything below .5 is considered bad). The Bruins were both above average in the PP and PK as well. Basically, they are way better top to bottom aside from goalie and the difference here is nowhere near as large as it was between Montreal and New York. Despite all of this, the only reason I am skeptical in the Bruins is the fact that they underperformed all these peripheral stats and performances and ended up with just 95 points. Still, gotta use my head when every indicator points to Boston.

Pick: Bruins in 6

Metropolitan Division

(M1) Washington Capitals (118 pts)  vs  (EW2) Toronto Maple Leafs (95 pts)

The Capitals were a juggernaut last year. They scored 252 goals and allowed just 193, for a league-leading goal differential of +59. If we are being honest, the Capitals were better this year. They scored 11 more goals, allowed 11 fewer, for a goal differential of +81. They were #3 in goals, and #1 in goals allowed. They had an above average power-play (4th in %) and penalty-kill (7th in %). Nicklas Backstrom had his usual great year (quietly 4th in points). Evgeny Kuznetsov an Marcus Johansson had very nice years. The defense is deep. Kevin Shattenkirk came in and had 14 points in 19 games. Alex Ovechkin’s ‘down’ year consisted for 33 goals. Oh, and they may have the best goalie in the league, as Holtby finished with a tidy .925 save% and 2.07 GAA. The Capitals are really good.

The Maple Leafs are not. With the young talent they have, maybe they become the Capitals 5 years from now – but right now they just are not there. Now, they can probably match Washington’s offensive firepower. Auston Matthews had the most goals by any rookie since Ovie (40). Their other two precocious youngsters (20-year old Wille Nylander and 19-year old Mitch Marner) had matching 61 point seasons. And they have coach extraordinaire Mike Babcock living up to all his billing. Even if they were to get swept in embarrassing fashion, this season was a rousing success. But there is a chance they do get swept in embarrassing fashion. The goaltending, and defense as a whole, is brutal even if Frederik Andersen were not somewhat gimpy. Their special teams are good, but their 5v5 numbers are below average – and their opponent can easily attest to how important 5v5 is in the playoffs. Finally, Babcock himself has had really good teams flame out in the playoffs. This should not be a close series, and if the Capitals do struggle to put Toronto away, that is a major warning sign going forward.

Pick: Capitals in 5

(M2) Pittsburgh Penguins (111 pts)  vs  (M3) Columbus Blue Jackets (108 pts)

To me, this is easily the most exciting of the four Eastern Conference playoff series. Not only are these two so close to each other geographically, and not only is there some bad blood between the two teams, but add into it myriad interesting characters from John Tortorella’s triumphant return to the playoffs, to Sidney Crosby, to Crosby nag Brandon Dubinsky, and you may get something special. The Blue Jackets had such a bizarre season. They started off on a pace that was on track to make them one of the greatest teams of all time. Everyone decried this because no one expected it, and their early-season possession numbers were middling, and their depended too much on the power play. Then, the team struggled mightily for six weeks or so, getting passed by Washington for good and then trading spots with the rest of the Metro powerhouses, and then, like magic, they became good again. At the end, the Blue Jackets were fairly good in possession, were 6th in goals scored, 2nd in goals allowed, had their power-play drop to all the way to just above average, and became a team whose performance belied a really good team. And that is what they are. 19-year old Zach Werenski is a future star on the blue-line, and their young forwards all had nice seasons, from Cam Atkinson (62 points), Alexander Wennberg (59), Brandon Saad (53) and Sam Gagner (50). But the team ill go far if Sergei Bobrovsky can continue to be the beautiful star he used to be in 2013-14, and was again this year. Bob’s season was ridiculous, with a .931 sv% and a .651 quality-chance save percentage. The Blue Jackets are a good team with a great goalie.

The Pens are a great team with an ‘eh’ goalie, as Matt Murray had a nice year for a rookie (yup, technically he’s a rookie) but not a great year overall. Never mind, though, as the Penguins raced with 282 goals, the most scored by an NHL team in 7 years, since the Capitals scored 313 in 2009-10 (the year they got Halak-ed in the 1st round). The Penguins did it in more ways than they used to as well. Crosby was great (44 goals and 89 points in 75 games), and Malkin was as good but he missed 20 games. So did Conor Sheary (53 points in 61 games). The slack was more than picked up elsewhere. The powerplay is great, and their continued ability to split their lines up keeps them as deep as the team that dominated last year. My biggest issue with the Penguins, and ultimately why I am picking them to lose, is the injuries. There’s no Carl Hagelin and no Chris Kunitz, two key Top-9 forwards for them. But worst is the lack of Kris Letang, who was dominant in the playoffs last year in possession. The Blue Jackets can somewhat match the depth of the Penguins now, and I can see a break-out series for Bobrovsky on the big stage.

Pick: Blue Jackets in 7

Western Conference

Central Division

(C1) Chicago Blackhawks (109 pts)  vs  (WW2) Nashville Predators (94 pts)

For years, the Blackhawks relatively underperformed in the regular season despite great peripheral numbers and then generally went really deep in the playoffs. For the first time in a while, they decided to outperform in the regular season. By no numbers are the Blackhawks a great team that should have had the best point total in the Western Conference. Yes, this was a down year in the West (109 pts wouldn’t have led the West in any recent year), but the Blackhawks are a team that finished 3rd in the Central three straight years, not a team that cruised to 1st place. The usual suspects all had great years (save for Toews), with Kane pouring in 89 points, Panarin having a nice encore performance, and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook remaining great. The team is not deep however, and a team that can roll lines consistently has a really good shot of knocking them off. There’s no real explanation for the Blackhawks ending up with 109 points being merely good 5v5, and below average both on the PP and PK, and with both Crawford and Scott Darling having average seasons. Of course, the fact that this team normally plays better in the playoffs and is already the top seed in the West is quite scary.

The Predators are the anti-Blackhawks. They should have been better. They were everyone’s trendy Stanley Cup pick in the preseason after they added PK Subban to an already great blue-line, and had a deep set of forwards that can roll with anyone. Injuries and slow starts by Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen set them off course early but they rebounded to grab the final playoff spot (something everyone else’s preseason pick – Tampa Bay – just missed out on doing), but there’s no real indication that this is a team ready to flip the switch. Their top forwards are all young, but maybe a year away from truly breaking out (their top three point getters are 23, 24 and 22). Their defense is deep, and Subban seems to be healthy, but even their blueline can’t cover for a goalie who’s best days are years behind him. Pekka Rinne is just not a top flight goalie anymore, and while Juuse Saros is intriguing as his backup, that too is a long-term option. The Predators should have been better, and they should be better next year, but I don’t think there is some great team hiding in the 2016-17 vintage.

Pick: Blackhawks in 6

(C2) Minnesota Wild (106 pts)  vs  (C3) St. Louis Blues (99 pts)

In many ways, the fact that this matchup seems uninspiring speaks volumes about how sad the Central was this year. The Blues, Predators and Stars all seriously underperformed, and even the Wild dropped off from their ridiculous early-season pace to have a nice season. The Blues enter this series injured, on an already top-heavy roster, and still with questions in goal. They certainly improved once Ken Hitchcock was shown the door, but something still seems off on the team. Only Tarasenko (who’s really criminally underrated at this point), Jaden Schwartz and Alex Peitrangelo had anything resembling nice seasons. The largest red flag was the stagnation of Jake Allen. For years we were told he needed to be fully handed the reigns to succeed and now we see why the Blues were so hesitant to give him them. He was perfectly average, which behind a perfectly average team (12th in both goals scored and allowed), the Blues don’t pose too much of a threat.

The Wild on the other hand will really test the theory of momentum. Their beginning of the season was absolutely phenomenal. At one point, the top four players in the NHL in +/- were Wild players. In the end, still three of the top four were (Zucker and Suter at +34 and Jared Spureon at +33). The team had a goal differential on pace to break +100. Even though they noticeably slowed down in the second half to the point they gave away what was once a huge division lead, the Wil remain a very deep, very good team. Eric Staal had a crazy bounceback year, all their young talent broke out together (24 year olds Granlund, Niederreiter and Coyle all had very good years). They don’t even have the red-flag hallmarks of the usual Boudreau teams like an unsustainably good powerplay (the Wild were just good on the PP). The biggest reason for their fall-off remains the only reason for skepticism (other than Boudreau’s past history), in that Devan Dubnyk regressed quite clearly in the 2nd half of the season. He ended the year really well, but he was Bobrovsky level good in the 1st half, and merely Tuuka Rask good in the 2nd. Now, in this matchup they still have the goalie edge, but this could doom them later on.

Pick: Wild in 5

Pacific Division

(P1) Anaheim Ducks (105 pts)  vs  (WW1) Calgary Flames (94 pts)

The Ducks won the Pacific Division the first three years it existed in its current state. Because of playoff failures they fired Bruce Boudreau, hired old-school Randy Carlyle, and ended up winning the Pacific again. They maybe had the quietest 105 point season I have ever seen. The Carlyle hiring was much derided, but the Ducks continued to be what they are. They have one great forward (Getzlaf – another quiet 73 points in 74 games), a few great defenseman (though Cam Fowler’s injury hurts them, and will become more significant if they advance and he is still out), and an overall deep, large team that can tighten up when they need to. The Ducks started slow but ended great, and John Gibson put a hammer-lock on the starting job. The biggest red flag is how the players that normally wither away in the playoffs fare this time around. The pickup of Patrick Eaves has been a great under-the-radar move to add even more depth to an already deep forward group. If they can continue to roll lines the Ducks should be fine – especially in this matchup.

I was wrong when I said the Blues were the most average playoff team – the Flames are. The ywere 15th in Goals Scored, and 16th in Goals Allowed, with a differential of +5. The Flames are an average team. Like Nashville, they will likely be very good in a couple years as Gaedreau and Monahan continue to develop, and as Dougie Hamilton grows into the Norris-level player he can be (50 points and a +12 was a good start this year). But their depth is a serious issue – exacerbated by the disappearance of Sam Bennett this season. They have the team speed to give Anaheim problems, but outside of that it is hard to see where they have any edges. They’ve relied on PP and PK excellence to mask serious deficiencies 5v5, and that gets exposed like nothing else in the playoffs (as the Ducks can attest to from previous seasons), and finally their goaltending is unlikely to steal anything. The Western Conference may end up giving us great drama, but nothing is pointing to that at this point.

Pick: Ducks in 5

(P2) Edmonton Oilers (103 pts)  vs  (P3) San Jose Sharks (98 pts)

The Oilers may seem to be on paper to the Western Conference’s answer to the Maple Leafs, the team that crashed the playoff party way before anyone was ready for them to, but the Oilers are in reality a fairly good team. Their offense may be top-heavy, but when that top is the NHL’s scoring leader and likely MVP in Connor McDavid, another precocious young center with 77 more points (Leon Draisaitl), and a few other really nice pieces playing in front of the surprisingly-good Cam Talbot, that can add up to a 103-point season where the team probably should have won the admittedly soft Pacific. What’s more is that they are fully healthy, and have been for essentially the full year. There is only two areas to poke and prod at: their lack of depth beyond the top two lines (RNH did not have a very good year) and their reliance on the PP which usually spells doom in the playoffs.

The Sharks are the anti-Oilers, the team that has, outside of Chicago, more playoff experience with this core than any other. I’m going to assume Thornton plays, but even if he does, his play finally started showing some signs of slippage this year (he is 37 after all). The future can’t be too bright on a team with so many key cogs being 32 or older, and it’s never a good sign when a defenseman leads your team in goals and assists (admittedly, Brent Burns is fantastic), but experience should matter, right? Really, that’s the only reason I am picking the Sharks here. This team is a worse version of the one that made the Stanley Cup Final last year, but their relative depth (compared to Edmonton), and better 5v5 performance are advantages. Finally, I don’t like when a team plays its starting goalie so many games, and the 73 that Talbot played are glaringly high.

Pick: Sharks in 6

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

My Favorite Craft Breweries

Tier 1:

Founders Brewing Company

Great Lakes Brewing Company

Troegs Brewing Company

Left Hand Brewing Company

Tier 2

Victory Brewing Company

Ballast Point Brewing

Stone Brewing Company

Flying Dog Brew Co.

Southern Tier Brewing Company

Tier 3

Firestone Walker Brew Co. 

Bell's Brewery

Arcadia Brewing Co.

Oskar Blue's Brew Co.

Allagash Brewing Company

Anchor Brewing Company

Tier 4

Flying Dog Brewing Co.

Harpoon Brewing

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

Friday, March 31, 2017

Thursday, March 30, 2017

30 Things I'm Looking Forward To in the 2017 MLB Season (Part 2)

I'm looking forward to...

... Living in a Clayton Kershaw world. What Kershaw is continuing to do is put together a run of pitching seasons that deserve to be alongside Maddux, Clemens, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. We had that foursome at their best in more or less the same time in the mid-90's through the early-00s. We haven't had a pitcher since reach that level consistently. Halladay had a few years that were great, but not near the level of those four, same with Johan Santana, and Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, etc. Kershaw is better than all those guys. He probably should have won teh Cy Young in 2015 over Arrieta, with a 300 strikeout season, something I thought was undoable in the innings-limited modern era. He keeps pushing his ERAs lower and lower, and last year may have been his best. What he does is so insane, so ridiculously insane.

... Enjoying the random regional broadcasts. There is a separate point on the brilliance of as a package, but here I wanted to focus on the broadcasters themselves. Baseball seasons are endless, with so many dreamy, stolid nights in June-August where these announcers become your friends. I feel the quality of baseball announcing at the local (team-specific) level is at a far different, and in my opinion, better level than any other sport. Getting to watch random Giants games or Mariners games, or Indians games, or Royals games and watch these random 60 men do great work is a blessing.

... Seeing if the Verlander Renaissance becomes a multi-year production. Let's be real, Justin Verlander probably deserved the Cy Young over Rick Porcello. I thought we were past the days where a gaudy W-L record could beat out being better in nearly every other facet of pitching. Anyway, Verlander had a great comeback season after fairly average 2014-15 seasons with 250 Ks in 227 innings. From July through the end of the season, he threw 123 innings of 1.98 ERA ball, holding batters to a .184/.239/.323 slash line, with 147 Ks to 29 BBs. That is prime Verlander stuff. After cratering in his age 30-32 seasons, I don't think many expected that in the Age 33. If anything, he should get worse this upcoming year, but I for one found his revival one of the great, hidden stories of 2016 and am desperately hoping it continues into 2017.

... Watching the sausage race a couple of times. I'm being serious here, the sausage race in Milwaukee's Miller Park is one of the great traditions in the sport. It is something so incredibly unique to that area, to that team, to that fanbase. Plus, it is, and will always be, hilarious. The sausage race is never not funny. Every now and then, some choreographed stuff happens to make it even better, like a player getting involved or some inter-sausage sheninegans. Long live the sausage race!

... Seeing if the Orioles can beat the analytics again. The Orioles ever since their great run to the playoffs in 2012, have habitually outperformed the analytic projections and even their own expected record based on their performance. The Orioles have done it mixing an odd combination of boatloads of home runs from varying imported sluggers (Nelly Cruz, Chris Davis), terrible starting pitching, great bullpen performances (don't tell Buck Showalter though that he should use such an advantage in a Wild Card Game type setting) and a few homegrown stars like Matt Weiters and Manny Machado. The Orioles, as usual, are projected to go around .500. Of course, they were last year when they went 89-73 and lost the Wild Card game. They were three years ago when they went 94-68, and who knows maybe they can do it again.

... Watching Max Scherzer spit hot fire a few times a year. No one since maybe prime Verlander can feel so dominant as Max Scherzer. Now, Kershaw has him beat in 'actually' being more dominant, but Scherzer at his best is an incredible experience. In 2015, he threw two no-hitters, and another game that was about as good as a no-hitter (complete game, 1-hit shutout with 16 Ks). He followed that up with a Cy Young season that featured a 20-strikeout game. Scherzer had 284 Ks. Again, Kershaw topped this in 2015, but Scherzer's gas just seems more dominant, more untouchable, more exciting.

... Hoping that Giancarlo Stanton can stay healthy and bomb away. Watching Giancarlo a few times a year really get into one where it flies out at the speed of an Aroldis Chapman home run, with a ridiculously high arc deep into the outfield seats is one of the great moments of joy in the game. Many scouts and baseball analysts have been asked to name the single best tool anyone possesses in MLB, and the answer almost always in Giancarlo's power. He's played 123-116-145-74-119 games the last five years. The one year he had the 145 games? He was 2nd in MVP voting and jacked 37 HRs. He actually had a more ridiculous year in 2015, hitting 27 HRs in his 74 games (slugging .606). The Marlins are an awful franchise, but with Jeffrey Loria finally giving up and looking to sell, things may be finally brighter in Miami, and Giancarlo staying healthy would make it as bright as possible.

... Seeing if the Rockies can actually turn the corner. It has been a strange last 10 years of baseball in Colorado. They made a World Series trip to start the decade in 2007 with a young core that should have dominated. They made another Wild Card run in 2009, but have done nothing since. The centerpiece is gone with the Toluwitzki trade. Carlos Gonzalez is still around but the Rockies have a nice new core. Nolan Arenado is the star, but they have DJ LeMahieu who was a 5-win player last year, and Trevor Story who started the year with an insane first couple weeks but still ended up decent after inevitably not hitting 324 home runs. And that is just hte infield. The real area for optimism is the rotation that has, Coors-field adjusted, an ace performer in Jon Gray. I've been to Denver. Coors Field is beautiful. That team should be better because Denver should be a baseball town. It was for Rocktober in 2007, and a decade later maybe they are back?

... Watching Buster Posey hit and catch. Yes, I'll admit I have something of a man crush on Buster Posey. I've been a fan of the Giants revival mainly because I loved watching Tim Lincecum pitch, and then they went and got Hunter Pence in 2012 and he became an integral and loved part of the '12 and '14 Title teams. But Buster was my favorite. First off, he's a great hitter, especially for a catcher. Last year was the worst hitting year of his career, but still had a 112 OPS+. He has such a smooth, compact swing. The real joy is watching him catch, though. Pitch Framing became a huge cause celebre in the stats community the past two years, and he is the active God of it. They haven't figured a way to put it into WAR yet, but the rumor is if they do, guys like Posey would be some of the most valuable players in baseball. His 2016 may be the beginning of the end of Posey as a great hitter (he just turned 30), and he may at some point be moved off to 1st base, but as of now, he's still a joy to watch on both sides.

... Not caring about the Phillies, Twins and Padres. I tried to think of which team I hadn't really talked about yet, and these are the three that came to mind. I then tried to think if I had anything to say about them, and the answer in the end was essentially that no, I do not. These are three bad teams, that are aggresively boring without much to actually care about. The Phillies and Twins have some decent prospects, but we've heard that for a few years and there are worse off teams with better prospects. None of them have discussed implementing some crazy idea or new way of playing. There's really no reason to care about any of them.

... Enjoying every single aspect of the product. Online/App-based league packages have essentially replaced the TV versions to become the standard for all mass sports watching. Out of these, including DirecTV Sunday Ticket Online (which of course is still limited to DirecTV customers or anyone in a city where they may not be able to get a dish), NBA's LeaguePass and NHL's Center Ice, is by far the clubhouse leader. Crystal-clear quality. Access to both home and away TV adn Radio announcing. Very easy to discern quad-box watching. MLBAM (MLB Advanced Media) is a powerhouse that has even started going into other sports having essentially redesigned the NHL Center Ice package to match what is, and you can understand why other sports may want to jump on board.

... The Home Run Derby without Chris Berman. I'm a huge proponent of the home run derby as an event. Out of all the skills competitions that various sports attempt to put on each year at their respective all-star games, the Home Run Derby is by design the simplest and the best. What has kept it from reaching the mountaintop as the great event it should be was the presence of Chris Berman and his gratingly annoying 'back, back, back, back, back x100' awfulness. With Berman gone they can put in the hands of someone more sedate and let the Derby speak for itself. The new timed round format is brilliant, and while last year at Petco wasn't as great as Todd Frazier's win in Cincinnati in 2015, I have high hopes for the 2017 vintage, especially if it involves Gioncarlo Stanton going long in Miami.

... Imbibing endless, endless, endless baseball. I give extreme credit to the baseball world for accepting the beauty of the regular season. Other than the strange anti-Kershaw-cuz-he-chokes crowd, baseball fans generally accept that playoff performance has very little to do with your recognition. No one doesn't call Mike Trout the best player in baseball because he's only made the playoffs once. I feel a lot of this is due to just how long the baseball season. The length of the season may seem overwhelming for non-baseball fans, but for those who love the game, nothing is better. There is no better feeling that in June, 80 days into the season, there are still 100 more days to go.

... Watching Albert Pujols pursuit of 600 Home Runs. Yes, he is playing on an albatross of a contract. Yes, watching him hack away these days is sad. But this man ruined my life to the point I became in awe of him. Prime Albert Pujols was terrifying at the plate, with a perfect, powerful swing. Out of the guys that are in the 600 HR club, few preceded my time, three are clouded by steroids (Bonds, A-Rod, Sosa), and two I only really got to enjoy during the end of their careers (Thome, Griffey). Pujols is different. I remember him as a rookie. I remember him turning my life into a nightmare in the 2005 NLCS Game 5. I remember him hitting three home runs in Game 5 of the 2011 World Series. Sure, he's been a relative disappointment in LA, but when he reaches 600, he'll have the 2nd highest batting average and 3rd highest slugging percentage of anyone in that club. The only guys above him are Messers Ruth and Bonds. He was a generational player. He is still having a generational career.

... Enjoying the Astros. Of course this was going to be #30. The Astros are by most analytic forecasts, fairly clear division favorites. Their offense is either the best or 2nd best in MLB (Boston is the only other contender for that title on paper). Their offense is crazy, with last year's #3 MVP finisher Jose Altuve (still just 27), George Springer (when healthy an all-star level player), super-prospect Alex Bregman, and imports in Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick. If Cuban import Yulieski Gourriel works out they can be terrifying. Of course the centerpiece is Carlos Correa, who is still just 22. Take away any potential call-ups this year, and out of the whole set of great young players in baseball, he is the youngest. Most GM and front-office types consider him the guy with the most potential in that whole group. If he reaches it, and one day he will, the Astros will me ridiculous. Let's hope, for my sanity at least, that it happens.

Monday, March 27, 2017

30 Things I'm Looking Forward To in the 2017 MLB Season (Part 1)

I'm looking forward to....

... watching the Cubs and their fans slowly turn into the post-2004, pink-hat wearing Red Sox. The Cubs great run to the World Series was amazing. It was nice to see octogenerians sobbing with their children in joy after they won. That's all well and good. Now that the curse and all that is in the past, they can take their rightful place next to the Red Sox. I'm very sure the Cubs are going to monetize every last cent out of this ring - as is their right - but with that comes the very real endpoint of pink-hat wearing Cubs fans that couldn't name anyone from the 2003 team that last ripped their hearts out.

... enjoying the defensive wizardry of some of the games best, whether on, or Vine, or twitter or anything else. Already my juices got flowing for this with Javier Baez's insane no-look tag on the World Baseball Classic (which was fantastic up until the dud of a final), one that was so perfectly performed that Baez started celebrating and pointing to Yadier Molina before the ball even reached him. Along with Baez are great defensive wizards like Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, Kevin Keirmaeir in the outfield, and so many others. I'm sure fans of the Ozzie Smith days would disagree, but this seems like the best defensive era in MLB history.

... tracking if home runs continue to go up. One of the more famous stories of the 2016 season was the sudden spike in home runs. This actually started in the 2nd half of the 2015 season and was reported on a small scale at the time. 2016 upped the trend and got a lot of theorists out there. The most commonly accepted theories seemed to be a slight change to the ball and a change in swing path (more uppercut) around the league. It has to be something slight as overall offense was more or less the same, but home runs were way up. If it is was the ball, I'm interested to see if that continues on into 2017.

... Seeing if Mike Trout can make it 6 for 6 in being the best player in the AL. At some point the general public will wake up to the fact that we have a Willie Mays / Mickey Mantle level supernova on our hands, a guy who is every bit as good as the pre-steroid Barry Bonds. Trout could, if not should, have five MVPs right now (though I hold that it is quite easy to argue for Josh Donaldson winning in 2015) from his five full seasons in baseball, and in only one of those seasons, 2015, was he not the MLB leader in WAR (Bryce Harper was that year - more on him in a bit). Trout's team is bad, though has some strange sleeper buzz, but he himself is appointment TV. At some point he may get hurt, or get slightly worse, or get passed by one of the young superstars, but there is a path where this continues for ten more years and he is rightfully seen as the heir to Mays/Mantle as the best all-around player we've ever seen.

... Compiling evidence of the continued shift in pitching strategies. It's been a few years now that the baseball analytics cognoscenti has hailed the idea that a starting pitcher should never pitch the 4th time through an order. That has been whittled down to teams going with 3rd time through the order, with teams like the Rays and potentially Rockies jumping on board. Coupled with that is the rise of the super reliever, which seems to have reached national prominence with the way Andrew Miller was used by the Indians. There are enough super reliever types out there to get this going leaague-wide. Certainly, it will be sad to see starting pitcher stats fall off in a volume perspective, but seeing the rise of these super relievers, like Miller, or potentially guys like even Matt Harvey (if he's slow to recover from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery) would be a great journey to follow.

... Counting down the 58 more hits Adrian Beltre needs for 3,000. I guess I'm supposed to be anti-Rangers given they are a manufactured division rival of the Astros, but I can't help but love Adrian Beltre. His whole career has been so strange. He was a good but not great player for a number of years, then had an insane 2004 season with 48 HR and 9.5 WAR and immediately went back to being the 3-5 WAR player he always was. Of course, then in 2010 he went to Boston, had a 7.8 win season, and has been between 5.5-7.5 ever since. He's now a sure-fire first ballot hall of famer, with numerous joyful plays including some insane defensive stops and throws at 3rd. The 3,000 hits milestone may be passe in 2017, but to me it is still cool to see someone so damn good reach this mark.

...  Seeing which division race actually gets competitive. Each of the six divisions have a clear favorite in Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Washington, Chicago (Cubs, obviously), and Dodgers. Some are more clear than others, with the Cubs and Dodgers being heavy favorites, and the other four just moderately strong favorites. There seem to be known challengers as well, but baseball is never that easy to predict. Someone we don't think of will make a run. Very often that team ends up falling off around August, but still, if Arizona, or Milwaukee, or Miami, or the LA Angels, or Tigers or Rays make a run, the sport will be better off for it.

... Watching the Mariners be relevant. Now, they were somewhat relevant last year when they won 87 games, but the Mariners enter this season with significant wild card buzz from the baseball pursists and stat-heads alike. The trade for Jean Segura gives them three all-star caliber infielders in Segura, Cano and Seager. The outfield centers mostly around defense, which is needed in that beautiful but cavernous stadium. Their pitching always looks better on paper because of the home field, but this is an aggressive strategy to compile a bunch of #2-3 guys (sadly Felix is this now), but it should work. The Mariners have a beautiful ballpark, great uniforms, and baseball will be better off if October baseball returns to the Pacific Northwest

... Identifying what crazy thing that one of the bad teams throws at the wall sticks. Baseball is the sport that has their teams try more analytically-driven crazy tactics than any others. The Astros were the first team to start shifting like crazy back in the days when they used to suck hard. The Rockies went with a 6-man rotation a few years back. My favorite random idea was when the Reds went with all rookie starting pitchers in 2015 to see if any of them could stick. One of these bad teams is going to try something, and it will be great

... Saying goodbye to the early-to-mid-2010s revivals. The early part of this decade saw the rebirth of the Pirates and Royals, two franchises that had been bad for a good 20 years before they made the playoffs in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The Pirates were the top wild card team three years straight. The Royals made it to back-to-back World Series. Let me repeat: the Kansas City Royals won the AL pennant two years in a row. Both started their drop back last year and it may continue this year. Reports are the trading of top players for prospects may begin in both places, with guys like Andre McCutcheon and Alex Gordon on the market. It will be sad, but we'll always have those memories.

... Tracking the Mets pitching path to fit six pitchers into five slots. The Mets still have a bevy or ridiculously good, ridiculously cheap pitching talent. Now, pitching talent is always a gamble, and while the got blackjack in 2015 when they made it to the world series by winning an NLCS by sweeping the Cubs on the back of their pitchers, in 2016 all of their top guys got hurt at some point in time. On the face, the Mets have two of my favorite pitchers to watch in Syndegaard (probably ready for a huge breakout) and DeGrom (who might be my favorite pitcher to watch). Add to that hopefully healthy Matt Harvey and Steven Matz and you get the core that dominated the Cubs. Now add Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman and you get a team with legitimately six starters ranging from precocious prospects to potentially best pitcher in baseball (Thor). The Mets upside is so high, and if they hit it, it will be so fun to watch it happen

... The progression of the White Sox, Yankees and Braves prospects. These three teams are seemingly the owners of half the Top 50 prospects in baseball, and all have ones that may come up this year and flash something. The White Sox got a ton back for Chris Sale (deservedly) and we may see Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech (he of the 105 MPH fastball) this year. The Yankees stockpiled to the hilt last year and while their top guys may be further away, getting a full year of Gary Sanchez would be fun. Finally, the Braves are terrible but are maybe 2-3 years away from being really good and the first signs of that will be this year.

... Watching Madison Bumgarner face off against Clayton Kershaw. I'll have a specific one about Kershaw in part 2, but let's just say any start of his is worth watching. But add in Bumgarner, who seems to take special pride in going up against Kershaw, and you get must-watch baseball. Shout-out to the Giants and Dodgers for figuring out a way to lineup their rotations to get these two against each other fairly often. Kershaw and the Dodgers have had the upper-hand, but it is close, and Bumgarner's twirled a few gems in their head-to-head. Also, this matchup has the added advantage of watchign Bumgarner bat against Kershaw - he's hit a HR off Kershaw two straight years. Kershaw is the best pitcher of this generation and an all-timer. Bumgarner is not at that level, but he could be a HOFer (he's just in his age-27 season). Let's enjoy these while we still can.

... Seeing if Bryce Harper can rebound. Bryce Harper has seemingly been on the MLB landscape for 10 years now, ever since he was on the cover of SI as a 16 year old. For the most part, he's fulfilled the high-end projection if anyone were to guess where his career would be at this point. He's won an MVP, in a ridiculous season where at age 23 he had the best relative to league average batting season anyone has had since peak-Bonds. He had a 198 OPS+, with a .460 OBP and .649 SLG. The only guys since Bonds that sniffed these numbers were peak-Pujols and Miggy, who at their best were all-time great hitters. Of course, he surrounded that 10.0 WAR season with two years that combined 2.6. Career trajectories aren't always linear or static. Most people that have 10.0 WAR seasons don't have those again. But most don't drop to 1.6 either. Harper still had the plate patience and still has all the physical gifts. He's good enough to have had a season where he legitimately was better than Mike Trout. Baseball would be a lot better off if he got back to that level, even if most of that is because he's a perfect lightning rod anyway.

... Watching the growing superstars continue to grow. The league has maybe never been this stocked with such good, young talent. Obviously, Trout leads this pack - and he's still young at just 26. But then you get Harper (24), Bryant (25), Machado (24), Nolan Arenado (25), Francisco Lindor (23), Corey Seager (23), Javier Baez (24), Kyle Schwarber (24), Mookie Betts (24), Xander Bogaerts (24) and Carlos Correa (22). This crop of players already are really good if not MVP-level great. The league is so well stocked right now it is crazy. By the way, my favorite part of that list: the youngest guy is Carlos Correa.

Monday, March 20, 2017

10 Thoughts Ahead of the Sweet 16 in 2017

1.) It makes perfect sense that after a disaster of a 1st round, with few upsets, even fewer competitive games, and the fewest opening day(s) drama that I've ever seen, we get an uber-competitive second round full of well played games (if again few dramatic finishes) and a nice set-up for a Sweet 16. I've long said that a great tournament is so rare to get from start to finish. There have been numerous great opening rounds with top seeds falling everywhere. We didn't get that here, with all sixteen Top-4 seeds getting out of the first round, but we got a few nice upsets in the 2nd round and a lot of fun ahead.

2.) Quick continuing tip of my cap to the NCAA for reducing the shot clock to 30 seconds two years back. The game is just immeasurably better with the reduced shot clock. So many games with scores into the 80's if not even higher. Maybe this is a confluence of a few different events, such as a lot of offense heavy teams still being alive but the tournament has been offense first and the teams themselves have executed with more sense and planning than normal.

3.) The East Region was shaping up to have a great finish, with a potential Elite 8 matchup of the defending champs at the #1 seed, and Duke at the #2 seed, battling it out in Madison Square Garden. Of course, both of those two teams get knocked out and we are left with absolute madness. Wisconsin after for years disappointing with Bo Ryan, is now a run of Final 4, Runner-Up, Sweet 16 (as a #7 seed) and Sweet 16 (as a #8 seed). A year after knocking out #2 seed Xavier, they played so well to knock off a team I really thought was impervious to an early upset. Wisconsin is really good (the Big 10 as a whole had a great first weekend), but now they get Florida (who just held a decent Virignia team to 35 points, and then get the winner of South Carolina (we'll get to Duke's killer in a bit) and Baylor, who continues to be the least respected team to make a handful of good tournament runs in recent years. I have no idea who will escape this region. I would favor Florida, but really, who knows?

4.) The West bracket is chalk city with the #1, #2 and #4 seeds all alive (Gonzaga, Arizona, West Virginia), and the only intruder is Xavier, who was a #2 seed last year and is the definition of a live dog. By the way, one of these four will be in the Final 4, and if you combine these four with the four I just mentioned in the previous point, one of them will play for the National Championship. If ever there was a year for either Mark Few's Gonzaga or Sean Miller's Arizona to break out, it is now when they have a clear path to not only the Final 4 but likely the Title Game. Even Xavier actually would be a great 'Cinderella' story for one of the most well respected programs to finally make the Final 4 as a disrespected #11 seed.

5.) I still can't get over both Villanova and Duke going down. For Duke, it was not an unfamiliar loss, as it had many similarities to their loss to Arizona in the 2011 Sweet Sixteen, when Duke got run out of the gym by a more athletic unit. The one difference is that team had a monster in Derrick Williams (before he turned into an uber-bust). I still can't fathom Duke giving up 65(!) points in teh second half. Frank Martin has done a really nice job building that South Carolina program. Duke had a clear path to another Final 4 with Villanova out of the way, and screwed it up. For a guy who has won 5 titles overall, and two in the last seven years, Duke has had a litany of early flameouts, not making it past the first weekend in: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014 and now 2017. As for Nova, their one year respite of not being early seed losers is gone, but I still found that the most surprising loss by the #1 overall seed since Kansas got stunned by Northern Iowa in 2010. This Villanova team was deep, experienced and so solid, and for them to get picked off in the 2nd Round still shocks me.

6.) That midwest region is well set-up for Kansas, but if anything that's when they've really struggled in the past. Louisville is gone, and the #3 seed in the region, Oregon, is missing one of their best players in Chris Boucher. Michigan is fine but still a #7 seed. Purdue is big and is an analytical-favored darling, but still, this should be Kansas's region to lose. Now, it was easily their region to lose in 2013 when Michigan picked them off in OT in the Sweet 16 (Michigan would end up in the National Title Game). That year, their #2 seed in the region (Georgetown) lost to Florida Gulf-Coast in the first round. In 2011, Kansas was the #1 seed with a #12, #11 and #10 in their region, and the #11, Shaka Smart's VCU, blitzed them from deep in the Elite 8. More about Kansas later, but while this draw looks really enticing, it never is as easy as it seems for them.

7.) This is probably year five or so of the Turner/CBS coordinated broadcast of March Madness, and I appreciate it more and more every year. Getting every game available live is just such a treat. Sure, it gets annoying juggling four channels and having to figure out where TruTV is each year, but you know what was worse? When you had to depend on CBS deciding to switch to the game that was best for you to watch as we did for a decade or so before this. The announcing teams are generally great (even if I still pour one out sadly for the Verne-Raftery duo). The halftime/pre-game/post-game teams are good - especially now that Charles and Kenny give 10% of a shit instead of zero. I'm all for this continuing for years and years and years.

8.) My word, that South Region just loaded up with blueboods, huh? Sure, Kentucky, and to a point, UNC, escaped in the 2nd round, but here we are with a mouthwatering Sweet 16 game of Kentucky vs. UCLA, with the Lonzo Ball and Friends show up against an always entertaining Kentucky group. And who does the winner most likely get? The one team that would like to run as much as either Kentucky or UCLA in UNC. The over/under for these games has to be 170 or so. Now, if a half-decade back taught us anything, it is to not disrespect Butler, and it is great to have them a live sleeper again, but the world wants Ball vs. UK and then Ball/UK vs UNC. Just give us this, please!

9.) As someone who has tertiarally followed Kansas for a while, this is the strangest brew yet. FOr years, they have plaed the tournament in a skittish, try-not-to-lose variety that was infuriating. In so many games they start out slow and cold and depend on their great defense to eventually wear teams out. This entire season has been something very different, a Kansas team defined by their guards, their tempo, their offense and not their defense, and they are looking like it through two tournament games. 190 points total. Bombing away from three. The combo of a potential Player of the Year in Frank Mason III and a top one-and-done prodigy in Josh Jackson is a title-winning combination. Kansas has easily been the most impressive team through two games, something very foreign for them, and while past Kansas teams have shown that can turn in any given cold five-minutes, this vintage just seems different.

10.) The Picks:

(4) Florida beats (8) Wisconsin
(3) Baylor beats (7) South Carolina

(4) Florida beats (3) Baylor

(1) Gonzaga beats (4) West Virginia
(2) Arizona beats (11) Xavier

(2) Arizona beats (1) Gonzaga

(1) Kansas beats (4) Purdue
(7) Michigan beats (3) Oregon

(1) Kansas beats (7) Michigan

(1) UNC beats (4) Butler
(3) UCLA beats (2) Kentucky

(3) UCLA beats (1) UNC

Final Four
(W2) Arizona beats (E4) Florida
(M1) Kansas beats (S3) UCLA

(M1) Kansas beats (W2) Arizona

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

15 Thoughts on March Madness 2017

1.) Let's start out with me admitting that my knowledge of college basketball is incredibly limited, more so than usual as I probably watched only one game fully all year long and only bits and pieces of a dozen or so others. That said, the bracket seems to be fairly well balanced. There seems to be a consensus weakest region - the West where we have both the team seen as the weakest #1 seed (Gonzaga) and #2 seed (Arizona), but there does not seem to be a clear-cut strongest bracket. The South with UNC, Kentucky and UCLA probably takes that distinction, but none of them seem far tougher than the others. Each has a few premier programs, like Villanova and Duke out East, Kansas and Louisville in the Midwest, and the aforementioned trio in the South. There are some mouth-watering potential matchups.

2.) That said, we enter this tournament with arguably our best chance at a repeat since it last happened with Florida ten year's earlier. The last defending champ to enter the tournament with a #1 seed was Duke in 2011, but that was a very different team that probably didn't even deserve a #1 seed. Villanova was wire-to-wire one of the best teams in the country, returns their best players from last year's team, and went through this season with a singular focus that was very reminiscent of that great Florida team. I am excited about the prospects of them going for their place in history, especially with a potential Elite 8 matchup with Duke on the way.

3.) I think the world has to be excited that three of the most fast-paced teams in the tournament are all grouped together. The mouth waters at the prospect of a UCLA-Kentucky Sweet 16 matchup, and then the winner getting UNC, a team never known to avoid a shootout if needed. College Basketball had grown really slow and plaid but the decision to reduce the shot clock to 30 seconds did wonders, and started unshackling the teams. These three probably would have run in the old system anyway, but the tempo's been pushed around the nation and all three are leading the charge.

4.) There doesn't seem to be a lot of ballyhooed potential Cinderella's this year. The most talked about seem to the #10 seed Wichita State (also in that area with Kentucky/UCLA/UNC) but this is a team that made the Sweet 16 as recently as 2015 - the year after they entered the tournament undefeated - the year after they made the Final 4. Apart from that, last year's darlings Middle Tennessee State are now a 12 seed, which always seems like a good seed to make a run from. Anyway, the best Cinderella's are unexpected anyways. In recent years, we've seen a decent number of #14 seeds beat #3s and even a string of #15s beat #2s dating back to 2012. If we get one of those, even better.

5.) I still can't believe Northwestern had never made the tournament until now. I had heard of that stat previously, so it wasn't like it took me by surprise, but still to think of all the random podunk schools that had made the tournament, and that Northwestern had not. Honestly, the only thing separating Northwestern from a place like Duke is Coach K. Had someone like Coach K gone to Northwestern all those years back, maybe it is Duke who never makes the tournament. Anyway, maybe this is the start of something special for the Evanston school.

6.) Again, as someone who didn't really follow the sport too closely this year, there are some really interesting seeds. Minnesota as recently as last year was garbage, now they are a #5 seed? Seton Hall is somehow a #9 seed at-large team? Or how about South Carolina getting a decent seed from an SEC that most people think is a two-team conference (or maybe I am the only person who thinks that). The soft middle of the college basketball world truly is a fluid place.

7.) It is odd to see Xavier down at a #11 seed. For such an incredibly consistent program these past 15 years, including a trip to the Sweet 16 just two years ago, I was surprised to see them down at #11. They are up against a Maryland team that I've seen called overseeded, and also a #3 seed that at the very least Jay Bilas thought was way overseeded. Much like Syracuse last year as a #10 seed, I just had an immediate reaction when seeing the #11 by Xavier's name that they are still long for this world in 2017.

8.) I'll say this, we see time and time again how coaching matters more in college basketball, how the best coaches (or to be more skeptical, best recruiters) are the one's that keep winning. Well, if seeds hold and we get #1-vs-#2 in all four regions, we get the following coaching matchups: Jay Wright vs. Mike Krzyzewski, Mark Few vs. Sean Miller, Bill Self vs. Rick Pitino and Roy Williams vs. John Calipari. Three of the four matchups have coaches that have both won titles. In five of their cases they've been finalists as well. Few and Miller are probably the two best coaches nationally who haven't mad the final four. Coaching matters, as always.

9.) Another year, another Big 12 regular season title for Bill Self, and another #1 seed. This is the 7th time Kansas has gotten a #1 seed since 2007. In their previous six, they've lost in the 2nd round once (2010 - arguably their best team aside from 2008), the Sweet 16 once (2013, blowing a game they would lose in OT to Michigan), the Elite 8 three times (2007 to UCLA, 2011 to VCU and last year to Villanova), and then once winning the title. Yes, on the course of history, Self's Kansas teams have underachieved in March, but he gets another chance here to right that wrong. This is a good Kansas team with a great mix of veteran guards (a strong focus of the 2008 Title winning team as well), one great talent in one-and-done Josh Jackson, and some good role players. The team is easily good enough to win. Will they? I'm not sure, but I will likely pick them (those are coming in a minute).

10.) The fellating of the ACC continues, with UNC getting a #1 seed and Duke getting a #2 seed and most ESPN-ites complaining that Duke didn't get a #1 seed if not picking those two to meet in the Title Game (both Jay Bilas and Jay Williams did so). Of course, should we talk about how by record they are the worst two teams that got a Top-2 seed? That so much of their resume seems to be built off playing each other and a conference that is trumped up for no great reason? I get these are two blue blood programs, both with teams good enough to win the title, but it is sad to see year after year the bar for both of them to get as high a seed as possible is just lower than it is for other teams in the field.

11.) Picks for East Bracket:

Sweet Sixteen: (1) Villanova beats (4) Florida and (2) Duke beats (6) SMU
Elite Eight: (1) Villanova beats (2) Duke

12.) Picks for West Bracket:

Sweet Sixteen: (1) Gonzaga beats (5) Notre Dame and (2) Arizona beats (11) Xavier
Elight Eight: (2) Arizona beats (1) Gonzaga

13.) Picks for Midwest Bracket:

Sweet Sixteen: (1) Kansas beats (4) Purdue and (2) Louisville beats (6) Creighton
Elite Eight: (1) Kansas beats (2) Louisville

14.) Picks for South Bracket:

Sweet Sixteen: (1) UNC beats (4) Butler and (3) UCLA beats (10) Wichita State
Elite Eight: (3) UCLA beats (1) UNC

15.) Picks for Final 4

Semifinals: (E1) Villanova beats (W2) Arizona and (M1) Kansas beats (S3) UCLA
National Championship: (M1) Kansas beats (E1) Villanova

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ramblings about Flying

I've been traveling on business to the Netherlands (Leiden, about 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam) and Bangalore the past couple weeks. Travelling for business in and of itself is different, but I've been able to long-haul on a few different airlines, different planes and in a different way (more about this in a minute), so I think it is time I give some little feedback, especially since I have a few (many) bones to pick:

* Despite their seeming omnipresence on so many routes globally, I've been on Emirates just once and never through Dubai, until now. I flew them from Amsterdam to Bangalore, getting a chance to go on their A380-800, B777-300ER and spend a lot of time in Dubai International. On the whole, I am thoroughly unimpressed

* For the second time on Emirates, I had the incredible joy of waiting 90 minutes after takeoff to get my food on an overnight red-eye. The amount of time they took to start serving (I was in the second row so it wasn't like I was waiting a while after they did start) is absurd. This is a 6-hour flight overnight. You cannot start serving a quarter into that flight. This lended itself to them putting the lights off in the cabin a good two-and-a-half hours into flight. Really pathetic for a flight that most people would probably try to get some sleep on

* The two aspects I found the best of my previous Emirates flight (New York JFK to Milan) were fairly bad this time around. Their food service was at an incredibly high level in terms of both amount and quality - neither was true this time around. Then, their beer service was incredibly uninspired. Having just Heineken, Amstel and Budweiser is ridiculous. Even the shitty US airlines have started serving decent more mainstream craft beer. Then, their movie selection was a disaster. Maybe it's that I'm unimpressed with the current selection of 'new releases' but the other options were a dozen or so random selection of movies from 1980-2010, and a near complete set of Marvel movies. I resorted to attempting to watch Valkyrie for the first time I saw it in theaters before giving up halfway and decided to watch Season 3 of Silicon Valley instead

* Finally, let's get to Dubai's airport, which has some redeeming qualities. I'll get to their irredeeming one in a minute, but the airport was grand, well laid out, impressive and had some nice restaurants, including a Shake Shack for fucks sake! That was an incredibly welcome site, even if I didn't partake. The airport too had barely more than Budweiser, Heneiken or Amstel - but they did have Tiger on tap.

* Actually, I forgot maybe the most reprehensible part of Emirates' service. I was placed in 'Group F' for boarding - the last group. They seemingly group passengers by location in the plane from back to front, so this wasn't surprising. I was expecting a long wait. What I was not expecting was in Dubai for the order to go 'First & Business (Group A-B)', Group C, Group D, Group E and then go back to the beginning. After Group E seemingly finished and we were left with the ~20 of us in Group F, they announced First and Business class again, not once but twice. I'm sorry, no one in First or Business class hasn't boarded. If they have, too bad, they should not benefit from their abhorrent laziness. Then, more shockingly, they announced Group E again. This was outrageous. Us Group F-ers did not have some steerage class ticket, we were not economy basic. We had Group F because we were in the front, not because we deserve to have classes that already had ample time called again without us being able to board.

* OK, let's move on from Emirates to some better experiences (though one last gripe). Somehow, I was able to finess my way onto Singapore Airlines as part of my trip to Amsterdam, as they fly the New York to Frankfurt leg before continuing to Singapore (I did that sector the other way on way final trips of my Round the World trip in 2013). The experience was every bit as good as the first time. Great food, with thai beef salad along with Malaysian Pork curry for dinner. Great drinks, with ice cold Singha beer along with a well made Singapore Sling. The plane was empty allowing me to stretch out over three seats. They had fine movie selection, nice menus, and a perfectly temperate towel to refresh yourself at the start of the flight. Singapore Airlines truly is beyond anything else.

* Quick aside before I get to my point about airport lounges, but I am a total mileage hoarder. I've gotten every credit card imagineable, taken advantage of any discount, getting the chance to build up a fortress of miles across myriad airlines and hotel chains. My white whale, though, was the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which was an amatuer mileage compiler's delight. I was one of the people who got declined for their 100,000 mile bonus due to having opened too many cards too recently. Not only did I not get the miles, or the travel credits, I didn't get the accompanying Priority Pass allowing access into hundreds of lounges. My two friends who I went to Peru with both had it, lording it over me every time we entered an airport. Well, I impulse got the Citi Prestige card which comes with the same Priority Pass, and after using it three times, I'm kind of over it.

* The club at JFK Terminal 4 was great. Nice seats with outlets at basically all of them. Decent selection of snacks to eat at dinner time. Good selection of liqour and cold, refrigerated beer both mainstream and craft. Very impressed by the JFK lounge. Not so much in both Amsterdam (somewhat surprising) and Dubai (very surprising). Amsterdam's was truly bad, despite being at peak departure time in the night bank, their food selection was invisible and the only beer they had was Heneiken. With Dubai, it wasn't the best time (morning), but their food selection was equally bad, and the place wasn't even well air conditioned (it was open air on the 4th floor of the departures area). I understand in most cases these are lounges not affiliated with any one airline, let alone hub airlines (KLM for Amsterdam and Emirates in Dubai) and those would have better lounges. But I would not have expected to say that the best lounge I've seen so far is in JFK, what with our terrible airports. Very Sad!

* Finally, Frankfurt. My transfer in Frankfurt was so strange. The walk from my arrival date through to security to the departure area was seemingly three miles long despite the fact the two concourses (where I arrived and departed) are fairly close to each other. Then, for the first time ever, I was scolded for not putting my liquids in a plastic bag and leaving them in my bathroom case. During security, they pulled my handbag aside, swabbed it and then the guy went through my bag. He pulled out my case, opened it up and placed each small liquid container into a plastic bag and put it all back in. I went on my way, but in retrospect I should have just ripped open the plastic bag and put the liquids back in my case. I don't play like that.

* I have two more flights left. First a relatively short hop from Bangalore to Doha in the middle of the night (3:50 depart, 5:50 arrival), and then a 14-hour haul back to JFK. I am excited for it as I get to take Qatar Airways for the first time. I don't get to take their A350-900 as that operates on the other Doha-JFK flight, but I do get to finish off the ME3 and get to make a real comparison. Emirates is squarely in 3rd, and I don't foresee Qatar being worse.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Acceptable Loss 3.0

Note: This is not about the Patriots win in Super Bowl LI, a horrifying evening that started like a dream result - a Falcons unexpectedly comfortable win - and devolved into a slow nightmare that willl haunt me for years to come. No, I'll address that, and my general thoughts on football going forward at a later time. Probably reconnect it back to my piece right before the season started titled 'Learning to love the NFL without Manning'. This is about the other tough loss my sports fandom had to endure the past fortnight, Rafael Nadal's crushing defeat to Roger Federer.

Twice before, I've written about the concept of acceptable losses. First was when the Spurs lost to the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, after choking away Game 6 and the ability to win a 5th title against the best of the LeBron-era Heat teams. The second was two years later, when the same Spurs lost a Game 7 to the Clippers in an incredible back-and-forth affair. What made the first loss acceptable was the respect the Spurs effort engendered them to with the NBA and sports public. What made the second loss acceptable was more or less the same, plus the additional bonus of what happened the year in between - the Spurs winning the NBA Title 4-1 against the Heat, capping it off with maybe the best three-game stretch of basketball ever played.

**Quick note, a few other acceptable losses in my lifetime as a sports fan: the 2012 Devils Stanley Cup Final loss to the Kings, as they beat the Flyers and Rangers with Marty Brodeur having one last turn-back-the-clock playoffs. The Raiders playoff loss this year because the future is so bright. And in a very hindsight is 20/20 way, the 2012 Broncos divisional round loss to the Ravens, as I should have just been happy to have a healthy Peyton back in my life, and the Ravens at least made good and beat the Pats and won the Super Bowl, giving Ed Reed the ring he so rightfully deserved**

For a third time I will write about an acceptable loss, but if anything what is more special is not the fact this is an acceptable loss, but the fact that I can consider it that when I saw my favorite tennis player lose to his long-time rival up a break in the 5th set, squandering any realistic chance to catch that rival in all-time career slam wins, and basically end once and for all the debate of who the best tennis player is. Yes, Rafael Nadal's loss is very much acceptable, and what made that match so much more special is that if Nadal was able to maintain his one-break edge in teh 5th set and take it home, my friends that are Federer fans would probably say the same thing.

I don’t know whether it was a more mature understanding of sport, or a secret admiration for Roger Federer developed over time, or just an acceptance that rooting for the 2nd best player isn’t all that bad, but I was more or less fine with that result. If I rewind 5 years, let alone 10, that match would have horrified me (Note: arguably even more so than the Super Bowl would a week later). My guy didn’t play all that well, but came up huge in big moments. The match was, in terms of the scattershot nature of the play, somewhat similar to the 2009 Final they contested. In that match, Federer was probably the better player in the first four sets, but Nadal just wouldn’t go away. Ultimately, he broke Federer early in the 5th set, ran away with a 6-2 finish, and emotionally broke Federer – reducing him to tears in the postmatch speech. Eight years later, Nadal was outplayed but not deterred, and broke Federer early in the 5th set. It was all set-up. A script we’ve seen so many times before, where over time Nadal just breaks Federer’s will. Instead it didn’t happen. And I’m OK with that.

That men’s final (and a quick shout-out to the Williams’ sisters final creating an incredibly nostalgic tournament)  was a four-hour celebration of the sport, of these two rivals, of two players whose time passed them by fighting back in a way only Champions know how to do. The idea of Nadal, a man who hadn’t so much made a Major Semifinal, let alone win a major, since the 2014 French Open, or Federer, a man who had made finals somewhat recently, but hadn’t won a major since 2012 and had missed the last six months of 2016, making a run would have been a legendary story. For both to do it? Pure elation. As a Nadal fan, it was somewhat comforting seeing Federer on the other side of the net, seeing the rivalry that carried Men’s tennis to its highest point ever, on the center stage.

You could see it in the way Federer spoke about the match after he won. Roger Federer was never all that conceited, but hid his much deserved arrogance behind a sweet demeanor, but he spoke beautifully. You really felt when he said that he wished tennis had draws so he could split the trophy with Rafa that he meant it. This tournament wasn’t just about #18, but about turning the clock back to when he ruled the sport, before Djokovic passed him, before Murray passed him, before his own countryman in Stan Wawrinka passed him. Playing Nadal in a major final was just a sign for Federer that all was right in the tennis world. Better for him he won it this time.

For Nadal, you can say the same as well. Ever since he won his 14th slam in 2014, ending a period where he won three out of five slams, making a final in one of the other’s, he was on top of the world. If anything, he fell farther, quicker than Federer did. Long a man who did his best in the slams, where he would grind player’s will over 5 sets, he started tensing up at big moments, losing winnable 5-set matches to Andreas Seppi, Fernando Verdasco and Lucas Pouille in the last three hardcourt slams he played. Nadal was unfortunate in that his peak overlapped with both Federer and Djokovic’s peaks. Federer had that 2003-06 period before Rafa became an all-court threat and Djokovic was just a prodigy to be to lock up 9 majors. Similarly, Djokovic has had the last three years when Nadal and Federer were either too injured, too old or both. Nadal never had that stretch, and more than anything it was just a joy to watch him play for a major again.

Over the last two years as a Nadal fan, with it seeming increasingly more likely he may never win a major again, it became, for the first time, easy to accept my fate of rooting for the guy who would never be the best. Sure, Nadal had Federer’s number head-to-head, and had a resume that makes him an easy argument as the 2nd best player ever, but he wasn’t the first best. And he shouldn’t be. Federer was better, Federer was more peerless. Federer was both an emotional artist in his beautiful play and a robotic genius in his ability to stay healthy, stay active and stay so darn good deep into his 30s. Federer is the greatest player in men’s tennis history. His highs were higher than anything we’ve seen. His longevity will likely be better than anything we’ll ever see. I’m fine admitting that. I’m fine admitting Nadal isn’t the best. I’m fine because Nadal has done enough to hold his place so easily at #2, has provided the sport a lift when it most needed it (a Nadal-less Tennis would have faded mightily in the mid-00’s if, say, Federer won 11 straight majors). Nadal was a part of probably the two best rivalries in men’s tennis history. Rafael Nadal had written his history already, but the coda was missing, and while I wouldn’t be surprised at this point to see him win the 2017 French Open, even if the 2017 Australian Open Final loss is the last great moment, it was sure great. Made even greater with Federer being across the net.

More than anything, this was a great celebration for the rivalry that made the sport. More than anything, it proved that rivalry may not be the right word. Rivalry has a hidden tinge of malice, or tension between the two combatants, like the Ravens-Steelers, or even, for an individual example, the Serena-Sharapova rivalry back in the day. Nadal and Federer surely have played enough great matches for it to register as a rivalry. The most notable was the 2008 Wimbledon Final, at this point more or less accepted as the Greatest Match in Tennis History. Right behind it was the 2009 Australian Open final (Federer actually said in an interview he considers this match to have the highest level of shotmaking of any Roger-Rafa match). But if anything, that match ended the truly malicious or tense part of the rivalry.

This was the match Federer accepted Nadal as his equal as a legend of the game, and we can poetically point to one singular moment. When accepting his trophy, Federer broke down on the stage, crying uncomfortably as a stunned crowd applauded. He receded back to gather himself, and Nadal was called up to accept his trophy as the Champion. Nadal accepted his trophy and instead of starting his speech, immediately went back to Federer and put his arms around the still-crying Federer, embracing him in a moment that should be cemented for life.  I have witnessed two incredible displays of earnest sportsmanship by one of my favorite players in my lifetime as a fan. The first was Peyton Manning’s short message to Bill Belichick after last year’s AFC Championship, “This might be my last rodeo, so I want to say it sure has been a pleasure.” The second was Nadal embracing his biggest competitor. Instead of exalting in breaking Federer’s will and spirit to inconceivable levels, he embraced the fallen comrade instead.

These were the two greatest competitors of their era, and Nadal took his time to console Federer. Eight years later, Federer got his chance to pay it back with him saying he should split the trophy. He meant it. The two greatest players in tennis history competed in a great five-set final, with drama, with shotmaking, with strategy, with everything anyone could have hoped for. And at the end, they got to show what great class acts they are, what great ambassadors they were, and while the tennis world may be split in two distinct camps, the two players aren’t. And neither am I anymore. They were happy to play each other, and we all, including me, a die-hard Nadal-ite, were just as happy to witness it.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.